services & tools

Online Business Tools You Need Right Now

online tools you need right now

Pssst... my solopreneurs and startups out there will appreciate that many of these brilliant tools offer free & scalable subscription plans. With that, let's dive in...

The administrative services available to entrepreneurs at the moment are straight up amazing! Who would have believed that getting contracts signed could be a snap or that invoicing could be so painless? And depending upon the size of your clientele, many of these may be used for free with paid subscriptions available as your business grows. What I appreciate most about these services is that they minimize the time spent "running" your business and maximize the client-focused time. Think: invoicing, scheduling, whipping up agreements, etc. If it's something you loathe doing, there's almost surely an app for that.

Whether you're just getting serious about your side hustle or are a seasoned pro in your field, there's an online tool in here that will take the energy drain out of those tedious (but essential) administrative tasks. (Note: this list is far from complete and is really a snapshot of what I'm loving and/or using at the moment. If you have a service you suggest or would like to me review, please send me a note!)

MANAGE CONTRACTS LIKE A BOSS

Two services come to mind here:

Agree.com is brilliant if you're in a creative service industry (or other field) and have no clue what to put in your Terms & Conditions etc. or how to construct a project agreement. With a simple interface and easy checkbox style form fields you can have a legally binding agreement ready to send to your client in no time. Advantages: brilliant interface & pre-built (but editable) service descriptions & fine print. Drawbacks: it asks for specific start dates and payment amounts, which you may or may not want to include in this document. Still, this is a service I adore and can't wait to use for future contracts to eliminate process redundancy. Free subscription plan available.

Already have your agreements drafted or want more flexibility? Hellosign.com takes all of the pain out of gathering e-signatures and allows anyone anywhere (including multiple people) to quickly sign any document online. Free subscription available.

BILLING & INVOICING

Harvest is an oldie but a goodie in this arena. I have been using them since they were in beta and I still adore their ease of use. This app earns bonus points for being able to send gentle reminders to clients about past due invoices. You can customize your documents by uploading your logo and change the look & feel to suit your preferences. Built-in reporting makes it easy to track your billing, project expenses and time. I use it for invoicing only, but power users will love the accounting features and at-a-glance data this service offers. Free trial available.

Invoicely is another great services that takes the sting out of asking for those hard-earned Benjamins. Like the other tools, this one offers a free level of use with limited features. I love that this service makes it easy to bill in any currency, a growing need for businesses of all sizes. This service earns points for its focus on invoicing. If you don't need the fluff of a more robust app, this is your ticket to easy billing. 

EMAIL MARKETING

Oh, email. How we loathe (but need) thee! I've had a long history of designing email marketing for clients. The complexities of determining what messaging flow to send to your audience is enough to make your head spin. After many (many) dalliances with various email services I'm surprised to say that MailChimp's paid subscription is far and away the best.

First, let's put it out there that their monkey-infused marketing was a turnoff for me. But try as I might I could not get away from services and apps that integrated flawlessly with MailChimp. That primate branding was everywhere I looked.

Finally, I bucked up and splashed out the $10 per month for the Business level subscription. **Update: the $10 upgrade features are now absolutely free in MailChimp** Oh. My. Goodness. What a difference ten dollars made in my life. They've done the complex thinking behind those "what happens next" diagrams we've been whiteboarding all these years. Even without design savvy & coding skills, MailChimp can help you achieve the customer marketing you are lacking. If you DO have coding skills and design savvy, the possibilities with this service are nearly limitless.

Where it shines? MailChimp isn't kidding around when it comes to the industry standards of email marketing compliance. Visitors or customers who visit your site to shop or just snap up that free newsletter will be asked to confirm their opt-in via email. Compliance with email marketing is key, and not following standards to the letter will get your blacklisted. MailChimp makes this a no brainer and does the heavy lifting for you. While a double opt-in and captcha tests might seem tedious (they are), employing their use keeps your marketing lists clean and gives you a sense of confidence that your audience WANTS to hear from you. Also, it handles the dirty work of cleaning your list by handling unsubscribes like a boss and removing bounced emails from your list. Go, chimp, go!

I love this system so much that I doubled down on the service and decided to master those automated workflows everyone covets so much. (For those interested, email marketing integration is now a part of most of my packages and it's one of the key features clients ask for) If you can get past the chimp logo (I finally have) this is the solution to your opt-in marketing woes.

ONLINE SCHEDULING

While I don't presently use online scheduling apps, I've invested considerable time researching various tools for clients and implementing them into their web sites. Many options exist, but not all play well with web site integration. Here are a few popular options that do:

Acuity is pretty slick, especially if you're looking to offer real-time online scheduling for your clients via a clean interface. If you are a coach, a physician, a consultant or even just a designer opening yourself up to more leads, this services offers a try it for free option. More robust business can take it a step further and allow clients to make payments online as well.

Calendly is (in my opinion) more suited to the small business looking to reduce those tedious "when can you chat?" email threads. With a simple interface and easy integration tools, this is a service many of my clients love using and adding (via embedded code) into their web site.

EASY ONLINE PAYMENTS

We've tracked your time, signed your contracts and organized your invoices. Now let's collect the hard-earned cash you've earned! Many options abound, but I have a favorite. I occasionally use PayPal invoices when working with international clients, since it converts currency for them (typically showing them the invoice in their currency of choice), but I really have a love/hate relationship with the service. It just never feels professional to send clients links to a PayPal invoice. However, know that this option is there for you.

That said, I've moved on to Stripe payments integrated into my site, setting up products as digital services. Now I send my clients a private link (password protected, if desired) where they can make project payments online via credit card in a SSL encrypted online environment. No need for my clients to visit PayPal, no need for them to leave my site, no need to try to figure out the always less-than-intuitive PayPal interface. No icky feeling (sorry PayPal). Not only can I accept major cards online via my branded site (thank you, Squarespace!), thanks to the Stripe smartphone app I can also sit at a cafe with a client and accept payments over coffee. This makes it a win for clients across the pond and just down the street. The app literally could not make it easier to keep the revenue-receiving side of your business humming. Which brings me to my next topic...

ONLINE BANKING

A few years ago I opened a Simple account and life has literally been better ever since. The "big bank" behind this online bank is BBVA and they run this purely online service the way all banks should be run. My Stripe payments are deposited into my Simple account immediately and I incur no monthly or yearly fees with this account. Via my Simple debit Visa I make all of my business purchases and keep my accounting clean. Their gloriously easy-to-use site and app make it a breeze to see all transactions. And if I have any questions (as I occasionally do) their support team is not only helpful but lightening fast with in-app messaging.

I cannot imagine my life without Simple. Note: At the moment they only offer personal accounts, so my business-only use of my account is a bit off-label. But this system works for me since I keep the funds and expenses strictly business. My accounting is simplified with monthly statements, searchable transactions and more. My client payment flow is integrated (hello, Stripe!) and painless. Most importantly, I am smitten by their excellent customer service. Five stars all the way for this lovely banking option.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

None of these will revolutionize your life, but they will make running the back-end of your business a breeze. If administrative efficiencies can give you a few extra hours a day to do actual revenue-generating work by minimizing or automating the soul-draining tasks vital to your workflow, I consider that a major win.

Take some time to give these a try (all of them offer free trials or free plans) and try them on for size. Remember, what works for one business may not work for another. The point of all of these is to be less burdened by the "work" of running a business and enjoy more time flexing your God-given talents and wowing clients.

QUESTIONS OR IDEAS?

If there are tools you would like to me try or review, please send me a note or book a call using the button below! I love discovering new tools and I adore meeting new readers all the time. Don't be shy, say hello!

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Why I Love To Take on Freelance Projects & How This Benefits My OTher Clients

I'll never forget the day the first call came. "We received your name from XYZ and wonder if you have bandwidth to help us on a few projects." Interestingly, I'd never heard of the source of the praise, but I knew everything there was to know about the digital marketing agency on the phone. I was a huge admirer of their work, their fun creative culture and their impressive client roster. And here they were calling to see if I could jump in and help on projects. I said yes, of course. And thus my love affair with freelance work began

That may have been 14+ years ago, but I've never lost my passion (and gratitude) for taking on freelance and overflow work from successful ad agencies & creative design companies. Much like my regular client projects, the experiences build upon one another, shaping me into a better designer & better professional creative with each new role.

Whereas design projects for my regular clients are more comprehensive, usually starting with branding and moving through launching an entire website or ecommerce storefront, agency work tends to be more concentrated on one particular skill set. Perhaps I'm asked to jump in and design a microsite for a giveaway or promotion for a major mobile phone network. Maybe I've been asked to create digital holiday greeting cards for a major theme park. Or perhaps the request is to rethink the ecommerce flow for a global brand. Regardless of the challenge, I love these opportunities to deep-dive on a specific skill set and partner with other team members on the project.

The benefits to my traditional clients are many. First and foremost, freelance work keeps me razor sharp and continues to refine my design skills. The collaborative nature of freelance projects offers constant lessons in teamwork and requires one to be an expert listener. More so, working with brands of such a high caliber on highly visible projects is the best way to bring out excellence (yes, we type-A's love a good challenge!). 

A not-so-obvious benefit for my Branding Glamour clientele is the feedback I receive from the creative directors and VPs at the agency or from the clients themselves on these projects. It's great to be asked to try something different or shift the design approach to the left or to the right. It's the collaborative spirit at its best, and it's fantastic to receive valuable feedback from these industry experts pushing the boundaries of design in their niche.

Which brings up my final benefit. Each agency or design firm has unique specialties. Being invited to the table to help them deliver excellence in their area of expertise opens my eyes to new styles of design, new marketing strategies, new technology stacks and new ways of creative thinking. Even the smallest of projects provides an opportunity to learn a new skill or truly demonstrate mastery of an existing one. And it's this continuous growth, refinement and expansion that keeps us happy as humans. As a creative? We live and breathe for opportunities to learn and improve.

In addition to some really fabulous agencies here in Plano and the Dallas area, I've recently discovered the Toptal community, designed as a matchmaking service of sorts for today's top design & creative talent. These opportunities allow me to flex my creative muscles and benefit from an ongoing source of new creative experiences.

Want to see more of my work? Swing by to see my portfolio or client roster. If I can help you, your business and your brand, don't hesitate to book a call.