If you don’t already do freelance work, chances are you will within the next few years. Full-time jobs are on the decline. Companies have laid of millions of employees and have no plans to re-hire for those positions. When they need work done, they’ll hire freelancers.
This can be both a blessing and a curse for people seeking worse. Freelance opportunities and wages are increasing, so people who seek work can certainly find it. At the same time, it’s difficult to get started. Becoming a freelancer is akin to starting a new business. You need to spend money up front for the proper tools. But how can you spend money that you don’t have? It’s not as though a bank will give you a loan to start a freelance career.
(Nor should you ask the bank for money in this situation, but that’s a topic for an entirely different post.)
The best solution is to take advantage of the best free tools the web has to offer. Many of these are not your best solution in the long run. But they will provide you with adequate services in the short term. Try these nine free tools to get a jump start on your career without going into debt.
Project Management: Workflowy
Everyone has a favorite to-do list. The problem: to-do lists don’t work. You feel a sense of accomplishment merely for typing out the list. This sense of satisfaction can decrease your motivation to actually check off the items on the list. Then, later in the day, when you haven’t accomplished anything, you feel a sense of shame. How in the world is this productive?
Workflowy is different. It focuses more on project management than on task management, making it a true Getting Things Done tool. Create a project, and then list off all the actions you need to complete the project. You can add in notes, resources, or any other material that might prove helpful. Workflowy uses an outline format with collapsible levels, so you can see as much or as little as you need.
Get it: Workflowy.
Sure, you could keep track of your accounting on a spreadsheet — if you were an amateur. Professional freelancers need professional accounting software. They need professional invoices. They can’t rely on Microsoft Office templates to do the work for them. Of course, professional accounting software can be expensive. Unless you go with FreshBooks.
FreshBooks might be the ideal accounting software for newbie freelancers, because you can get it for free. It handles a single client, which is exactly what a newbie freelancer starts with. It even offers a free invoice template, so you can send a professional-looking invoice using your company logo. (You did create a company for your freelancing career and did create a logo, right?) Once you expand your business, plans are far more reasonably priced than competitors.
Get it: FreshBooks.
Time management: Toggl
Dan Baum knows something about freelancing. He’s been doing it for decades, for some of the biggest magazines in the business. What’s his best advice for new freelancers? Understand your nut — how much you earn vs. how much time it takes you to earn it. If a project pays $500, but it takes you 40 hours to complete, you’re underselling your services and destroying your budget.
Toggl provides free basic time tracking capabilities, so you know how much time you spend on each project. This can help in a few ways. For starters, it lets you know how much time it takes to complete certain tasks. Second, it can give you the data you need to approach a client and get more money. Finding that a project takes far more time than you estimated? Sell your client on a rate increase. At the very least, you’ll know to increase your rate next time.
Once you start making money, you can pay $5 per month to unlock Toggl’s more advanced time tracking features.
Get it: Toggle.
Mint and Toggl go hand-in-hand. The money you earn, and the time you take to earn it, determines your budget. But you still have to stay within that budget, lest you go into deep debt. Work outside your budget long enough and you’ll buy yourself a ticket to the poorhouse. To avoid that, working with a budget is necessary. Mint provides the tools you need.
At this point Mint is a pretty familiar app. You enter your bank and credit card information into their secure app, and it lets you know your net worth. More, it can track your income and help determine your monthly budgets. Then it tracks your spending in each category, letting you know how much you’ve spent to date. Given how much data Mint can track, it’s amazing the app is still free.
Get it: Mint.
Producitivity: Strict Workflow
The biggest fear of newbie freelancers: that they won’t have the discipline or focus to get the work done. You can sit down at a computer, but what will you do once you get there? The web is made for distractions. Check your email, your Facebook, instant messages, your email again — the cycle can be unbreaking. What many people need is way to block those distractions, eliminating them while they do meaningful work.
You use the Chrome browser, right? Then you can take advantage of Strict Workflow, an ingenious plugin that prevents you from viewing distracting material. When you’re ready to do focused work, start a timer. Strict Workflow will block popular distracting sites. You can add to that site list yourself. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can create a whitelist, so you visit only those sites until the timer runs out.
Once you start a timer, there is no stopping Strict Workflow. You have no choice but to work. Which is the entire glorious point.
Get it: Strict Workflow.
Client relations: Insightly
It’s easy to see why client relationship management is important for a 10-year freelancing veteran. At that point the freelancer has probably worked with hundreds of clients and has made contact with at least as many more. Those relationships form the lifeblood of the freelancer’s business. A newbie freelancer should view relationships no differently. The newbie might have few relationships, but that makes each one all the more important.
Like many of the tools on this list, Insightly starts off as freeware. As your needs (and income) grow, so do Insightly’s features. You can store up to 2,500 records (contacts, projects, organizations, etc.) in the free tier, which is far more than competitors offer. Once you’ve grown your business and have more contacts, you can upgrade to their $7 monthly plan.
Get it: Insightly.
Content: Google Apps
If you don’t already have Microsoft Office on your computer, don’t go look at the sales page. OK, now that you’ve gone and looked at the sales page, I’ll give you a moment to recover. Office is a hugely expensive program that most new freelancers cannot afford. So what do you do? There are options like Open Office, which (poorly) simulate the Word and Excel experiences. Or you can get on a platform that might actually improve on Office.
No, you won’t be creating macro-laced spreadsheets with Google Apps, but you can create basic ones. The document creator doesn’t have all the features of MS Word, but it does have all the ones you actually use. Perhaps the greatest benefit of Google Apps is the sharing feature. If your client uses Google Apps, you can easily pass drafts back and forth until you get a great final copy. Even if they don’t, Google Apps makes document creation and editing a breeze.
Get it: Google Apps.
Content creation has expanded beyond mere words. While in the past a magazine might provide pictures for your article, many websites will not. They need you to provide the pictures. How are you going to do that? It’s not as though you can fly to Egypt and snap a photo of the Sahara Desert.
If you’re a regular Inspiration Feed reader, you saw the post about 25 free stock photo websites in June. The very first on that list, Everystockphoto, might be the best. You’ll need to pay for very high resolution images, but most websites don’t need those. They need photos no greater than 800px width, which you can download for free. The licensing terms are very generous as well, so you can find great images for use with any kind of freelance work.
Get it: Everystockphoto.
Photo editing: Pixlr Editor and Inkscape
The thing about stock images is that they’re not all that great. Since they’re free, many people use them. A familiar image gets boring after you see it so many times. Touching up those photos, either by making a collage or adding different effects, can make a boring stock image fresh again. Of course, the two most popular image editing tools, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, are massively expensive — more expensive than Microsoft Office by a longshot.
There are free alternatives, of course. They don’t have the same feature sets, but they do give you the basic tools you need. Pixlr is a website that is essentially Photoshop Lite. Import images, resize them, crop them, draw on them, add effects, and more. Inkscape is essentially an Illustrator clone, where you can enhance images and create fascinating collages. Both together should replace Photoshop for non-photo-professionals.