The world of freelancing is an exciting and sometimes scary environment. On the one hand you are in complete control of the business — you dictate what you want to spend money on and how much to charge for projects. The profit margin is often a lot better especially if you can get a fairly steady influx of work.

However freelancing is not without some inherent problems, for example administration can be a nightmare when you have previously relied solely on a HR department or accountant. Secondly being a freelancer often means that you work from home; this is great for saving money on rented office space however face to face client meetings will be a problem. Also working solo at home without interaction with others who share your field of expertise can sometimes mean that your ability to progress in terms of knowledge and skills might be stifled. The main advantage of working in an agency or office is that you learn through other’s experience. As good as Google is for information, nothing beats face to face chats and help when you are stuck.

To help all you freelancers we have come up with a list of tools that will help you make the experience as efficient and seamless as possible.

We have grouped the tools into 3 areas of interest:

  • Organisation
  • Preparation (e.g. the work)
  • Presentation — (e.g. pitching/client servicing)

Tools for organisation

Organisation is key to all business regardless of whether you work freelance or for a blue chip company. However the difference for a freelancer is that organisation is integral to ensuring you can live off your skills. There are a couple of main areas to focus on when considering exactly what needs to be “organised”.

Contracts

Okay so the pitch with the potential client went really well and you are in negotiation processes with the client in terms of the scope of work and the costs. Your first port of call should be the drawing up of the contract — your terms of service or rather what exactly you are going to do. This allows you to confirm through writing your obligations to the project, the time scales and most importantly what you are being paid. You can draft your own contract terms or obtain a more general set of terms. For example the Professional Contractors Group offer template contracts aimed specifically at freelancers. The benefit of a water tight contract is quite simple — once the work is agreed the client cannot change the scope of the work. This HUGELY improves the efficiency of your work allowing you to concentrate on what needs to be done.

Cash

Next up we have billings invoices and taxes. These are pretty integral to your freelancing business, especially if you want to get paid. First of all decide on the frequency of payment — if you are working on a project that will last several months then you might be best off with monthly payments. However if the project is likely to take considerably less time then maybe a one off invoice will suffice. Either way there are loads of billing tools that allow you to control the payment process. It really depends on what level of involvement (and obviously the cost) you want to spend on the accounting side.

Crunch offers easy-to-use free accounting software to get freelancers started with their bookkeeping. And yes, you can handle all your own taxes however for new freelancers, who may be unsure about tax procedures, having a safety blanket (!) like an accountant is a pretty safe bet.

Budgets

This is separate from billings and invoices as it is a little bit of a departure from how your freelance business functions. But not much.

Simply put unless you have guaranteed work for the next 12 months then it is likely that your work load will be subject to some uncertainties. By managing a budget you can ensure that you can pay expenses and make the most of the money that is coming in. There are loads of free tools that help you manage budgets — check out: Mint’s free online budget calculator or if you need a little bit of persuasion as to why spending money on 4 boxes of caviar might be a bad idea visit Money Saving Expert’s demotivator app.

Preparation

Project Management

Hugely important to ensure your project is … well manageable! A good schedule allows you to set out a time line of events with key milestones as well as integrating admin and most importantly client time. Time management is integral to project management and understanding your limits is important when setting time. Knowing when you work best during the day will ultimately help you manage your project timelines much more effectively.

Similarly setting a time during the day for clients is useful especially if part of your service is consultancy. Again loads of tools are out there for project tracking and creation. Creative Pro Office integrates calendar settings and timesheets allowing you to create activity reports for clients. It is also quite versatile allowing you to also create and manage invoicing and billing templates and giving clients access to read only reports.

Other pure project management solutions include the ever-popular Basecamp, a really slick timesheet interface that also acts as a file hosting service, and activeCollab, a collaboration suite with built in issue tracking functionality.

Places to work

Now many freelancers maybe inclined to work at home or other establishments with tables and coffee. Thanks to mobile broadband, powerful laptops and the increasingly popular smartphone your office really can be anywhere — home or out-of-home. The flexibility of being a freelancer is partly the reason why it is so exciting. Of course if you feel like you would like more of a central base of operations to meet like minded individuals then consider coworking arrangements.

Co-working is a really interesting concept where freelancers and small businesses of different ilks interact with one another is a shared office environment. Creative Boom did a great article on the top 10 co-working spaces in the UK. For example the Cube in London boasts co-working office spaces (e.g. hot desking) in East London and use of meeting rooms, internet facilities and even mail boxes.

The benefit of co-working environments is the work network. Co-working environment attracts all sorts of freelancers from PR types to web designers which is perfect if you have a burning question on something that isn’t quite your field of expertise. Co-working as a practice is also expanding in the UK with co-working evangelists Jelly (US based) crossing the pond to set up monthly co-working events at Staffordshire based venues.

Presentation

Finally you have the finished project and you are ready to present back to the client. Naturally you want to impress the client but somehow showing your product in the confines of your home is unlikely to impress.

Choosing the right environment is important to ensure that your product, whether it is a new website design or a consultancy report, is presented in exactly the way you want. The culmination of your work deserves the right attention. The issue with presenting your work in a public environment like a café, bar or pub is that you have to contend with a multitude of environmental factors — noise, lighting, seating arrangements, power and alcohol…

One solution is to use the client’s premises (if they have meeting facilities) however this also has problems. The major one is set up time — Casio recently did a survey of office managers to find out how much time was spent on meeting room technology problems (download the PDF here).

They found that about 10-15 minutes per was consumed by technology issues per incident. The added pressure of setting up and dealing with any technology issues is likely to eat away at your overall presentation time giving you fewer opportunities to sing the virtues of your project.

A solution to client office space is to book external meeting rooms. External meeting rooms are useful because they bring the client out of their own environment and give you the opportunity to present your project on your own terms — from seating arrangements to beverages/refreshments and technology facilities. This can be incredibly powerful especially in regards to technology. Often external meeting rooms have access to large scale projectors, displays and other audio visual equipment that might ordinarily be out of reach for yourself or client.

Many hoteliers and conference venues offer affordable rates – this can be useful for last minute client meetings that require both parties to meet in a central location. And once the meeting is over you can take the client to the pub if you like..!

Freelancing can be a difficult game however it can also be incredibly rewarding. You have complete control over the running of your business and you work to your own rules. Just make sure you work in the easiest most efficient manner by using tools to facilitate all your processes.

Photo by Denise Chan