The time has come. You’ve left your cubicle prison, and you’re stepping out into the wide world of freelance design. Pretty quickly, the realization hits: hanging out your shingle is the easy part. Keeping track of your time, money, clients, and sanity is a bit trickier.
Fortunately for you, there are a wide selection of tools, apps, and gadgets you can use to get your feet under you, even as a beginner. We’ll run through some of the standouts to make your transition a little easier:
As a freelancer, time is your most precious resource. Every moment on your own is an investment, and you’ll need to juggle deadlines as work starts pouring in. Here’s what you need to stay on track:
• You’ll want a task management tool right away, to track those deadlines, calls, and meetings. Remember the Milk is a to-do list app that syncs to iPhone, Android, Google Calendar, Gmail, Outlook, and, somehow, Twitter. It is widely regarded as the end-all and be-all of task management software on the internet.
• It is absolutely essential that you rely on a cloud storage solution to streamline your workflow. Lugging everything around on a key-drive or sending stuff to yourself by email is completely unnecessary. Google Drive is our recommended first stop, as it includes a basic office productivity suite as well. Dropbox is great for larger files, and Apple’s iCloud works well for compatible devices.
• UX/UI designers would be wise to invest in a mockup tool. Balsamiq Mockups is a leader in this field, and comes highly recommended from its users.
From finding clients to keeping track of your blog, communication is essential to any freelancer. You’ll want to find these kinds of tools:
• The most important tool you can have is a good smartphone—if you don’t have one, get one. Assuming you’ve got an Android phone, Google Voice is a helpful addition. It’s got a great web interface, allows you to send free text messages, transcribes voicemail, and provides you a new phone number, which you could use as your business number.
• If you are planning on doing any email marketing, get an email list manager. MailChimp MailChimp is widely recognized as the leader in this field because of its flexibility and fine-grained pricing.
• Finally, staying on top of your social media presence is tricky without a social media dashboard tool. HootSuite comes highly recommended, though it works best with Twitter. TweetDeck is a free option, which is also primarily Twitter based. Both work well with Facebook, but have varying degrees of integration with other social media.
This is the lifeblood of any business, and absolutely one of the least pleasant things about striking out on your own. Get the following tools ready for your incoming revenue—and to keep that outflow to a minimum.
• A budget tool is a must-have. Web-based tool Mint seems to be the people’s choice, as it allows automatic imports of data from your bank directly, and comes with a full complement of smartphone apps in support of the main site. Many features are free.
• And, of course, you can’t make money if you don’t invoice. Your invoicing tool should be reasonably flexible, as not all your clients are going to do things the same way. Xero provides a tool as well as an invoicing guide. Even if you’re determined to invoice on a spreadsheet (not recommended!), you should read the guide anyway.
Of course, any serious designer is going to need professional hardware. Here are our recommendations for the basics:
• For laptops, we don’t have a specific make and model to recommend, but be sure to get a laptop that has a large enough display with a high enough resolution to do design work. The designer working in a coffee shop on an Apple notebook may be a stereotype, but there are plenty of other brands that work for design.
• If you need a drawing tablet, be sure you get a good one. Wacom makes high quality drawing tablets as a range of prices. Their Intuos and Cintiq lines are well-liked, so consider those as a first option. If the money is tight, the Bamboo series or another brand of tablet may be a temporary fix.
Whew. That may have seemed like a lot, but you’ll find that these are actually just the basics. Get started here, though, and things will go a lot smoother for you once the clients start piling up—as we’re sure they will.
Alyssa is a former full-time photographer with a strong passion for design and a love of the PNW. With her love for gadgets, the internet, marketing and photography, you can typically find Alyssa holed up in a Seattle coffee shop writing about one (or all!) of these things. You can follow Alyssa’s adventures on Twitter.