As a freelancer, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing about gadgets in technology or million-year-old rocks in geology you need a set of integrated software applications. This post highlights the key applications. It then describes how they should be selected and integrated to deliver a slick article production and billing platform.
This first post focuses on the big picture - the whole software suite. Watch for future posts where I’ll focus on individual applications. These will include accounting with integral time tracking; newsreader's and note capture apps. I will also be dedicating a post to the article tracking process itself; whether you can get away with a simple spreadsheet or justify more sophisticated project tracking features.
To focus the ‘freelance mind’ I’ve structured the above diagram to reflect the order we typically work. You begin by marketing via your website and respond via an email to confirm a commission. Once commissioned begin researching, start drawing up notes and outlines, then edit the article and proof. Lastly email the article, along with an invoice.
The freelance app toolbox
To support this ‘article workflow’ you’ll need the right set of apps in your toolbox. Today’s range of apps is immense and in a constant state of flux, so I'm going to focus on mainstream versions and those popular across a wide range of platforms, Windows, Apple, browser and mobiles.
Before I look at the apps themselves, I want to stress two key goals - Data Integration and Ease of Use.
Each software application is a tool for a specific Job but to keep your life simple all these tools must be integrated. Integration in this case is about the flow of data and of course, ‘slick’ usage integration. You shouldn't be spending hours of your vital and money earning time ‘cutting and pasting data’ from one app to another.
Below is a matrix of 'desirable' app and data integrations
For example, when you track your active time in the time recording app it should automatically feed into the invoicing process. The invoice should automatically be routed to the accounts system, which also hosts all your expenses. All this vital data must be merged at year-end into an annual tax return with the absolute minimum of your and your accountant’s effort. Remember the old cliche – ‘Time is Money’ . Every minute spent on admin is a minute that should ideally be spent either earning or better still spending last month income!
Adding your own integrations
When choosing you may find that your shortlisted solutions still have a few integration holes. Thankfully all is not lost. Apps such as Zapier have evolved from integration ‘sticking plasters’ to powerful workflow engines allowing multiple third-party apps to share data and slickly integrate. WIX website contacts, for example, don’t natively integrate with Outlook but a simple one step Zapier ‘Zap’ automates the link with no need for any user intervention!
Ease of use
After data integration the other key feature is ‘ease of use’. Quite simply if you can't find or easily access a feature it might as well not exist. Prove this to yourself during any product trials when you’re less familiar with an app.
Take time recording. If a badly designed system forces you to drill down to your accounts system; search through a menu; find a project; find a task; then finally click the start button; you're going to depend on ‘convenient’ scraps of paper instead! With a well designed time recorder that has a handy ‘task timer button’ on your phone, tablet and PC; supported by an intelligent app that remembers your recent tasks; you simply ‘press it’, the clock starts ticking. Such easy access, especially when supported by full data integration means end-of-month invoicing is a total breeze.
Right is a selection of my 'rapid access' Chrome extensions.
Best apps for you – the selection pointers
As an IT consultant I’m often asked by clients - ‘what's the best database’ or ‘what's the best spreadsheet’ etc. My simple answer is always, ‘horses for courses; it depends on… ‘the best database for a non-technical freelancer is very different solution to the best database for a multinational corporate!
Remember; ‘you’re picking an app suite to make your life easier by delivering the specific features you, as a freelance need and not picking the most ‘feature rich’ or ‘powerful’ set of apps. Below are some tips to focus you on that vital job in hand.
Solo vs teams
Be wary of ‘team’ solutions. Most freelancers are sole traders and work mostly on their own. They may well communicate with editors and many other external parties but they're unlikely to need team solutions. Team solutions come with admin baggage for controlling access, plus all those added multi-users features which are total overkill for a solo worker and don’t forget those team solutions typically cost more.
Cloud vs desktop
Today’s leading cloud apps are slick, full featured and powerful. They are available wherever you have a browser and are consistent across multiple platforms. If they meet your needs (chances are they will!) then run with them.
With many apps there may well be some feature overlaps. For example, time recording apps, such as Harvest and Toggl, have their own invoicing features. While accounting apps such as FreeAgent, FreshBooks and Xero all have time recording. Aim for the smallest number of apps that deliver the goods and as always slick, powerful and smooth data integration. Where possible leverage multifunction apps, especially with time, contact and accounts integration and aim to eliminate duplication.
Sledgehammer to crack the nut?
Don’t opt for complex or over feature rich apps. You’re a sole trader so opt for basic word processing apps, simple accounts and most of all simple project and time tracking which is ideally an integral feature of your accounts. Avoid complexity and focus on the big picture; enough timesheet data to create invoices and deliver business intelligence, but not overkill; don’t become a slave to your own admin.
Suites vs stand-alone
Most will be very familiar with today’s mainstream business software solutions from Microsoft (Live / Business) and Google (Google 1 / Workspace). When it comes to app suites just like with any ‘bulk deal’ you get a lot of apps for a bargain price but it's only a bargain if you both use and need those applications. Both come in solo and Team versions and for guidance, I’ve listed the apps and basic price ‘per user’. Prices will vary, especially with team versions when added costs are incurred for power features and user numbers. ‘Free’ versions of both suites are also available for the less demanding.
However, even though there’s a wealth of applications, as the table above shows, there are gaps in both suites for slick newsreaders, basic time recording and solo accounts apps.
The tools jigsaw
Ensure you have a slick self-promoting website. Keep it up-to-date and it will serve you well, especially if its enquiry forms links to your email and contacts apps. Major players offering slick full features and hosted professional sites include SquareSpace, Webflow and WIX.
Communications; contacts, email, diary, meetings
Pick apps where all this vital data is fully integrated, including the accounts and time-tracking.
Online meetings and slick content sharing are now a mainstay. Conferencing apps come both as part of the major suites and stand-alone. For small gatherings there’s little to choose between ‘free’ and charged options such as Zoom.
Newsreaders and releases
There are literally dozens of app newsreaders out there and I find it useful to have newsreaders such as Feedly and Inoreader that are both powerful and available on a wide variety of platforms. I read and capture many stories on my phone and tablet; as well as a PC so it’s essential to have portability and a simple couple of buttons routing to your ‘read later list’ wherever it lives!
Opt for a newsreader that focuses on mainstream features not slick screen layouts. When using the newsreader to capture information and research, make sure it links easily to either itself for note taking or to an external note taking app. Both Evernote and OneNote have Chrome add-ons offering a variety pf page capture options; see next.
Both mainstream suites have their own notes app. For me I find that Google Keep is well short of features and OneNote doesn't particularly suit my way of working as it doesn’t support tags. If you are happy with their features, then, of course, opt for them and save money.
However, if you’re looking for more powerful search/recall features and tagging; Evernote has long been one of the leading players.
In all cases look for slick web page clipping. Evernote has a particularly powerful capture tool with a range of options, plus inbuilt routing. The ‘simplified article’ choice strips out all the ‘garbage’ adverts and graphics etc. that litter most of today’s sites!
While the OneNote clipper has improved, the underling platform isn’t as powerful and is missing tags etc.
There are no shortages of cloud sites and most Freelancers will opt for the drive that’s included as part of their chosen software suite - Microsoft’s OneDrive or Google’s Drive. However, if you're looking for more bells and whistles, plus one that’s not tied to a Suite, Dropbox is a fine alternative, but will cost more for the extras.
Word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing etc.
Office apps come as standard with both mainstream suites. Today's apps, even the cloud versions, are more than sufficient for most authors.
Throughout the process most of us will (or should!) track article progress; pitch; commission; writing; proofing; delivery; rewrite; publication and the happy moment; payment. Underpinning all these stages, is of course the boring admin; time tracking; billing; expense / invoice bank reconciliation and annual tax accounting ☹
Unless you only get the occasional article It's vital to track work commissions. For most a simple spreadsheet will be fine. I've leveraged versions of the below spreadsheet for decades.
If you are looking for something more sophisticated, a basic stand-alone project app such as Asana or Trello will deliver all the bells and whistles your 'high-tech heart' could desire but as outlined earlier for most Freelancers this will be overkill.
You may feel time tracking has no role for you, especially if your commissions are fixed fee or based on an agreed word rate. However, there’s no harm in knowing where your time goes; after all time is a freelancer’s only real resource!
Once converted to tracking most freelancers are often surprised - usually unpleasantly! Comments such as ‘never knew that ‘trawling and approving quotes took so much of my time...’ are not uncommon. A basic article ‘project’ could have the following time tasks: -
You may be also wise to track the time spent on the pitching process; article outlines and marketing. Harvest and Toggl are two tracking mainstays; offering both invoicing and powerful reporting but for the sake of costs and simplicity, most freelancers should opt for accounts integrated project and time tracking.
Accounting and billing
When it comes to accounting do remember again you're a ‘sole trader’; most of us are not even a ‘small businesses. So don't be tempted to opt for a package designed for a corporate! A simple set of features will be more than adequate; anything more is more time-consuming work and complexity.
Apps that should be on your Freelancer shortlist include FreeAgent, FreshBooks, QuickBooks, Sage and Xero. Watch for a future post where I’ll focus on selecting a freelance accounting system with integral projects and time tracking.
Hope this post has helped you evolve your own 'article delivering pipeline' and one that will keep you, your editors, accountants and readers happy - plus the HMRC wolves from your door!