5 Areas of Your New Design Business You Need to Optimize

So, you’re a new freelancer — perhaps even an intermediate one by now — but you’re so caught up in getting “real work” done that you’ve not paid much attention to the processes you havein place for dealing with the administrivia and business management.

Few people think about this stuff early on, because they are either trying to please their first clients with great work, or sitting by the phone waiting for a prospect to appear. But now that you’ve got some jobs done and the money’s coming in fairly steadily, it’s time to start looking at optimizing your business processes and better yet, where possible, automating them. Here are five important areas for you to look at overhauling.

Assembly line image by Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0.

Time Tracking & Invoicing

Time tracking and sending invoices to clients are both essential parts of a freelance business, and both can be extremely tedious and time-consuming. Some apps have you fiddling with the tracking more than working, and spending an afternoon in a word processor coming up with PDF invoices to send to clients? There are better (read: more billable) ways to spend your time.

I’ve used a lot of apps in this area over the years, and I’ve hated a lot of them, too. The only one I’m really comfortable using is a contender that’s not as well-known, but certainly should be.

Paymo has robust time-tracking features that don’t get in the way and are accessible from just about any platform, including plain old web when in doubt. The web and mobile versions of the tracker need you to select a client and project before you start tracking, which is painless enough, but the desktop app is great as you can just start tracking and drag-and-drop the entries into the right places later on — it tells you how much time you spent in which apps, working in which documents, so it’s ridiculously easy to track everything you do without thinking about tracking everything you do.

Paymo has an invoicing interface that, for me, beats the more popular Freshbook’s, which I find fiddly and irritating. It’s so easy to turn tracked time entries into invoices or create invoices based on manual itemization and have them automatically sent. There’s a raft of other features in Paymo, but the beginning freelancer is probably only immediately going to be focused on invoicing and time tracking.

Task & Project Management

Here’s a minefield. The absolute last thing you want to do is ask a productivity pundit about task management. They know the most about task management and the software in that field, sure, but if you’re not among that group yourself, their opinions on productivity software are just going to be so out of touch with your own that it isn’t even funny.

Trust me. I spent several years of my writing career as a pundit for a then-major productivity publication.

I sometimes use Things and I sometimes use OmniFocus personally, constantly switching my systems between apps depending on my desire for simplicity or powerful features in any given month. These are great (Mac only) apps worthy of your attention, but I generally recommend Wunderlist to people.

It’s simple, it is free, it’s cross-platform, and it is pretty much the only app in the category that makes sharing lists with others ridiculously easy. If you’re after anything even a little complicated though, you won’t find much satisfaction in Wunderlist.

What about project management, which tends to call for a tool bigger than OmniFocus and with more collaborative power than sharing lists in Wunderlist? You get a strong task and project management feature sets in Paymo, so if you’re already spending $10 a month on it, get your money’s worth and use the whole thing.

Estimates & Proposals

Before you start providing your clients with estimates, there are two main things you need. The first is an idea of how much time and what resources are needed for a given job as requested by the client. You’ll get better at estimating hours with experience.

The second is an ideal hourly rate. Even if you don’t intend to charge by the hour, but by the project, your hourly rate is something you need to figure out. Project-based quotes are a combination of time and resource expectations and your hourly rate; otherwise they are a guess in the dark, which means you’ll probably lose money. Giving out quotes that don’t mean anything is a bad idea.

The ideal hourly rate takes into account your expenses, taxes and desired profit margin. Once you know your ideal hourly rate for your current situation you’ll have a foundational tool in your estimating and proposal toolkit.

You can use a spreadsheet to figure this figure out and be able to quickly adjust components of it as your situation changes. You’ll find aids for this sort of thing in the Web Design Business Kit. If you just want a quick and dirty answer, you can use an online rate calculator such as this one.

Another thing you’ll want to develop for yourself are templates for proposals and estimates. An estimate document is much like an invoice, and it provides itemization for the expenses you expect to incur. A proposal is a report-like document that proposes a set of services to the prospect, sometimes attached at that stage to price points.

Contract Management

There are a variety of ways of coming up with design service contracts, including Andy Clarke’s ultra-casual Contract Killer approach. The Internet is just drowning in template contracts, free and premium, which can be found with a bit of searching around. Getting a contract that’s good and solid isn’t a problem today; you probably should have a lawyer look at it, but there are sufficiently good templates for designers around from reputable sources that you can feel pretty safe with the one you’re using. Lawyers ain’t cheap for an upstart freelancer, I hear you.

Something that’s going to bother you on a more ongoing basis is contract management. That means storing them securely, getting signatures in a timely fashion, getting signatures in a digital world with clients in other timezones and countries, and so on. One troublesome task is getting multiple people, each in different timezones, to sign a digital contract.

Seriously, if you’re new to freelancing, you’re lucky. For the longest time both the technology around and the attitude towards digital contracts has been well behind the rest of technology, always forced to suffer in silence due to distrust of the Internet — even when engaged in business with people who would trust you in person.

Now, there are apps like Echosign, which I use myself. Echosign facilitates the signing of documents digitally and makes it ridiculously easy. You don’t even have to go through that cumbersome and pesky process of scanning in your signature and saving it as an image, though you have that option. A signature automatically created from your name or drawn with your mouse are valid options in Echosign. Drop your signature in and send the document off to others who will be able to sign it in seconds. It is then filed, which means it is stored in Echosign’s servers with enterprise-grade security and a copy is emailed to all parties who signed.

For many freelancers, the free tier with five transactions a month will be fine — you tend to sign contracts less frequently than you send invoices, for example.

Feedback & Retrospective

You probably haven’t given any thought to this phase of a project, but you should. Getting feedback from clients and giving a job some retrospective thought — feedback from yourself, really — is an important part of improving your services and strengthening client relationships.

This is more of a process than a part of a freelancer’s toolbox, as it’ll help your mindset and aid with boosting confidence, and it’ll have you using the breadth of your tools — examining the input, such as going over your task management software and seeing what you got done and what you could’ve done better, and tweaking the systems you have in place in those tools.

Asking a client for feedback is as simple as sending an email or getting on the phone and taking notes. Give the client space to provide feedback off the top of their head first, but have some pointed questions to ask about areas you’ve been working on improvement to gauge your progress on that front.

You may want to keep a running document or journal of sorts, where you document thoughts and feedback. Looking at this sort of information at different points in growth and time and different states of mind can shed new light on old business practices.

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  • http://ericksoncreative.com Sally Erckson

    Hi Joel,
    I have been working for one client for the last 10 years, so got out of some of the steps you talk about. Thanks for the refresher and the links to today’s methods of keeping track.

    The very last section about Feedback and thoughts on each client was my personal fav, as it’s easy to just be glad to be finished. What do you use to record these thoughts?

    • http://twitter.com/jfalconer Joel Falconer

      Hey Sally,

      Those situations sure make it easy! But they get you out of the habit of maintaining a business and thinking more like an employee… I’ve been in the same boat before.

      I’m a big paper guy, so I use a notebook for feedback and thoughts. Sometimes I wish I could think more freely with a word processor — right now I’m in the process of digitizing notes made on a hundred-page printout, and it would sure have saved me some time if I started in Word to begin with. ;)

      • cataweb

        Hi Joel,
        Because you are a fan o paper and coz i found this article interested for me I want to share you also a nice tool for papers http://www.livescribe.com. One question . i dont understand from this article is paymo and wunderlist are complementary or you could use just paymo
        thanks

  • http://www.rebeccahaden.com/ Rebecca Haden

    Having to use different tools for each of those items doesn’t seem like the height of efficiency. That’s what I do, too (a different set, but still a set rather than one solution), but I don’t like it. Have you seen an integrated solution that covers them all?

    • http://twitter.com/jfalconer Joel Falconer

      Rebecca,

      In the past, I had a much more extensive list of tools. An app like Toggl for time tracking, Freshbooks for invoicing, Basecamp for project management, Things for task management and a painful process involving word processors, printers, pens and scanners for dealing with contracts!

      The biggest consolidation is in using Paymo. Instead of paying a hefty sum for Toggl, Freshbooks and Basecamp, paying $10 a month for Paymo to do everything they did is a huge improvement. I still like to use a desktop app for task management so Things (or OmniFocus) it is and Echosign for contracts, which isn’t something I need to do every day or even every week, so I feel pretty good about the situation now. You could certainly give the task management app the kick and use Paymo as well for that. Contract management is a pretty niche thing so for the foreseeable future you’re probably going to be stuck using a separate app for that.

  • http://92pixels.com Shawn

    nice

  • Bruce Canales

    I really like Paymo! I’ve been looking for a tool like that. Great article!

  • http://angelobeltran.com/blog Angelo Beltran

    Fantastic article. I don’t know why I haven’t come across ‘Contract Killer’. It’s awesome! I use CurdBee for my invoicing. It’s quick, simple and easy to use. Wunderlist is the best to-do list app ever. Will look into EchoSign.

  • http://www.fcswebsites.co.uk Nick(FCS)

    Getting all these systems in one place is something we are working on at the moment. It’s a tough task, and we’re currently using Codebase for SVN/deployment, client ticketing and time tracking, with invoicing handled by Billings and Daylite combo on the Mac.

    If only there was a link between the Codebase and Billings API…

  • http://businesslogoz.blogspot.com Daniel Brandon

    Some people thіnk аbουt thіѕ early οn, bесаυѕе thеу аrе еіthеr
    trying tο please thеіr first clients wіth good work, οr sitting bу thе
    phone waiting fοr a prospect tο appear.

  • http://www.nintera.com/ Daniel Nordstrom

    I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, kept the SitePoint newsletter in my inbox until now. I’m a Community Mentor so I guess I should be reading this stuff more often.

    Anyway, it’s quite interesting—I like playing with efficiency and new tools like these. What I do now is use Adobe’s service for contract management, Freshbooks for time tracking, bookkeeping and invoicing, Google Docs for document management (proposals, contract drafts), and finally Basecamp for occasional project management. The only one I pay for regularly is Freshbooks, and it’s not much.

    Other interesting factors in efficiency of web development are deployment and source control. Used to rely on Subversion and possibly Springloops for deployment but the past year I’ve switched to Git (keeping repos on my server) for source control, and either Git post-receive or Capistrano (with multiple environments) for deployment.

    So thanks for the article, nice tips!

    Best regards,
    Daniel Nordstrom
    Nintera(ctive)

  • http://www.e-nile.com Web Design Egypt

    thanks for the nice post .. it is really helpful