As a freelance web designer, I make use of a lot of web-based tools and applications to help manage all aspects of my business. Using these tools has increased my organization, professionalism and timeliness, which in turn has increased profits. The best part? Most offer free plans for single users (aka freelancers).
You may think that the plethora of project management apps are made for teams of developers, and while they certainly do help when working in teams, they can be a valuable asset to the freelancer as well. Most offer great organizational tools, including calendars, task lists and time-tracking.
The most well-established of project management apps, Basecamp is a solid piece of software that allows you to manage contacts, projects and milestones. Their free plan is quite limited but if you can afford their premium plans, it is well worth the money (and is brandable to boot!).
Presents a unique way of managing your projects by reducing them to their basic elements:
- Action Steps - Tasks
- References - Notes, files, sketches, links
- Backburners - Ideas (not yet tasks)
- Discussions - Messaging
- Events - Milestones and due dates
This is probably my favorite of the bunch, as they provide project management, bug tracking and SVN/Git repository hosting in an all-in-one package. They have a stellar free plan too, with 200MB of storage space and nearly all premium features.
Billing and Invoicing
While it's fine to send clients a PayPal payment request for your work, a professional looking invoice adds a bit of credibility to your business. Smart accounting can also make life much easier during tax season. The following web apps allow you to send digital invoices (or snail mail), collect payments and manage your finances:
This Toronto-based service lets you easily track time and send invoices to clients, then collect payments using a number of payment gateways. They can also send snail mail invoices if you prefer for $1-2, depending on volume sent (return envelopes included).
Made by the popular design studio MetaLab, Ballpark allows you to send gorgeous estimates and invoices. Your clients can comment on estimates or accept them, with the ability to make the initial payment using PayPal.
Blinksale allows you to send custom designed invoices and even supports recurring payment templates, which is great for charging clients for hosting or domain fees. Unfortunately, Blinksale doesn't have a free plan, only a 30-day trial.
Packed with a ton of features, Free Agent is the big-daddy of invoicing and accounting web apps. You can send estimates, track time, invoice clients, manage your business financials (by uploading bank statements) and create country-specific tax reports. They don't have a free plan but do have a 30-day free trial (no credit-card required).
This app isn't for invoicing or billing clients, but rather to help manage and organize your business financial data, primarily your cash flow. It is a powerful tool with a lot of great features that lets you get an overview of exactly how your business is doing financially over time.
Mockups and Creative Process
If you're a freelance web designer you know all about the significance of mockups. While you're almost certainly going to have to make several high-quality, full mockups in Photoshop (or the like), it can help to make a quick wireframe mockup to find the perfect content layout your client wants. The following tools can help with that:
This free (while in beta) tool lets you create mockups directly in your browser and share them with others. It loads quickly and has a wide range of objects you can import into the main view, including working links and support for multiple hierarchal pages.
Balsamiq is a highly extensible mockup builder with a web client, desktop client and plugins for several other enterprise collaboration applications. Both their product and support are stellar, however they don't offer a free version (only a limited demo).
Mockflow is similar to the others but allows real-time collaboration between users and online-offline syncing, so you can work from the desktop app or the web client. They also have a MockStore, where users can share their custom elements.
Hosted Content Management Systems
Clients absolutely love to be able to manage their content without external help, and installing a CMS will make life easier for them and for you. Sometimes, you might not want to use WordPress or write your own custom backend, in which case you can consider using one of these hosted solutions:
LightCMS is a really a lot more than just a content management system, with support for client management, e-commerce and billing, packaged with the default CMS features like blogging, calendars and basic SEO. Their plans can get slightly expensive but the convenience of having everything handled by one source makes up for it.
Similar to LightCMS, Traffik allows you to manage all aspects of your site (or your clients), giving you the ability to create blogs, forums or restricted members sections. Traffik also provides a basic e-commerce solution so your clients can manage and sell their products.
This free app lets you manage any website by entering the FTP information for your server and adding snippets of Cushy code to the HTML of the site. Clients can then login to the CushyCMS site and manage the content you've marked as editable. This is probably the simplest and easiest solution out of the three, though it lacks in features.
Any good web designer knows the importance of browser compatability but frankly, it can be a pain to deal with. The process involves testing designs on numerous browsers to make sure they look the same. To help with this process, several sites now offer screen shots in various browsers so you don't have to install a gazillion browsers on your local machine.
Certainly the best looking site of the three, Litmus is the Basecamp of the browser compatability world. They offer a free plan that allows you to conduct 50 tests a month, however it's limited to only 2 browsers (IE7 and FF2). Their premium plans are pretty stellar - if you can afford them.
BrowserShots is a free, open-source service that takes screenshots on more than 75 different browsers. The only catch is that you have to wait in a queue for your results, or you can pay to get priority processing.
BrowserCam does what the other services do but adds one killer additional feature: support for mobile browsers and desktop/web-based e-mail clients. They only have paid plans but there is a 24 hour free trial that supports 200 screen captures.
While most freelancers can get away with providing client support through e-mail, people with a large number of clients may opt to use a dedicated support system. The following tools can help you manage support requests easily and professionally:
This is probably one of my favorite 'new' web app. Zendesk is a complete support system that can be fully integrated with your site. It includes a customer forum, support tickets and documentation. They have a 30-day free trial, with their cheapest plan costing $9 per month (and well worth it!).
Made by the creative minds at entp, Tender is another complete support system, providing support forums, ticketing and knowledge base. They have a 30-day free trial and are a little more expensive than Zendesk.
What better way to provide professional support to your clients than a toll-free 1-800 number? Grasshopper allows you to get a custom toll-free number for a flat monthly rate, with unlimited extensions that can be routed to any land or cell line.
Organization can make freelancing a lot easier and more profitable, and using the above web apps can help with that goal. The more professional you are (or appear), the more you are able to charge for your services, granted you maintain a high level of quality as well.
Do you use any of the tools listed? Are there other tool you would recommend for freelancers?