Your Freelance Toolkit – Essential Tools For Project Work
What do you think a freelancer needs for a successful career? Top-range gadgets? Executive furniture? A year’s supply of Post-It notes?
To be honest, as long as you have the knowledge and the expertise, you can start building a creative freelance business with a fairly sparse set of tools. You probably own most of them already, in fact…
A desk that feels good to be working at
Sounds obvious, right? I’ve touched on this before, but having a dedicated ‘workstation’ which is free of distractions (rather than plonking your laptop down on the coffee table in front of the TV) can help you stay focused and productive. Every time you sit down at your desk, you’re telling your brain you’re in work mode.
Ensure your workstation is healthy – it should be well lit, well ventilated and laid out to avoid bad posture.
Your desk doesn’t need to be at home. If you have the income, why not rent a desk in an office? You’ll be in an environment built for efficient working, and you’ll sidestep the usual solitary isolation of freelancing by interacting with the office’s team every day.
A fast, reliable, sexy computer
Again, it sounds obvious, but even if you’re not producing digital work, a computer is still pretty essential for coordinating projects and communicating with clients.
But when is a computer not a computer? When it’s a tablet. Depending on the kinds of projects you’re taking on, a tablet might be a better option for you than a laptop or desktop, offering better portability and a more versatile touch interface.
Most tablets don’t have the horsepower or the software library to handle professional work, but there are some which can hold their own. The iPad, for example, has a fantastic selection of powerful apps, built for everything from graphic design to web and app development. It’s also home to fully-fledged tools from the likes of Adobe, WordPress, Dropbox and Google, to name just a few.
There’s also the Surface Pro, which offers roughly the same kind of usability, performance and software compatibility as a PC. If your computer at home can run it, there’s a good chance the Surface Pro can run it too. There’s even USB connectivity, allowing you to plug in external hardware without fancy peripherals.
Of course, there are tradeoffs. Unless you plan on working next to a power socket or lugging an external battery pack around with you (both of which negate the portability aspect somewhat), you might find yourself running out of juice before you’ve finished your work – or before you’ve remembered to save it!
There’s also the price aspect. Tablets are generally quite expensive, whereas laptops are becoming cheaper – and if you already have a computer in your home, can you really afford to buy a tablet?
Whatever you choose as your main work computer, make sure it’s affordable and it meets the needs of your projects. You don’t want to discover, midway through a project, that you’ve bitten off more than it can chew.
As a freelancer, you’re not just the creative mind behind your work; you’re the project manager as well. That means keeping track of things like milestones, deadlines, invoicing and all the other boring admin bits – which is why you need a dedicated planner.
Your planner could be an online calendar – I use Google Apps, a daily chart on your wall, a to-do list in an Excel spreadsheet, a tiny pocket diary, a Basecamp account, or even an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine which sends you flavoured smoke signals when a deadline is approaching – whatever’s convenient and efficient for you.
I also use FreeAgent to manage and track my time across all my project, this is then automatically integrated with my billing which saves me hours every month. Plus the recurring invoices makes things like ensuring ongoing monthly web hosting bills go out on time a breeze.
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With a dedicated project management client, there’s more opportunities to automate things so you’ve got less to think about. For example, you can track the amount of time you’re spending, set scheduled reminders, and create tickable workflows which can let you see what stage you’re at without necessarily having to go into the project to find out.
There’s also more options for checking your progress online from different devices, so you don’t need to be at your desk to find out where you are on a particular project.
However, if you find you work better with old-fashioned pen-and-paper planning, there’s no shame in that either. Just make sure you’ve organised your plans in a way which is intuitive and makes accessing old information quick and easy – even if you think you’ll never need it after the project has wrapped.
A go-to application (or a set of them)
Which software apps are essential for your freelance business? That depends entirely on the industry you’re working in – and if you’ve already committed to a freelance career in that industry, you probably already know which software you’re most comfortable with.
Note that it doesn’t have to be the industry-standard, as long as it provides all the functionality you need to produce great work for your clients. If you’re a graphic designer, you’re probably using Photoshop, but perhaps you’re using GIMP, Affinity Photo or one of the many alternatives out there.
If you work requires you to wear many different hats (such as web development or video production), you’ll need a set of software apps to handle each step of the project; and the more applications you’re using, the more likely you’ll run into compatibility issues. Make sure your apps play nice with your operating system, control interface, presentational medium (browsers and online video player clients, for example) and with each other.
A printer, scanner, camera or any other external hardware
Like software, the hardware tools you’ll need depends entirely on the kind of work you’re doing. Generally speaking, it’s good to have a printer and a scanner; anything which exists in digital form can be committed to paper and vice versa, which is handy for things like contracts and invoices. A USB hub will pay dividends when you run out of ports, and a portable solid state drive will provide plenty of storage and speedy retrieval for all your project files.
Any hardware you buy should be fit for purpose and should work for you. Fancy gadgets like drawing tablets are all well and good, but the aim of buying them should be to make your work process more efficient and/or more creatively fertile.
They shouldn’t spend their life being used for tasks that a keyboard and mouse can do to the same standard in the same amount of time – and they certainly shouldn’t spend their life gathering dust on a shelf because you haven’t learned how to use them.
A phone and an email client
So, you’ve got everything you need to produce work for your clients, but how will you stay in touch with them?
For the vast majority of businesses – even with the huge range of digital communication methods available in 2015 – the answer is email. You’ll probably end up having most of your discussions with clients via the medium of email; and if you’re not careful, that inbox will grow out of control.
Email clients are few and far between, with Mozilla’s Thunderbird often touted as the best for its versatility (thanks in part to its support for plugins). However, a simple Gmail account will probably provide all the functionality you’ll need within your browser, with plenty of features for categorising and searching through your mail.
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Of course, when it comes to discussing more serious topics or getting an answer quickly, phone conversations knock email out of the park. Either set up a phone on your desk, or get Skype and have it running in the background all day.
What’s in your freelance toolkit that you can’t live without? Let me know in the comments below!
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