When I started freelance writing five years ago, I ran a fairly humble operation, putting together the occasional article.
But as I gained more exposure and assumed staff writing roles with more sites, I had to start viewing freelancing as more than a casual gig. Even in its early stages, freelancing is a business.
As my business grew from informal side hustle to regular projects and clients started reaching out to me, I realized I needed help. Instead of posting on job boards seeking an unpaid intern, I sought out the best tools that would allow me to focus on my work, and more importantly, scale it.
Going from one client to five, 10 or more means a lot of organization, time management and prioritization. Thankfully, there are loads of (free!) programs that can help out. Here are the top seven free tools I use to run my freelance business.
Cost: Free, with paid tiers available
Project management is no less important in a freelance business than it is in a traditional workplace, but there are key differences: You are your own boss, and without a salary, not staying on top of your deadlines means not getting paid.
Essentially a Kanban board, Trello lets me create various boards for projects, and drag and drop cards into columns.
I set mine up as an editorial board to visually maintain my writing assignments. It’s a pretty simple but effective solution for tracking project status. I use five columns, which represent the stages of my writing process: Article Pitch, Researching, Writing, Editing, Submitted and Published.
When I tackle a new project, I create a card in the Article Pitch column. As the piece moves through the writing process, so does my card.
To set priorities, I add labels (green for low, yellow for medium, red for high), assign due dates and create a checklist for subtasks. I even receive notifications about impending deadlines from the Trello apps on my smartphone and tablet.
Trello provides a bevy of resources for creating workflows and making templates, and there’s even a dedicated resource section for freelancers and consultants. The templates are pretty bare-bones, but the Trello blog offers a collection of use cases and specific ideas.
2. Tomato Timer
As my own boss, I’m responsible for managing my time. Sure, working from home means I skip the lengthy commute, but the flexibility and setting carry their own challenges. I found myself getting distracted easily, especially at first.
I set a timer for 25 minutes and work on a given task (and only that task) during that time. Once the timer goes off, I’ve completed the first Pomodoro and reward myself with a three- to five-minute break. After four Pomodoros, I take a 20- to 30-minute break.
So why use the Pomodoro Technique? While I love the freedom to self-manage, this method helps me get started faster. Rather than staring into the void of an empty text document, I start my timer and race to get as much as possible done in 25 minutes.
Plus, it helps me stop procrastinating. Regardless of whether you work in an office or at home, you’ve probably been hit with the urge to check Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or something else that’s not work.
The Pomodoro Technique and its built-in breaks are like interval training, but for work. A bit of rest between sprints helps me stay focused longer and be more productive when I’m on task.
I use the free Tomato Timer since there’s no download required, but you can choose from loads of other free apps.
Cost: Free, with paid tiers available
As a writer, I pride myself on being able to calculate a tip, but my math skills pretty much end there. Ultimately, I’m not an accountant.
But freelancing means you have to stay on top of issues like paying quarterly taxes, determining deductions, record keeping and, of course, invoicing. Wave, branded as “real accounting for non-accountants,” is an awesome tool I’ve used to simplify these processes.
Its accounting, receipt scanning, and invoicing software is all free and pretty comprehensive, and you can integrate PayPal, Microsoft Excel and your bank accounts.
Many sites I write for, whether as recurring or one-off gigs, pay via PayPal, and Wave automatically lists each transaction. I use my credit card and PayPal for both business and personal matters, so it’s great that Wave allows me to separate those transactions. This simplifies my bookkeeping and budgeting.
The tool even handles transactions in multiple currencies, a particularly awesome inclusion for us digital nomads.
As any freelancer knows, or will quickly learn, keeping track of receipts is a must. The receipts feature helps me stay organized and keep detailed records with web, mobile and email uploads.
Cost: Free, with a paid version available
As a writer, I take pride in my proper command of the English language and grammar. However, I write a ton — articles, social media posts, emails and even grocery lists — so it’s refreshing to have a sort of real-time editor to help my writing look its best.
If I commit an error in a simple email correspondence with a client, or worse, a potential client, it reflects poorly — especially considering I’m pitching a project that centers on my strengths as a writer and editor.
To help with this, I installed Grammarly on my browser, and there’s even a Microsoft Office integration. Although I give all my pieces a second and third read-through, Grammarly helps me make the initial draft much more polished.
It’s like collaborating with an editor as I write, and the decreased time I spend on editing means I can earn more money in less time. Using Grammarly allows me to focus on the content and worry less about the grammar.
Cost: Free, with paid tiers available
My business involves a lot of moving parts. I use email and Slack for communication, Trello for project management, a slew of social media sites, and a handful of content management systems. Zapier lets me set up custom integrations between those tools.
For instance, I configured Zapier to send Trello notifications to Slack. When I move a Trello card, Zapier sends a Slack notification that lets me, or fellow freelance staff writers, know the updated project status.
Zapier also helped me connect Gmail and Trello. When a client contacts me with a project proposal, I can create Trello cards directly from the email.
When I officially accept a project, I tag it with the “Freelance” label in Gmail. This automatically generates a card in Trello with custom fields that include the email body. To edit the card, I still have to go into Trello, but this is still a lot less work than creating it from scratch. The more processes I can automate, the more I can focus on the project itself.
Zapier offers near limitless possibilities, and its pretty hefty free plan lets me run five Zaps (automated integrations) with up to 100 tasks a month.
6. and 7. Buffer and Hootsuite
Cost: Free, with paid versions available
For freelancers, social media is a landscape to network, display talent, stay connected with clients and more. I’ve landed gigs and gained invaluable exposure by taking articles viral through social growth hacking. One tech company recruited me to contribute to its blog after seeing my work on social media, and filmmakers frequently send me screeners or set up interviews through Twitter and Facebook.
By scheduling my social media posts in a block, I save invaluable time. Rather than navigating to each social media site individually, I simply schedule my content to share through Buffer and Hootsuite. In about 10 to 15 minutes, I can set up all the content I want to share over the next few days.
The free Hootsuite tier provides unlimited scheduling and more comprehensive analytics, while Buffer’s free package offers a streamlined user interface but only 10 scheduled posts per account.
However, Hootsuite’s free plan limits me to three social media profiles, whereas I’ve set up Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus through Buffer. Using a hybrid of Buffer and Hootsuite gives me the flexibility to schedule out posts across all my social networks.
Your Turn: What free tools do you use to run your freelance business?
Moe Long is the Founder/Editor in Chief of Cup of Moe, and staff writer for MakeUseOf, TechBeacon, Cliqist, Bubbleblabber and EpicStream. When not hammering away at his keyboard, he can be found drinking far too much coffee and rewatching “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”