I am pretty excited about this post because it is written by one of my readers.Â Caitlin Douglass is a freelance writer and editor who provides copywriting and content development services for a variety of clients. “I specialize in telecommunications and technology,” she says. “And I am backed up by a team of exceptional writers who can take on just about any topic.”
She agreed to write this post for my series on women who jumped out of the rat race to go out on their own. Instead of telling us why she did it, though, she is sharing some terrific insight on how she does it. Like me, she uses technology to run her business. In fact, she and I use some of the same tools. (How cool is that!?) So I am just thrilled that she wanted to tell you about them. And now, a big hand for Caitlin!
Tools for a Small Business
by Caitlin Douglass
When I decided to start my own business, I knew I was going to have to do a lot of things myself. I couldn’t afford to hire a staff, much less an assistant. So in addition to doing the business part of the business, I had to cover all the administrative tasks too. Billing, project management, scheduling-all of that alone can turn into a full time job if you’re not prepared. One of the first things I did was get online and look for business tools that would help me accomplish those things without taking time away from my actual work, or the time I needed to dedicate to clients. After trying out a lot of different programs, a few rose to the top, and they’re the ones I still use today.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The reason anyone works is to earn money. People start businesses to parlay their passion into a business and give up a job they hate. Starting a business from home allows people to spend more time with their kids. For me, the desire stemmed from a feeling that I could do things better and be more successful without managers and bureaucracy holding me back. I knew I’d need an efficient way to bill clients that didn’t look like I was just winging it. The more professional I could appear, the more confidence my clients would have in me. I couldn’t just send an e-mail asking for payment.
Freshbooks was the first business tool I invested in. Much of my work is done online, so sending paper bills just didn’t fit my business model. Besides, envelopes and postage get expensive. And waiting for invoices and checks to travel by mail? I didn’t have time for that. I needed to be paid as quickly as possible to put the money back into my business and keep it moving forward. Freshbooks allows me to send professional-looking invoices to my clients, and helps me track the time I spend on their projects. Some of my clients have set budgets they need to adhere to. I can provide them with a breakdown of time worked, and time to completion whenever they need it, allowing them to manage their budgets more efficiently, which in turn helps me get paid on time. Anything that helps me help my clients also makes me more successful.
I had heard a lot of people talk aboutÂ Basecamp, so when I started, it was one of the first tools I checked out. I quickly determined I didn’t need it-at least, not then. It’s not prominently displayed or marketed on their site, but they have a free version that allows you to track one project. This would probably be good for trying it out before you actually buy it. But I did ok with a spreadsheet program when I only had one project to manage.
Then I got more clients. And more projects. Eventually, I began working with a couple of contractors because the workload was just too much for me alone anymore. Having to hire people is a sign of success. But it can cause some headaches, too. I’m one of those clients I talked about with a set budget to spend on contract projects. I needed to be able to track the time the people I hired put in on my projects, and they needed an easy way to access the project details. That’s when I got Basecamp. There are several price points, so it was affordable, but the return on investment is what makes it so worthwhile. Now my contractors can just sign into Basecamp at any time and find project details, notes, and deadlines without having to ask me for them. It allows me to communicate with them passively, saving all of us time. And it helps them get paid properly, too, since they can track the time they spend on each project. Without Basecamp, we’d all be a little lost.
Even though Basecamp lets my contractors and me exchange quite a bit of information, there are still times when we need to communicate on a more instantaneous basis. A list or note in a program can never replace an actual conversation. And sometimes, I need to talk to more than one, or all of my contractors at once. That’s when it’s time to host a conference call.
As with the other tools, I searched online until I foundÂ Tollfreeconferencing.com conference call provider that offered everything I thought I would need. First and foremost, I didn’t want my contractors to have to pay any long distance charges when I needed to speak to them, so I chose TollFreeConferencing.com. It allows me to set up a conference call, and provide the access information to everyone who needs to participate. Then they dial a toll free number to join the call. I also have the ability to record calls. If I ever decide to add podcasts to the products I offer, that feature will really come in handy. Another thing that’s great about TollFreeConferencing.com is they offer varied price points, so I’m able to choose the one that fits my budget. I’ve also found that when starting a new project, it’s much easier for me to provide the initial instructions via a conference call than it is to type them out in Basecamp. I can explain things, and they can ask questions, which saves us all a lot of time and effort later on by avoiding confusion up front. Finally, sometimes it’s just nice to hear the voices of the people you work with, and maybe share a laugh or two during a conference call. It’s the next best thing to a face-to-face meeting, but because we’re all located in different parts of the country, it’s much more affordable.
Every day, small tasks require my attention. They’re not actual projects that could be entered into Basecamp. I’m not going to create an entire project for “Call client to discuss unpaid invoice.” I hope that’s not something I need to address so often that it requires its own project to be managed. But whether it’s calling a client, buying office supplies, responding to e-mails, or any of the other thousand or so small things I take care of every day, Remember The Milk helps me keep track of them.
The thing I love most about Remember The Milk is the mobile application I was able to download to my phone. I’m on the computer a lot, but I do take a break once in a while. There are days when I’m out running errands for most of the afternoon, so I don’t have my computer handy to keep track of what tasks I need to complete that day. Remember The Milk lets me set reminders so that even if I’m at the grocery store, I can remember to place a call at a certain time. Speaking of the grocery store, I actually do use it to help me remember to pick up certain items when I’m shopping. It wouldn’t be any good if it didn’t literally live up to its name!
I’m actually a little torn here. I started out using Google Calendar because it’s free, and I was already using several other Google products, so it just made sense to stay in the family. Once I discovered Remember The Milk, I got away from Google Calendar a bit because some of the functions overlap. I still use it, though, to help me remember recurring events, or to plan things like vacations or conferences.
Google Calendar lets you share a calendar with anyone, so I created a business calendar and shared it with my contractors. Now whenever any of us attends conferences, goes on vacation, or has appointments that take us away from work, it’s easy for us all to keep track of who’s doing what. It also helps me make sure I don’t assign a project or task to someone who’s gone for a week. On a personal note, Google Calendar also helps me keep track of family and friends’ birthdays, which I have a bad habit of forgetting.
As things change, and people continue to innovate and create, I may find something I like better at some point. But for now, I wouldn’t be able to run my business without these tools. They not only make my life easier, they help make me and my business a success.