Work Smarter (not harder): Apps & Tools I Use to Help Streamline my Processes and Work More Efficiently
When I first started AllieMarie Design, I was working my booty off -- designing whenever I could, working nights and weekends and on lunch breaks -- as many new small business owners do. I was focused on growing my client base and doing good design work, along with getting social media accounts up and running, figuring out some sort of invoicing "system" and working diligently on my website. I made a Welcome Packet for my branding clients and put some basic processes in place.
Before I knew it, my business grew and I started to find my groove.
However, when I became a full-time business owner last year, I realized I was still re-inventing the wheel in many areas. I've always been a very organized and detail-oriented person, and I love having processes in place, but many of my daily/weekly/monthly tasks were too time-consuming. I needed that extra time to take on bigger and more projects, network and "put myself out there" to help me continue to grow AllieMarie Design.
It was time to re-evaluate.
Some of the big questions I asked myself:
How can I easily schedule projects into my calendar and ensure I'm not overbooking myself (resulting in working 24/7)?
How can I efficiently and professionally on-board clients, ensuring I'm giving my clients the best possible experience and that all bases are covered?
How can I cut down on admin time across the board -- from sending contracts to invoicing -- and make it easier for clients to sign off and make payments?
How can I change my social media approach? I need a plan and some automation!
My work was cut out for me, wouldn't you say?
I dove into research. I learned what has and hasn't worked for other people in my same industry and checked out multiple different applications and tools for myself to see what would best fit my personality and my business needs. I went through lots of trial-and-error and borderline over-saturated myself with info...
...but it was all worth it. And I truly feel that I'm on my way to working a whole lot smarter, not harder, as my business continues to grow.
I thought I'd share my findings with you all in hopes that I inspire you to look at your own processes and find ways to make running a small business easier!
Note: None of the below are affiliate links... I simply want to share what I love and what works for me and my business!
Google Calendar & My Paper Planner
Although I've used these tools from day one, I have honed in on how I use them and how they work together. Two calendars may sound crazy, but I can't imagine not having both... I rely on them every day!
I use this for the big stuff -- start dates and deadlines for projects, due dates for bills, client meetings, networking events. It's color coordinated and tasks are labeled by client. When a new project comes my way, I figure out when I can start the project based on what is currently scheduled. And I never close an email without ensuring that any discussed dates or deadlines are on my calendar.
My Paper Planner:
This is how I plan out my weeks, prioritize projects and to-dos, set goals and feel the gratification of checking things off my list on a daily basis. There are many to-do apps out there and although I've tried different options, I always came back to good ol' pen and paper. I've found it helps me reflect a bit more and be more intentional about my planning. I sit down every Sunday night and plan the week ahead (based on what my Google Cal says!), so I can be on track right away Monday morning.
My current favorite is my Rule the World Planner, created by my lovely friend Iliana of Sugar and Type. It's compact, the layout is a great balance of structured and flexible, and it helps me effectively goal set on a month-by-month basis. There are SO MANY awesome options out there though -- do your research to find one you love!
Squarespace for Website Hosting
I switched my website over to Squarespace from Wordpress a few years ago and haven't once looked back. In addition to their gorgeous customizable templates, I also love how incredibly easy it is to update my site. Adding projects to my portfolio, editing copy and switching out images is a breeze! It makes marketing myself online easy and enjoyable.
Squarespace also helps me create a better experience for my clients. I've created password protected pages as a part of my on-boarding process, where clients can download their inspiration homework and learn about the project management app we'll use. I also have a page that gives detailed info about file types, color codes, printing and fonts, accessible at any time. This all was done in minimal time and for no extra cost. Plus, having these pages avoids the reeeally long emails I would typically send to clients, with all this info.
(P.S. I offer Squarespace website design services, if you're interested in making the switch!)
Dropbox for File Sharing
Dropbox is a file storage and file sharing application, my go-to for sending final branding files or other large client files. I pay $9.99 a month for 1 TB of file space (which is plenty for me) -- a great investment.
I always use Dropbox after a large project wraps up (such as a branding or big marketing collateral piece), when the final deliverable files are too large to send via email. Uploading to Dropbox and sending my clients a link to download is quick and easy, both on my end and my clients'.
It's also really convenient if a client needs to send me lots of photos or large files for a project. I simply make a Dropbox folder, invite them to access, and grab the files easily as soon as they upload.
Trello for Internal Project Workflow
A few months ago, I had a heart-to-heart with myself. I had listened to a webinar by Heather Crabtree of the Savvy Business Owners Facebook Group (if you're a female entrepreneur, you must check her out!) about documenting your workflow. Although I had my branding client Welcome Packet in place, I was still depending on myself to simply remember all the in-between admin tasks during those projects.
What if something happened to me and I needed someone to step in for a bit to keep things rolling? I would need to do a huge brain dump, things would fall through the cracks and the process would be... well, a disaster. I needed to make it easier on myself and start writing things down.
After experimenting with what felt like a million apps and tools, I found Trello and I love it. As my internal workflow manager, I have a workflow or list of to-dos set up for each type of design project, which helps me keep track of every little detail from design, to sending follow-up emails, to setting up our project in Freedcamp (see more below!), to sending invoices, to writing thank-you notes. I love how visual it is and how easy it would be to integrate another designer or assistant into the process if need be. It's also great for keeping track of my big picture business goals, my sales funnel, launches, etc.
Actually writing down (gasp!) all the nitty gritty details of my client processes, instead of keeping a check list in my head, has been key. You know what else doesn't hurt? Trello is FREE and they have a mobile app! Sign up now and get ready for your life to be a whole lot more organized.
Better yet, check out Think Creative Collective's Trello for Business course... it'll be the best $29 you spend this month (or the year).
HelloSign for Sending Contracts
For a long time, I was going old school with my contracts -- sending a PDF and asking my client to sign by hand, scan it, and email it back to me. It started to regularly hold up my process due to the time it took on my clients' end.
I came across HelloSign, which is free for sending up to 3 documents per month (there are affordable upgrades too, depending on your needs). I upload the contract PDF for a client, send it to them to review and sign electronically through the system, and then I get a notification when we're set to go. Easy peasy. I highly recommend it!
Freedcamp for Client Project Management
Freedcamp is a fantastic project management system that I ask my branding clients to use with me during our time together. It has made a WORLD of a difference in keeping all our communication organized and easily accessible (no more searching through past emails!), and all our project details are in the same place -- the timeline, to-dos and deadlines, files sent back and forth. It keeps our project on track and things going smoothly.
In addition, the interface is very intuitive and easy to learn, which is important to me. The last thing I want to do is frustrate my clients with a difficult-to-navigate interface! I created a 5-minute video tutorial on Freedcamp as well, which lives on my on-boarding client web page, giving clients an overview of the interface and how we will use it. (Again, point for Squarespace for making this so easy!)
Freedcamp is free, with paid add-ons available. They're also close to launching their mobile app, which will be very handy!
Quickbooks Online for Bookkeeping & Invoicing
As a designer, I was very stuck on having pretty invoices. However, preparing them "by hand" started to be burdensome as my business grew and I needed a more efficient way.
Similarly to project management tools, there are many options out there for online bookkeeping and invoicing for small businesses. And some CRMs or project management apps actually offer invoicing and simple bookkeeping tools within them. I tried two different options (17hats and Wave), both with decent interfaces and invoice design customization. But neither were amazing and I found I still wasn't saving time. This is when I said to myself, "Allison, efficiency trumps pretty invoices. Get over it and do what's easiest."
With that, I switched my bookkeeping system from Quickbooks Desktop (which I had been using for a few years) to Quickbooks Online and started sending invoices directly through there. No more worrying about correctly numbering my invoices. No more double entering invoices. When clients pay, it is automatically recorded. And I can access my bookkeeping and invoicing from anywhere!
A bonus? You can create multiple log-ins as necessary. My mom helps me with my accounting and bookkeeping occasionally throughout the year, which has been so much easier since I made the switch to online!
Social Media Scheduling Tools
Social media can be so time intensive... am I right or am I right?! Yet it's a vital marketing tool for most small businesses. My struggle with it has been figuring out how to manage my time and find ways to automate, while still remaining authentic in my posts.
I'm always reflecting on how to be more efficient, successful, and effective with my social media marketing (my focus is on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook) and I'm not going to spend hours and hours every week to post multiple times a day on every platform. Ain't nobody got time for that! But here's what I do know and find to be helpful:
Tailwind is awesome. It allows you to schedule pins in advance and have certain boards on looping (i.e. my own design work and blog posts) so they are seen more often. I've been using it for a few weeks now and already have seen an increase in my website traffic, which is the ultimate goal!
Buffer is a great option if you're looking to schedule far in advance and have lots of social media accounts to manage.
Planoly is my favorite Instagram planner and scheduler for a few reasons. It allows you to visually plan out your Instagram feed, write your posts, paste in your hashtags, and schedule posts out (it sends you a notification at the scheduled time and asks you to push it to Instagram). But what makes it stand out is it has a desktop version, which I absolutely love. The interface is clean and gorgeous, which this designer appreciates, of course. And, lastly, it's free for up to 30 images/month, with affordable options to upgrade.
BONUS: Graphic Design Resource!
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Yeah… I’m inviting you behind the scenes and literally giving you permission to use my actual design process I use with my own clients (!!)
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How do you work smarter?
It's a lot of work up front, but I've found freedom in taking advantage of these tools and streamlining my processes. What tools do you use to keep your sanity, manage your time and help your small business grow? Do you use any of these tools? Do you love them or prefer something else?
I'd love to hear your tricks of the trade. Comment below to share!