Free (or cheap) online tools that help with my freelance business

In any business, it is wise to keep one’s overhead costs low in order to maximize profits. For freelancers like me, this proves a big challenge as we pay everything out of our own pocket. That is why many of us rely on free tools to get our businesses going without adding to the cost.

I have tried and experimented with different services in the past, both free and commercial. But as my freelancing work grew, I have found myself relying on just a few dependable tools/services that are either 100% free or charge only a small/reasonable amount.

1. Google Apps is definitely top on my list. What I have found especially useful in the suite of applications are Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google Mail. These three free apps working together saves you from buying an expensive project management/collaboration tool.

Google Docs. Who needs costly office software when you can have similar tools for free from Google. I now do most of my word processing and spreadsheets in Google Docs.

Its being an online application is what I found most useful about this app . I like the fact that I am able to get access to Google Docs anywhere there’s a computer and an internet connection–and if you are a web worker like me, I assume you are wired to the net most of your waking moments.

I find it useful that I can sync my files to my Samsung Galaxy Tab and have access to the documents whenever and wherever I need them. I can edit files, read documents and stay productive while in a mind-numbing 10-hour bus ride from Manila to my hometown, for example. Or quickly open my list of professional fees or a ready-made résumé to send to a prospective client even when I am out.

The collaboration feature allows me to share my files with clients or other project team mates and have them edit the files if needed. I can even upload and share entire folders with images, pdfs, or videos.

Google Calendar. Just like Google Docs, its being online is what I find a plus in this app. I can add events on my work PC using Thunderbird (iCal) and be assured that I can also access the same calendar on my netbook, on other PCs via  browser, and specially in my Galaxy Tab. It can send alarms to my email inbox or even to my phone via SMS. I can share schedules with my clients, or import their calendar into mine. If I need to be reminded about US holidays, or PH holidays, there are ready-made calendars I can plug into my own.

Gmail. When I learned that Google Apps allows custom email hosting, I decided to move my email accounts at jasperespejo.com to the Google MX servers. Then I stopped the mail service in my own Linux server and freed the CPU resources and storage space for other use.

OK, that might be too techie for a web designer, but I have hosted my own websites–and that of a few clients–on my own servers for some time. I decided to set up my VPS once I realized I could not do certain improvements to my dynamic sites or upgrade my WordPress sites because my hosting provider did not allow me root access to update my PHP or to tweak server settings. If you are running your own server, having one less web service to manage means less headache and more time to devote to design projects.

By allowing Google to manage my email server, I can depend on their efficient SPAM and virus filters to sort my messages from the junk. Similar services would cost me a hefty sum in license or subscription if installed on my server.

With Gmail’s IMAP connection, I am able to sync my emails on my work PC using Thunderbird, to the mail app in Galaxy Tab, my netbook (via Jolicloud) and when I don’t have access to any of these I can still go to any PC, fire up a browser and check my emails at gmail.com.

I like Google Apps so much I have started to include Google Apps integration in some of my project proposals especially to clients who need to give email accounts to people within their company. Google Apps comes with a free version, while a business version with more features and bigger storage can be had for as low as USD 5.00 per month.

2. Zoho Invoice. For sending invoices to clients, I rely on Zoho Invoice–a no frills online billing app that I can integrate with Google Apps. I can pull the client info from Google Contacts, use customized invoice templates, automatically follow-up on recurring or late payments and direct payments to PayPal. Recently Zoho has added a time tracking feature that I can start or pause with a button. When work is done, I can convert the logged hours into an invoice.

Zoho Invoice comes free but with limits to the number of invoices you can create in a month. You can pay a monthly subscription for as low as USD8.00 to increase limits. Go here for more information (yup that’s an affiliate link.)

3. Moneydance and HandyBank. I have never been very good with managing my finances, much to my parent’s chagrin.  Part of my recent efforts to solve that problem is keeping track of my cash inflows and outflows using Moneydance, a finance manager. There’s nothing like a series of red numbers on the HandyBank (an android app that connects to my desktop Moneydance via wifi) while inputting yet another expense to hold me back from making another useless purchase. Moneydance can import .qif files from PayPal so I am able to track my earnings and payments from there. It can also import .qif files from my bank. I am able to gauge my financial standing with all money accounts via the graphs. The reports are not always favorable.

You can download Moneydance and test it with a fully functional installation. The only limitation is that manual inputs max out at 100. Imported transactions from PayPal or your bank do not count to the maximum.

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