10 Best Apps for Creative Business Owners

September 10, 2018

10 Best Apps for Creative Business Owners

Running and managing your own service-based creative business can be a bit overwhelming at times.

Understatement of the year, right?

Between keeping your existing clients happy, finding new clients, scheduling meetings, sending invoices, managing your finances, marketing your business, networking, and fighting to maintain some semblance of work/life balance (is that even a thing anymore?) — the freedom and joy you were seeking when you started your business can feel elusive at times. 

Ever feel like your business is running you, rather than the other way around?

Oh, I've been there. Especially if you're just starting out and/or work as a solopreneur and everything rests on your shoulders — streamlining your systems and processes is not an option.

After hitting severe burnout eight months into taking my business full-time, I decided to take action and get serious about making my business work for me. I was tired of feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and overrun. So I took a step back and did a ton of research. I tried different things, trialed dozens of different apps, and eventually came up with a process that revolutionized my workflow. 

I want to share more about my journey from business burnout to business balance over the next several months — and we're going to start with the heroes of my story: apps.

These apps are the cream of the crop. I'm not kidding when I say that I literally sat down and tried out dozens upon dozens of different apps and processes. Everyone has a different work style, and there are so many wonderful apps and softwares out there -- but these are my absolute favorite.

In fact, I reached out to every app that I fell in love with and asked them if they had any special deals for my fellow creative entrepreneurs — and thankfully, many of them said yes!

I've included all of these discounts below.

So without further ado, let's jump into my list of the 10 best apps for creative business owners!

Short on time? Here's a cheat sheet:

  1. Client Relationship Management (CRM) App: Dubsado
    DISCOUNT CODE: 20% off your first year!
  2. Project Management App: ClickUp
  3. Time Management App: HourStack
  4. Call/Appointment Scheduling App: Acuity
  5. Design App: Adobe CC
  6. Accounting App: QuickBooks Self-Employed
    DISCOUNT CODE: 50% off your first year!
  7. Email App: G Suite (Gmail)
    DISCOUNT CODE: 20% of your first year!
  8. Password Management App: LastPass
    DISCOUNT CODE: First month FREE!
  9. WordPress Website Hosting: Flywheel
    DISCOUNT: One month FREE!
  10. Contracts & Legal Docs: The Contract Shop
  11. BONUS: Make Passive Income while Shopping App: eBates
    DISCOUNT CODE: Get $10 for FREE!

My favorite client relationship management (CRM) app: Dubsado

Knock your client's socks off with a (effortlessly) streamlined client experience.

My favorite client relationship management (CRM) app: Dubsado
Dubsado's Project Overview Screen

It is no secret that I am absolutely obsessed with Dubsado. I wrote all about it in this blog post. Before I found Dubsado, I was using a haphazard mix of different apps and processes to manage my clients and the chaos showed. Getting contracts signed was a labor. Invoicing was confusing and disjointed. Each email was written out individually, and I made my process up for each project — which often meant that I had no real process, or forgot vital steps along the way.

When I finally got serious about my business and took it full-time, I knew my old methods for client management weren't going to serve me (or my clients) well. I did tons of research and eventually landed on Dubsado.

Why I love Dubsado:

Ever since I started using Dubsado, I've gotten countless compliments from clients and vendors about how professional I am and how organized my process is. All of my contracts, invoices, proposals, questionnaires, contact forms, and client portals are managed exclusively through Dubsado. I've even been able to set up canned emails and automated workflows, which saves me tons of time and mental energy. I'm able to send professional proposals faster than ever before, and it has revolutionized my client experience. I wrote all about it here, but suffice it to say: Dubsado will transform your service-based business.

Pricing: As of the time of this writing, Dubsado is $30 per month. However, you can get 20% off your first year by using my promo code: ember&co

Claim your 20% off code now

My favorite project management app: ClickUp

Take the guesswork out of your project tasks and to-dos and regain your sense of control.

My favorite project management app: ClickUp
Keep your projects on-track with project templates, due dates, and time tracking.

Once I had my client relationship management process sorted out, it became obvious that my project management process needed to follow suit. For years I had relied on a trusty notepad and pen to keep track of all of my tasks and to-dos, but as my client roster grew — so did the number of tasks and deadlines. All of the sudden, I was drowning in dozens of tasks day-to-day and I was feeling completely overwhelmed. Clients would call/email asking for clarity on next steps and it was a struggle to keep track of it all. I am exceptionally organized as a creative, and I was still falling behind.

So I took a step back and researched dozens of project management apps. And I mean dozens. My standards were high, and I wanted this app to do as much as possible for me when it came to streamlining my project processes. Some I loved, some I hated. I was on Asana for a while, but hated that the features I needed only came with a premium subscription — and as a solopreneur, their "five seat minimum" killed me. I didn't need five seats!

Thanks to someone in the Dubsado FB Group, I stumbled upon ClickUp. I was instantly obsessed.

Why I love ClickUp:

Not only does it offer everything I was seeking from Asana, but it offered unparalleled flexibility. You can choose how you want to view your projects (in a to-do list format, kanban boards, or calendar view), you can estimate how long it will take you to complete a task, track your time, integrate it with your calendar/email, and more. You're able to turn features on/off as you need them -- making it as robust or as simple as you'd like it to be. As you develop a process for each type of client project, you can create templates that you can use for each new project you commission, which takes the guesswork out.

One of my FAVORITE features is the ability to remap due dates — meaning you can set up an ideal schedule for each type of project (for instance, a logo design), and when you start a new project — all you have to do is choose the new start date and ALL of the task due dates will fall in line. Uhm...what?! #bestdayever

And the best part? ALL of the features are available via their free plan. If you want to upgrade to premium to get more storage, it's a fraction of the cost of many other tools out there.

Price: Right now, ClickUp is $5/user per month if you pay annually. However, I've heard a rumor that it's about to go up, so I'd get in on it now! You are grandfathered into whatever price you pay today.

My favorite time blocking/scheduling app: HourStack

Say goodbye to overcommitting yourself yet again.

My favorite time blocking/scheduling app: HourStack
Drag-and-drop your tasks directly into your weekly schedule.

As I got my project management sorted out, the next gap in my process was my own time scheduling. I was running into big issues with estimating/managing my work calendar. Clients would ask if I could knock something out by the end of the week and my answer was always, "Sure!" Then, before I knew it, I was WAY overcommitted, with 12 tasks due on the same day, and not enough hours in the day to complete them.

So I took to my Google calendar and tried to block time out. It sort of worked, but it didn't have the flexibility I needed. I didn't care so much what time of day a task was completed. I just cared that it got done at some point during that day. Moving tasks around in my Google calendar became cumbersome, and with no way to really track that time, those time blocks were more of a suggestion than anything else. Then I stumbled upon HourStack.

Why I love HourStack:

One feature that I found in HourStack that I didn't find anywhere else was the ability to "stack" my tasks each week. I don't have to schedule most of my design tasks for a specific time, I just need to know that I have the space for them that day. HourStack allows you to "drop" tasks onto your week, estimate the amount of time it takes to complete them, and even track your time on each task. It keeps track of how many hours you've committed to that day, and if you can't get to something when you planned to, you can easily drag it around and reorganize your days. It integrates with the most popular project management and calendar apps out there, which allows you to schedule tasks and appointments and have them imported seamlessly into your HourStack week.

Your calendar / project management tool will help you to schedule when task are DUE, but it doesn't help you to get each task knocked out proactively. HourStack has helped me to get ahead on my tasks and schedule them in BEFORE they're due — which delights my clients and makes me look like a rockstar.

Now, when a client requests a project, I can look at my work schedule and literally schedule out their project right then-and-there. It takes the guesswork out and allows me to know at-a-glance how far out my schedule is booked. I'm finally working more realistic hours, now, and my clients know exactly when I'll be able to get something back to them. It's a win-win!

Pricing: Right now, HourStack starts at $6/user if you pay annually.

My favorite appointment scheduling app: Acuity

Never ask, "what time works for you?" again.

My favorite appointment scheduling app: Acuity
Acuity makes call scheduling effortless.

One aspect of client communications that I've always loathed is scheduling calls/meetings. I don't mind meeting with my clients, but the endless back-and-forth of trying to find a time that works for both of us can be tedious and time-consuming.

On top of the time it takes to figure out when both parties are available, I was running into major boundary issues with my time. Having my schedule open-ended meant that important creative work was constantly getting interrupted by calls and meeting requests, and work wasn't getting done. But how could I communicate to my clients when they could schedule calls with me without wasting time going back and forth about it?

After doing some research, I came across Acuity Scheduling. A project management expert recently wrote all about the advantages of Acuity on my blog and I couldn't agree more.

Why I love Acuity:

Acuity allows me to set the hours that I will accept calls/appointments. Then, when a prospective/current client asked to schedule a call or meeting with me, all I have to do is provide my acuity link. From there, the client can choose an available day and time that works for their schedule, and book it in their own time zone. It will send both of your a confirmation email and the option to add it to your calendar. Your client will also receive a reminder shortly before the scheduled time, which reduces the "oops, I forgot," reschedule.

You can set up different call/appointment types with different set times, choose how much of a "buffer" you'd like between each appointment, and you can even embed the scheduled directly into your website or Dubsado questionnaire.

Pricing: You can definitely get by with a free plan to start. If you want to take full advantage of all Acuity features, paid plans start at $15/month.

My favorite design app: Adobe CC

Have 24/7 access to always up-to-date, industry-leading design software with limitless power.

If you work within the design industry, I'm sure you're familiar with the Adobe suite of products. It's been the industry standard for decades for a reason. If you're serious about becoming the best designer you can be, Adobe CC is worth its weight in gold.

What I love about Adobe CC:

In the past, you had to invest thousands of dollars at a time to update all of your Adobe software. You could stretch each purchase out for a few years, but eventually you would run into compatibility issues and have to pony-up the next few thousand dollars.

With the Adobe Creative Cloud (CC), you only have to invest $50 to start, and you have instant access to the latest updates. You can export out to all relevant file types, and all of their programs talk to each other beautifully for seamless integrations/workflows.

Another feature I love is the CC Library. It allows you to save all of your brand assets (colors/logos/fonts/etc) to the cloud so that you can access the instantly from all of your Adobe programs, right in the program dashboard.

I use a huge variety of Adobe CC apps, making my monthly investment less than $10 per app.

Pricing: Starts at $10/month per app, or $50/month to get access to their entire suite of products

My favorite accounting app: QuickBooks Self-Employed

Take control of your finances and get rid of the "tax-time" blues.

My favorite accounting app: QuickBooks Self-Employed
Keep track of all of your eligible business deductions effortlessly in one place. 

For a long time, I just kept track of all of my business expenses by hand and pulled my invoice totals from my invoicing app at the end of the year. I was blind to my financial health (outside of my current bank account balance) and missed many opportunities for tax deductions. Tax season was always stressful and confusing for me.

Especially when you're starting out, it can be tough to put out money for an accountant or tax professional. I'm hoping to invest in some professional assistance this coming tax season, but the last few years I've used TurboTax and QuickBooks Self-Employed and it's been a life-saver.

Why I love QuickBooks Self-Employed:

It allows me to automate some of my accounting process, and really streamlines my tax filing. You start by adding all of your banking, credit card, and payment processing accounts to QuickBooks. After you've done that, QuickBooks tracks all of your income/spending and allows you to sort each transaction into it's respective category. Have a recurring expense? Set up a rule for how it should be categorized and let QuickBooks do the work for you. Need to separate out personal and business expenses? Simply slide each transaction left/right on your smartphone to tell QuickBooks if it was a business or personal expense. You can also take photos of receipts, track your business mileage, and more.

Throughout the year, QuickBooks will keep track of your income/spending and estimate (and track) your quarterly tax payments for you automatically. Then, at the end of the year, QuickBooks automatically imports your categorized business expenses into TurboTax, making your filing a breeze!

Pricing: QuickBooks Self-Employed is usually $10/month ($17/month if you add TurboTax). However, I've got an awesome discount code for you. Get 30-50% off your first year of QuickBooks Self-Employed using this code.

Claim your 50% off code now

Need something free? I used to track my income/expenses with Mint.com and I loved it. It doesn't integrate with TurboTax, but it's a great start!

My favorite email app: G Suite / Google Apps

Streamline your client communications, documents, and file storage.

My favorite email app: G Suite / Google Apps
Amazing email management and SO much more.

As a branding expert, I'll remind you right now that your email address should use your own domain name. Having an email address that ends in @hotmail or @gmail makes your business look like a hobby, and clients are less likely to take you seriously.

However, most of the email programs that come with your website domain/hosting plans are clunky, old-school, and featureless. There is a reason that apps like outlook and gmail are so popular: they're feature-rich, integrate with everything, and are far more accessible.

Did you know that you can use gmail to set-up an email address using your own domain name? 

Why I love G Suite / Google Apps:

Not only is gmail a million times easier to use than other email management systems. It also gives you access to other amazingly robust applications, including a word processor, presentation designer, spreadsheet tool, and more. You also have access to your own cloud storage. This means that you can integrate with your own domain name and seamless share editable documents with your clients — which gives a serious boost to your professionalism.

One of my favorite features of gmail is the ability to filter incoming email. I have a filter set up to have all subscription emails sent straight to a "Read Later" folder, which instantly declutters my inbox and allows me to focus on important client communications. I can also archive messages that I've already taken care of, which makes "Inbox Zero" an attainable reality. Gmail has robust search and filtering features, which allows you to use it in a way that works for you. It also integrates with lots of amazing task/project management apps that will turn pending emails into tasks on your to-do list if you prefer to work that way.

Pricing: Right now, G Suite starts at $5/ month. However, you can use my discount code to get your 20% off your first year!

Claim your 20% off code now

My favorite password management app: LastPass

Securely manage and store important passwords (and sync them with all of your devices).

My favorite password management app: LastPass
Safely and securely share passwords with clients.

As a graphic/web designer, I manage a lot of passwords. Not just for myself, but for my clients, too. Not only is it important to manage passwords well for your client's sake (they're putting a lot of trust in you) — but for your own sake.

I'm sure I'm not the only one that hates digging through documents, emails, and notes every time I need to access an online account. And it can be extra frustrating if work comes to a halt because you have to reach out for a password reminder/reset. It can especially be an issue when a new client is apprehensive about sharing passwords to begin with.

LastPass manages your passwords securely for you.

Why I love LastPass:

LastPass allows me to manage passwords securely and seamlessly. I have in installed as a Chrome browser extension, and every time I input a new username/password into a website, LastPass will ask me if I want to save that information. The next time I visit the website, that information is saved for me and input automatically. If I have multiple logins for that website (for instance, I have several MailerLite accounts between myself and my clients), all I have to do is click on the little LastPass button in the login form and it will bring up all of the usernames I have saved pop-up.

If I need a reminder of the password, all I have to do is click into LastPass and I can reveal the password for that account if I want to. It's been a lifesaver for me!

If you have a client who is skeptical about sharing passwords, have them sign-up for a FREE LastPass account and share their login details with you that way. You will have access to each of their approved websites without ever typing in their password.

Pricing: LastPass is incredibly affordable at $2/month for the premium plan. However, you can get for first month TOTALLY FREE using my discount code.

Claim your FREE month of LastPass now

My favorite WordPress website host: Flywheel

Say goodbye to shared website hosting, slow page loading, and terrible customer service.

My favorite WordPress website host: Flywheel
Flywheel's backend is BEAUTIFUL and 10x easier to navigate than other hosting platforms.

If you're running a self-hosted WordPress website, choosing a host can be overwhelming and frustrating. Dealing with slow page loading and terrible customer service makes it even worse.

As a professional website designer, I've seen (and tried) them all. And more often than not, the support is A-W-F-U-L. Why is that? I was determined to find a website host that actually served it's customers in a meaningful way and found my true love: Flywheel.

Why I love Flywheel:

I wrote about Flywheel in-depth here. In summary, Flywheel offers a huge advantage over many budget hosts: your website will get it's OWN private server. This means that you don't have to share bandwidth with strangers and you have more control over your customer's experience.

What's more, Flywheel's customer service is AMAZING. They're there when you need them, they offer fully-managed hosting, keep WordPress up-to-date for you automatically, and offer professional back-ups and security.

They're totally worth the investment, and they are extremely affordable for the features they provide. My own website is hosted by Flywheel and I have nothing but positive things to say about them. A fun bonus is that their backend is GORGEOUS.

Pricing: Flywheel plans start at $15/month — but you can get one month FREE with the annual plan!

Get your FREE month of hosting

Don't have a WordPress website, and/or don't care about having a private server? I also love Siteground and A2 Hosting.

My favorite source for professional contracts: The Contract Shop

Protect your business with a professionally-crafted contract, terms and conditions, and privacy policy.

My favorite source for professional contracts: The Contract Shop
Professionally-crafted contracts for creative entrepreneurs

I'm embarrassed to admit how long I went without investing in a legitimate contract. And boy, did I learn my lesson, too. The first time a client stiffed me and I had no legally-binding documents in place, I knew it was time to get serious about protecting myself and my business.

Why I love The Contract Shop:

The Contract Shop isn't technically an app, but it is a very quick way to protect your business without having to invest in a lawyers time. The Contract's Shops founder, Christina, is a professionally licensed lawyer who decided to step away from traditional employment in order to offer accessible legal resources to creative entrepreneurs.

While the initial investment can feel a little heavy (especially if you're just starting out), it will pay for itself a million times over as it cloaks your business in protection for years to come. Especially with GDPR taking effect in 2018, it's more important than ever to make sure that you're covered on all sides.

Pricing: Varies, but expect to spend a few hundred dollars for a one-time purchase. Plus, you'll get free updates forever.

BONUS: My favorite "get paid to shop" app: eBates

Get your first taste of effortless passive income without any extra effort.

My favorite "get paid to shop" app: eBates

Now, this recommendation isn't necessarily business-related — but it's a great way to dip your toes into the magic of passive income. With eBates, all you have to do is install the Chrome Extension and eBates will pop-up automatically every time you're shopping with a compatible online retailer. Once you make your purchase, you'll get some cash back in your eBates account and your accumulated income will get automatically deposited in your back account at the end of the month!

What I love about eBates:

It's not a trick! I'm always skeptical of these things, but it's the real deal. All you have to do is your regular shopping, and you'll get FREE cash back. I've made $55.00 since joining about a year ago, which isn't bad for ZERO effort.

On a deeper level, eBates gives you a taste of what it's like to make passive income — which is a huge motivator! Every month it reminds me to keep working towards my passive income goals, because it's so fun to get a check that you didn't feel like you had to work hard for at the end of the month 🙂

Pricing: FREE, always. But use my discount code to get $10 for FREE, just for signing up!

Claim your free $10 now!

Whew! That's a wrap!

What do you think? Are there any apps that I've missed that you've been loving? Any questions? Comment below and let me know what your favorite app has been when it comes to managing your business.

Cheering you on, always 🙂

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Caitlin Shannon, Founder of Ember & Co Website Design Studio

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