Running and managing your own service-based creative business can be a bit overwhelming at times.
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.
Oh, I've been there. Especially if you're just starting out and/or work as a
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It allows me to automate some of my accounting
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.
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!
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?
Not only is
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!
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.
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
Claim your FREE month of LastPass now
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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!
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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