Small Creative Business Tools
Aka How I Manage Everything.
This one's for you, fellow freelancers and small creative business owners. And community organizers!
As someone working with clients, producing my own projects and running a small business, it's very important that I stay organized and self-manage. I honestly think it's amazing what we are able to accomplish as individuals these days with the help of online platforms. And the great thing is, most of them are free or inexpensive for individuals and small teams!
I've tried a lot of organizational tools. And I keep an eye open for any new and improved systems. My goal is to keep my toolkit as streamlined as possible. I want to share this information because I want people to feel empowered to self-organize and self-manage. It is such a helpful skill no matter where you are in life.
So this post will go over the main organizational tools and apps I use for all my different work functions:
Google Suite & Drive
(but see notes on Airtable, Notion & Paste)
(but see notes on Airtable, Notion & Paste)
Each of these feature online guides/tutorials you can watch to teach yourself how to use. For those of you totally new to this, I've included recommended Intro to Productivity classes at the bottom of this post.
I want to emphasize that these tools should be used to be in control of your own time and life. Don't let the pursuit of productivity end up with work and tools controlling you instead.
1. Main Organization Hub: Notion
Notion is pretty new to the scene, but it's been good enough to convince me to make a huge switch. I just recently moved over from Evernote after using Evernote for years. It has also replaced a lot of what I was using Google Docs and Airtable for as well. Notion describes itself as a "new tool that blends your everyday work apps into one. It's the all-in-one workspace for you and your team." While it hasn't replaced EVERYTHING for me (yet), it's impressive and now my most-used organizational app.
What I use it for
(1) My daily to-do list, which I use every day and rely on. I have long used a to-do method that is similar to what bullet journaling became, but digital. Every week, I create a to-do list based on my ongoing projects, and check things off as I go. It has weekly goals at the top followed by individual tasks per day. What I don't accomplish, I make sure to roll into another day. The list is fluid throughout the week, but I always set it up on Sunday so I have a roadmap of the week. I keep things like "morning routine" and personal commitments in there too, to keep myself accountable and also be realistic about time.
(2) I also have a monthly goal tracker which I check once a week to align with my weekly to-do list. This covers the calendar year.
(3) Planning documents for work, data and research I'm collecting for projects, reading notes, content calendars, ... it may have been easier to say what I DON'T use Notion for.
All of this is seamlessly synced between Notion's mobile app and desktop app, which is very helpful.
By design, the formatting and font choices are strictly limited. This took some adjustment for me, but it's been worth the sacrifice. I also happen to use the / stroke a lot when writing, so it's been an adjustment to have that be a shortcut to all of Notion's formatting options that keep popping up. These are very tiny gripes, I know :)
Free plans available! I pay for the $4/month plan so I can have larger uploads, since I attach a lot of work and references to my notes. Otherwise the free one would totally work.
Learn More: https://www.notion.so/about
Notion YouTube (Tutorials): https://www.youtube.com/notion
One of the perks of leaving the world of large corporations/firms and going to the tech-friendly world of design and startups was finally being able to use Google's suite of work products. I haven't touched Word, Powerpoint, Pages, Keynote, etc. in years. Gmail is great. The Google system just makes so much more sense for me, and Google Drive has worked seamlessly for my purposes.
What I use it for
(1) I store and backup all my work files on Google Drive. I use My Drive for personal documents and Team Drive for documents that need to be shared within a team.
(2) Very Important: I download Google File Stream (https://support.google.com/a/answer/7491144?hl=en) onto my MacBook so it acts just a like a hard drive on my computer without taking up any space on my actual computer (this is actually amazing). Google Drive is kind of clunky to use from the browser site.
When I recently had to reformat my computer, it was so much easier to just pick back up. All my stuff was on the cloud. I hardly have any files saved directly on my computer, though I do also backup my Drive to my Apple Time Machine (to be responsible, you need one cloud backup and one local hard disk backup). I organize my Drive into a clear folder hierarchy, and with a Google-worthy search function it's easy to find the files I'm looking for. It is also super handy when I am working with others.
(3) Creating templates and documentation. As much as I can, I've templated certain non-creative tasks and documented them so that I can share these tasks with a virtual assistant or contractor. See E-Myth book at end of this article for more on this.
(4) Gmail! I thought this one was obvious but realized a lot of people don't know of an important function I use all the time: you can schedule emails (click on that little arrow to the right of the blue Send button), and you can snooze emails to come back to you at a later time (e.g. I get an email Thursday night and I snooze it to Friday AM so I remember to reply).
(1) There are some frustrating limitations on sharing access with Google Drive outside your organization, and it can become an issue especially for larger companies. But for freelancers and small businesses, I think it's great. When I really run into issues, I use WeTransfer to send files.
(2) I'm also slowly starting to use Sheets, Docs and Slides less often. When I first switched from having to use MS Office and even Apple Pages/Keynote, I thought Google's Suite was amazing. It's still the best out of those three IMO. But side players have stepped it up and really made some better versions of these programs. As much as I'd prefer to keep everything in one home, I do find myself using these more often now:
(i) Airtable instead of Google Sheets: For when I really need to get nerdy about organizing data. Airtable is especially good because you can group data in different ways. So, for example, if you are organizing video edit feedback, I can have a column for which video it is, the type of comment it is, and who is responsible for it. I can then group by any of these attributes, e.g. Mimi's Tasks for Video 8 for Graphics Needed. Actually most people who know me are probably surprised I didn't explicitly include Airtable on this list, because I love it so much for this kind of task. I use the free version and it's enough for me.
(ii) Notion instead of Google Docs: When it comes to organizing research notes and planning documents, Notion is better in terms of navigation and keeping everything in a really clear, accessible system. I use Google Docs for more formal write-ups now, e.g. for non-design documents where I need to be able to edit the fonts. But that's pretty few and far between these days.
(iii) Paste by WeTransfer instead of Google Slides: This was a recent discovery after WeTransfer reached out for a project. It's perfect for when I need to make pretty decks quickly. It does a lot of auto-formatting and has a lot of cool integration features. Downside is that you only get three boards for free.
It's free to use a lot of the Google Suite products. I pay about $30/month for a Google Suite business account including custom domain email accounts, Team Drive and increased Drive storage.
3. Project Management: Asana
I'm just going to start right off the bat and say there is no perfect project management tool. I've used (to varying degrees, but at the least a fair try) Basecamp, Trello, Smartsheets, Airtable, Jira and Monday just to name the ones I remember quickly. It depends a lot on what you need it for and the type of project. But after everything I've tried, for my purposes Asana is my favorite.
What I use it for
(1) Managing projects! This is different but related to my daily to-do list on Notion. While my to-do list covers all my tasks in any given day, Asana focuses on my major work projects, the steps it will take to complete them, and the high-level schedule.
(2) Another important thing I use Asana for is working with assistants and collaborators. I used it a lot when managing a team at a startup. I still use it now for client projects where I have an assistant designer. It's great for reviewing work and communicating regarding a project. I would say Notion is my personal universe while Asana is my collaborating hub. Notion is very close to replacing Asana for me, but it's not quite there in the collaborative functions and certain cross-linking functions I rely on.
Tip: I do not recommend creating a board for each project, even though that seems like the obvious thing to do. I feel that gets overwhelming quickly. Instead I create a board for each category of work (e.g. Studio, Collabs, Personal) and create a card for each project. One of the things I like most is that I can cross-link cards across projects, so I can create an overview board of my current active projects.
Here's a look at my current Asana setup:
I aim to limit a board to just a few projects, or else it again gets overwhelming and defeats the purpose. If you have a million balls up in the air at once, that's too many balls. Keep future projects in an "Ideas" board, so you free up your main boards for really active projects. With any project management tool, I think it's important to set it up in a way that you can see the forest for the trees.
This is not a fair gripe, but I want to note that a few of the nice features on Asana are in the paid versions. I do not pay for Asana because they don't really have a good paid level for individual users (at the time of writing this post). I'm not really sure why, because I would totally pay $5-10/month for it like other platforms. That said, it is amazing how much I can do with a free account.
I am also hoping that eventually Notion becomes robust enough that I can stop using Asana. The fewer tools I need to get the same work done, the better.
Free plan goes far. Paid plans available for teams.
Learn More: https://asana.com/
Asana Tutorials: https://asana.com/guide/get-started/begin/quick-start. They also have a new video "Getting started with Asana in 15 minutes or less": https://youtu.be/YkceB6IzNms.
4. Finances: Wave
PSA: Get away from Quickbooks and use Wave! It's made with freelancers and small businesses in mind and it's completely free! I used Wave when I first started freelancing in 2015. My main gripe was it loaded transactions too slowly, so at some point around 2018 I started paying for Quickbooks. A few years later I checked out Wave again, hoping things had improved. And it did—a lot! I switched back over this year and am loving it.
What I use it for
Bookkeeping, invoicing, and running P&L and Balance Sheet reports. I could eventually also use it for Payroll. They also just introduced a banking account option which I need to check out.
Tips: Keep your books up to date. It's a pain but there's nothing worse than a piling up of unkept book records to have to face down come tax time. I try to be good and do it on a weekly basis, but at least monthly. If you are decent with basic numbers and you're on a budget, I recommend paying for their two hours of coaching to learn how to do your own books. It will cost a lot less in the long run than hiring a bookkeeper.
However if you have the funds, and you are short on time, then hire a bookkeeper (not in-house, just a professional who helps you every week or month for a few hours). This is one of the first people I would hire. It makes sense to free up your time!
I don't really have any! It is FREE and does everything I used Quickbooks for, which I paid $40/month for. $40 vs. free for the exact same service. It's payroll also costs less than Quickbooks.
Free for basic bookkeeping. You pay for services such as payroll, hiring a bookkeeper, or getting coaching. The pricing is very fair compared to what I have seen/used.
Learn more: https://www.waveapps.com/
5. Time Tracking: TrackingTime
We can all agree, tracking time is a pain. I won't go into my sordid history with tracking billable hours, but let's just say it's followed me like an evil little haunt from law firm to design agency to freelance to small business. Ok and I have to admit, I've grown to see it's not an evil little haunt. It has its time and place. It's good for keeping yourself accountable and seeing where your time goes. And of course you need to track your client hours. When you do need to track time, I recommend the TrackingTime app.
What I use it for
Tracking time, of course! You can get quite detailed, tracking by subtasks, viewing reports, filtering hour sheets by project, client, time, date, etc. Very helpful when you need to track team hours. It also seamlessly syncs across its mobile and desktop app, so you can track hours wherever you go. Whooooooo hoo.
Tips: Spend some time to organize your projects and time trackers, so accurate reports are easy to generate. Also, a lot of productivity tools sync so for example you can sync TrackingTime to Asana. I personally do not use this. At some point you have to ask yourself whether the time savers are really saving you time or creating more work for you. You have to decide for yourself.
Tracking time is my gripe :) Meta.
I use the free version, which you can get pretty far with. Pro plans allow you to add notes to records and other handy things.
Learn More: https://trackingtime.co/
6. Meditation App: Insight Timer
I'm going to go ahead and slip this in here because I think it's important as a freelancer or small business owner to take care of yourself. Ensuring that you are rested and well-balanced is good for your business. I don't buy into the always-hustling, productivity maniac lifestyle that leads to burnout and crazy behavior. I don't need to grow quicker than is good for my health.
What I use it for
I use the simple timer to set up presets for a daily meditation and yoga routine. For example, I have one yoga timer that is set for 15 minutes with 30 second bell intervals that guide me through my flow positions. I have another meditation timer that is 20 minutes with 3 minute bell intervals. I like the ambient sounds they provide. I like the simple "consecutive days" tracker to keep me accountable.
They also have an overwhelming amount of guided meditations on there as well, which I don't really use. It's better to find one teacher you like and follow them, if you are going to go down that route.
Tips: Like it said, it can be an overwhelming app. If you are totally new to meditation then start with Headspace. If you are using it more to sleep, then try Calm. But if you are getting into deep thinking meditation I think this simple timer is best for my needs. It's easier to make Insight Timer work for you once you have some familiarity with meditation.
Aside from the immense amount of content, it's also not as attractive as Headspace or Calm (both which require payment). That said, it's free for my purposes and I can't complain!
Free with paid options. It's totally free to use the timer and create your presets.
Best Small Business Book I Read
E-Myth: Why Most Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About it by Michael Gerber. This is if you are trying to hire employees and grow your business. Unfortunately the cover is unattractive and it's not really made for creatives. That said, it really changed my perspective on growth & hiring for the better.
Tbh I haven't found a small business book for creatives that has otherwise really spoken to me. I've been looking for a book focused on staying a solopreneur as long as possible, working with new service provider tools to grow. If you find one, let me know. The closest thing I can recommend is Art, Inc. by Lisa Congdon.
Tips On Emails
It seems like such a silly thing but actually a surprising number of creatives are not good at emails. It honestly can be the difference between your business succeeding or not. Not that I want email to take over your life; just take advantage of the "schedule send" and "snooze" functions in Gmail and unsubscribe/mute unimportant emails. Some quick specific tips:
- Start with a greeting and end with a signoff until it's clear you can be more casual.
- If you deal mostly in text messages and shorthand, remember to use full sentences and proper punctuation in emails.
- If you're trying to persuade someone or ask for a favor, follow a simple structure of (1) Compliment, (2) Your Request, (3) How Your Request Helps Them, (4) Compliment.
- If you're cold emailing someone and they don't respond, don't take it personally. They may just not have time to respond to unsolicited email.
- When someone DOES respond to your inquiry, remember to reply with a "Thank you." You might think you're bothering them with another email, but you aren't. People appreciate the courtesy.
My E-Commerce Platform: Shopify
I didn't cover Shopify since I don't really consider it a productivity or organizational tool, but I figured I should mention it here so this article can give a full set of tools. I found Shopify to be the best e-commerce platform for my purposes. I recently finished a Skillshare tutorial on it, which you can find here.
A Note on Slack
I used Slack a lot while working at the startup. I think it's a great messaging platform for teams. However, for my current purposes I do not use Slack. I just use Gmail for general correspondence, Asana to coordinate comments, and have calls and meetings when really necessary. I found Slack to be really distracting at times, and I personally don't like to be immediately reachable anytime anyday if I can help it :)
Find Your Own Organizational Rhythm (+ Video Guides)
Don't try downloading all of these apps at once and going crazy. Absorb in manageable chunks. I would start with Notion. There are plenty of videos on how to make good to-do lists and set up your own productivity system, and maybe I'll do my version one day.
Here are just a few examples from Skillshare:
- Productivity Masterclass: Create a Custom System that Works with Thomas Frank: https://skl.sh/3ggu8mV (he also has a YouTube video on Notion!)
- Real Productivity: Create Your Ideal Week with Michael Karnjanaprakorn (Skillshare founder): https://skl.sh/2WYSUAl
- Personal Productivity: Five Exercises to Make Your Big Goal a Reality with Kate Arends https://skl.sh/2WYq1Ek
- Simple Productivity: Accomplish More With Less With Greg McKeown https://skl.sh/3jHNROj
- All Productivity Skillshare classes: https://www.skillshare.com/browse/productivity?via=header
Transitioning from law to design agency to freelance illustration to small business was not just about building up my talent and skill. I believe another main reason why I was able to transition is because I am organized and can self-manage.
I wasn't always this way. It was a skill developed in college, honed in law school, and reinforced at the law firm and design agency. Being a project lead & manager at a fast-paced design agency with a lot of moving parts really solidified my embrace of online organizational tools. I love them. I hope you'll find your own set of tools you love as well!
Last updated 8.25.2020