There’s a steep learning curve that comes with setting up your own business—whether it’s a side hustle to your corporate gig, a startup company, or an independent consultancy. One question I get from others looking to go out on their own is which tools, software, and approaches I use. There’s nothing magic here, folks, but over time, I have found some things that work for me. Hopefully you can take away at least one tool or tip that helps make things easier, more efficient, or more profitable for you!
Accounting and bookkeeping
I have relatively simple bookkeeping and accounting needs so I haven’t found the need to invest in dedicated software (e.g. QuickBooks). Over time, I’ve created an Excel workbook that has tabs for everything I want to keep track of: expenses, revenue, taxes, etc. I keep it updated in real time—especially important for estimating quarterly tax payments—and start a new one each year. I work with a professional CPA who prepares my various tax filings.
If you travel or entertain for your business, it can be helpful to use a receipt app to keep track of expenses. Wave (mentioned in the billing section below) offers a free one and there are many others. For business trips, I sometimes just go old school and bring a paper envelope—the paper receipts go in the envelope and I keep written track of everything on the outside.
Tracking and billing
There are software programs and websites that you can use for precise time tracking. My system is a little simpler because I’m usually just tracking time spent per project for my own reference (I almost always quote a flat project fee to clients). I use the Stickies app on my Mac to create virtual Post-it® Notes on my desktop to keep running lists of: committed and potential projects by month, a to-do list, and hours tracking by project (recorded in 15-minute increments). I also keep an Excel spreadsheet of all projects I’ve ever done with the actual time spent (transferred from the Stickie at project completion), which helps me more accurately bid future projects.
To create, send and track invoices, I use Wave Accounting (web-based software). It has an extensive suite of tools (lending, payroll, expense tracking, invoicing, etc.) and there are both free and premium subscription options. I have a free account and just use the invoice part. You set up an invoice template once and then create and send invoices from the software (website or app). You can save customer profiles, types of services, and even set-up automatic recurring billing. I also use the app version to record when an invoice is paid so I have a real-time record of all invoices and their status, what’s coming due, etc.
Contacts and Communication
If you’re just starting out or very focused on new business development, it can be helpful to have a dedicated CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool. I’ve used both the free and premium versions of the web-based CRM program Insightly and think it’s useful for tracking contacts and communication. If you pony up for a paid subscription, there’s Gmail (or Outlook) integration. I’m currently using the free version as a glorified address book, but I like that you can assign tags, keep notes, etc. for your contacts.
If you do a lot of networking, attend conferences, or otherwise find yourself collecting a lot of business cards, a business card app like CamCard can help you save and sync the contact information easily.
If you want to be able to send out marketing emails or any kind of on-going communication (like an e-newsletter!), you’ll definitely want a program for that (vs. just sending from your email account). Constant Contact and MailChimp are two of the biggest and I use MailChimp. There’s a broad suite of marketing automation tools available, especially if you’re doing any kind of e-commerce, and both free and premium subscriptions. The free version has always been fine for my needs—you can set-up templates, schedule emails, maintain distribution lists, and track engagement (opens, clicks, etc.).
Website and email
There’s really no excuse not to have a website for your business. For a basic, yet professional site, you can set it up yourself using web templates (zero coding involved) and it’s not very expensive. You have to buy a domain—I’ve used both GoDaddy and Weebly to do that (tips: make it as short and easy to spell/remember as possible and use a .com extension). To set up the actual site—Weebly and Wix are two popular user-friendly platforms, and I use Weebly. You pick the template you want to use and drag and drop to add pages, text, images, etc.
I would also highly recommend having a personalized business email address. If you purchase a domain/website, it’s easy to add Google email service to your plan so you can have an email address with your domain name (e.g. Sarah@FaulknerStrategicConsulting.com). It’s helpful to be able to keep your personal and work email separate and it just looks so much more professional to have a custom email address.
"Let's grab coffee!"
"Can I pick your brain?"
"[Our mutual acquaintance] suggested we meet."
Live meetings are what really count when it comes to networking, particularly the first meeting with a new connection. Whether you’re looking for information or advice, trying to advance your career, or making a pitch, that initial meeting sets the stage for all future interactions (or lack thereof) so be ready to make the most of it by following these 5 tips.
Networking doesn’t have to be painful or cheesy—setting the meeting up for success, opening with a recap, listening more than you talk, asking for additional connections and looking for ways you can help them will all help you to maximize these valuable opportunities and build your network further.
For many people, networking is critical for professional and/or business development and online networking is a huge component. By “online networking”, I don’t mean seeing how many LinkedIn connections you can get, “liking” lots of other people’s posts, or having accounts on every new social media channel that launches; I’m talking quality over quantity.
Now, to some extent, networking of any kind has a numbers component—you meet and talk to many more people than actually become valuable contacts or clients—but by applying a targeted, thoughtful and authentic approach, you can make your online networking efforts much more successful. Here are five tips to help you make the most of online networking.
1.Start local. This one may seem counterintuitive when using a global tool like the internet and in many situations, it makes a lot of sense to reach beyond your immediate geography. However, when you’re getting started with online networking, connecting with people in your own backyard first has its advantages: people may be more likely to connect with you if you’re local, you have a better shot at getting a face-to-face meeting, and building a solid network locally helps establish quality connections to build from later.
2.Find a personal connection or shared point of reference. When seeking out people to connect with, start with what you may have in common—for example, hometown, alma mater, previous employers, clubs/organizations, volunteering/causes, etc. Referencing whatever common ground you may have with a prospect helps instantly build rapport and give them a reason to connect with you. Relevant professional connections are best because they also offer some implied credibility, but even personal connections can at least be a conversation starter.
3.Why this person? When reaching out to someone you don’t yet know, it’s very important to have a clear reason why you want to meet this specific person. This goes beyond shared background—there are lots of people who share an alma mater or previous employer—this is giving the person a reason why you need them specifically and therefore, they will be more likely to give you some of their valuable time. For example, perhaps you are considering a career move from a large company to a startup and you identify someone who followed a similar career path, lives locally, and shares your passion for great user experience—share that with your prospective contact and they’ll understand why you want to speak to them and be more likely to want to help.
4.What specifically are you asking for? It’s a good practice to put some thought behind this question before any meeting, but particularly when you’re asking to meet with a new contact. This helps you clearly structure the request and gives the prospect a distinct idea of what you’re looking for and if/how they can help. Personally, I cringe when I receive a coffee meeting or networking request that’s as a vague as, “I’d like to meet you” or “I’d like to pick your brain”. Instead, state as specifically as you can what you would like to learn or discuss or anything else you’re hoping to get out of the connection.
5. Ask for the meeting. Just connecting with someone on LinkedIn does not a valuable contact make. If there’s someone you want to learn from, get help from or otherwise has something you want, you must actually talk to the person, preferably face-to-face (or via video chat if needed). A friend recently asked for some networking advice including constructing an email to a new professional contact. I coached him on the points outlined above and we concluded the note with a request to meet over coffee. He was a little nervous about sending it, to which I responded, “the worst thing that happens is he says no.” He laughed and agreed. The bottom line is: you’ll be pleasantly surprised how often people will say yes if you just ask.
When you do write that first note, here are a few more tips for success. Use their professional email address whenever possible; personal email is next best and only use social media messaging if you absolutely must. In your note, use a “friendly formal” tone—sound like you’re an actual human (vs. a generic script), but keep it professional. And finally, follow-up! If you don’t get a response the first time, I suggest writing at least two more notes before giving up (people get busy, emails get buried). Even then, I’ve personally gotten responses months after my original note!
Sarah Faulkner, Principal, Faulkner Strategic Consulting