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.
Sarah Faulkner, Principal, Faulkner Strategic Consulting