My business may be small, but my clients have big expectations. They want excellent work, quick results, and focused attention.
And because my little agency, Spencer Grace, is a company of one, there’s just one person to deliver it all: me.
If a project requires strength in numbers, I call in contractors and collaborators. But I am not interested in hiring staff. One of the greatest rewards of working solo is working solo.
Instead, I’ve reinforced my tiny enterprise with web-based tools that stand in for traditional departments and personnel.
Here are five web-based resources I depend on to deliver big-company results on a small-company budget of time, money, and staff.
the accounting department
When I reopened Spencer Grace five years ago, I vowed to avoid projects, processes, and products that stress me out. That includes the popular accounting software that rhymes with “pick hooks.” Searching online, I found a spiffy, web-based alternative called FreshBooks. Their tagline: “small business accounting software that makes billing painless.” Yes, please.
Five years later, I’m constantly telling new entrepreneurs to take advantage of the 30-day free trial at FreshBooks. This is where I track time and expenses, invoice clients, and prepare all the documentation my accountant needs at tax time. Everything happens electronically, including payment by credit card (an option I offer to fellow small businesses and individual coaching clients). I can access the program from my laptop, phone, or tablet, making it easy to capture expenses and track time whether I’m in the office or traveling for business.
Cost: After the free trial, FreshBooks charges based on your number of active clients. I’ve limited my fees to $25 per month by keeping a tidy list of no more than 50 active clients. (I do have more than 50 clients in my FreshBooks database, but they’re archived as inactive when we’re not in the midst of a billable project.)
Bonus: In the rare moments when I’ve had a question or problem with FreshBooks, their service has been fast, friendly, and effective.
my administrative assistant
I tried all kinds of list-making methods—on paper and devices—but stopped searching when I found ToDoist, a “productivity app that helps millions of people and teams organize life.” As one of those millions, I use ToDoist to manage tasks at work, at home, and wherever else my action is needed.
This app is always open on my laptop, to the far left of my screen, with the next seven days’ tasks visible. I can add, delete, and reprioritize tasks any time. I also keep ToDoist on my phone and tablet, and thanks to automatic sync, I can add and mark off accomplishments wherever I am.
ToDoist’s visual, colorful interface is what helps me see and prioritize work. I set up projects, each coded with a specific color (Client A is green, Client B is blue, internal tasks are orange, personal development is pink, etc.). As I add tasks, I assign them to the right project. Then I can drag them into order, making sure I tackle the day’s critical tasks first. When the unexpected happens, I can quickly assess and adjust priorities, dragging items to tomorrow or next week as needed.
Cost: Though there’s a free version of ToDoist, I’ve upgraded to Premium to unlock a few features I find indispensable. For less than $30 per year, I get automatic backup of my ToDoist data, so I never worry about losing or forgetting what I’m supposed to do.
Bonus: ToDoist keeps a record of completed tasks, so when I account for my time and create client invoices, I can review my history to be sure I’ve captured every valuable, billable task.
the art department
When the stakes are high, I engage a professional designer to develop artwork for my clients. But for everyday visuals like social media posts, infographics, and even simple brochures, I log into Canva.
With the tagline “empowering the world to design,” Canva makes it easy to create professional-looking graphics without complicated, expensive software. The interface is totally drag-and-drop. They have templates sized and laid out for scads of visual marketing pieces: social media banners, posters, book covers, ads, postcards, résumés, you name it. You can search their library of images or upload your own, and take advantage of numerous type treatments, icons, shapes, photo filters, and predesigned layouts.
Cost: Basic use is free, but I’m enjoying the perks of Canva for Work for $9.95 per month—a discount from the usual $12.95 because I was willing to fork over a year’s worth of subscription fees up front.
Bonus: I use Canva to create visual content for fun (see: several of my #CreativeSprint posts on Instagram), for my family, and for nonprofit causes I support.
the video production studio
Again, when a client’s expectations are high-end, I hire professionals. But when budgets and time are tight, Animoto makes it easy to create professional videos for all kinds of marketing and communication purposes.
I’ve used this web-based tool to make videos for my clients, my own business, friends and family, and causes that matter to me. I pull images and video clips onto a screen, drag them into order, apply a theme and some music, and futz with the arrangement until satisfied. You know those emotional photo montage videos you see at the end of corporate events? This is an easy way to make those happen.
Cost: I pay for an Annual Pro subscription, which works out to $22 per month—a substantial savings from the pay-per-month rate of $42. If I make just one or two videos per year, Animoto pays for itself.
Bonus: Animoto is fast. A few weeks ago, I dazzled a client by stitching together messages from guests who couldn’t attend her daughter’s bridal shower. In less than an hour, I produced a show that brought tears and laughter from the whole party.
the communications department
As a professional communicator, I’m at ease writing content for newsletters and email blasts; but managing distributions lists and tracking results? Those are tasks I am happy to delegate to MailChimp.
There are plenty of email creation services out there, but MailChimp won my business with its sense of humor, ease of use, and incredible affordability. Within this web-based system lives my email distribution list (with data managed by the subscribers themselves), subscription and un-subscription forms (branded so they feel like part of my website), and an addictive panel of reports where I can see who’s opening my messages and what they click.
I use MailChimp not only to manage Spencer Grace email campaigns, but to help clients with theirs, too. Thanks to the system’s various levels of access (viewer, author, manager, admin, and owner), the client can choose to command the account and have me contribute—or vice versa—depending on their time, interest, and comfort level.
Cost: I don’t pay a cent to use MailChimp, because my mailing list stays under 2,000 subscribers, and I never send more than 12,000 emails per month. If you exceed these modest levels, fees range from $10 to $199 per month.
Bonus: MailChimp’s mascot is a sassy little chimp named Freddie. He speaks to me in plain, upbeat phrases I love, such as: “A fine piece of work. You totally deserve a raise.” Lighthearted little touches do make a difference.
I could go on. Other web-based services I depend on include Slack for instant messaging with clients and collaborators, Microsoft Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud to keep essential applications constantly up to date, Code42 CrashPlan for file backup, and several file-sharing programs to send work to other people and places.
As an eager adopter of web-based tools, I’ve managed to get big-business performance from a small-business budget for time, money, and staff. You can, too, with a little courage and creativity. Do your research, take advantage of free trials, and embrace what works.
Photo credit: Steven Gizzardi via flickr