Organize and manage your design business

Running a “one-man (or woman) design show” can become quite daunting, especially if you are the only one responsible for responding to emails, marketing, designing, phone conversations, invoicing, proposals, tracking expenses, collaborating with others involved with the project, tracking time… rinse, repeat.

I am in no way masterful at handling the above, but over time I’ve found myself becoming more proficient and effective in how I manage my independent business.

Below I’ll walk you through what I find to be successful in managing a work flow and daily/weekly tasks step-by-step, which leads to a smoother, more organized independent business.

Let’s start at the beginning:

The initial contact

Over the past year, my business has very fortunately evolved from finding my own work to clients finding and contacting me. Once the client get in contact — which usually results in a brief introduction about their company, services/products and what type of design service they are in need of — I send them a brief message thanking them with links to my online Brand Identity Design Worksheet and/or Web Design Worksheet.

I use Wufoo for my questionnaires, which is a great, easy and fast method to creating and maintaining online forms.

This helps to gather essential information about the project and determine if I have the time, desire and expertise for the project(s) requested. This saves me a great deal of time from emailing back and forth and helps to better weed out and take on work.

Save for later

Every inquiry or request that comes my way I make it a point to save every persons name and email address. I also make brief notes of what they requested at the time in Apple’s Address Book. Even if we do not work together at the moment, I have their name and email to send them periodical newsletters, updates or holiday cards.

Remember, build relationship and develop a network of potential clients. Business denied now could turn into better business in the future.

Honey, don’t forget the milk and the website

On occasion I’m receiving a few inquiries weekly so it can become quite confusing to keep on track of who emailed me, when I contacted them, and what we discussed. To organize, I use the web app Remember the Milk in a less conventional way than most likely use it — to keep track of who I contacted, who contacted me and important information that was discussed. For example, a task might be written as:

“Emailed Bob of Mar Cor Fine Woodworking expressing high interest in his project on January 17th; awaiting reply”

This way I can keep track of the client, when I emailed him, and what was discussed so I can decide what/when my next action will be. For example, if I don’t hear back from Bob by the 20th I might send him a remainder email asking if he had any further questions or needs any else from me.

I check Remember the Milk every morning and at the conclusion of my day.

Contracting and proposals

If you are not working with contracts you’re running a business on thin ice. While writing proposals and contracts can become quite time consuming, I’ve used a method of ‘”insert-here proposals” and use a standardized Terms and Conditions for my design services (aka my contract). The first two pages include:

» Project description: A short paragraph or two discussing the project and clients goals (this is the only non “insert here” area)

» Deliverables: Since the deliverables are typically the same for all identity projects, as well as web projects, I created two proposals to save me from typing and retyping. The are modified slightly when needed if the client asks for specific deliverables outside the norm I provide.

» Price: Below is a sample of the pricing portion of my contracts:

Based on the Designers request and the terms and conditions listed within this document an amount of Insert amount here ($x,xxx.xx) US dollars is requested by the designer for the above Final Deliverables.

50% down payment is required following the signing of this contract in order for the start of the project.
The remaining total amount is required no later than 14 business days following the completion of the project. *Files will not be delivered to the Client until full payment has been received.
If additional requests are needed or large modifications are needed, compensation will be required at the designer’s rate of $ Insert rate here per hour.

Timeframe - Below is a sample of the timeframe portion of my contracts:

Based on the scope of the project(s), the client/designer agreement, and recieval of the down payment, the project(s) will be completed within an estimated timeframe of insert weeks/months here.

Quick invoices

Much like the above proposals and contracts, I created an “insert here” invoice of Subernova (more on Subernova below). For my Paypal paying clients (which tends to be 90% nowadays), Paypal allows you to create invoices and save templates to help save time. Again, I created a Paypal template for logos and websites. This way, all I need to do is change the name, email address and price.

Keeping track of the start date and project

Once the initial connection, emailing back-and-forth (usually there is a phone call or two in between), contract is signed, and 50% payment is received, I then open up Apple’s iCal and insert the future start date into the appropriate calendar month and date with a reminder one week before and one day before the official start date. I check this calender every morning.

I also use Subernova to keep track of my project and client once the project gets rolling. I use it to keep track of my time (even though I tend to not charge hourly, its good to get an idea how much time you spend so you can later decide if you need to raise or lower rates) and the clients I’m currently working with. It can also be used to track initial/final payments, keep inspiration/links for projects, set project milestones, and send invoices. Recently, Supernova even started syncing with iCal.

Juggling multiple projects

Juggling multiple projects while maintaining deadlines and quality can be quite tricky and exhausting. To relieve some of the stress and provide for a smoother ride I divide my day into 2 projects. This helps me be more creative as well. Having time away from a project gives me a chance to approach it with a new set of eyes the next day.

Also, when things get even more hectic, I tend to outsource my areas of my project work. While some designers might cringe at the fact of giving money to another creative knowing that they could do the same work they are paying someone else to do, I find it to be more beneficial to the client and myself. Not only does this help to manage your projects and time, but more importantly, allows you to focus on what you’re best and most passionate towards. For me I’m not the best back-end developer, but I love being able to focus on the aesthetics and front-end of the design.

Organizing my email

Once projects are underway, and even prior to start, there are many email exchanges and conversations between multiple clients and myself. I keep folders containing clients names or company within Apple Mail. Once I’m done responding to their new email, it’s then stowed away in the appropriate folder just in case I need to reference it later.

Prepare ahead for tax time

That’s right Uncle Sam… I pay your darn taxes! I use Apple’s Numbers (or you can also use Microsoft Excel) software to keep a basic spreadsheet of my revenue and expenses. This way at the end of each quarter of the year I’m a little more prepared and organized.

This is the first year I am working with an accountant to handle my taxes. I figured it was well worth my lack of knowledge and expertise on the tax-subject and provides more time to focus on other aspects of my business.

Keeping it all synced

I just started working from and storing my files directly on Dropbox with an upgraded account. This saves myself time from moving around files from computer to computer, figuring out which files is the most current, backing up files weekly (Dropbox is an automatic backup, although I still backup Dropbox to an external every few days just for added relief), etc.

This wasn’t necessary, but hey I can use all the time I can get! I must say, Dropbox is a great service that works in amazing, useful ways. For more on my love of Dropbox: http://j.mp/DropboxLove

Besides keeping my files in sync, I also like to keep my information, contacts, calendars, and emails in order wherever I’m at. My method is MobileMe, although Google will provide similar syncing for the aforementioned. MobileMe has worked well for keeping my iPhone, iMac and Macbook Pro in sync, although Apple should definitely takes notes from Dropbox with their iDisk functionality.

Organizing the non-digital

I keep folders that contain client’s paperwork, notes/sketches and contracts. Some things are better in non-digital form. I also keep envelopes of business expense receipts. Again, tax time preparation which saves me from doing it all at the end of every quarter or year.

How to run an even more effective business and career

In addition to speeding up tasks and saving time to focus on other aspects of your business, here are a nine ways and tricks to becoming a more effective and proficient designer.

Although I am always on the look out for new, inventive ways to simply the daunting tasks of running your own business, the above techniques has dramatically helped to spend more time actually designing.

What are some tips and techniques that have worked for you to help speed up repetitive tasks, keep your business organized and running smoothly? Please do share in the comments below.



Discussion and Comments

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  1. [...] How To Effectively Organize, Manage And Maintain Your Freelance Design Business [...]

  2. Logo Design says:

    Being a freelancer takes self discipline. If you are not disciplined you will never survive as a freelancer.

  3. [...] How to effectively organize, manage and maintain your freelance design business [...]

  4. gabriela says:

    awesome article! here’s my little organizational secret: http://www.teuxdeux.com

    it’s THE BEST, simplest way to look at your weekly tasks. i keep it open all day.

  5. Peter Safwat says:

    Excellent Information but there are websites like odesk.com and getafreelancer.com can handle 70% of this stuff

  6. [...] How to effectively organize, manage and maintain your freelance design business: Graphic designer Brian Hoff breaks down the essentials for managing your freelance work on a daily and weekly basis. [...]

  7. Thanks for the really useful tips. Really helps out those who are just starting out and basically doesn’t have an idea on what they’re doing (e.g. me)

  8. Jack Franklin says:

    Hey Brian,

    Great article! Am I right in thinking that you work directly on the Dropbox files? That’s an awesome idea…might have to do that!

    Cheers,

    Jack.

  9. Brian says:

    Jack,
    Yup, directly off Dropbox. What’s great too is that if you are using a Mac and have Time Machine running, it backs up Dropbox to the external as well :)

  10. Courtney says:

    Thanks so much for passing along your resources and outlining your precess! I’m always looking for better ways to stay organized. Subernova looks like just the thing I’ve been looking for, I’m definitely going to check it out. Thanks!

  11. [...] How to effectively organize, manage and maintain your freelance design business [...]

  12. [...] ChromeMilk – great way to display and update my Remember the Milk tasks. I’m a huge fan of RTM, and if you are unfamiliar read my reasons why I like it. [...]

  13. kathy weller says:

    So WHEN does the book come out?? I’d gladly pay for a book full of your informative posts.

  14. Brian says:

    Kathy,
    So you didn’t hear?! It’s out! Haha no, but I wish. :) Although, this year I do plan on starting on a book, so stay posted for more on that in upcoming months. :)

  15. Gaia says:

    Behoff, thanks for writing this incredible post. I envy your obsessive level of organization! I’m like that too, but I’ve been off track with it for several months due to moving and general craziness – very unsettling. So, seeing the way you tackle this task, bookmarking, contacts, taxes and all, is very inspiring :) I’ve never quite figured out how to categorize my online bookmarks, probably because I’ve never forced myself to answer the question of why I like most webpages, or how I use them, or if they’re useful or just fun to read/know about. Maybe I don’t know how to draw the line between professional/academic/personal, and now it’s doubly confusing because I’m not in school anymore. I really enjoyed reading the comments from students above – yes, listen to these tips now before you’re in the real world! Being obsessively organized is good, do it now while you have the time! Unless you’re a senior, then you definitely don’t have time. Anyway, if you have any more advice regarding organizational matters, I would very happily read on. I’m in the process of slowly starting my own freelancing company, and I’m voracious for tips of those who have traveled these wild lands before me…

    By the way, I bought a very thick book a few months ago called “How To Organize Practically Everything,” which I like well enough being an organization-junkie, but the problem is it leaves out the Wufoos and RTM’s and Dropboxes. Up to date information is so valuable!

    Many thanks again!

  16. [...] HOW I USE IT: In addition to the normal task and note organizing, I use it to keep track of my clients. Read more on that here. [...]

  17. Excellent mate!

    Here are some of my tools of trade that not in your list.

    Password management: 1Password
    Time tracking and billing: Billings
    Quick templates: TextExpander – I’ve ready made email templates, code snippets even for some long word abbreviations (e.g: np -> No Problem. :) ) for save tones of my typing time.
    Font management – Font Explore X

    Cheers,
    Aslam

  18. [...] Having started freelancing I wish I would have known and planned out better organization and maintaining a structured work flow. Its something that I still struggle with from time to time being a one-man-show. Often when you start freelancing you only thing of how to organize your actual design work that comes through, not details such as a better system for replying and saving emails, making it easier and more efficient to get contracts/proposals out the door, saving client information that show interest in your work, as opposed to those you only work with, in additional to other areas such as schedule time to market online using Twitter, Facebook, commenting on blogs, starting a blog or writing guest articles, etc — the aspects that you overlook many of times when it comes to online marketing, but can go a long way. I actually detailed a full article on some of the ways I organize my business that has helped in recent years, titled How to effectively organize, manage and maintain your freelance design business. [...]

  19. [...] Having started freelancing I wish I would have known and planned out better organization and maintaining a structured work flow. Its something that I still struggle with from time to time being a one-man-show. Often when you start freelancing you only thing of how to organize your actual design work that comes through, not details such as a better system for replying and saving emails, making it easier and more efficient to get contracts/proposals out the door, saving client information that show interest in your work, as opposed to those you only work with, in additional to other areas such as schedule time to market online using Twitter, Facebook, commenting on blogs, starting a blog or writing guest articles, etc — the aspects that you overlook many of times when it comes to online marketing, but can go a long way. I actually detailed a full article on some of the ways I organize my business that has helped in recent years, titled How to effectively organize, manage and maintain your freelance design business. [...]

  20. Toby says:

    Hey Brian!

    Thanks for sharing your great tips about organizing a “one man/women show”!
    Especially the tip of using Subernova was a great one, I’d used MacFreelance so far, but Subernova seems to be a better solution.

    Regards from Germany,

    Toby

  21. Web Design says:

    Great stuff in the world of webdesign its hard to try and maintain our clients and developers but now I just got the new moment and am stoked cause now I can manage everyone that much easier

    thanks bro

  22. Chris R. says:

    I use freshbook.com to take care for my invoicing and project estimates. Works great with paypal too..

  23. Lori says:

    Thanks for the great post. I am just starting to do serious freelancing and am thinking of giving ApolloHQ a try since it seems to do a lot of what you mentioned. It is all a little overwhelming!

  24. [...] hours of which you can focus on more important things in your business. Here are a few tips on how I stay organized and efficient this [...]

  25. Rob T. says:

    Great sharing Brian!
    I uses Dropbox for a while now, but never worked directly into it. I’ll give it a try.

    These are some of the tools I use:
    - Dropbox (filesharing)
    - TaDalist (todo lists)
    - Zoho invoice (billing)
    - Toggl (time management)

  26. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for introducing me to Remember the Milk. Awesome!
    I have subscribed to this blog. You are very inspiring!

  27. Chris Porter says:

    Nice article. I had to post this for the newbie freelancers I know. We both have the same working style, or basically if you freelanced for a long time, you just know what to do.

    I switched from just a freelance company to a LLC with a business partner, so I have more of a hectic time with fees and taxes.

    On the other hand, I use Google Apps for everything. Email, contacts, excel docs, saved contracts and questionnaires, shared calendars with my business partner, etc.

    I use Solo (http://thrivesolo.com/) (just started using it) for my project management. My partner and I work lawfirm style (we have our own clients under one brand, collab on some projects together, but rarely since we are two designers…lol), so we use our own accounts. Subernova was good too, but I’m not too thrilled with full flash sites handling my stuff. Solo just implemented invoicing, but I haven’t tried it out yet and don’t know if it ties to Paypal.

    Of course, Dropbox is used for my file storage with that backed up to an external.

    For to do lists, either my trusty moleskine for on the go note taking and then wunderlist for my actual todos.

  28. Mark says:

    Regarding your comments on saving people’s email addresses for later, which is a great idea, do you ask clients to opt out of you storing these details or do you just do it?

  29. Brian says:

    Mark,

    I just do it – if they wish to not be emailed at a later time then I don’t.

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello:


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