Short summary: I’ve become enamored with some free tools that are helping me get better organized and better able to manage my small freelance business. Here are my recommendations if you need similar help.
Recently, I became frustrated with the inability to access some of my various temporary notes, text files, and miscellaneous other information on multiple devices. I’d been frustrated before, but not enough to take the time to do something about it. Finally, however, I decided to take the time to find the right tool(s) that would enable me to take simple notes or jot things down in a way that lets me access those notes from anywhere, on any device.
Don’t leave! I can hear some of you saying, who cares? Just use Evernote or [insert your favorite tool here], but this post is about much more, so stick around for a bit.
I took stock of what I was currently using, what I liked and didn’t like, and what I needed more or less of. When it came to notes, I was making use of two different apps, each for different purposes. I was using Evernote to store all the info I wanted to keep long-term. If it was something I would regularly need to access, I’d keep it in Evernote, and would have it available everywhere I needed it. So why was I frustrated? Because I was using my text editor (notepad++ in my case) to jot down temporary notes – bits of information that I didn’t need to keep forever, but just needed to be able to access in the short term. Short term might mean 5 minutes, or it might mean 5 days, however. And if, in those 5 days, I needed the info from another computer or from my tablet or cell phone, I was guaranteed to be frustratingly out of luck.
I didn’t want to jot all these things down in Evernote because I’d already tried that, and Evernote became far too bloated with years of random bits of information everwhere. Plus, I was growing tired of Evernote. To be able to securely access the app on my smartphone (hide the info behind a passcode), I had to pay for the privilege. Sure, it’s only $5/month, but I’d started to realize that I was being nickle-and-dimed to death with monthly access charges for every app and tool that I use. While I appreciate the need for businesses to charge for their products, I was feeling the need to get rid of as many expenses as I could, so I was seriously considering dumping Evernote.
The challenge then was to find a free, secure easy to use Evernote replacement that would allow me to store long-term, important-to-me notes in a way that was accessible to me from any device. In addition, I needed to find a scratchpad app with the same requirements. Here’s what I came up with, and I hope these help some of you.
Scratchpad Choice – ZetaBee Text
ZetaBee Text has a weird name, but it’s a great little scratchpad app. I keep this one permanently open in a pinned tab in my browser. It actually doesn’t meet all my requirements, since it isn’t secured on my phone via a passcode. But since I never keep anything important in the scratchpad, I overlooked this requirement. So now, if I need to jot down a quick note, I just go to my pinned tab and type. My scratchpad notes are in the cloud now, so I can get to them from my tablet and phone as needed. That’s a win.
Permanent Notes Choice – SimpleNote
Now for the replacement for Evernotes, I tried a few apps and decided on SimpleNote. I can access my info from my phone securely, just like I could with Evernote, but I don’t have to pay $5/month for the privilege. The app is very clean and uncluttered, which is a big plus for me, since Evernote’s clutter was really starting to bug me. Other reasons I love SimpleNote include:
- I can use it everywhere – securely and without cost.
- Everything automagically syncs across all my devices, without me having to do anything to make it so.
- If I change a note, the previous version is automatically backed up, and I can easily go back in time with a simple slider.
- Easy to tag and search for notes.
- Satifies all my requirements.
So my quest was complete, right? Well, not exactly. Once I got on this kick of finding the right, easy to use, always available, temporary and permanent note apps, I got to thinking. What other apps do I need? After a lot of searching and testing, what I ended up with is a nice little package of free applications that help me manage my freelance business, without cost. I won’t go into all the details with the rest of these apps, since you’d probably get bored (if you haven’t already). Instead, I’ll just link up the names with a short description. That should be enough to help you determine if you want to check them out or not.
Free Business Management Apps For Freelancers (or other small businesses)
Wave is great for freelancers because it offers the following for free:
- Client invoicing. Slick invoicing tool that lets you send invoices to clients, and also (optionally) allows clients to pay you via credit card through integration with Stripe. (Note that standard Stripe processing fees apply, naturally, much like receiving payments via Paypal would).
- Receipts tracking. Easily upload business receipts so you don’t have to worry about digging through shoeboxes every tax season.
- Business and personal finance accounting.
Wave also offers payroll services (not free), but most freelancers don’t have a need for this.
I love Wave’s invoicing, payment, and receipts tracking features. I’m not as crazy about their accounting features. They claim to make accounting simple, but I don’t think they’ve accomplished that goal. I’m still deciding on whether or not to use their accounting modules. But I’m definitely hooked on the invoicing and receipts modules.
Trello is a sweet little app that has made my project management / to-do list very manageable. Project management? Don’t even think about using the phrase “gantt chart” around me. My brain doesn’t process gantt charts. I just don’t think that way, so project management was always hit-or-miss with me. Trello lets me manage client projects with ease now, without anything even remotely similar to a gantt chart. Using boards and cards (similar to sticky notes on a cork board), I can now easily define and manage all of the project tasks. It’s easy to attach links, images, and documents to a card, so I have everything I need in one place. And if I pull in help for various tasks, I can easily assign tasks to each responsible person. This makes Trello perfect for both solo and team project management. You have to see Trello in action to “get” how easy it is to use.
Toggl is a time tracking tool that is not only easy and great all on its own, but it also integrates well with Trello. See, the problem with Trello is that there is no inherent way to track time spent on the items in the to-do list. Toggl solves that, however. If you install this free Chrome extension, it adds a “Start timer” button to every card. When you start working on a card (a todo), just click the Start timer button, and click again when done. The time you spend on each item within your project will get tracked and shown in Toggl. Very nice!
My Complete Setup
So, what started out as a search for good free note-taking apps that are accessible everywhere, ended up as much more. Instead of applications that only lived on my laptop such as Word for invoices and notepad++ for notes, I now have a suite of cloud-based free tools that help me better manage my small freelance business.
I can set up and manage client projects with Trello, track the time I spend on each task of the project with Toggl’s integration with Trello, create client invoices in Wave based on the reports I get from Trello/Toggl, get paid via Stripe that is integrated into Wave, and handle all my personal notes via Zetabee Text and Simplenote.
Five apps – tons of great functionality – all free. I’m happy.