Posts Tagged ‘tools’
A lot of the tools I use today are web/cloud based. This is great in terms of functionality/flexibility, but can prove problematic when I want to transfer or quickly capture data.
I have recently discovered a FREE browser add-on called Table2Clipboard, a Windows, Mac and Linux tool which makes copying tables from web pages to offline office applications a lot easier.
This browser extension simply adds a single item to the Edit and right-click context menus. Right hand click anywhere on a table and options appear to copy the entire table, the column or row within the table.
But the best bit is that the option to “Copy whole table,” retains a table’s formatting and makes it far easier to paste and manipulate in Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint or any other Windows/Mac software (including pasting into emails).
If you work with lots of browser based table data (such as FreeAgent, online banking, etc), this free utility is a life saver.
For my small company 2009 was a pretty good year – with the recession just starting and people cutting back, I still managed to increase both my company revenue and profit. 2010 was even better than 2009. But by far, 2011 was the best year my company ever had. I doubled the revenue in 2011, and tripled my profit level. After analysis, I calculated that in 2011, my profit margin was 76.5% of turnover – which is a very good number indeed.
This good year has left me with a couple of problems; (1) A very large corporation tax bill due in the Autumn (so large in fact, I almost cry) and (2) a problem of how to invest the extra surplus money my company now finds itself with (a topic I will cover in a later post). But in terms of all possible problems, these are two of the nicest problems to be facing. I would rather have too much money than not enough.
So how did I do it? How did I have a better year, each year, and expand my turnover massively in 2011? Well it all comes down to the following 14 simple steps which I have built up over many years freelancing, continue to review and add to from time to time (details of each action in the links below):
- Adwords as marketing – The vast majority of my marketing was carried out using Adwords. In 2011, I spent £780 in adwords, and the projects generated from the adwords generated me £179,000 of revenue (I had additional revenue from projects from elsewhere, plus support and change revenue). Now that is a good return by anybodies standards.
- Respond to enquires FAST – I have seen various reports that suggest more than 50% of work is awarded to the company that responds first. I made sure when I received an enquiry, I responded within the hour – faster if possible.
- The never ending question sheet – As I have described previously, I have a ‘never ending question sheet’ which I build up over time to tease and pull out the exact project requirements. This has helped me with a lot of work over the years as I seem more knowledgeable than my competitors.
- Repeat the Requirements back to the prospect – In a recent post, I talked about the power (and additional revenue) of creating a Summary Of Understanding. In 2011, my analysis shows that I generated an additional £19,000 of ADDITIONAL revenue through this technique, above and beyond the additional project scope.
- Creation of very good proposals that deal with their needs and desires – I would like to think that I now have an almost perfect quotation template for projects that I have developed over time. Plus, I have recently started utilising tools to create proposals and estimates much faster
- Reward yourself – I treat myself with a little reward at various milestones, with biggish rewards when I win a contract (I even do a little dance) and also at the end of the project. But I also reward myself at other times when I do a good job to keep my motivation going forwards.
- Cloud Based project management – Once the project has been awarded, I used cloud based project management to control projects, which means I have less administration to do, and can run multiple projects at the same time whilst saying in control
- Keeping control of my company finances – Other than adopting cloud based project management, switching from a standard accountant to on-line accounting has really changed my business. I know my finance picture immediately with every invoice raised, bill paid or payroll payment. Its so easy to do, I regularly mentally kick myself for paying my old accountant so much for so long when a child could do it.
- Watching the cash flow – Coupled with the company finances using a cloud based system, tracking cash flow is a must. I selected Float for cash flow and budgeting, and this has allowed me to see what my finances will look like next week, next month or next year and so make sure I am on track with my budgets. This in turn means I no longer have to think about money, and can simply get on with generating it.
- Increased productivity on the next project – I now cannot imagine a world without my two favourite free productivity tools; Dropbox and Evernote. Dropbox makes the transfer of files between computers seamless, and Evernote means I am so much more efficient. I use Evernote to piece together work I have done in the past for new customers, save any new routines which may be useful and so become a Professor Frankenstein of development with terrific results for all concerned.
- Review and learn the lessons – At the end of the project, I do a review. I review my project costs against my estimates (how profitable was the project, should I quote more next time), I review any problems to review this action plan, review my tools and review my documents to see if there were any holes which need to be plugged.
- Offer follow up and bolt on services – After this internal review, I then create a project completion document for the customer, with suggestions for next steps, considerations and suggestions. This generally leads onto more work and sometimes nice lucrative support contracts.
- Upgrade LinkedIn – I also make a point of updating my LinkedIn profile with any new experience. Whilst LinkedIn rarely produces any work directly, I have lost count of the number of times that somebody has told me that they Goggled me before awarding the work, only to find my LinkedIn profile near the top, and then viewed all my experience which gave them more faith in my company’s ability.
- Repeat – And finally, repeat the cycle. Of course, my marketing is always running (unless I am really overworked), so the repeat may loop back to step 4, 5 or 7.
When I produce estimates or quotations for customers, I generally produce them quickly and easily using the tools available to me in FreeAgent (the on-line accounts system). This works for the majority of quotations as I can use the price list system to easily apply standard items, and the quotations are emailed to my customers using my pre-defined template layout.
However, now and again I have to produce more detailed proposals – with lots of text, examples, concepts, terms and payment profiles. The sort of quotations we all have to produce now and again – the multi page proposals for those ‘larger’ projects.
Recently, I have come across two new cloud based applications which could make the process of quotation generation that little bit easier. Especially where the quotations are repetitive in nature (where the same text is used over and over again).
Both systems are designed around producing quotations. Both allow you to define customers, define price lists of common tasks, templates for look and feel of quotations (colours, fonts, graphics etc) and allow you to add free text. Both systems then allow you to quickly generate new quotes by pulling in items from your price list (then saying how many items/hours/days are required) – and will do all the maths for you including adding sales tax/VAT.
Both systems will also allow the quotations to be sent to your customers by email, to view the quotations in web or PDF views, and both will even let your customers accept (or comment) on the quotations on line.
So initially they appear very similar. However, it’s the way that they generate the quotations, and the integration that sets the two products apart. Whilst both produce similar cost breakdown in the same way, its how they deal with the text that surrounds the figures that is of interest.
Quoteroller is the newer of the two, but for me, has more potential. The big plus for me is that it integrates with FreeAgent. Whilst this is currently restricted to pulling your contacts in (which saves a lot of setup time), the developer says it is early days and hopes to push quotes back out to freeagent in due course. However, it also integrates with Basecamp, Highrise, and Fresh books.
QuoteRoller allows the definition of template ‘pages’ – you can have standard text of any pages which cover any subject required. Within this text you can paste ‘tokens’, so it can insert the client name, company name, project name, quote number and so on in the text for you.
You can define as many templates as you like to cover all kinds of different quotations – and use the same layouts, words, proposals and information over and over again. The templates can include text, images, tables, video, HTML and even links to external web sites. Templates can also be imported from ‘the community’ of users, so regardless of what type of company you run, there will be a template out there to get you going – you just need to customise the text to the way that you prefer to work.
Whilst QuoteRolloer is good, the one thing that is missing for me is a common catalogue of text BEYOND the template that I could pull in before the quotation is complete. As an example, I could create a template which covers everything I do, but have a section that I wanted to pull in for overseas customers which talks about conversion rates. If they could include this, it would be perfect. It also has one major limitation (at time of review) that when entering the cost breakdown, you can only enter whole numbers as a quantity (so if you charge per day, you have the option of 0 or 1, no half day options).
QuoteRoller is free to register and use. However, once you get past the set limit of quotes per month, you need to pay to add additional quotations.
Quoterobot is similar to QuoteRoller, but seems less flexible on the setting of templates. Whilst it is just as powerful on the pulling in of cost items, you have to enter more text at the time of creating quotations rather than using templates (of standard text blocks).
However, quoterobot is stronger in terms of payment terms planning. You have the ability to put payment terms per week and it will include a payment plan chart for your customers which is a nice feature.
The one disadvantage with quoterobot is that its price model is designed around a pay to try pattern – so to give it a try you have to have a credit card handy which I didn’t like (although you can cancel after 30 days if you don’t like it).
If you have to produce any large or repetitive proposals/quotations, either product could save you an awful lot of time.
Call me an email dinosaur, but I am still a fond user of Microsoft Outlook for dealing with work emails, contacts ,discussions and Do list (with a sync to ToodleDo). It may not be perfect, but it works for me, its fast to use, and gets the job done with the minimum of effort.
Recently, I was introduced to a FREE 3rd party add on called Xobni. As with most bolt on products, it’s actually available in a Freemium version. Xobni, sits on the side of outlook and adds lots of contact information and tools for most actions in outlook. The web site for Xobni says that it makes outlook more “contact centric” – I am not sure it goes that far, but it does make it a lot more powerful.
In a nutshell, whenever you work on an item (email, discussion, todo or contact) that is linked to a contact, a panel is displayed in outlook which shows the contact information. This is not the standard Outlook contact information, but a new contact form which is built from your activity with the contact.
Default Contact Options
The default Xobni information is picked up by scanning and indexing your emails, both sent and received. Using things like your contacts email signature bar and linked outlook contact entry, it generates the contact name, job title, phone numbers, email addresses, web sites etc. But beyond this, other useful information is pulled together for the contact such as:
- A graph of when you communicate – in and out sent dates and times (its meant to indicate the best times to communicate with the contact – not sure how useful this really is)
- Conversations – a list of recent emails to or from the contact, files exchanged (with links to the files), people in their network (people who your contact has emailed (via CC emails), etc
- Appointments scheduled in the past or future with the contact (from your outlook diary)
- URL Links shared between you – Premium content only
All of the above can be quickly re-viewed and actioned (replied to, changed, printed, etc) from the Xobni side window meaning that you don’t have to loose what is in the main screen of outlook. It is all pulled together very well, and is very useful.
Actions and Bolt Ons
Whilst the above summary information is very useful, the real power comes from the bolt-on actions. You can download widgets which connect Xobni with other services such as Dropbox, Evernote, Huddle, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and a whole host more.
Want to send your contact an Evernote note? Click the note and it will compose an email (for you to check and edit) with the note attached. See your contacts last comments on twitter or facebook? They are right there. See your contacts linkedin profile and who they are connected to? Not a problem. What about sharing a large file – click the file in dropbox and the file is copied to your public dropbox area for you and a link is added to an email. There is even a ‘lets meet’ button which will compose an email to your contact with your free diary slots over the next few days.
Xobni is not perfect. If you stick to the FREE version, the really useful buttons (create a contact, update the contact information with this information, etc) produces a pop-up purchase window. It also takes up 1/6th of the screen in outlook. However, it provides a lot of useful information regarding your contacts. If you use outlook and are working on building relationships with clients, it’s a must-have.
In my last post, I listed some very nice Android applications which a Freelancer, Contractor or Small Business owner can use to streamline their processes. Today, I want to suggest some cloud based applications which will boost your business in ways you can never imagine.
I am going to bypass the obvious cloud applications such as Google Analytics, Adwords and Google Goggle Docs as everybody knows about these. My list is instead, the top 10 alternative cloud applications for small business:
FreeAgent – Cloud Based Accounting
This one product has revolutionised my business – and that is not an exaggeration. Before my company started using Freeagent, the accounts was always something of a black hole. I would find out how we were doing only at key dates – when VAT was due or at year end. Freeagent makes everything visible and clear as you carry out business activity. Which is why I cannot recommend it highly enough.
TeamWorkPM – Online Project Management
Good project management can add all kinds of benefits, and can take away a lot of pain – and cloud project management can make you much more visible to your customers whilst you work on their projects. I know a lot of small businesses rave about BaseCamp, but take it from me, TeamWorkPM blows basecamp out of the water.
DropBox – cloud based file storage
It took me a while before I started using Dropbox, and now I kick myself for not using it earlier. Dropbox, in a nutshell, allows you to share files between computers and locations without the need for a memory stick. It auto syncs computers via the web, and provides a fairly large FREE account to start with.
Evernote – cloud notes system
Evernote’s principle is ‘remember everything’ and that’s just what it does. Whilst Dropbox shares files, Evernote shares and syncs snippets between computers and mobile devices. I use it to store and sync notes, shopping lists, code routines, SQL scripts, how to notes and a whole host more. Any pictures or photos you add (from the web, your PC or mobile camera) are OCD’d by evernote, and everything is searchable and can be divided into folders. Evernote gives a very generous FREE account.
ToodleDo – cloud ToDo lists
I have spoken about ToodleDo (don’t let the name put you off) in the past as what I believe to be the ultimate ToDo list system, with built in Getting Things Done (GTD) configuration. With the FREE usage, and free mobile system as well, there is no reason not to be organised.
LogMeIn – cloud based remote Support
I have tried all the remote control systems for supporting remote customers, and for me, LogMeIn is the best. Again its FREE, its low footprint, secure, and has never let me down. Install the software on the client PC, and then use any web browser to access the client PC, see what they are doing (with their permission) and take control as required.
I will always recommend joining Linkedin for anybody in business. But the real power for a freelancer or small business owner is in the discussion Groups. For small business owners, I recommend the Small Business Ambitious Owner Manager LinkedIn group.
Xmarks – Cloud BookMark Sync
Plucked back from bankruptcy at the end of last year, the xmarks service is still running. Xmarks auto syncs bookmarks different browsers and different PCs via the cloud. So if you find a good web site whilst working at a clients site, bookmark it and when you get home, it will also be on your home PC. And once again, it’s FREE.
WuFoo/SurveyMonkey – cloud customer survey
There is not much between these two to choose from – they both do almost the same thing. Both offer limited free accounts – but the point of both is the same – crate a survey to ask your customers what they think of your quotes, prices, services, support etc, and get them to tell you what they think via quick online forms. The feedback you receive will help you improve your business.
ZenDesk – Cloud based support system
The final offering is one of the big names in online support systems. Having a place for customers to log issues, ask questions, and get help is important, and Zendesk provides all the features you would expect in a simple to use interface. It’s not free, but it is easy to use for both you and your customers
Time is a precious thing to me. The biggest lumps of my time are taken up either with my family (any interaction with computers is frowned upon) or working (using computers, in which case I want to spend that time generating customer revenue rather than general surfing). Which leaves a difficult problem of when and how to keep up with industry news, research or reading interesting articles which I can use to boost my business.
Luckily, there are the odd 2 or 3 minutes scattered throughout the day of wasted time. Time spent queuing (for a train, at a supermarket, at a post office, etc), time spent cooking (all you have to do is stir now and again), and erm…. Sitting down. All of these are the perfect times to quickly catch up with the industry news, blogs etc.
In the past, I have already talked about how I use Calibre with an eBook reader to create a book of RSS feeds for reading blogs I subscribe to. But now, I have found a perfect way to catch up on all the odd articles referenced in twitter feeds, blogs, or emailed through. This system is a web service called ReadItLater.
ReadItLater, as the name suggests, is a cloud hosted service where you can forward URLs, and then it will build a catalogue for you. It’s rather like creating a favourite link in internet explorer or Firefox, but with the advantage that you can read the items off line when you have 2 minutes. Because of the off-line viewing, you can read the saved item even when you don’t have a mobile signal or internet connection.
If you have never used ReadItLater, let me guide you through the perfect set-up for off-line catch-up.
The first part is to create a FREE ReadItLater account on the cloud. Give it a user id and a password (with email verification), and you are all good to go. Whilst the ReadItLater web site offers the ability to jump to your links through their own web portal, the real power is through the bolt-ons available.
Internet Explorer/FireFox plugins
Adding a plug to your favourite web browser allows you to mark web pages, items and text for reading later as you browse. Plugins for all major browsers are available for downloading for FREE – for Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, and iPad/phone. Once downloaded, if you see a page, URL or link that is of interest, right-click the page or link and you now have an option to ReadItLater. The URL link is now sent to your cloud account. A new ReadItLater chevron button is also added in the toolbar to add the entire current page you are currently viewing.
Of course, for maximum flexibility you should add a submitter to your mobile device. Different versions are available for the iPhone, iPad, Android etc. The two best (that I can recommend and that are FREE) are DroidSave for Android or EchoFon for the iOS. With these installed, a new Share option appears from other installed mobile applications (facebook, twitter, your browser, emails, etc). So if a tweet talks about a news item or a blog post you may be interested in, just click to share, share to DroidSave or EchoFon, and you can ReadItLater. These apps just sent the URLS (shortened or otherwise) to your ReadItLater account.
Off-Line Mobile Client
Now whilst you can open up your saved links using the browser based ReadItLater web application, I find it is much better to install an off-line reading Client on your mobile device. This application polls your defined ReadItLater account on a regular basis, and then pulls the saved links, together with a copy of the text and images so that you can read the item off-line (with no internet connection). Once you have read the item, you can then archive it for later reference, or delete it. Perfect. The iPhone/iPAD ReadITLater app works well, and for Android, I can recommend the AndReader Andorid ReadItLater app, which works well on both mobile phones and Tablets (I have the Galaxy Tab).
Using this combination I no longer have to bookmark interesting items, add a ToDo to read them, or get distracted into reading them now. Instead, I can mark the items that interest me, and Read Them Later when time allows. Perfect.
Have you ever visited an office where they have placed a large TV against the wall, and it is busy displaying all kinds of impressive information? I have seen this where companies show number of incidents, share prices, weather, turnover and lots of other information. This trend started in call centres, where it was used to show how many calls were being processed, how many callers were waiting and other such information. It kept the telephone operators mind on getting through those calls.
Some of the companies I work for ask me to produce such screens – they give them all kinds of nice flashy sounding names such as dashboards, or alert boards or KPI boards. All do the same thing – take information critical to the success of the company, and boil it down into a few graphs and alerts showing a clear picture of if the company is doing well or badly.
As freelancers and small business owners, we all have our own critical information – web hits, turnover, subscribers to our social feeds, maybe number of support calls, maybe number of todo tasks. I would guess that if you are anything like me, you visit these numbers everyday and wish there was a way to pull it all together.
Well, a new web service has been introduced called Geckoboard. As the image suggests, you can include lots of information on a single screen via widgets which you can configure. There are all kinds of display widgets including text, charts, tables, gauges and up/down pointers. It can pick up from a wide range of data sources using either the standard widgets they provide (such as links to BaseCamp, FreeAgent, Google Analytics, Twitter, etc) or you can create your own, pointing it to an XML data feed.
You can define multiple pages which auto rotate, and if you sign up for a premium account, you can then start tweaking the look, feel and colours using modified CSS (I am not so keen on the black background as a default). The configuration is very easy, and the refresh times are very rapid.
Whilst the board is designed for the big monitors/TV’s on the corporate wall, it works very well either as a new home page for your web browser, or to run on that spare monitor you have.
Geckoboard is currently in free beta testing – and so far it’s unclear how the service will be funded – it may become chargeable as the service evolves, or (as I hope) will become Freemeium. But if you want to get serious about your business metrics, you can do no better than Geckoboard.
Yesterday I talked about sending quotations to customers in PDF format. Following this blog post, I received a couple of emails asking for a suggestion on how to generate PDF documents without the need to purchase the rather expensive Adobe Acrobat writer software (which costs between $500 and $1,500 depending on your intended use).
I am a big fan of the Cute range of products (including CuteFTP). One of their products is CutePDF, and is a FREE print to PDF driver for windows. If you use an application that can print, installing CutePDF will allow you to print directly to PDF documents – it’s how I generate all my quotations, specifications, etc.
CutePDF does have a paid version with more functionality (add watermark, protect documents, merge PDF documents etc). However, the free version provides all the functionality you need to generate good looking PDF documents.
Its Recommended, and its Free!!
As regular readers of this blog will know, I am massive fan of business automation. Any tool, technique or process that I can use which makes doing business easier makes me happy – the more automated my processes, the less time I spend on them and the more time I have for doing productive (chargeable) work.
One of the newest tools I have found is called Watchy (or Watchyapp if you use the twitter tag). Watchy is another Freeagent bolt-on web based application, and deals with timesheet reporting. Whilst Freeagent itself allows the recording of time spent on projects (and subsequent billing to customers for the time and associated expenses), it does not provide any form of customer portal to view the timesheets. That’s where Watchy comes in.
Once connected to the Freeagent system, Watchy will connect to your Freeagent account on a regular basis and will pull in timesheet and invoice details and then organise the information into project views. You can then create customer accounts so that customers can login to their own dashboard to view invoices, expenses and time spent on their project.
Watchy is still in beta development, so there is currently restricted access to beta testers, but full public access is scheduled for the next few weeks. They are also busy making amendments, changes and improvements, so I am sure this will develop to become the perfect customer time and billing portal as the product evolves and matures. I hope this will include timesheet authorisation and different reporting views.
As a freelancer or small business, it is very common to be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. A non-disclosure agreement (NDA), also known as a confidentiality agreement, confidential disclosure agreement (CDA), proprietary information agreement (PIA), or secrecy agreement, is a legal contract between at least two parties that outlines confidential material, knowledge, or information that the parties wish to share with one another for certain purposes, but wish to restrict access to by third parties.
When you are working for or on behalf of a client, they will generally want to protect the data, processes, and systems they have in place. The NDA is the most common way of doing this, and as long as you read through what you are signing, you should be generally happy to agree to and sign such documents.
However, what happens when you hand out work to somebody else? What happens when you outsource some of your work, or work with a virtual assistant (VA), a graphical designer or any other professional? Should you yourself use an NDA agreement? The answer is.. when in doubt, use an NDA.
As a freebie, you will find below the NDA that I use for most situations. Its all been legally checked and verified, and is a nice neat version of a 2-way NDA. That means, it protects you as somebody who is supplying the requirement, and also protects the person providing the service. Please feel free to view, print, download and use.