The Freebies: Awards Season for the Self-Employed

The Freebies: Awards Season for the Self-Employed

It’s awards season. As someone with a very low tolerance for sitting through movies and a total inability to remember most celebrities’ names, let alone faces, I’ll be skipping the ceremony watch parties as usual. Instead, I’ve curated my own list of MVPs: the services and apps that helped me make it through my first 9 months in business.

For “Fake it ‘til you make it” graphic design: Canva

As any of the long-suffering graphic designers I’ve ever worked with will confirm, I don’t know my pixels from my Pantone. When it comes to doing anything more complicated to an image than, say, cropping it, I lose my marbles. Moreover, while I have opinions about design, I have no background in design, and the idea of teaching myself InDesign or Illustrator from scratch makes me shudder. But I have plenty of projects where copy plopped into a basic Word template isn’t enough, and until I can afford to hire a designer, I have to add visual embellishment on my own.

Enter Canva. It’s no Photoshop, but it’s simple, affordable, and, most importantly, doesn’t make me seize with fury. I don’t need--or want--anything more complicated than that. I’ve created business cards, logos, ads, social media posts, printed marketing materials and infographics using the desktop and mobile versions, and never once screamed at my screen!

Other things I love:

  • Canva allows you to pre-set your desired brand colors and fonts so you can pull them up quickly if you’re cranking through a lot of assets for a client.

  • The magical re-sizer. Canva can turn my flyer design into an Instagram post into an email banner in seconds and I won’t have to do a thing except possibly adjust the margins of the background image. Plus, when you’re ready to use a design, you can convert it into different file formats when you “publish” it without a second thought.

  • It auto-saves your work. ‘Nuff said. Some have pointed out that one of Canva’s drawbacks is that it can’t be used offline, but this isn’t a dealbreaker for me, especially knowing that my sweet, sweet internet connection is the reason I won’t lose 2 hours of tinkering if the power goes out.

Another bonus: you can get designs printed to order from Canva for a fairly decent price, and they’re incredibly fast and reasonably affordable, especially compared to some specialty printers (or even Costco, at least the last time I did the math for a client). Their free version is pretty robust but at $12.95/month, Canva for Work is a business expense that’s seriously worth it to me.

For typography matchmaking for dummies: Fontjoy

I once spent an entire evening in the mirage-inducing labyrinth of Adobe Typekit, and I’ve never been the same. Fonts, like graphics, aren’t my specialty, but I want them to look nice! I also don’t want to spend hours choosing one (designer Mitch Goldstein knows that this isn’t an isolated problem). Fontjoy is an extremely satisfying program that uses machine learning and neural nets to suggest aesthetically-compatible fonts for primary, secondary, and tertiary text based on typographic criteria. (Explanation here.) It’s as fun as the first 15 minutes you spend scrolling through Typekit, but far more productive and efficient in the end. It’s also how I met Belgrano, my latest fave.

For angst-free, license-free, free-free photos: Unsplash

I don’t know how they convinced people to participate, as Unsplash’s model seems the very definition of “work for exposure,” but I’m glad they did. Unsplash hosts over 850,000 free, professional photos for creative and commercial use. Using it still feels like finding a parking space that seems too good to be true and then getting a ticket because you didn’t notice the “No Parking” sign behind an overgrown tree (I mean...what?), but I’ve read their Terms & Conditions multiple times, and they’re legit.

Here’s the thing: “Women laughing alone with salad” notwithstanding, free stock photo collections can be pretty painful. And do you KNOW how much a subscription to iStock costs? To be fair, I haven’t spent much time browsing other free photo sites, and I know there are a few new ones in the field by now, but Unsplash’s approach is creative, generous, and smart. As someone who doesn’t believe in working for free, I have some misgivings about talented photographers not getting paid for their work, but on the other hand, open-source creativity is a beautiful thing. (Here’s an interesting take on this working out well.) While crediting a photographer is not required, it’s highly encouraged and karmically worth it.

For websites that do what you want them to do: Squarespace

I appreciate Squarespace. Their basic templates may be just that, and they’re pretty easy to spot from afar once you’ve tested a few, but of the website builders I’ve tried (Squarespace, Wordpress, and Wix) I find their building interface to be the most intuitive. I don’t have much to say about Squarespace, except that I’ve built 3 of my own sites and at least one for a client using their templates and they just come out looking nice without too much drama.

It is worth experimenting and being patient. My first go at a portfolio was a disaster and I hated every bit of it--which is an important testament to the fact that even Squarespace has a steep learning curve--but the next two were actually quite fun to put together, and their FAQs and help articles are extremely detailed.

For money management when you can’t be arsed to hire a bookkeeper: Mint

I’m a BIG fan of TurboTax, honestly. Their UI is so friendly and encouraging, and while I’m not looking forward to the complexities of my taxes this year after freelancing for most of 2018, I do find most of Intuit’s products easy to use. I’ve reactivated Mint a few times since I started using it several years ago, but keeping regular track of my budget was never especially interesting to me while I was a salaried employee. That all changed when I became responsible for self-employment taxes, business expenses, and managing a highly variable income.

I tried using You Need A Budget more than once, and found its system to be phenomenally incompatible with my habits and mindset around money (I realize maybe the point is to change some of those habits, but for me, the website itself was so incomprehensible that the trials outweighed the potential benefits). I let it make me feel stupid for a few months, then gave up and returned to Mint. Mint is fine! Mint is great! I like filtering my income and spending trends by category or month, it’s easy to categorize purchases even though it thinks my acupuncturist is a restaurant, and I appreciate being able to see where I’m over budget in some category. Bottom line: it’s simple, so I use it. That’s all I want from a money management app.

PS. I don’t discourage hiring a bookkeeper. In fact, I’d love to eventually. But for the first 9 months, some simple software and spreadsheets did just fine.

For the office assistant you wish you had: AND.CO

“Invoicing, Contracts, Proposals, Expense Tracking, Time Tracking and Task Management. AND CO helps you save time, so you can focus on the work you love.”

Actually, what I love most is that AND.CO notifies me when clients open my contracts and invoices. I’ve been fortunate; no one has ever tried to pull a shady “Heyyy, never got your invoice” move, but I like the peace of mind of having an extra peek at the action. I’m definitely not a power user, as I don’t use the expense tracking or task management features, but it’s a great way to keep track of projects and accept payments online with your contract or invoices. Managing a business is not exactly easy, and it’s not why most of us decided to work for ourselves, but there is something very satisfying about handling this side of things, especially when AND.CO keeps everything in one place.

Honorable mention goes to Cushion. Cushion is available for a monthly fee, and I find it a little less intuitive than AND.CO, but I signed up for it first. I used both programs until I decided to cut some expenses, and AND.CO won out because of their pre-curated contracts and proposals (and thanks to their partnership with Fiverr, they’re now free). Their time-tracking feature is also easier to use than Cushion’s, but the Cushion team is super helpful, friendly, and dedicated so I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from trying their service.


Ugh. As I was editing this post, I received an email from AND.CO announcing their switch to a monthly premium membership with more services and unlimited “active clients.” Their next iteration of the free version will only allow one active client, so it looks like I’ll be updating. They did answer the call for editable contracts and proposals, though. I’m eager to see what, if anything, really changes with this premium membership.

For wrangling notes like a boss: Bear

At any given time I have between 4-6 notebooks in my bag, each one dedicated to a special purpose. While they’re brilliant for brainstorming, wireframing, and the kind of writing by hand that’s key to clearing creative cobwebs, the reality is that my work always has to go digital eventually.

Bear is my most frequently opened productivity app, and I’ve tried many. It’s got a ridiculously simple notepad interface, but the extra goodies are what make it so useful: markup tools, a to-do list feature, hashtags and cross-note links to help you track related notes. It can export notes to email and other file types and syncs between your phone and laptop, something that has saved my ass many times while I’ve been working on the road or places with poor internet reception. I never want to go back to life without Bear.

For avoiding fax machines and problematic PDFs: Genius Scan

I haven’t touched a fax machine since 2002 and have a terribly fraught relationship with Adobe Acrobat. If I need to get documents to a client that I can’t easily email or share in a cloud-based service, I use Genius Scan to send images of my completed paper copies. It’s not terribly sophisticated, but it’s included on this list because it’s eliminated a lot of headaches I’d rather not deal with in my business, such as “Why won’t the formatting of this document let me upload my signature?” and “I have to send HOW many W-9s for tax season?” (Pro-tip: give your client your W-9 as soon as you sign a contract. It’s simple and so very professional of you.)

This list got longer than I anticipated, but I use most of these services every week, if not every day. Running your own business can be taxing when you realize you’re responsible for everything. Unless you can hire an assistant, finding the shortcuts that suit you is a really great way to preserve your energy and momentum for the work you actually want to do.

What would you add to this list? Any apps, sites, or services that lift your self-employed spirits?

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