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11 Absolutely Necessary Web-Based Tools for a Freelance Web Designer

I'm feeling extra generous today, so I'm going to share the most important web-based tools that we use at CHROMATIC to run the majority of our operations.

The following tools (or other tools with equivalent functionality), in my opinion, are some of the most essential components needed to run a streamlined, successful, and professional web operation. In addition, as the title implies, these tools can and should be used by any freelance web designer looking to take their operation to the next level of professionalism.

Note: These tools are only as good as the person using them. If you learn how to use each of these tools to their maximum potential, then there is no doubt in my mind that things will get better for you/your company's operation very, very quickly.

The Trifecta

Hands down, three of the most useful web-based tools for our operation comes from 37signals. There are tons of different collaborative, organizational, and contact management applications available on the web. However, none of them hold a candle to the suite that 37signals offers.

1. Basecamp (project management)

37signals - Basecamp

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past 5+ years, you've probably heard of Basecamp. This quote (taken directly from the Basecamp product website) sums it up:

Share files, meet deadlines, assign tasks, centralize feedback, make clients smile.

Basecamp is the ultimate project management application (it's also the most popular - a status that is very well deserved).  Our clients are constantly blown away by our ability to communicate quickly, organize project-related information efficiently, and maintain punctuality with our project milestones and deliverables on a consistent basis.

Although you must discipline and push yourself to be extremely communicative, organized, and punctual, Basecamp really helps make these things a lot easier. Our clients love Basecamp, we love Basecamp, you'll love Basecamp. Period.

2. Backpack (business organization)

37signals - Backpack

When we first signed up for Backpack, we were not sure if we needed it. A few of the features from Basecamp seemed to overlap into Backpack. However, after a few months of working with Backpack, its strengths quickly became rather obvious. Backpack excels with the following:

  • "Pages" give you the ability to organize and share information related to a specific topic using notes, to-do lists, files, photos, and dividers. Pages can be created very quickly, can be shared privately or publicly, can be tagged for easy and convenient organization, and more.
  • The Group Calendar is a fully functional, extremely flexible, and highly useful web-based calendar. You can create as many calendars (each color coded to make it easy to distinguish one from the other) as you'd like, share specific calendars with other people or keep them private, subscribe to calendars using iCal, and import Basecamp project milestones. The Group Calendar alone is worth the cost of Backpack.
  • Messages allow you to easily communicate with other users in your Backpack account. You can also perform similar operations available in Pages to Messages as well.

Backpack is an invaluable business-organization tool that will help keep you organized. If I had to choose a favorite from the 37signals suite, Backpack would be my choice.

3. Highrise (contact management)

37signals - Highrise

Wait a minute, did I just say that Backpack was my favorite 37signal's web-based application? Can I change my answer? Just kidding. But really, Highrise is just as useful as the other two aforementioned 37signal's products.

Highrise is a lead management, contact management, and deal management tool all rolled up into one application. If you find yourself talking to a lot of different people (which, if you want to be successful, you will be doing 95% of the time), Highrise is a necessity.

Each time we get a call or e-mail, whether it be for a RFP request, a designer/developer/marketer looking to join our team, or a discussion with a client about their project, we use Highrise to take notes. We then assign specific tasks to the contact's file (create a proposal, schedule a conference call, etc) and set SMS/e-mail reminders so that we never miss an event, task, appointment, etc. It streamlines the entire process of contact and lead management.

Heck, I even use Highrise to set reminders related to many of my personal contacts (doctors, friends, etc). In these instances (when privacy is important), you have the option of hidding specific contacts from other members of your team.

I could talk about the benefits of Highrise for hours, however, I'll let you learn more about it yourself. Let me just say this: Highrise will make your life a lot easier. Count on it.

Invoicing/Time Tracking

4. Cashboard

Subimage LLC - Cashboard

Over the past few years, we have used A LOT of different invoicing and time tracking web-based applications. You name it, we've probably used it. The problem is, although the majority of these apps have strengths, they also have some significant weaknesses - weaknesses so significant that they made us look elsewhere.

We just about gave up on our search for the perfect web-based invoicing software and time tracking application, but then we found Cashboard. Cashboard, in my opinion, has a great deal of pros, and very, very few cons.

Cashboard integrates seamlessly with Basecamp. And although Basecamp has a time tracking component, we prefer to use Cashboard's time tracking widget to record our time spent on project tasks and milestones. It makes invoicing clients so much easier and streamlined.

Once again, there are just too many great features to discuss, however, these are our favorites:

  • completely customizable user interface
  • completely brandable invoices, estimates, thank you e-mails, and more
  • seamless and simple integration with PayPal and Authorize.net accounts
  • flexible invoicing options including the most flexible tax options of any web-based invoicing software, late fees, and more
  • time tracking through the Cashboard web interface or through Cashboard widgets
  • import Basecamp projects or create them from scratch within Cashboard
  • accept deposits for work up front
  • bill individuals or companies; associate a single person to multiple companies
  • extremely competitive pricing (we feel like we're ripping the Cashboard company off, that's how cheap their pricing is!)

Seriously, these are just some of the amazing features that this app has. Ditch whatever invoicing and time tracking application you're using and get Cashboard. This product will boost the professional image of your operation tenfold.

Metric Measurement

5. Google Analytics

Google - Google Analytics

Chances are, you're already using Google Analytics. But just in case you aren't, start using it today. And don't just use it for your website, use it for your clients' websites, too.

If we're redesigning a client's website, we like to install Google Analytics on their old site (if it isn't already installed) so that we have some baseline metrics which we can use to compare to the metrics of the redesigned website (a great way to indicate how successful (or unsuccessful) a website redesign really is).

6. Google Website Optimizer

Google - Website Optimizer

Google Website Optimizer is a very useful application that can easily be integrated into Google Analytics. This app gives you the ability to create multiple versions of any given page (commonly referred to as A/B and multivariate testing) and then test to see which version leads to the most conversions (or whatever metric you're looking to improve). This is especially useful when testing landing pages on your website or your clients' websites.

A few ways A/B and multivariate testing can be utilized by web designers on their website:

  • create multiple versions of your pricing page; see which pricing plans convert the best
  • change action phrases on key conversion pages; for example: does "What are you waiting for, call us now!" convert better than "Need a great website? Contact us today!"?
  • does a certain color scheme yield lower bounce rates and higher conversions?

A/B and multivariate testing separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and the successful web designers from the unsuccessful web designers. Google Website Optimizer is essential to the success of your operation. Okay, it's not essential, but it will really, really help.

7. Crazy Egg

Crazy Egg Inc. - Crazy Egg

Another extremely insightful and very useful web-based application is Crazy Egg. Per the product website, Crazy Egg allows you to:

Create tests to figure out what people are doing on your website.

Very simple, very straightforward, but that's essentially what the app does. The clicks of your visitors are recorded by Crazy Egg and then presented to you in a variety of different ways (including heat maps). Crazy Egg makes it easy for you for see what people are clicking on your website or your clients' websites.

This application is particularly useful because it allows you to detect problems that would otherwise be undetectable without a click monitoring application. For example: what if 90% of your users are clicking on something that looks like a hyperlink but isn't? Consequently, the bounce rate on the particular page is considerably high. Perhaps if you made this "link wannabe" an actual link, people might not become frustrated or confused and continue to browse your site (rather than bouncing).

Crazy Egg is another highly recommended web-based application. It can significantly help your business or your clients' businesses in oftentimes unthinkable ways.

8. FeedBurner

Google - Feedburner

An RSS feed is a very useful method of content syndication and is, in general, a great medium which can be used to build a loyal subscriber base to your website. Feedburner makes it easy to track and monitor the volume of your RSS feed subscribers over time. Feedburner takes RSS feed syndication to the next level.

This web-based application offers a number of useful features which can help reinforce your brand and increase subscribers - all for free.

Newsletter

9. Campaign Monitor

Campaign Monitor

It's very important to stay in touch with your past and present clients. Whether you publish a weekly, monthly, or quarterly newsletter, it will really help add another layer of professionalism and legitimacy to your operation.

There are a significant number of newsletter management applications available on the web, however, Campaign Monitor seems to be the best of the bunch, in my opinion.

A few features that make this application worth using:

  • Design custom newsletter templates for yourself or for your clients; this is a great way to reinforce your brand.
  • Easy management of subscribers.
  • Analytics which give you the ability to track which recipients open your newsletters, what links are clicked, what e-mail services and applications your recipients are using, e-mail related conversions/sales, and more! Priceless.
  • Mark-up and resell this service to your clients - a great form of supplemental income.

When you visit the Campaign Monitor product website, notice some of the big brands using this product: 37signals, facebook, eBay, Intel, Twitter, Yahoo!, and more. Enough said.

Customer Surveys

10. Survey Monkey

Survey Monkey

Customer service is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of business. Listen up, because this is important: If you fail to fulfill the needs and expectations of a client, then you risk bad press, no referrals, and no testimonials. Most importantly, however, is the fact that you let down someone who instilled their trust and confidence in you. Thankfully, online survey applications exist. Leading the pack is Survey Monkey.

Survey Monkey has an impressive number of features, all available on the Survey Monkey product website. Survey Monkey is free, however, there is a paid version which offers features which are well worth the low monthly price.

We like to send surveys after each project deliverable. The surveys, although very brief (very important - don't burden your clients with long, complex surveys, keep it simple!), allow us to gauge our performance for each specific task. This targeted client feedback gives us the ability to correct any imperfections in our process and most importantly, make sure that our clients are 100% satisfied with our service (communication, craftsmanship, punctuality).

Deliverable-specific surveys provide invaluable client feedback and will exponentially increase client satisfaction...which is why I highly recommend using them. Having said that - Survey Monkey is amazing. Check it out!

Brainstorming

11. MindMeister

MeisterLabs - MindMeister

Mind mapping is another extremely useful process that can and should be used throughout most aspects of a freelancer's business operation. MindMeister is a particularly useful mind mapping application because it offers convenient, advanced, collaborative online mind mapping - for free.

There is a paid version available, however, I think most freelancers will be able to get by with the free version. Highly recommended.

The Key to Success

The eleven aforementioned web-based applications will provide a firm foundation for running a successful freelancing or small business web operation. However, as mentioned earlier, simply utilizing these tools won't make you successful. In order to be a truly successful freelance web designer or small business website owner, it's imperative that you possess, at a minimum, the following qualities:

  • Communication (actions speak louder than words, but words are still extremely important)
  • Skill (if you're not good at what you do, why would anyone hire you?)
  • Punctuality (be on time with each project deliverable, call a client back when you say you will, etc)
  • Patience (things don't happen overnight, be patient)
  • Persistence (keep the pressure on, don't give up without a fight)
  • Passion (if you aren't loving what you're doing, you're not going to succeed)
  • Organization (Basecamp, Backpack, Highrise, and Cashboard will help with that!)
  • Discipline and Commitment (without it, everything else will fall apart)

Good luck!

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