Organization isn’t about perfection; it’s about efficiency, reducing stress and clutter, saving time and money and improving your overall quality of life.
– Christina Scalise
When we first start out as business owners, most of us are flying by the seat of our pants. We’re “bootstrappers”, the industry term for a business that gets started without the help of others, which is funded privately and grows only based on the money we’re able to put back into it over time. Being a bootstrapper means that most of the time, we’re figuring things out as we go along. With limited resources, we learn from online articles, business books, and the advice of our bootstrapping friends. We have a lot of false starts and are forced to find scrappy solutions to solve our immediate problems. We can’t spend a lot of money or time, so we find short-term ways to keep the wheels on.
Personally, I love the word “scrappy”. I think it’s wonderful to stay nimble and lightweight when you’re building a new business. That’s exactly how I started out too! I am proud of how far I have been able to come while conserving my resources. But being nimble and keeping costs down doesn’t mean avoiding systems to bolster and support you on your business journey. On the contrary! Having the right systems in place makes it a lot easier for you to do more of your best work.
In this post I’m sharing some of the systems that solopreneurs benefit from using within their businesses. In every category, I’ve included free options, so that you can build your business without breaking the bank. None of these are affiliate links, but most of them are among my favourite tools for solopreneurs everywhere. Enjoy! And if you need even more app recommendations, check out The Appothecary, my ever-evolving database of systems & software.
1. Project Management Systems
No matter what kind of business you have, you absolutely need a system for keeping track of your projects, tasks, to-dos and ideas – as a creative entrepreneur, I’m guessing you have a lot of them! Our brains can only store so much information – as soon as I’m trying to remember more than three competing items, I instantly feel harried and overwhelmed. Once I write down my thoughts, I start feeling more calm, clear, and collected.
As with any of these app suggestions, the very best one is the one you’re actually going to use. Choose carefully, and don’t be afraid to experiment! Go with your gut, and choosing based on aesthetics or the company’s values or the tiny adorable rainbow-coloured animals that appear when you complete tasks is both allowed and encouraged. Most of the best project management software systems are absolutely free, so there’s no harm in signing up and doing mini beta tests to see which you find most intuitive or supportive to you.
If you start out with a simpler system, you might eventually need to “upgrade” your software to something more robust. That’s okay too! When I started my business, I used a simple to-do list tracker called Todoist, then eventually upgraded to Asana (still free!) which allows me to map out various projects and see them in a calendar view.
Simple To-Do Lists: Todoist | Teux Deux | Wunderlist
2. Invoicing & Payments Software
I’ve had clients who were using a cobbled-together Excel spreadsheet (that they hated opening) to keep track of payments. I know of one woman who painstakingly creates her invoices by hand in Photoshop at the end of each month. And don’t get me started on the number of entrepreneurs I know who have trouble getting paid or run into technical issues with e-Transfers and accounting on a weekly basis.
There’s a better way! I promise. You have so many options for managing your invoices and payments that will save you time and energy, and that actually make things easier for your clients to pay you. When you’re first starting out and every penny counts, it makes sense to use a free service, or one that only charges based on transaction fees. But as you start to generate more income, you may want to invest in a system that meets all your needs as a small business owner, even if it has a monthly fee.
When I was first starting out, I used Wave‘s free features exclusively, then eventually upgraded to Dubsado last year when I needed a more robust client management system (see below). See what calls your name in this category, but also keep pricing in mind.
Invoicing Options: Stripe | Wave Apps | FreshBooks | Invoicely
Alternative: Customer Relationship Management Systems
For most service-based businesses, having a client management system is a HUGE boon to productivity. These services can create invoices, accept payments, send questionnaires, set up proposals for new clients, sign contracts, send automatic emails and more. Instead of using five different systems for all of the above, these programs bring all of the best features together under one “roof”, for which you pay a monthly fee. The fee is not necessarily small, but when you compare it to the number of hours you’ll save, it often proves to be more than worth the cost.
3. Graphic Design Programs
With the exception of folks who work as graphic designers, it can be really hard for most solopreneurs to create images and assets to promote their business offerings, sell products, or even just spruce up their website! In the past, if you wanted to create a good-looking online brand, you were limited in terms of your options. You could either hire an expensive freelancer, or try to do it yourself…to varying levels of success.
Luckily the design landscape has changed, and there are so many amazing resources for creating beautiful design elements for your brand, for free. Instead of trying to improve your own graphic design skills, I recommend that you lean on one of these services and let them do the heavy lifting for you.
4. Email Marketing Systems
This one may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less important for the success of most small businesses. Email is probably your #1 best way to sell to customers, no matter what industry you’re in. Social media, on the other hand, has mixed results at best! You can help your customers stay more engaged with your brand when you make sure that your email marketing system is set up properly and stylishly.
But while spending time on your email marketing can be a great ‘investment’ in the long-term health of your business, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to invest in it financially, at least not initially. My favourite among these services, Mailchimp, is totally free for your first 2000 subscribers, which makes it the perfect entry point for most people.
Email Marketing Options: Mailchimp | ConvertKit | Drip
5. Calendar Systems
So many of the entrepreneurs I work with are still relying on scribbled appointments in notebooks. The problem is, paper planners aren’t very editable without scratching things out and starting over! Getting a digital calendar set up and syncing across all the devices you use may seem like a no-brainer to some but it’s a stressful challenge to others.
In the end though, it’s 100% worth it for your mental clarity. With a good calendar setup, you can confidently and calmly outsource parts of your brain to the digital realm! You’ll never have to worry about forgetting anything or overbooking yourself. It’s hard to go wrong with the kind of structure and sanity that this kind of system provides.
Calendar Options: Google Calendar | Apple Calendar
Bonus: Scheduling Systems
If your business provides services, such as coaching, massage therapy, or consulting, it can be helpful to have a system set up to accept client bookings without having to send far too many emails back and forth. These programs sync with your personal and business calendars to show your availability to clients, who can then book appointments in the time slots you choose. This streamlines the process for everyone involves and means that administrative tasks like scheduling can happen almost without any involvement from you. All you need to do is look at your calendar to see what’s coming up for you that day or week!
Bonus: many Client Relationship Management systems (mentioned above) actually include a scheduler!
Scheduler Options: Calendly | Acuity Scheduling | Doodle
Running a successful business isn’t easy, but there are practical ways to make it just a little bit easier. I see the return on investment every time that a client takes the time to set up a new system. Knowing how much time, energy, and calm they gain back is reason enough for me to recommend that you do a bit of research and find options that can solve some of your most glaring business problems.
There will always be bigger, more complicated problems in business, such as making more money or getting the word out about your services. But you can accomplish smaller things like sending an invoice or remembering to pick up supplies for your workshop, with the help of a few solid systems to support you as a solopreneur.
I would love to hear from you: What are the systems in your business that you absolutely couldn’t live without? What app has saved you the most time or brought you the most calm in your business life? What system would you recommend to any entrepreneur? I am always on the lookout for interesting and innovative new software that can help business owners! Let me know in the comments below, or on Instagram @stephpellett.
PS. Most of these app suggestions are straight out of my systems database for solopreneurs, The Appothecary, which is the perfect place to find programs that will make your (business) life easier on a daily basis. For every category, I narrow it down to a few great options to choose from for your particular business need.
PPS. I also list some of my favourite business tools on my Resources page, which you can see for free here!