Between tight deadlines, sky-high client expectations, a thousand unread emails, and uncertain cash flow, staying on top of your freelance business is tough—and there’s never enough time.
Bad news: you can’t clone yourself. Or add more hours to the day.
But not to worry. There’s also some good news.
Good news: you can automate (almost) everything.
Putting automation tools to work for your business means 3 things:
1. You save time
Freelancers tend to spend a ridiculous amount of time on tedious manual processes. Putting together proposals, drafting prospect emails, filling out timesheets, invoicing, lining up meetings, and all sorts of other “business-y stuff.”
And that stuff takes a lot of time.
Automation tools allow you to streamline these processes so you can spend more time doing things you actually enjoy. And that drives your bottom line.
It’s no wonder that
- 74% of people list saving time as the biggest reason why they’re using marketing automation
- automation drives a 5% increase in productivity
2. You make more money
Freeing up time spent on repetitive, manual tasks means you can focus your energy on profitable work. Automation tools also reduce the feast-and-famine cycle of new businesses by making marketing and outreach more efficient.
- 80% of businesses using automation tools have seen an increase in leads
- 68% of top-performing small businesses are using marketing automation
3. You reduce errors and costly mistakes
Not only do repetitive manual tasks waste enormous amounts of time and energy, but they also result in costly mistakes that reduce efficiency and can expose your business to unnecessary risk.
By automating manual processes, you can reduce those errors and mistakes. That means better quality assurance, higher productivity, and happier clients.
How I learned to stop wasting time and start automating
When I first started freelancing, I didn’t automate anything.
I was the poster child of inefficiency. I barely used keyboard shortcuts.
My productivity suffered, and so did my results. Doing everything manually meant more mistakes and delays. I had less time to take on work and, as a result, had smaller profits.
It was also stressful. Without using automation tools, my day was often consumed by busy work. I was spending more time creating invoices, scheduling meetings, drafting different versions of the same prospecting email . . . and less time on making money.
Then something awesome happened.
I started working with a new client. She owned her own business, and like any successful entrepreneur, she hustled harder than practically anyone.
But something was different about her.
I remember thinking, “Damn. How does Tara get so much done?”
There are 168 hours in a week, but somehow it seemed like Tara had more like 200. She consistently cranked out high-quality work, and fast. I was impressed.
I also felt like a loser.
Inefficiency was killing my business, one manual copy and paste at a time.
I knew that if I could work as efficiently as Tara, I could reduce stress, eliminate mistakes, and make more money.
So I started taking notes—and discovered Tara’s secret.
Here’s what I found:
Tara wasn’t just smarter and harder working than other entrepreneurs (though she is, incidentally, both those things). She was actually an automation machine.
Tara’s secret for doing better work, faster
Turns out that Tara didn’t have any more hours in the week than anyone else. But she was a master of using automation tools to speed up and foolproof her processes.
Over the next several months, I studied and started adopting her strategies. I incorporated several automation tools into my own freelancing business and also experimented with other technologies in my ongoing work with Tara’s company.
Finding the best automation tools has become something of a personal mission. In this post, I want to share some of the best automation software I’ve found so you can save time, make more money, and reduce costly errors in your business.
The 10 best automation tools for freelancers and small businesses
You have better things to do than play email tag to schedule meetings. Calendly automates scheduling so you can focus on getting work done.
After connecting Calendly with your Google, iCloud, Office 365, or Outlook calendar, simply share your personalized link with your contacts and allow them to schedule a meeting time that works for everyone, with no back-and-forth required.
A free Calendly account allows for scheduling a single event type and duration. Premium accounts (starting at $8 per month) offer unlimited event types, customizable reminders, group events, and more.
Get the most out of it: add a Calendly link to your email signature so anyone can use the service to schedule time to talk to you.
If automation has a mothership, it might be Zapier. The service allows you to automatically send data between more than 750 apps with customizable “zaps.”
Create Trello cards from new starred Slack messages. Update a Google spreadsheet every time a SurveyMonkey survey is submitted. Create a new note in Evernote each time a task is added in Asana.
A free plan allows you to run three zaps at a time and up to 100 tasks per month. Premium plans feature more zaps and tasks, access to premium integrations, and allow multi-step zaps for more sophisticated automation.
A great place to start: use this zap to add starred Gmail messages to Wunderlist so you have a central place for task management.
Zapier’s distant cousin, IFTTT (If This, Then That) allows you to create “applets” that connect apps with logic-based workflows. Not sure where to start? IFTTT’s collections are a gold mine for freelancers looking to automate their work.
IFTTT is free for individuals, but a Partner plan ($99 per month) allows you to publish a service via your API; integrate with top brands like Spotify, Nest, and the New York Times; and embed applets in your own app or website. (Most freelancers won’t need all this, but it’s a cool feature anyway.)
Build your social cred: use this applet to share your recommended Medium stories on LinkedIn.
If you work with a remote team, Front can serve as a command center for coordinating email communication. Forget forwarding emails back and forth—Front allows users to assign and tag each other on emails. Team members can even comment directly on the emails themselves.
Better yet, Front saves you time with automated rules for emails meeting predefined criteria. And it supports pre-written responses for answering common questions with just one click.
Front offers a free 14-day trial, with plans starting at $19 per user per month. Premium and Enterprise plans offer advanced analytics and additional integrations with apps like Salesforce, JIRA, and HipChat.
Stay highly connected: use Front to coordinate with team members or virtual assistants working on landing new contracts.
Video chat has transformed working life for freelancers and remote teams, but setting up all those meetings can be a real time suck. Zoom makes video chat super simple with an easy-to-use interface, screen-sharing, and recording capabilities.
It also allows you to create Zoom Rooms: individual meeting spaces accessible anytime, anywhere with a single click. Set up a Zoom Room and share it with coworkers and clients for impromptu meetings on the fly.
Zoom offers a free basic plan for individuals, but meetings of three or more people are limited to 40 minutes, and admin controls are basic at best. Freelancers and small teams are better served with the Pro plan, which runs $14.99 per host per month.
Provide excellent customer service: set up one-touch conferencing for your most important clients so they can always reach you.
Even if you don’t manage social media for your clients, you should still be using it. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn can be valuable ways to establish credibility and make connections. But scheduling social media posts manually is a sure-fire way to burn valuable time.
Load your content into Buffer (save even more time using a CSV upload), and this automation tool schedules your updates for you, queuing them up to send at times of peak engagement.
Buffer’s free plan allows individuals to connect up to five accounts and schedule up to 10 updates. For freelancers, the Awesome plan ($10 per month) is the way to go, allowing you to connect up to 10 social accounts (including Pinterest) and schedule up to 100 posts per account.
If you’re managing multiple client accounts, team plans start at $99 per month, and allow more connected accounts, more updates, and extra seats for team members managing the queue.
Save even more time: connect Buffer to Feedly or Pocket to automatically share your favorite articles.
Who doesn’t want to spend less time driving more traffic? Edgar makes it happen. What the folks at Edgar have figured out is that by recycling your social media content, you can get more miles out of every post, tweet, and update.
Tell Edgar what type of content you want shared at what times (you can create categories like “Blog Posts,” “Product Updates,” and “Just for Fun”) and the tool will randomly publish an update from your pre-loaded content library.
Edgar is on the pricier side at $79 per month, but you can connect up to 25 social media accounts (Edgar currently supports Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn).
Provide maximum value: let your clients know you’ll be sharing content you create for them with Edgar. No extra work for you, and free promotion for them.
When it comes to automation tools, chatbots are the coolest kids on the block right now. And regardless of your technical ability, Motion AI makes creating automated chatbots easier than ever—no coding required.
Use the software’s visual workflows to create chatbots for almost any messaging platform—SMS, Facebook Messenger, web-based, SMS, Slack . . . if you can name it, you can almost certainly build it.
Individuals can create up to two bots and send up to 1,000 messages per month with a free plan, while more robust plans supporting more bots and messages start at just $15 per month.
Get creative: use a chatbot to see if clients would be a good fit for your business, if you have services that meet their needs, or to provide additional information. Your chatbot will stand out when other freelancers are using old-school methods like email and phone calls.
Every freelancer knows how long it can take to craft a new business proposal. Bidsketch is an automation tool designed to streamline the process and eliminate potentially costly errors. Choose from a full library of customizable proposal templates, enter your client and project details, and deliver professional, error-free proposals in half the time.
Bidsketch even allows you to automate new client workflows and onboarding processes with approval messages, automatic prompts for deposit, new client guides, and more.
Freelancers can take advantage of Bidsketch’s Solo plan for just $29 per month, while small teams and agencies can opt for a more robust plan starting at $79 per month, which includes multiple users and team management. All plans include templates, branding, analytics, electronic signatures, and your own domain.
Earn more: use Bidsketch to add extra options to your proposal. Up-selling has never been so easy.
Time tracking increases productivity, but it can also take a lot of time if you do it manually. Hubstaff automates time tracking, reporting, and invoicing. Stop wasting time doing it all yourself! Hubstaff also integrates with project management software and accounting services, so you can streamline your day-to-day operations.
The simple automation involved will help you identify inefficiencies before they eat into your profits.
Hubstaff is free for anyone to use, with premium features available for freelancers, agencies, and remote teams starting at $5 per month per user.
Pro tip: use app and URL tracking to see where you’re spending your time. You might be surprised.
How do you automate?
These 10 apps will help you automate just about everything. But I know there are a lot of other great automation tools for freelancers and small businesses out there, too!
Whether you just want to make your email process more efficient or you want to create an entire automation system from scratch, there are resources that will help you do it.
And we want to hear about them.
Already automating your own business? What are your favorite automation tools? What has saved you a lot of time? Share your experience and recommendations in the comments!