The Business of Freelancing

The business of freelancing is hard work. I recently presented on this topic to my peers.

This afternoon, I gave a presentation titled “Taking Care of Business – Tools and Tech for Running your Freelance Business” at the annual 2012 Freelance Conference. The crowd was great and asked some incisive questions. Freelancing is a tough gig and I’d never have made a success of it without taking what others shared with me. this was a chance for me to give something to my freelancing comrades.

Once of the challenges of such a talk – I only had 45 minutes including question time – is to cover such a broad topic and do each part justice. I’m hoping to organise a longer version – perhaps a half or full day seminar on the business of freelancing – in the near future. If you’re interested let me know.

However, here’s my slide deck from today. Naturally, it’s not the same when you just look at the slides without the rest of my presentation. I’ve added a couple of extra slides here to add some extra information.

Online Accounts Software Compared

Online accounting software can make the freelancer’s life much simpler. We look at Saasu and Xero

As a freelancer, it’s tempting to focus completely on the business of your chosen profession be it writing, taking photos, designing or developing. But the cold, hard reality is that there are a bunch of business administration tasks that need your attention. One of those tasks managing your accounts. Until just a few years ago, that meant purchasing and installing fairly expensive software that was difficult to use. It wasn’t that the functionality was lacking. It’s just that the software was complex and looked like it had been designed by accountants for accountants.

Modern accounting software has evolved and, like many other applications, has moved to the cloud. There are several advantages with a cloud solution. Firstly, rather than having to export and send data files to your accountant, you can simply give them direct access to your data. Also, a cloud based solution means that you can hop from one computer to another without the need to instal anything – very handy if you move between client sites and computers. The other benefit is that when the software is enhanced, you get the benefit of those improvements instantly without having to manually update your software.

Of course, there are some other things to consider. Backing up your data remains your problem. Although most cloud providers do look after things well, it is important to make your owen backups up accounts, invoices and other important data. Also, cloud services tend to work on a subscription model so there’s an annual fee – something that can be avoided if you only buy your accounting software once every few years and don’t upgrade as new versions are released. This software distribution model is often called SaaS – Software as a Service.

A couple of good options for online accounting software are Saasu and Xero.

Saasu

Saasu has a simple user interface that makes it easy for business people to focus on their business, rather than admin, Saasu makes a tedious task less painful. Creating invoices, receiving payments, entering expenses and reconciling bank statements are all trivially easy. All of Saasu’s screens are clearly laid out. When you need to add a new piece of basic information, such as the contact details for client or a new expense category, you can do that while creating your transaction.

There are full payroll facilities that comply with Australian tax rules and Saasu is regularly updated. Completing a regular BAS becomes trivially easy as Saasu automatically creates a worksheet with all the data neatly presented.

Saasu can interface with banks so that transitional information can be downloaded directly from your accounts to Saasu. This makes statement reconciliation easy and reduces the potential for errors in your accounts.

We used Saasu from PCs and Macs using a variety of browsers without any problems. It works nicely on the iPad although the cash-flow graph doesn’t appear in Safari. There’s also an iPhone app that makes it easy to enter invoices, payments and expenses.

Saasu is free for up to 20 transactions per month. If you need more than that, there are monthly, quarterly and annual subscription options.

Xero

Xero provides a clear, one-screen snapshot of your business’s cash-flow and other activities.

Entering transactions is easy as all of the forms are neatly laid out and setting up recurring transactions is a snap. If you have clients that require regular statements, Xero makes it easy to create and send them with just a few clicks and there’s a simple pie chart that shows which clients owe the most money.

Regular tax reporting is very easy as Xero produces an activity statement report that lists the BAS form boxes and the amounts you need to fill in for the tax office. Other reports such as profit and loss and balance sheets are easy to produce.

Running a payroll is easy. You can create a pay run that completes payroll for all your staff in one go with customised payslips so that you maintain a totally professional appearance. All other forms and documents, such as statements and invoices, can be customised with your own logos.

One neat feature is that if your clients or suppliers use Xero, you can have statements automatically transferred from one Xero user to another, negating the need for sending separate email with attached invoices. Although its usefulness might be limited today, it’s smart way to get companies interested in Xero.

Xero offers an iPhone app as well as broad browser compatibility. There’s a free trial with paid options starting at $29 per month.

Building up your profile

When you’re building your freelance practice, it’s important to find opportunities to get people to know you. A great way is to engage your local community.

When you’re building your freelance practice, it’s important to find opportunities to get people to know you. You could turn to advertising in freelance directories or the like but a great way is to engage your local community.

On the weekend, I spoke at a local Mac user group called AUSOM. As someone who writes about technology, I often talk at user groups and community events. This serves two purposes.

1. It’s a great way to support local organizations in a meaningful way.
2. It’s a low cost way to increase your profile.

From a business point of view, increasing your local profile can be useful as potential clients are likely to be close by.

Your direct skills and those that you’ve collected in addition are all valuable assets. There are photography groups, writing workshops, computer users, schools, churches – lots of places looking for quality speakers.

Seek some groups out. Go to a meeting or two and offer your services as a speaker.

Three steps to avoiding the freelancing trap

Freelancing? Not rich yet? Want to know why?

One of the traps of freelancing – really it’s going into small business by another name – is “the books”. No, this isn’t a lesson on book-keeping or reading balance sheets or even a master class on the dreaded BAS [Business Activity Statement], but instead a small piece on a common freelancing trap.

We know we need to make a profit. That’s what pays the rent or mortgage, buys food, takes care of insurance, rates, electricity bills etc. And of course profit is equivalent to sales minus costs. And therein lies the trap.

We all know how much we “sell”, that’s the easy bit. Costs are a different thing again. Who truly knows what their monthly costs are? Go on – be honest.

Step 1 – Catalog Your Expenses

Excerpt from one of the sheets of my spreadsheet

The only way to find out is to get a receipt for everything you buy and catalogue it. Even better, to get a more accurate average, do it for three months. And I do mean everything – as well as the obvious mortgage/rent, fuel, weekly grocery shop, include all those little things you normally wouldn’t consider such as the daily and weekend newspaper, your lunch from the sandwich bar, that Friday night beer at the pub, entry fee to the zoo with the kids.

Everything.

Don’t cheat at this either. Even throw your credit card payments in there for example and any money you set aside for holidays etc. These should also be entered in step 2 (below) that is later creating a meaningful budget from these numbers.

I use a purpose built Excel spreadsheet I made to catalogue this stuff, work out budgets, variances and summarise them all into monthly running totals. If you want a copy, let me know at david@auscamonline.com.

At the end of the first month you’ll be very surprised at how much you are spending. This is a good thing as it will allow you to create a realistic budget and find ways of cutting costs. Which means of course that the profit gets bigger! And that is the end game.

2 – Cut Unnecessary Costs

Cutting costs can be as simple as making a sandwich rather than buying one, using the bus or train on occasion rather than taking the car to appointments, making sure all unnecessary electrical appliances are off and not just on standby, making your own home brew (which is bloody good fun and a huge cost saver over packaged beer), washing the dog yourself as against a weekly hydrobath and so on.

3 – The Reading List

There a number of very good books I have read recently on these sorts of topics I can heartily recommend. I bought them through the Kindle bookshop via Amazon, but they are available in paperback too (although I do recommend the Kindle option!) [Affiliate Links]

The eagle-eyed among you will notice a common thread here (mostly). All except Alan Sugar are members of the Dragon’s Den team from the BBC TV show. They are all self-made multi-millionaires (as is Alan Sugar) and tell it as it is.

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This is a guest post by David Hague, editor of AusCam Online. You can follow David on Twitter  – he’s @vbthedog

Overcoming the loneliness of freelancing

There are some great benefits in being self-employed. A whole stack of advantages came out of a recent post on the best things about freelancing and the comments.However, it’s not all plain sailing. One of the benefits of a normal nine-to-five job is the contact with other people. In another recent post I mentioned that loneliness is one of the potential disadvantages of the freelance life.

I’m a fairly gregarious person by nature. While I’m OK with my own company, there are days when I thirst for some human contact. At the moment I’m doing a contract job that puts me in an office with other people for part of the week but I’ve also had to come up with some strategies for the days when I work at home.

One thing I do is schedule a social/work day every couple of weeks. In my home city of Melbourne, there’s a social media breakfast every Friday morning. So, I plan to get to that every couple of weeks or so. As well as breaking the week up a little, it’s an opportunity to meet and network with new people. On that day, I also make a point of setting at least one other meeting with a potential client, interview subject or other business contact.

Email lists are also a great way to expand your network and keep in touch with people. Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn are great places to look for discussions on topics of interest and for contacting new people.

Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are excellent as well although you’ll need to make sure you have plenty of self-discipline so that you don’t waste time on them.

Finally, I use the phone a lot. Rather than just emailing or tweeting my contacts I get on the phone a couple of times a day so that I hear a human voice and get a chance to interact more directly.

What do you do to overcome the solitude of working alone? Have you come up with some special tricks to help you through the day? Please share your ideas through the comments.