February 28, 2005

Independent Workflow

When I started out on my own a few months ago I quickly became aware of the need for better organization; not only for myself, but for the sake of the people I work with. I have always considered myself an organized person, but this was a bigger jump from being employed. It’s always easier when you can just focus on your own work and rely on other people like project managers and account executives to keep track of time and assets. Gone are the bloated and complicated (or worse yet, underdeveloped) extranets and intranets of the working world. I am in charge of what happens now, and I like to keep everything in order. My methods are admittedly lo-fi, but they serve my needs just fine.

Some things became apparent immediately. Professionally I needed ways to categorize and track jobs by client and date, as well as put forth a nice portal for clients to view their work from. Personally, I needed a way to organize the chaos of a solo operation. Thanks in part to Apple and the ingenious folks at 37signals, many of the solutions were sitting right in front of me.

For time and schedules I didn’t have to look any further than iCal. Pair up a really robust calendar setup with plenty of customizable options, to-do lists, and alarms, and Apple has me sold (even though it’s free). Each client job gets its own schedule and color, and alarm emails help to remind me of upcoming milestones. I just recently purchased an iBook and now publish my calendars out to my server (via WebDAV) from my iMac and subscribe to them from iCal on my laptop. Hot. This works very well when I need to bring in subcontractors on a project, I can make a schedule that they can subscribe to, and everyone is up to date. iCal also gets some brownie points for playing nice with other frequently used Apple apps, iChat, Mail, and Address Book. If you aren’t on a Mac, or for some silly reason hate iCal, fear not! Mozilla has a cross-platform calendar initiative in the form of a Firefox (or Thunderbird) extension and a standalone calendar app called Sunbird. Both support the iCal standard for storing calendar data, so share and share alike.

For project management you really can’t beat 37signals’ Basecamp. Plenty of people have sung its praises, so I won’t waste too much time telling you how great it is. Basecamp is lightweight and whips your projects into order, helping even the most unorganized of people impose a structure and process to their work. Sadly, I am actually still using the free version right now, but hope to be able to upgrade to one of the more flexible paid plans as soon as I can justify the expense. The free version still works very well for a few larger projects, especially the ones that require a few extra bodies. I have used the full version when working with other companies (the main differences are FTP capabilities, and the ability to maintain more than one project at a time), and it just makes everything so seamless. Plainly, Basecamp not only helps you get it together, but it makes you look good in the process. Oh yeah, and schedules can be subscribed to using iCal (or Sunbird). Damn straight.

Also of note is 37signals’ other baby, Ta-Da Lists. It’s basically the to-do lists from Basecamp, but free, and a little less intense. These simple, shareable to-do lists have now become my homepage of choice. It serves as a soft reminder of what needs to get done, every time you open a new window… especially useful if you are easily lost to web surfing the day away. Don’t let these lists deceive you, because they can be shared, you can instantly extend them as your own pseudo project management solution. Sure, it takes a little bit more upkeep than Basecamp, but it beats sending and receiving around 30 emails in one day from a chain of “reply all” messages to upkeep your projects.

One last little wrinkle completes this loop of guerilla organization. After the invoices started piling up I started to get frustrated with the paper flow. I needed an easy way to keep tabs on all my invoiced payments, past and present. Something like a giant spreadsheet, but I hate Excel. I looked into Quicken and Quickbooks, but they were too involved. I’m not huge into programming, but I am good at finding solutions for specific needs. So, I made my own invoice tracking app using the poor-man’s CMS, MovableType. I just make each job number its own entry, client names as categories, and MT’s conditional for comments status becomes the toggle between unpaid, partially paid, and paid. A few templates later, some custom year archive code from a little birdy, and viola. I can access a master page with everything, and the clients can see just their invoices which are set as category archives that publish into their client folder (where they view their work from). In time, I could even make the individual entries printable invoices for the client to use. Simple and quick, with no bloat.

There you have it. I don’t claim to have the best workflow and organization, but I feel pretty efficient. All that matters is the less time I need to spend managing this one-man-show, the more time I can dedicate to doing what’s most important to me.

Commentary (45):

1. patrick h. lauke says… feb 28, 2005 | 9:41 pm

amazing timing…i have started to take on a few more freelance projects, and have come up against the same need to get organised. the free basecamp, sunbird and - not sure about this one just yet, but taking it for a spin nonetheless - open workbench (a microsoft project alternative http://www.openworkbench.org/ )
thanks for sharing your solution!

2. Mike J says… feb 28, 2005 | 9:46 pm

For awhile now I have been using My Brain™ to organize client projects and such… this method really just ends up giving me a headache, losing track of things, etc… would you recommend basecamp to a small team of say, one developer?

3. Jan Brasna says… feb 28, 2005 | 10:12 pm

Duh, project management… Still trying to move forward from postit + mail marks + paper to-do to some more sophisticated solution. I’ll definitely use some kind of (customised) opensource groupware system.

Ad calendars)
I have problems syncing iCal, Sunbird, Nokia6230 and some sort of web-based groupware :( I’ll work on it, however I’m afraid there is no easy solution…

Ad Sunbird) Sunbird alone is quite OK, but I’m looking forward to the Lightning Project (Groupware extension for TBird)

I’m happy that I’m not the only one using all these lo-end methods and organizing all the mess around :D

4. Justin Perkins says… feb 28, 2005 | 11:28 pm

Wow, that’s easily the motivation I needed to crack open iCal and get organized. I’m excited to see that there is a nice standardized format so everyone can play nicely.

5. James Archer says… feb 28, 2005 | 11:36 pm

Jason, have you taken a look at Copper Project? I’ve got a copy that I’m looking to sell (for cheap) because I don’t need it any more. It’s a great application for tracking clients and projects — just didn’t fit quite right for the way my firm works, so we’re building an in-house solution instead.

6. nathan says… feb 28, 2005 | 11:57 pm

I am also organizationally challenged on freelanced projects. I’ve started using most of the same stuff. minus the whole moveable type invoice deal. that and I don’t have a mac…I think I need to get one just to fit in.

7. Mike says… mar 1, 2005 | 1:27 am

I’ve been freelancing full-time for about a year now and, like a lot of people in this situation, I’ve been searching for a solution to this issue as well.

I personally use Quickbooks for my invoicing, expenses and payment tracking. It is quite overwhelming but hopefully it will make tax time a whole lot easier.

As far as using iCal I didn’t even think of using it the way you do Jason. The stupid thing is that I’ve been using it for a ton of personal stuff but didn’t even consider it for work. Hmmm. *heads off to main computer and opens iCal*

8. Alex says… mar 1, 2005 | 3:36 am

I’ve been doing more freelance projects on the side recently, and I’ve been using the combination of iBank and iBiz (formerly iWork) to manage my finances and invoicing tasks. Although I haven’t gotten super deep into either program yet, they work together extremely well, and they also integrate with iCal and Address Book.

I downloaded trial versions of each and was suitably impressed, so I bought both together for the reasonable price of $39.99. Info and downloads available here.

Hope this helps somebody as much as it helped me. For those on a tight budget, I haven’t found a better solution.

9. Matt says… mar 1, 2005 | 5:48 am

Would you say that by working in a firm prior to going freelance made a big factor in your success and knowledge of what you do now?

I think I might have jumped the gun, from high school to creating my own company, and I’m falling on my face. Luckily nothing legal. Just personal. I think it has to do with lack of experience.

10. Jason Santa Maria says… mar 1, 2005 | 7:06 am

Most certainly Matt, you really need to take your licks first. While it’s a nice idea to start your own firm someday, first thing after school probably isn’t the best time. There is already a steep enough learning curve of the way real world design practices work, whether with print or interactive graphic design. I know it helped me to be able to observe others who knew more on the job and be able to learn under their instruction.

I think it’s also important to understand that there are many states in between “employed by a company” and “owner of a company”. For instance, right now I am taking a small step and trying this out on my own. I am not even thinking about hiring other people. I need to make sure this is 1) what I want, and 2) financially feasible. Already working in the industry for a number of years has given me a bit of foresight and patience about the best way to (hopefully) become successful.

11. Matt Vega says… mar 1, 2005 | 8:03 am

Yeah, going solo is a real beeatsch sometimes in terms of running the whole show alone etc…
But then again it really pays of in some ways — i.e. Your own workflow and all the fun stuff that comes with it

Yep…but right now life as an agency employee ain’t what it used to be… :(

12. Jason Beaird says… mar 1, 2005 | 8:53 am

I can’t believe nobody’s commented on your use of Movable Type as a Client Management System…that’s nuts! I like it. I would like to jump into the freelance biz someday. I would probably have to narrow down exactly what I do first. Lately I’ve been working on a freelance gig modeling and animating a huge 3D Studio project of all things. There’s always that voice in my head that tells me to just chill out after a long day of work…but who really listens to that anyhow?

13. Kyle Stauffer says… mar 1, 2005 | 9:27 am

I agree great use of MT for a client system… very clever.

I too am nuts about TaDa lists. Ever since I got that first email announcing their arrival, they’ve been my daily “scribble pad” of todo’s.

37 signals has it figured out for sure.

14. Naz says… mar 1, 2005 | 9:44 am

A freelancer for almost 2 years now, got up a company and it has never been easier. When I jumped out of the comfortable zone, I thought I could organise well. But hell no. Years later, everything went from worse to good, at least. Learning how to organize on your own leaves some scars here & there. How bout that MT invoice solution? Sounds pretty interesting. Mind if I know how? :)

15. James Archer says… mar 1, 2005 | 10:52 am

I agree with Jason that it certainly helps to pay your dues at an existing firm so you can learn what to do (and what not to do).

I had the good fortune to get on as a project/account manager with a prominent local web firm, and the experience I acquired there was invaluable. The main reason I took the job was to see how they sold jobs, kept track of projects, managed invoicing, wrote proposals, dealt with difficult or awkward client situations, etc.

For anyone seriously wanting to start their own business, I recommend spending a year or so with a relatively large local firm that you admire. You’ll learn things within the first few weeks that might have taken you years to pick up on your own.

16. Jon Hicks says… mar 1, 2005 | 11:21 am

I get the feeling that I haven’t ‘got’ basecamp yet. Everyone raves about it, but for me it seems like an expensive way to add to my admin time. Trying out the free trial I can’t even see how to add my 1 active project. Maybe I just need more time…

I agree about iCal though - superb tool for scheduling.

17. steve says… mar 1, 2005 | 11:22 am

Great insight. thanks. I’ve been toying with the idea of upgrading Quicken 2004 to the Pro version to track all my stuff and now that you talk about using MT I might give that some thoght. One question though… How do you track cash flow and expenses for tax purposes? You still need a book keeping system like Quicken or Quickbooks.
Anyway, I like the ibook connected to the hip bone system with ical… any thought on how that would integrate with a Palm Pilot?
Best Regards,

18. Dave Strus says… mar 1, 2005 | 12:59 pm

I’m confused. Is the Happy Cog thing just kind of a loose affiliation or what?

19. Greg says… mar 1, 2005 | 2:19 pm

Matt, get thyself into college or art school post haste. Nothing will prepare you better for starting your own business than furthering your education.

20. Jason Santa Maria says… mar 1, 2005 | 4:08 pm

Steve: Well, I track all of my expenses and cash flow situations with a trusty folder full of receipts. Since my business is my desk in my apartment, I file taxes quarterly, and most of my client relations happen online, these are pretty easily managed by hand. Every couple months, pull out the folder and fill out some paperwork. The Invoice app I made with MT is simple. Really simple. It’s not supposed to be an all-in-one solution to managing money. I had a specific problem and I needed a specific solution. It organizes client names and job numbers, payment (or invoice) dates, and payment status. It adds up everything for me (paid and unpaid) and spits out the difference and the total. I just take the total paid and work out my taxes from there.

21. Dave Strus says… mar 1, 2005 | 4:25 pm

Darn it, Stan! I don’t get all this running-my-own-business talk right after you joined Happy Cog.

22. Jason Santa Maria says… mar 1, 2005 | 4:34 pm

Hehehe, calm yourself down :D

Happy Cog isn’t a day-to-day job, I am just a super-preferred worker bee. I was going to post something about it awhile back, but then realized there wasn’t really a point. Most clients don’t read my site, and they were the only ones who might even care about a particular like that. All that they really need to know is what’s important, I am part of the Happy Cog team and work on Happy Cog projects.

23. Aaron B. says… mar 1, 2005 | 6:53 pm

So I assume you have the invoice tracking app through MT password protected? Do you give each client a separate login or how does that work so that they can access only their projects?


24. Allan W. says… mar 1, 2005 | 7:46 pm

I’d have to second the mention of iBiz (I haven’t tried iBank). iBiz will even pull in stuff from iCal – useful if you start a project with milestones in basecamp. The invoicing is much easier now, and the timetracking is awesome (track everything to the minute!).

Basecamp’s worth it for me (solo for 3 years now) - especially when things get busy and there’s 10 projects in the hopper.

25. Jason Liske says… mar 2, 2005 | 2:07 am

Quickbooks is easy to use people. I can’t believe we are using weblogs to manage dollars. Well ok I can understand the whole “comfortable” with a solution, but if you have business credit cards, track time, pay biz bills, etc, you are going to want something to spit out the important numbers come tax time. For me Quickbooks is a no brainer. Set the default for graphic designer or consultant and modify a few items, you are good to go. Hope that helps.

26. Jason Santa Maria says… mar 2, 2005 | 7:47 am

Aaron: Yep, everything is password protected and each client gets a separate login (which they were receiving anyway to view their work-in-progress).

Jason: Believe it. Programs like Quickbooks and Quicken are more than I needed. I was looking for a more middle of the road solution. I tried Money and also iBiz awhile back and was unhappy with their features (or their bugs). So I figured out a better way to manage things for myself.

27. Sean Madden says… mar 2, 2005 | 10:27 am

Hey Jason,

I am also a huge fan of iCal and used it awhile back when I was juggling lots of personal projects.

One of the ways I used the iCal alerts was to plug in the email address to my cell phone so that even if I was away from my computer, iCal would happily send me a text message reminding me that I needed to be across town in a half hour.

While some may not like that level of organization, it allowed me to not have to worry about missing appointments while away from my desk. It also meant that I didn’t have to worry about syncing my calendar to my phone, especially considering that at the time the phone I had only came with a rudimetary calendaring system.

28. David says… mar 2, 2005 | 6:06 pm

I also had tried out Basecamp, but couldn’t justify the expense. I looked at dozens of open-source alternatives and have recently started using PHPCollab (http://www.php-collab.org/). I’m also a one-person studio at this point, and it’s working really well for managing the projects I have on the go. All clients have their own login to view documents, tasks, calendars and so on — and in the new version, there’s even an invoicing module (although I haven’t upgraded it yet).

Although it sounds like you’ve got a pretty good system going, you might want to take a look. It’s certainly made me (world’s least organised designer) a whole lot more efficient.

29. Oliver says… mar 3, 2005 | 12:12 am

Just curious, why MT?

30. Ryan Christensen says… mar 3, 2005 | 12:36 am

This seems to be a rather hot topic recently.. interesting to know what people are powering their operations with.

Our shop of two wasn’t able to find anything that really suited our needs (which aren’t exactly unique, but certainly aren’t met to a satisfactory level by anything currently on the market.) We’re rolling our own “business management” solution built on Rails, and it’s been working fantastic thus far.. scheduling, tasks, projects (w/ eventual tie-in to Basecamp, hopefully), client login, work-order tracking, low-level invoicing, etc. We’ve also got iCal/Moz calendar exporting on the horizon, and more.

There are even some plans to release a hosted version in the near future.. assuming there’s enough interest.

31. Jason Santa Maria says… mar 3, 2005 | 7:03 am

Oliver: Why not MT? Actually, that’s not even the question, what you should really be asking yourself is “why not make something that serves your needs”? I am not a high-level programmer, but I saw the simple means to get the effect of what I wanted. There wasn’t anything around that helped with the way I prefer to work, so I made my own. That’s it.

32. Tony says… mar 3, 2005 | 10:18 am

Have you looked at Quickbooks “Simple Start”, or the online edition? Seems like something like that might suit you as a next step when you outgrow your current system, but aren’t ready to go all out on an accounting suite.

I’ve been playing around with a web app called GroupOffice (the free version), which seems to work pretty well. It brings together some of the features of a project management app with your email and calendar.

33. Zorthron says… mar 3, 2005 | 5:43 pm

I guess you don’t need me anymore.

*sob, sob, sob*

34. Todd Prouty says… mar 4, 2005 | 3:56 pm

For invoicing and keeping track of time spent on a project, OpenAir is a great tool. If you want to use a timer to keep track of time worked, you can do so, or you can enter your own time-based or flat-rate billable items. When you’re ready, select the client and create an invoice. By default, all outstanding billable items for that client are entered into the invoice, but you can deselect them. You can then e-mail the invoice directly from the site. Clients receive a URL to view the invoice. A printable version is also available, of course. It also helps to keep track of who has paid their invoices, and lots more. It has many features I don’t even use.

Unfortunately, they no longer have a free version. But a one-user license is $9.95/month. I could save money by doing something like you did with MT, but I really like how OpenAir works. Oh, it’s great for looking at past invoices, too, or seeing how much you made in the past year or any other period.

35. Fargoboy says… mar 14, 2005 | 11:07 pm

I’m not what you’d call a numbers guy, but I noticed one day that a version of QuickBooks (the New User Edition) came with my PowerBook. It walked me through the setup process and now I find it an invaluable part of my freelance business. I use Ta-Da lists to keep track of day-to-day tasks, but the bulk of the business tasks are taken care of by QuickBooks NUE. The report generation features are quite useful and pretty darn simple to figure out. The full version apparently has a lot of bells and whistles for bigger businesses, but this version fits me perfectly.

36. Ben Prendergast says… mar 15, 2005 | 5:31 pm

Hi Guys, I came across this from our web logs so props to Jason and the above article. I just wanted everyone to know that Copper Project is a couple of weeks from launching an all new version, which will include iCal synching, tighter CRM, enhanced Files module, and a new invoicing module. If you’re after something a little more project-oriented come and check us out and if there is anything a miss please drop me a line and say hi (we develop according to customer feedback). Anyway, keep up the good work!

37. Rutger says… mar 24, 2005 | 10:30 am

I am also in the process of starting up my own business, I looked into lots of stuff, but for a on-man operation I can recommend Studiometry by oranged.net. It really does everyting I want. Great app and it’s all offline. Works on Mac ánd PC and looks and feels great. Integration with iCal, Address Book, todo’s from the menubar (on the mac!) you can even do your taxes in it!

And no, noone’s paying me to say this :)

38. Marek Kowalczyk says… mar 31, 2005 | 5:48 pm

For a discussion on the superiority of paper over computer and description of a simple WORKING system to get organized, see Thinking and Paper.

39. Matt Johnson says… apr 20, 2005 | 1:19 am

Hey Jason,

I know this was posted ages ago, but I am doing something very similar, and i was curious. How did you give each client their own login? I mean, how did you restrict them to only their “category” ??

40. Jason Santa Maria says… apr 20, 2005 | 8:02 am

Matt: I use .htaccess to password protect directories. You can do this by hand, or you can get on a great host like Dreamhost who have a great web panel that let’s you manage htaccess automatically.

41. Matt Johnson says… apr 20, 2005 | 11:39 am

Well that definitely makes sense.

With a little research I found out that my host also has a webpanel for directory protection. Very nice.

42. Peter Akkies says… aug 5, 2005 | 11:07 am

For invoices, there’s something much better than MovableType. Have a look at Blinksale.

43. Craig Cameron says… aug 8, 2005 | 8:32 am

For a different product to help with your workflow you can try Workflow Software.

44. chr says… jan 15, 2006 | 12:08 pm

iratchet looks good and not too pricey.


45. Ben Prendergast says… may 30, 2006 | 1:49 am

Hi Guys,

Just a quick note to let you know we have a new version of Copper out now. Copper 2006: Project Management Software (v3.0).

The new version includes a refined interface to reduce clicks, a draggable dynamic timeline view, improved file uploads, MS Project Import, and for the first time we have a billing module attached to your projects (including dynamic PDF output).

Drop me line directly if you have any queries, or head on over to http://www.copperproject.com and sign up for a free trial.

Take care,
Ben Prendergast