Let me tell you: it’s not easy running this one-woman show.
When I was just doing some writing and social media marketing on the side, I didn’t put much thought into what I was using to manage my business because, to be honest, I didn’t really think I was managing one.
But once I decided to turn my side hustle into a full-fledged business, I knew I had to step things up a notch. Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to access resources and tools to support an online business without having to spend a dime on subscription fees or software.
If you’re interested in starting a social media, content marketing, or freelance writing business, I highly recommend you start using the following free online business tools.
1. AND CO
When I started my business, dealing with contracts was a huge pain point for me. I didn’t like working without one, but trying to get them signed digitally was awkward for me and my clients.
Discovering AND CO was a game changer. This totally free online platform can handle invoicing and payments, proposals and contracts, time and expense tracking, and more. Since I use Wave to manage my accounting (more on that later), I primarily use AND CO to send proposals and contracts.
You can easily create new proposals in minutes, customized with your own branding and images and custom slides that sell you and your work. If you need a contract as well, you can simply embed one of their standard freelance contract and tweak it for your needs. And the best part is that their platform allows potential clients to sign and approve proposals and contracts, all online.
PRO TIP: Not sure how to structure a proposal? Keep it simple. Every proposal I send includes the following sections: project description, timeline, and scope (i.e. budget).
Oh, Asana. Where would I be without you? I used the project management tool for years when I worked in different marketing departments, but for the longest time, I was using my phone’s reminder app to schedule my freelance work.
It only occurred to me to set up my own Asana account when I went full-time, but now, I literally couldn’t run my business without it. The free version is available for teams of up to 15 people and it allows you to create tasks and subtasks, schedule in deadlines, and view your work in a to-do list or calendar format so you can evenly distribute your tasks throughout the week or month.
PRO TIP: When you view your tasks in Calendar mode, you can easily drag and drop them to move them around.
While I find it helpful to use a separate scheduling tool for Instagram, I use Buffer for my LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter posts. The Free Plan is pretty limited – only three accounts, no team members, and 10 scheduled posts at a time – but as a solopreneur, these options suit my business needs just fine.
However, if you have a bigger company or find social media to be an integral facet of your marketing or sales, you might want to upgrade to one of their paid plans to get more features.
PRO TIP: If you want to maximize your content’s social media engagement, make sure every post is accompanied by a compelling visual. Buffer offers two free tools to help users create beautiful images for social media – Pablo and Stories Creator.
Before I start working with a new client, I always schedule a Storytelling Strategy Call. In this 30-minute call, I try to learn as much as possible about their business goals and current roadblocks. This helps me figure out how and where I can make the most impact on their social media or content marketing efforts.
To cut down on the back-and-forth emails, I started using Calendly to schedule these calls. Setup is super easy, you can set the timeframe and your availability preferences, and even create a short form to collect information from potential clients. Once you send them the scheduling link, they pick a time and the event is added to both of your calendars. Easy-peezy.
PRO TIP: Make sure to include some buffer room with your available times. Because it’s never fun to have a client book a call that’s back-to-back with a prior engagement.
I’m no graphic designer and while I’ve tried using Photoshop and InDesign, this is a skill that just doesn’t come naturally to me. Fortunately, Canva makes creating beautiful, on-brand graphics super simple. Their Forever Free version gives users two folders to organize designs, 1GB storage for photos and assets, access to over 8,000 templates, the ability to load your own images and access to millions of stock photos and icons.
PRO TIP: Not sure what fonts go with which? Try Canva’s Font Combinations tool to discover the perfect font combination for your design needs.
There are a lot of Instagram schedulers out there, but my go-to is Planoly. This platform lets you visually manage, plan, and schedule your Instagram posts from your computer or mobile phone. It’s most well-known for its drag-and-drop function, which allows you to move photos around on a grid before you schedule them to help you create a cohesive feed.
PRO TIP: The Planoly blog offers lots of amazing tutorials, best practices, downloadables and more to help you fine-tune your IG strategy.
As a social media marketer, I use stock photos quite a bit. They add a high-quality visual element to both my clients’ feeds and my own. However, finding beautiful, free, stock photos without copyright restrictions was tough until I found StockSnap.
This website offers all of the above benefits, and it’s frequently updated so you can always find new content for your social media or graphic design needs. You can also search their photo database by category or keyword.
PRO TIP: If you sign up for an account, you can save all your favorite photos in one place without having to download them all at once.
When I started freelancing, I was creating invoices using Word templates and tracking my income in Excel. When I found Wave, it honestly blew my mind. This totally free platform helps me track my income and expenses, manage my cash flow, create branded invoices in minutes, create recurring invoices for regular clients, and more. Plus, the company is based in Toronto (#supportlocal).
PRO TIP: If you set up Payments by Wave, you can accept credit card and bank payments through the platform. This isn’t a free feature (transaction fees start at 1%), but if you factor it into your pricing, you can absorb the cost.
Last but certainly not least, we have one of the OG content management platforms: WordPress. I will admit, compared to some of the newer players on the market, WordPress can be intimidating for beginners. But its wide range of plugins makes it a top choice for newbies and web design pros alike.
What I love most about WordPress is its scalability. Back in the day, this website was a simple online portfolio. As my business grew, I was able to develop my site along with it.
PRO TIP: If you’re planning to produce blogs, make sure you download the Yoast SEO plugin. It handles the technical optimization of your site and assists with optimizing your content.
The Honourable Mentions
(i.e. the one’s that cost money)
Even though it’s a bit obvious, I had to have G Suite on my list. In my opinion, how you present yourself digitally is just as important as how you present yourself IRL. I conduct a lot of my business interactions through email. From the get-go, having a professional email presence was really important to me. For $60 a year, you can create a business email and get access to a full suite of resources.
Some key features: Google Drive allows you to create shared folders and document (super helpful when you’re delivering work that requires revisions or feedback). Google Keep, a note-taking app, is perfect for jotting down random ideas. I’ve totally eliminated my use of post-it notes with this app.
PRO TIP: Need to share documents or files with clients and vice versa? I’ve stopped using email and started creating shared folders for my projects to make collaboration a breeze.
You might’ve noticed that I almost always use photos of people of colour on my blog and social media. Because #stockphotossowhite, I source the majority of these images from TONL. For about $40 CAD a month, I get 15 high-resolution images featuring people of various ethnic backgrounds. I also get to make sure that all of my digital feeds are highly melanated.
PRO TIP: If you do sign up, keep in mind that your subscription does not rollover. So if you don’t download your photos within 30 days, you’re SOL.
Congratulations – you made it to the end of this post! Hopefully, you found it helpful. If you didn’t, I’m really sorry and here’s a fun gif for sticking it out anyway. Do you have any other free or low-cost resources that you would add to this list? Give ‘em a shout-out in the comments.