The Best Free (Or Cheap) Tools for the “Business Side” of Your Creative Business
One of the main problems that creatives face is the “business-side” of their work. Making art may come natural to them, but the promotion, taxes, scheduling, billing, and the million other little details are a huge barrier. Unfortunately for those who only want to spend time creating and ignore the business-side, if you want to survive and thrive off of your creativity, you need to dive into the paper-shuffling part too.
I have the opposite problem from most creatives. I have a lifelong love of art that I’ve recently made my full-time career, but I went to business school and have worked in start ups as an operations manager and marketer for my entire adulthood, which means I know the business side of things, but am just setting out on my art-job journey.
That means that bringing together these tools was the easy part for me since I’ve worked with them for years, and I figured I should share them with anyone who feels like they’re struggling on this side of the business.
The main takeaway here is that you can run your freelance business without many expensive apps, programs, software, and subscriptions. These tools I’ve listed are free or as close to free as I could get. They’re usually not fancy, and there’s always a more upscale version of each one if you’re interested in shopping around. These are also usually ultra-basic and great for beginners.
I like both physical (paper) versions of things to be used alongside digital versions. For instance, I use a physical daily planner as well as Google Calendar. Some people prefer everything to be on their phones so all their tools are right in their hand. Others find that they need the physical sensation of real paper and pens in order for their tasks to feel “real.” Try a number of different things, and see what works best for you!
DISCLAIMER: These are NOT sponsored products. They’re just what works for me. (Though I’m open to sponsorship! CALL ME, POSCA!)
Trello — I use the free version to keep up with all my projects. I have the boards organized by type of project, like paintings or graphic design, and within each of those boards I’ve categorized cards by “To Do,” “In Progress,” “Done” and “On Hold/Pause”. On each project card I keep notes like “emailed sketches, waiting to hear back.”
Physical notebooks — Not free, but certainly cheap. I need a place to jot down ideas and to-do lists as soon as they pop into my head, or else I’ll forget them. I also always bring a lined notebook and a sketchbook to client meetings so I can take detailed notes and maybe little quick sketches for them. I always read back a synopsis of my notes to them before the end of the meeting so we can make sure we’re on the same page (get it? Page? Oh god I’m sorry.)
Zelle AND Venmo — I want to make it easy for clients to pay me, which is why I use at least two different apps for payment. They’re free if you set it up and link your bank account in a specific way.
Excel for keeping up with profits and costs — technically I bought it as part of Microsoft Office, so it’s not free, but there are a lot of free spreadsheets out there like through Google Sheets. This is a must. I keep track of how much I’ve been paid, and how much materials and shipping for each project has cost.
An accountant — This isn’t free, and it might be the only thing on this list that’s not going to be cheap either. However, if you’re serious about making income as a freelancer, as an artist, or business owner, you need a specialized someone on your team with invaluable knowledge about taxes.
Google Drive — Free with a Gmail or Google account. Sometime I keep a working document shared with a client so we can write collaboratively, remotely, and on our own time. It’s fantastic for when they have a ton of ideas with a lot of detail.
A budget book — I use Clever Fox’s budgeting book for all my personal expenses. Cheap but not free.
Patreon — I’m still getting used to having this, but nowadays having a Patreon page is a must for creators of any level of success. You don’t just sit back and let the money roll in from adoring fans however; the best Patreons give something interesting back to the patrons for their contributions. It might be exclusive content, or behind the scenes access.
A daily planner (paper) — I use the Clever Fox planner and I absolutely love it. This is going to sound odd, but I look forward to writing in it every day. Mine is lovely because it has places for small goal setting and tracking as well as larger goals. I’ve also added a section to each day of “wins”: little things that felt like a win, whether it was a goal reached or just something that made me happy. “Finished the blog! Went on a hike!” are all the same kind of win I want to make sure to keep mindful of.
Google/Apple Calendar: A lot of other businesses send me appointment reminders that go directly to my own calendar, which can be accessed on my phone.
Timer — I use the free timer that came with my phone, though there are also some great apps for timing specific tasks and projects. I have some time blindness, so I am terrible at just guessing how long something takes. Having a quick, easy way to track time means a lot when I can’t be bothered to look up how long each project takes, so I have no idea what to really charge for my art.
Communicating with clients:
Gmail — This is a free account, and it’s linked everywhere, though for security reasons (and to avoid a whole lot of spam) my email address isn’t actually visible anywhere. The public has to go through the contact page on my site or direct message me through social media.
FB messenger — For clients that find me through friends and my professional FB page. Very handy if you find someone on FB but one or both of you don’t have each other’s phone number to text.
IG messenger — Same thing as using Facebook messenger. It’s free, and a great way to be in contact with someone who finds me via my IG page, which as an artist, is my most used social network.
Phone — No brainer. Though I only give out my number to people who I’ve already established a professional rapport or relationship with.
Actual meetings at coffee shops — Great way to meet up with someone in a safe public space to hash out details of a project IRL. Plus coffee.
Professional accounts on social media — It’s recommended to have social media accounts that are professional accounts separate from your personal ones. The professional versions (a “creator account” on IG, and a “Facebook For Business” page on FB) come with a ton of extra knick-knacks that your personal account won’t have, like reporting and scheduling tools.
Canva for making interesting social media posts — I love how professional Canvas posts can look, and the user experience of creating them is so smooth and easy. I use the free version, but lately so much of the designs and elements have been only available for paid users that it’s been harder to make exactly what I want. Boo.
Social media scheduling tools — This is a lifesaver for any busy content creator or marketer. Normally, with a regular non-creator, non-professional account, you would need to make sure to log on and post something multiple times a day to each platform, which is a drain on both your time and with social media being what it is, your mental health. With professional accounts, you can queue up months’ worth of posts, schedule them to go live on specific days and times, then forget about it.
Social media reporting tools — These come with every professional account for free. They all report differently but you can get an idea of how well each platform is performing. Some are as simple as “green arrow up is good, red arrow down is bad” for beginners, and get into much more depth for those who need the insights.
Photo editor — I use the free editor on my phone camera. I use an (old, outdated) iPhone, but it came with a free photo editor, Markup. Very limited, but great for my earliest comics. I’ve used this extensively with my comics, where I would take a photo of the comic on paper, then edit out any of the eraser marks and smudges.
Twitter — A ton of artists and writers use Twitter, so I make sure to try and interact genuinely with them. I’ve learned so much about the industry from reading their posts and interactions with each other too.
FB events — On my own personal account, random events will pop up now and then that I would have never found otherwise, like gallery openings, art events, and artist meetings.
Meetup — This site can connect you with groups of people you’d have never known existed, for fun and hobbies as well as professional networks of people. And you should absolutely join some of the hobby groups because yes, you need a hobby outside of work.