I started my business back in 2009 alongside a full-time teaching job at an international school in the Dominican Republic. And I’m the first to admit I had no idea what I was doing. I based early decisions off The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman, a book that inspired me with the idea that I could make a living doing work I loved. But while his book provided good, early stage advice, I still had no clue about, well, anything.
I wrote proposals and sent invoices using Microsoft Word, ran all payments and expenses through my personal account, and had no project management system to speak of. I kept appointments in a written planner. And I kept running my business this way until I grew enough that these systems were no longer working. I missed a meeting because I hadn’t double-checked my paper planner; I had to wait sometimes weeks for checks from clients; and I found project management more difficult when I began juggling more work for larger projects.
Year by year, I’ve adapted to my growing business and adopted new strategies for managing my workflow, time, money, and client projects. Year by year, my revenue has grown, and my business has attracted more ideal clients and students (the best in the world, in my completely accurate opinion!). Year by year, I shake my head in amazement that I hadn’t adopted tools, systems, and processes sooner. If only I’d known!
Below, I’m outlining some of my absolute favorite tools for running a small service- and education-based business like mine. If you’re a solopreneur, small business owner, or freelancer (which is really a solopreneur—own it!), read on.* Then, pick one per month to implement. The results will absolutely be worth the effort.
#1 Gusto – for payroll and managing subcontractor payments
The biggest mistake I made early on in my business was financial. I remedied the bank account issue early on, signing up for QuickBooks and running client invoices and payments through the system. But it took me years to realize that I wasn’t ever going to keep my books up to date. It just isn’t my thing.
One February, after hours in a conference room with someone I’d hired temporarily to help me sort receipts and enter them into QuickBooks, surrounded by Jimmy John’s wrappers and empty chip bags, I realized I needed to hire a bookkeeper. Doing so drastically changed my experience at tax time. But I still found myself struggling to maintain cash flow, and it was hard to track what I paid subcontractors throughout the year, as QuickBooks couldn’t tell that the check I wrote for $734.02 was to pay a design invoice.
Two things made a big difference for me. First, I transitioned to S-corp tax status, which made me an employee of the business and requires me to be on payroll. Second, I joined Gusto, onboarded all subcontractors, and pay myself and them through the system. Getting on a regular salary helped mitigate the feast and famine of small business, and having one place to pay makes it super easy to file taxes, all of which helps me sleep better at night. Learn more about Gusto here.*
#2 QuickBooks Payments – for accepting client payments quickly and easily
Signing up for QuickBooks was an important step for my business. But years ago, a client replied to a PDF invoice I sent him through the system. His response read something like, “You know, if you made it so I can pay online, you’d get your money faster.” Point taken. That week, I set up QuickBooks Payments and transitioned my clients to paying electronically. This improved cash flow and saved time because I no longer had to open envelopes and deposit electronically or drive to the bank. Better yet, it made my clients happy, because the payment process was easy and secure, saving them time. The nominal fee for the service is absolutely worth it. Learn more about QuickBooks here. You can set up Payments after starting your QuickBooks account.
#3 Expensify – for digitizing receipts and saving me hours and hours of time
How do I love thee, Expensify? Let me count the ways.
Seriously, though, if you’re a small business owner and don’t have Expensify yet, stop everything and sign up right now. Remember the conference room I described earlier? Well, that never would have happened if I’d discovered Expensify earlier in my business. The software auto-scans receipts and even connects to QuickBooks (though I’m not using that feature). It also saves time when invoicing clients for expenses like travel to a speaking event by providing a clear, professional report. Learn more about Expensify here.
#4 Asana – for tracking all things
I have this as #4 on the list, but in truth, all of the first 4 compete for the top spot. While I used to struggle to keep track of all the moving parts of a project, Asana lets me easily and seamlessly track every detail of every project. I create project templates and duplicate them for new clients, allowing me to customize without wasting time building from scratch. My entire team uses the software to track tasks, communicate on projects, and even celebrate successes (I love their quirky “celebrate” button, which adds a GIF like a flying unicorn or people dancing). Learn more about Asana here.
#5 Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) – for managing emails, creating forms, and more
A couple of years ago, I transitioned from free Gmail to company-branded email addresses. While I still write from my original Gmail account, Google Workspace allows “aliases” that filter inbound client or student emails to multiple people on the team. This creates efficiencies—and you’d better believe we have a solid system for replying! Google Workspace also offers tools like Google Forms (the paid version that allows more functionality). At less than $10/month, it’s a great investment. Learn more about Google Workspace here.
#6 Canned responses – for replying efficiently to inbound emails
I’m pulling back the curtain a bit here to show you one of my absolute favorite email tools. A “canned response” is simply a prewritten email. My team and I have a series of canned responses set in Gmail that allow us to quickly respond to inquiries. While we never just drop the canned response in and send, these prewritten messages allow us to auto-fill the important information needed while still customizing the email. This has been a huge time-saver and significantly increases our response time to inquiries. Learn more about canned responses here.
#7 Canva – for designing pretty things
Few people know that I’m a trained visual artist. I have a minor in art and spent a couple of years in college studying graphic design before switching back to English. So I love everything design, but I don’t have the time or interest to be excellent at Adobe Creative Cloud. That’s where Canva comes in. The software allows me to create beautiful designs without knowing Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop.
The best thing about Canva is that you don’t even have to have a design background—the software offers beautifully designed templates, even with the free version of the software. I pay around $13 per month for the pro plan, which allows me to keep folders, access their photo library, maintain a brand kit with my logo and colors, and more. Learn more about Canva here.
#8 ConvertKit – for emails to my list, landing pages, and funnels
Like many business owners, I used to use Mailchimp to manage all the emails I sent to my list. Years ago, I joined ConvertKit—and I’m so glad I did! As a member, I get access to software designed for creators like me, plus great landing page templates like this one. Pricing varies based on the number of subscribers on your list. Learn more about ConvertKit here.
#9 Weekly planner – for keeping focused and on track
I live and die by Google Calendar, but I use a paper weekly planner to plan out my week. If I were in the US, I’d order this one; mine is similar but doesn’t include the habits, gratitude, and priorities section (and also isn’t lined). I try to sit down on Sunday and plan my week, though I’ll be honest—with two young kids, I don’t always make the time. So if I don’t get to it over the weekend, I plan out my week Monday morning. When I find myself getting overwhelmed at work or unclear about my priorities, it’s often because I’ve slipped with this habit.
#10 Yoga mat – for cultivating presence, gratitude, and productivity
Yes, you read that right. Alongside my tech apps and paper tools, my yoga mat is my other best business friend. Nearly every morning, I spend about 10 minutes stretching my body. I aim to reflect with gratitude for my work and embrace presence before I sit down to my computer. The key to productivity is focus, and that little bit of mat time helps me bring focus to my work. Alongside good food and plenty of exercise, this habit of stretching before work centers me and helps me show up as my best self. (Disclaimer: I am completely inflexible and terrible at yoga. It’s not about beautiful poses or being able to touch your toes. Stretching is about self-care and presence, allowing you to connect within so you can be present.)
So, that’s it—my list of 10 must-have business tools, ranging from software to paper to mat. How about you? What’s your go-to business tool? Tell me all about it—I just might implement it in my business!
*Please note that some (but not all!) of the links provided are affiliate links, which means I may receive compensation in the form of payments, discounts, or other benefits. That said, I would never recommend a product I didn’t love and use myself. I hope you’re as happy with it as I am!