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How to automate yourself and multiply your efficiency


The web now offers us the chance to automate a whole bunch of things that even 10 years ago would have taken significant manual time or expensive custom software to do. Since setting up as a freelancer six months ago I’ve been able to take advantage of some of these things to help myself run as a slicker one-man business. Here’s how I take advantage of automation, hopefully it can give some inspiration to you too, as the ideas in here can apply to most lines of work or side projects.

Work enquiries

One of the purposes of my website is to tell people about what services I offer as a consultant designer and enable potential clients to enquire about hiring me. This initial part is handled with an email form. There are quite a few fields on this enquiry form and it comes after a long page of text, so it doesn’t deliver huge volumes of leads. This is intentional because a) I only work with a few clients at a time and b) I want to work with clients who have a clear idea of what they need and understand what I offer. If they couldn’t read my work page and don’t know the answers to the questions asked on the form then they probably aren’t ready to hire me. So far it’s worked as a very effective filter, giving only really relevant and interesting clients.

Prospective clients then often take a little while to convert into actual clients as we go through the process of quoting and defining the work required. As a result it’s handy to keep track of them, something I do with the ever-flexible Trello to act as my simple CRM. I have a board setup with the different stages of client onboarding: initial contact, initial meeting, do proposal, waiting etc. When someone submits an enquiry through the form on my website I have Zapier set up to use that email to create a Trello card for them with all their details and drop them in the ‘initial contact’ pile as well as email me straight away.

Zapier is key for helping automate tasks in your online life. It’s a great service that provides the connection between a ton of useful online tools. I use it in a few ways, which I’ll cover more of later but it’s well worth looking at their use cases for inspiration for how you can utilise it. The other option is IFTTT, which does similar things but Zapier beats it for breadth of services. It’s free for 100 uses per month.

Finances

Once I’m working with someone, they then make it into my business and finance system, for which I use the brilliant Freeagent. It contains a series of handy features, the ones I value the most being the invoicing, banking, and expenses, as well as giving a good overview of the financial situation.

In terms of invoicing, Freeagent enables you to quickly generate a pdf invoice and email it from the platform. It also offers the chance to set up automated follow-up emails to remind people if invoices go unpaid. The banking section integrates brilliantly with my business bank account (meaning I rarely have to login to it), automatically keeping the service updated with a live feed. If a payment comes into the account, you can then easily allocate it to an invoice, which automatically marks it as paid. On the expenses front, their mobile app comes in handy when you’re on the go, enabling you to quickly enter an expense you may have incurred and then photograph the receipt as proof.

In fact I used Freeagent’s directory to discover my accountants, as I wanted to work with one who also used the platform so the accounting could be done online. The guys I went for have great flat-rate plans, which means I can automate that process through direct debit, and handily it includes the cost of the Freeagent service. Accountants are the only thing in this list that aren’t free (obviously).

Writing and promotion

The other big thing I use this website for is writing this blog. An important part of that is promotion and measuring what content people are most interested in (so I know whether to write more of it or develop workshops on it etc). There are a few tools that help out here:

Buffer enables me to stack up Twitter posts (I usually tweet about each new blog three times in it’s first week then sporadically after that) and measure how interested people were in them in terms of favourites and retweets etc. I resisted using it for a long time but trying to keep up with remembering to post things just isn’t practical when you’re working. Instead their free account for 10 posts allows me to just stack it up twice a week, as my posting schedule is 3 times a day, 6 days a week (any more seems annoying).

Medium is now a big platform for blogging and has a very simple import story and copy/paste functionality that makes it quick to get a blog post onto their site. This is an easy way of exposing my writing to another audience and it gives me stats on which ones get viewed and read, again helping me understand what content of mine people like. Medium is free.

To then see what actually performs well on my website I have a dashboard Google doc that gives me details of which posts get the most traffic, the longest time on page, and where that traffic is coming from. This uses Supermetrics to pull in data from Google Analytics, so I can see a week by week of performance view at a glance, saving me from having to click around the Analytics interface to find what I want. This is free and I cover how to set one of those up in this post and I give even more detail in my upcoming book on Data-Driven UX Design. I also use Zapier to keep my total number of mailing list subscribers up to date on the dashboard sheet (more on that below).

Mailing list

I maintain a mailing list because email is still a great way of keeping people up to date with what I’m doing and build an audience of people interested in what I write about. To manage and send it I use Mailchimp (free for up to 2,000 subscribers).

As well as taking care of emailing hundreds of people quickly and easily, the Mailchimp onboarding process allows me automate giving away content too. For example when someone signs up for my free tools guide, after they confirm their email address they are sent straight to a page with the link to download—something I’ve set up once and customised in Mailchimp’s settings. I then use a follow-up email to send subscribers my top five current articles on the site for a bit of extra value (something that’s easy to see from my dashboard above). You can see the full process by signing up here.

I use this onboarding process as a way to give content to my new Twitter followers too, as it’s nice to give a little freebie as a thank you for following me. When they follow I have Zapier automatically tweet them back with a message and a link to a Twitter card. That Twitter card has a button that is integrated with Mailchimp and signs them straight up with a click (as Twitter has their email address). A neat way of pulling a bunch of services together!

Published on 25 August 2015

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