The Three Essential Tools I Use to Run My Studio
I want to kick off this post by saying that there are so many different tools available to entrepreneurs and business owners right now. It can be spectacularly overwhelming to determine what fits in your budget and is going to work well for your business. In the past I have used Honeybook, Bonsai, 17hats, Asana, Trello, and have completed free trials of probably 6–8 other tools as well. I have realized that I am a less is more kind of person and there are really only three things that I am using on a daily basis to run my business these days. I am a little hesitant to share the way I do things for fear of sounding like I think that this is the best or only way to run your business which is definitely not the case. This is what works well for me and what I recommend when I am asked for advice. This is literally just my honest take on what I use - I might sound a little overly enthusiastic about it but it’s the product of years of searching for something that works for my business and finally getting there. At the heart of all of this is my commitment to what I call client-centered strategy. I do what is best and easiest for my clients and I am constantly evaluating what is working and what isn’t after each project we complete. Sometimes what clients prefer is NOT easiest for me, but in all that I do, they are my top priority. Let’s get started!
Dubsado is a client management system that I use to keep track of all of the moving parts in my business.
What we use it for:
Delivering design concepts
Invoices and payments
Assigning tasks (similar to Asana)
Scheduling calls (Dubsado has a built in Scheduler which replaces Acuity)
What I like about it:
Incredible customer service
Ability to save canned emails
Clients are not inundated with emails
Ability to carry my visual branding throughout
What I don’t like about it:
Some minor spacing glitches in forms
Helpful if you know CSS for coding template forms
A Peek at My Dubsado Dashboard
Proposals and Contracts
I used Bonsai for just over a year before making the switch to Dubsado. I found that with Bonsai when I was onboarding clients I had to send them three separate emails, one for a proposal, one for an invoice, one for a contract, and it was clunky and overwhelming for them. (This may have changed, but was one of the biggest reasons I left Bonsai). Dubsado provides a bunch of great ways around this.
One option is to send a proposal, contract, and invoice at the same time, which allows a potential client to book my services and reserve a spot in my design calendar immediately. Technically, you can set all of this up to happen automatically with their workflow function, but that doesn’t work super well for my business as each of my potential clients receives a custom estimate based on their specific needs. A second option is to use Client Portals which allows you to create a password protected, white labeled hub where you can can keep all of your client’s forms in one place so that they are able to access them whenever they’d like. Finally you can also send emails using Dubsado’s smart links, which allows you to drop in multiple buttons that link to whatever your client needs, from contracts to invoices to feedback forms.
In terms of contracts, Dubsado offers the opportunity to drop in your own contract with smart fields for your clients to sign. I had my contract drafted by an attorney and placed it in my form so it’s easy for my clients to view, sign, and download.
Dubsado integrates with a variety of different payment processors, including Stripe, which is what I use and love. They are also set up for ACH/Bank Transfer/e-Check payments as well. One of the biggest adjustments for me when I first made the switch to Dubsado was that Bonsai allowed me to pass credit card fees onto my clients (this is not legal in all states, but it is in most). When I was first starting out, this felt appropriate and fair, but I have since moved away from it. I personally believe that credit card fees are part of doing business, and I want to make my process as simple and straightforward as possible for my clients. I never want clients to feel like I am nickel and diming them. When reflecting on my client process I realized that I personally prefer to pay for everything with my credit card the vast majority of my smaller clients do too. 99% of my larger clients pay through their accounting departments, so this wasn’t really relevant for them. The end result is that I have more expenses at the end of the year, but I get paid incredibly quickly and my clients basically have a diverse charcuterie board of payment options available to them.
Leads & Jobs
Moving on – one of my favorite things about Dubsado is how it provides a structure for organizing leads, so we can stay on top of who is reaching out, what the status of their inquiry is (pricing sent, response sent, phone call scheduled, follow up) and when we need to follow up with them next. After we hear a no back from an inquiry we archive them immediately to keep things really streamlined in the dashboard. My assistant Kiara handles all of our follow up emails, and it’s a great feeling to know that everyone will get a response from me and then after a bit of time has passed, will get a follow-up. I cannot tell you how many leads slipped through the cracks before I was using Dubsado. An inquiry would come in, I would respond, and when I didn’t hear back from them oftentimes I would just … keep on living my life! In the past two months alone we have booked thousands and thousands of dollars worth of clients after that follow-up email was sent. People who were just too busy to respond initially, forgot they had reached out to me, or weren’t ready before but were now ready to book. Whether or not you use Dubsado, make sure you are categorizing your leads and following up diligently!
Dubsado also organizes all of our projects, so I can log in and take a look at everything that is on my plate at any given time, and where everything is in the pipeline. It makes it pretty much impossible for anything to slip through the cracks which puts me at ease and allows me to focus on what I am really here to do – design.
I honestly could go on and on about Dubsado if that isn’t abundantly clear. There are so many other things about it that make it my favorite CRM on the market, but to keep things relatively short, if you want to stay on top of your business and make things easy for your clients, I highly recommend it as an option. If you have specific questions about Dubsado shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can get a bit more personal than I have here.
If you are interested in trying Dubsado I would recommend you sign up for their free trial. If you do decide you’d like to try it out for your business you can use my affiliate link to get 20% off of your first month or 20% off first year if you pay annually.
Google Drive is a cloud-based storage service that allows users to store and sync files and makes everyone’s life just a little bit easier.
What we use it for:
Backing up my computer
Delivering client files
Content marketing (blog drafts, edits, spreadsheet with promotional plan)
What I like about it:
Seamless with email
Backs up specific folders that I indicate, saves each VERSION of a document so that if it is replaced over time you can access a previous version
What I don’t like about it
Have to pay for additional storage (this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel here – I love everything about it)
Google Drive is really as good as it gets for me – I love the ability to have multiple collaborators working on a live document. I love how easy it is to back up my computer 24/7 without having to think about it. I love that everything is either free or incredibly cheap, from extra storage to the nominal fees for my Gsuite email addresses.
About a month ago I had one of those “designer’s worst nightmare” moments that are going to happen if you’ve been doing this long enough. I was working on a logo project and all of the sudden everything from my artboards (dozens of live logo concepts, illustrations, etc.) was gone. I use keyboard commands ALL the time, and my fingers are often jumping from command to command. My Illustrator had been a little funky after a recent update, so thinking that something weird was happening with the file and I just needed to quit and re-open it, I saved the document and closed it. When I opened it, much to my surprise, and horror, the entire document was still empty. I slowly began to realize that I had Command-A-ed (select all) and deleted my entire document and had literally no way to recover it.
Google Drive uploads a backup of my file every few minutes, but the most recently uploaded version was my saved, empty file. Luckily Drive also saves multiple VERSIONS of your documents, so I could go in and download a version from about 10 minutes prior. I still lost a couple of small elements, but it was nothing compared to starting over completely. Basically, I am a customer for life.
With Drive you can select what folders you want to back up and because I keep all of my files organized within in my Documents folder I can simply select that, and it uploads new versions constantly. And instantly. If I save a version of a graphic and then drag it to my trash, Drive will ask me if I want to keep it on Drive or remove it from my backup there. It is totally mindless, easy to use, and incredibly affordable for a terabyte of storage. I cannot recommend doing this enough. It’s such a great insurance policy for your business and while of course it is not completely foolproof (if someone manages to take down the internet AND I lose my computer, I won’t have access to those working files), it’s a no-brainer for me.
I also use Drive to deliver client files. It’s incredibly easy to do when your files are being backed up automatically, and it’s just an easy way to send over large files without issue. We deliver the Drive link (with universal access to anyone who has the link) to clients after receipt of final payment and keep their folder active for one year, so we can always drop in or add additional files if we work on another job together or they need another colorway or alternate file type. It works out well for all parties.
Adobe Creative Cloud
Adobe Creative Cloud is a collection of applications (used for graphic design, video, photography, animation, ux design, etc.) that are purchased in a subscription-style format. There are over 20 applications included in the full monthly subscription.
What we use it for:
Everything I create for clients
InDesign: Multi-page or long-format documents
Illustrator: Logo design, illustrations, digital design, typography design
Photoshop: Mockups, photo editing
What I like about it:
Affordable (I pay $32.30/month after locking in a great promo last year)
No longer have to shell out $1,500–2,000 for every product update as the software updates are available instantly and as part of your subscription
What I don’t like about it
Updates sometimes have issues right out of the gates, so I will wait a few weeks before installing them
Everything that I design and deliver for my clients is created in three Adobe programs – Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. I am in these programs for anywhere from 4–12 hours a day… every weekday!
There is simply no way to run a design business that serves a variety of clients without Adobe programs. I get a lot of emails and DMs from new designers asking me what program they should be designing in, and if they need to shell out $21/month to get a single program, which one it should be. My answer to that question is Illustrator – I think it’s the most versatile of all of the Adobe programs if you HAD to get by with a single program. You would run into some issues (or at the very least, some weird looks), if, say, you packaged up and tried to deliver a 36 page document to a printer as an Illustrator file, but for someone who is just starting out, it’s a great program to get your Adobe sea legs with.
I WILL say that when you are first starting out, just playing around and designing things for fun, you do not need to invest in these programs. You can get your feet wet using Canva or other free online design services. You can learn how to pair fonts and combine shapes and colors. Heck, in high school I spent three years dreaming about becoming a graphic designer and honestly developed quite a few aesthetic skills while creating “logos” for fake clients in Powerpoint. You can absolutely stretch your creative muscles in a variety of different programs, but when it comes to running a legitimate business in which you deliver files to paying clients, there really is no alternative to Adobe products.
Also – spend some time learning keyboard commands. They will make your life and work so much easier.
So there you have it – a pretty high-level look at my minimalist approach to running my business – if you have questions please feel free to drop them in the comments or shoot me an email at email@example.com. If you made it this far, thanks for reading!