Check out these free resources to grow and operate your new freelance creative business.
It can be hard to get a business up and running and market it without investing a lot. Fortunately there are some amazing tools and services out there for solopreneurs and small businesses that are very inexpensive…or entirely free. I have found many ways to set up, run and promote my small business—87th Street Creative—without making a large investment...from marketing to invoicing and many other steps in between.
Starting a new company, whether it’s an agency, a studio, a cooperative, or even a solo enterprise, there are so many free tools to get your business off on the right step:
- Free tools to set up a website
- Free tools for marketing
- Free tools that help run a business
- Free tools that help communicate and schedule
- Free tools for staying organized
- Access to mentors
- Free ways to network
Get a website up and running quickly with some free tools
If you want to start a new business, the first place you want to be is online. Yup, the good ol’ internet. Obviously to get maximized SEO (search engine optimization), you might need to pay some bucks. But to just to park yourself online, the best place to start “hanging your shingle” is probably through Webflow. It's a simple, intuitive way to build a site, especially if you have no coding experience (Wordpress is a good option if you have some experience with code).
Both tools offer great features for free. Though of course there are some hidden fees for some basics like hosting and of course the domain. If you want some SEO, but don’t have a budget for it, the best place to start is doing it manually yourself...or even just setting up a Google My Business account will help get the ball rolling.
Now, you can’t talk about a website without mentioning email, because most likely you’ll want to connect your email to your website. A great free option is Gmail, because you get a decent amount of storage just for opening an account. But it does mean someone will be emailing you at an address that ends in gmail.com not yourcompanyname.com. I find this to be one of the few places early on in my business endeavor that it was worth spending a little bit of money just to have an email address that went to my company name. I personally felt that there was a lot of value in showing that I was committed to my business by at least having a customized URL in my email address. Additionally, there are several free email trackers that only require fees for added features.
You’ve got a free website, now market it to the world for free!
Now that your shingle is up, you’ve got to let the world know. Robust marketing can cost a lot of money. The best first place to start would be social media, for sure. But, that’s fairly obvious, so let’s dig a little deeper. Why not consider starting a blog and publishing some of your content on such free apps as Medium.com, or maybe even Substack? If you can share your unique story or some great knowledge and insight, people will start noticing you and therefore, your business.
If you’re already writing on Medium and Substack, you could also publish your own newsletter and get subscribers through your website using an app like Mailchimp. They have a free plan that is decent, allowing up to 2000 subscribers. Even after almost 10 years in business, my basic monthly newsletter still has under a thousand subscribers, so it’s remained a free form of marketing for me. Of course I don’t want to have so few subscribers, but for the main purpose of just staying top of mind to my clients, it works!
Next, you’ll need some tools to run your business…once again, for free!
At last, clients are coming to you and you’re designing, illustrating, editing, animating, rotoscoping, and compositing, but you don’t want to worry about invoicing and scheduling and video conferencing. There’s great apps for all those things all with free plans. From the moment I set up my company, I used a great service called WaveApps. It includes a super streamlined way to invoice my clients.
For free, I was able to set up a basic invoice template customized with my logo and branding colors; set up dozens of different contacts for my clients and include a whole list of customized services (called “items”) that I can set up to invoice clients. From the mobile app, the custom invoices can be directly emailed to clients and Cc’d to myself along with a PDF of the invoice. Considering all these features come with the free version, it’s impressive.
If you want to do more than just invoicing, much more robust apps are Zoho and Hubspot. I’ve used various features and services of both of these apps for years, such as time tracking and an email signature. It’s too much to go into every aspect of what they have to offer, but both of these are super helpful, especially for CRM, a Customer Relations Management tool. For years I resisted having a CRM, because I’m not a huge business, but it really can be helpful even if you don’t have a dedicated sales team, to keep track of everyone you meet.
Speaking of CRMs, it’s important to mention lead generation at this point. The two are typically intertwined and Zoho and Hubspot both offer lead generation features. The best lead generation dedicated software usually comes with a price. But, if you wanted to dip your toe into this world, there are some free options out there, or at a minimum, several with free offers to start, some examples include Seamless, and AgileCRM. Seamless, more specifically, is a sales prospecting platform to build lists, which integrates with most CRMs, to manage your pipeline more effectively.
Keep things running smoothly with free video conferencing and scheduling
Video conferencing and scheduling are crucial to running your business from the get-go. By now, everyone and their grandmother knows about Zoom (though some people still struggle with that mute button!). With a free account, you can get up to 40 minutes for all your video calls. And if you think you’ll be going over that, you can just use Google Meet which allows up to 100 users and no limit on the meeting duration.
Of course, we all know by now, that “free” from Google means targeted ads and a whole lot more, but that’s another article for another time. For scheduling there are several apps that offer an intro level of free pricing, such as Koalender (cutest name ever?), Chili Piper (spiciest name ever?), plus over a dozen more! For me, Calendly keeps it pretty simple, either on a desktop or as an app, and at the free level, allows just one meeting duration. That serves my purpose and has been a lifesaver. For years, I resisted getting an online scheduler altogether. But, it really has saved me time and therefore money.
Organization is key as your business grows with these free tools
You could argue that staying organized isn’t as crucial to your business as say a website or video conferencing, but it still is super important. And while Marie Kondo is great for closets and drawers, I’m talking here about digital organizing! I’ve found Evernote to be one of the best and easiest to use. I keep tons of helpful info there – both professionally and personally.
I keep all sorts of notes there for lists of my favorite articles, demo reels, inspirational videos, and tutorials, or scripts/plug-ins I want to buy, or best resources for free (and paid!) asset libraries. I’ve heard Notion is great too, which has decent value at the free level. Plus, it’s so much more than note-taking, and is really a project management tool. I know Greg Gunn, the illustrator/animator in Los Angeles, uses Notion and has a referral link on his website if you decide to upgrade from the free plan.
Why not get free advice for your career and business too?
Mentorship, while not crucial to running a business, should not be overlooked as a helpful tool to learning and growing your business. I have used SCORE in the past, having met with three different mentors over the past two years. The ubiquitous use of Zoom has made finding a mentor who doesn’t live nearby much easier. Through SCORE, I have had ongoing mentorships with an amazing, talented branding agency owner in Florida, a vice president of various marketing companies in San Francisco, and a Brazilian business strategist in the hospitality industry. Although these three mentors have limited knowledge of the VFX and motion design industry, they were well versed in marketing and business growth. If you’re looking for more targeted mentorship, there are some platforms out there within our industry, such as Animated Women UK. Teachers and teacher assistants can also be great resources for continued support long after a class has ended or you’ve graduated.
It’s important to also realize that mentorship doesn’t always have to be a formal setup and can happen organically through networking, or a more welcoming word to use would be, relationship-forming. Networking for me has been the number one way that my business has grown – internally and externally. I’ve brought additional freelancers into my business through networking and obtained new clients just through networking. It’s useful to network within your own industry but also to more general groups of people as well.
Networking can be like free marketing and mentorship all at once
For networking within the industry, the best way I have found is through doing Slack Donuts in the Slack channels I’m on – such as Panimation and Motion Hatch. While the Donuts themselves are free, some Slack channels require enrolling in a class or workshop, such as Motion Hatch, but Panimation is free to join for women, trans and non-binary friends in the animation industry.
Outside of the industry, there are many free networking platforms such as Connexx or V50: Virtual 5 O’Clock. With networking, it’s helpful to remember that you never know who someone knows. Just because you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know anything about VFX or motion design, doesn’t mean they won’t know people who need to hire a motion designer. Through networking, you can build up a positive reputation which is helpful for marketing your business, and could also possibly lead you to find some mentorship opportunities or guidance in your career.
The list of new tools and apps with free plans is constantly growing. The ones I’ve listed here should get you started at least. Don’t be afraid to try things out, see what works for you and see how your business needs change as you grow. Just remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Sherene is a freelance motion designer and art director at her company, 87th Street Creative.
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