Recently, I polled a number of my friends about the freelance infrastructure they find indispensable today that didn’t exist when they first started as independent workers.
Their responses ran a wide range, from Google Voice and Thesaurus.com to smartphone scanning apps. Ten years ago, you might have included a fax machine and a desk phone line to your list of must-have tools. Twenty years ago, FedEx and Kinko’s — two separate companies back then — might have made the list. Twenty years before that, you’d include the post office. Artists and writers working in ink and paper packed up and mailed their submissions to editorial offices in New York in hope of getting back a check sometime in the months to follow.
Freelance infrastructure has dramatically changed in the last half-century. The tools I depend on today that didn’t exist in late 2002, when I began operating as an independent worker, have drastically changed how I work.
Highlights of Today’s Freelance Infrastructure
- Cloud storage: Because I work with such a diverse mix of clients, I rely on several services: OneDrive to capture the work I do for a New York-based agency that works almost entirely in Windows (I’m on a Mac); Dropbox for storing large files and filing invoices for a handful of other clients; and Google Drive as the general-purpose backup for my whole system. The latter is crucial, because I can effectively replicate my work space anywhere, including the backup desktop machine in our family room at home.
- Free, online productivity suites. As much as I rely on Google Drive as my backup, I rely on the free version of Google Sheets to build and keep the spreadsheet that tracks my daily progress and the free version of Google Docs to produce Word-compatible versions of my writing to send to clients who depend on Microsoft’s productivity suite (which is, effectively, all of them).
- Portable Wi-Fi hot spots. I’m not just a freelancer — I’m also a dad. Working at various spots around the metro area while connected to a portable Wi-Fi device allows me to file work at times I’d otherwise be out of commission. I’ve filed feature articles, transcribed interviews and built spreadsheets from the cramped comfort of my car.
- Offline browser access. Times when access isn’t an option are less of a problem now that modern web-based apps can use built-in memory to save work in a browser even when you’re not connected. My personal productivity suite includes a browser-based outlining tool called WorkFlowy, which is designed to keep functioning when offline and is also flexible enough to accommodate almost anything I need at the moment — from capturing research to writing entire stories.
- Facebook and LinkedIn. Connecting with sources is a big part of my job as a writer. LinkedIn helps me find them faster than ever, while Facebook serves as an occasional backup. More than once, I’ve wrangled an interview over Messenger.
And just so we don’t skip over the obvious, I’m just as likely to access these tools on my Android smartphone as I am on my Mac.
Pro Tip: Use Free Trials
If the tools of freelancing change constantly, forcing us to get better, smarter and faster, what’s a freelancer operating on a shoestring budget to do? How can they possibly keep up? Free trials can help you get started, but you’ll want to keep a tools budget in mind and limit your spending to it. Review this budget annually and make changes as you see fit. That way, you’ll be forced to spend only what you really need to spend on tools.
In the meantime, take advantage of those free trials. I spent years using the free version of Google Drive before agreeing to pay $10 monthly for 1 terabyte of storage. I also spent years using the free version of WorkFlowy before realizing I could save a bundle and still upgrade to the premium version.
Freelancing is a tough gig that’s always changing, even in the best of times. Having a strategy to change with it — that includes evaluating and upgrading tools regularly — is important if you’re going to be in the game for the long haul.