Google, Freelance Edition

I’m sure many of you are aware of my Google fanaticism, but this post is meant to justify it.

First, I do a good amount of freelance web development. I currently have 7 “full-time” clients that I do work for on the nights and weekends away from my far-more-important day job. When it was one or two clients, it was relatively manageable to create an invoice in MS Word at the end of the month, or keep a sheet of paper at my desk to keep track of defects/features that needed to be worked on.

Those days are long behind me, and I’m now fully reliant on the search giant for any sort of productivity whatsoever. Here’s how:

1) Google Spreadsheets: I don’t have the resources for things like Sharepoint, so in the past, my clients and I would email an Excel file back and forth, struggling to keep up with the latest version, and never truly having a collaborative place to keep up with defects and feature requests. With Google Spreadsheets, I have created one place where we can see and share progress. I mark things green once I have completed them, and the client marks rows red that are new or that may require more attention. I mark them yellow when I require additional feedback. I’ve even shared my current version of a defect log for your enjoyment. This has actually solved several communications problems for me:

Completions. The client always knows exactly what has been completed, and it is their responsibility to remove it from the list. (I actually keep a seperate Google Spreadsheet of completed tasks, just so I have a record to rely on).

Consolidation. We consolidate all of the information about a feature to one place. This one record. There’s no “I sent that info in an email two weeks ago” argument. If you didn’t put it in the spreadsheet, it’s not official.

Prioritization. Every time I am scheduled to work on a specific client’s project, I open the spreadsheet, sort by priority, and start at the top of the list. This allows each of my clients to get the work that is most important to them completed first. It’s not my place to dictate which features they get and when, so this empowers them to make that decision. Speaking of scheduling…

2) Google Calendar: Using this calendar has many benefits, but I will talk about it from a freelancer’s perspective. Each of my clients understands that I am working nights and weekends for them. They also understand that they are not my only client. So when they ask for something on Monday, they don’t expect it Tuesday morning. (Unless it’s an emergency, and in that case, we have special accomodations.) But it would be nice for them to know which nights I AM working on their stuff, so that they can prepare questions, additional features or priorities, etc in time for that block of work. I now have a seperate calendar for each of my clients, and I block out (on a rotating schedule) time each free evening I have for one of them. I share their respective calendars with them, and they now have full visibility into when I will be working for them. This, in concert with the Spreadsheet, shows them the what and when for everything. After each work session, I update the notes in the Google Calendar entry to let them know what has been completed that night, so they also can see what they are getting for their money. Speaking of invoicing…

3) Google Checkout: Like I mentioned earlier, I used to send a custom-created Word document to each of my clients at the end of each month, letting them know what I had completed, how many hours it took, and when it was due. This was additional time I was spending, and I certainly couldn’t bill them for the time I spend on accounting. Google Checkout solves this for me. I can use the “Send An Invoice” feature to create an invoice quickly, using the Google Calendar as my measurement for how many hours I worked for them that month. It allows me to take credit cards, debit cards, etc., and at least until Jan 2008, doesn’t cost me a cent! Google decided to waive all fees through 2007, and I’m hoping they extend it. Even if they don’t, it’ll be standard…like 2.5% + $0.20. Suck that, PayPal.

4) Gmail: C’mon. Without question the best free email system available. You can use it with your existing email address, both for receiving AND sending (except you have to pay for POP access with Yahoo!, mumble, mumble…), and the concept of folders and individual messages has been thrown out the window.

Let’s talk about folders for email for a moment: If you get an email from a client, and it’s about two different projects, which project’s folder do you put it in? Google has solved this problem by allowing you to “tag” your messages, rather than folder them. Your message is about two projects? No problem. Tag it as Project A and Project B. That way when you want to see all of the messages about Project B, it will be in there, but when you look at Project A’s stuff, it’s there too. In addition, rather than having to sort through all the messages looking for the response to your original, Gmail treats messages and their replies as a conversation. So when you look at the original, all of the replies are right there with it. Built in chat, integration with Calendar and Spreadsheet, and you’ve got plenty of reasons to use it. But none of those are my primary reason as a freelancer.

Rather than having to host, manage, backup, and provide access to all of my client’s email addresses, I have required them to get a Gmail account. Not only does this get them one step closer to all of the other tools I’ve mentioned by providing them with a Google account, but it allows me, as the guy managing their DNS and email addresses, to not have the headaches associated with managing their mail. I can set up an alias, forward it to their Gmail account, and never have to think about it again. Sure, the messages still have to get through my server, and get forwarded, but I don’t have to store their 30 GB of photos, files, etc.

To sum up, yes, I love Google. But I have my reasons. Most of which make my life MUCH easier, by getting the mundane out of my way.

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