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#DearID Episode 53: Freelance Toolbox

In: Dear ID Showelearning

In this episode, I want to share a bit more about my own toolset, in a few categories. We’ll look at business tools, productivity tools, and professional development.

Be sure to check out a transcript of the episode below the player. And the shownotes are here:

Hey everybody and welcome back to Dear Instructional Designer, the show about the instructional design journey. I’m your host, Kristin Anthony.

We’re in Season 4 of Dear ID where we are concentrating on the journey into freelancing as an instructional designer. We’ve heard in the last couple of episodes with Christy Devlin about some of the things that they have in their freelancing toolbox, things that they feel are worth paying for and using. In this episode, I want to share a bit more about my own toolset, in a few categories. We’ll look at business tools, productivity tools, and professional development.

Let’s start with business tools. One of the things that I learned pretty quickly was that I needed a way to track my time and then invoice for that time. There are a number of free tools that will help you with this. I started off trying to use Anuko, which is free and open source. However, now, I use Freshbooks, which is a monthly expense, about 15 bucks a month, but it helps me track my time in my browser as well as in a number of other places, send and track invoices, and track and categorize expenses. For me, this has been worth it because it’s multiple tools in one and whereas I often forgot to spin up Anuko to track my time, I do much, much better about doing this using Freshbooks. It also allows me to categorize my work into projects and then categorize work in those projects into services. So I can say specifically that I’m working on instructional design for client X for 3 hours and then project management for client Y for 15 minutes. I also make use of the notes feature so that my invoices include details about exactly what I was working on for each chunk of time and I’ve found that my clients really value that. Freshbooks is also good for reviewing how you’ve spent your time and your money. I recently came back from the Learning Dev Camp conference and one of the main things that camp inspired me to do was to make some time (I’m hoping once a quarter) to take a sabbatical and think about my business and my work and my One Thing. I think that part of that sabbatical could and should be reviewing how much time I spent on various projects and my expenses. In fact, I’ve just done a major gut check on things I’m paying for and made some big changes to bring my subscription and hosting expenses way down. We’ll talk about that in a bit.

The other thing that I use to help me track expenses is a free app called Bobby which helps me track my subscriptions, specifically. So many products have moved to subscription-based pricing, because it helps the companies get monthly income as opposed to a one-time payment which exposes them more to that feast or famine issue. And it’s really easy with digital products to spend 10 bucks a month here and 15 bucks a month there. So I use Bobby to help me get a good look at what I’m paying for on a monthly or yearly basis.

Hosting has been one of my major business costs so far. There’s podcast hosting, hosting for all of my domains, hosting for the Go Design Something Course. And all of that adds up. That’s why I just completed a major redesign of my portfolio to use a static site generator instead of WordPress. By doing this, I could cancel the support I was paying for for plugins that helped me keep my wordpress site healthy and fast (to compress images and files, create backups, ward off attempts to breach the site backend, and stuff like that) and I could cancel my wordpress hosting. Instead, I’ve transferred all of my domains to NameCheap, and I’m using the free tier of a service called Netlify that will allow me to deploy, that is to update, my websites from github. So when I make a change, the site is rebuilt within minutes and because I’m using github, I have a backup. I’m also using the very generous free tier of a solution called Cloudinary for my images because it helps to make sure that the images are sized better for the web, quality wise, so that they load faster. And I switched over to Amazon S3 to host many of my interactives and portfolio pieces. All of this means that my sites are more secure, their faster, my portfolio at least can now work offline, and I’m paying for less. There is a bit of a tradeoff here of course, because now I need to write blog posts using markdown instead of the WYSIWYG of WordPress and if Netlify were to start charging or Cloudinary were to go down, I might have to make some changes. However, because the site is now a static site (that is, it’s basic HTML, CSS, and Javascript) it can be hosted literally anywhere. So I’m not too worried about the future. The other issue I’ve encountered is that it doesn’t seem to be possible to host my interactives at exactly the same links that they were at before. Fortunately, I’ve been able to figure out a way to resolve those old links into the new ones, but that was a bit of an ordeal. But I think it’s solved reasonably well now.

I also moved over my business email addresses to GSuite so I get to keep my email addresses with my business URL as opposed to just plain gmail addresses with some added google services. That’s 5 bucks a month, but again is more than offset by being able to cancel my other hosting services.

Other than that, I pay for podcast hosting, and for hosting of my course. My podcast hosting is really reasonable and necessary for properly getting the podcast out to iTunes as well as making it available to a host of other podcasting apps. However, I’m seriously considering rebuilding my course using Adapt and hosting it on S3, especially because it’s now free. So I may be getting rid of that, as well. I’ll be sure to make an announcement if and when I do that.

I also pay for Dropbox yearly. Why dropbox and Google Drive? Well, Dropbox isn’t tied to one of my email addresses, and I’m also getting a lot more storage space in Dropbox. Dropbox helps me to backup a number of my asset store purchases (particularly Creative Market purchases) and docs (from notes apps) automatically, so I’ve found that it’s worth paying for.

Okay, so business wise, I find accounting software and storage worth paying for, and I find various hosting options are worth it, though I’ve been consolidating and changing to lower my costs. Many IDs use WordPress because it is a content management system and is easy to use. You can likely find cheaper hosting options than I did, but for me changing to over a static site was a better option and more in keeping with the kinds of coding practices I want to display.

Now, on to productivity tools. While business tools are the tools I use to help me keep on top of my work, I’ll define productivity tools as the tools I use to help me get work done.

One of the tools I’ve been using for several years is Buffer which is a social media management tool. After several years on their very reasonably priced pro plan, I just downgraded to free. I used buffer to schedule posts to announce new episodes or blog posts so it has been part of my marketing duties. But partly because I haven’t been blogging recently (though I’ve got a new project in mind that will change that) and partly because I am still grappling with trying to do more deep work and worry less about social media, I’ve decided to let the paid plan go. However, I will say that it was really, really indispensable at the beginning for getting the word out about my blog posts with minimal effort from me. So it may be worth it for you. I’d encourage you to check them out. It’s a company that values radical transparency so I really like their message, as well.

I also have a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud. This is fairly expensive-ish but Photoshop, Illustrator, and Audition are apps that I use all the time, and there are a number of other included tools that I use, though much less often, so it’s really been worth it for me.

For assets such as icons and images, I have a subscription to the Noun Project, which I use often, and eLearning Art, which I haven’t used very much. Here is one place where, as Christy pointed out, you might want to take that mindset of on again/off again. There are a number of places where you can purchase assets on a per-project basis, and that’s what I mostly do, although I will say that eLearning Art has a great assortment of characters with different poses and emotions which makes it very specific to the elearning development and therefore useful. But if you aren’t making those kinds of courses, then you might want to consider cutting the subscription. One of the risks there is that prices may go up every time you re-subscribe, but that’s one of the tradeoffs.

One of the things I’m on the fence about is my subscription to Cloud 9 which is a cloud-based (now Amazon-owned) IDE. The way I’ve been using it is to engage in rapid prototyping. So I can quickly code up a game prototype using Phaser JS or some other web framework, and use a public link from Cloud 9 to share with clients so they can quickly see what I’m thinking and that’s been super useful. However, with Amazon S3 hosting, I could also code something locally, upload it to S3 and then share the link to that. The benefit of cloud 9 is that changes are immediate and I can connect the workspace to github, which again, provides me with a backup of the actual code and version management. So if you’re providing custom solutions with code, that’s something to consider.

It may be very un-agile of me, but I find that I do a TON of planning and project management and one of the most useful things that I do for myself is take every project, both professional and personal, and break it into small, bite-sized tasks. For coding projects, I tend to use Github Projects. For everything else, I use Trello. Both of these products can be used for free and you pay for certain functionality such as privacy. Both Github projects and Trello are kanban boards. The idea, again, is that you plan out a project on a board into tickets or issues. Each issue should be small, well-formed (so you know exactly what it is that you’re doing) and should be verifiable (so that someone else looking at that issue knows whether or not it’s complete). You then move each ticket from the columns on the left to the columns on the right (or you can do this from the other direction if you read right to left). My boards typically have columns labelled something like: ToDo or Backlog which represents everything that hasn’t yet been started on, Blocked or Stuck, which represents any tickets that can’t move forward for some reason In Progress, which is the stuff I or we are working on right now Review, which represents the stage where someone else (from the owning organization) should be verifying that the stuff in that ticket is complete And Done or Verified which means that this ticket is complete AND has been verified. As I mentioned in the episode about my freelance journey, this practice helps me to track progress in a transparent way so that it’s crystal clear what’s stuck, what’s in progress, what’s waiting on feedback and what has been reviewed and verified.

In addition to that, since I’ve been suffering from a problem focusing on work, I’ve replicated this kanban board system to my physical space by using magnetic whiteboards in my workspace, one for client work and one for personal projects, where I’ve drawn 3 columns (Backlog, In Progress, and Done) and I found these really need magnetic cards called Agile Pack, that I use to write out all of the tasks I expect to finish in a week. That helps me get focused on what I need to get done on a daily and weekly basis and helps make sure I don’t drop the ball without forcing me to switch through a lot of different apps and risk getting lost on the internet.

I’ve also invested in blank dry erase calendars, one monthly and one yearly, so that I can keep track of my appointments and due dates without risking getting lost in my Google Calendar, though I also keep appointments there.

These physical systems provide redundancy (to be clear, I track my work and appoints in digital formats, too) while also allowing me to turn off some apps that might provide unwanted distraction.

To that end, I also recently re-discovered a free app called Station which allows you to curate a lot of your work-necessary web apps into one place. I started using this as one means of staying off of the web while I work. I have my work Slack apps, my Google Calendar, Freshbooks, Trello, Github, Dropbox, Google Drive and other apps all inside of station. As I said, focus is something I’m really working on, so I’m trying a lot of different things to promote staying on task.

When I do have to go to the browser, it’s really helpful to be able to collect links that I go to often or that I was interested in but haven’t had a chance to get to yet. For this, I’m using the free Toby and OneTab plugins. Toby allows me to collect and organize project links that I go to often. For example, if your client has some web systems that you have to log in to to get work done, you can save those links with Toby and they will appear as cards every time you open a new tab. It’s been a more useful bookmarking tool for me. OneTab allows me to collect all of my currently open tabs into one tab that lists them all so I don’t lose those tabs if I want to declutter my browser.

One of the things that may be conspicuously missing from this list is elearning authoring tool. Well, right now, I’m actually not paying for one. The model I’ve been using thus far is to get access to the client’s tools, whether that be the LMS or their authoring tool, and work that way while performing custom development using other toolsets. This is actually really useful because it makes sure that the client is familiar with and has access to the tools that I use to develop.

That said, for many of us, it does make sense to have a personal license to some development tool so that you gain expertise with it and can develop with it easily and quickly. For me, right now, I’m investing in a subscription to Construct 3 because I want to be able to quickly and easily create 2D game experiences and I’m learning how to use that particular tool.

So as you heard, I pay for a number of tools to keep myself productive, but I also use a TON of free stuff. That’s one of the nice things about staying abreast of general tech trends, you can discover a lot of products that can help you do work without breaking the bank.

Okay, so last, let’s talk about professional development. I feel strongly that whether you are freelancing or not, you need to have a budget and a plan for keeping your skill sets relevant. As Christy said, and I love the way she put this, your security is in having the skills you need to get that next job, even if you are in a full-time position. So make a plan for your own PD.

I found that employers did not want to pay for conferences so I never went to a conference until I struck out on my own. I’ve chosen to focus on one tiny conference a year. I went to Torrance Learning’s Download and xAPI party my first year, this year I went to ELBX and Learning Dev Camp, which were co-located, and next year, I hope to go to the TLDC Conference. Conferences, particularly these small ones, allow me to connect with other freelancers and practitioners face-to-face which is helpful networking as well as getting new ideas.

PD-wise, though, I spend most of my time and money on online learning experiences and books. One of the tricky things is trying to stay focused on one priority at a time.

I’m still trying to focus on getting a better handle on good game design, so I’ve invested in several one-time course purchases around this topic as well as a subscription to a game development community focused on helping participants get better at building games in teams.

Right now, though I’m actually completing a Udacity Nanodegree for mobile web development, so I’m throwing all of my time and energy towards doing the best I can at that experience, which has meant that game development is taking a back seat until that course is over. But I’ll be switching gears to have a new one thing to focus on in a few months.

The other thing that I’ve been investing in is books. More often that not, I’m reading outside of L&D, specifically so that I cast a wider net idea-wise. I have an Audible subscription and I focus on listening to a book a little bit every day. So far this year, I’ve read books on the bible, on Chinese philosophy, and of course several about productivity and learning. I also invest in some print books and I have Cathy Moore’s Map it and Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp’s Play to Learn on my shelf.

I think one of the important things to do with both book and course resources is to make time to translate learning into action. For example, when I was reading through the One Thing, it made me take a step back and rethink the way I was working, hence my willingness to stop engaging in the other courses I have in my learning backlog to focus on my udacity course right now. And when I finished the book Mini Habits, it inspired my current implementation of skill and positive-habit development with a list of several stupid-small tasks that I set for myself to complete every day.

One of the interesting things I’ve found, for myself at least, though I see this in other people, is that even though there are millions of free resources around the skill sets that I want to develop, I still purchase courses and books because, as a newbie to these skills, I value the pathway and the guidance that these types of experiences provide as opposed to trying to curate my own course out of free experience so I invest in that. The upside is that these are mostly asynchronous experiences that you have access to forever so you can plan your learning into the future.

So those are the things that I have invested in for my business, productivity, and professional development. Feel free to take what works for you and discard the rest. One thing that I hope you’ll take away is that you can and should continue reevaluating your tools to make sure that they fit you. Drop things that you don’t need and keep up with the ones that do.

That’s it for this episode! I would love to hear from you. If you’ve got any follow up questions about this the tools I use or if you have tool recommendations, feel free to reach out to me. I’m @anthkris on Twitter, or you can shoot me an email at kristin AT

And don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes! Your review helps other people find the show and lets me know how I’m doing. I would really, really appreciate it.

Thanks so much for listening and I will see you back here next time. Take care!