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Brendan Cooper is Editor-in-Chief at byyd, the leading mobile Demand-side Platform.

It’s hell, but necessary hell. How to keep track of freelancing projects.

Hieronymus Bosch depicts bureaucrats, planners and administrators doing unspeakable things to each other. Im the one bottom right doing something unmentionable with a pig. Click image for source.

Hieronymus Bosch depicts bureaucrats, planners and administrators doing unspeakable things to each other in hell. I'm the one bottom right getting intimate with a pig. Click image for source.

Management. Administration. Bureaucracy. I hate it. But I have to do it. And actually, in a decidedly perverse way, Google Docs is helping me hate it a bit less every day.

I once worked for a time as a designer. I quite liked being protected from the hard-nosed business of, well, business. Our sales team used Salesforce and I found its complexities a bit bewildering.

Then, especially working in PR, I became more aware of the importance of keeping track of things. At any given time I would have several projects on the go. I became a whizz at Outlook then – unfortunately – at Lotus Notes.

Now however I’ve got to do the lot – account handling, new business, lead generation, the lot. Oh, and the actual work.

I also often need to do this wherever I may be, so I’ve set up a spreadsheet on Google Docs that does a very nice job of bringing all this together.

Now, I’m sure many of you have better ways of doing this, but some of you may not. So here’s how I do it:

  • Name - the name of the person I’m dealing with. This is often a real name – even if I’m dealing with a company, I prefer to think of people rather than brands. It really is personal.
  • Contact - having set up relational databases in the past I know this isn’t how it should be done (many people may have many contacts), but I do it this way anyway. It’s handy when you need to pick up the phone.
  • Tier - I haven’t actually used this in anger yet, but I do like to assign a tier – 1, 2 or 3 – to each prospect as it comes in. It’s usually related to the amount of work I expect I could get off them, so often an agency will be tier one, any other company will be tier two, and individuals are tier three. While I haven’t used this yet, I anticipate that at some point I’ll take a good hard look at where the bucks are coming from, or to spread my work across tiers to make my portfolio more robust.
  • Description - a brief description of the work. This is usually after the first call, and is firmed up as we go along.
  • Potential - usually a complete shot in the dark at how much the business could be worth. It just helps me get an idea of how my pipeline could look if the work turns out to be what I think it is, and if it actually happens.
  • Actual - when we’ve agreed on a quote, and we’re live, this is where the contract value goes. It’s as close as dammit to real money.
  • State - is how I keep track of whether we’re hot (1), warm (2), medium (3), cool (4) or frosty (5). Everyone starts at 3. If the next correspondence looks positive, you become a 2. If we’re live, you’re at 1. If, however, I get the feeling you’re not as keen as mustard – for example, if I’ve sent you an email or two and you haven’t come back to me – you go down to 4. When I’m sure you’ve dropped off the radar, just to mix the mustard/radar/flag metaphor up even more, you’re at 5. Notice I never delete you. I might ping you in future. But if I do, and you don’t want me to, I’ll remove you. In this way I get to see where I’m up to with live vs. not-quite-dead-yet vs. coughing-up-blood-last-night prospects. I’m happy to say that right now I’m looking at a lot of 1s and 2s, but naturally, given the fact that I’ve done a lot of groundwork to drum up business over the past few months, there are quite a few 5s too.
  • Last action - the last thing I did. It’s so easy to forget otherwise.
  • Last date – the last date I did it.
  • Next action – guess.
  • Next date - ditto.
  • Comment – is where I express purely personal opinions or observations. They can range from “Seriously exciting stuff”, “Great to do business with”, “Could be great, move heaven and earth to make it so” through to less enthusiastic comments when projects fall through.
  • Flag – uses Google Spreadsheet clever-dickery to show me how close the next date is. It tells me whether I need to take action tomorrow, ‘soon’ (ie within 4 days), or whether I’m late. This is all automatically colour coded too, so while tomorrow is a nice fragrant pink colour, today is red, and late is black. I use colour coding for the tiers and the flags too.

For me, the system works. Whenever I do anything – whether it’s a phone call or an email, invoice or chase payment from clients who have taken over 30 days to pay me (yes, they exist) – I add it. When prospects go cold, the flag goes down – but often with a ‘next date’ to ping them in a month or so to try and revive it.

So the spreadsheet tells me, at any time, who I’m working for, where we’re at, what happens next, when, and what the value of the work is or could be. It helps me warm up cold prospects, or balance workload when I think a tough week’s coming up. It also helps me get an instant view of how many tier 1 clients are live, say, or how many 3 flags I need to get moving up or down.

So there you have it. From slightly hippified designer in the corner to steely-eyed missile man. All it takes is a sudden realisation that you depend on yourself to keep everything organised, to make you do it.

And while this could probably be done with Post-its or sheer memory skills, given that I’ve got 55 rows – ie 55 separate ongoing prospects – and counting, I don’t think this would be feasible, or indeed desirable if I want to keep either the wallpaper intact, or my mind.

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One Comment on “It’s hell, but necessary hell. How to keep track of freelancing projects.”

  1. Steve Meleka October 9, 2009 at 10:20 am #

    Sounds like an efficient system. Have you thought about an online CMS tool for this? Something like HighRise from 37Signals perhaps? See http://highrisehq.com.

    I use their BaseCamp online project management and collaboration system, which links directly to HighRise, giving me a fairly seamless customer relationship and project management system. You have to pay for it, but it’s not all that expensive, and I can access it from any internet connection, not just my computer.