My consulting essentials

I got an email this week reminding me that my annual corporate filing and fees are due, which means it’s Cook Public Relations’ sixth birthday. Cue the candles and balloons.

I absolutely love having my own consultancy, and I’ve been really fortunate to work with a lot of really smart and fun people on interesting projects. To pay it forward, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned along the way that make being an independent consultant a lot easier for me.

I knew how to support clients and had full confidence in my PR expertise, but in my first few months I found myself struggling a bit with no help. I worked for a big-ish agency for many years where I had necessary systems and support. I realized I needed different systems to make the business side of business easy and efficient.

Here are some tools and tips I can’t function without:

  1. Cloud Files: The first time my laptop failed, I almost missed a client deadline. I quickly learned the importance of file and system redundancy even for my own small business. Now I store all my files and documents in a secure cloud-sharing service so that I can access my password-protected files from any computer, ipad  and even my iphone. The DropBox tool that I chose, with a little help from Geekrunner (another essential “tool”) not only backs up my files but also lets me share documents or entire folders with clients, consultants and even my accountant permanently or on the fly.
  2. FreshBooks: As much as I love what I do, billing is important and boring.  Initially, I tracked my time in Excel and then generated invoices with Word. It was a bit cumbersome, but it worked. The challenge was that I still had to track monthly billing and receivables separately and I found myself recording time in notebooks, my calendar and sometimes even on receipts so I wouldn’t forget what I’d done on any given day.  A friend recommended FreshBooks and it revolutionized how I ran my business. I now track my activities in real time on my computer, ipad or iphone and generate invoices, reports and receivables all from one platform. My favourite feature is that I can take a photo of receipts on my iphone and enter them as expenses to provide copies to clients. No more scanning!
  3. Wifi Access: Critical, right? Despite good intentions, it’s sometimes impossible to access certain wi-fi networks. And sometimes there’s just no wifi available when I’m out of office and need it. I was losing productivity when I was out of the office which not only impacted revenue but my availability to my clients. I discovered a wireless AirCard and I’m now able to get online almost anywhere. It’s much more reliable and faster than tethering my phone or fighting with finicky networks and saves me hours of time each year.
  4. Number crunching: One of my best investments each quarter is my bookkeeper. I file my billing, expenses and salary documents monthly and take them to my bookkeeper each quarter. She reviews and reconciles everything and generates quarterly reports. This helps quickly catch any errors I’ve made, tells me how I’m doing so I can plan or adjust accordingly, flags overdue payments I might have missed and keeps me up on my GST and other tax payments. I hate this boring but necessary part of my business so it’s worth the minor expense for the support and professional guidance.
  5. Second laptop: This is a little bit of an indulgence but when and if my laptop dies my business pretty much dies too. Being unable to work is bad for my clients and bad for me. As soon as my finances permitted I bought a second laptop so that if one ex;lodes or needs a tweak, I have a back-up. My system has evolved so I now have a home laptop that has a bigger screen and is a bit more substantial as well as an older, lighter travel laptop that can take a licking in my briefcase. Because I have DropBox and an email exchange server, both laptops  – and my ipad and iphone – are synced all the time and I have redundancy. If one kicks permanently, all I need to do if I’m forced to buy a new laptop is sign-in to my mail server, DropBox and FreshBooks and I’m up and running again fast.

Occasionally, but not often, consulting can feel like working on a desert island. These tools come to my rescue.