Virtually all creative artists/designers start out as struggling freelancers.  Even when you become a legitimate small business, you often find yourself counting every penny that goes out.  Yet, building your business into a positive income-generating company requires that you are well-organized – with your time and how you interface with your clients on projects.  Productivity is the name of the game.  With the myriad of free web apps for small businesses, freelancers and contractors, web designers (and creative agencies) have lots of options.

This list includes our recommendations for the best FREE productivity web apps for web and graphic designers.  There are also tons of Mac OSX widgets and apps that have similar functionality… we will cover those in another post.  Rather than focus on just one type of productivity tool, we’ve covered the whole administrative process of managing a business or throughout the creative workflow – divided into TEN categories.  We’ve STRICTLY restricted our recommendations to services that offer some type of permanent free account (free X-day trials are not included)… So there may be some better options out there in each of these categories – for a fee.

Here are the first FIVE categories….

File Storage & Sharing

DropBox

dropbox-file-storage

DropBox is a cloud-based file synchronization and sharing service.  It is fantastically easy-to-use and the user interface on both the desktop tool and web-based version are extremely intuitive.  The files can be shared easily with a link and the files remain stored in the DropBox cloud until you decide to remove it.  It also comes with an iPhone app to view or manage your synchronized files.

A 2GB account is free!

Try DropBox

Adobe SendNow

sendnow-file-sharing

Adobe SendNoW is a large file sharing service. The best feature is probably the ability to manage download activities — allowing you to keep control on who can download or how many times files have been downloaded. With the Free version, you can upload up to 100MB in one session with a max storage limit is 500MB. Share the files from directly within Adobe Acrobat (via attachment or email link) or use the secure web console.  With a premium account you can upload up to 2GB data in one session and track each download activity, with up to 500 downloads per file.  The Plus version allows 20GB storage and unlimited downloads per file.

A 500MB account is free!

Try Adobe SendNow

Billing & Invoicing

Zoho Invoices

Zoho Invoice allows you to easily track invoices, estimates, and time for each customer.  Send highly customized invoices and allow customers to pay online through your payment gateway.  It is lightweight and syncs with Google Apps and Gmail.

The Free Account for a single user includes unlimited invoices for up to 5 customers.

Zohoinvoice

FreshBooks

FreshBooks is primarily an invoicing tool, however it also offers time tracking,  document sharing, lightweight collaboration, and expense reporting.  An extremely popular web application, it has clean interface and gives you a dedicated subdomain with branded login and system console to make your business look that much more professional.  It has a pretty decent iPhone app.

The Free plan offers unlimited invoices and estimates for up to 3 clients.

 

 

Project Management & Collaboration

ProjectPier

projectpier-collaboration

ProjectPier is an open-source self-hosted project management and collaboration tool.  It’s not as beautiful or intuitive as BaseCamp, but the flexibility of having it on your own server is a huge plus for us.  Privacy options, full-text search, tags, versioning and sub-projects are some of the features of this robust application.  One of the newest features is the ability to create project templates to easily create projects with similar milestones from past projects.

Open Source = Free!!

Try ProjectPier

Zoho Projects

Zoho Projects is a feature-packed project management app that fully integrates into Google Apps.  Messages, forums, online chat, meeting scheduling and document storage are just some of the functionality offered.   It doesn’t offer much storage though.  For additional perks like editable Gantt charts, bug tracking, iPhone app, and wikis, you’ll need to sign up for one of the paid plans.

The Free plan comes with 1 project with unlimited users, 10 MB file storage.

Redmine

redmine-project-collab

We’ve never used Redmine, but with features like issue tracking, Gantt charting, calendar, RSS feeds, per project wikis and forums and news/doc/file management, it sounds like a major contender for PM software.

Open Source = Free

Try Redmine

Join.me

joinme-screen-sharing

Although this isn’t a project management tool or an actual collaboration tool in the tradition sense, this is our favorite new web app!  Join.me is a screen sharing tool that doesn’t require your viewers to register.  We recently used it with a web design client and the process from download to screen share took under 3 minutes.  Simply download the desktop client (EXTREMELY lightweight) and then just start a new session every time you want to share your screen to get a unique ID to share with your viewer.

Try Join.Me

Time Tracking

There might be more free time tracking web apps out there than paid ones.  Apps in this category, most importantly, need to be astonishingly easy-to-use.. easy enough to encourage you to track you time…. which as we all know, is a pain.

MyIntervals

myintervals-time-tracking

In terms of features, MyIntervals gives its competition a run for its money.  Document storage, lightweight project management, time tracking (of course), invoicing, and task management are the main features, but the most important one is its robust reporting capability… learn where your time is being spent, which clients deliver the best ROI of your time and how your subcontractors are spending their time.

The Free plan includes only one active project, one active client, one invoice, and four active users. It also includes unlimited tasks and time, but does NOT include SSL or document storage.

Try MyIntervals

Klok

klok-time-tracking

With the basic functionality you need to track, manage, and analyze your time, Klok is a decent solution.  You can import meetings from Google Cal and track time by client, project, or task.  It isn’t a cumbersome app and you can buy a desktop version for $15.99.  You can also integrate with other invoicing apps like Freshbooks and Paymo.

Klok’s Free version does not include Google Calendar export, but it’s totally FREE for unlimited use.

Try Klok

Toggl

toggl-time-tracking

Toggl’s Pro account features the ability to share branded reports with clients, without requiring a login, so that they can see where time (and money) is being spent.  This is one of the features that set’s it apart.  It also works across browsers and iPhone/iPad.  Toggl supports the way you work: live tracking or the timesheet approach.  It integrates with Quickbooks, Freshbooks, Basecamp, etc… and the UI is also pretty clean.

Toggl’s Free version includes basic features for up to 5 users.  It’s Pro Plan is $5/user/mth

Try Toggl

Paymo

paymo-time-tracking-review

Paymo has everything a true project manager that is tracking their time could wish for… For half the price ($9.95) of the cheapest Basecamp account ($20/mth), you get virtually the same functionality: a fabulous dashboard, task/files/collaboration/milestone/timesheet management, project templates (something most of its competitor is lacking – except for Basecamp and ProjectPier’s latest version), online invoicing, and PayPal integration.  The true downside for us is the lack of Google Checkout integration.  If Paymo had this – we would use it ourselves.

The Free version includes 1 user/invoice and unlimited clients and projects.  I would venture that combining this product with a more robust invoicing tool (that has unlimited invoices for unlimited clients) would be ideal.

Try Paymo

Wireframing, Website Planning  & Proof Approvals

MockFlow

mockflow-wireframing

With versioning history, annotations, interactive visualization and Excel export of your sitemaps, export of your entire project offline into HTML, optional public URLs to share your projects, team chat, Google apps integration and a built-in Web Snap feature — Mockflow is a beast.

It’s Free plan is quite limiting (watermarked exports), but at least you can try it out as long as you want.  Free plan includes 1 project with 4 pages, 2 collaborators, and 10MB storage.

Try Mockflow

Invision

invision-wireframing

The coolest feature in the Invision App is the automatic creation of To-Do items based on collaborator feedback.  Otherwise, it is pretty basic in terms of functionality in comparison to Mockflow and some other competitors.

Invision’s Free plan includes one project with unlimited pages and collaborators.  Technically, you could create an account for each client project and get away with free usage forever..

Try Invision

WriteMaps

writemaps-sitemap-tool

WriteMaps SIMPLY allows the creation of graphical and/or outline-format site maps for your website projects.  You can share your sitemaps with a permanent URL (no security for anyone that has the link) or export your sitemap in XML and a couple other formats.

This tool is totally Free.

Try WriteMaps

Mockingbird

mockingbird-wireframing

This app is a wireframing tool. Period. It offers several features around wireframing, but does not offer custom backgrounds.  You can share a link to the project with collaborators, but they have the ability to edit in real-time – rather than just comment.

Mockingbird’s free Plan includes 1 project with 10 pages; 2 users; no archived projects.

Try Mockingbird

JumpChart

jumpchart-website-planning-tool

Imagine being able to click through your site seeing 100% approved content and navigation before you push your first pixel. Well Jumpchart offers just that – a content wireframe of just the text, files, and architecture of your site. And with the Super Account, you can export into WordPress!!

The FREE Account Includes: 1 project, 2 collaborators per project, 10 pages per projects, 1MB storage, Unlimited HTML exports, Unlimited comments, Project RSS feeds, Email notifications, and a Personalized URL.

Try Jumpchart

Check out Part 2 next week including: Font Apps, Color Management, Browser Testing, Contract Management, and General Productivity.h3