This post isn't about telling you what NLE to use, what plugins you need, or where to get stock footage. That's covered elsewhere. Besides, you probably know all that. Most editors I know are pretty efficient with their main creative tools.
Where I suspect that you (and most other business owners) have productivity issues is around the supporting activities that are part of running your own business. This can range from the administrivia associated with invoicing customers and getting paid, to keeping up with your contacts (you want the work to keep flowing don't you?) and managing your hectic schedule.
Here are my thoughts on tools that you can use to run your business like a boss. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive list of productivity and efficiency tools. These are simply the ones that I have personally used and feel comfortable recommending. There aren't any affiliate links to these tools, and I have nothing personal to gain from recommending them. I have found them to be useful and wanted to pass them along.
Your mileage with these tools may vary. If you have had a different experience with these tools, or if you have other recommendations, please share your perspective in the comments.
Email and Basic Office Software
The core of my virtual office is Google Apps for Business. I would recommend this for anyone looking for a way to get rid of bloated and costly desktop apps. Gmail helps me efficiently manage a mountain of email, and the office tools like Google Docs make it easy to share and collaborate with others.
While I'm not fond of the volume of email that I get, I find that Gmail is an amazing way to manage it. There is tons of storage so I can hold onto everything I get, the spam filters are amazing, and I love creating rules to process messages from different people. Gmail also solves another longstanding problem I've had with email. I'm terrible at remembering where I've stored messages. Pre-Gmail, when trying to track a message down I would ask myself if it was filed in the folder with a person's name, the folder associated with a project, or somewhere else. With Google's tag based organization, the email can be tagged as many fields as you want. A message can be simultaneously associated with the client name, the project, etc. Between tags and search, I can find email messages with ease. Synching with the native iPhone email app is great, and mobile life is even better when you install the Gmail App on your iPhone (it's the default on Android).
While I haven't completely banished Microsoft Office from my computer (as a business guy, my muscle memory is associated with Excel keyboard shortcuts), I'm getting pretty close. The minimal feature set of Google apps suits me, and I find that it's much easier to share files with clients and co-workers using Google Docs, than it is to email Word documents back and forth. With Docs, I find that I don't run into the same version control and compatibility issues that I do with Office. It also has the added bonus of being accessible anywhere, via your iPhone, iPad, or Android device. The sharing model for Google Docs would be awesome for production briefs, timelines, etc.
If you haven't started using Googles tools already, I would recommend signing up now. If you need some help, check out this post on how to get started setting up Google Apps for your business.
If you prefer a traditional desktop application, you should give OpenOffice a look. It doesn't do everything that Microsoft Office does, but for being free (both as in beer and speech) it is definitely worth a look.
In a recent #PostChat session on the business of being a freelanacer, the one tool that came up over and over again was Google Calendar. A good reason for this is its ability to sync across different devices, and its ability to incorporate feeds from multiple different calendars (ex. personal, work, your office). Calendar sharing is another feature that can come in handy, as you can easily share a view of your calendar that shows free / busy times without divulging the details of your appointments. If you are trying to schedule a meeting, this can make it easier for people to pick times that work. There is also a tool that can automatically pick a meeting time that works for all the invitees.
I have found Tungle.me really useful when attending events like NAB where I need to schedule lots of meetings. Basically the service integrates with several different calendars and allows you to publish your free and busy times. People can then use the service to book meetings during your free periods. Unfortunately, RIM acquired the startup and has recently decided to shutter it. Some alternatives to consider are Doddle, and ScheduleOne, but I have not personally tried any of them.
Contact Management / Customer Relationship Management
If you work on your own, you can probably get by managing client contact information in something like Google Contacts, and setting reminders to follow up with people in Google Calendar or a task scheduler. However, if you want to take your business to the next level, it might make sense to invest in a CRM system.
At their most basic, CRM tools provide a way to share contacts with a group, document all interactions (phone calls, emails, meetings), and set follow up tasks and deadlines. With ScreenLight, after I finish a conversation with a client, I log the key points into my CRM tool, and ask myself what the next step is in building my relationship with that person. Then I schedule a task and forget about it until I get the email reminder. I find that this clears up tons of mental clutter, since I don't have to remember that I should call Randy about our contract later this week. I never forget to follow up.
Right now I'm using Highrise as my CRM tool. I find that it's fairly simple to use. Besides basically logging conversations and scheduling follow ups, the tool makes it easy to keep track of outstanding bids and your deal pipeline. If you are only keeping track of a small number of clients, then Highrise is free. Otherwise, you are looking at $24 / month and up depending on the number of employees you have and the number of contacts you are managing. Batchbook is another alternative that I've tried. Its differentiator is the ability to import social media information on your clients. While you might value that feature, I found the interface a little more cumbersome than Highrise. Salesforce is the 800 pound gorilla in this space, but I've found that it's overkill for my needs.
Time tracking is essential for most freelancers. Even if you don't have an hourly billing model, you should develop a very clear idea of where your time is going.
One simple benefit of time tracking is that it makes it much easier to bid on new work because you have a realistic idea of how long certain tasks actually take. But the benefits go much deeper. You can see how much time you are spending on activities like marketing, business development, client management, and (of course) editing. With this inventory you can start to optimize your business by setting clear objectives for how much time you should be spending on different tasks. You can also see which clients are the most profitable, and which ones are time sinks who should be charged more in the future.
In my mind, the key requirement for this type of tool is that it has to work on the desktop and on my iPhone. My standby in this category is Freshbooks. The great thing about their tool is that it works across different platforms and the information is fed into the invoicing application, so it's easy to bill for your time. Another tool in this category that is popular with people I've spoken with is Harvest although I haven't tried it myself.
Invoicing, Cash Flow, Accounting
I've used a number of tools for invoicing and accounting over the last number of years.
The tool that I've spent the most time with in this category is Freshbooks. It makes it really simple to send invoices to clients and manage your cash flow by tracking whether they have paid. They have integrated the service with a wide variety of payment gateways, so that you can easily offer clients the option of paying their invoices online using a credit card. As Freshbooks has added features like expense tracking, profit & loss statements, and balance sheet information, the tool has evolved into a full-blown cloud accounting system that offers everything that a small business needs. This post from earlier in the year has more details on Freshbooks and the benefits of online invoicing.
I tried using Wave Accounting for ScreenLight. It wasn't the right fit for us due to it's lack of multi-currency support (something that has now been added), the complexity of our billing requirements, and some issues surrounding tax calculation. That said, I think it's a promising tool and something that could work well for freelancers and small production / post production companies. The interface is very simple and easy to get started with. The service is completely free, so it doesn't hurt to check it out to see if it works for you.
We are now using Xero for our accounting system and are quite happy with it. We can bill in different currencies, and it's flexible enough to manage the quirks of our business. Like Wave, you can connect it with your bank accounts, so that you can pull-in much of the information you need. You can also use it to send invoices, accept online payments from your customers, and share everything with your team and your accountant at tax time. It's a subscription service starting at $19 / month.
When projects evolve beyond a couple of participants and there are lots of tasks, deadlines, and milestones, it can be useful to add a project management tool to your toolkit.
I used to use Basecamp to manage my projects before I started work on ScreenLight, and I've used it off and on ever since. It's a well designed tool that is based around the construct of projects. When you create a project, you can add people to it, give them different superpowers, and have discussions, assign tasks, share files, create simple text documents, and view shared calendars. Much like ScreenLight, a big benefit is that discussions, feedback, and decisions are all centralized. Pricing starts at $20 / month.
Over the last year, we've migrated our project management to Trello, as we have found it easier to schedule development, track software bugs, organize our blog posting schedule, and coordinate marketing activities. The organizational structure is a little bit more free form than Basecamp, so I think that it takes a bit longer to get up to speed and figure out how to make it work for you. The tool is organized around boards which contain cards that can then be grouped into lists (it's really simpler than I'm making it sound). Cards are the basic unit of information and can contain descriptions, checklists, conversations, attachments, due dates, and more. One of the best parts of the service is that it's free, so there is no harm in checking it out to see if it works for you.
If a full-blown project management tool is more than you need, it may still be worth looking into task management tools. I've used a whole bunch of them in the past, but none have really stuck (this is probably my problem, not theirs).
My favorite is Omni-Focus, but I find it too pricey once you buy the desktop and mobile versions. For whatever reason I've stopped using that in favor of Google Tasks. While Google's product isn't the most flexible one out there, I love being able to use a keyboard shortcut (Shift + T) to quickly turn an email into a task. The ability to set a deadline for tasks that appears in Google calendar is also great. I guess once you've drank the Google Apps Kool-Aid, you might as well keep going.
I wish the fax machine would die. The last office I was at had one that continually rang and spat out paper with special offers for this or that, but nothing useful. I've tried a bunch of different online fax services, but have never been happy with them. Established services like efax seem as ugly and kludgy to use as the machines they were designed to replace.
This summer, I signed up for a solution that finally clicked for me. HelloFax has two things that I love: A beautifully simple design, and Google Drive integration. I can create a document in Docs, add my signature if necessary, and send it out. Everything is nicely organized with zero paper waste.
HelloFax's pricing is also right for me. If you don't need your own fax number, you can use the free / pay-per-use service that is $.99 / fax (your first 5 are free). If you need a fax number or if you send a large volume of faxes, there are a number of affordable monthly plans starting at $4.99/month.
Adding your John Hancock to contracts, NDA's, forms, releases, etc. is a part of running your own business. Dealing with all the paper this creates can be a hassle. Printed forms sit in a pile until that rainy day when I finally decide to open all my useless mail and start filing stuff. With an online signature application you never have to print a form and file it. This can be a timesaver and a way to declutter your office.
The tool that I have the most experience with is Right Signature. You basically upload a document, add fields that people can type information into, and add a field for a signature. When you send the document, the recipient can use their mouse to create a legally binding signature. An audit trail is kept for the entire transaction and the document is locked so that it can't be changed once it has been signed.
For production companies and anyone who has to do releases in the field, I think that the "In Person E-signature" app could be a real time-saver. You can basically replace your clipboard by creating a template and asking people to sign it on your iPad. All of this can be integrated with Google Docs, so that signed forms are immediately filed away in the right place.
The only downside of Right Signature is the price. $14 / month means that you have to generate a fair amount of signatures to make it worthwhile. Fortunately, my friends at HelloFax, have added a document signing application called HelloSign that is completely free. It doesn't have all the form validation and premium features offered by Right Signature, but it looks like it has everything most production companies would need, including the virtual clipboard app for collecting signatures in the field.
Virtual Phone Service
If you spend a lot of time on the phone and find a cellular connection doesn't cut it, I've found that it's way easier and cheaper to setup a virtual phone service than pay for a landline or setup a PBX system.
If you are a freelancer and you live in the U.S., I would recommend setting up Google Voice. This service gives you a single number that clients can use to reach you at any of your phones. When someone calls that number, all of your phones will ring at the same time, and you can answer the call on whichever one is most convenient. The service provides flexible calling rules that you can use to do things like block calls, prioritize calls, and define whose calls will ring on different devices. Other handy features include voice-mail transcription and custom greetings. There are native Android and iPhone apps for your mobile.
For larger offices, a better fit might be a virtual PBX service like Grasshopper. This is what we use for ScreenLight's 1.800 number. When someone calls this number, they go through the auto-attendant, and then the call is connected to the right cell phone or landline. The big difference between this and Google Voice is that you can configure multiple extensions (for different employees or departments), you can connect multiple numbers to your account (1.800, local, fax), and you can connect with as many cell phones as you want. It's quite easy to administer and has all the niceties of a PBX system like custom greetings, on-hold music, etc. Pricing is usage based, and starts at $12 / month.