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Watch profits soar when you automate these 5 design business tasks

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been reading a fantastic book recently titled The Four-Hour Workweek* by Tim Ferris.

In the book (which I cannot recommend highly enough for freelancers-seriously, it will change the way you work forever!) Tim explains the importance of automating your business (and he even recommends automating aspects of your personal life).

Automation simply means letting technology or personal assistants take care of certain tasks instead of allowing those tasks to take up your time.

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Today, I thought I’d brainstorm a few tasks that freelance designers should automate in order to make their business run more smoothly and be more profitable. I’d also love to hear what business tasks you already automate and which ones you think I left out – leave a comment on this post!


This is perhaps one of the most obvious tasks to automate. Here are a few ways you can automate your email usage – thus saving you time and freeing up your work hours to get more design work done.

  • Create folders. The first step to automating your email is to create folders where certain messages can go. I personally have divided my email folders according to urgency, then according to recipient.You’ll see how I use these folders to organize my email in the next step. You may have to try a few different styles of organizing your folders, but the nice thing about email clients is – nothing is permanent. Work with it til you find something that works for you.
  • Create filters. After you have all your folders created, you need to automate the organization of your email. To do that, I have set up filters that automatically send certain emails to certain folders depending on who they are from. You could, for example, have a folder for current clients. Then you create a filter that says that each time an email comes from anyone on your “current client” list, they automatically go into your current client folder.I then check my “current client” folder once a day which leaves a lot of extra time for me to get some design work done.
  • Create autoreponders. Lastly, in this example, I have created an autoresponder that responds to any new email addresses that hit my “current clients” inbox. It lets them know that I only check my email once a day and if they have something urgent to call me on my cell phone. Turns out, most things aren’t as urgent as clients make them out to be.You can set up similar systems for business partners, potential clients, past clients, etc.


Just like email, you can automate your voicemail to save you time and headache. While freelancers don’t usually work at big corporate offices where and IT department can rig up settings on your office phone, there are a few really simple and easy solutions to automate your voicemail.

I personally use Google Voice – a great tool from Google that helps me keep track of phone calls, text messages and voicemail.

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With Google Voice, I can choose which message is played depending on who is calling, where voicemails are saved depending on the caller, and each call is transcribed and emailed to my email account (where I have a filter that saves it in a predetermined folder) as well as texted to my cell phone.

Social Media and Online Activity

Staying on top of social media marketing for your design business can be a headache – especially if you have a lot of work to do for clients.

While I never suggest automating your social media efforts to a point that you become absent (what’s the point of not being social on a social network), there are a few things I do suggest when it comes to automating your online activity.

For example, I know a lot of designers who store their entire portfolio on a site like Flickr. Their flickr feeds then automatically populate their facebook page, their twitter account, their linkedin page, and a feed on their web site. This way, they upload a portfolio item only once, but get the full impact across all their media platforms.

The same can be done with YouTube channels, blogs, photo collections, etc. The idea is not to be absent from social media, but to maximize the time you spend updating each of your online accounts.

Another way I make sure I’m constantly sharing content that will appeal to my clients and customers is by using TwitterFeed with very strict filters to share content that I would have shared anyway. That way, I have time to work hard on my projects and my social media works hard for me. But be careful with tactics like these – I am sure to never neglect my twitter accounts and I always always try to respond to fellow designers who strike up a conversation.

Social media is still social – don’t get lost in the sea of automation to a point that you’re no longer human. (That goes for all aspects of automation.)

Invoicing and receiving payments

Use tools like PayPal or QuickBooks (or the free online invoicing service FreshBooks) to automate your invoicing and payment receipt. It doesn’t sound like it makes a huge difference, but many designers still create their invoices in indesign so they look nice but they waste 30 minutes each time they need to make a new invoice.

Save yourself time and money by finding a payment processing software that works well for you. With some software, you can even program it to remind them again after 30 days if they haven’t paid their invoice. This automates the entire follow up process for you and leaves you with more free time.

Finding clients

Finding clients is the lifeblood of your freelance design business. One way to automate finding clients is to effectively use Google Adwords or facebook advertising to put your name or business name in front of potential clients.

It takes some hard work initially, but once you have it running smoothly, Adwords and facebook advertising can bring you a significant amount of business every year (for me, about 20%). All it took was some research on keywords and target audiences, a little study on how to use these two advertising media most effectively, and now I just let it run. I spend a minimal amount of money on ads and reap the benefits when clients contact me directly.

Part of automating your client finding process is creating a stellar landing page. More on that later. (Subscribe to Millo’s email newsletter to stay updated.)

What do you automate? What did I leave out?

Time for you to take the stage, now. What aspects of your design business do you automate? How do you use technology to free time for designing or relaxing instead? I’d love to hear what you do to automate your design business. Leave a comment and let me know.

*PS. The link to the book The Four-Hour Workweek on Amazon is an affiliate link so I will make a small fraction of money if you choose to purchase it. I NEVER create affiliate links to products or services that I haven’t personally used and highly recommend. I think Tim’s book is something every freelance designer should read. If you choose to click my affiliate link and purchase the book, please send me an email via the contact page, let me know how you like it, and give me a chance to thank you for purchasing.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

Leave a Comment



  1. Hi! Probably missed a word of mouth, in simple terms – the rumors)

    • @Vladimir,
      Great addition to the list! I wouldn’t use the word “rumors” because it has some negative connotations, but using word of mouth as a way to automate your networking and marketing is brilliant! Thanks for sharing! What do you do to boost your positive word of mouth?

      • @Preston D Lee, Well, for starters, just talking to friends, that there is such a project, it stands out for its qualities or characteristics. My project just a month, but he aspires upwards. By the way, the negative PR is also a PR, so do not worry about the rumors, most importantly – the right to admit and explain, because nothing is not an ideal byvat, is not it?)

  2. I’m a big fan of email filters! I have a little bit of OCD when it comes to an organized email system, and that makes it much easier for me when I have to backtrack and reference an email from 6 months ago.

    I’m definitely going to look into the voicemail and ads you’ve mentioned, and I can’t agree with you more about automating your profile(s) as much as possible. I get SO annoyed when I have to update the same information 6 times. Efficiency is definitely my middle name.

    My dad (a financial consultant and CPA) got me started on QuickBooks just recently, and while I cursed his name for the first couple of hours, I’ve got the hang of it now and am very pleased with it. PS – Accountants love that you can just send them the file and they can easily integrate it into their tax programs!

    PS – Love the Tillamook Cheese Factory picture. I was just there recently with a friend from out of state who realized as we walked in…”oh, *THE* Tillamook Cheese?!”

    • @April,
      Thanks for adding your insights about Quickbooks (and everything else, of course). I haven’t used it much personally, but I’ve only heard wonderful things about it.

      So what is it that makes QuickBooks so wonderful? I’d love to hear more.

      • @Preston,

        I like QuickBooks because you can learn everything you want to about your business. Want to know the breakdown of percentages of your income and expenses? Compare this year and last year’s profit/expenses? Keep track of employees, subcontractors, vendors, owner’s draws, and how much money is owed amongst you? QuickBooks will tell you all of this.

        No doubt, there’s a learning curve. I was totally frustrated for an hour or two. But now, I really like it. The shortcuts, auto-fills, and hotkeys are very easy to use and make quick work of “doing the books.” Furthermore, you can make subaccounts of any account (i.e. Owner’s Equity -> Contributions), which makes organization very easy.

        And at tax time, you send your QB file to your accountant/financial consultant and it’s easy for them to understand your financial picture and give solid advice (as well as do your tax return).

  3. I also use FreshBooks for our accounting needs, especially invoices. You can automate email reminders and late fees to clients. Definitely a time saver; they look professional and slick.

    Basecamp is great for automated workflow within the office. Rather than writing them by hand, use To-Do lists for: daily tasks, current clients, and potential clients.

    • @Chuck Spidell,
      That’s another great addition, Chuck! I love basecamp and used it for a long time on all my project management needs. When the price got a little too steep I sort of made up my own system using a number of free Google tools, but I would never knock Basecamp-it’s a wonderful tool that changed the way I think about project management. What do you like best about Basecamp?

  4. I’ve included a link to this article in my first issue of Freelancing Weekly.

    http://freelancingweekly.heroku.com/issue-1 but should be http://freelancingweekly.com/issue-1 once DNS updates.

  5. We have the auto-responder thing once or twice before during very heavy work periods and Preston, you’re right, it does reduce the un-neccesary ‘immediate’ follow up.

    • @Morgan & Me Creative,
      That used to be my biggest time-killer: checking my email and voicemail every 10 minutes. Now, once a day for voicemail and only a couple times a day for email. It’s heaven! πŸ™‚

  6. Great post Preston! I have to check out that book you mentioned. i use folders for my emails, but not the filters so much, but it sounds like i need to try that for sure.

    Here are some things I use or would suggest:
    – Wave Accounting to keep track of income, expenses and send out invoices, as well as reminders. It’s free!
    – Freelancers Union has a Contract Creator that may simplify things as well. I have not tried it yet but certainly intend to. http://www.freelancersunion.org/
    -I tend to receive very similar estimate requests from clients in a certain field of work lately, so I have created email templates that I can customize slightly for those clients. Saves me loads of time.
    – I also use TimeFox by FunctionFox to track my time, schedule and client notes in one place. Love it so far!
    – Putting my name out in the community in different ways, like becoming a member of a local networking group, making sure my business profile is on Google Places, Facebook Places etc. and putting out business cards or small giveaways in strategic places around town has helped me generate more clients, without too much effort, time or money.

    I am looking forward to read more designers’ comments here!

  7. Preston,

    Have you ever heard of or used Hootsuite or anything like it (social media dashboard)? They have both a free and “pro” account.



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