Trello as a CRM for freelancers

I'm a big fan of Trello. In Trello, it's easy to structure notes or thoughts. In the eternal battle between outliners and mindmappers, I've always been on the outliners' side. But Trello adds a dimension: you can map your lists onto a kanban style board. When you have your lists of cards, you can drag a card from one to another column. Nothing illustrates this better than a screenshot:

Well, Trello is the type of software that you first need to configure a bit before it becomes useful. In the screenshot, I just made a new board titled "Freelance CRM". But I still have to create the columns. Before we do that, let's talk a bit about CRMs.

A CRM is, as you most likely know, a piece of software for Customer Relationship Management. If you have a company and you sell to customers, it's a good idea to have a CRM. But CRMs assume that you have plenty of customers to manage, so you get all the tools to do that: contact lists, company lists, possible leads, opportunities, and conversion ratios on every level. But that is complete overkill for freelancers!

Reports on conversion rates are not applicable to freelancers: if you converted one, you're off to work.

In the last few years, I tried out maybe 15–20 CRMs. To be honest, almost all follow the same template: lead, opportunity, conversion… Goalsmashers is different, but it has its own funny sides. And with Podio, you can do anything, but you really have to start from scratch. No, CRMs aren't really made for freelancers. Time to set up a tool that I know and love as a CRM!

What do you need as a freelancer? Here are a few things that I thought were important:

  • Clear overview: you should immediately see the name of your contact and the status
  • Easy to maintain: changing a contact's status or adding a contact should be super easy
  • Area for notes: self-explanatory! You want to jot down what you discussed.
  • Cloud/mobile/buzzword enabled: when I'm not at my PC, I want to manage my "CRM" just as easily as when I'm in front of my PC.

Kanban boards are well known because of agile. In agile, the board has three columns: to-do, doing and done. During a scrum meeting, you indicate the work you've done and place its card from doing to done. Then, you announce the work you'll be doing and place the card from to-do to doing. The kanban board thus has a double advantage: you get a clear overview and it's easy to maintain. For our CRM, we need different titles for the columns, though.

To get a clear overview, you cannot go wrong with kanban.

I added 6 columns that correspond to how I work when I'm looking for new assignments:

  • Connection?: I noticed that a company is looking for somebody like me. I could just call this status "New assignment", but that's so boring. And I'm a networker. Before I send a CV, I always check if I am connected to somebody at the company through LinkedIn or other channels. For that reason, the status is named "Connection?". It reminds me to look for a connection.
  • Connection!: Yes, we have a connection! I contacted that person and I'm waiting for an answer.
  • Discussion: This is where the action starts. I'm talking to the customer and there is no conclusion yet.
  • Follow-up: For the time being, I can't start the job yet. But sometimes, it's possible that the same partner or company has another interesting job in the future. When that's the case, the card ends up in this follow-up column.
  • Deal!: Yes! I can start!
  • Dead :(: Darn! I can't start!

Here's an example of how I use the CRM. I found a number of jobs at famous companies. I know somebody at Microsoft, so that card is already in the Connection! column. Recently, I found a connection through a friend to Volkswagen, so I'm dragging it to Connection!, which is exactly what I was doing when I took this screenshot:

As I said, you can't go wrong with kanban for overview and ease of use. It also works on mobile, even on phones from the days of the dinosaurs: here's a photo that shows my Trello freelancers' CRM on my 150 year old Samsung SII with who knows what sort of hacked ROM:

The Trello app for mobile is really good. In fact, Trello is independent of the technology it's running on. Their website and their app both download the same Trello framework and run it. That way, the app is guaranteed to work in the same way as the website, except for a few modifications for the smaller screen.

To take notes, you click a card. You can add a general description. Comments get a date, so that's practical to find back later what happened when:

There we go, that wasn't hard at all! It took me less than 5 minutes to set this up and just a bit more to take the screenshots. But it beats all CRMs in these areas:

  • Simplicity: no hassle with leads, opportunities and thousands of contacts
  • Overview: you clearly see how things are
  • Works anywhere: you don't have to look for a CRM that also happens to have a decent app: you get exactly the same on your phone as on your PC.
  • Integration: CRMs sometimes actually manage to get things into your calendar, if you so desire. Trello can do that too. You just enter a due date and you get an extra calendar that you can just open on your phone.

Thoughts or tips? Feel free to leave them!