I've been a big fan of using online tools for much of the basic infrastructure of my business and I thought I'd compile some of what's worked for me so far.
Online tools have a number of real advantages (accessible anywhere with an internet connection, easy to collaborate with others) and also a few disadvantages (occasionally sluggish performance, security, having your data locked into a single company). Since I travel quite a bit on assignment, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages for me and it's hard to imagine how I got by before I worked this way.
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I use gCal to manage my schedule and have it configured to send reminders to me on the day of, and the day before a shoot. The other great thing you can do is link to other calendars, like the NY Times election calendar to help map out days when covering elections. For a long time, I used a simple paper calendar that I had on the wall next to my computer. The problem was that when I traveled and a client called, I had no way of checking it to see if I was available for a shoot. Now I'm able to quickly pull up my calendar on my laptop or my phone and commit to a shoot in realtime.
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Letting Google handle my email backend was one of the best decisions I've made recently. I host all my web sites through Dreamhost and their IMAP implementation was often painfully slow and occasionally rendered my email address unreachable. By switching the MX records to Google, I was able to preserve my email address while harnessing the powerful and quickly evolving web-based Gmail.
When researching a story I'll track e-mails related to that story by using the labels. By creating a label for each story and marking all of the relevant mail with that label I can quickly and easily manage my research even if emails are coming from a variety of sources.
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I pay $5/month for Backpack, which is one of the great bargains in keeping my life organized. My main use for Backpack is in managing story ideas, though my wife and I have used it to organize the installation of our new bathroom, keep track of restaurants we want to try and to track the redesign of my web site.
It's a little difficult to express why Backpack works better than keeping track of all of this in email or on a web site, but I think its appeal is in the ease of adding information of all types, being able to share it with others and the ability to have all the information in one place.
On one page, I keep all my story ideas. Some times these are just interesting articles I run across that are worth exploring at some point, other times they're compelling stories that immediately draw me in and make me drop everything to start researching. As a story idea develops, I'll move it to its own page. For instance, when I was researching my China Adoption story, I created a separate page for it where I tracked the various adoption agencies I had found, linked to news articles about the subject and kept track of the contacts I had made. Ultimately, I added my travel details to the page after I was able to find a family willing to let me accompany them to China. When I returned from the trip and edited the photos, I used the page to keep track of which magazines I had shown the images to and their response as well as small graphics of the resulting tearsheets.
From dealing with this at the end of the year:
To having access to this:
I've been a little wary of using Google Docs to manage my expenses, but recently bit the bullet and began tracking all of my tax information online using the spreadsheet application. For the last few years, I've spent the better part of a full day each February entering all of my expenses into an Excel spreadsheet. While this wasn't a huge time sink, I always had the nagging feeling that I was missing some expenses.
In changing to Docs, I've decided to start tracking my expenses in real time, entering them as they come in. Not only does this ensure that I'm not leaving any expenses out, it allows me to track my income vs. expenses in real time as the year progresses and make financial decisions based on that data. At the end of the year, I can simply output the spreadsheets to an XLS and print, or print them directly from the Docs page.
That's a brief overview of the tools I use on a day to day basis in managing my business. I would be interested in hearing from other photographers if there are other online tools that help make your business run more efficiently and smoothly.