How to use Trello for project management with your clients

How to use Trello for project management with your clients!

Wow, that title is super exciting and captivating, isn’t it? Maybe I should have called it “She tried using Trello for project management… and you won’t believe what happened next!” I really do find topics about building systems to be really interesting, though, and if you’re here, you probably do too!

If you run a service-based business like I do, it’s very likely that you’ve either heard about or tried a project management system. If you haven’t, let me introduce you to the idea. Project management systems, as the name suggests, keep information about a project (including communication, deadlines, to-do lists and documents) in one place. It’s a way better alternative to running a project out of your inbox, which often looks like having dozens of email threads going back and forth between you and your client, sending a bunch of email reminders to your clients when tasks are due, and searching frantically for the right thread with the information or attachment that you’re looking for. When you have all of your communication and information in one place, it makes both your life and your client’s life easier and helps to keep your project running smoothly.

There are lots of project management systems out there, and they come at a variety of price points. You may have heard of Trello, which is getting increasingly popular because it’s free and really flexible. The idea behind Trello is based on a Kanban system, which, if I’m being honest, I hadn’t heard of before I started using Trello. Shh, don’t tell anyone. Moving right along, the default Trello setup consists of three lists – To Do, Doing, and Done.

The default board layout

The default board layout

Each item in the list is called a “card”, and clicking on each card reveals details about the card that include the due date, label, messages, and file uploads. That will look something like this:

This is definitely a screenshot from a real project. Definitely.

This is definitely a screenshot from a real project. Definitely.

Though Trello has a default list setup, you can actually set up the lists in any way that you want. However, complete freedom can be a little overwhelming, so you can do a quick Google search and find lots of examples of how people use Trello.

One thing I noticed, though, is that most of the examples online are about using Trello internally (i.e. people within a company using Trello to keep their own projects on track, or people using Trello by themselves). While this is great and a very common use case, what I couldn’t find were many examples of how to use Trello collaboratively with your client, who may or may not be used to using project management systems at all. So, I got creative and figured it out! Here’s what I came up with:

Board layout ideas

The great and terrible thing about Trello is that it’s super flexible, which can make it hard to think about how to set it up in an organized way that will work for both you and your client. Here are a few ideas about how you can organize your boards:

With a very simple project, you could break it down as simply as your to-dos, the client’s to-dos, and, optionally, what’s done. This is good for short projects that aren’t broken down into lots of phases. Here’s what that might look like:

Your to-dos, Client’s to-dos, Done


More complex projects, however, could get kind of crazy in this format. You don’t want your lists to be 100 items long, because that would be terrible. I mostly prefer to break my boards down by phase instead, which looks more like this:

Project stages


You can also create a “Done” list and drag items there as they’re done, or you can leave them in place if you prefer to see the project in phases throughout. You’ll notice that each item is tagged with a specific person (both of which are me, but let’s just pretend that they’re two different people, with the yellow background me being the client). This helps you keep track of which item belongs to which person, which is super helpful (but much more helpful in real life when they’re not both you).

Or, you can combine approaches! Sometimes I’ll use the project phases for my parts of the project (since I’m the designer/developer and am doing the majority of the work) and then have a separate list for the client’s to-dos, to keep them in a separate, easy-to-find spot.

In addition, you might consider the following lists:

Project Phase overview

These dates are very realistic.

This isn’t a functional list but in a larger project it can be nice as an overview on a larger project so you and the client have an at-a-glance view of the project.

Project Documents/Uploads

You might also create an area where you/the client can share documents, images, and other helpful information. You can create cards for specific items (“Upload images here”, “Upload copy here”, that kind of thing). Or, you might have a shared Dropbox or Google Drive folder and not need this.



If you have lots of meetings throughout a project, you might want to create a list just for meetings, and then you can add the meeting agenda and/or meeting notes to the card. Handy! You’ll also see that I tagged both myself and “the client”, which means we’ll both get a useful notification to remind us both that the meeting is coming up soon.

Using labels effectively

One of Trello’s nice features is being able to label items by colour. Just like the list structuring, the labelling feature is extremely flexible, which means that you might wonder what to actually use it for.

When I’m organizing the lists by project phase, I like to create colourful labels for “To Do”, “In Progress” and “Completed”. Then we get to keep the project phase lists in tact and also get to see the status of each item. That looks something like this:


You can name each label, which then shows up when you click on the item:


And then if you want to go the extra step, you can create a Legend list to remind yourself and your client what these colours actually mean! I usually leave this as the last list since other lists are more important.


You can really use the labels in any way that you want, so go nuts, friends.

Setting deadlines and using the calendar

One of my favourite parts of using project management software is that it will bug clients on your behalf when things are due. Instead of having to send repeated emails to tell your client that something is due soon, you can get Trello to do it for you! It feels less personal that way (it’s not you bugging them, it’s the software) and it’s less work.

You can set a deadline on each item, and then in the list view you can see, at a glance, when everything is due. This is great because it gives you and your client visual feedback on when something’s due soon or overdue. If you’ve tagged your client (more on that later), they’ll get an email notification a few days before the deadline to remind them that the task is due soon.

But did you know that Trello also has a calendar, and that you can view all your deadlines in whatever calendar software you use? For some reason, Trello hides this awesomeness, so I’ll show you how to get it.

First, in the right hand menu, click on "Power-Ups"

First, in the right hand menu, click on “Power-Ups”

Then, find the Calendar and click "Enable".

Then, find the Calendar and click “Enable”.

Then, you get a pretty calendar view of the entire project that lists all tasks by date, which is super convenient and might even be an easier way to view the project than the card/list view.


But wait… there’s more. You can even get your deadlines to show up in the calendar you already use.

Click on the settings cogwheel and then enable the calendar feed

Click on the settings cogwheel and then enable the calendar feed

You’ll want to either subscribe to the calendar feed using an app like Apple’s Calendar or a web-based calendar like Google Calendar. Magic!

You can also just view the calendar on Trello itself, which is nice because you can then click on the cards to see the card detail view right from the calendar.

Make sure to tag the client… and yourself!

Remember when I said that Trello (or any good project management system) is awesome because it automatically sends reminders when deadlines are coming up? This only happens if you tag them for those specific items.

This is a good thing – if you have, say, 42 people working on a project (which probably isn’t the case for you or me, but hey, it could happen), you don’t want everyone receiving notifications about things that don’t even relate to them.

So, make sure to tag clients on items that concern them. Otherwise they won’t receive any notifications and they might not know that the item is even happening/is due soon, and then what’s the point?


And while you’re at it, be sure to tag yourself as well if you want to be notified about activity on the item! Even if the item is strictly a client to-do (say, uploading content or paying an invoice), if you don’t tag yourself, you won’t be notified if they write a message on that card, which means that you can accidentally miss something unless you’re logging into Trello all the time.

There are really so many ways to use Trello and this is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope you found this helpful! If you organize your boards in a completely different way or use features that I didn’t even talk about, feel free to share what you do in the comments. I’d love to hear about it!

P.S. If you’re not already a Trello user and want to sign up, feel free to do so through my recommendation link. It’s not really an affiliate link since I don’t get any money, but I do get a month of “Trello Gold”, which lets you do stuff like set custom background pictures, and who doesn’t like setting custom background pictures.

Want more articles like this? Get ’em in your inbox!

Bubbles & Business

bubblePhoto: Serge Melki / Flickr

A lesson I’ve learned over and over again, both in business and in life, is that most people really don’t care about the particulars of what I do every day.

It’s really easy to forget this. When you hang out mostly with your peers, it’s so easy, not to mention satisfying, to get lost in talking shop. But when you’re active in any community (be it the design community, the online entrepreneur community, or whatever group(s) you feel that you’re a part of), it’s really important to keep in mind that you’re in a bubble and that most of the world doesn’t think like you and doesn’t care about the details that you find really fascinating.

Now, don’t get me wrong; it’s really fun being in a bubble of peers! It’s nice and comfy in that place where most people will agree with your opinions and share your grievances. There’s a lot to be learned from people similar to you, and surrounding yourself with peers can really deepen your knowledge on a given topic. I know that I often learn a ton when I hang out with other designers, developers, and business owners.

But for a lot of us, a large part of our audience exists far outside our bubbles. For business owners especially, people come to us because we have an expertise that they don’t. If people cared about the details that we did, they most likely wouldn’t need our services.

Reminding myself that I’m sometimes living too far inside certain bubbles helps me to remember to communicate the value of what I do to other people who don’t necessarily speak my language. I’ve learned the consequences of not doing this first hand, since I’ve been in conversations where I see people’s eyes glazing over as I talk about my work. So tragic, right? But, really, I have to take some, if not full, responsibility when this happens.

The world belongs to those who know how to frame the importance of their offerings to people outside of their bubbles, and not necessarily to those who are the best at their craft. No, the world’s unfortunately not a pure meritocracy, but when you get communication and skill together… then the magic really happens.

Reflections on a year of pricing projects


Pricing your products or services can be pretty hard, right? I’m guessing that most self-employed people can relate to this, especially at the beginning of their careers. How much is too little? Too much? Do you charge an hourly rate? A fixed rate based on estimated time? A fixes rate based on value? Of course, as we all know deep down, there are no clear answers to these questions, and everyone does things a little bit differently anyway.

I’ve been running my business full time for almost a year now (!) so I’ve had a bit of time to try different things. After accumulating almost year of data on pricing my projects, I finally put it all together last week and analyzed it by taking each project and comparing how much time I estimated it would take, how long it actually took, how much I charged, and how much I really made per hour I worked on it.

What I found… was a little surprising.

First, a brief note on how I priced my projects this past year

About a year before I went full-time, I started to use fixed pricing based on time instead of billing by the hour, which is how I started off. That means that I would imagine how long the project would take, multiply it by an appropriate hourly rate, and that would be the price. If a project took less time than I’d anticipated, hurray! If it took more time, then oh well, my fault for estimating poorly.

This past year, I took a fairly similar approach, but with a couple of refinements. Instead of scoping each project from scratch, I created an internal price sheet to save myself some time when quoting similar projects, and I used a multiplier for complexity. When I got the sense that some projects would be more challenging than others (for whatever reason), I bumped up my quote, knowing that they were likely to take more of my time and energy. At this point I’m really interested in value based pricing, and am currently working on implementing that in my business.

And now, my main takeaways

Track your time like your life depends on it

When you’re charging fixed prices, tracking your time can feel like frivolous pain in the ass. But, if you don’t, you won’t have the proper data to refine your business practices, and every pricing change you make will be based on guesses. That’s no good! When I worked at Jet Cooper, I was sometimes a little lax about my time tracking, and I feel badly about it now that I understand how important it is. SORRY, GUYS!

I use a really simple app called TimeKeeper, which lets me tag every time entry both by project and by task type. It’s almost perfect for my purposes, aside from the fact that it doesn’t sync to Dropbox automatically. C’mon, TimeKeeper devs! Get on it! (Plz?)

Coding my own designs takes way less time than coding someone else’s

I take on two main types of projects: full websites (design and development) and development only. When I was putting my price list together, I came up with base prices for design and base prices for development, which seemed to make sense at the time. This means that I was scoping developing my own designs exactly the same way I scoped developing other people’s designs.


After “crunching the numbers”, as they say, I found out that sites I designed and developed sometimes earned up to three times more per hour worked than developing sites by other designers. That, friends, was pretty shocking, though when I think about it, it really shouldn’t have been. I didn’t take the additional complexity of working with another person into consideration, and I didn’t think about the fact that I would never design something that I knew was impossible (or just irritating) to code, so I would never be putting myself in a difficult development situation. If that wasn’t enlightening enough, I then found out that…

The least fun projects were generally the most lucrative

Wait, what?!

This really surprised me when I saw this pattern, but then I thought about it for 5 seconds and realized that it actually makes a bunch of sense. I think we all have a tendency to overestimate the time and difficulty of something we’re not as enthusiastic about, and underestimate the things that sound like fun. Though this is a totally natural thing to do, it essentially means that we’re rewarding ourselves for taking on projects that we’re not too fond of. That’s a little backwards, isn’t it? Oops!

In conclusion…

When you’re running your own business, every day is an opportunity to learn something! Also… track your damn time.

Five lessons learned in my first five weeks of full-time freelancing


(I can’t really say no to a ridiculous alliteration.)

Holy crap, guys. This week marks the seventh (!) week that I’ve been running my own little business full time. Sometimes, it feels like I’ve been doing this forever, and at other times, I feel like a super-n00b who knows absolutely nothing. But isn’t that always the way?

One of the big benefits of working for yourself is that you learn a lot, and you learn it really, really quickly. Self-employment is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster ride, because suddenly you have to figure out all sorts of things that never crossed your mind before, and there’s no boss to give you advice or tell you what you should be doing. Instead, there’s a whole Internet of advice out there… much of it contradictory and confusing.

That being said, reading about other people’s experiences can be really helpful as well, especially for people who are thinking about pursuing full-time self-employment and haven’t yet taken the leap. I know that when I was thinking about it, reading about other people’s experiences was both interesting and comforting.

On that note, without further ado…

1. (Almost) everyone is a little flaky. It’s probably not personal.

I have learned that a lot of people don’t do exactly what they say they’ll do, when they say they’ll do it. In the past few weeks, I’ve had to chase a lot of people around for a lot of things. Gently prodding and reminding has become a part of my regular routine.

In the beginning of my freelancing career, especially when I was working full time and freelancing on the side, this would drive me crazy. What was wrong with these people? Why didn‘t they care about the work I was doing for them? Why did they hate me?!

However, as a full time freelancer, I’ve started to realize that in most cases, it’s really not personal. Amazingly, other people have lives too, and are busy doing their jobs, running their businesses, and attending to all sorts of things at their end. A project of theirs that takes up a bunch of my time might not be their top priority. Things slip through the cracks, and it mostly has nothing to do with me (a crazy concept, right?). I know this for a fact because I’ve had the occasional email or two slip through the cracks of my own inbox, and I’ve inadvertently been the flaky one with other people. Whoops.

Lesson: Most people are a little flaky occasionally, and it’s best to be at peace with that. However, truly flaky people totally suck and are a waste of time.

2. There will always be people who think I’m too expensive.

Ahhh, yes, pricing. Everyone’s favourite topic!

Over the years, my rates have changed quite a bit, and at every single stage, there have been people who tell me that I’m charging too much, or that they can’t afford me. The interesting part is that this can happen no matter how high or low your prices are, because different people have wildly different expectations. I’m totally okay with this, because I know that there are people who are both cheaper and more expensive than I am, and that there always will be, no matter how much or how little I charge, so I don’t let this get me down.

Lesson: I’m perfectly happy to not being the cheapest option, because I know that I’m providing a ton of value to my clients. Repeat after me, fellow creatives: I’m not not a commodity.

3. And then there will always be people who think I’m a bargain

Yes, this definitely goes the other way as well. I’ve had several moments where I realized I was undervaluing myself. Whoops!

In creating a quote for any individualized service (like, say, a custom website), it’s important to keep in mind not only the level of client (e.g. Is this for a small business or a large corporation?), but the actual value of the product that you’ll be delivering. Will your product or service help your client earn hundreds of dollars? Thousands of dollars? More? How about saving them time and energy? How about bringing them comfort and happiness, which can’t be measured but are still valuable?

Lesson: This stuff’s complicated, but not completely impossible to figure out.

4.Things that seem easy to me won’t necessarily seem easy to clients

This is a huge lesson, and it’s one that I keep having to tell myself over and over again.

It’s my natural tendency to talk about work like it’s no big deal, partially because I’m a bit modest by nature, and partially because I’ve been building up my skills for years, and a number of things come easy (or easier) to me at this point. However, I’ve come to realize that this does me no favours. Even though lots of aspects of my job seem easy or obvious to us, they clearly aren’t to most of the world — that’s why people hire us. It’s important to remember that.

After all, for clients to value the work that we do, we have to value it too! I’ve learned that it’s really important to walk my clients through my process so they know exactly why every decision has been made. This has the benefit of having clients become a part of the process, and it also helps to demonstrate that I’m a problem solver and a strategic thinker, and not just a decorator or a mindless worker drone.

Lesson: Perception is really, really important, guys. And we’re (mostly) in control of how others perceive us. So it’s time to stop diminishing our knowledge and skills just because certain things seem easy or obvious to us.

5. Hoarding knowledge is no substitute for actually taking action

You can read all the articles in the world about freelancing, running your own business, finding clients, and so on. When you passively absorb knowledge over a long period of time, it’s really easy to feel like that’s enough. You’ve got this! But let me tell you… actually putting this great advice into practice feels completely different.

Oh, trust me, I thought I was pretty ready because I’d read and read and read everything I thought I’d need to know. And this did really help me a bunch, so it definitely wasn’t in vain. But did it remove the fear of quitting my job, landing my first clients, and feeling like I’m making my whole business up as I go along? No, no it did not. So, if you’re an overthinker who lives inside your head (like I tend to be), know that knowledge, while helpful, can only go so far.

Lesson: Start taking action. Preferably now. Experience is a much better teacher than anyone or anything else!

P.S. Special thanks to Michelle Ward, my amazeballs career coach, who suggested that all of these lessons I’ve been learning might make a good blog post!