Small Business Tools Series: Part 3
By Heather Catalano Last updated February 20, 2015
Part 3 of our Small Business Tools Series tackles the best project management software. Previously we covered Best Cloud Storage Providers and Best Email Marketing Services; now we enter the realm of project management.
There are many project software providers out there these days. While it speaks to the necessity of project management, it also can be difficult to find which one is the best fit for you and your business.
Project management software is a vital tool that affords visibility to project timelines, goals, and expenses while effectively utilizing resources and allowing collaboration between all parties involved.
Even if you’re tackling a project by yourself, you need a way to effectively see, plan, and change each step of your process. If you are working with many collaborators, project management software becomes even more vital to have in your toolkit.
The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks
Here are the top three project management software picks:
This section includes project management software that requires a paid subscription fee beyond any free trials. They should be reserved for multi-department collaboration due to the increased level of functionality. If you’re a startup with a small staff and a need for low overhead costs, check out The Simple Dollar’s top free picks farther down in this post.
LiquidPlanner is one of the most comprehensive and interesting project management software tools available today. They offer a 30-day free trial followed by a monthly subscription starting at $29 per user.
This real-time tool uses a totally unique scheduling mechanism that automatically updates across the board when priorities shift, you schedule a vacation, or have limited availability. Priority shifting is inevitable and the auto-rearranging will not only save you time but will give you visibility to realistic outcomes that can be shared with your boss, and, more importantly, your boss’s boss.
With this scheduling, all of your resources (people) are taken into consideration and mapped out to allocate the appropriate skills to the right places at the right time, ensuring they are not overbooked on multiple projects as deadlines are rearranged.
Also, you can custom-build your reporting tools and dashboards and access projects and overviews while on the move with the iPhone or Android applications.
The only real downside to this provider is the lack of financial management tools at the price you pay for their services. With that being said, authorized users can export timesheets to XML, CSV, or QuickBooks for invoicing and payroll purposes.
Project Insight is the leading mid-market (1 to 1,000 users) Web-based project management software on the market today. Its software was developed by Metafuse, a gold partner of Microsoft, and therefore is ideal for businesses utilizing MS Office due to its incredible integration with Outlook.
Project Insight can be integrated with any enterprise system from a range of renowned ERPs, CRMs, and account solutions all the way to home-grown systems. It is a highly customizable jack of all trades.
Offering a little bit of everything keeps them at the top of the pack for organizations that need to focus simultaneously on large-scale production, budgeting, and resource management. They have an intuitive user interface and free bimonthly live webinars to keep your team up to speed on any new features and revisit those that may not be used to their full potential just yet.
They have a few different pricing structures, including our favorite: the free trial. They also have a one-time license purchasing option or a subscription fee. Due to their highly customizable nature, you’ll need to contact them to determine the pricing based on your needs. Call (949) 476-6499 for a free quote.
Smartsheet is a dream for every person who’s ever used Excel as a project management tool. Their layouts are extremely similar, and therefore familiar and user-friendly — but Smartsheet comes with unmatched functionality within the rows and columns.
You can add documents, make comments, share, and collaborate with an unlimited amount of users, integrate a Gantt chart (discussed later in this post), and easily customize the layout of your sheet. They offer a 30-day free trial followed by a $14/month (when paid annually) subscription fee for their basic package.
While spreadsheets are something most of us in business are familiar with, Smartsheet offers a great video training list and the occasional live webinar. As you probably know, there is always additional functionality within the toolset that could drastically increase efficiency, so if you move forward with Smartsheet, make sure you encourage your staff to attend these trainings.
Creating a new project is as simple as clicking a plus symbol when logged into Smartsheet. You can use one of their many pre-established templates or create one from scratch if your project is rather unique. You can also create workspaces that allow a clean, open sharing space of all the sheets with an established group, like a particular department or project implementation team.
If you work with external partners, clients, consultants, mentors, etc., who are not members of Smartsheet, no problem! You can publish any sheet as either read-only or interactive, and either provide them with a link or embed it into your website so it can be manipulated without the need to subscribe to the service.
The Simple Dollar’s Top Free Picks
Here are the top three free project management software picks:
This section includes project management software that, to date, always provide a free level of service. Keep in mind that you want to pick a provider based not only on your needs today, but what you’ll need in the future. Be sure to revisit your organization’s immediate and long-term goals prior to making a decision on the project management tool you’ll move forward with.
Xtrant is an extremely easy-to-use project platform. They are a smaller startup out of Memphis, Tennessee, who found themselves with a table full of projects, a need to collaborate both internally and with their clients, and found a solution in building a software layer to accomplish this rather than hiring account representatives to function as the middlemen.
Using Xtrant is as simple as this:
Create the project, including a brief description, due date, etc.
Add the people who’ll be involved and give them the appropriate rights (Contributor, Participant, or Viewer).
Add your “Milestones.” These can be deadlines, tasks, or goals that can be dated or undated. Those that are not dated can easily be moved up and down on your milestone list, giving you additional flexibility.
Upload any necessary documentation or create new documents. You can create these as “living documents” for things like brainstorm pages that can be kept as a running total of ideas from all contributors.
With a similar layout to Facebook (although it was originally developed prior to Facebook), it’s incredibly easy for users. People added to the project who don’t already have an account will be sent an email to sign up for free, and not just for a free-trial period.
With the free account, you can still collaborate with an unlimited amount of users. The only downsides are that you can only have three current projects and are limited to 250MB of file storage.
If you find that you need more storage, you can choose to upgrade to a paid package. Paid packages include unlimited storage and projects. The pricing is based on the number of internal users, i.e., those who will be creating projects, starting at $19/month for just you, $49/month for up to five users, and so on.
There is additional functionality, including the ability to share classified content, such as contracts, pricing sheets, etc., with specified project team members. As a startup, Xtrant is heavily invested in addressing any system limitations head-on to better serve their ever-growing customer base, including the soon-to-be-released mobile application that entered beta testing last month.
EasyProjects is the best free service you can get for client collaboration. They offer a guest portal that your clients can use free of charge to add additional projects, documents, and comments. As the administrator, you can assign team members to specific clients in the portal to create a better experience for everyone involved.
Their generous free plan offers 1GB of storage, an unlimited number of guest users, and up to 10 portfolios with up to 20 custom fields such as date, number, and text. This is ideal for a client-facing startup with a minimal to nonexistent project-management budget.
If you find yourself needing more as your company grows, they have paid subscriptions that you can easily upgrade to starting at $15.75 per user per month (if paid annually).
They use “portfolios” as an umbrella over projects in order to better manage available, and often limited, resources, while still ensuring the overall goals are accomplished. A portfolio manager can be assigned with access to manipulate any of the aligned tasks, projects, deadlines, or customizable fields.
EasyProjects is also integrated with Microsoft Outlook, which eliminates a need to bounce back and forth between email and your project management site. They have a powerful dashboard that maps out things like an overview of portfolio statuses, resource allocation, and recent activity so you can make educated decisions from a top-down perspective.
Trello is an awesomely simple project management tool that’s always free unless you need more storage, at which point you can upgrade to the “Gold” version. Gold includes an increase from the 10MB free storage all the way up to 250MB for as little as $5 per month or $45 per year. Their platform is visually stimulating and appeals to those who need exposure to their accomplishments (like myself).
I’ll be honest, this one made the list because I use it. I use it all the time. And I love it.
Trello has helped me plan fundraising events, collaborate on new business ventures, buy my first home, and keep my home clean (yes, this is incorporated into my project management tool — insert shame here). If only had it been around when I got married!
Within each “board” or task, you can add a list of activities, documents, interactive checklists that show a progress bar, unlimited collaborators, and due dates. You or your collaborators can subscribe to boards and will get an automatic notification 24 hours before the task is due.
Everything can be color coded — again, a great visual organizational feature for you and your team. All your content can be dragged and dropped easily throughout your screen so you can add or move activities between boards and prioritize tasks at hand.
Trello is available in iOS and Android so you can stay apprised of all projects wherever you are. If you need budgeting or time management tools, Trello might not be the best project management software for you, though. On the other hand, if you need something that’s user-friendly and want your team to participate with minimal pushback, Trello should be a great fit.
Project Management Software Considerations
Outside of the functionality of specific project management software, there are various other components you should take into consideration to ensure you’re making the best decision prior to implementation.
Cloud-Based vs. Desktop
There are advantages and disadvantages to both of these types of software. While desktop typically offers the most control over cost by enabling the purchase of individual licenses for each computer, it also requires installation and limits the ease of adding additional users as projects continue to grow.
Cloud-based solutions allow increased flexibility for remote and mobile employees. It eliminates the risk of not being able to access the software in the event of a virus infiltration, as you can log on directly from a website on any device.
Explore the integration capacity and compatibility of the software before moving forward. Systems like Project Insight boast the ability to integrate with any enterprise system.
Think about what mobile devices and operating systems you and your employees currently use. What platform are you using for your email, calendar, and document storage? Can it easily be transitioned or linked to your project management software?
There are times that a specific product, service, or platform has been such a critical part of your success that it should significantly impact your integrated software solutions. If your current platforms function pretty independently, you should then focus on what solution will work best for your workflow.
Usability and Workflow
Many project management software systems offer a plethora of tools at your fingertips, but how helpful are these to you? Make sure you request a demo and explore the many features prior to purchasing any software.
The platform and interface should be easily comprehensible and the processes clear and concise. More so, ensure the functionality will seamlessly translate to your projects’ workflow patterns. Not all project management software systems are a perfect fit for all projects.
Traditional Project Management Tools
In a previous life, I consulted on the implementation of large business solutions for many organizations ranging from startups to Fortune 500 clients.
Depending on the size of the organization, we would have an initial call with one or two people on the line or a steering committee meeting with dozens of stakeholders throughout the organization. After, we would wait for the meeting notes, links to the established project, or login information to the project management software.
It blew my mind when I would log in to my email the next day and find a standalone RACI matrix (explained below) attached to an email. Not a shared document that could be updated by all parties or a link to a managed project, but a static document that would ultimately be updated by a hundred hands, sent back to the owner multiple times by each and every contributor, and a hope that we would have a comprehensive, updated document by the next meeting two weeks later.
What a waste of time and energy.
Traditional methods like Gantt charts and the RACI matrix do have their place. They are revolutionary tools that have addressed many gaps in project management, and I’ll explain each below. Many of the software tools you will be exploring have Gantt capabilities or allow you to easily share a RACI chart in your collaborative group documents.
But please, please know that the field of project management continues to expand, and all of the software solutions we have discussed here today can exponentially help you stay organized, utilize the right resources at the right time, increase collaboration, and streamline work processes.
The Gantt chart was developed by a mechanical engineer and management consultant named Henry Gantt over 100 years ago. It is a project scheduling tool that is still widely used today, including in many top project management software solutions like Project Insight and Smartsheet.
It’s essentially a combination of a horizontal bar chart and a calendar. Activities for the project are typically listed down the lefthand side of the chart and bars are mapped out depending on the length of time each task will take to accomplish.
Modern Gantt charts can have much more functionality, such as task relation, completion progression, aligned resources, and involved parties. Some argue that Gantt is now an outdated form of project management, but its huge presence in project management software begs to differ.
Responsibility Assignment Matrix
A responsibility assignment matrix, often referred to as RACI, has less emphasis on process flow and more on designating responsibility and accountability. These are two of the biggest challenges with any team-focused project.
Let’s first breakdown what RACI stands for:
Responsible: These are the “doers.” They make the decisions and complete all of the tasks associated with the specific portion of the project. Those responsible can be a team of people or an individual.
Accountable: This person takes ownership of the item. Typically, this will fall into the lap of a manager or lead within the responsible department.
Consulted: These are active participants. They provide input along the way and are often subject matter experts within the fields that will be involved in the final product.
Informed: These are the stakeholders who need to be “kept in the loop” on the process or completion of the project.
In a very brief example, let’s say you want to develop a policy around Paid Time Off (PTO) for your employees. Your VP of HR may be the one Accountable; the HR specialist team is Responsible for researching, writing, and communicating said policy; the leadership team, HR benefits coordinator, and legal department are Consulted on the project; and the CEO is Informed and kept in the loop of progress and, eventually, completion.
A shared RACI document removes the need to be copied in on countless email chains and allows visibility to who exactly is accountable for each specific step of the project. Someone will need to be accountable for the matrix itself, but can easily consult others on specific areas of expertise.
Industry-Specific Project Management Software
Due to the varying unique workflows within different industries, it is critical that you explore the best project management software for you and your specific business. While the majority’s needs are met by general project management tools, there are also many that are specific to the needs in industries such as construction or engineering.
For example, the construction industry often involves an influx of contractors, tangible goods, and hourly billing. The project management software realm has branched out to hone in on the specific needs of this industry with increased planning, scheduling, and cost management tools.
Currently, construction accounts for only 10% of the global GDP; however, it uses almost half of the world’s resources, energy supply, and raw materials, leaving a huge gap for potential savings in time, resources, and money by the use of project management software.
My methodology was a little different for this segment of the best business tools. I started with my personal experience, having worked through dozens of different organizations’ project management tools, then moved to personal interviews.
After hearing quite a bit about what has not worked well in the past, I turned to my typical research methods. I read through hundreds of reviews and product comparisons and scoured the providers’ websites themselves.
I had worked with many of the more well-known project management software providers, as well as a few smaller and company-built solutions first-hand. For those that I had only heard of or read about in research, I created accounts and created a mock project to see firsthand how well one, or many, could easily set up, collaborate, monitor, and ultimately complete a project. A special thanks to my husband for his collaborative, investigative efforts!
I found project management more unique than Email Marketing Services and Cloud Storage Providers, as the ultimate goal and functionality of the two are rather limited in comparison. Project management can accomplish its goals in such vastly different ways, whether it be through sheets, boards, lists, etc. From my research, I picked the best of the best while still providing variety to the many different methods available.
Get rid of your tracking spreadsheets and group emails and start using resources that are readily available, like project management software, to grow your business.
If it’s not in your budget just yet, and your team is still small, then opt for a free service for the time being. If you have long-term projects, make sure you’re choosing a free service that could be expanded into the necessary functionality that your organization will need so you don’t run the risk of transferring projects to a new provider, or worse, using two platforms at once.
Explore your options. Read firsthand reviews. Write me if you have any questions and, if I don’t have the answer just yet, I will find it for you. Test out a provider or two and see which one naturally works for you, and make sure that one has everything you need. Understand you have options. Choose the best for you.