SMBs And Project Management

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted November 10, 2004

Project management can be a critical business function even for small businesses. However, finding the right project management tools to do the job well can be difficult, especially for smaller companies. Just ask Richard Bird, founder and president of R.Bird & Company Inc., a White Plains, New York corporate and brand identity consultant.

R.Bird's client list includes consumer goods giants such as Unilever and Novartis AG, makers of Gerber baby products. Typical projects involve developing packaging and promotional materials for new brands or new products within existing brands. Projects frequently last weeks or months and involve 20 or 30 client and R.Bird team members — often spread across multiple time zones.

For almost 15 years, Bird has been on a quest to find the ultimate computerized project management tool. He tried different programs and even developed one himself. None of them did, or do, everything exactly the way he wanted. Four months ago, however, he found Basecamp, an inexpensive online project management and tracking product developed by 37Signals LLC, a Chicago-based Web design and programming firm.

Basecamp solved one of Bird's biggest problems — getting project team members to buy in and actually use a computerized tool.

Project management is a multifaceted business process, but a big part of it is facilitating and managing communication and collaboration. "Our real goal in trying these different project management tools was always to get clients more involved in communicating around projects," Bird explained.

History of a Quest
In the 1990s, the firm made its first foray into computerized project management when it hired developers to custom build an application based on FileMaker Pro, a small business database management product from FileMaker Inc. The application, which the firm still uses, works well for managing internal aspects of a project, including scheduling, resources and managing and tracking costs. It did not, however, help much with the client communication and collaboration part.

Bird was an early believer in the idea of using online tools to facilitate that crucial communication. "When you get 20 or 30 people involved on the same project and you're trying to keep them all on the same page, keep them apprised of all the open items in the project, it's impossible to do it any other way," he said.

He first tried a bulletin board-like collaborative solution from FirstClass, a division of OpenText Corp., the enterprise content management system vendor. Last year, he paid about $10,000 for a comprehensive enterprise online project management solution from eProject. Neither worked for the simple reason that no one would use them. The problem, Bird said, was "usability."

"It's programming problems — the user interface not being intuitive enough," he said. "It's how fast the program responds, how reliable it is, how easy it is to understand at a glance." Basecamp, a brilliantly simple solution, worked for R.Bird where much more expensive products did not.

"Of all the things I've tried over the last 15 years to get clients more involved, Basecamp is the first one that the vast majority of contacts actually used," Bird said. "And what's interesting to note is that the clients who had not been so prone to using their computer as a way to communicate in the past have turned out to be some of the most active Basecamp users."

Great But Not Perfect
Bird is the first to admit that Basecamp doesn't do everything. He had wanted a solution that integrated the communications and collaborative functions with the internal project management functions — scheduling, cost and resource management. eProject promised to provide that, and Bird was willing to pay the heavy freight to get it, but it was useless to the firm if clients wouldn't use it for communication. Bird couldn't even get his own employees to use it consistently.

Basecamp provides only a subset of the functions eProject does. It lets the firm set up a password-protected project extranet page, hosted by 37Signals, and create a posted list of internal and client contacts assigned to the project. R.Bird can plot project milestones, which appear color coded on the Basecamp dashboard calendar. It can also set up To-Do lists.

Authorized R.Bird and client team members can post messages and documents in several user-defined categories, and all participants can comment on postings simply by clicking on an icon. Impending milestones and to-do items trigger reminder e-mails to designated team members, and postings on urgent issues can be made to trigger e-mails to responsible contacts.

"With e-mail alone, most responses were sent 'Reply to all,' and then nobody ended up being responsible," Bird noted. "With this feature, you post the message and others can see it, but they don't all get e-mail notification telling them it's there."

The Basecamp dashboard shows the project at a glance — milestones due over the next 14 days, flags on overdue milestones and a Blog-like list of the latest postings and comments with the most recent appearing at the top. "Everything is there. If a new client contact came on and they had time, they could review all the documents, walk through all the conversations and get up to speed all on their own," Bird said.

What Basecamp doesn't do is provide any way of tracking, managing or communicating about costs and resource allocations. "But I'm more than willing to make that trade-off, because our primary goal has always been to get clients better involved," Bird said. Basecamp does that.

The programming team at 37Signals might eventually be able to expand the service to include these functions, he said, but it would be difficult to do in a way that would be flexible enough to meet the needs of different kinds of users. Bird is not even sure he wants 37Signals to try — he fears expanding the functionality could compromise the product's usability, its most important attribute.


Basecamp's dashboard control page
You can customize the Basecamp dashboard to include your company's colors and logo.

Many Happy Returns — On Investment
The best part about Basecamp? "It's almost ridiculously inexpensive considering how valuable it is to us," Bird said.

Subscribers pay $19.95 a month to manage up to 10 projects at the same time with an unlimited number of contacts, $39.95 to manage up to 25 projects and $59.95 a month for an unlimited number of projects. There are no additional charges, or costs, beyond Internet access, which almost every business, however small, already has. The company offes free trials on all subscription packages, and anyone can manage a single project with Basecamp for free.

R.Bird subscribes to the $39.95 level, but will probably upgrade to the unlimited package at some point, he said. The firm never thought of doing a cost benefit analysis of Basecamp — it's just too inexpensive to bother, especially when you put it against the $5,000 to $10,000 a year for eProject. But it is possible to quantify some of the benefits, he said.

One client is a Japanese pharmaceutical company headquartered in Japan, with manufacturing all around the Pacific Rim, marketing offices in California — and R.Bird in New York. Sometimes in the past when a project was down to the last stages and the client was reviewing project deliverables — images, copy, market research — the time differences meant somebody had to stay in the office late or come in on the weekend to receive and respond to phone calls or faxes from the client.

With Basecamp, Bird's people can post the deliverables to the project extranet page, and the client responds by commenting on the postings. R.Bird employees can now log in to the extranet from home and respond to any issues that come up, which saves the client paying overtime.

"All it takes is saving one hour a month to pay for Basecamp," Bird said. "Less than one hour."

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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