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Over the years, I’ve been involved in dozens of team projects, whether I’m building a website, upgrading copy or writing books. That means I learn to use whatever project management apps my client is using. I even had a client who only wanted projects managed using a spreadsheet – this included all three of his brands and all twelve of his projects in one gruesome worksheet. What a pain.
By and large, the project management software I’ve used has been tedious. Too often, I used programs that made executing any process more complicated than it needed to be – too many hoops, too many clicks. Overly complicated processes are a surefire way to bottleneck your business, by the way. Read that recently in this Entrepreneur.com article, but I already knew that from my experiences working with SMEs.
Anyway, last week, I signed contracts for six jobs simultaneously and I found myself immediately and desperately in need of a non-spreadsheet project management tool that I could implement easily. Ideally, I wanted something that would:
- Be absolutely free
- Allow me to implement the software easily without having to spend an hour watching twelve 5-minute how-to videos
- Let me create per-project and company-wide calendars
- Let me magically do everything from one page on the dashboard with one-click ease
- Let me clearly view my calendar and everything on it
Tall order, right? I know. Well, after a few months of using different project management programs, I found a solution that works. Still, I want to tell you about my experiences with all four of the tools I’ve used since the beginning of 2015 – Zoho, Apptivo, Toggl and Asana.
Freemium features: Access for up to 3 users, 40+ apps
I will be honest: Apptivo gave me a headache. Last week, a potential client asked me to use Apptivo to take a look at some tasks he needed done and I have to tell you, within 10 minutes of using this massive suite of business management apps, I was chatting with their [wonderfully responsive] customer service. “How do I create list categories for my contacts?” I asked. “You have to go to the apps page and add that app,” the rep said.
What? Add another app?
What I didn’t know going in is that Apptivo positions itself as a scalable solution for growing businesses. Translation: There’s an app for everything. And I do mean everything. I saw a license tracking app, CRM app, marketing app, and a supplier email tracking app. If ever anyone reverse engineered a business management software solution, the Apptivo folks have certainly done that.
Apptivo is a fantastic way to get exactly the functionality you need a la carte, without having to burden your business with the features you don’t need. Of course, for me, it felt a little like driving my Harley Davison to the end of the driveway to get the mail, but if your business is growing fast OR if you run a service-oriented business where you are managing several clients with very different needs, Apptivo may work.
Apptivo does offer a freemium subscription level for small businesses that allows you to have up to 3 users. At the free level, you get access to 40+ apps.
To be quite honest, this particular productivity suite didn’t really suit my client’s needs and it certainly didn’t meet #2 on my list of must-have criteria.
Freemium features: 1 project, 10GB of storage, Gantt charts, team communication tools,
Before testing the waters with Zoho Projects, I’d used and done at least one review of Zoho’s bookkeeping software and I found it helpful and easy to use. So I was expecting a similar experience using Zoho Projects. Beyond my familiarity with the brand, the next most intriguing feature to me was Zoho’s ability to generate reports and Gantt Charts.
Here’s the real deal: Zoho Projects toes the line between being useful for every business and being most useful for PMs. I know there are more sophisticated programs out there like Basecamp and one of the reasons I haven’t used the Basecamps of the world is because I have no formal PM training, so I can get a little lost in the jargon. With Zoho, I felt a little like a fish out of water. I ended up having to take time to look up terms, some of which I already knew. But I felt so insecure coming across language I didn’t fully understand that I didn’t want to assume I knew a term when I really didn’t.
Case in point: I wasn’t sure I understood the difference between a task and a milestone, despite the fact that I’ve been using them to measure performance in my business for years. Here is a definition I pulled from EPM, Microsoft Project and You (which showed up pretty high in the search engine rankings for “What is the difference between a task and a milestone?”
In the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), version four, the term “Summary Activity” is defined as: “A group of related schedule activities aggregated at some summary level, and displayed/reported as a single activity at that summary level.” And, a “Milestone” is defined as “A significant point or event in the project.”
Like I said, I know what a milestone is, or I did until I read that definition. But then I started thinking that maybe there’s some special Kanban-focused meaning that I missed. And if you don’t know what Kanban is, that’s precisely what I’m talking about because Kanban is a big deal with Zoho Project.
So even though I wanted to have the fully-functional, sophisticated project management experience, I didn’t even really know enough jargon to use the software. Which led me to believe that perhaps what I needed was something much, much simpler.
Freemium features: Unlimited projects, up to 5 users, one-click time tracking, reporting
Enter Toggl.com, a suped-up To-Do list with ultra cool features.
I’ve been using Toggl for about two years as a time tracker to help me stay on-task and gauge my own productivity. Toggl’s claim to fame is its one-click time tracking. Toggl allows you to add clients and projects to your dashboard. For every new task you begin, you get to associate the task with its respective project and client so you can keep track of how much time you spend working.
Toggl is easy to read. There’s nothing to learn, no jargon and no second-guessing. If you ever get lost, you can pull up the color-coded time data for your previous days and weeks of work and look at a pie chart of how you spent your time. Very clear and compelling evidence of your productivity.
Another cool feature is the Toggl app which I used to install a red time tracking button on my Chromebook so whenever I start a new project, I don’t have to open Toggl, I can just click the Toggl button at the top of my screen (this button also appears in the nav bar whenever I use Google Docs.)
Obviously, as a two-year freemium subscriber to Toggl, I like the app. But it was missing features #3 and #5. I really wanted that calendar-view functionality. I still use Toggl as a time tracking tool.
Freemium features: Team calendar, drag-and-drop calendar reorganization, project dashboard (limited), collaboration and the ability to add attachments
I settled on Asana. I actually came across Asana after my using Apptivo. I did just what you probably did – I read some articles and checked out reviews.
Of the four products I tested, Asana is, by far, the most intuitive project management solution for those of us who aren’t formally-trained project managers. I actually think Zoho has Asana beat, but just not for me. Asana allows me to:
- Create projects
- Add tasks to those projects
- Assign dates and times to those tasks
- View my calendar by the month
- Click and drag calendar entries so I can switch around tasks to create more balanced workdays
Asana’s scheduling function helps keep me on-task and helped me figure out something very important: I have about 7 hours of flex time built into my schedule every single day. That’s HUGE for someone who is used to sitting in front of a computer for 12 to 16 hours a day.
I do what many solopreneurs do. I’m running my day-to-day business, planning for the growth / transition of my business over the next 12 months, and managing my time and energy with my family as well.
The most valuable takeaway I’ve seen with Asana is the ability to map out entire projects month-by-month instead of day by day, and see that I can work an hour a day or 10 hours a week on a project and still finish it on time, and that doing so won’t cost my kids anything. It also lets me clearly see how and where I can add more clients without sacrificing quality or experiencing burnout.
So if you’re looking for a project management and resource management tool that is user friendly, jargon-free and without the tedious on-boarding process, Asana is my recommendation.