Online Project Management for Freelancers, Virtual Assistants, Small Business With An Internet Presence
Project Management is the skills, tools and management processes required to undertake a project successfully. — Project Management Guidebook, Method123 Ltd.
Numerous options exist for managing tasks, projects, and client work.
Today I’d like to share with you what I consider important in an online project management application, what’s non-negotiable, and my own struggle with doing it online versus doing it on the desktop. Just to be clear, online project management software is not the same as ToDo List applications, nor does it necessarily follow the popular Getting Things Done (GTD) paradigm for managing daily tasks. While I read numerous reviews in my quest to select a solution for myself and several clients, this article is not a review of any particular online project management application.
Change of Pace
This is a fairly comprehensive article. If you’d like a super-quick take on criteria and outcomes, you can jump to the tables. Then scroll back up and read more thoroughly.
Old Habits Die Hard
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. ~ Frederick Douglass2
It is not easy to lay down old habits and pick up new ones. Neither is it easy to shift your thinking.
Douglass was speaking of a different struggle but the words hold true for any type of entrenchment that holds sway over you. In my case, whiteboards and desktop software held the power. And without a new way of thinking, traditional applications weren’t yielding to the new way, new age of online software applications.
I wasn’t thinking about clouds, online applications, or software-as-a-service. I was speeding along when another project came my way. Conceptualizing, designing, writing, working merrily on the projects in-house … when along came another. And another!
My whiteboards were overloaded.
Without a doubt, when it’s necessary for everyone in a meeting to get a visual take on what’s going on, what’s upcoming, and how it all fits together, a whiteboard is your oldest best friend. Have you ever had a time when you hated to erase that whiteboard because it provided a visual roadmap as you worked through a project?
Just how well a whiteboard works — even an extra large one — as a project management system is summed up in Peter’s lament:
Every Monday we held a meeting and discussed the current projects – reassigned tasks and set milestones. We maintained a large whiteboard separated into 5 segments – Active Projects. Upcoming Projects, Sales, Meetings and Billing. The whiteboard was neatly organized and gave us a sense that we were organized…. but we weren’t. The meetings were taking longer and longer. We knew we needed a better system. ~ Peter Coppinger3
Do you have a whiteboard in your office, beside your desk, hanging right in front of you?
Whiteboarding Ceased To Be The Ultimate Answer
I was starting to walk a tight rope and it became increasingly apparent that if I wanted to get a handle on what was happening around me, I’d need some help. So I turned to my trusted desktop computer because, after all, software is the answer.
Is Was King
Desktop computing holds the power.
I come from an era where “desktop is king.” Serving as a small business technologist for many years, I installed, configured, and trained office staff on productivity software (including Microsoft Project).
Once upon a time, project management software could only be found on your desktop computer or the company network. Much of that desktop-based software was costly and difficult to master.
For these reasons it was rarely seen on the computers of freelancers, consultants, small shops, or web design professionals. As it was primarily created for big businesses and hardhat types – like construction managers, architects, and engineers — it is still missing in action on our computers today.
To fill the gap, simple task management software has become more robust, and other single-purpose apps — like software-based calendars — have tried to do more. Still trying to supplement my whiteboad, I looked for a software solution that I could run alongside (and hopefully, interface with) my current desktop computer programs.
Initially, my search for something beyond my whiteboard, calendar, and note-taking software yielded a small application (Makagiga) that would work on PCs and Macs, Windows,Linux, and OS X. Happy I had solved my little dilemma, I was stopped in my tracks about a week later when I realized two very important things:
- My projects have external parties
- I need access when I’m not sitting at my desktop
The issues for both external parties (aka clients) and using traditional desktop software on-the-go are almost exactly the same. Back to the drawing board!
A Case For Online Project Management
Those two issues, more than anything else, caused me to seriously consider the idea of using some form of online project management.
I like desktop software but my projects have external parties, which means everyone would have to install the same desktop app, then there must be a way to sync it and keep it in sync. If those external team members had access to my internal network, that might work. That’s how you would use Microsoft Project (or similar) internally; but that is not the case, so out the window with that idea.
I need access when I’m not sitting at my desktop
Even with using a laptop on the go, I’d still need to install the same desktop app. If the software was a paid-for licensed application, you know what that means — another fee for every additional computer! On top of that, there must be a way to sync the data, schedules, resources, time, billing . . .
Enter The SaaS Cloud
The advent of cloud-based computing, and the latest wave of software-as-a-service (SaaS) (operating in the cloud) gives small businesses, freelancers, and consultants an alternative to desktop-only software and moves us squarely into collaborative space.
Because costs are down and ease-of-use is a high priority of every online project management vendor, the decision to find and use a cloud-based project management solution became easier to make. So I shifted gears and gave deeper consideration to what an online project management system would need to encompass in order to also work for my clients.
Conceding The Demand
Demand is probably a little strong when talking about what clients want in the way of project management.
First of all, not one of them asked for it. What?! No, really. Not one of my current clients (or my recent former clients) asked me anything about online project management or even hinted at the need for it.
Instead, they each have (or had) expectations. As a business owner yourself, you know just how high those expectations can go.
Tell me if I’m wrong . . .
- Quality work product
- On time delivery
- No budget over-runs
- Constant (and immediate!) communication
- Quick resolution of conflicts and misunderstandings
Most of all, they expect you and me to manage the process that gets their work done to their expectations — regardless of our project management abilities and irrespective of whether we are performing sole source or riding herd on a team.
So, such a “demand” is implied if it is (or will become) one of the systems within our small business or freelance offerings that allows us to meet and exceed the expectations of our clients. This quiet demand is very much like our invoicing system or other tools of the trade we use to get the job done and get paid.
Giving your clients what they need (before they want it) is the essence of customer relationship management.
Convincing Clients To Buy In
I have found that my business runs most efficiently when I have a system driving data collection, tracking tasks, and facilitating collaboration with all of the people that need to be in the know on a specific project. ~ Alyssa Gregory4
It’s not difficult to help your clients see how project management can benefit them. The real challenge is in getting them to use it at least as much as they call, email, and tweet you. Or to use it first.
Time Spent Communicating Progress
The time alloted to communicating with a single client might not seem like much, but add several clients at the same time, or multiple projects for one client, or an entire team from just one organization — and the time spent communicating increases exponentially.
On a regular basis, they need to know . . .
- Where you are in the process of completing their projects.
- Who did what when and what’s left to be done.
- How moving, shifting, completing one task affects others.
- Which resources are committed, whether or not others need to be committed.
- Whether or not something they need to do is delaying something they’ve
contracted you to do.
- Reports on this or that.
And, ideally, they can do this on the go, from the coffeeshop, or at the airport!
One of the difficulties I encountered was thinking about the app from my clients’ perspective. They come from different backgrounds, operate diverse businesses, have varying levels of technological savviness, and span the generations from baby boomer to Generation XYZ. Because of this diversity, something that rose to the top early on was aesthetics and ease of navigation.
Another thing that changed as I searched for PM was consideration of cost. From the start, I was actually hoping for an open source, fully-hosted, free solution. There are some out there. I tried a number of them. (You might remember me mentioning TeamLab in the Dance A Jig article.) I was willing to forego a hosted solution if I came across the right open source project management system and install it myself. (That means I would be responsible for maintaining, updating, and securing it.)
Throwing other people in the mix meant more work, more responsibility for it always being in tip-top shape. I quickly abandoned the notion of open-source, self-hosted project management!
Non-Negotiable: Gotta Have It or Gotta Move On
To help me make the best decision for both myself and external users, I created the grid below. These features and functions in the table are pretty much non-negotiable. If all these are present, we can move along to the testing phase.
(Nope, no trial runs, no testing until I can see where these items have been addressed in the feature list, the FAQs, the forums.)
|Task deadline with start and end date||Variety of Reports|
|Clone and re-use templates for projects and tasks||Export data in common format|
|Task Lists||Interface with Google Docs and Google Calendar|
|Projects by company or department||Good-looking user interface|
|Email assignments and reminders||Client access|
|Uncluttered dashboard||Strong permissions and role assignment|
|Contact details on team members, clients, subcontractors||Branding: upload own logo both within system and on access page|
|Upload files, with a reasonable amount of storage space||Intuitive, sensible navigation|
|Time tracking||Detailed FAQs, video tutorials, and helpful documentation|
|Search||Comments attached to relevant project|
|RSS feeds per project||Recurring tasks|
Negotiable, But I Want It!
Our non-profit benefits from having project management online because the data is easily accessible [over the internet]. When we’re engaged in our daily activities and on the go, we can check online to keep track of . . what our team members are currently working on. — A. Bradsher, Co-founder, The Community Way
What else is important, in my view?
Bradsher, speaking of “on the go” alludes to being able to access your project management app on your mobile devices and smartphones. This much-desired capability is often included — free of charge — with those online project management apps that are in tune with their markets.
The items below highlight capabilities I think are important but not critical to getting the most out of any online project management tool. I’d prefer to have each and every one of them, but if they’re not available, it’s not a deal breaker when the other must-haves (in the Table above) are met.
- Own domain or subdomain
- Mobile Apps for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad
- Timer within app
- Desktop Timer
- Task dependencies
- Categorize or group similar projects
- Interface with standalone billing systems
- API available
- Email (IN) task and status updates
- Import contacts, task lists, notes
- Tickets and Issue Tracking
- File Versioning
- Customer referral program
After satisfying most of these features, and addressing those I consider negotiable, the next thing I take a close look at is the personality and responsive of the company.
Being Present, Alive, Responsive
It’s important for the staff on online project management applications to interact, in some way, with their users and potential users. I like to see a roadmap or something similar that says where they’re going with the app, what they’re thinking about, how they plan to incorporate user feedback. Is there a built-in customer referral system, making it easy for my clients to invite their colleagues to use the same system they use?
Frankly, I also look for a social media presence because that lets me know they will be around for the duration. Responding to blog comments (especially after asking for comments!) is another indication of how much the company cares about its SaaS market. (Odds are, a customer who buys one service in the cloud is very likely to buy another.)
Tell me, what do you think? Do my choices fit with your own ideas?
What Would I Recommend?
There are so many online project management solutions available it can make your head spin! I tested numerous ones. A few of those that fit my criteria are rotated in the Manage Your Business section in the sidebar. All of them have free trials.
It’s time to power up your freelancing, web design, or consulting small business! Hope you found this useful. See you next time … but before you go, dive into the conversation!
What are you using for project management?
- A super-sized whiteboard
- A task or project management software?
- Hybrid combination — online and offline?
- Thinking about it?
- What else should be considered?
- What’s most important to you?
Share your insights and opinions in the comments below!
Image Credits: Team Building A Prototype Cartoon5 and Blackboard Smileys6
Definitions: Software as a Service7 Cloud Computing8
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Disclosure — Material Connection: Affiliate Links. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I only recommend products or services that I either use personally or have thoroughly reviewed, and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
- Paul Graham, The Other Road Ahead, 2001. Accessed 24 January 2011. [↩ go back]
- Quote from master orator and writer, Frederick Douglass via the Black History Month: Frederick Douglass, The African American Clarion Call, 31 Jan 2010. [↩ go back]
- Peter Coppinger, software developer of TeamWorkpm, online project management software operating in the cloud. [↩ go back]
- Alyssa Gregory, 16 Project Management Tools That Make Juggling Easy. SitePoint News and Trends (26 Mar 2009). [↩ go back]
- Team Building A Prototype Cartoon courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig/HikingArtist.com via Flickr, licensed Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. [↩ go back]
- Blackboard Smileys courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig/HikingArtist.com via Flickr, licensed Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. [↩ go back]
- Definition of SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) is taken from Wikipedia: Software As a Service. [↩ go back]
- Definition of Cloud Computing is taken from Wikipedia: Cloud Computing. [↩ go back]
WHAT IS IT?
Online project management is simply using software served through your browser to apply the principles of managing projects.
WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH IT?
You can use online project management software to manage your own, in-house projects (i.e., write, promote, sell an ebook) and/or your clients’ projects (build a web presence, design and setup an ecommerce store).
WHO IS IT FOR?
Web designers, management consultants, virtual assistants, local business owners, online store owners, life coaches can all use the features of multi-faceted project management applications to stay on top of what needs to be done.
WHEN WOULD YOU NEED IT?
When you have too many sticky notes, stacks of notebooks with things to do scribbled in them, have run out of calendar space to slot deadlines and deliverables, it’s time to check out the benefits of online project management.
WHY USE AN ONLINE VERSION?
The whole idea of “your computer” is going away, and being replaced with “your data.” You should be able to get at your data from any computer. Or rather, any client, and a client doesn’t have to be a computer. (Graham1 )
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