I wasn’t going to blog this at first, but after reading Wired’s article on 37signals I felt I should post my experience with Basecamp. I like their attitude towards small businesses and focusing on usability rather than feature bloat, so they get a free plug.
Like most business owners, I am always looking for more effective ways to manage my daily list of to-do items and longer term milestones for a variety of projects. Currently, I rely on a single legal pad of paper and a whiteboard to manage my daily, weekly and monthly lists. This works very well for one or two clients or projects but it doesn’t scale well. Additionally, it makes it hard to keep a running list that spans weeks or months with different projects coming in and out of focus at any one time. There are no backups and no security measures in place, but I challenge anybody to make sense of my chicken-scratch handwriting. As limited as this system is, it has its advantages. It is portable, always on, doesn’t require an internet connection, fully customizable on the fly, and is essentially free.
For the last couple of weeks I have been experimenting with Basecamp, a low-cost project management tool available from 37signals, the creators of the Ruby on Rails web app programming platform. At first I loved the easy way to jot notes, to-do items and milestones and separate them by project or client. I soon realized that as a one-person company I didn’t need the sharing and collaboration tools (yet). So, it basically became an online extension of my legal pad and white board. I did appreciate the integration with my existing Google Calendar so I could view my items alongside my daily agenda. I signed up for a mid-tier package at$24/month, although cheaper and free options exist.
However, the downside of online project management software is that it is not conducive to spur-of-the-moment note taking or stream of consciousness brainstorming, especially when I am away from a computer, on the phone or in a meeting. I found myself going back to the legal pad for these activities, then transcribing those notes to Basecamp. That turned out to be much less efficient than just tracking the activities on paper to begin with. There’s something satisfying and reassuring about putting something on paper rather than storing it in “the cloud”.
At the end of the 30-day free trial period I determined that Basecamp was not generating enough efficiencies to justify the $24/month fee. The free version is attractive but doesn’t alleviate any of the overhead associated with using online tools versus old-fashioned offline tools.
However, I will leave the door open to re-evaluating the tools when I need the collaboration tools for sharing files and delegating tasks to employees or partners. Also, I will probably experiment with some of 37signals’ other offerings, like their CRM, intranet or group chat tools.