Essential Small Business Management Tools

Update (5/4/2022): Since I first wrote this post and granted this podcast interview, some major changes happened at Basecamp that caused me to change my mind.

Tara and Shannon from the excellent What Works podcast (and from the What Works Network, of which I’ve been a member for years) rounded up a crew of folks to talk about their favorite project management tools.

I was delighted to talk about why I’ve been living most of my professional life inside Basecamp for most of the past two decades. You can hear me at about eight minutes in, but you should listen to the whole show to see how so many of us can benefit from getting clarity about our goals before picking a project management tool.

Here’s a transcript of my segment from the show:

I’ve been using Basecamp for nearly fifteen years.

Our team at Johns & Taylor works on a diverse variety of projects, with clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to solo startup founders. Whether we’re producing a live event, improving performance on a website, or creating podcasts, we rely on Basecamp to keep our projects moving forward with crystal-clear communication.

No matter where decisions get made, Basecamp’s our source of truth. When we introduce a new client to the platform, they don’t usually have to change very much about the way they like to operate. So when we have meetings or calls, the notes from those interactions go into Basecamp.

If a stakeholder’s e-mailing a member of our team, that team member can easily forward that message into Basecamp, too. And folks who tend to resist hopping into “yet another app” end up feeling fine about Basecamp, since they can interact with e-mail notifications the same as if they were replying to e-mail we send ourselves.

Over time, clients warm up to the system, and something really great starts to happen. Instead of texts, calls, meetings, and e-mail, discussion about our projects starts to happen organically inside the app. We see this the most on a project’s to-do lists, where folks can debate what’s going to happen with a specific task and reach consensus—all asynchronously. Before long, our team members and our clients end up collaborating almost exclusively on Basecamp.

The biggest benefit for us is that every member of our project team can quickly look up any detail related to a client engagement, without having to track me down. There’s also a feature that lets us reserve some space just for our team, hiding the contents of those discussions from the client. It’s a really great tool to have when you’re debating the best way to present a solution to a client and you don’t want to ruin the surprise.

Because Basecamp’s been around for a while, I’ve been tempted to check out some of its newer competitors. And while there are so many great tools on the market right now, a few things keep us coming back to Basecamp year after year.

First, there’s no participation tax. Basecamp charges a flat fee for our entire team, no matter how many employees, clients, and collaborators we’re working with. We’re a team of four full-time employees, and we’ve got another eight specialist freelancers with whom we work throughout the year. And some of our client engagements include as many as fifty to sixty stakeholders. When apps charge per user, they quickly become cost-prohibitive in relation to the benefits.

Second, Basecamp’s extendable to a bunch of other tools. We’ve got a lot of documents in Dropbox, but some clients may prefer Office365 or Google Drive. Sometimes, clients may already be running on their own project management system. Sometimes, we may end up using tools like Notion or Airtable to capture very specific kinds of information for a client. In all of those cases, we’re able to integrate those external tools directly into Basecamp.

In fact, if there’s a feature you think is missing from Basecamp, there’s probably a third-party integration that makes it work. We’ve had clients use a tool to display Basecamp to-do lists as kanban boards. We’re using Zapier to integrate Basecamp with our own new client onboarding automation. For many of our projects, we’ve got a task that creates a new project space from a template, so our Client Services Manager can dive right in to the work instead of spending a day on scheduling.

But the biggest reason our team’s remained on Basecamp for so long is the culture that Basecamp helps us cultivate among our team members and with our clients. Getting ourselves comfortable writing down our decisions and sharing our thoughts in such an open forum really builds trust and transparency. As a leader, it’s also enabled me to get way more comfortable moving ownership of key decisions to members of our team.

Because everyone can see who’s responding to what and when, I’m able to ensure that tasks aren’t cutting into our team’s personal time. And likewise, I can use built-in tools to highlight when I’m available, when I’m not, and what team members can do when I’m off the grid. It’s that aspect of running a “calm company” that I appreciate the most about Basecamp, and it’s why that tool’s what works so well for me.

Joe Taylor Jr. has produced stories about media, technology, entertainment, and personal finance for over 25 years. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, and ABC News. After launching one of public radio's first successful digital platforms, Joe helped dozens of client companies launch or migrate their online content libraries. Today, Joe serves as a user experience consultant for a variety of Fortune 500 and Inc. 5000 businesses. Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

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