Why is it so hard to find a project management platform with billing functionality?

I didn’t think my demands were so, well, demanding. I’d like to keep track of my projects, manage my time and send out my invoices from a single platform. Ideally, I’d like to have it sync with Evernote, too. Oh, and I guess I don’t want it to cost $70/month, either, unless it really works. I just refuse to pay that much for a platform that only meets 75% of my needs. After all, as a small agency in a touch economy, I’m watching my expenses.

So far, though, I’m flummoxed.

For a long time I used Wrike to manage my projects and FunctionFox to track my time. Neither was perfect and I ended up having to use two different systems and pay for both of them. Wrike is $49/month; FunctionFox was $20/month. So here I was spending $69/month on a solution that wasn’t perfect.

Don’t get me wrong. Wrike is a very capable project management system. But it didn’t allow me to track my time easily and it didn’t allow me to create an invoice based on time that I could print and present to my clients. FunctionFox was a platform I used for probably close to 10 years but over time I found that their interface¬† was not as flexible as others and putting in time was cumbersome. I tried their premium platform for a month to see if I could get it to meet all my needs and it just didn’t cut it.

In fact, while I found several very good project management platforms — I looked at Work Etc., Intervals, Basecamp, Zoho —¬† in at least one area each one fell flat (mostly it was in time tracking/invoices) or offered something that I didn’t really value, like CRM, and didn’t want to pay for. And they each required you to adopt convoluted (to my mind) ways of thinking, plow through unintuitive interface designs or had strict limits on how many projects you could manage. For example, I loved the interface at Intervals, but their basic plan ($20/month) allows you to manage only 15 projects. I’d blow through that in five minutes! Their not-so-basic plan ($50/month) allows you to run only 40 projects, which sounds like a lot until you start writing them down. Same with Basecamp. To manage projects effectively, I need to be able to track them and not try to clump them into larger projects to stay under my limit.

After running Work Etc. and Intervals in parallel for a month and discovering that both of them had holes that didn’t appear until I was fairly committed to the process (mostly in the area of invoicing), I gave up. Right now I’m using Harvest for time tracking and invoicing (it’s a very nice product for $12/month) and Evernote for keeping track of things (Free).

I’m still looking for a good project management system — one that syncs with Evernote — and am currently looking at Nozbe and ShoutDone.

Has anyone come across a solution that works well for them?

My Favorite Free Communications Tools

I am frequently amazed by how many excellent communications tools are now available for free. Just a few years ago they were either not available at all or were expensive. Now, with a little time and ingenuity you can express yourself (or promote your clients) in ways we only dreamed about.

Here are a few of my favorites.

  • WordPress: This blogging platform has now evolved into a full fledged Content Management System that rivals Drupal and Joomla but which (IMHO) is much more intuitive to use for the non-programmer. Not only is the platform itself free, but there are thousands of free templates, to give you a customized look and feel, and innumerable free plug-ins that provide a wide variety of functionality. I use both WordPress.com and WordPress.org, depending on the application. Certainly for the complete novice, the hosted platform at WordPress.com is a blessing. My 11 year old daughter set up a blog by herself in less than an hour on WordPress!
  • Freeconference.com: This free webconferencing service is easy to use and works pretty well. Only once have I had a problem with the sound quality.
  • YouTube: With a little imagination you can create your own broadcasting channel on any topic you want. While it’s helpful to provide your own content, even that’s not necessary: You can bring other people’s videos into your Channel using playlists.
  • Blog Booker: Turn your blog into a PDF book in less than five minutes. It works like a charm!
  • Self-publish your e-Book in a number of electronic formats including Amazon Digital Text Platform (DTP), Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble PubIt. While these services don’t charge you for creating your book, all do take royalties on sales.

Of course there are also platforms such as Twitter, FaceBook, and LinkedIn for people who want to stay connected.

The hardest part is keeping track of all of the new offerings. I’ve really been enjoying the proliferation of these new digitally available platforms and products because they have allowed me to manage my own content on line and present it in visually appealing packages. I was shocked recently to find that I was able to recreate a site that in WordPress that I paid major $$ for someone to build for me in Drupal. The real kicker? Mine looks better.

How good is your back up system?

A colleague recently experienced a hard drive failure. No problem, he thought, since he backed up his drive nightly.

However, when he went to restore his data he discovered that although his Seagate drive had been making reassuring noises and then delivering a “backed up” message, the newest data on his drive was a year old.

A quick visit to a data recovery center indicated that they could probably get the data back — to the tune of $2500 and more than a couple of new gray hairs.

Even though most people have gotten better about backing up their data, there are probably things that most of us could — and should — do better. Checking the integrity of the data is one. Using redundant sources is another.

I lost my data about 10 years ago when I stupidly opened an email with a virus. I, too, had a Seagate back up system and I too was surprised to find that my data was not current (tape was full). Operator error is a hard pill to swallow and since then I’ve become more religious about keeping my data current.

I have three back up systems for my hard drive. Two are online systems — with different companies (Mozy Pro and iDrive). One backs up nightly, one backs up weekly. I also have a portable hard drive on which I use Apple’s Time Machine to back up every day or so.

In addition to that, I have all of my business emails archived both on a server and on a separate gmail account. Maintaining records of my correspondence with clients can be critical when reconstructing projects.

In fact, I thought about dropping one of my online services just recently, when it came up for renewal. On balance, I decided, the investment was worth the peace of mind it gives me. Now that I heard what happened to my colleague — I’m glad I made that decision!

Wave Bye-Bye, says Google

So much for being an early adopter. After signing on to use Google Wave, a multi-platform collaboration tool for the past few months, Google has now decided to discontinue it. The company will support it only until the end of the year.

Okay, so it was free — the investment was only in time.¬† But as we all know, time is at a premium and learning something new and getting your partners up to speed as well, takes a lot of time and a certain amount of frustration.

Okay, so it did crash a lot — but I thought Google would figure it out. The Wave was a useful tool that allowed multiple participants to maintain an on-going record of a project and keep up to date on the latest decisions.

Okay, so it was clunky — I spent the time providing feedback on ways that I thought it would work better and did see some improvement.

Now I’m wishing that I’d spent the time finding a program where the developer has demonstrated commitment to keeping it going. Because I do think that this type of collaboration software has a place. It’s just not going to be hosted by Google.

What’s happened to customer service? Adobe disappoints.

I am now on day 8 of an ongoing technical issue with Adobe.

I use Adobe Contribute. Or, should I say, I try to use Adobe Contribute. Contribute is a software platform that allows you to edit web pages from your browser without the need to know html. When it works, it’s a great program. I use it to make changes to a client’s website so they can review the pages before they are published.

Right now it’s not working.

No problem, I thought. Adobe is a company with the resources to provide appropriate technical support. So, I went to their Website and, like many companies, discovered that it’s far more difficult to find a phone number for a live person than it should be.

I know it’s more cost effective for them to send customers to technical support via an email submission form. I typed up my problem and sure enough, they got back to me in a few hours with a proposed solution. My real problem started when that suggestion didn’t work. I emailed them back and was promised that they’d have a new set of recommendations within 48 hours. That was on November 10th. Maybe they meant 48 days.

Now my issue is that I need that program to work. My client’s website is dynamic. They have new information that needs to be posted on a regular basis. After a few days I called Adobe again. This time I stuck it out. After being on hold for about 15 minutes I was connected to customer service. That person then transferred me to someone in technical support. Five more minutes of jarring on-hold music I reached a live person and explained my problem again. He didn’t know anything about Contribute. Five more minutes of on hold music and I got to another person in technical support. I explained my problem again. I was put on hold again. Seven minutes later I’m told that Contribute isn’t eligible for phone support and that I have to use the online submission form. Once again I explain that I’ve waited six days already and that I need some answers. Five more minutes on hold and then I’m promised that they will have an answer for me ASAP. The person on the other end of the phone in — maybe — India predicts an answer within 2 hours but certainly no more than 24 hours. Total time on the phone 32 minutes. Results? Nothing.

That was 2 1/2 days ago.

Yesterday I sent several emails and got no reply. I braved the phone system again yesterday afternoon. This time it took me only 8 minutes to reach my first live person. Once again I was transferred up and down the food chain and took a phone tour of several countries. Once again I’ve been promised that they will solve my problem and that this time they will call me. I just need to wait another 48 hours. No problem, I’ve just invested another 25 minutes or so on the phone. Total time talking to Adobe is now at about 55 minutes.

That’s not counting the time that I spent searching the user support forums or the time spent trying different solutions with my client’s IT director. It doesn’t include the time I spent rebuilding preferences, reinstalling the software or clearing the connections and installing new keys.

At this point I’m wondering if they simply don’t have anyone in the company who knows anything about Contribute. Is it possible that those people have vanished from the face of the earth?

Perhaps it’s time to learn DreamWeaver.