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?

How Much Time is a Project Worth?

Whether you bill by the hour, by the project or by retainer, the bottom line for all of us as PR practitioners is that we want our clients to feel that they got value for their money; and we want to feel that we were adequately compensated for our time and expertise.

In the equation Finished Product = Time + Expertise, occasionally hiccups arise.

I ran into this frequently when I worked at a large PR firm. Someone working for me would write the ultimate press release and hand me a time sheet documenting the fact that they’d spent 17.5 hours on their masterpiece.

The problem is, at any billing rate imaginable, the time billed would far exceed the value of the press release to the client. If a client expects someone to spend approximately 4 hours on something, what do you do with the remaining 13.5?

Some of this is just youthful exuberance. You want to to “the best” job possible and you lose track of the fact that time = money. You are also desperate to fill up your time sheet so that you look productive. Over time you get a better sense for what something is worth to a client and plan your time accordingly. Sometimes, thanks to your own skill, expertise and efficiency, you are able to produce work of such great value to a client with such alacrity that your effective billing rate actually goes up! Occasionally, something takes you longer to complete than you thought, but you don’t bill the extra time because, while you still want to deliver a quality product, the client would not think the extra cost worthwhile.

The other cause for excessive time consumption is inexperience. This occurs when someone undertakes a project for which the skills are learned on the job. The trick here is to determine what the project is worth to the client before you step in the morass of potentially unbillable hours then to decide whether being paid that sum is worth it to you, given that at the end of the project you will have skills and experience that make you a better practitioner. Keep in mind that no matter  how much time you think you will need to invest in this endeavor, it will take longer than you expect.

Under no circumstances, however, should you ask for your client to pay for your learning curve.

Of course, the third situation is when a client significantly changes the scope of the project mid-stream. When that happens it is extremely important to raise a flag immediately and explain why this is outside the scope of the project and how much the change in direction will alter the budget. This is not the time to assume that the client understands that they’ll pay more, because believe me, they won’t! There have been times when clients have come to me and said they didn’t think they’d paid enough for the services provided given how much extra had been added, but those instances are few and far between.