Alternatives to Basecamp for Project Management

134 Comments

Basecamp is arguably the most well-known and well-used of online project and team management web apps, but with attention and use comes criticism and complaint. Rashmi Sinha of SlideShare finds it’s not keeping up with her team’s needs. Emily Chang, founder of eHub, recently expressed her frustration with the lack of Basecamp-Highrise integration. And Douglas Karr canceled his Basecamp account today (though more because he disagreed with the 37Signals’ blog than because of his issues with the software).

Basecamp provides to do lists, messages, milestones, collaborative documents, chat, time tracking, and a shared file repository — so it seems to offer nearly everything a smallish team needs for project management and knowledge capture. It’s simple to use, but sometimes too inflexible. For example, I use Writeboards (collaborative wiki-type documents) to manage Web Worker Daily’s weekly conference call agendas but cannot reorder them or sort them by date. They are always ordered alphabetically, leaving the current agenda often buried amongst other Writeboards.

Rashmi suggests that Basecamp demonstrates little “findability.” You have to go to a separate page to search and then it doesn’t even search everything (to dos, for instance, aren’t included). Basecamp doesn’t support tagging or sub-categories or search within categories.

Rashmi wonders what might serve as a better alternative. Here are a few ideas.

Online project management apps. That is, direct competitors to Basecamp. Offerings include Goplan from Webreakstuff, newly launched Lighthouse, activeCollab available as a download that you host yourself or hosted at collab.ws, and Atlassian’s Jira. The main benefit of using a dedicated project management system, besides the dashboards and notifications that keep your project on track, is the structured data and process it provides. You don’t have to define how to dos, tickets, and milestones work; it’s already defined for you. But this can be their greatest drawback as well, because these applications may force you to work in ways that don’t suit you, your project, or your team.

Wikis. You can choose from hosted services like PBWiki, Wetpaint, and Wikispaces or host your own with free downloadable wiki software such as MediaWiki or Socialtext Open. Wikis are great for capturing and archiving team knowledge. However, they’re not designed with specific support for task management, issue tracking, or scheduling — so if you need extensive structured support in that arena, you might want to consider another option, or use wikis in tandem with some more structured project management application.

Online office suite. Take GMail, GCal, plus Google Docs & Spreadsheets and you could manage a project reasonably well. On the pro side, you could keep the information pretty well structured using the calendar and spreadsheets. You could capture knowledge in online documents. It wouldn’t force you into any particular project management processes, but wouldn’t give you the benefits of those either. If you wanted dashboard or notification-type features, you’d probably have to custom-build them yourself, though, and that’s a serious undertaking.

Concoct your own. Stowe Boyd has described how he’d like to use Stikkit’s semi-structured information capture with Zoho document editing capabilities and Box.net file storage and file access control to create an interpersonal organizer. This may be the way of the future: taking discrete tools and combining them (or using integration the toolmakers build) to put together a system that suits your needs and your team’s needs better than anything anyone else designed with their own needs in mind. Again, you’re not going to get a detailed dashboard or complex workflow with notifications if you go this route, at least not without some fancy programming of your own. But you might come up with something that fluidly and frictionlessly encourages project success.

What’s best for your team and your projects? Of course it depends on what kind of work you’re doing, with whom you’re working, how many people are on the team, and numerous other variables. While you’re deciding, check out these tips for getting your virtual team started on the path to productivity.

134 Comments

Carrie

Laura,

After trying what seems like every project management tool available, we settled on OnStage.
I saw your comment about OnStage. I too just recently signed up and I think this system is a hidden gem. I wasn’t interested in trying yet another PM tool but their free version caught my attention.

Bart Stevens

People,

This post is to plainly invite you all for a beta test of OUR project management tool (based on the look and feel of basecamp). That simple …

Please go to the website, sign up for a golden ticket and I will send you an url so you have your own account and can play with it

Cheers,

Bart

Steward

Cameron is right. Wrike is a cool tool!

I tried Basecamp and some other tools; they were too inflexible for me and my team. That alphabetical order of whiteboards was really killing me. Wrike, on the contrary, is easily customized. You name the groups and arrange them the way you prefer. Assigning tasks in Wrike by just sending e-mails is really great! Another very useful feature is the built-in notifications about over due tasks. It helps a lot sometimes.

Cameron

Basecamp seemed alright at first. However, it turned out to be “not for us” for a number of reasons. There were many drawbacks, e.g. it lacked a function that allows us to see the progress of our work. Finally, it seemed to be more of a communication tool, than a real project management application. We tried many other tools and finally settled with on wrike.com. We use it to manage multiple projects in one place under personal accounts. I love its simplicity and functionality. All I need is just to create a task via e-mail to one of my team members by adding wrike@wrike.com to the CC field. And it has Gantt chart feature, which helps to show an overview all our projects. We tried the basic free subscription, but soon decided on paying for the pro-version for the whole team of 14. It’s really worth it!

Alex

A good article, thanks!

We’ve also tried using BaseCamp, ClearQuest, TRAC and many other products :(
But none of them satisfied enough linkage between
* enterprise wiki
* tasks & project management
* CRM
* unstructured discussions & blogs
so we developed our own – see http://www.comindwork.com

chris

I landed on this article while looking around for web based project management apps.

Surprised to see that nobody suggested Zoho Projects — I have formally “committed” to it yet, but I believe I’ll be suggesting we use it at the day job soon.

Jarin Udom

Once my company hit around 30 people, we outgrew Basecamp and have switched to Intuit’s Quickbase. I definitely still use Basecamp for personal projects though, Quickbase is both overly complicated and too expensive for smaller projects :)

Laura

We recognized pretty early on that basecamp was not going to work for us long-term. After trying what seems like every project management tool available, we settled on OnStage. I imagine it is very difficult for these companies to develop a piece of software that they can sell as a one-size-fits all tool and yet make all of their customers happy.

Hamid

Anne, my company, Axosoft, makes a product called OnTime 2007. It’s by far the fastest growing bug tracking software on the market and has a tremendous amount of project management features allowing users to collborate to track bugs, feature requests (requirements) as well as help desk.

We offer our solution as a Windows or Web application and as a Hosted solution. The entire suite is free for individual users (even the hosted version). You can learn more or signup for a free account at http://www.axosoft.com.

Nick Jones

Have you tried Celoxis. It is one of the better project management tools out there. They are comprehensive and have great collaboration features.

Jonathan

There are a lot of alternatives to basecamp on http://www.whybasecampsux.org/ … the author challenges Jason Fried’s mindset of half-a-piece-of-software (how about a whole piece of software, please?) and I am starting to agree.

Jason’s philosophy is almost like a pschological defense mechanism, creating his own reality distortion field that keeps him and his team “on the cutting edge”, basically because they just dont address hard problems. Still gotta give it to ’em for Rails.

For a more robust management solution that goes beyond just projects, and lets you manage any process-based business, check out Qfile by Qonsort which can manage more than just projects. We come from a background of simplicity and usability, but instead of telling our customers ‘no’, we intelligently extend the application to support our customers needs.

lamelog

This is the best there is – Trac:
http://trac.edgewall.org/

It’s especially well suited for software development projects. Everything is done thru tickets and a ticket can be either a defect, enhancement or a task. You can tie tickets to milestones and print out a decent roadmap (albeit not a pretty GANTT but who cares) What’s really nice is the tie to the Subversion code repository.

I played with Basecamp and yes it’s super easy to use but I feel it reduces the complexities of PM to mickey mouse levels – a real PM will need something beefier. I would use Basecamp to collaborate on a small college project.

To get the best from Trac, it helps to have some developers on hand who know Python to customize it to your needs but even without, I’ve found it’s the pot of gold I was looking for.

Craig Fitzpatrick

One piece missing from a lot of the popular “item tracking” (to-do’s, notes, etc.) tools is that some challenges in running projects are a little more complicated than just having a central place to store things with an easy user interface. Take scheduling for example. If you have a team of 5 or 10 people working on a project that is made up of hundreds of work-items (tasks, features, whatever), how do you figure out when you’ll be done? or prioritize? or manage risk of schedule slippage?

One alternative (for software projects) tool not listed already in the comments here is Devshop.

kelly

I agree on Basecamp no being flexible enough, it’s the reason I dropped it as well. I’ve looked at all of these (except Lighthouse), and run activecollab myself twice now on trial runs. As a freelancer, I’m not usually needing collaboration, and many of my clients don’t or won’t even look at these methods. Most prefer email and phone calls, so the software ends up having to be for me.

I’ve decided to try building my own, using ExpressionEngine as a backend. Since I use EE for most of my clients and my own site, I’m already familiar with it, and it’s ability to flex into whatever situation I throw at it makes things easier. The only problem is that it takes time to do this, so it’s a work in progress.

Anne Zelenka

Since Jotspot isn’t taking new registrations, it doesn’t seem like a viable alternative right now. I’m really interested to see how it looks once it’s googlified though.

Ian: I agree, the findability problems don’t seem technically hard to fix. On their forums, Jason Fried mentions they’ll be working on search this year, so perhaps enhancements are on the way.

Yes, Figgy, it’s easy to complain about anything — and Basecamp does a lot of things right. It’s really easy to get started using it. It does a ton for you that a wiki or office suite wouldn’t do. Certainly it’s easier to use than MS Project though it’s not a substitute for that, lacking as it is in advanced project management features like resource scheduling, PERT charts and Gantt charts.

Thanks for the pointer to ClockingIT, Bjorn and Erlend. I’ll check it out.

Erlend Simonsen

I just thought I’d mention that ClockingIT is open source as well, so it’s quite possible to grab a copy and host it on your own server.

Bjorn

A new project management site I already like better than any of the above mentioned, and it’s free to boot:
ClockingIT.

From their about page:

“We’re keeping it free, as we’re hosting on our own server, out of our apartment. We already had the internet link and server in place from other projects so we have no running costs, other than our time.”

figgy

It’s easy to complain about anything. I defend Basecamp because of its ease of use and the low price. And unlike more robust project management software apps like MS Project, its not a project in itself to use. You just use it.

Ian Wilker

Rashmi nails it — findability is the achilles heel of Basecamp. Poor search experience; no headlines-only view of messages; no filter-by-author view of activity within a project; inflexibility with respect to sorting message, writeboards etc.

I live with these things because of the things that Basecamp does well, but many of the people I work with absolutely hate the program, and their reluctance to use it is frustrating me nearly to the point of jumping ship.

The thing is, none of these findability problems seem hard to fix to me, from either a technical or design standpoint, and I can’t see how solving them would run afoul of the 37signals creed, either.

Here’s hoping Jason and crew get on the stick and continue to improve their bread-and-butter offering.

Adam

3 years later, and Basecamp has made no noticeable improvements. Like personal RSS feeds.

Colin

One other option that you did not mention is the project management feature in Jotspot (now owned by Google).

mobius

activecollab is great and preferable, in my opinion, to basecamp. i’ve been using it with my clients for a while now and it serves my needs rather well.

on the hosted wiki front, i find stikipad to have the best options with the lowest barrier for entry.

calaboratepm

Activecollab isn’t the greatest in my opinion. Using basecamp now, but still unhappy. Found the RULE.fm productivity tool (http://rule.fm) on twitter and signed up for the August 3rd, launch. Looks pretty sweet, but there was no product tour…guess their waiting to show it till launch.

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