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Small Business Owners Have A Project Management Problem

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Lately, every time I run into a small business owner I’ve been asking about what project management tools they use. At first, I was asking out of my own curiosity, hoping to see what tools are popular. But I kept asking because I started to see a pattern: Many small business owners don’t use project management tools. Rather, in a surprising number of offices, there’s a strange configuration of spreadsheets, Post-It notes and other methods to keep the team moving along.

It is certainly possible to use this sort of system — one of those informal discussions I had was with a website designer who manages about 30 contractors with a few shared Google spreadsheets. But it is a lot harder. You can’t share Post-It notes with someone who doesn’t come into the office on a regular basis and such systems can mean that a business can’t easily expand to work with contractors and employees who work remotely. That means that the boss is tied to that same physical location. These systems can require more time to maintain (when time is money) and can be lost in a matter of seconds.

Organic Growth and Project Management

There’s a very simple reason that a smaller business winds up with a less formal approach to project management. More often than not, a system grows organically: the boss needs to notify an employee of a change to a project and that pad of sticky notes is convenient. Pretty soon, it’s standard practice to write a note, stick it to someone’s monitor and consider the matter done. In much the same way, a set of spreadsheets can evolve and grow, adding on extra pages to handle new facets of projects. After even a few weeks of this sort of organic growth, it seems impossible to get away from these spreadsheets. Not only is this the way you’ve always done things, but it’s also a system that you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into setting up. Making a change not only will take time, training and money, but you’re throwing away the effort that’s gone into maintaining those spreadsheets.

Bringing Small Business Project Management Online

On the surface, it seems like the best method is to compromise — stick with the existing situation, but maybe share some of those documents through a tool like Google Docs. But for small business owners, finding robust project management tools (especially web-based applications) can scratch itches you didn’t even know you had. Simply by being more organized, you can expect to be more efficient and save your employees’ time — but it goes beyond making it easy for your staff to know what to work on next. Someone has to check over your system regularly, to both make sure that everyone’s doing their job and to make sure nothing’s slipped through the cracks. The more you can automate that progress, the more time and money you can save — and you can be sure that you’re not disappointing a client because your spreadsheet didn’t remind you of a due date.

What project management tools do you use?

Image by Flickr user avlxyz, licensed under CC 2.0

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20 Responses to “Small Business Owners Have A Project Management Problem”

  1. I agree with @dinag (and I’m not a paid Liquid Planner evangelist :-). I use every minute of my work day to manage my consulting business as well as my volunteer activities. But as others have said, a good project management tool can’t manage projects for you! The upfront planning work has to be done, and senior leadership has to support and model good planning behaviors. A good tool like Liquid Planner makes it easy to maintain those behaviors, and it rewards the senior leaders (as well as the staff) with actionable information about project status.

  2. Romero J.

    We use 5pm ( and are very happy with it.

    We are a small business, and we used before emails, then also Google Docs, then gradually needed a little more structure.
    5pm was simple (but with a strong list of features) and cheap. So we can save on training, and on the subscription price (and every $ matters).

    I’d say it saves us time. Less emails like “where is that file”, “do you have any updates on that task”, “look into that problem”, “what should I work on right now.

    I’d say it saves us time by reducing the redundant communication.

    We still use paper and whiteboards too – using online tools does not mean you have to give up on other stuff.

  3. I use LiquidPlanner ( religiously, both for my 9-5 work and freelance. I love being able to post meeting notes and details about tasks, collaborate on specific areas of the projects, etc. on a shared workspace. Yes, the era of the sticky note is over ( for me atleast!) I couldn’t imagine going back.

    (full disclosure – I am a paid ‘social media evangelist’ for LiquidPlanner, but was and still am the happiest LiquidPlanner customer you will ever find…)

  4. Stephani

    Until recently we kept using sticky notes and other Stone Age tools, and even project management tools could not replace them completely. Some time ago we tried Wrike, but didn’t adopt if for lack of personalization of users, but after we saw their new Beta, we totally loved it!

  5. My clients generally don’t want to have too much hands-on documentation. So I can easily manage projects internally using a combination of 37 Signal’s Basecamp and Google Docs., which provides me/team members access online. Timesheet reporting all goes into Quickbooks.
    This combination has been working for me and thankfully I haven’t needed to use MS-Project for several years.

  6. Readers may like to take a free trial of Glasnost21 at – This offers Project Management, Contact Management and Image Management. All are linked, easy to use and set up to make communicating and collaborating with colleagues, clients and suppliers really easy and efficient.

    Our blog and tour explains more.

    Would humbly suggest it is worth a test run.

    Any questions please let me know

    Antony Slumbers
    [email protected]

  7. The whole offline project management (or business management) concept is definitely becoming out of date when this many efficient tools are available. Furthermore, there is another direction the industry seems to be headed in: all-in-one.

    Having a project management tool is great. Having a CRM tool is awesome. Having a billing tool helps a ton! But there’s a problem with these. They all come separately. People often start with just a project management tool, or just a CRM tool, then realize they need more applications to run their business. By the time they have what they actually need to sufficiently run all sectors of their business, they have a variety of different applications and add-ons from different companies that don’t integrate well at all.

    These companies are spending a huge amount of money on a variety of applications that may serve a purpose, but merely discourage workers due to their inefficiency. The amount of times I’ve heard people talk about how annoying it is too switch between applications to do something as simple as check a contacts name…

    One of the solutions I know to this is WORKetc. WORKetc is a total business management platform, that combines CRM with project management, billing, and support. There is no jumping between applications. From one dashboard you get not only a summary of leads, but projects and invoices, messages, to-dos, etc. Having the ability to collaborate on all aspects of work (leads, projects, invoices) and also have clients login to the system with privileges helps a ton.

    I think ultimately many businesses will head in this direction, and we’re already seeing it happen. WORKetc is slowly gaining more recognition (was’s #1 for top 20 business management software of 2010) in this market and when a business goes all-in-one, it sees the efficiency and just how much better it is than a list of poorly integrated applications.

  8. Rachel Baker

    Project Management systems require the upfront labor of entering projects as well as constant upkeep.
    I find that unless management is 100% behind and committed to the software it will not stick.

  9. Small businesses can really benefit from a simple tool that does basic task and time tracking. Other more complicated tools that are designed for larger businesses often have too many features than can be useful and a price tag to match.

  10. One of the major complications that we face in our small business is desk time. We are a production facility, and everyone – from the High School co-op student to the big boss man – works and produces. If the product doesn’t go out the door, then there isn’t money to pay the bills. We go back to the desk and work on more long range projects once the shelves are cleared.

    This is a major obstacle to getting everyone involved in line on the same Project Management System. It just means that much more time away from the projects because you have to train people as well.

  11. My system isn’t that bad, I have a calendar with weekly tasks and deadlines along with a daily to do list. I was actually starting to use Google Wave to manage projects because it would allow clients to login and view progress but found that Google will be phasing that out. My time tracking vendor however is going to be allowing client access for project management – Harvest Time – so that’s what I’ll be using.