Choosing Project Management Software for Creatives
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Finding a good software solution to do budgeting, project tracking, timesheets, CRM, estimating, scheduling, invoicing and business analysis is a daunting task.   There are lots of project management systems out there and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses.   I’ve put together this article to help you think about what questions to ask yourself when looking for a solution for your business.  Keep in mind we produce Streamtime – and we are one of the many solutions out there for creative’s but I’ll try and remain unbiased – as hard as that is.  I wrote Streamtime over fifteen years ago from scratch after researching dozens of other products as none of them seemed to meet the needs of our business.  Fifteen years later and I’ve been privileged to see and use hundreds of project management systems – you could even say it’s a passion of mine to learn as much as possible about them all.  I also get to listen and talk to our 700+ customers who are spread over 27 countries – a total of over 7,000 individual people using our software every day.  I get a lot of feedback and I read it all and take it all personally.  But that’s enough about us – what are the questions to ask when looking for a solution for your creative studio?
What do you do?
This might seem obvious but think seriously about what products and services you provide.  90% of the project management software on the market is generic to all businesses and so that software is probably not an ideal fit for a creative business like yours.  When it comes to fully featured products purely designed for the creative industry – there are really only about a dozen of them to choose from.
What are your needs?
Think seriously about this one – get your team together and spend half an hour brainstorming about what your business needs are.  Think seriously about how much time you spend in the different areas of your business and look for any bottlenecks.  Is it easy to track jobs through your studio and does all time easily get collected against the job without any slippage?  How efficient is your billing system currently – invoicing should only take a few minutes per week not several hours.  What about new business – is that important to you and how do you manage new leads and prospects?  What things stress your team out the most?
What size is your business?
Most graphic design businesses are small with less than a dozen employees.  Size is important because it will determine how you use the system.  Larger companies tend to have a full on scheduling department while smaller companies are more agile in their approach to incoming jobs.  Ideally the software you choose should be able to cater for both situations well, the reason for this is that some jobs are “crash and bash” and go through the studio quickly, others are more “project” orientated and need to be broken down into many stages and tasks.  Project management software should take a job in from any stage and that job should be able to be moved along its stages by anyone with ease, if it can’t do this then the software becomes a rod for your back.
Ease of use?
This is the most overlooked things when choosing software for your business.  There is a direct relationship between how easy a solution is to use and whether your staff / team will adopt and properly use the solution.  At first glance many systems may seem “easy” but I assure you they are not, the slick sales person will give you a whistle stop tour and make it all look easy but the rubber hits the road when you actually come to implement it.  There are several good indicators that help you identify if the software will be easy to use.  Firstly does the provider let you try before you buy?  You wouldn’t purchase a car without a test drive first would you?  Make sure you are able to easily navigate around the system and find what you are looking for – does everything make sense to you?  Are you easily able to create a new job, a new client, add time to that job etc. Secondly – ask how much training do companies usually require to get up and running with the new system and validate that if you can by talking to other users.   Systems that are well designed should be easy to implement with minimal or no training – they should be intuitive and logical.
Must have features.
Many sales people will try and lead you down the path of a feature check list – bragging that they have every feature under the sun.  The real question you need to ask is not only “do I really need that feature” but if you feel there is a feature missing from a product find out why its not there.   Features are sometimes left out of systems for good reasons – they either over complicate the solution or the technology is just too young and immature to be reliable or useful.  Apple of course are a classic example of doing this sort of thing all the time – remember the first iPhone had no video calling, no MMS, no removable battery, a proprietary headphone jack and so on – and yet it became the number one selling phone on the planet – the world loved it.  Lets not even start the “No Flash” conversation because we all know where that will lead…   Its important to understand “WHY” people loved the first iPhone so much – they fell in love with its simplicity and ease of use. Having said this, its important to understand how much continued research and development goes into a product – technology changes fast and you do want to ensure that whatever you buy will be compatible with whatever Steve Jobs unveils tomorrow.  Ask about their research and development budget and ask what they look for when developing the product.
What tribe are you in?
Seth Godin best selling author and marketing guru talks about tribes.  We all belong to tribes and these tie into and form our companies culture.  For me personally I belong to the Apple tribe, the Audi tribe and the Air New Zealand tribe to name a few.  I love these brands for different reasons and they in turn help me shape and form our own brand – Streamtime.  When you are looking for business management software for your graphic design business or agency it needs to be a good “fit” culturally.  I’m not just talking about the software itself I’m talking about the team behind the software.  Do the people demoing the product to you love their job – love working for the company, believe in what they are selling you?  Come with passion?   What is it they love and is it the same things you would love about that company?  Does this all fit in with your own company culture?  Would you be proud if the person showing you the software worked for your business?  Don’t over look this one – I think it’s the most important of all the things I mention in this article.
Its important to establish at the start what you are looking for – either an accounting system or a project management system.  Some try to be both and they typically end up either doing both badly or doing one part well and one part badly.  Producing a proper general ledger is a mammoth task and companies like MYOBSage,QuickbooksXero and so on all know this better than anyone.  Think seriously about what advantages you would get over having a fully integrated solution versus a solution that interfaces to one of the big accounting products already in the market.  These days its very common for software to “talk” to other software, by doing this you get the best of both worlds – powerful up-to-date accounting software and leading edge project management software tailored for your creative business.   This way you’ll keep the bean counters happy and the creative’s happy.
What kind of support do you want?
Ideally if you choose a great system that’s easy to use and makes sense you are not going to need a lot of support.  A good way to “test” the tech support out is to actually try using them before you even purchase the product.  Phone them up once you have the trial version or send them an email (do they even have phone support!??)– see how quick they are to respond and how helpful they are.  If you are quickly shunted over to a sales person who wants to ram the products benefits and features down your throat I’d move on.   Once you do get through to a real live tech support person (assuming they are not a sales person or the business owner) ask them what its like to work at the company – ask them whether they get lots of calls and what are the common problems people have with the software.  This may sound cheeky but a transparent company will not hesitate to tell you these things.  Be honest and open with them – tell the support person you are thinking of purchasing the product and you don’t want a sales persons opinion you want their opinion.
Locked into contracts?
I don’t need to talk too much about this one but avoid anyone who tries to lock you into long term contracts with difficult “out” clauses.  Everyone has to have legal terms and conditions but make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into.
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