30 days of choosing a task manager for a small business. Review of cost and “features”

I am Director of  legal company and I would like to tell you about my experience of choosing a planning system for a small company. In particular, for my own one.

Now my company has 17 employees, for our branch this is not a small number, we are considered to be an average company on the market. Within the last two years we have grown up twice and the number of customers has increased considerably. The basic core we are engaged with is files for our clients. A file contains dozens and hundreds of documents in each.

During our rapid growth  we realized that working with paper copies of documents is not only inefficient, but even just impossible: we didn’t manage to find and hand out a file document to an employee quickly.

1.5 years ago we decided to keep all documents electronically and were scanning everything delivered to the agency.

First we stoed documents in shared folders on our server and when the space was no longer sufficient, we moved everything to the “cloud”.

Besides, the “cloud” is more reliable as hard drives tend to break down.

We stored  documents by folders, each Client was in a separate folder which was divided into Years, being divided into  Client’ files, etc.

We chose Google Drive as a “cloud” due to an adequate price, developed infrastructure of additional applications and high security of stored data.

Working with Google Docs was a natural consequence. Office applications were no longer required, especially under Windows license policy strengthening.

Google Mail we had already used.

But just storing files in folders was not enough and each case file had additional attributes such as an executor, time of validity, the update, etc.

A document is not a simple thing, it’s always created and edited within a task or case.

With the growth of the company structuring demand was felt more acutely, including task-management not in Excel, but mutually with colleagues and ideally – from any device.

A couple of months ago I have decided to transfer task planning, working on documents and time management to a special system.

Now there are hundreds of planning systems on the market, starting from simple to-do lists to multi-functional corporate portals.

Not to get confused and spend precious time for analyzing of this huge market, we determined for ourselves the key and vital functions of the system. We did not have a goal to study all the functions of each product thoroughly, if we noticed the lack of a basic function, we did not consider the product any longer.

Once again I draw your attention to the fact that we did not look for a project management system, the focus was on planning and controlling tasks in a team, co-working on documents and document flow between task participants.

Since the system was selected mainly for myself, all the considered systems were tested by myself. It was important for me to evaluate the work exactly on the part of a Manager.

Basic and key points for us were the following:

  • Full mobility – the system was to work equally from any device;
  • Not being “hooked” – we were to have access to all the processed documents in case of refusal of using the product;
  • Simplicity and minimum of settings, just log in and start working; we did not need Gantt charts, dozens of fields in a task, various field set editors, calculation of resources and costs, error tracking, etc;
  • Russian language;
  • Availability of hierarchical directory structure as on desktop. We needed to preserve the opportunty to store documents and tasks in the form of a folder tree, the structure we got  used to;
  • Minimal price (or free)

First we tried the top thing coming out in Yandex and Google search box on relevant requests.

We started working with Asana, we liked the interface, quick start for new users and  system speed. We used it for a week, I thought  “here it is!”. But in reality we faced several unpleasant moments (which later turned out to be the main reasons why Asana was given up):

An assignee himself at his own discretion could change the task execution date! For example, I assigned a task, expected it to be done or not by the appointed time, and the final day the performer turned out to have shifted postponed the date for a week. How should I have learnt  this!? How could I implement tight control and keep to deadlines?

And the second thing that was the key point for me as a leader, is that there was no required analytics for me. I didn’t manage to form the most simple report “The number of tasks by performers and status”.

We had to give up  Asana, although much suited us. At the end of a week using of Asana we faced another problem that hadn’t been obvious at first – we could not download all the documents that had been created and uploaded to the system during the week! The Employees had to save manually each document and Cases’ attributes from the system to themselves manually. It is difficult to imagine what we would do if for whatever reason we had to change the system in a year – everything would be gone!

We added this point to the “key features” when evaluating the next systems to be used.

The next system was recommended to us by our friends from an advertising agency, saying that they had been using it for two years and  they were quite satisfied!

Trello  is an original project management system, where it’s easy to visualize the whole project at once with all the tasks and their statuses. It is multitask-oriented system, tasks are moving through statuses and “boards”. I can understand the guys having advised it to me as it seems to be very suitable for their activity. But for our lawyers which are far from the “kanban” concept this methodology is not very close.

After all Trello is meant for project work, it is impossible to cover a lot of process activities by it.

Out of the key features required the folders structure is not available.

Three days of testing on 5 employees ended up with nothing.

According to the reviews one of the leaders was Basecamp in. I considered it myself with my Assistant but the rest of my colleagues were not even engaged with that point..

The main conclusions after a day of use were as follows:

– there was no Russian language, my lawyers, not being programmers, would have to understand the product for a week …

– it was paid, immediate payment and high cost irregardless of a number of users ($ 99 per month).

Among useful features I appreciated a task chat, a task action protocol and  the whole action history was at hand.

Several large Cons made us stop working with Basecamp:

How to attach documents to a task?

How to make a chain of assignments?

How to specify the responsible assignee and co-performers?

I suspect that I did not consider thoroughly, maybe it has all of it, but taking into account the cost and the English language, I didn’t have any with to analyze  more

The verdict was it didn’t suit us.

Another popular (according to plenty of advertising) product was Wrike.

But for managing all personal and business affairs in one place it clearly seemed “too big” to me . besides the cost of $10 a month per user was too much.

My Commercial manager uses RememberTheMilk for personal planning (he and his wife discuss supermarket shopping in it). It is convenient, simple, there are tags, selection, different sortings and groupings, you can share tasks with other people. But how to attach files?? It did not suit to us.

Realizing that it could take long to search, I decided to narrow search criteria: since we used Google infrastructure, it was reasonable to make paid and used applications (GMail, Documents, Calendar, etc.) a part of the planning system.

The first system appearing in search  by query of “task manager for google users” was GQueues. What I liked was deep integration with Google services, a task creating from Mail, Tasks transferring to Google Calendar, work with Google Docs. In addition, there was an option of commenting in tasks, attaching files, including creating them directly in Google Docs.

But there were only two levels of folder nesting …

How to specify a responsible assignee and members for familiarisation?

There was no logical chain – a task and a response to a task with documents.

One could not convert uploading documents to Google Docs at once.

The partner having helped us to implement Google Apps, suggested we should consider the new Brown Boot Works service – a mobile office for co-working on tasks and documents for Google users as it presents itself.

What I liked first:

  • Simple and non-destructive interface;
  • Quick start – a couple of clicks (or taps in my case and I started working directly from my smartphone) – and the task with the attached document was sent to a colleague!
  • Clear hierarchy – folders contained tasks, a task contained documents and the most necessary fields:  term, assignee, familiarisation field and a history of responses;
  • The option of sending a task reminder to popular instant messengers, you could also share the task text and the attached documents to the mail;

Other important aspects completely satisfying our needs were that everything was stored on our (!) Google Drive, we would never lose our files. It’s one thing to entrust documents to Google Drive, but entirely different one – to one of hundreds of services’ developers without a chance of withdrawing them easily.

One could attach prepared documents to a response, share them and co-work on different versions.

The cost was $1.5 a month per user or $18 per year. It was cost-worth. It looked like an ideal for us!

We just kept on using Google Drive,while Brown Boot Works was an add-on for Google services providing additional planning and control functions.

We have been working for a month in Brown Boot Works, for now everything is ok for us. It’s nice to see that new functions appear from time to time, such as: Google Calendar integration, the option of creating recurring tasks, new statistics reports (how many tasks have been received, given and delayed, how many files have been accumulated, etc). It is really important for me!


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