Here at Zincubate we’ve written many articles about Basecamp. Me in particular – I use it almost every day so I’ve had a chance to compile some thoughts on specific aspects of Basecamp including: Using Basecamp to Analyze Company Performance & our Two Part Series on time tracking called Track Time, Change the Way You do Business.
Although both of the above articles dive into specific functionality they may be a little too in depth for you – the person, business owner or manager considering Basecamp (or another online collaboration tool) for your business.
I realized, as long as I’ve been writing about this particular piece of software I hadn’t done a complete Basecamp Review.
Who Am I?
Don’t care? Skip to the review…
I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to read a review or take advice (particularly from a weird unknown author on the Interweb) I want to know who he/she is and what their experience is. With that said, I’ve been working with Basecamp for over 4 years.
My main company is Atilus, a Florida Web Design Company, that develops websites for clients all over the world. Over the years we’ve introduced Basecamp to many employees (30+) and thousands of clients and clients’ staff. We’ve never had a problem and everyone picked it up within minutes. We use it everyday and it is truly the lifeblood of our company, all time tracking and projects are run through this elegant tool.
I thought I would organize this review of Basecamp in 5 ways,
- Overall Summary – An overall summary of the product, how it’s used at my company (or can be used)
- Feature Breakdown – Breakdown every feature of Basecamp
- Pros/Cons – After years of use what are the pros and cons of Basecamp
- Plan Pricing & Feature Breakdown
- Notes on Support
Basecamp Review – An Overall Summary
Basecamp although touted as a “project management” tool by some online, has in a small way rebranded over the years into a “collaboration” tool.
Small word change – big difference. Basecamp rocks at collaboration.
If you’re a project manager used to Gantt Charts and mapping out every tiny detail of a project – Basecamp is probably not for you.
If however, you’re a small or medium business owner, have to manage a team of anywhere from 1 – 100 total people scattered across divisions/companies/vendors/clients and need a tool to better communicate, organize and record what needs to get done Basecamp is the perfect collaboration tool.
Here’s why – although it has some fancy bells and whistles (which I’ll get to in the feature breakdown) it’s super easy to use, navigate, and “get.” At my company, we’ve taught 80 year old women – with little or no experience with the web – how to use it in about 15 minutes, and the best part is – most people don’t even have to use it. Once you (as manager) submit a message it just sits in between you and your recipient providing a lifelong copy that you can always reference and that helps you stay organized and keep everyone accountable.
Time Tracking – I thought time tracking within the context of the summary was also important to highlight. Again, I will expand for you in the features section of this review, but time tracking in Basecamp is so easy – you and team members can track time relating to a specific assigned task or at any time you can navigate to the time tag and log time for any misc. updates. Time tracking within Basecamp can change the way you do business!
How my company – and others I’ve coached, uses Basecamp – Although we still have trouble deciding exactly when to add new clients and vendors to Basecamp (sometimes it’s presale in order to impress new clients) everyone I work with is added to Basecamp.
The ENTIRE communication process, post-sale/introductions, AND TIME TRACKING is done through Basecamp.
That way anyone on our team – if they’ve been given access to a particular project can see everything that is going on. I know for some companies this kind of transparency might not be desired, but that is all relatively easy to control, but ultimately it leads us to faster response times, more knowledgeable staff (and clients) and everyone seems happier.
Time tracking within Basecamp can change the way you do business!
Hierarchy (managing other companies, people, and projects)
This is the first feature (and probably isn’t usually even touted as a feature as it’s simply necessary content to have in software such as this), but it’s of particular importance when discussing Basecamp’s “usability” and adoption rate – the rate at which you, your employees, your vendors, and your clients will actually use this tool.
Basecamp organizes things intuitively – by company, then by project. It’s a client project oriented tool. Now, that still means that you can very easily create internal projects (simply assign it to your own company). You can also add multiple companies to a single project. For example – we’ll often work side-by-side with a partner or vendor in executing a project for a client. That is not a problem and can easily be setup.
- Company– The company for which any project will go “under.”
- Clients– Interchangeable with “company” but additional client companies can be added
- Personnel – The individuals (names, email, contact information) that are added within a client and assigned a project.
- Project Materials (messages, files, etc.)
- Personnel – Those individuals that can participate within a project. You can adjust the levels of access any individual has on any project.
- Clients– Interchangeable with “company” but additional client companies can be added
A project must be assigned a company (or you can default to your own company for an “internal” project).
Adding and creating messages is as simple as selecting a project, hitting “new message”, typing out your message and selecting recipients. Each person will then be sent a copy of your message.
But, here comes the real magic of Basecamp. IT SITS BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR COLLABORATORS (your team, your clients, your vendors) collecting the messages. No longer do you have to worry about CC’ing people when responding and making sure everyone has the same information.
The only caveat here – and we’ve experienced this more when opening up Basecamp to our clients – is that sometimes replies to a message can get off topic, meaning a message started with a particular thread, after many back/forth replies can get off topic. I’ve found it best to simply start a new original message if this becomes the case.
Additionally you can always tick off “private” if you only want YOUR team to see the message (no clients or vendors!). Daily digests also make it very easy to see EVERYTHING that has happened on a project every day – if stuff happened, you get a complete list direct to your email.
- Pros – Simple interface, very easy to keep all team members on track and make sure they all have the information they need (provided you log ALL messages in Basecamp). Making messages private simple.
- Cons – Editor is a little TOO simple at times. Formatting can get messed up when pasting information/text into Basecamp. People new to Basecamp may have trouble remembering to tick off recipients when creating a message.
The Basecamp calendar – which we’ve wrote about before http://www.zincubate.com/basecamp-launching-the-new-calendar/ – has gone through a number of iterations, and changes throughout the years. Most recently it’s changed from “milestones” to “calendar” and it’s a welcomed change. Like 37Signals’ messages regarding simplicity, the updates to the calendar (or milestone section) added functionality and features while actually simplifying things.
You can view the calendar in one of two capacities – as an overview of your whole company (and projects your account has access to) or in regards to a specific project. Within both of these views you can also drill down into the milestones (events) that are assigned to you or your team members. Meaning you can quickly see when those dates that are important to you are coming up.
Adding a new event is as simple as navigating to the calendar and clicking on a date and inputting the appropriate details.
- Pros – Attractive, simple, and because of Basecamp’s shared nature, calendars can help to keep you informed in regards to projects.
- Cons – Depending on how your organization is setup, the functionality overlaps with that of other email and calendaring clients. I use exchange/outlook for example – so on a personal level the calendar is useless.
Personally I’m just going to through this out there – Writeboards are one of the least used portions of Basecamp for me and my team/companies. Writeboards are shared spaces to write notes or documents, that track changes (from all of those involved).
Although it is/was a great idea, the functionality is lacking and it completely overlaps with other, more elegant options from Microsoft, Google, etc. Personally I don’t feel shared documents will ever need to be THAT sophisticated – people usually make an edit and then send to someone for review/approval and this process continues back/forth. However, if you’d rather not purchase a separate application or program to write simple docs back/forth amongst your team I could see this being very valuable.
- Pros – Writeboards are a great idea and do a good job of helping you to visualize the changes others make to documents over time.
- Cons – Too simple, separate commenting system that makes things a little bit confusing, and it is MUCH less sophisticated than other sharing tools available. As an alternative our team uses Google Docs for example.
RSS feeds are one of the simpler features of Basecamp, but one that make it very extensible and allow for quick reporting as a manager or business owner. What is RSS? It stands for “really simpl syndication” and although a full explanation is beyond the scope of this review, it is simply a text file that gets updated by the programming, outputting the latest info. You can subscribe to the feed using a feed reader and then be provided instant updates on what is going on at your company.
- Pros – Makes checking on the updates of your company and progress of projects extremely fast and simple and allows for other programs to harness this data.
- Cons – Would be nice to have a feed that wasn’t password protected, although I understand the security ramifications.
Dashboards (Company & Project Level)
Speaking of harnessing data at your company, if you’re a project manager, manager, or business owner Basecamp’s dashboards are of great importance. The company level Dashboard is what I call what I see when I login. As the company owner – and as an administrator – I can see all projects. If you have, or assign reduced accounts this will only show all activity that your account has access to.
In both the company and project level, your dashboard reveals all of the activity in the account, so you get a nice – color coded – breakdown of all messages, files, to-dos and comments going on within each project. It’s an awesome way to quickly see which projects have a lot of activity, require a large portion of your company resources, or may demand your attention.
- Pros – Nice and easy overview, provides a great tool for experiencing your company activities at a glance. Color coding helps you quickly see if people have sent you required information (for example files/imagery).
- Cons – It would be helpful to see MORE dashboard information on the homepage (for the entire company). If this was an option in Basecamp, to set the amount of dashboard data to show it would be helpful. For small companies that are working on a high number of projects the 7 projects and 5 items/project that is currently shown may not be enough.
To-Dos & Task Management
Task management is very simple and straight forward, within a project you create a to-list (a list of items that need to be complete) and then within that list you add singular items. Each item is then assigned to a person (or “anyone” so that your whole team can see it and accomplish it”) as well as a date.
The person assigned will then be notified and the to-do will appear in their own list of to-dos.
When you’ve been assigned a to-do once complete you simple select the check box next to the to-do. This will immediately X out the entire to-do, send it to the archive, and eliminate it from your list of active tasks. Additionally if the originator of the todo/task/and list selected “enable time tracking” this is also where you would input your time for accomplishing the task.
- Pros: Simplicity, ability to add tasks from calendar a new welcomed addition.
- Cons: Additional settings would be helpful – ability to set time caps on tasks or whole lists, etc.
Time tracking is done in one of two ways – either on a to-do or task level as you progress in a task, or as you complete one – you simple select the clock and type in the time you’ve spent on everything. You can either but in easy fractions (such as .25 for a quarter of an hour) or if you’d prefer you can use a minute format 0:15 (for fifteen minutes).
The second way to input time is to simply navigate to the “time” tab at the top of a project, and directly input time (independent of a to-do). Often times this is the quickest method should you just need to complete a one off update or task for a client project.
- Pros – Very simple & flexible, time tracking is one of the best ways to measure the performance and health of your business, employees, and process. For more information on time tracking within Basecamp visit: Tracking Employee Time – Basecamp.
- Cons – Reporting limited (more to come). Additional settings would be helpful – ability to set time caps on tasks or whole lists, etc.
There is really only one true report in Basecamp – a time report, and as helpful as this is, this is one of the major areas Basecamp is lacking. Although in a way the dashboards DO provide a level of reporting (what immediate things are happening on your account), more detailed TIME, and PERFORMANCE reports would be extremely helpful within Basecamp. As it stands you can only generate a time report with the following criteria:
- Period of Time
- Persons Involved
At my company I export the monthly time reports (for the entire company – all of our clients and projects) and use this to compile invoices. Because we’re relatively small – we’re only working on a few dozen client projects at one time, many of which are either billed hourly or in project – this makes compiling invoices very simple. I simply export based on project, and send the invoice along with a note referencing the attached time report.
- Pros: Very simple, if you’re manually tracking time (through excel and compiling among many employees) can save hours a month in time and resources relating to invoicing.
- Cons: Too simple, not enough options, NO reporting for tools outside of time tracking.
File management is another core feature of Basecamp, although its drop dead simple – and – most importantly, it forces you to keep your files organized. It does this because of the hierarchy of Basecamp. When a project is created all files attached to messages, or in the general “file” section, automatically appear within that project. If you’re a web development, architect, home remodeler, or any small business that needs to send/receive files Basecamp is perfect.
What’s even more impressive is that – unlike a service like dropbox – Basecamp’s integration with email allows a client to attach a message to your message(s) and it automatically is filed within Basecamp. Days, Months, or Years down the road all of the files for a particular project are neatly stored and organized in case a client needs something or your own team does…
(In fact file storage is SO nice, many of my own clients think it’s a service we offer – they don’t necessarily understand it’s another business’ tool and not your own – so they’ll routinely login in order to retrieve the files you’ve stored over the years.)
- Pros – It’s very simple to store and retrieve files. Different views, including “image-grid view” make it easy to find your file. Attaching files to emails makes using Basecamp’s file storage as simple as using email and requires little or no coaching of your staff or your client’s staff.
- Cons – Search could be better, and if you have someone with little icons on every email (for example some people use their logo as well as links to their social media profiles with images) sending message back/forth will quickly fill up your “files” section with useless imagery.
As a company like you starts to use Basecamp, it becomes clear that much of its use is repetitive. At our company for example, the setup of a project involves the sending of a couple of “Welcome” messages, along with the setup of preliminary tasks/to-do lists. Basecamp’s templates ease this, allowing you to setup a project or to-template once, and then apply or create when needed. This avoids duplicate work, and perhaps more importantly, ensures things are done the same every time. But, everything is completely flexible and once created you can then edit things at will.
- Pros – Templates are very simple to setup and customizable both in template form and once applied to a new project.
- Cons – Perhaps there could be more sophisticated rules, although that might detract from the tools’ overall simplicity and ease of use.
API & Extras/Addons
Basecamp’s API (application programming interface) is the medium through which other software, and developers can tap into Basecamp and use your data in outside programs. Basecamp’s current extra’s section has over 100 addons that other companies have developed – either extensions to the functionality of basecamp, or the use of Basecamp data in their own software.
Helpful addons include apps that run as a widget on your desktop (PC or Mac) so that you can track time with the click of a button, as well as integration with some of the web’s most popular invoicing and bookkeeping tools.
- Hierarchy – Simple, easy to manage hierarchy
- Simple Interface – every feature is simple and easy to use, requires little support, and only tiny amount of time to master
- Feature Set – lots of features, mostly what you need, and nothing you don’t
- Add-Ons – tons of extras and add-ons to add to the functionality of Basecamp and extend the tool
- Simple Interface – Sometimes there are MORE tools you may want/need – we’ve overcome this obstacle by working and changing some procedures, but that might not be enough for every business.
- Search – Current search interface is horrible, can never find anything, can’t sort by results, etc. SEARCH SUX, but the overall organization makes up for this.
- Minimal Reporting – See above notes on reporting, not enough reporting, from a management perspective it’s easy enough to drill down and see what’s going on, but some automated reports here would REALLY help – and help sell the tool in general
Integration – With other apps sucks (highrise).– Literally while writing this review 37Signals announced the basecamp and highrise now completely integrate – so as you close a deal in Highrise, you can auto create a project/company in Basecamp… FANTASTIC! Might just have to rethink Highrise.
Basecamp Plan Pricing & Feature Comparison
Here is a very simple breakdown of the different plans offered for Basecamp. Keep in mind that no matter what level you start at you can always UPGRADE at any time, and each plan includes a 30-Day FREE Trial.
|# of Projects||1||15||35||100||Unlimited|
|Storage||10 MB||5 GB||15 GB||30 GB||75 GB|
Which Plan is Right For You?
After working with the program for years I can say that the absolute minimum place you should start with is the Basic account. This is mostly because of the time tracking (and we know how important that is!). http://www.zincubate.com/business-time-tracking/
You can always quickly and easily upgrade and for years my own company stayed at the “plus” level. Although as we grew we expanded into Premium, although I can’t even dream of day when we’ll have more than 100 active projects!
Just remember, if a project is not “active” you can always set it to “inactive” so that it doesn’t count towards your total projects and any files don’t count towards your total space! Also, it helps to unclutter your dashboards and makes things less stressful.
I thought I’d save this for the end because of the nature of this product/service as well as my own experience in using their tools, and support. The point of utilizing a web application like this is – it just works – ALWAYS! And we’ve had huge success with that. In 4 or 5 years of almost constant daily use Basecamp was only down one time for a couple of hours and that was an absolute fluke accident, and hey – the office was thankful for the break at the time .
37Signals, Basecamp’s parent company has taken great strides in providing a product that’s super speedy, and just works – it’s always up and operational and we never experience any slowdowns.
Additionally – because of the absolute simplicity of the tool I personally feel that for 80% of the people that will implement or touch Basecamp, support will never be an issue. Now – this may change as more features are added, but this is the beauty of 37signals’ mantra – making very good, reliable, SIMPLE tools has meant very little support. According to their main site, 4 million people use Basecamp – and yet they’re able to handle ALL of the support requests for the company with only 6 people! That should be a testament to their ability as software makers. To this effect my main company has never had to use live support and only on occassion – for more technical things like tapping into Basecamp’s API did we even have to look at Basecamp’s beautiful help section.
Basecamp has even taken the time to develop its own front-facing support ratings area (see image), where ANYONE can check in on the overall satisfaction of all users – for ALL of 37signals’ software. It’s a nifty idea and based on my frequent visits they always hover above 90%.
However I will say this – on the couple of occasions where I have used their support (this had nothing to do with the technical components, but my business/affiliate relationship with 37signals) I was displeased with the speed of response, as well as the initial answers. With that said I understand it was a weird case and no normal users will have to go through the same thing.
- Pros – Overall Basecamp’s best support has been in providing a product that really needs NO support. Basecamp has a fantastic wiki/question & answer system, support is easy to contact and rate.
- Cons – The few times I’ve had to use support response was a bit slow – keep in mind it was a special case. With 4,000,000 users it seems their support staff is a little swamped/slow.