Hot! Meditation on Project Management Apps

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Basecamp LogoThere’s a barrage of project management apps – and I’ve only been looking at the SAAS ones!

God only knows how many are out there that are stand-alone installs (MS Project).

The list keeps getting longer, in part because of the critical and financial success of one of the pioneers of the industry – 37signals. 37Signals started off as a web development company, but, when they discovered their business needed a better tool – not fancier, not more features – better, they developed Basecamp. But, why is Basecamp a success when others are still struggling? Well I think it has to do with a few core marketing practices (or are they accidents?).

I’ve talked about it before, but only now did I find the reason I believe that Basecamp is so great on Basecamp’s actual homepage:

Basecamp actually works

For years project management software was about charts, graphs, and stats. And you know what? It didn’t work. Pictures and numbers don’t get projects done. Basecamp tackles project management from an entirely different angle: A focus on communication and collaboration. Basecamp brings people together.

It’s true, Basecamp tackles the “problem” of projects, through robust communication, and every tool/feature they’ve added over the years plays into this philosophy. Speaking of philosophy 37Signals, particularly Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson have been lauded and chastised for their views on business and software. They have a take no prisoners attitude when it comes to online software – make it great, make it easy, and make them (your clients) pay. It’s simple – and it is STILL having trouble breaking through the “FREE” attitude of the web.


Why Was/IS 37signals a Success?

It’s not simply a matter of their project – BaseCamp – or their software. Clearly in reviewing all of the software out there today there are competitors that at least do it as well – if not better – for a similar or CHEAPER cost.

  • Startup – 37Signals was not a property manager – they were a team of web developers, who, knowing the web, created a piece of software that solved a problem. They knew the industry, and the tools. In fact, they even CREATED the tools – David Heinemeier Hansson CREATED RUBY ON RAILS! This is the software that is used to run many of the Web 2.0/3.0 applications. This in and of itself is not that amazing, but the access and networking that it afforded 37Signals had a profound effect on Basecamp’s success.
  • Branding – Basecamp is the defacto web collaboration tool for projects and small businesses. Even in sleepy southwest Florida, many businesses, even those NOT involved in the web directly are using it. It’s a snowball effect (more to come in cost of entry).
  • Marketing – As great web developers 37Signals are also a team of good (but not great – more coming later) marketers. They’ve enhanced their site over the years and have recognized that marketing the tool comes first, adding features comes second.
  • Cost of Entry (aka Moat) – This is perhaps the BIGGEST advantage and any company can unseat Basecamp and 37Signals here, but it will take time. Basecamp although relatively inexpensive on a month-to-month basis has a HUGE cost of entry. Converting one’s company and processes is time consuming, and frankly once you’re in something – in this case a collaboration tool – that just works – leaving is a huge pain in the ass! At my web development company we’ve used Basecamp for about 4 years intensively, and many more less intensely. We have no plans to move right now, simply because ALL of our clients, clients clients, and daily processes are tracked through the system.

But, despite the last couple paragraphs talking about 37Signals I’m not here to talk about them directly. In fact, what got me started today on this topic was my interview yesterday of Sahil Parikh of DeskAway. DeskAway is very similar to Basecamp, but more powerful, and is slated to become the “Basecamp of India.” I only phrase it that way to make it simple – DeskAway is it’s own product and it’s goals and tools are very different from Basecamp – in a way. Sahil was reluctant to divulge how many users DeskAway has – if it’s smaller than 50,000 this was smart, if it’s more this was a mistake! It was a mistake because good marketing will make me want to join those legions of satisfied customers.

Where Basecamp/37Signals Falls Short

Although hinted at in the copied ad copy above, Basecamp still falls short. Despite having one of the best home pages and sites in the business, one that has copy that speaks to the crowd effect – IE 3,000,000+ people use our software why not you? – Basecamp is still falling short! Where is Basecamp falling short? Well, it’s the place I feel 99% of the other web based project management applications are falling short – marketing! It’s this simple:

Most of the copy, design, etc. of project management applications is being communicated on a technical level.

Let me give you an example:

When I try to sell web design, or Internet marketing I don’t talk about tweaking HTML, TITLE Tags, compressing JPGs just right, or optimizing a company’s Google Advertiser Score (for Google AdWords).

“Holy shit! What did you just say…”

NOTHING… to my prospective customer.

Instead I have them first define their problem – 99% of the time it’s WE WANT MORE BUSINESS! Then I answer that for them, we’ll bring in more business with a new website or better online marketing.

It’s that simple.

The tech stuff can help – when a company or person is educated, but usually it confuses.

What Can You Do?

Are you the developer of an online system looking to sign people up on a monthly fee and create a viable business? Well, here’s what you need to do:

Market to your audience.

What are their problems, how does your program solve those problems? Not technically how, physically how! I could care less if your system has social cabilities, integrates with email, and provides a full API. Is he talking about Rubicon now?

No, I care that this thing I’m about to pay money for saves me time, makes me money, or helps me delay hiring staff.


Zach Katkin

Zach is the owner of a number of small businesses including Atilus. He has used many of the small business tools and tips featured on this site in order to help his company. Zach – who general doesn’t like speaking about himself in 3rd person – wants to help you – that’s right, now I’m talking to you – make your small business the best it can be using the Interweb.


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