Alternative to Basecamp

Go ahead. Try it. Do a Google search for ‘Alternative to Basecamp‘ and report back. For about ten years, Basecamp has been a well-loved poster boy app for the Web 2.0 world of project collaboration and project management. What’s maybe not known is the vicious hate for the app from all corners of the blogosphere.  And further research reveals there are some very fine alternatives, including one in particular that has been built to address the shortfalls. I’ll discuss that a bit later.

As for me, I love the simplicity of the app, the fact that it’s entirely web based and useable on any browser and most mobile browsers. There’s plenty of support for it with third party aps on the iPhone (not native). And most positive as a Project Manager is the buy-in I get from my non-PM colleagues. They just like to know that there’s a central repository of information and that someone (me) is administering it.

I also generally like the culture of the company. I subscribe to the 37signals podcast, and their refreshing business book ‘Rework’ has been gifted and recommended countless times in 2010.

The Challenge

In December, I responded to the 37signals tweet, asking for a Toronto Basecamp consultant to step in and help out a local marketing firm align their efforts with Basecamp. They had been using it for about three weeks and wanted to make sure they were building the correct foundation before going any further.

What I saw shocked me.

In just a few weeks, they had entered dozens of Messages, filled their Milestones page with multiple milestones per day, uploaded their entire collaborative document library including RFPs and charters, and maintained their robust Google Calendar and of course Gmail to tie it all together. It should have been the ultimate Basecamp build. But they were unhappy.

There are a few limitations within Basecamp, and it seemed that they had discovered all of them in very short order.

Perhaps my ‘little nagging problems’ with Basecamp weren’t as obscure as I thought.

Calendar

The first problem is the calendar, or lack thereof. Ask anyone who’s been using Basecamp what the biggest problem is, and they will tell you that it’s the lackluster support for scheduling. You can’t plan your day around it. You can only assign milestones (which align with the PMI definition of a milestone accurately in that it doesn’t occupy any time, it’s just a delineation of time). But the problem with this methodology is that as a PM I know that’s not how people like to plan their days. They like to know that on Monday from 9-11AM they have to prepare for their meeting at 11AM. Basecamp will only say you’ve got a meeting on Monday. No times. No access to anyone else schedule. No access to resources.

To Do

The problem with Basecamp’s to-do list is that you can’t assign a to-do to multiple people. This way, projects slip when the individual assigned to the to-do falls off the radar. You also can’t change the assignment of a to-do. It’s a very limited way of assigning responsibility to work packages.

Messages

I don’t think I’m alone in that I use Messages as a corporate blog. It’s the best thing about Basecamp in that a properly administered message board can completely eliminate the bane of my job role as PM: email. Here’s how I use it, and where Basecamp sometimes fails me. Rather than have emails flying around like, “charter 1, charter 2, charter final, charter final 2, charter final 2 revised”, I just create a message heading called “charter documents” and all the version go in there in sequential order. It’s amazing. The first time I show that to colleagues, they’re sold on Basecamp.

However, the problem is when overzealous team members try to submit work of their own, and sure enough they create a message heading called “scope 1”. Followed by someone else’s contribution in a message heading called “scope 2”. I’ll step in and create a message tab called “scope documents” and download the files to my local machine, then re-upload them to my new message. The problem is the ownership of scope 1 and scope 2 is lost, and assigned to me, leaving the contributors out of the loop and without proper credit.

Time Tracking

Not included in any plan under $49 per month.

Cost

Taking my cue from the previous category is the cost. 37signals has admitted they are ‘experimenting’ with their pricing structure, but the overall feeling is that the pricing has doubled, and that the ‘best value’ on their site is the 37signals Suite at $99 per month. I’ll let that sink in… one hundred dollars per month. Note that you can still get just Basecamp for $49/month, and if you dig deeper you can still get the personal plan for $12/month if you ask for it. But is that really the way to get new users onboard with an app that most people agree is easy to learn due to it’s simplicity?

Alternatives

If you’ve got your browser tabs still open, you can go back and see a few alternatives to Basecamp, including the free Zoho to of course Sharepoint. The sweet spot is an app from Irish developers TeamworkPM. They have an excellent calendar, an iPhone/iPad app that’s out now, timetracking is included in all plans,  messages can be assigned to different team members, you can assign more than one person to a to-do, and the price is almost exactly half of Basecamp. They go as far as to maintain a blog post documenting all the things they do better than Basecamp. They’re pretty upfront about it, but they’ve created a product that’s more agile and seems to have responded to many of the typical grumblings of Basecamp.

Conclusion

The next Monday, I presented a report to my clients that they had already outgrown what Basecamp can offer, and that they should go to TeamworkPM. In fact, I have begun the large project of migrating my Basecamp projects and clients to TeamworkPM (oh, wait, they have a button for that?!?).

Basecamp remains a good tool for getting small teams to work together. Excellent examples are school groups, small virtual teams, or teams that aren’t tech savvy but require a place to store pictures or media.

Another 37signals product Highrise remains in my toolset as an excellent CRM app. In fact, they just rolled out a new version that can only be described as revolutionary.

Basecamp is a victim of what makes it great: it’s very easy to use and easy to master, but it’s not designed to be anything greater. It’s also becoming a pricey proposition for that very same target market to consider.

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