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.
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?
talks about tribes. We all belong to tribes and these tie into and
form our companies culture. For me personally I belong to the , the and the tribe to name a few. I love these brands for different reasons and they in turn help me shape and form our own brand – . 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 , , ,
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.
Most companies allow their systems to be customised one way or
another but think seriously about whether you need to get major
programming changes done for your business. Its usually wise to use
the system “out of the box” for a while first and then re-think down
the track whether you really need to go off on a tangent and build in
your customisation. If you do end up down this track it can be a “bag
of hurt” – often meaning you compromise getting upgrades and free
Finally you really must be committed to implementing your new
system. Its often a good idea to have one key person in your company
“sponsor” the system, become the key contact and team leader as it were
of the roll out process. It’s easy to slip back into old bad
habits. Another good thing to do is book a short training session a
month or two after you purchase the system – get it down in the diary
and when the time comes use it as a question and answer session to
ensure that you are getting the best out of the system.
- special thanks to for creating the wonderful “love your work” illustration for me.