Commentary & Analysis
My Favorite (Mostly Free) Software Tools
Communication is the primary thing we all do for work. This article outlines some of my favorite tools for communicating, tracking how we use our time, capturing our ideas, organizing projects, and improving remote meetings.
By Jennifer Matt
Published: May 18, 2016
I hate email. It is the great dead end communication tool of our times. Second only to the minds of your employees, your email systems have an incredible amount of your business’ intellectual property (IP) trapped in them. Yes, you “own” those emails but the unstructured nature of the data (free form text) makes that IP virtually unreachable without great time, effort and expense.
Because I hate email, any time there’s an innovation that purports to replace email, I jump on it. In this article I will describe my top five (mostly free) favorite tools that you might find useful in your business. My favorite tool lately is Slack which has achieved the goal of replacing internal email communication in my company.
Slack is a messaging application. Our company implemented Slack about four months ago. We have essentially replaced all internal email and IM communication with Slack channels. A Slack channel is a conversation around a specific topic or project. We create a Slack channel for each of our projects, there is a general channel to discuss overall business, there are direct messaging channels for private conversations between two people. There is even a random channel where all of us who work remotely can share what dumb things Donald Trump said yesterday or cheer for the Golden State Warriors (mostly me) or post photos when we get speeding tickets driving to clients (won’t mention any names), or obsess over this incredible high definition web cam on an eagles’ nest. (check it out, they are getting HUGE), I watched them eat a squirrel yesterday (YUCK).
What do I like about Slack? All the communication about a topic is in one place. You can easily link to outside resources (Google Docs). You can stay up to date on a project even if you’re not involved in the day to day activities. You don’t have to bother the people working on the project to figure out what’s going on, you can skim the channel. Here’s the BEST part, when you add new people to a project, their first assignment is to read over the Slack channel to understand who is involved, what is happening, and how they will fit into the team.
It goes without saying that all modern tools have apps for tablet and phones so you can be reminded of all the things you need to do and the people who need things from you no matter where you are. I often refer to this as our collective “digital leashes”.
I’ve tried lots of project management software including but not limited to Asana, SmartSheet, Trello, I keep coming back to Basecamp because it seems to be the only one our customers will adopt. Basecamp is simply a list of To-Do’s that you can assign to people, discuss, debate, and then eventually complete. It is simple by design. You should not have to train anyone to use it. You can simply invite them and they for the most part figure it out. We have had Basecamp projects that included more than twenty people from three continents.
We use it for all types of projects; website designs, tracking the non-development tasks of a custom software project or an integration project. We do NOT use it track software development. We use JIRA for that because it closely adheres to the Agile Development process. For our larger software projects we’ll have JIRA to communicate with the development team and Basecamp to keep track of all the non-development related tasks of the project. It is really amazing to look through the archives of a project on Basecamp to remind everyone all the tasks completed, discussions, collaboration, and milestones met. Because we try and do most of our work remotely, a centralized place to track tasks is critical. Basecamp works when the team you’re working with is tied to a computer all day.
Time is money. We too often squander it. Once we start measuring it we become better stewards of our time. It took me 1.5 hours to write this article (for example). Time tracking on print production should be done in your Print MIS as part of your shop floor data collection. Toggl is for the places in your business that aren’t directly tied to producing customer’s work. I use Toggl to track my time all day long. It is a simple app that allows you to start the timer and stop the timer easily for each activity you’re doing. Do you know how much time you spend in email every week?
I upgraded Toggl because our business is all about selling time. Toggl gives us the ability to provide our clients with detailed reports on every hour with clear descriptions of the activity. I keep track of things throughout the month so I can determine where I need to invest in order to create efficiencies. When monthly invoicing grew to more than five hours per month, I knew it was time to delegate it.
We all need to take notes. We’ve been taking notes forever. We don’t really want to take notes; we really want to capture that information in a way that can be easily retrieved later. This makes a notebook not a great choice since you can’t search a notebook without going through every page or remembering the approximate date you took the note. I take all my notes in Evernote because often I’ll have a conversation with a company, not hear from them for months or years, then they call up again and expect me to remember what they told me in 2014. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday so having a tool is critical. I recently started a project with a company I met at Drupa 2012. When they reached out to me I did a quick search on my Evernote and found all the notes from our interaction in 2012.
When I do have to take notes on paper, I always transcribe them into Evernote so that I have one trusted system of record for all my notes. The good thing about digital storage is that with powerful search, you don’t have to be the most organized person. My Evernote notebooks have gotten out of hand (need some serious organization) but the tool still works well for me because the search gets me where I need to go in a pinch.
I recently completed Seth Godin’s altMBA program (terrific program by the way), I have an MBA from a “real school” that cost me tons of money, this program delivered way more in four weeks than my “real” MBA delivered in two years! The altMBA is a 4-week online, project based program which primary used three tools; Zoom Video, WordPress, and Slack. What I liked about Zoom video is all our meetings for the program were on Zoom. You had to stay present, you had to be doing just one thing at a time. Being on video for many hours at a time was uncomfortable because I’m used to working from home alone. What this video tool did was actually create a real learning space for small groups of people. It was about 1000x more effective than webinars (where I’m convinced most people are checking their email, texting, and doing other things because nobody can see them).
Zoom was really easy, it supported up to 50 people – I don’t recommend that large of group. It was perfect for groups of about five. I would use it when you have to get remote people to talk through important things. You want to see reactions, facial expressions, and have a deeper experience than a voice only call.
Five tools, most of them are free or close to free. It is important to understand what the tools were made for and not try and use them for things they were not designed to do. For example, don’t try and track tasks in Slack, it’s a messaging platform not a task tracker. We are in a technology phase apps are being created to solve very specific problems, moving away from the monstrous software that tried to do everything and did nothing very well. My one honorable mention goes to Expensify, expense reports that don’t suck (that’s their slogan).