Latest and Greatest Small Business Technology

Latest and Greatest Small Business Technology: Vol. 3

Elizabeth Larkin, Michael Kelly, and Eric Dollinger

Whether delegating various assignments or arranging meetings between different departments, project management apps have become an essential tool for businesses that need to organize their heavy workload. But with so many apps on the market, how do you decide which one is right for your small business? In episode #84, Elizabeth Larkin and Gene Marks discuss strategies to help you determine the most suitable project management app for your business.

Executive Summary

0:25—Today’s Topic: Project Management Apps for Small Businesses.

5:16—Project management apps enable your employees to collaborate and coordinate with one another on specific assignments through a variety of platforms.

8:50—CRM (customer relationship management) systems are best suited for sales and marketing oriented businesses, while project management apps are ideal for internally-driven businesses.

10:47—Businesses should not expect their clients to use the same specific project management tools that they use.

12:10—Most cloud-based apps are designed for easy integration with each other.


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Elizabeth: We’re back with another episode of the Small Biz Ahead Podcast. This week, we’re going to go back into our series on the latest and greatest small business technology. This is volume 3. So Gene, what are we gonna be talking about this week?

Gene: Project management apps, Elizabeth. Project management apps have become very, very popular among small businesses and back in the day, back before the cloud, there was Microsoft Project and Primavera. They were expensive, you had to install them and the whole whatever.

Elizabeth: They were kinda clunky too.

Gene: They were clunky and they were whatever, but if you were a project management company, if you were running construction projects, you were running engineering projects, it was a required kind of thing to have. Nowadays, because of these cloud-based applications that are a lot less expensive and some case free for minimal users and features, they are very much of something that every business should have, because when you think about it, whether you’re running a retail store or you’re a distributor or you’re a manufacturer, or you’re a restaurateur, your life is projects. Everything is projects.

Elizabeth: Yes. You’re just managing projects.

Gene: Yeah, everything is a project. And so why not have a good project management app in place?

So I had a client that they hired a new general manager and this client, they’re an architecture firm, so have their other estimating, all that kind of software. But this general manager came in and he immediately had them starting using Asana. Now, Asana, and I’m assuming they’ll be in the show notes, we’ll talk about some of these applications-

Elizabeth: Yeah, I just wanna interrupt you for a second to say that everything we discuss on this episode is gonna be in our show notes and you can find those by going to and look for the podcast category and you can just scroll down and find this episode. We’re gonna list all of the apps that Gene talks about. Anything that we ever mention in one of these podcasts will be in there. And also, I encourage listeners, after you’re done listening to the episode or even while you’re listening to it, comment at the bottom because Gene might have left some of your favorite project management apps out.

Gene: No doubt. Yeah, make some suggestions ’cause I’m looking for that stuff, for my own business and recommend to clients. So this client took Asana and really what Asana is, A-S-A-N-A …

Elizabeth: Okay, I was just gonna spell it.

Gene: Yup. It’s a cloud-based project management application. It ranges in price from anywhere from 20 bucks a user a month to they have monthly costs like $99 for a package per month.

Elizabeth: There’s also a free version.

Gene: There is.

Elizabeth: If you’re a solopreneur, you might wanna check that out for the free version.

Gene: And they all seem to have these free versions as well. And what this general manager did is he had his clients and they had a bunch of stuff. They had sales projects going on and different companies they were pursuing or opportunities. They had internal things they wanted to do. They wanted a … They were actually looking to hire a director of engineering for their firm. Again, they’re an architectural firm. And that’s a project, right? Because who’s involved in that hiring and who’s-

Elizabeth: Oh, that’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of that.

Gene: Yeah, it’s all … And then they had other things. For example, when he joined them, it was before the summer and they were planning, like, they do a July 4th picnic thing for their employees and families and all that. That’s a project, right? They set it up, we have a lot of tasks that need to be done around it. So think about it in those terms. All these things going on in your company, they’re just things that you need to do, right? And we as business owners are always walking around with different things that we’re-

Elizabeth: With to-do lists and checklists and … Yup.

Gene: Marketing projects that we’ve got on our mind and we wanna update our website, we wanna hire this new employee, we wanna build onto the building, we wanna-

Elizabeth: And this way, you can get that stuff out of your head and down in an actual, actionable format.

Gene: Correct. And not only that, but you put it there. The typical project management application … Okay, so let’s list a few of them, okay?

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: I mentioned Asana. Basecamp competes directly against Asana, it’s excellent. Freshdesk is excellent.

Elizabeth: Okay, I’ve heard of that one.

Gene: And there are two as I mentioned, one is called Wrike, which is W-R-I-K-E. And another one that I was asking some of my clients, Accelo, A-C-C-E-L-O. Having said that, those are just five project management applications that my clients are using or readers or whatever. But trust me, there are dozens more great ones.

Elizabeth: I was just thinking of one called Trello.

Gene: Trello is also another great one.

Elizabeth: That is T-R-E-L-L-O and I’ve used that a little bit. Actually, I used it when I was moving two years ago, because when you’re moving, there’s just so much to keep track of and I was able to create boards. It actually works kind of like Post-it notes. I can’t explain it, but if you log in and you look at it, you’ll be like, “Yeah, this looks like Post-it notes.” And it’s great because you make your to-do list and then once something’s done, you move it over to the done column. It’s very helpful.

Gene: Well, they all kinda have the same concept, which is you make your to-do list. Other people can make your to-do lists. You share tasks and things in the same project. You take notes about the project. You connect documents or any forms or files to that project as well.

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s really helpful.

Gene: Really helpful. And then some of these project management apps, like Asana, like Basecamp, you can connect emails into a project. So say you’re exchanging information or you’re searching for a new supplier or whatever it is.

Elizabeth: That’s key, because if you assign someone else something and they’re like, “Oh, I never got the email,” and-

Gene: That’s exactly right. Or you’ve got documentation and history that this email was sent and what it contains, so that’s also important. So all of that is in a project, but I think the key thing in a good project management application, Elizabeth, is there’s reminders and workflows. So particularly if you’ve got a few people working on the same thing, if a task is assigned to somebody and it’s not done in time, they get a reminder, other people get alerted about it, because you don’t want a project to fall off the rails. And in the same thing with workflow is if a task is assigned to somebody and then that person finishes that task, it automatically creates the next task and assigns it to the person that’s supposed to be doing the next thing.

Elizabeth: So cool.

Gene: So other examples I’ve seen clients use project management software is for a new employee hire. So it’s like an onboarding process and listen, we hire a new employee, there’s 47 things that need to be done, they need to get keys, they need to get security, they need to get their password for the computer network, they need to get their health insurance forms in, whatever it is. And you’ve got different people within the company that need to know these tasks and to have it with the workflow and all that. Once you have an employee, performance management, so are they getting their performance review? Did everybody submit their performance reviews? And about this employee, has the date been scheduled? Was it done? What are the … That’s a project as well these are all, all these things.

Now, there are specific applications that will do things that are more specific. So what I mean by that is I was talking about onboarding and performance reviews. A lot of good HR management apps will do that as well, like HR platforms. Paychex has a great one. There’s a bunch of them that are out there.

The same thing also, my company sells CRM applications, customer relationship management applications.

Elizabeth: I was just gonna ask how does that interact with-

Gene: It does. It’s funny, I don’t wanna push clients, like, really always have them adhere to my agenda. But we don’t have a project management application in our business because we are able to configure our CRM, and most CRMs can do this, rather than having an opportunity, like a sales opportunity, we create a project instead for internal stuff. And then we attach files to it and take notes, schedule reminders and have workflow.

You can do all this with a CRM application too. You don’t have to have a specific project management application to do that. It’s just that good project managers, that’s what they do best. If they’re from a good company-

Elizabeth: I want you to pause and define a CRM system for our listeners that might not be familiar with them.

Gene: Sure, so a CRM system is a customer relationship management system. And what it does is it ensure two big things: that for all the people in your community, customers, prospects, vendors, suppliers, all those people, nothing falls through the cracks and nobody in your company looks like a dope when you’re using a CRM system. So it’s just a database of everybody that touches your business and making sure that you’re keeping track of all communications and activities with those people so that they’re never forgotten, right? And that if any one of them reach out, call you, email whoever in your company, we all know what everybody else is doing with that person.

Elizabeth: So what kind of business would be better off using a project management app and what kind of business would be better off just using a CRM?

Gene: It’s a great question because to me, they’re interchangeable in a lot of ways. They really do overlap in a lot of things. But if you are a real sales and marketing-oriented business, you’re all about making deals and that kind of stuff, then you’re probably better off having a CRM system and then using it to also do projects. Because you really wanna try and work out of the same system wherever you can.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think that would be confusing for people. Then they’ve got to remember new passwords and-

Gene: I gotta this for this, I gotta go into that for that. Yeah, it’s annoying. However, if you’re more of a technical company, like the architecture firm that I work with, they get a lot of referrals. CRM is important to everybody, but they’ve got 20, 30 projects going on and external as their internal ones. And plus, they’re more … Well, they’re architects, so they’re more engineering-based. They’re not a salesy kind of people, so they kinda lean more towards a project management app. They connect to that concept more. But I do have to tell you, there are so many overlaps between the two that you would probably be fine with either one, depending on the application you wanna use it for.

Elizabeth: Okay. What about a solopreneur, or does it still just matter what kind of business you are?

Gene: It really does matter what kind of business. And a solopreneur, I try not to complicate it too much. Yeah, a Basecamp or an Asana or a Freshdesk, they have free versions. It’s all great. But if it’s just yourself, a task manager, even Microsoft Outlook or Google Activities, if it’s just you.

The only time you wanna consider getting a project manager is if you’re like, “Well, I’m a solo entrepreneur now, but I got plans for growth and I’m gonna have employees in the next few years and so I wanna set up a system and a process for everybody to get involved in.” Well, you can’t just do that using Outlook. You know what I mean?

Elizabeth: So we have vendors at The Hartford who are small business but they’re providing a service to us and they use project management tools and they then expect us to also use that project management tool.

Gene: Can you imagine that? You’re The Hartford, you’re like, “I don’t think so.”

Elizabeth: Well, we do it. We go along with it.

Gene: Really?

Elizabeth: Yes, sometimes. Not all the time. What do you think about small business owners asking their clients to do that?

Gene: I think you’re wasting your time, I really do. I was shocked that you just said that to me because people are so … They can’t even get their arms around their own internal applications though and-

Elizabeth: And listen, some of us will use it. In my group specifically, some people will quote unquote “follow the rules” and use it. And other people or if they’re pressed for time, will just email them. “Here’s the file back, I’m not gonna go through your whole …”

Gene: That’s exactly what I feel. Then these people wind up doing it themselves. The biggest issue they have with either project managers or CRMs is say you’re a company with outside reps or independent distributors and you’re all working on the same customer projects or following up the same leads or opportunities. But these people are outside, they’re running their own companies. But they’re repping you. You know what I mean?

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: And then clients try to get those outsiders to use their CRM systems and with varying degrees of success. It’s tough to do.

Elizabeth: Okay, so what about a small business that, let’s say they’re creating … Okay, so they’re creating a project, so they’re using project management software. Let’s say they’re using Asana ’cause it’s a very popular one. But then they also do marketing and content marketing and e-commerce. So there is an example of someone who would probably need both tools even though they’re a small business?

Gene: I would still lean them more towards a CRM that’s configured for project management.

Elizabeth: Really?

Gene: Yeah, because if they’re really into doing marketing and wanting to use the outbound marketing capabilities of a CRM system, a lot of project management systems draw the line there. You can’t do that.

Elizabeth: Well, yeah, but I’m thinking what if they’ve always used Asana, they absolutely love it, they’ve done their projects in that for years …

Gene: They don’t wanna move off it, right?

Elizabeth: But then they also realize they need a CRM to do their online marketing. Is there anything that bridges the gap between those two?

Gene: That’s a great question. So yeah, the answer is yeah. What’s great in 2017 and as we are in 2018 is that because everything is moving to the cloud, cloud-based applications integrate really well with each other nowadays. This is not your dad’s computer systems where everything is on its own island and forget about integrating it. So if you have a good, well-known project manager like Basecamp, Asana, the ones I mentioned, they have out-of-the-box integrations with popular CRM systems and vice versa.

Elizabeth: What would be some of those CRM systems that you’d recommend?

Gene: So it’s the more popular ones that are out there. So by all means, is the most popular CRM system, although most expensive.

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s probably out of the budget of a lot of our consumers.

Gene: It could. People at Salesforce will argue with you and say that they have small business versions and this and that. Microsoft has got an excellent one called Microsoft Dynamics 365. Zoho is excellent. I use Zoho. If you go into Zoho’s CRMs website, they have their own project management application that’s part of their suite of products.

Elizabeth: Really?

Gene: Yeah. Or you can go into their marketplace and they integrate with Asana and Basecamp too.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: So you can have different choices of it. Sage is also very good, Sugar is very good, Insightly, ProsperWorks. I hope you’re writing this all down. These will all be in the show notes.

Elizabeth: Again, they will be in the show notes.

Gene: But those CRM systems are pretty well-known, mainstream systems and they integrate. They all have integration with various project management applications.

Elizabeth: Okay. So if you’re getting started, let’s say you’re new business owner-

Gene: First of all, this is way too many questions, Elizabeth, okay? I mean, my god, you’re killing me here.

Elizabeth: We’re trying to provide the best information for our listeners. So let’s say you’re just getting started as a business owner. You would send someone to a CRM first?

Gene: It depends on the personality of somebody and what they really wanted to use it for. Again, if you were just getting started and you were starting a professional services firm, you were starting, I don’t know, a landscaping company or you’re starting an engineering firm or something like that-

Elizabeth: Coffee shop.

Gene: Well, it depends. I might say to somebody like that, “Listen, if your real main priority is managing client or customer projects, then you might wanna be leaning towards that.” However, if you’re a company that’s not really externally project-driven and you’re more marketing-driven and you’re into getting leads and you’re into all that, then you obviously start with a CRM and then we can run projects out of there.

Elizabeth: Okay, so what about a retail business?

Gene: Most retailers, a CRM is probably what you’re gonna wind up going to. You have that many less projects. And again, depending on the size of your company, a lot of those people get project management applications for just internal projects. And if that’s the case, there’s no need to integrate that with a CRM. Get your CRM for all of your activities and sales and prospecting and services and all that’ll be done there. And then, like, “Oh, I’m running a retail shop and I need to have a project to prepare for the holidays or I need to have a project to retrofit out my store, I need to have a project to hire a new employee.” Why would you even integrate that with your CRM? It’s not even relevant. So in that case, you’d probably have both.

Elizabeth: Okay. What’s the easiest, in your opinion, of all the apps to use for project management?

Gene: The two that I always go to is Asana and Basecamp. And that’s not really fair because I don’t have that much experience with Freshdesk and Wrike and Accelo and some of the other ones I mentioned. But time and time again, the client that I just mentioned, the architecture firm, they went to Asana. They’re a toughie, getting them there. A bunch of older heads there running that place. And they took to Asana right away.

Elizabeth: It’s pretty intuitive. I’ve been in it before.

Gene: It is. The issue is if you’re gonna get something like that is somebody’s gotta drive it. And in their case, they have this general manager they hired and the general manager said that’s what he had been using for the past ten years. He said, “I am driving this business out of Asana. Any task that I’m gonna assign you through Asana and any notes and any whatever. If you’re not on Asana, you might as well not even work here because we’re not communicating.” Do you know what I mean?

Elizabeth: Strong take.

Gene: And that’s what it takes. So you need that sort of person that says, “This is the tool, man, and this is what we’re gonna use.” If they had implemented Asana to this client themselves without having that guy in place, they would have failed with it because I don’t think they have the culture to do it. So they’re all good. You just need that person to drive it.

Elizabeth: Do you ever see any project management applications and CRM systems merging?

Gene: No. Do I forecast that that’ll happen? I’m thinking right now if there’s anybody that’s really in talks to do that. I don’t hear that very often. I don’t hear that.

Elizabeth: Wouldn’t it make sense?

Gene: It kinda would, it kinda would. But then again, like I said, this little-known secret of CRM is that the good ones can just be configured to do projects pretty good. CRM systems, when they talk about merging, they talk about merging with other CRM systems because they want more customers, or with complementary products like marketing services, outbound marketing, email marketing, that kind of stuff.

Elizabeth: What’s your advice if someone isn’t using a project management app right now and they’re thinking, “Ah, maybe I should try that out.” What’s your advice to them? Is it to go try the free version first and see if they like-

Gene: Yeah. It’s always to try … Yeah, the free version if you think that it’s good. My biggest advice though is you wanna see it in action. So you don’t wanna go to the vendors. Where these things usually come from is somebody has a friend or a guy they know that’s using this that’s saying, “Oh, I’m using Asana, it’s great. So it’s gotta kinda come from if you know any customers, partners, suppliers, already using some of these applications. Ask them how they’re using it and what they think and-

Elizabeth: So if you’re a in a small business owner Facebook group or LinkedIn group, just ask around and see who else-

Gene: Yeah. And then see if you can get a demonstrator for you. Don’t have the software vendor demonstrate. Have somebody using it.

Elizabeth: Oh god, yeah. Don’t have the vendor do it.

Gene: Yeah. They’re just trying to sell you, which is fair enough. My advice for getting software vendors to demonstrate, the clients that do the best demonstrations with those software vendors are the ones that are already using the product and then they go back to the vendors and say, “Show me how to do this or show me how to do that.” It’s almost like free consulting from the vendors.

Elizabeth: Alright, that’s gonna do it for this week’s episode of the Small Biz Ahead podcast, thanks for joining.

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