September 2, 2014

Basecamp – A Good Choice to Manage Projects for the Web Savvy

Basecamp is an online project collaboration system. It helps you manage projects and organize your documents in one place and share it across teams. They have three other major applications that dovetail with it: Highrise (CRM), Backpack (business organizer), and Campfire (chat).

If you haven’t heard of Basecamp, you may enjoy coming out of the cave for this review. They are one of the most dominant, prolific brands and collaboration tools in the Web-savvy world. I started this review to get in and see what was really under the hood.

Here’s a sample screenshot showing the dashboard in a typical Basecamp usage.  You can see it is oriented to tracking different projects, with milestones and calendar deadlines.

Basecamp review

Most of the people I know who use it are graphic designers or firms that have a fairly straightforward project-based work process. I had just been through a project where the video production vendor used it and it worked beautifully, but I haven’t been able to wrap my head around how it might work in my consulting work or content management or a dozen other businesses.

I listened to the persuasive video testimonials (something, by the way, which small business owners should seriously consider in their own online marketing). I read review, after glowing review. I’m now partially sold.

Warning: If you sign up for the “free” plan, then you are not eligible to later upgrade to another plan and still get a 30-day trial. The site clearly mentions this, but in this world of free trials, it doesn’t sink in. The reason this matters is that if you want a fully functioning demo and experience of Basecamp or its sister products; do not take the “free 1-project plan” option. It does not allow file sharing or managing multiple projects. Instead, take the 30-day trial for a higher-level plan and give them your credit card, and you then get a full version.

This is my free 1-project plan screenshot below. Pretty simple setup, which is a big part of what Basecamp promises, with only six tabs: Overview, messages, To-do, milestones, writeboards, and chat. Note the “Upgrade your free account to share files and manage multiple projects.” That’s the best part about Basecamp and you don’t get it if you don’t do the free trial for a higher plan.
Basecamp dashboard

What I liked

Well, I’m drawn in by the way they market themselves. They have a crisp site and part of the beauty of Basecamp is the design and keep-it-simple philosophy that they have. I like that tons of people recommend it and use it and I appreciate the tribe’s knowledge and decisions.

The dashboard overview lets me create a new message, a new task, or a new milestone in one click.  They make it easy for many people to collaborate. In my video project experience, files were shared, discussions were captured in one place, and you had a history book of your project essentially. That appeals to me.

I like that you can private label it so it looks like your workspace and not Basecamp’s. It is terrific that you can share access with people inside and outside of your company to get the project done.

What I Disliked

I struggled with some of the rules for signup obviously. I was bothered by some antiquated technology like their writeboard (whiteboard) which didn’t have a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) toolbar, but a little code sheet to the right that if I want something in bold, I have to remember to use these code marks: *bold*.

It wasn’t easy or intuitive to set up Campfire, the chat tool, but it wasn’t hard, either. It just didn’t seem built to connect to the Basecamp app. I had to jump through a few hoops. I also couldn’t see how to connect Highrise, their customer relationship tool, to my Basecamp. By then, I didn’t even try to hook into Backpack, the organizer and file sharing tool. But I could see reasons why I would want to create links or connections between the different applications. I think Basecamp does, too, but I couldn’t find evidence of it.

Does this mean you shouldn’t use it? Not at all, but there are simpler applications out there that I know are taking shots at Basecamp. Many Basecamp users don’t need the integration between applications and you may not, either.

Who is Basecamp for?

The quote off their website was too good not to use: “Our products are built for small businesses and individuals (we call this group the Fortune 5,000,000), but companies of all sizes use them every day. From 1 person to teams of 3-5 people to companies of 5000.”  I like the Fortune 5,000,000 part. Power to the small biz owner.

However, I would say it depends on the type of business.  If you are looking for an online collaboration tool but yours is the kind of small business that does not have well-defined projects, fitting your work into Basecamp may feel like forcing a square peg into a round hole. Remember, Basecamp is a “project” collaboration tool and not all businesses work by projects.

On the other hand, if your business is a Web-savvy firm that regularly works on large projects, such as a Web design business, then Basecamp is an app you’ll be comfortable with and find helpful for business.  If you need one place to keep your documents and your team, literally on the same page, and keep projects on track, then Basecamp offers a simple and elegant way to do that.

Learn more about Basecamp.

42 Comments ▼
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TJ McCue - Product Editor


TJ McCue TJ McCue is the Product Editor for Small Business Trends and an entrepreneur who publishes Tech Biz Talk. TJ is a former Wall Street Journal columnist. He also writes for Forbes and American Express OPEN Forum. He loves learning about technology apps and software services - share yours with TJ.

42 Reactions

  1. TJ: I have heard about Basecamp but I didn’t know much about what the program could do. I like the different names of the tools (Highrise, Backpack, and Campfire). It triggered nice visual pictures.

    How widespread is Basecamp around the world? I used ProjectPlace.com during my studies in international project management (coordinator). The company states that it is “Europe’s leading web based Project Management and Team Collaboration software with 480,000 users in 7 languages.” You could test out a free personal beta version.

  2. “Basecamp” seems to be an ideal tool for project management it would be of interest to know who there main competitors are and then run a comparison.

  3. I did use Basecamp trial and found it to be a good online PM tool. I ended up choosing Manymoon, though, because of its better integration with Google Apps (Sites, Docs etc.)

  4. @Martin, I like all those names, too. Very compelling.

    @Dape, the comparison chart is a good idea. Thanks. In general, we try to just focus on the one software app at a time and leave the comparing up to the user/reader.

    @Evgeny I’ll have to take a look at Manymoon. Thanks for the comment and heads up.

  5. TJ-

    Thanks for putting this review together. I have tried several tools (including Google Docs, and others) with my blog tech (Tom), and settled on basecamp. I like the fact that you can identify milestones, and have tasks associated with it. Whenever I add a new task, Tom is notified, and each task can have it’s own conversation thread (and notifications). So far, very pleased.

    -Travis

  6. I use http://www.gtdagenda.com for my tasks and projects, since it’s GTD oriented and has Next Actions support. The checklists feature is great too.

  7. I use basecamp with one of my clients and really love it. Even better, I use the Yahoo! Widget Avalanche and am able to track my timed projects and the widget posts my times in the correct projects.

    I also love the write boards … it makes sharing information that you may need to edit or update really easy. Yes, the formatting is a little kluge-y but I got used to it.

  8. Basecamp has been around for quite a while. I loved it when it came out. But today it seams a bit outdated and it lacks features. Plus their service is known to be a bit… distant from customers.

    The good news is the during the past years many great alternatives came out.

    I personally like 5pm – 5pmweb.com – a very strong alternative, with much more advanced interface (less clicks) plus features like reports and Gantt. 5pm even imports data from Basecamp – so it’s easy to switch.

    There are still other alternatives and even a whole army of Basecamp clones. So if you are looking for PM tool – you have a lot of choices.

  9. Great review of Basecamp. We run Moobiz http://www.moobiz.com which combines project management, business management and web management apps.

    We’d love it if you could take a look. There are a wide range of individual apps that are managed via a library, allowing functionality to be matched to requirements…

  10. One of the popular alternatives is Intervals. It’s what we use for our project management. The reporting is great for keeping on top of our projects.

  11. Hi Carma
    Thanks for the positive feedback. I appreciate your writeboard comment. Good to know that people are happy with that feature and it works.

    I confess I’m on the fence. I like Basecamp and have used it through my clients’ projects. It is a solid tool. However, as Stefan points out (although I don’t know what company he’s from), there are a lot of alternatives out there. I’m not one to say you have to be glitzy and trendy in order to be useful and functional (my own Sales Rescue Team initiative is a simple WordPress powered site), but I do think things like the Writeboard turn users off when it isn’t very intuitive to use. When you turn users off today, they simply move on.

    I hope they do some major updates. That’s all.

  12. @Travis – thanks for the positive feedback on the Basecamp service. Your opinion really counts as you are an active user and fan as opposed to a naturally limited review. So thank you for sharing about your successes with it.

    @Dan – I was a GTD fan for a while, so I know the value that tools built on that logic provide. Cool. I’ll check it out. Thanks.

  13. I’m a newer startup and I’m still setting up my PM tracking system and I’ve tested out a few, I just hate the import process into any program, so the idea of being able to easily move from this system to another appeals to me.

    One other option that was brought up by someone much more versed in this that me was the program MindMap, I think. Have any of you used it an compared it to something like Basecamp? I think it’s locally hosted and I’m looking for an online system.

    Either way, other than having unintuitive integration issues and mildly frustrating setup process (of which I’m experiencing), it doesn’t seem like anyone has any major issues with Basecamp. Harmless, eh?

  14. Hi Courtney,
    I have looked at mindmap and don’t find it that comparable to Basecamp. I guess you could use it as a way to show projects in motion, in a mind map visual. People may or may not see the logical flow of it, though, would be my guess. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of a specific mind map app (coming soon in a review type post), but I’m having a hard time seeing how a PM role could work in a mindmap alone.

    Like many apps, people either love it or hate it, and I don’t hear a lot of in between when it comes to Basecamp or any other online project collaboration tool. Love/hate is probably too strong — more like, use it, left it. IHMO…

  15. Projjex.com is a great new site that does a fabulous job of project management. It’s completely browser-based, really easy to use, and has a free version. Cool videos too, I’d recommend checking it out.

  16. Hi Jessica
    Thanks for the heads up on Projjex. I’ll check it out.
    TJ

  17. My problem with bBsecamp and many other project management tools is they do not focus on the entire picture, especially for small businesses. Tracking where resources are allocating their time is fundamental information for any company, especially software development businesses. Time reporting is the lowest level of information needed to accurately track productivity. If you are not tracking time accurately you are not managing the cost of your business. Time is money, it’s important to know how you are spending it. Losing track of your time can shrink your margins and possibly put you out of business.

    What we need is a time tracking system that includes project management that can be configured to manage a company. Instead of getting a system (like an ERP) that tells us how to run the company.

  18. I really liked the Basecamp application and thought it was very easy to use. The first time going into a new application, you tend to expect to have problems setting things up correctly, but theirs was very easy to use. I also liked the writeboard. I found that was an easy way to create a list or document something, that needs to be connected to the project somehow, but doesn’t designate its own task or doesn’t need to take up space in the main list. But, those don’t really require special formatting, which I could see being a down-side.

  19. @James — I agree with you. Tracking time is critical and weaving that info into a project tool would be ideal. John mentioned Intervals, which I checked out and like the look and sound of their app. May be worth a look.

    @Penny — Basecamp and the various apps they offer are excellent. They do the job for many, many people and I’ve had a positive experience with them. I don’t mean to slam them or discount their offering. It is solid. I just think there are places where others are starting to eat their lunch, so to speak. But, that is said with full knowledge and understanding that they are the 800 pound gorilla, as the saying goes, and everyone building a project management app runs into Basecamp at some point. They do an excellent job of marketing themselves and you can’t help but find them if you are looking for an app in the PM space. And they deliver a good service.

  20. We use Basecamp to manage projects, and it’s great. The coolest thing is that it’s getting better and better. With the new time tracking feature, it is very easy to log our time on jobs, even very specific tasks. Basecamp is a great project management solution!

  21. Hi TJ,

    Projecturf.com is a web-based project collaboration software that recently launched with features other on-demand project management tools do not offer in one low-cost package – worth a look – we like it so far.

    -Rowan

  22. I think Basecamp is good for collaboration, but if you need a tool that will help you really manage a project (ie – a schedule that’s actually realistic), then I think LiquidPlanner is the way to go.

    I’ve been a serious fan & user of LiquidPlanner for about a year and a half now, and love how I can make my task estimates in ranges and build a real schedule that I can have faith in. What I don’t like about basecamp is that it will allow you to assign 1000 tasks to a resource and will not flag the action and let you know that hey, maybe that resource is overloaded? Basecamp is not useful to me at all as a resource management tool, and this is where I love using LiquidPlanner (among my other project management tasks). I wrote a comparison of the two systems here:
    http://thecriticalchain.blogspot.com/2009/05/tale-of-twoweb-based-project-management.html

  23. I prefer http://www.deskaway.com over Basecamp. DeskAway is much better than Basecamp.

  24. Nice review! Basecamp is a great tool, but some find it to be too complicated. A simpler and more affordable tool ($10/mo for all features) is SantexQ. It focuses on task and time management but also has other useful features including PDF invoices and a punch clock. Worth a look! http://www.santexq.com

  25. You might want to try the Hyperoffice project collaboration suite. It doesn’t have separate modules (chat, file sharing, crm) that you have to connect with your project management tool. In has a single seamlessly integrated module with project management, IM, document collaboration, CRM, calendars etc.

  26. I recommend to try http://www.5pmweb.com project management tools. They are simple and great.

  27. We used basecamp for a while but found we really needed dates on tasks so been developers we built our own system http://www.teamworkpm.net for managing all our projects.

  28. This project management tools looks really awesome to me by its working and I think people will be able to keep rack on their projects easily with the help of this.

  29. Basecamp is still the dominant (well, to a certain extent) PM tool on the market, though not really the ideal project management tool. Additionally, Basecamp clones are by the dozens out there, most of them trying to lure customers by offering cheaper pricing and migrating the data.

  30. 37signals Basecamp is not much for user experience, but they have the basic usability goods. We used basecamp for all client work until it became more work to keep using it than it was to create something better. It wasn’t efficient enough for managing collaboration over multiple business assets (people, projects, documents, mail, events etc.). We wanted to see and interact with the real time activity in all areas of our business from anywhere in the world. Since there wasn’t anything that could satisfy our desire for powerful features, collaboration and user experience, we build it. We’re releasing RULE.fm in 5 days (Aug 3, 2010) so that we and anyone else can final manage business the way they want with one powerful online application. We’ll be continuing to release new features at no extra cost to users through 2010 following launch. Come check it out at http:rule.fm – we look forward to receiving feedback.

  31. Just got done writing my own post on Base Camp Project Management and think I may have a little bit to add here. As Manage your Business mentioned, basecamp doesn’t excel at user experience (although the definition of that is questionable). Compared to the other apps I’ve reviewed, it DOES excel at ease of use, and quality of communication. Everything in Basecamp is centered around communication – not necessarily the tasks in a project (no Gantt Charts!). Overall though this has led to an exceptional experience for my company and the clients we use it with – each of them loves using the system.

  32. Use ProofHub for manage your projects and team. It is web based online project management and collaboration software. It has many features. It is a great collaboration tool for businesses that helps exchanging the required information inside your teams and with your clients.

  33. Hi,

    Maybe also have a look at Apollo, http://www.apollohq.com
    Apollo is project management AND CRM, with cases&deals, tasks on contacts, shareable calendars, timers, and more!

    Bye,

    Merc.

  34. Honestly, i just signed up for basecamp as at 12/1/2012 and it took me awhile to get around the interface that in 2012 looks horribly outdated. I cant really see the justification in the price. But also looking around at the support site there seems to be alot of unanswered questions or staff take forever to respond. I dont think basecamp is going to last long with all the competition out there.

    As mentioned by another user here i signed up to 5pm and instantly found my way around the interface with the assistance of help prompts. I created my first project within a few minutes compared to basecamp. Basecamp has been around a long time and it definetely looks like it.

  35. Thanks for sharing information!

    I just had a quick look at Basecamp, but have to admit that I was totally put of by the seemingly lack of ability to create structures, i.e. sub-projects and corresponding project file libraries (folders) that support folders and drag-and-drop/sync of local files/folders. Perhaps I’m missing something, but these are major requirements for me as a PM.

    Please feel free to correct me :-)

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