Smartsheet: Online Spreadsheets for Project Collaboration





With all the noise from email, texts, voicemail, in-person meetings, and other distractions, it is far from easy to get work done with technology.

Web-based applications promise to make it easier and more affordable for small business owners to get things done. Smartsheet may have cracked the code on how to get more done with its online project collaboration service.

You may be asking the same question I had: What does online project collaboration mean, really? Is it as simple as sharing a file or is there more to it and why would I, as a small business owner, want to do it?  Read on.

I usually start with an overview of the product as the above home page screenshot would imply, but this time, I’d like to suggest you click on the third tab “testimonials” to read what customers think of Smartsheet. Frankly, I often view testimonials with suspicion, but these case studies answered why and how others are using the service.

This section quickly answered my questions about how I would be able to use Smartsheet. I didn’t find  sales-speak. Customers talk about how they use Smartsheet to manage their projects and even their company operations. The examples were so well done that it motivated me to click through to the free trial. I particularly liked the one on the Virtual Assistant (VA) Networking Association with its 10,000 assistants.

Save Time (which translates equally as Save Money)

Many SaaS (software-as-a-service) applications aim to make the user experience drop-dead simple and elegant. Smartsheet does that, but they took it one step further in my book, and included these little tips boxes (which you can turn off) and pointers to help you figure out what to do.

Right after you sign up, you are sent to a sample page with little help boxes all over the screen. At first glance, this screenshot is busy, but after taking just a second to get your bearings, you’ll quickly find that most of it is static and the “next” steps happen in the “Welcome to Smartsheet” box to the right. From that one introductory screen, you are able to navigate and get started. I clicked on “See Example Templates” because I wanted to see the range of things I could do. There are 119 templates in the gallery and from there you can kickstart nearly any type of project or process.

As a quick aside, I appreciate when a company does what it says its going to do. On the sign-up page, Smartsheet promises a “60 Second Sign-up” that honestly only took 15 seconds and I was up and running.

Along with that, there is no credit card required to do the free trial. Most companies try to capture your card info.

Something else I really liked: Smartsheet enables you as the owner/manager of the “sheet” to involve contributors without ever requiring them to login to the application. During my test, my clients and friends didn’t have to sign up, although some of them might once they see it.

Managing It All

With Smartsheet, I can assign a task to someone on my team and request that they update the status of that item in Smartsheet. In part of my test, I requested a team member change the “task name”. That person received an email from me and then when they complete that item, I receive an email showing it completed and what was entered (which is highlighted in yellow). I can select to receive all these updates or not.

I can attach files to a specific row in the sheet which gives me a one-stop place to manage my project from the web and for my team to get access to it as well. If you want someone to get that document, you don’t send them the actual file and wait while they make changes. You send them a download link to Smartsheet location where the most up-to-date version resides. As you change and update the document, you store the most recent version, as well as previous versions, in this one location.

Smartsheet attach files

What it Could Do Better

No application is perfect and Smartsheet lacks a few things. There is no search function, but I have heard that this is coming very soon. It would also be ideal to see a way to collect web content via a webform into the app, from a survey, for example.

The last challenge I see is function/feature overload for the user. This is a good thing and bad thing. The application is rich with features, but it can be intimidating to use because you don’t know what to do first. The pre-built templates solve some of this, thankfully.

What you are trying to do with a service like Smartsheet is save time passing information among your employees and teams and keep it in one place instead. Conceptually, this should make business easier. As the manager, I can now set alerts that notify me when someone makes a change or adds new information or gets the job done. This could be more info and emails to manage, but they make it user-friendly and I can set how often and what I want to see in an alert.

While many compare Smartsheet to a spreadsheet, it is much more than that. It is a centralized online location to create and manage projects and processes.  Learn more about Smartsheet.

21 Comments ▼

TJ McCue


TJ McCue TJ McCue served as Technology/Product Review Editor for Small Business Trends for many years and now contributes on 3D technologies. He is currently traveling the USA on the 3DRV roadtrip and writes at the Refine Digital blog.

21 Reactions

  1. Martin Lindeskog

    TJ: I have tested Smartsheet for some time now. Did you test to embed a sheet into a blog post or web site? Is it easy to create a sheet according to your graphical profile with a logotype and matching color scheme? Could you create an URL that is corresponding with your main site and domain name?

  2. TJ McCue

    Hi Martin,
    I haven’t done the testing you ask about, but maybe one of the Smartsheet team will see our post and reply. Otherwise, we can email in a question to them. Have you used any of the add-on type tools — specifically the one that ties into Amazon’s Mechanical Turk? That one is amazing to me and has entrepreneurial opportunities all over it. I didn’t have room to put it in my review, but I’m enamored with that functionality.

    Co-founder Brent Frei blogged about it not long ago.
    http://www.smartsheet.com/blog/brent-frei/self-building-lists

  3. Martin Lindeskog

    Hi TJ,

    I have been talking with Brent & Todd, but I would be interesting to see if something new has happened since the last time we talked.

    I haven’t used the Mechanical Turk, only commented on one post, asking if the name came from the historical chess “computer”… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I thought that the following example was interesting:

    “Example: I want all the towns in America that host a celebration on the 4th of July, along with their website and the name of their City Manager. I run the same process as above, but do it by State. Most States have less than 300 towns or cities, so it works quite well.”

    I think that the list of virtual resources mentioned in the blog post could be very valuable for plenty of readers.

    I will mention this service a business contact who wants to establish a start-up company at a new international market. It would be perfect to conduct this kind of outsourced research for a new area.

  4. Anita Campbell

    Thanks for the good review of Smartsheet, TJ. I take it you are a fan. Good stuff.

  5. Hi Martin,

    Re: the question on how a customized brand and color scheme are carried through on published smartsheets:

    1) Colors and Logo are displayed for sheets published/embedded as ‘Editable by Anyone’
    2) For sheets published as Read Only HTML, it is simpler presentation of the data that inherits color settings but does not display your logo.

    A number of enhancements are being considered for publishing in the upcoming releases including a read-only published version of the full/rich UI and a JSON data feed that would give you full control over displaying the data.

    If you have not yet branded your Smartsheet account, you can do so under My Account > Colors and Logo…
    I just activated your account for another 30-day trail so you can experiment with this if you wish.

    With respect to customizing the URLs to the service, that is not supported at this time. Within a few weeks we will be provide the option for you to have your logo and color scheme displayed on a customer-specific login page. (ex. http://www.smartsheet.com/b/home

    Regards,

    Mark

  6. In response to a few areas of improvement that TJ points out:

    1) Search. One of our top 3 requested features. Good news is that the underpinnings for universal search in Smartsheet were recently implemented on the production servers. We expect to commence activation for customers by 3rd week in August (’09)

    2) Surveys. Click on a sheet’s sharing tab, then Smartform options. These forms can be used to collect survey information and we’re also seeing a lot of customers use to manage workflows (lead capture, problem tickets, customer feedback, etc.) It’s one of the few ‘survey’ offerings on the market that enables respondents to upload file attachments alongside answers/input.

    Regards,
    Mark

  7. Martin,

    Embedding a sheet online is fairly straightforward. I embed them in almost every article I post on my blog. http://www.brentfrei.typepad.com Simply grab the iFrame string out of the Sharing tab and paste it into your blog text, web page code, wherever.

    The challenge you’ll face is that WordPress does not enable iFrames out of the box. There is an add-in or a version of their service (have to check with one of our developers exactly how – because his father embedded a Smartsheet in his WordPress blog)that does enable them.

    Here is an example of your website http://egoist.blogspot.com branded into a sheet.
    http://publish.smartsheet.com:80/7ec62fce903f4f299f93840bc2a4f0de (read only version)

    or the iFrame string (fully editable inline)

    And, the very useful, “add to this list embedded form”
    http://publish.smartsheet.com:80/7ec62fce903f4f299f93840bc2a4f0de

    Call us anytime with questions.

    I’ll leave this link up for a couple months.

  8. Martin Lindeskog

    Mark,

    Thank you very much for your reply and the information on what’s happening at Smartsheet! I appreciate your goodwill gesture with a new trial period.

  9. Good effort. You’re about half way there. Long ago I was told – and learned – when introducing anything new, keep it simple.
    There is no time for “conceptually”. Rather, I suggest you deliver a “dead-solid-perfect” solution.

    Best of Luck

  10. Martin Lindeskog

    Martin Lindeskog

    Brent,

    Thanks for creating the examples and the explanation about iFrame. It was interesting to read about your background on your site. I like the headline: “The Productive Will Rule the World.”

    I will read The Power of Done this weekend.

    I am interested in some wish lists for my future involvement in a new start-up business venture in America.

    List of seabuckthorn and aronia (chokeberries) producers / grower / culturist in North America.

    List of fine (bottled) water brands in North America.

    List of artesian aquifer / well of groundwater locations in North America.

    Ranking / comparison list of cities / states in America regarding start-up costs of a new company. What’s the “best” place to establish a new business?

    Ranking / comparison list of cities / states in America regarding cost of living for a new resident.

    List of social media clubs / open coffee clubs in USA.

    Ranking of the most “wired” (WLAN, WiFi, hotspots, “third places”, e.g. coffe houses) places per capita / resident / citizen in USA.

    Thanks! ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. TJ McCue

    Thanks to everyone for some lively discussion. @Anita, yes, I’m a user through another couple of projects and after a short learning curve, I found it one of the easiest collaboration tools. I’ve played with a bunch of them and like this one. You didn’t ask, but I’ve had this question before: Do I still use Excel? Absolutely. My wife is an Excel pro and we can do things there, while disconnected from net, that I can’t do elsewhere.

    @Neal I agree with you on “no time” around conceptually. I guess I was trying to express that my need for various collaborative functions at Smartsheet are not the same as yours, thus, what I saw as mission critical might or might not be the same as what you see. I’m not quite clear on where I’m “halfway there”. Please share some additional thoughts.

  12. I’m glad to see another player in the online collaboration space. We need more innovation in the space and it looks like Smartsheet has a play that will help open some minds… well, at least mine anyway.
    This platform, or one like it, seems like an opportunity ripe for others to add onto with various extensions and templates (via api).

  13. I was an early adopter and dropped out. Great review and it shows me that many improvements have been made. I will dive back in soon.

  14. TJ McCue

    I’ve inadvertently run into a bunch of Smartsheet users since this review (two because of it) and gotten great feedback on the product. I am talking to one UK person who has been testing and stretching and using the service and seems quite pleased is going to share some insights with me on Monday that I’ll share here.

    I was a basic fan until I started thinking about the other tools they offer. I like the ways it seems to be more than just collaboration — that it helps me get tasks done (as Martin has shared, too). Front Office Automation.

  15. Useful overview about Smartsheet Online Application. Seems to be really smart solutions.

  16. As a former user of IBM Rational Portofolio Manager, I was looking for a collaborative tool without having to invest on MS Project Server and MS SharePoint.
    I signed up for the trial and found that SmartSheet is more a toy than a planning tool, it has many useful things that are not necessarily necessary for planning (i.e. surveys) but as a planning tool is very weak and I wouldn’t recommended for anything serious besides sharing a simple project plan.
    It lacks reporting options, it doesn’t have CP and forget about EVM, well doesn’t even have baselines.
    If you are a PM, get a real planning tool.

    • @Leon. I am a PM and from what I can see, it seems like this app is very useful for collaboration. Personally, I could have the most whiz bang project management tool but if it is difficult to make the data/information comsummable by non-PMs (the group most PMs work with) it makes the PMs job more challenging.

      If you are a PM, I would recommend considering the project management maturity of your organization and then assessing whether a tool like Smartsheet could make your life easier. I am just evaluating this tool but it looks very promising.

  17. I would really like to see some more functionality in terms of Web embedding and being able to have more control of data display in Web forms as well as macro creation abilities. One thing I don’t see is cell linking from one sheet to another… Unless I missed something.

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