In business it is essential to streamline your operations as much as possible. Most of us use a number of tools to make our business run more efficiently and cost-effective. Even with a small two person company you might feel the need for a centralised point for organising your day-to-day work. As your business grows, co-ordinating the work among employees, clients and other suppliers becomes more important.

Basecamp is a Web-based project management tool developed by 37signals, a pioneer in the SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) arena. Basecamp offers To-do lists, milestone management, file sharing, time tracking, and even a messaging system. Its feature set is certainly strong, but the software’s biggest selling point is in intuitiveness—and therefore cost effectiveness. Basecamp also offers integration with 37signal’s own Campfire product, a Web-based, business-oriented online chat service.

A little about the company

37signals is a privately held Web application company based in Chicago, U.S. The firm was co-founded in 1999 as a Web design company with a self-described focus on usability, simplicity, and clarity in design and writing. 37signals also produces a blog. Since mid 2004, 37signals has been primarily a developer and provider of business and personal productivity Web applications.

Its first application was Basecamp (reviewed here). This was followed by Ta-Da List, Backpack, Writeboard, Campfire and Highrise. 37signals was responsible for launching the open source Web application framework software Ruby on Rails, which it uses in its own applications. The products have gained popularity using what has come to be known as a ‘freemium’ business model. The company is named for the 37 radio telescope signals identified by astronomer Paul Horowitz as potential messages from extraterrestrial intelligence.

What is Basecamp and who is it for?

For years project management software was about charts, graphs, and stats. And you know what? Pictures and numbers don’t get projects done. Basecamp tackles project management from an entirely different angle: A focus on communication and collaboration. Basecamp brings people together. An online project collaboration system, it helps you to manage projects and organise documents in one place and share it across teams.

Basecamp is sold as a subscription. There are four licenses available, all of which are available as a 30-day trial. There is no set-up fee and you can upgrade or downgrade at any time. Additionally, you can cancel at any time without a termination fee. ‘Basic’ ($24/month) is pitched at small group sand limits you to 15 projects, 3GB storage space and unlimited users. ‘Plus’ ($49/month) is probably the most cost effective and allows 35 projects, 10GB storage, unlimited users, and time tracking. The top-of-the-line package is ‘Max’, which offers all the above but increases storage to 50GB.

Once you’ve registered you’re good to go in a matter of minutes. The first thing you’ll want to do is customise the interface colours and upload your logo to make your Basecamp account yours. You then create users and assign access to specific projects, as well as give users their own profile pictures (avatars) for that personal touch.

All the action takes place on the Dashboard. This shows you all your clients and projects on one screen—late items appear at the top in red and anything due in the next 14 days also shows up. At a glance you can see you project (or client) list and the latest activity across your projects. The To-do section lets you make lists, add items, assign responsibility, and check ‘em off when you’re done, while the File Sharing section lets you upload files, categorise, sort and track versions. Files are stored on Basecamp servers, neatly doing away with the problem of storage.

The Message Board is a core area for keeping your communication centralised—no more shooting e-mails back and forth—and Milestones lets you keep track of what’s due, when it’s due, and who’s responsible. There really is no let off for people! A neat feature is Time Tracking, letting you keep track of the hours spent on a task or a complete project for (Plus or higher accounts only). No what part of the site, users can communicate back and forth on a given message. Like e-mail but simpler and centralised.

Does it do it well?

Basecamp is so simple you can’t do anything wrong. And after using it for just a few weeks you’ll struggle to manage your day to day operations without it. Having a project management tool that takes no time to learn and is quick, easy and intuitive is vital for everyone in today’s fast-paced business world. Compared to other project management systems, Basecamp isn’t over-worked and is so easy to use that you probably won’t even need to train staff how to use.

Basecamp is a big contributor in allowing you to meet deadlines. Firstly, its simple milestone system is a doddle and makes it easy for teams to communicate important deadlines to external clients and partners. Secondly, Basecamp encourages assigning one task to one person, which makes it very clear in any organisation who is responsible for the delivery of that task and when.

Where does Basecamp disappoint?

The tool’s simplicity may also be its biggest limitation. For example, in reality a task’s status is not always either ‘done’ or ‘not done.’ In these real life examples, it’s beneficial to be able to add notes or comments to a task, for tracking purposes, but Basecamp restricts you to all or nothing (‘done’ or ‘not done’) by not allowing the addition of details to a task. One workaround is to make changes to the task description each time there is an update, but this gets cumbersome, and you have to rely on users to indicate who made the change and when.

Basecamp recently added the ability for users to add comments to any task, milestone, etc. This is a great improvement, but some packages such as Zoho Projects have more advanced settings for tasks, such as ‘percentage complete,’ and ‘end date.’ Also, because of the overly simple Basecamp interface, navigation takes more clicks than necessary. The upside for Basecamp, of course, is that its interface is cleaner and less cluttered.

If you’re working with large clients who often have a multi-tiered, often-changing and pretty large team (perhaps 20-25), it’s not practical to have all client team members see everything at the same time, but rather you need to stage multi-level reviews—first by the project owner, then by key team leaders, then the wider team. You could set them up as separate ‘companies’, but it’s just not practical with three or four big projects like this going simultaneously and teams constantly changing. The granularity of regular e-mail becomes important.

Basecamp’s lack of an ‘executive summary’ view is an increasingly insurmountable flaw. I’d really love a view where you could at-a-glance see where you really are with a project, what percent complete, what the next actions and critical path is—something that somehow gives executives (who aren’t going to dive deep into threads) a visual reference when a status call or meeting is run. Add the fact that Basecamp projects are all blind to each other (the global views are the least loved screens of the application), and you could be left wanting. Reporting and analytics require add-ons, too.

Would we recommend Basecamp?

We’ve never been so sure about anything. Basecamp hits the nail on the head with functionality and productivity—its beautifully simple user interface means even silver-haired CEOs can use it. Rather than doing lots of things badly, it does just the important stuff very well. Its genius is in its lack of structure—and the focus on communication rather than overt processes. If your job role requires a fairly straightforward project-based work process involving multiple users (colleagues and clients), Basecamp will make your life easier. There is no better way to keep your documents, your team, and your projects on track. Essential.