REVIEW: Basecamp

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.

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  • http://www.smartsheet.com MM

    The review mentions 'silver-haired CEOs' as a good gauge for ease of use. I agree that such a profile is a good indicator for whether your product/service is easy enough to use.

    As a bonus, those silver-haired CEOs often have an uncanny ability to sniff out lame solutions that add little value.

    Put your service to the test and include such people in your usability studies. We did that with our current version of Smartsheet and it helped immensely.

  • http://www.glasnost21.com Antony Slumbers

    Good article – Basecamp is terrific and their anti bloatware approach is refreshing.

    BUT it did not work for us (a web software company).

    We believe it is important to be able to see as clearly as possible everything going on across ALL the projects you are involved in. On one screen.

    The principal should be that you could go on holiday for a week or two and then on one screen be able to easily catch up on progress.

    If it is easy to see everything that everyone involved in a project has done it is very easy to keep on top of your business.

    So we built glasnost21,com using Adobe Flex technology which makes this possible.

  • Dan

    Yep, good tool, but just for starters. When you have about 10 projects it gets messy. Doesn't have a Gantt, which can be valuable in many cases. Used it for about a year then switched to wrike.com.

  • http://www.flexmonster.com Arturas

    Without a doubt Basecamp is a great tool for very small companies and small projects, and like Christian mentioned one of the main drawbacks are that it lacks some basic project management features and sometimes you just need something configured your way. I'd suggest to take a looks at powerful PM tool http://www.comindwork.com with Gantt Charts, custom workflows etc.

  • MK

    I have used Basecamp for over a year (on Agile and Waterfall projects) and it's simplicity has made it very adaptable to different project requirements.

    Because it is a pure web application it allows others to innovate products around the Basecamp solution – for example being able to track projects from my iPhone with Sherpa allows me to take stock of my priorities for that day whilst travelling into work.

    Thanks 37Signals for making my life easier.

  • Josh

    We recently switched from Basecamp to ActiveCollab for the very reasons in this article.

    While Basecamp's simplicity is nice. It does get a bit lacking sometimes. AC has the simplicity of Basecamp but also allows a bit more flexibility in the setup. Also it's ticket feature helps quite a bit for handling customer issues.

    Thought I'd throw in 2 cents for AC since they've done some great work catching up and in some instances surpassing BC this year.

  • Rob

    It's a good and very honest review – and I agree about the previous comments on simplicity. If you find that you don't need to train people then it's a big bonus, especially as you're likely to be collaboration with multiple companies and people all with varying technical expertise.

    While I also agree about Gantt Charts, it may be great for a lot of project savvy people, but the lack of them also means a lack of additional administration (unless it can be smarter and less administrative?!) which is wonderful for most of the people I work with.

    Personally I've fallen in love with an alternative in http://www.glasscubes.com, it has all the features to make project management possible, but an even cleaner interface (in my opinion).

  • http://www.geniusinside.com Project Management S

    As Dan said, basecamp is really good for very small projects mostly in professional services industry.

  • Tom

    Basecamp for a single user or very small teams, 5pm for when you need more with less clicks ( <a href="http://www.5pmweb.com)” target=”_blank”>www.5pmweb.com) and something like @Task if you need complex stuff like PPM and money is not an issue.

    • http://www.businesscomputingworld.co.uk Christian Harris

      Tom, the Mobile Edition of your software looks tempting. I really like the idea of being able to access my projects on my iPhone.

      • Jeremie

        Christian,

        I know a guy who is a shareholder in a new productivity company.

        The name is http://www.producteev.com
        They also have a mobile app on every platform (Iphone, android, Nokia, Blackberry)

        They also have many cool features if you are a connected worker, and it is very easy to use.

        They had many press coverage on blogs and radio we they launched 2 months ago.

        If you want more info email me, I can put you in contact with Ilan, the guy who founded the company.

        Or you can contact him via his twitter : twitter.com/ilan

        Thks for your review on BaseCamp, very interesting.

        • http://www.businesscomputingworld.co.uk Christian Harris

          Thanks Jeremie,

          This looks interesting. I'll take a look.

  • http://www.projectdo.com Domenic

    I have been using Basecamp for 4 years and it is a great tool. However there are less costly and more intuitive online products on the web. One such product is ProjectDo, which is a Project Management & Collaboration Portal. It has much of the same functionality in addition to some of the limitations discussed in your review such as percentage of completion of a Milestone and/or Tasks in addition to having predecessors to a Milestone and/or Tasks.

    • John Matarazzo

      ProjectDo is a great tool, I was using Basecamp and recently switched to ProjectDo.

      The system is simple to use which much more flexibility and functionality.

      http://www.projectdo.com

  • http://www.planzone.com Mike Da Mike

    Basecamp is cool and useful for small projects. It's greatest asset is its ease of use since it feels like a part of Internet Explorer…

    At our company, we use Planzone for this – since it is a bit more advanced and really integrated into the way of working and 'mentality' od our company.

    Check it out at http://www.planzone.com

  • http://basecampreview.wordpress.com Zach Katkin

    Great review. I agree with many of your points, particularly that Basecamp's greatest asset, its simplicity and ease of use, may be its greatest flaw. However, I find that simple company structure/procedural rules help you navigate around any perceived short comings of the software. Unfortunately with scope creep, comes increased time learning the program and increased confusion for both employees and clients. I would much rather use a simple program where we can dictate how it's used, and what to do in non-conventional situations, and not the other way around.

  • Pankaj

    BaseCamp is a great tool for ad hoc projects, since its so easy to use. But for teams looking to work together on projects on an ongoing basis, and need some feature weight, a full featured project collaboration suite like HyperOffice may be better. Apaprt from project scheduling, project teams with long tenures need document collaboration, email, calendars, online meetings, contact management, to do lists etc etc.

  • http://www.bctoolkit.com Jon Keefe

    Glad you are fans of Basecamp and 37Signals, so are we. If you use Basecamp, you can use http://www.bctoolkit.com with Basecamp and get amazing productivity metrics from you Basecamp data. Like for example time spent vs time estimated on a project or todo or time spent vs time available on all projects. have a look at bctoolkit.com

    Thanks

    Jon

  • http://rule.fm Patrick

    That was a true account for sure. We've used Basecamp for managing Fusion Monarch client projects (online startups etc.) since we've been in business. It works on a basic level, as many of the commentary above has described,but in the end we just weren't satisfied with the level of collaboration (sharing and permissions) across multiple people groups, business units and business assets (people, projects, documents, discussions etc…). We're launching RULE.fm in response as a productivity tool that will solve many of the issues stated in this post and conversation. We'd love to have any input, as we see this as a collaborative effort to improve productivity across the board. Launching on August 3rd, so very excited (as I up the caffeine drip :). Check it out at http://rule.fm to stay in the loop and get a free invite. When we launch we will clearly lay out what's coming and provide a channel for discussion for users to make suggestions, post feedback, or tell us how sexy it is..OK maybe that's to much information.

  • Miles John

    I switched from Basecamp to Dooster which is perfect for small to medium businesses like myself. Highly recommend taking a look at it guys: http://www.dooster.net

  • http://www.apollohq.com Tony Mobily

    Hi there,

    Disclaimer: I am biased as I work for Applicom! However, my advice here is completely heartfelt!

    I just thought I’d add my 2c about this.

    Simplicity is king. The two pitfalls you mentioned are, in my opinion, a strength. If you feel the need, for a task, to have percentages of completion, then maybe that task should turn into a task list!

    About reporting, pretty graphs are great but in the end BC and Apollo are not about showing pretty graphs to executives, but _communicating_ about a project.

    At Apollo, we worked really hard on the interface: it’s very fast, all based on AJAX, without any reloads. We added Google-like calendars, timers, cases&deals, and feel that we have a product that, in its simplicity, is there to get things done quickly. For us, too, simplicity is king!

    Merc.

    • http://www.apollohq.com Tony Mobily

      Hi,

      I got carried away with my previous comment and forgot to point out Apollo’s web address: http://www.apollohq.com

      Bye!

      Merc.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HRXFLOJAM7KJRMSPHDEJKHZ2DI Sandy Owen

    The partners in the company I work for were taken with Basecamp but we are a small company and they found that Dooster.net appeared to offer the same on a much smaller budget so even though they were a bit disappointed when they realised they couldn’t throw money at Basecamp they were very cheery a couple of weeks later when we were all using Dooster.  It’s been good and saved the company a larger initial layout and then all the benefits that these online gtd applications give.

    • http://www.businesscomputingworld.co.uk/ Christian Harris

      Thanks for the tip Sandy. For small companies, pricing is obviously an issue with Basecamp (and all other 37signals’ products), so Dooster looks interesting.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_S3T7EYPHYYIRBB7K26GBRKRQFA Michael

    Hi, We use Dooster as well and it’s been a great success.  I couldn’t recommend it enough.

  • Anthony

    Hi, Very good post – I wanted to raise another system called Hot Project, they’ve just launched a free version which has full features for up to 5 users. It won’t be free forever but definitely worth a look – it’s used by some of Australia’s biggest companies. It can be downloaded from http://hotproject.com – I’d love to hear your thoughts

    Thanks
    Anthony

  • Mike

    Yes its true that ProofHub is the best alternative to basecamp. I also switched to proofhub now and really finds a great difference. I love this tool!

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