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Project Management for Small Businesses

Author: Kevin Allen Date: January 03, 2014

How to find the ideal project management tool—and reap the benefits.

Across most industries, large corporations embrace project management, but small business owners aren’t always sold on its value. Others may acknowledge its value but have no idea where to start. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), there’s no one-size-fits-all project management methodology. The trick is finding your sweet spot: implementing a project management approach that’s just right for your business.

PMI describes “project management” as the “application of knowledge, skills and techniques to execute projects effectively and efficiently.” When done correctly, project management can help companies boost their competitiveness—and save time and money.

“Generally speaking, the rule is if you spend an hour planning a project, you’ll save about three hours of execution time,” says James Lewis, Ph.D., author of 12 books on project management and a consultant for small businesses looking to bolster their project management capabilities.

MyBusiness spoke with three small business owners who are using project management to make their companies more efficient.

Effective Business Communication Breaks Down Roadblocks

Company: Wood Street, Frederick, Md.
Strategy: Formalizing processes with the right people and tools
Tool of Choice: Basecamp

Jason Giuliano, director of business development for the Frederick, Md.-based Web marketing and design firm Wood Street, says the NFIB-member company’s approach to project management is somewhat unorthodox. Wood Street’s two project managers serve a dual role in managing client relationships and expectations. This stems from the company’s collaborative process in working with clients.

“For us, there are certain things we need from the client,” Giuliano says. “In many cases, we’re using existing logos, or we’re waiting for content from clients.”

The company has a creative manager who oversees the web designers and a production manager who oversees the web developers. Project managers serve as go-betweens for those teams and the clients to ensure that deliverables arrive on time.

During the company’s 11-year existence, Giuliano says he and his colleagues have made “huge strides” in refining the company’s project management from a haphazard approach to a customized, structured, process-driven method.

Wood Street has been using the cloud-based software Basecamp for the past five years to manage projects, which has helped the company refine its process. The biggest benefit Basecamp provides, Giuliano says, is organization and communication.

“It eliminates us from ever saying, ‘I didn’t see that email,’” Giuliano says. “You have a location [for messaging] where you’re not losing emails. Having communication channels open with clients and your team is the key part of [project success].”

Project Management Makes Big Jobs Manageable

Company: DentalDepartures.com, Seattle
Strategy: Taking cues from the big guys
Tool of Choice: Google Drive

Before Paul McTaggart launched the Seattle-based global dentist-finding website DentalDepartures.com in early 2011, he worked as a senior consultant with big companies such as Microsoft and Expedia for six years. When he set out to immediately implement a project management plan for his own startup, which has grown to 15 employees, McTaggart simplified processes he observed in the corporate world.

The bulk of DentalDepartures.com’s projects involve creating products and updates for the company’s website. McTaggart and his team start with monthly brainstorming sessions to identify ideal end products and then develop execution plans. From there, the team creates wire frames and project specifications, and hammers out rough financials, development time, cost benefits and success metrics. Next, McTaggart and a fixed team representing all areas of the business (sales, marketing, technology and customer care) rank projects based on complexity, length, return on investment and return on customer satisfaction.

McTaggart estimates there are about 60 projects in the company’s queue at any given time. The company classifies about 80 percent of its projects as “large,” meaning they take two hours or more to complete. One recent sizeable project was an overhaul of the site’s customer purchase path. Other projects are small and less time-intensive. For instance, the company recently added social media icons and links to its website.

The project list is displayed in a Google Drive spreadsheet where the entire team can access the company’s project list. “You want to make [project management] transparent and open,” he says. “It gives people a sense of democracy and a sense that they get to have influence over their destiny.”

McTaggart says DentalDepartures.com’s project management plan has resulted in a nearly 100 percent project completion rate with a 70 percent on-time delivery rate.

NFIB member Ellen Didier, owner of Decatur, Ala.-based marketing agency Red Sage Communications, chose AtTask for her company's project-management needs.

Let Employees Have a Say

Company: Red Sage Communications, Decatur, Ala.
Strategy: Getting employee’s opinions on project management processes
Tool of Choice: AtTask

When NFIB member Ellen Didier sought to bring a new project management process to her company, Decatur, Ala.-based marketing agency Red Sage Communications, she tapped into her eight employees’ experience and expertise. The goal was to find a formalized system that would replace the use of spreadsheets and email, and implement a process that fit the company’s needs and the staff’s personalities.

Team members individually assessed various tools and came to consensus about the best tool to suit their needs. “They did the research and presented the final choice to me,” Didier says. “We came up with a list of what we needed the software to do.” Then, Didier’s team settled on AtTask, a cloud-based collaboration tool. “There were several that did what we needed them to do,” she says, “But the interface [of AtTask] was so much nicer that they said they wanted to use it.”

Red Sage paid an initial $5,500 to buy licenses, support and training time. It costs the company approximately $4,000 annually thereafter, Didier says.

“Because I’m working with a lot of creative [people] here, anything you can do to make [your project management tool] feel less like a spreadsheet, the better,” she says. “It functions like social media, so it makes it easy to communicate with each other in a way that’s friendly.”

To round out the company’s project management strategy, Didier and her team also hold a standing Monday morning meeting to talk through the week’s priorities.

“Project management, to me, helps you understand what projects are in-house and makes sure you don’t overlook a task, no matter how small,” Didier says. “It helps you with the communication to make sure every team member knows when the project has moved to the next level.”

Since implementing the project management tool, Didier is seeing more attention to detail from team members. And although Red Sage has the same number of employees as it did before it implemented project management, it can now take on more than 40 projects at a time—up from the previous 30 or so projects it could manage before introducing AtTask.

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Paul McTaggart, founder of Seattle-based global dentist-finding website DentalDepartures.com, uses Google Drive to manage his projects.

How to Choose the Right Project Management Tool

Te Wu, CEO of PMO Advisory, says choosing the right project management tools is all about proportionality. “We don’t want to swat a fly with a phone book when a fly swatter would do,” he says. That said, small companies should consider tools that fit these criteria:

  1. Inexpensive: Investing in an expensive tool doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have success with it. There are plenty of inexpensive—and even free—alternatives.
  2. Accessible and convenient: Wu suggests cloud-based tools that are accessible from multiple devices.
  3. Easy to use: Some software requires a degree of training. If that added expense is too much, go with a tool that everyone understands, even forsaking certain functionalities.
  4. Customizable and flexible: You should be able to adapt the tool to your company’s specific needs.

POLL RESULTS

Do you use a CRM to manage customer information?

Yes, I use a CRM. - ( 216 votes )

CRM? I use Excel. - ( 115 votes )

Excel? I use paper and pencil! - ( 38 votes )

No, I don't use any CRM system. - ( 145 votes )