Best of Breed Productivity Tools for Agencies and Startups in 2015

Eight great tools, why they will help you, and how to use them.


Here’s the list:

  1. Harvest
  2. Slack
  3. DoneDone
  4. Basecamp
  5. Dropbox
  6. Google Apps for Work
  7. Kin
  8. Team Gantt
With first hand experience running a tech startup and working as a lead at a digital agency, I group startups and agencies together because in a sense they share a lot of the same struggles.
  1. Constantly evolving or new projects
  2. Multiple layers of clients or customers
  3. Weird tax structures, employee contracts, and accounting often without a fulltime dedicated HR or accounting team
  4. The need to scale up rapidly and perhaps more importantly scale down even faster
Whether you’re selling exotic flowers in subscription bundles or making VR games for iOS, you will find it helpful to run a smooth back office.

These tools are all built to be modular and cheap for small teams and scale predictably for larger teams.

Harvest

Harvest is the best time tracking and invoicing tool I’ve found. It has native apps, but the in browser version is extremely effective on its own.

There are two main uses for Harvest.

Billing Clients

In harvest you can set a project budget and even record retainers. You can then set hourly rates for all of your staff and different tasks and as you rack up hours you can automatically generate beautiful clean invoices. Best of all these invoices go through stages of completion when they are sent, when they are overdue, when they are paid, etc.

Paying Contractors

If you work with guns for hire you can have them fill out timesheets in harvest and track their hours that way, automatically generating reports that show their payments due and time spent on tasks of different kinds.

Harvest makes it very easy to handle all of the date and time math associated with tracking hours as it offers both a manual input of time in decimals example 0.1 is 6 minutes or in time 0:06. There is also a stop watch feature to track tasks. I personally switch tasks so frequently throughout the day that this is less accurate than re-estimating manually but if you are just timing in and out, it makes it easy.

Slack

If you haven’t used slack, you probably won’t understand why you need it. Slack replaces short e-mail threads, google chat, AIM, or any other pithy internal team communication that is not worth archiving. It is an instant multi-device group chat and individual messaging platform. What it does particularly well is allow you to add mark down inline, embed videos in your chat, upload and share files quickly and easily in a chat window, and even share raw formatted and syntax highlighted code snippets among developers. At Bad Assembly we have found this a crucial tool to share ideas internally.

Perhaps the single best use of Slack is sharing the best parts of the internet with an internal team.

Another great feature of Slack is the way it allows you to silo conversations and invite people to groups. You can even invite clients to join your Slack groups and this gives an instant up-to-date channel to communicate across that is often much quicker than e-mail. If users are not logged into Slack they can receive an e-mail from Slack telling them they have new messages to check. Pretty sweet. And it’s free.

DoneDone

Hands down the best bug tracking tool to use with non-technical people. Even if you are a nerdy tech company you will work with non-technical people, clients, investors, designers, etc.

Even if you are not building websites or apps you can still use an issue tracker, but something simpler like a shared todo list or Trello board might be easier.

I’ve used Jira, Plan Box, Excel sheets, Plan Box, Pivotal Tracker, etc and while you could write algorithms and build custom workflows on those other systems, sometimes having a tracking system that has a pleasant and fast UI with a simple well-structured user flow is the best way to make sure the system actually gets used and kept up-to-date.

The best thing that DoneDone does is have a back and forth between a Tester and a Fixer role. The basic flow is this:

  1. A Tester submits and issue and assigns it to a Fixer
  2. The Fixer tries to reproduce the issue and can either push it back to the Tester for a variety of reasons, Not Reproduceable, Not an Issue, etc, or can mark it In Progress or Ready for Next Release.
  3. When the Fixer or build master creates a new release and pushes to the QA environment or whatever environment you are testing, a notification can be sent to all the Testers telling them that those tasks are now marked Ready for Retest and so the ball is back in their court.
  4. After retesting the Tester can either confirm the issue is Fixed or push it back as Not Fixed and then the issue would go through the cycle again.
  5. Finally once you no longer want to see the issue show up in the list of issues you can archive it by marking it Closed.

This process does exactly what the app name suggests, it helps things just get done. If you follow that cycle you will finish your product or project eventually.

Basecamp

Basecamp is the old kid on the block and has been around since these web based project management tools started to take off.

Basecamp’s functionality is similar to Slack’s but with more emphasis on capturing and archiving project data. If you share it in Basecamp you can be assured more or less that you can search for it and find it again later. Basecamp is like public e-mail for groups of people that will change. If you cc 10 people on a project e-mail but then 3 weeks later you change vendors or add 10 new people to your internal team it is very difficult to bring those people up to speed or give them access to all the threads related to the project without also sharing all sorts of other noisy information.

Basecamp encourages internal teams or client team relations to filter their discussion into a series of threads that are on the record to help each other get the job done even if different people come and go from the project. That is a fantastic innovation. If you’ve ever been tasked with digging through the e-mail history of an employee that quit with all of the project credentials in his or her Outlook inbox, you’ll know why this is needed.

Dropbox

This is probably not new to anyone but files that are big are unpleasant to deal with in a web browser and Dropbox has the best cross platform system of native apps hands down. Even if you don’t deal in 4GB PSD files (and who really should!) it is almost always the case that the native Explorer for Windows or Finder for Mac is better at browsing large collections of folders and files than doing it in a browser app. You want those folders on your machine and you want to be able to edit and save them and have them sync instantly. OneDrive from Microsoft and Drive or Docs or whatever Google calls it now just is not as good at that and iCloud and Adobe’s solution are not ubiquitous enough.

Alternatively

If you deal in really big files and really big collections like a TB or more you could check out Sync from BitTorrent which I have not tried but used to use a nearly identical product that Microsoft once offered for when I had a huge collection of image assets to sync across many machines that I did not want to have to send to the cloud (we’re talking 5TB+).

Google Apps for Work

Using Google Apps is my preference if you assume most of your team is using Google for something else already. A pretty safe assumption these days. If that is the case the logging in and logging out of the Google suite of productivity apps is far more friendly than the Microsoft alternative of Office 365 which btw is just as good if not better once you are really logged in, though as an admin it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of how easy it is to set up and maintain and customize.

One click brings down a list of all the accounts I frequently log into so if I go to drive or gmail or docs and it has me logged in under my personal gmail account I can just as easily switch that window to any other account and pull up the data very quickly for that account.

From my experience a year ago using multiple Microsoft Office accounts I had to log out and log back in every time I switched back and forth and I had to sometimes clear my cache and it was always a pain to find the simple page to log in. If this has drastically improved which I think it will, these two services will be more comparable.

The other key thing though that Google does really well is have multiple people editing commenting on and chatting about a document at the same time. If you haven’t tried this in a while you should. My business partner and I cranked out a pitch deck in Google’s version of PowerPoint in 5 minutes by each working on every other slide and then doing a few passes through at the same time to fix things up and add enhancements. This would not have been possible a few years ago.

Kin

I have not yet actually used Kin but from what I can tell it is the thing I most needed when I last owned and operated a large team of W2 employees. If you are in that boat definitely check it out. Calculating vacation days, remembering birthdays, keeping up-to-date contact information, storing W-9 data, etc can be a big hassle without any structure to help.

Made by the awesome people at We Are Mammoth this is sure to be a good product.

Team Gantt

This product is for planning. It is for making Gantt charts which are either your cup of tea or, if not, skip this one. Gantt charts are hard to reproduce in any software that is not purpose built to support them and this one does a great job.

Why use a Gantt chart for your planning? Because dependencies move and dates and timelines need to be updated and it is almost impossible to keep that up to date and see how changes affect things on a complex project without having a well maintained project plan. Gantt charts make that easy.

That said, even in an ideal world it is rare to have the luxury of a fully planned and managed project with up-to-date timelines.

Some other items not reviewed here but that are interesting:

https://www.waveapps.com

https://www.blossom.io

https://ding.io