It’s a jungle out there. There is a bunch of systems, reviews and comparisons out there, so how does one find the right tool? Well, the question is ‘what do you need?’ In our specific case—being developers, and only two of us—most of the popular project management systems have two features that don’t fit: you can’t host them on your own infrastructure, and you have to pay monthly fees, often US$50+, for a decent system, with the fee often increasing as you grow.
I ended up with activeCollab after years of research and using and abandoning several systems. activeCollab is available both as a hosted and self-hosted version. I bought the self-hosted version as well as the Invoicing, Time Tracking, and Notebooks modules, after thoroughly giving the free trial a test run.
activeCollab sports all the features you’d expect from a project management system, with the basics—projects, milestones, tasks, and subtasks—very well thought through and easy to work with. While work is mostly done in the Projects section, the Reports section provides visualisation and lists, which are group-able, filter-able, and save-able.
The time tracking and invoicing modules seem to cater for everything I need, and are integrated well with the rest of the system. For example, if I run a report to see all the time I’ve spent on a client’s projects, I can change one filter to see only the yet-to-be-billed time. From here I can press one link to auto-create an invoice with that time. The system automatically marks time entries as ‘Pending Payment’ when an invoice has been created, and as ‘Paid’, when the invoice has been marked as paid.
While projects and filters seem very mature, I’m less impressed with the home screen, the dashboard. It’s fixed, and sports Notifications, My tasks, and My projects, but it could take some UX love, and some better customisation features (they exist, but seem clumsy). As the entire data model seems to be working flawlessly though, I don’t mind missing out on these features for now. I appreciate that the team has focused on getting the basics right, and I’m hoping for this kind of improvement to come with time. I don’t mind paying for upgrades with nice usability enhancements.
Lastly, I don’t mind cloud based apps, and am myself using several of them, but with software that works so much at the core of our business, having full control is a great plus for me. Another great plus is that we do all our development on PHP, which is the language that activeCollab is written in. I’m seeing the model of selling self-hosted licenses as a great one, and am expecting the demand for these kind of more affordable license models growing in my business segment. Not everyone is willing to build their business infrastructure on a system that’ll cost US$50+/month forever, while keeping business data locked in.
For more information on activeCollab, see www.activecollab.com.
Mini-interview with Ilija Studen, co-founder of activeCollab
What kind of project manager is your software for?
activeCollab is primarily for a business owner or a busy manager who needs to shuffle project proposals, negotiations and estimation, client communication, team collaboration, time tracking and invoicing while being involved in production or business management at the same time (having their own tasks). Such an environment tends to be pretty chaotic and people are usually forced to used multiple tools that connect poorly with one another. Instead of that, we are offering all these elements in a single package.
Still, the foundation of the product is task and project management, which is general and can be used in any setting that involves more than three people working together.
Who is your ideal user, or the user who will get the most from the software?
activeCollab has been successfully used for years in many different industries. It is used by design and development studios, teams in manufacturing companies, web and research teams in universities, hospitals, non-profits etc.
The product provides features that are great for groups that are offering professional services to their clients: designers, marketing people, companies that provide SEO and social media consulting, developers etc. They can use the same application to collaborate with their clients, get their projects done and issue invoices from tracked time and expenses, automatically.
What does your software have that no other software offers?
No lock in. The customer can start on our cloud platform where everything is taken care of by our team: upgrades, backups, support and training, troubleshooting, everything.
At some point, when they grow or hire an IT expert to grow their IT infrastructure, they can move the system to their own network and keep it local, or to a web server that they manage. We offer a license to self-host the system and we’ll help them migrate all the cloud data to their environment. Once on their server, they can extend the system with add-ons.
Interview conducted by Adeline Teoh