What is the ultimate agency team collaboration toolbox?

Something is seriously missing in the agency collaboration space.

There is a plethora of collaboration apps available but, despite what appears to be a saturated marketplace, no one seems to have got it just right.

Basecamp has been around for ever (in software-as-a-service terms) and those who use it have a love-it or hate-it relationship with it.

At Lucid Design, we have been using Basecamp since maybe 2006 or 2007 — so, basically, since very early days. I have to say, I am in the I-want-to-love-it-but-I-really-don’t camp. Basecamp is a pain. Sorry.

In essence, I love what 37signals stand for in their strive for minimalism, simplicity and focus. But, honestly, I don’t know how they have become so successful. Their other products (Highrise, Campfire, Backpack etc) are either no longer being developed or seem to have stalled — or retired. And even when they were around, none of them played nicely together. Odd, really.

And, with very few exceptions, our clients do not like Basecamp — they either reluctantly use it because to appease us our they downright refuse. Most of them don’t get it. They can’t remember their passwords. Or they just can’t be bothered and want to stick with what they know (generally email).

One of the major problems with Basecamp (in addition to client and team frustrations) is its lack of integration with other tools. Collaboration is only a small part of the overall agency workflow.

Our typical project lifecycle looks something like this:

  1. Potential client submits a design brief on our website (powered by Wufoo)
  2. We receive the brief and, assuming it looks like a worthwhile potential project, enter into a dialogue with the client (currently using Help Scout)
  3. Once we have an idea of scope, we prepare a proposal (using WorkflowMax)
  4. We send this to the client as a PDF
  5. If we get the go-ahead, we get sign-off and take a deposit (using Wufoo and Kiwipay)
  6. The estimate or quote in WorkflowMax gets accepted and turned into a job and assigned to various members of the team as needed
  7. The team starts working on the job — clocking their time to the various tasks as defined in the original estimate or quote
  8. We keep track of where we are at with the job in terms of time, budgets, costs etc.
  9. During the course of the project, we liaise with the client using one or more of phone/Skype, email, meetings, Basecamp and/or Help Scout.
  10. We share files mostly using Dropbox.
  11. We send progress invoices from WorkflowMax which sync across to Xero.

That’s at least six apps we’re using every day in our day-to-day project lifecycle.

Something is missing. Surely there is a better way to do this!

Over the years, we have tried umpteen alternatives including (off the top of my head and in no particular order): Flow, ActiveCollab, Podio, Wunderlist, Things, Daylite, WorkflowMax, Harvest, Rule.fm, TriggerApp, Teambox and goodness knows how many others!

In my mind, the ultimate agency collaboration platform (or collection of tools) would do the following seamlessly without any double-entry:

  1. New brief
  2. Estimate
  3. New job
  4. Track time / collaborate with clients / manage budgets / progress bill
  5. Final bill
  6. Account in Xero

Some of the tools out there come close but miss some crucial steps.

I am not necessarily advocating a single solution that would do everything. In fact, I am not sure that is what I would like to see. It’s unlikely anyone will nail the entire workflow. I think we are in an era where it no longer makes sense to reinvent the wheel and try to do everything in a single app.

But, the integrations could be better. And it wouldn’t be hard.

For instance, it seems that Quotient and Quote Roller are about as good as it gets for preparing and delivering proposals.

One or both of them can “send” an accepted quote to, say, Harvest for time-tracking etc but — and here is the big downer — they send them as invoices! This is skipping the crucial step of being able to track time, manage budgets, collaborate etc. At the very least, these quotes could be synced to Projects in Harvest. Skipping straight to an invoice doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Am I missing something here? Am I doing it wrong?

WorkflowMax is almost perfect. It does mostly everything from estimating to time-tracking, project management and billing. Even basic collaboration (via forwarded/BCC’d emails — painful but ok).

But the big (major) downer with WorkflowMax is that, ironically, the workflow is broken and entirely too cumbersome. It is almost impossible to easily and quickly see what’s happening at a glance; who’s working on what; what’s coming up; where the budgets are at; etc.

WorkflowMax does should budgets but the major issue is that they’re purely time-based so, if we quote at a standard hourly rate but charge at staff rates, the budget indications are always wrong so staff get confused and don’t know where they are.

Further, it’s very hard to see at a glance what is going on; what is priority etc. And because it’s so cumbersome, we don’t let our clients in. And we therefor resort to managing budgets and time in WorkflowMax but everything else in a combination of other tools.

It’s a mess!

(And don’t get me started on team email communication. That is a topic for another post!)

I would truly love to hear what other people do in a small agency environment. We have a team of six with clients all over the world. There must be a better way!

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