Basecamp, Project Collaboration Utopia

7 minute read
Seth Weintraub avatar
Basecamp has just added their one-millionth user this week.I thought this would be a good time to introduce you to my (and perhaps a million others') favorite Web Services Application and what many believe to be the first real Web 2.0 business program.I began my project management life like most people in college: with a glorified day planner/address book.You know the type -- the kind you get at the college bookstore with places for your contacts, a calendar, notes, etc.It wasn't glorious but it did the minimum.As my work got more complex, it became harder and harder to manage the various projects in my work life.There were too many people to manage, too many different places to be, jobs to do, and things to remember.The obvious idea was to get one of the software packages of the day and put my work life in its hands.Microsoft Project 98 was my first attempt at getting this right.It had all the bells and whistles we had learned about in school: Gantt charts, file storage, online address books, goal tracking etc., etc.The problem?It was just a pain.I had to put more time into it than I would save in the long run.When a project started, I would set it all up in Project then I would wait until the project was over and fill in all of the blanks.I wasn't the only person who wasn't getting out of it more than put in.My coworkers weren't using it either.We were reverting to group emails and shared calendars and such.To do lists were entered into my Outlook.Project updates were sent via email for everyone to manage.This seemed to work best and most people in my groups worked the same way even though other packages had come along.Fast forward to 2003.I was tasked with finding a cross platform project management tool for a project team that was going to be working in New York and San Francisco simultaneously.This team was going to be on the road a bit and often times out of the office so they wanted a web based solution.The project management wasn't too complex, just a $100,000 website, a small database and some collateral material.One of my team members suggested Basecamp because she was using it on another project.It was love at first sight.I had the free demo version running in 1 minute.It was doing things in my browser that I thought could be done only in an application (this was obviously one of the first AJAX applications on the web -- and the first application on the Ruby on Rails platform). I entered my eight-person team into the application.There were cool things like room for a picture of each person and information like their IM name along with all of the normal contact information.All of this was so easy, simple and (gasp!) fun.
Next, I entered all of the milestones for the project -- there were about 10 major ones -- all of which could be entered in one page with smart date drop-down menus.Wow! It keeps getting better.For each milestone, I assigned a few to dos to some team members and some groups.Again -- too easy.By the time the team members got their introductory email, I had entered in the skeleton of the whole project.One by one, each team member logged in and looked at the work they had to do.They could see what other members were doing and how their jobs affected the project.They were adding messages to the blog-like interface immediately and commenting on each others' thoughts.All of this without any instruction from me.I didn't have to explain a thing.This is the beauty of Basecamp -- why I, and a million others, keep coming back.It is so intuitive, and so simple that it's a joy to work with.It doesn't get in your way and it presents information in a very useful fashion.Over the past three years, 37signals, the makers of Basecamp (and whose blog, Signal Vs. Noise, I read religiously) have added a large number of changes that come out about once a month (my favorite thing about SaaS).Sound like too many too often?The catch is this: the new changes do not add complexity, they only simplify, streamline, and beautify.Imagine a new version of Photoshop or MS Word that is simpler rather than more complex and confusing. Since my first encounter with Basecamp, a built-in timesheets module was added, giving Basecamp the ability to record work for billing purposes and exportable to CSV format.My favorite new feature, however, is called Campfire and can also be purchased as a separate application.Campfire is a built-in cross platform instant message/chat/file sharing application that keeps searchable transcripts of project conversations that are logged on a per project basis.Again, the design here is what it's all about and it has to be seen to be appreciated.37signals was also one of the first companies to offer an API into their product.A few developers have created great new products around the Basecamp core which are available here. Finally, Writeboards have been added to the fray.Think of Writeboards as a simplified Writely interface that fit into the projected collaboration theme, organized by project with versioning.This product is also available as a free stand alone application.There are a few downsides to Basecamp, mostly due to the Software as a Service model.One, you can't access it while flying (yet) or anywhere without Internet access.A few API modules let you cache some information but it can be frustrating when you need to look at a project detail and there is no Internet around.Thankfully, Basecamp's simple interface can also be read on most smart phones and PDAs for just such an occasion.Basecamp is also hosted on 37 Signals's server. So if you need to have total control over your information, you are stuck.Basecamp does allow you to use your FTP/Web server to house documents which has allowed me to be Sarbanes-Oxely compliant with financial information.Also, 37signals is a small company of only a handful of developers.Although they've been going strong for over three years, the paranoid side of me worries that they could just get up and leave one day, or sell out to Google or Yahoo (which wouldn't necessarily be bad I guess). There is some question of stability and longevity which hovers.I think the biggest compliment I can give Basecamp is this: my wedding is in December and was getting out of control with everyone wanting to get information from us and everyone else all of the time.Caterers, Florists, Grandparents, travel plans, hotels and communication all had to be sorted out and was making us crazy.It dawned on me that this was not unlike a project at work so naturally I threw the problem at Basecamp. Within a week we had everyone on the same page.The families/wedding party were the "employees", the caterers and florists were the "consultants" and the "projects" were different aspects of the wedding. It has worked like a dream even for the older generation who log in every week to see how things are going and what to-do's they have to take care of, which milestones have been reached and their favorite,to see their own picture on a comment in the blog!Neat.All I can say is: Thank you Basecamp and happy one millionth!