How Important Are Project Management Tools for your Startup?

What is a project management tool?

It’s exactly as it sounds--software that can help your organization manage projects from start to finish, and that facilitates effective communication and collaboration between teams. The end game is always to find the best, most efficient way of getting things done. In addition to managing projects, PM tools can be a good way of increasing transparency into your development pipeline, simple to-do lists, and timelines and schedules.

Are project management tools really necessary?

There are so many project management tools on the market, ranging from very low-tech options to extremely granular services aimed specifically at developers and engineers. It’s easy to get sucked into the mentality that if you just choose the right one (or two, or three), you’ll get your work done faster. But not all tools are created equal, and not all tools are right for all teams, each of which operates differently and has a different project management methodology.

So it’s not surprising that when the topic of project management tools comes up, it is often met with a groan, accompanied by a strong measure of scepticism that these tools are actually effective. “People always complain about tools in this category. That's because everyone wants to manage things differently. Even in very cohesive teams, everyone has an opinion,” says Alex Bentacur, co-founder of Jump Ramp Games. Putting it a bit more bluntly, an anonymous founder states coolly, “With a lot of the project management tools, a lot of people like to screw around with productivity tools to make it seem like they're doing something. Most project management software is stupid when you're very early stage. If you can’t keep all your ducks in a row with Evernote or Asana, then you're not cut out for the startup game.”

Scepticism aside, project management tools can be extremely helpful, and become an integral component of getting the job done. Ultimately, it comes down to finding the right tool that complements your existing processes and workflow--NOT, as many would think, developing a workflow around a particular tool. Plated founder and CEO Nick Taranto advises, “Tools will not solve management or communication problems--they will definitely exacerbate them if you haven't solved the underlying issues already. It's more important to figure out your processes and communication guidelines before starting to layer on tools. A lot of people add tools, thinking they will be a fix, which is definitely not the case. Work on solid processes and communication first, add tools later.”

How to find the best project management tools for your startup

Much of the advice we receive about choosing the right project management tool for your startup centers around finding something that will fit into your existing workflow. You want it to be nimble enough so that it’s easy for users to interact with, but has enough structure so that it matches the complexity of the projects you’re working on. You don’t want a project management tool to dictate your processes, or to be too cumbersome for your team to take on, which ultimately winds up creating more work for everyone. “There are certainly tools that are helpful and essential, but the most important thing is to first create the internal processes and discipline that define your organization and make you successful and productive,” advises Voxy Co-founder and VP of Operations Gregg Carey.

“The most important advice around tools, that I would give folks starting a new company would be: Choose the tools that are right for your stage. Don't be afraid of data migration down the line, but be prepared for that to happen. Tools can make or break your processes, especially those that remove barriers to collaboration and openness, and it’s crucial to use the right ones for your stage, business needs, team and culture,” says Zohar Babin of Kaltura. “Starting over, I would have collaboration tools set up from day one to facilitate non-email-based team collaboration, knowledge management and smooth processes.”

The other critical factor when it comes to project management tools is adoption. Once you choose a tool that fits well within your workflow, make it an integral part of your workflow. Otherwise, no one will adopt it. Wearable Experiments co-founder Billie Whitehouse warns against this pitfall. Having used several project management tools, she says, “Maybe we just weren't using them correctly, but they ended up just being another loop between communication and result. Decisions weren’t made in the software, so it felt like we just had to keep going in and updating it for no reason.  We developed faster without them.” Jessica Lessin, founder of The Information adds, “I think most project management systems are very similar. It's most important to pick one, stick with it and build a culture around it. I knew some companies that were using Asana, so we just decided to commit to it. When you try anything new, there are always going to be things to learn, limitations, hurdles, so we just wanted to move quickly and pick one.”

Tips for selecting the right project management tool

Babin adds, “Any tool that deals with your day-to-day operations should be as smooth and seamless as possible.  I want my team to be empowered for creative thinking, and to be able to execute without worrying about processes and bureaucracy. Processes are crucial for smooth operation, so long as they don’t become barriers to execution and a hindrance to efficiency.” The Kaltura team has found the combination of Clarizen, JIRA, Confluence, Basecamp and GitHub to be the right recipe for their project management needs.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind when selecting a project management software for your startup:
  • First and foremost, what are the specific goals you’re trying to accomplish? Speak to members of your team to gather feedback on key challenges. This will help you identify the right software and also the right processes that will make implementation and adoption of that software successful across your teams. It’s also important to identify the limitations of any tools you’re currently using.
  • How will the tool help you achieve your key business goals? Evaluate each potential tool against your stated needs.
  • How much does the tool cost?  
  • How is the vendor’s customer service? Are there formal training opportunities available (options include personalized training, in person, remote, online)?
  • Will the tool scale as your organization grows?
  • Is the tool easy to use, for both technical and non-technical employees?
  • What will the implementation process look like, and how easy will it be to enforce adoption across your teams? Things to keep in mind are simplicity and intuitiveness.

In the end, when it comes to selecting project management software, the most important factor is finding the right tool for your organization. The tool should be a complement to your existing processes, driving efficiency and collaboration across your teams, not an inflexible barrier that creates friction between teams and slows workflow. As Brian Fitzgerald, founder and CEO of Tinkergarten, puts it, “Process always wins over tools. No matter what you choose in terms of tools, it's mostly about making sure your processes work and making sure that, as a startup, you're not spending too much time on these decisions.”