For the first six years and three months of Mihaly Slocombe’s existence, we relied on a lean methodology and Microsoft Excel to manage our business. But my growing constellation of Excel spreadsheets eventually began creating as many problems as they were solving. The increasing trouble I was having with them triggered a broader realisation that Mihaly Slocombe had outgrown our lean startup strategies.
This is the fourth article in a series examining how we are transitioning our architecture studio from a lean startup to a more mature business methodology.
Our philosophy in this transition is to make decisions for our business as we want it to be, rather than our business as it is. We want to prepare ourselves for growth, to set up systems that will help us monitor and improve the health of our business, and scale up as we do. We put this philosophy into action at the start of last financial year, and embarked on a three year, three step renovation of our business management systems:
Step 1: Accountable accounting
Step 2: Predictable pofitability
Step 3: Clear communication
Step 2 – 2017
For years, we used Excel to produce both our timesheets and our schedules. But scaling these up to six staff was time consuming, hard to summarise, hard to visualise, error-prone, inflexible and non-transferrable. In short, painful. So as 2016 came to a close, we embarked on step two of our business systems overhaul and began looking for an app that will allow us to better schedule the time we have, and record the time we spend.
Fortunately, a good chunk of the enormous marketplace of third-party apps that integrate with Xero do exactly this. There’s a dizzying number of suitable tools listed on Capterra too. I also sought recommendations from our bookkeeper, IT consultant, an obscure Australian Institute of Architects forum from 2010, colleagues, and good old Google.
From these sources, I compiled a matrix of twenty six different apps (that was by no means exhaustive). Unfortunately the only way to really know which was most suitable would have been to trial them all for a few months, but of course this was impossible. Instead, I gleaned as much as I could from product websites, online reviews and word of mouth advice.
The data I gathered looked at when and where the apps were created, whether they have human beings in Australia to call for support, whether or not they were designed explicitly for architects, integration with Xero and MYOB, whether they offer free trials, how light or heavy they are, functionality and price. From this analysis, I then judged their suitability for different sized architecture practices, their user interfaces and functionality. And finally, I gave each a score out of five:
Here are links for each of the reviewed apps: Accelo, Aconex, Active Collab, Archi Admin, ArchiOffice, Asana, Bigtime, Briefcase, Coincraft, Deltek Vision, eTrack, Harvest + Forecast, Jira Core + Software, Newforma, Pimarc, Slack, Streamtime, Teamweek, Toggl, Total Synergy, Trello, Tula Projects, Union Square, Workamajig, Workflow Max, Wrike.
My research uncovered a number of fascinating insights:
- Almost all of the apps designed explicitly for architects are heavy, expensive and often horribly outdated. At the most extreme end of this sector are platforms like Deltek Vision and Union Square, which reportedly cost tens of thousands of dollars to install, require localised servers, specialist installation and incur ongoing maintenance costs. My impression is that none of them would be suitable for small architecture studios.
- Most of the lightweight, intuitive and inexpensive apps aren’t designed for architects at all. They’re primarily suited to marketing agencies and the like that structure their invoices around time and materials (i.e. hourly rates). The functionality that architects require to keep track of long, variable fee projects just doesn’t exist in this sector.
- The exception to both these rules is Coincraft, which is being developed in Melbourne by an ex-architect. It’s lightweight and designed from the outset with the architect’s project format and workflow in mind.
- Archi Admin is worth checking out for the novelty value. It looks to be built on an old Filemaker Pro platform that hasn’t been updated in at least a decade. Out of curiosity, I put a call into their listed number but never heard back. My strong suspicion is that the product has been mothballed.
- Some of the apps I reviewed turned out not to be resource management tools at all, but are excellent at what they otherwise do. Asana, Slack and Trello are good examples of this, focussing instead on workflow and team communication. We plan on exploring these apps next year as part of step three of our business systems overhaul.
The applications that made my longlist spanned most of the apps that I scored 3 or over. But this was still far too many, so I needed to whittle my list down further. Some essential functions that I treated as deal breakers therefore were a free trial, an Australian presence, and an attractive user interface. Even then, there were a few apps that could easily have made the cut (Briefcase and Wrike for example), but I drew the line at four.
In the end, Coincraft, Harvest, Streamtime and Workflow Max were the ones I trialled.
Harvest, Streamtime and Workflow Max are all essentially in direct competition with each other, and most closely represented the mix of tools we needed. Their functionality includes timesheets, project budgets and schedules. Coincraft also incorporates timesheets and project budgets, but was the outlier in this group as its focus is long range forecasting not short range resource scheduling. However, given its Melbourne connection I was keen to give it a go anyway. Harvest has no Australian presence, but it had come recommended by a few different colleagues and provides a well-resourced online help desk, so it made the cut too.
I trialled both Harvest and Workflow Max twice, though only for two weeks at a time. I’ve spent more time with Coincraft and Streamtime, around four months each.
I’ll share detailed reviews of all four apps in my next post. Stay tuned.
- Under the resource management category of Capterra, there are thirty-four different apps that do some or most of what we need.
- Some disclaimers about my research: 1) I approached the research from the point of view of an architecture studio of six people, so it may not be relevant for smaller or larger studios 2) I undertook the research in May 2017, so it may no longer be up to date, and 3) in some instances, I had to make assumptions about functionality based on information contained on product websites, so again my assessment might not be true in all cases.
- After I had concluded my research, I came across a host of other software options that might also be worth a look: Base (client relationship management), Fathom (data analysis), Futrli (resource scheduling), High Rise (client relationship management), Roadmap (workflow), Roll (resource scheduling), Scoro (resource scheduling) and Smart Sheet (time tracking).
- Yes, beauty was an important factor. So shoot me, I’m an architect.
- Coincraft, Harvest, Streamtime and Workflow Max logos, copyright belongs to each company.
- Resource management applications comparison, author’s own image.