One of the things I constantly recommend to people is outsourcing. As you know, I do a lot of outsourcing, in fact this very blog post was dictated by me on a small digital voice recorder and transcribed by my transcriptionist, Loretta Oliver. If you need transcription services I encourage you to visit her and tell her “Mark sent you.” (There might even be a nice discount in there for you.)

The problem is once you get more than two or three outsource professionals assisting you it can start to get really hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. Currently in my business I’m using virtual assistants for programming WordPress, writing server programs in Perl, transcribing material, doing web design, doing web site maintenance, building backlinks, submitting articles, building niche websites, and writing content.

It’s actually as many as 10 different people at times working on various parts of my business. Keeping track of all those people by email is impossible, so I started using Google doc spreadsheets to try and keep track of all the tasks. That’s a great first step, but quite frankly it wasn’t really sufficient to meet my needs.

I started looking for project management software that I could use to track all the work that’s going on in the MasonWorld.com empire (okay, it’s not an empire, but that’s my dream.) I started looking at solutions that are very familiar to most people.

The first thing I needed to understand when I was shopping for project management software was what are my needs? It was easy for me to identify the things that I didn’t need. For example, I don’t need extensive time tracking capability, all of my VAs are either full time or they track their own time. I didn’t need invoicing and other fancy add-ons that come with a lot of hardcore project management applications. I also didn’t need complicated Gantt charts and other long range project management solutions.

Really, my needs were very simple. I needed to be able to support 10 to 20 users of the system, I needed to be able to support 20 to 30 projects in the system, I needed to be able to track tasks on a project by project basis, and I needed the ability to communicate information about tasks between me and my virtual assistants.

Like most people, my first stop was Basecamp. What I found was an amazingly fantastic tool that was way too complicated for what I needed. I was also in sticker shock at the Basecamp website, because I was realizing that I was going to have to go from something that was free (Google Docs) to something that was going to cost me money every month.

So, I looked at a couple of free solutions, including the open source solutions of Collabtive and Project Pier. Both of those solutions looked pretty good, but they don’t seem to be incredibly well supported. The developer bases is small and it’s not clear to me personally that those projects will be supportive in the long run.

I also looked at a free solution called Officezilla. I liked Officezilla, but it wasn’t exactly what I needed. Again, it seemed a little too complex, there were too many features. What I was looking for was a glorified task list that understood the idea of projects.

Finally, I settled on a relatively new project management solution called 5PM. You can find 5PM at 5PMWeb.com and the best way I can describe it to you is to say that it’s simple, easy to use, and the interface is just sexy. When I say sexy, I mean sexy like Nicole Dean means when she says testing is sexy. The interface is all web 2.0 looking with java script, it supports email notifications on tasks, and it just looks really nice. I encourage you to check it out.

I’ve been using 5PM Web successfully for about two months and basically have set up 20 to 30 ongoing projects. Cool features include every time I add a task to one of the projects my virtual assistants are notified automatically. When they complete the task I’m notified. If they have a question about the task they can ask that question by email, it’s recorded in the system and I’m notified so I can go back into the system and answer it or answer it by email and the system is updated with my answer.

I can also see lists of everything that is assigned to a particular person. So, for my full time virtual assistants I can know whether or not they have enough work to do at a glance. I can also see what kind of progress they’re making on various projects. That’s really all I need for project management and this fits the bill exactly.

Here's a screenshot from an assistant's point of view:

On the downside, even though the software has been in development for over seven years it’s still a young as far as project management software goes. You can tell that development is ongoing. Having said that, the support desk is incredibly responsive and I’ve simply been blown away by the level of customer support I’ve been able to get at 5PMWeb.

Of course, I don't want you to just take my word for it. So, here is what my transcriptionist, Loretta Oliver, has to say about 5PMWeb as well.

Hey Mark, and blog folks out there. As a transcriptionist I've used so many different project management software programs it might make your head spin if I tried to list them all. I have to agree with Mark that most of them over complicate things and frustrate the users in the end.

So far from what I've seen of 5Pm Web it's simple and clean, which I really like. Yes, the interface is super sexy, but not in a click this, look at that kind of way. It's organized and it's easy to see where I need to go to find my project assignments and what I need to get crossed off the to do list.

My favorite feature without doubt is the reply to task via email. It can get quickly get confusing when you have a project management system and someone replies to you via email with a question or a comment about the project. Oh yes, I've seen it get crazy more than a few times!

We're creatures of habit and hitting that email reply button and pounding on the keys is what we do, so being able to just reply and have it piped it into the system is a great feature to have built in. Confusion averted = win!

If you’re looking for a way to take your business to the next level, my suggestion to you is that you look around at the project management tools available, select one and get your business organized around that.

For more information about the wide variety of project management tools you can look at check out the awesome list on Wikipedia. Under project management tools there’s a summary of all the project management tools that are currently available. Now, of course this is changing every day, so I don’t know if it’s really all, but there’s literally a list of 30 or 40 of them there that you can thumb through and see what might meet your needs.

My name is Mark Mason from MasonWorld.com where we teach people how to build successful internet businesses one night at a time.

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