Best of the Web
A slew of sites claim they'll help you track your billable hours, and some will even produce your invoices -- free. Are they worth your while? Here's what 20 CEOs think
Of all the headaches that CEO Melissa McNatt faced while running her sales consultancy, JumpStart Sales, the most pesky was tracking all the 10-minute intervals she spent phoning or E-mailing clients. Sure, she realized that if she actually tracked all those 10-minute intervals, they could add up to hours over an entire project. But why bother? She charged mostly flat fees anyway. And she knew that if she truly made the effort to record each tiny spurt of work, she'd never get any real work done.
But in neglecting to track each and every minute, McNatt was missing some important knowledge about her business. Projects for which she charged a $1,000 flat fee -- based on the assumption she'd spend 7 hours on them -- were consuming 10 hours. As a result, her projects were less profitable than they could have been. And without time-tracking data to reveal just how much less profitable those jobs were, McNatt didn't know quite how much to adjust her pricing. "I didn't have a good feeling for the time I was spending on E-mail and calls," she says.
For McNatt's start-up, problems like those were bad. For an IT consulting business with 25 employees, such problems can be a nightmare. In fact, for almost all service businesses -- law firms, public-relations agencies, and so on -- time tracking affects not only pricing and billing but also project management: how many employees should work on a given job, and for how long? For years companies and sole proprietors have used software programs like Timeslips or the time-related functions on their accounting software to get by. But just as frequently they've relied on the just-wing-it method: jot down a ballpark guess in a daily planner and then do a tally at month's end to produce a bill or determine pricing and profitability.
Now an abundance of time-tracking Web sites have emerged, a small part of the big movement toward Web-based software. They're hoping that small-business owners will drop their daily planners and time sheets and instead use the Internet to keep track of their time -- free or for a low monthly cost. Just type in your client and project information or import it from your Palm Organizer (or other handheld device) or Microsoft Outlook, and -- bang -- you've created an electronic record of your client's project, on a Web site you can access whenever you need to track those nagging 10-minute intervals. The sites all claim that they will make your life easier: join us, they say, and you'll be spared paperwork, pricey software, and annoying upgrades forever. It sounds tempting. But it doesn't answer the real question: Can any of these sites help my business? That's where our CEOs come in.
We asked 20 small-business chief executives to evaluate six time-tracking sites, some of which offered invoicing and expense reporting as well. There were far more than six such sites out there, so we narrowed down the list based on three criteria: first, the sites had to have some form of free trial, so that our CEOs could check them out. Second, time tracking had to be a major thrust of the site, not part of a bundled suite. Last, the sites had to accommodate all Internet browsers.
McNatt was a quick convert. After she'd used one of the sites for a week, it was easy for her to see just how much profit she was losing by failing to track time spent on E-mail and phone calls. Other CEOs, however, were not so zealous. "What happens if this site goes down or simply changes its line of business?" asked one. "If Intuit goes out of business, I'll have my QuickBooks running for years, but what happens if all your records are on someone else's servers? I didn't think these sites did a good job of explaining why the user shouldn't feel concerned about that."
What other thoughts did our CEOs have? Take a look.
What it's good for: Beginners. OpenAir's instructions were widely praised, as was its basic service. "Eliminates paperwork in dealing with clients," reported one CEO.
Don't waste your time if: You'd rather not log on every time you need to enter data. CEOs wished this service had offered access by phone, for easier use on the road.
What our CEOs had to say: It "would be overkill for my business" was a sentiment expressed by one sole proprietor, who was also not sold on OpenAir's advantages over locally installed software. Those who weren't hooked on installed software generally came away happy.
What you ought to know: OpenAir used to be called TimeBills.com. The company concluded that time tracking was but one of several software applications needed by small service businesses, so it entered what's called the PSA (professional-services automation) space.
What it's good for: The cell-phone nation. Red Gorilla was the only site (at press time) that allowed users to enter information by phone, a feature that our CEOs really liked.
Don't waste your time if: You like trying before flying. Though the basic program is free, "it doesn't have a built-in demonstration function, so there's no easy way to test it prior to signing on."
What our CEOs had to say: They were largely pleased, but some -- again -- were skeptical about Web-based software. "I particularly didn't like the idea of having to access the Web for my own information," said one. "Printing out invoices online seemed completely ridiculous."
What you ought to know: Red Gorilla, like some others, actively private-labels its time-tracking technology for use at other business sites. Its customers include AllBusiness.com and eWork Exchange. The company is looking into offering other software applications that will help small service businesses. Like OpenAir, it sees the many possibilities in the PSA space.
What it's good for: Small businesses and virtual companies. "Everything I need for tracking hours and expenses, and making invoices," said a CEO.
Don't waste your time if: You're a soloist or your company is hooked on its existing system. "Far too sophisticated for the needs of a sole proprietor," said a panelist. Another said, "We're using a PC-based system right now, so I have no reason to go back to the site again." CEOs who didn't have a PC-based system were generally pleased with the site and its services.
What our CEOs had to say: Links were lauded. "The site steered you to a lot of good business information," said one CEO.
What you ought to know: Although telephone access is still in the works, Elite.com does offer easy accessibility for portable computers, laptops, and handheld organizers. (Elite.com is a subsidiary of Elite Information Group, a company that designs and implements time-tracking systems for large law firms. The site is the company's attempt to reach small professional-service businesses.)
What it's good for: The basics. "Simple, low-end, but gets the job done," commented one CEO.
Don't waste your time if: You want some of the services that other time-tracking sites offer, like invoicing or synchronization with your Palm Organizer. Or if you prefer pizzazz to plainness in Web-page design.
What our CEOs had to say: "All the 'project' names defaulted to my company name -- where I would want to put the name of each client," said one.
What you ought to know: Freetimesheet.com fared poorly with our CEOs, but it still may succeed because of its partnership with Managemark, a company founded by Intuit (which makes QuickBooks). If Managemark becomes Intuit's avenue for Web-based software, a lot of QuickBooks users may wind up using the technology that runs Freetimesheet.
What it's good for: Small groups seeking a "bare bones" solution.
Don't waste your time if: You're in no mood for trial-and-error learning. Several CEOs had a tough time navigating ClickTime. However, CEOs who were used to Web navigation found ClickTime simple to use. Some users thought the site lacked a satisfying demo. "I was on my own to figure things out," said one.
What our CEOs had to say: "The design is iffy, the 'demo' is actually a sales pitch, and the tools aren't easy to understand. Their language is presumptuous, and there are errors in the copy," complained one. Another said he'd stay loyal to QuickBooks, which provided greater "breadth and depth advantages."
What you ought to know: The company, which also offers a tool called GoalManager for tracking employee incentives, is considering changing this application's name in case it enters the PSA space.
What it's good for: "Great interface for Palm," not to mention terrific instructions. "After the demo I was ready to go and didn't really have any questions."
Don't waste your time if: You want online help. "Surprise! Click on 'support' or 'help,' and there is none -- only an E-mail address and phone number."
What our CEOs had to say: The site got decent marks in a number of categories, but there were flaws: "Every time I tried to enter some sample hours in the Time Entry 'folder,' I got an error. Also, the monthly calendar was mostly hidden off the screen, and I couldn't drag it over to see the entire month."
What you ought to know: Although TimeLedger.com offers a free trial, it's the only site of the six that isn't free for five users or fewer. It costs $9.95 per month per user.
The bottom line
Though none of the sites was universally praised or condemned, ClickTime.com and Freetimesheet.com were clearly the least popular. As for the other four: OpenAir.com was well received but didn't have enough to win CEOs over; Red Gorilla won a lot of raves, especially for its phone access; Elite.com, though applauded by groups seeking detailed time-tracking analysis, was too robust for others; and TimeLedger.com did well in many categories and was singled out for praise for its Palm compatibility.
Ilan Mochari is a reporter at Inc.
The Savvy Entrepreneur's Guide to the Time-Tracking Web
| Would our
CEOs go back?
| What is the
site good for?
|CEOs' quick take|
|www.openair.com||"Perhaps."||"Tracking time and expenses, invoicing clients."||"Not sure what the advantage would be over software you install locally."|
|www.redgorilla.com||"I already did."||"The premium package they offer for input by telephone."||"Offers a new approach that allows me to function on the road."|
|www.elite.com||"Yes."||"Virtual companies that don't want to invest in other software."||"Very useful."|
|www.freetimesheet.com||"Good time tracker, but doesn't have all that the others had."||"Just the basics."||"Confusing and not user-friendly."|
|www.clicktime.com||"Not likely unless it's beefed up a bit."||"Bare-bones time tracking."||"We require a much more sophisticated tool."|
|www.timeledger.com||"If I were in need of an online time-tracking system."||"Keeping up with project hours and invoicing -- very portable."||"The Palm interface is terrific."|
| Ease of
| Ease of
| Overall |
Our CEO panelists
Sue Atkinson, chairman, Atkinson Public Relations
Lori Booker, CEO, CBR Public Relations
Lori DiCesare, CEO, Legal Placements
Christine Durst, CEO and cofounder, Staffcentrix.com and EthicsCheck.com
Matthew Fenton, founder and president, Ninja BrandBuilding
Jacquelyn S. Freedman, owner, TimeWorks
Annie Gray, CEO, Annie Gray Associates
Karetta Hubbard, CEO, Hubbard & Revo-Cohen
Bob Jacobs, CEO, V.I. Engineering
Cindy Marshall, principal, Marshall Consulting
Melissa McNatt, president and CEO, JumpStart Sales
Ira Nottonson, author and business/legal consultant
Michael Samoilov, president, Javu Technologies
Anita Saville, CEO, Purse Strings
Evan Scott, president and chief strategist, Evan Scott & Associates
RenÉ Shimada Siegel, president and managing partner, HighTech Connect
Greg Steckler, president and CEO, Log Rhythms
Derek Sylvester, CEO, Sylvester Consulting Group
Katherine Thornock, CEO, FortÉ Web Services
Jill Stahl Tyler, president, Stahl & Associates International Consulting
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