What is the best way for a small business (fewer than 10 employees) to manage the process of defining a project for a client, estimating it, tracking the hours used to complete it, then billing it? The goals for me are accurate billing and the ability to evaluate my margins on each client project. I am using spreadsheets right now, hoping to grow profitable enough to use project management software one day. Are there alternatives to spreadsheets?
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If you do a search on project management software comparisons you will come upon an analysis done by Wikipedia. What is telling about this is the sheer number of software packages available.
Although spreadsheets are simple to use, they are not dynamic enough for "what if" analysis or constant and quick scope changes. Any of the main project management software tools will have the spreadsheet capability already built in, plus the added feature of dynamically showing changes due to cost, schedule and resource allocations. Most let you export information you can use for pricing and margin analysis based on the baseline data you create for each project. Several are scalable to enterprise versions as you grow.
The key question of tracking and costing drives you to resolve the issue of getting a good project tool. Then train at least one of your staff to be an expert in the tool as quickly as possible. Mastery of the tool will aid in getting more proposals out the door with better estimates and with greater frequency. Once you have the flexibility of dynamic estimating and good cost inputs into the software tool, you will have good data that is useful for margin analysis.
The other thing to understand is that a very good ''lessons-learned'' phase of the projects will enable you to improve your estimates on future projects. Research is clear that this phase is done poorly by most organizations and knowledge from prior project analysis is not used in future projects. You can also use a software tool to compare project proposals. This may be worth the nominal cost between a spreadsheet tool and a project tool.
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