Online, hosted CRM and Project Management apps – which is the best?

By 18th September 2010December 15th, 2017Creative

Thought I would share a journey … well, more a labour of love with you

We’re trying to choose a hosted client relationship management (CRM) system and a project management system and thought we’d share our journey with you.  These really are just my views but I’d love your comments if you wish – am I going barking mad?  Too fussy?  Something else?  Let me know in the comments at the bottom 🙂

Our CRM system is simple right now – it’s various physical whiteboards, online address books, calendars and anything else required to fulfill very simple CRM needs.  Evolution, and rapid company growth mean we now need to quit this and join up our CRM-world online.

Our project management system is slightly better – we use Basecamp to track a lot of projects, and also use Microsoft Project for the hard graft, along with scheduled client calls/meetings/demos/etc as required.

We’re currently using Basecamp from for our project and tasks management.  It’s a great app, beautifully simple to use … ahhh, that’s the problem – like so many others have said, the app is very simple and lacks some really basic features of “real” project management – such as:

  • you cannot assign tasks to multiple resources
  • you cannot view the project/task breakdown as a gantt chart – in facts, there’s no charts, reports, anything – it’s merely data entry.  We love to use gantt charts with our customers – both in simplified forms in our quotes, something a little more concrete in our terms of agreement/contracts and in as much detail as necessary when moving through the project – it’s a great visual representation of status and time.
  • it doesn’t link to any CRM system.  I know 37Signals have Highrise, but in their infinite and isolated wisdom, the two are not linked up.  So a company wishes to move from leads, prospects through to clients … but the IT systems provided by 37Signals don’t do that.  I get it’s their call, their apps (I bought and read with great enjoyment their book “Rework” and love all their principles) so following their principle – their product is not for me anymore.

So what is the holy grail for me for CRM and Project management apps?

I don’t think my demands are too high or extreme. Here’s what I need:

  • Overall:
    • A price-point of £20-£25 per user per month and no more
    • A beautiful looking, simple interface, with all the bangs and whistles of complexity hidden behind well-designed UI/UX
    • Preferably an iphone and ipad app or interface that’s a paired down version of the website but allows me to carry my projects, tasks, clients, proposals, key contacts, etc, with me in my hand
  • CRM
    • A simple dashboard view of our sales pipeline that emulates as closely as possible the whiteboards in our office – that covers cold leads, leads, hot leads and proposals, with scope, value probability against each
    • Ability to see what’s coming up, who we are pitching to, what the status of our proposals/quotes are in, etc, all in one place
    • Nice to have – share data with MailChimp or at least have a great import/export function for key data fields
    • Nice to have – lead nurturing – that’s time/event-driven follow-up and emails following requests/responses to clients – so an example might be a proposal is sent on the Thursday. A reminder is auto-created to follow-up on the Tuesday … and if the proposal goes cold, an email is sent 5 days after thanking them for their time to be able to quote and if there’s anything else they need, don’t hesitate to contact you, and so on
  • Project management
    • Ability to import/export to MS-Project – this is because I find Microsoft Project really fast to sketch out an entire project with phases, tasks, sub-tasks, inter-dependencies, resources, timescales – it takes minutes to do in this app, and if I can create it to start on my PC and then upload easily, that would be great! The alternate to this requirement, is that the online app equals or supersedes the desktop app in terms of usability or functionality
    • Ability to create phases, tasks and sub-tasks on a project – not just a simple list like Remember The Milk – our projects work better structured more than that
    • Ability to state dependencies/predecessors on tasks and phases – so “turn kettle on task” cannot start until “fill with water task” is complete
    • Ability to assign multiple resources to a task
    • Ability to see a dashboard of all projects, what stage they are at, and what’s next, by whom and by when against each project
  • File/document storage
    • Store documents anywhere in the system, against companies, contacts, projects, tasks, and version control those documents

So what CRM and project management apps have we seen so far? And what’s our feelings?

Basecamp and Highrise

Well, this is a real, big time, dissapointment. The thing is – I strive for simplicity. I get what Steve Jobs is doing with Apple, and I totally get what they’re saying in their Rework book, but it just isn’t big enough a tool even for our small business.

  • Beautiful interface
  • Big API – loads of things and companies and apps connect to and from it
  • iphone and ipad and anything cool supported
Not so good:
  • Reduced functionality as aforementioned
  • Prices start to run quite high when the Basecamp and Highrise apps are setup for a few users
  • Highrise functionality is really limited – no overall dashboards, no concept of helicopter views – unless you class a diatribe of everything you’ve ever done as really useful to improve your productivity
Overall: Keeping Basecamp until the replacement is in place!


I wanted to love this product. Looking at the website it does everything we want today, and can want in future – including bug tracking/helpdesk/ticketing, billing, invoicing … the lot. So what went wrong for us?

  • Very very well-thought out featureset – includes everything a business like ours, or in fact, many SMEs across any/all vertical markets could want
  • Wholly integrated throughout – unlike Basecamp, Highrise, Zoho, most others, your data is seamlessly used throughout the app
  • Support and service from the team – is wonderful. The guys are fanatical, fast to respond, accommodating, I can’t say enough about them
  • The price is exactly what I expected to pay
Not so good:
  • The interface is far from intuitive. There are behaviours that are just not found in other apps/websites
  • Parts of the interface look like they’ve been written in a silo, without talking to others or consulting best practice – popups when you wouldn’t expect popups, data showing when it’s not needed, data missing when you expect it … it’s just not intuitive
  • No ipad and iphone interface, although this is something they want to deliver
  • This is an app that’s been written by programmers, not built by designers, then given to programmers to code
  • Three of us tried it for about 4-6 weeks and were too scared to continue using it – the interface just lost data, misplaced it, misrepresented it, on occasions
Overall: Would love to love it, but not just now

SugarCRM community edition

  • Free and open source, hurrah!
  • Easy to install on our server – took about 20 minutes to be up and running after I’d figured out our own over-zealous SMTP server security settings
  • Based on PHP so our own guys could update if we wish
Not so good:
  • The interface is crap! It’s so web 1.0, and tries to cram everything on every screen and is just overwhelming – it looks like an amorphous result of scores of updates without pausing to breathe and re-do any joined-up thinking
  • Reading a lot of community forum posts, the community edition is a very reduced functionality set of the pro/enterprise (paid) versions
  • No concept of sub-tasks!
  • All but one of the plugins/add-ons under project management are 3-5 years old … risk alarm bells go off, is this product no longer updated or used?
  • No native gantt chart support
  • Needs a lot of setup and tweaking out of the box -that may suit some companies, but for us, I want it to be closer than this to the finished article
  • No iphone/ipad interface
Overall: Like the price, but even free isn’t good sometimes


  • Very well-thought application
  • Has all our requirements from a project management perspective
  • Has the iphone/ipad interface
Not so good:
  • I didn’t realise this before we started but it has very basic client/contact abilities, with nothing around CRM or leads
  • Not only the above – but despite 4 plugins that interface with different accounting systems, there are none integrating with CRM systems. Seems odd hey? Not sure what their thinking is on this, other than customers must have their own solution already
Overall: So frustrating, we would be signed up if it was integrated to any CRM system

Zoho CRM / Zoho Projects

We’re currently evaluating this as it seems to provide everything to everyone, in bite-sized chunks

  • Modular – you use and buy what you need for your business
  • Well-established – one of the fore-runners of online office apps when just Google Docs and one other (I forget which) were in the picture
  • SUPERB customer service. I mean, superb. Request a call back in the next 24 hours? How about under 5 minutes? I can’t help you with that entire module, but how about someone calls you to discuss? Sat on a shared screen demo 20 minutes later with someone else
Not so good:
  • The modular concept actually is a thorn in its side -I don’t know what I want, what I need, where I am, what I should do next -there are about 20 modules, or more, and all of them show up – do I buy CRM first, then add on others, or start with Projects first? And what is Zoho business and if that’s not sitting above all, what is it doing? I’m confused!
Overall: Will keep evaluating and report back – not sure, the jury’s still out!

Norada Solve360

Just about to start evaluating this on Monday! Will update this blog post when we’re a week down.

Overall: Looks great, seems to cover everything we need. Let’s see!

Severa PSA for CRM

Like Norada Solve360, we’re also going to start evaluating this on Monday. It looks like it will do everything we need – but it’s more expensive then the alternative options above, and it looks like it doesn’t allow sales activity history to be saved on the “Professional” version we wish to trial/purchase.

Overall: Again, looks great, seems to cover everything we need. Let’s see!

Copper Project

An awesome online project management app that, like Proworkflow seems to not only lack any CRM/lead tracking but also any ability to link to any other system providing the functionality. I’ve contacted the guys at Copper to find out what they say 🙂

Overall: Will start trialling if they can answer the CRM question

So the story is not yet complete. The winner hasn’t been decided. And the game is still on. Which will we decide and why? Which would you choose and why? Have we missed looking at any other system that fulfils the goals above and doesn’t fall into the traps we’ve found from others thus far?

Gladly add any comments you wish – this isn’t just me shouting out, but also looking for anything from others.