Project management and workflow with Basecamp

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How can online collaboration tools like Basecamp support effective project management? That's one of the questions that came up at the values-based project management session I attended at Web of Change, led by Rob Purdie of Important Projects. I wanted to continue the conversation with Rob himself, and promised to blog our own project management workflow at Social Signal so that he could offer his comments and feedback on how to improve our approach.

Let me begin by saying this is very much a work in progress: we're still searching for the Holy Grail of optimized workflow, and feel like the tools we use now -- particularly Basecamp -- don't fully meet our needs. I'll address some of those limitations towards the end of this blog post, but let me begin with an overflow of what we use and how we use it.

Our main tools are:

  • Basecamp: for project-related task management and client communications
  • OmniPlan: for prospective project planning and gantt charting
  • Remember the Milk: for internal task tracking
  • iCal: for internal scheduling and time tracking
  • Google spreadsheets: for capacity planning and docket review

This blog post will focus on how we use Basecamp, which is our main tool for managing the ongoing work of individual projects. The fact that we use so many other tools speaks to the issues we have with Basecamp -- which is one of the issues I'm particularly keen to hear Rob address. We're also fans of -- though not religious adherents to -- David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology, which has influenced our approach to task management.

Set up

We set up a Basecamp site at the beginning of each client engagement. Some of the best practices on Basecamp set up that we are trying to adopt as our standard include:

  • posting a welcome message to Basecamp that explains how to use the site (see VentureMarketing's Basecamp Welcome PDF, and their Basecamp client jumpstart, for another approach)
  • presenting an overview of Basecamp at an early client meeting
  • when clients e-mail us outside of Basecamp, redirecting them back to the Basecamp site, often by copying-and-pasting their messages into Basecamp

I add all our subcontractors to Basecamp as members of Social Signal, so that we can cover any technical issues without dragging the client into the Drupal abyss. We recognize that our clients don't always benefit from seeing how the sausages are made, and when it gets into some of the intricacies of module development or permissions configuration, we like to keep the excruciating details private so that clients aren't drawn too deeply into technical issues. Unfortunately, Basecamp only allows private communications among members of the same company, so we choose to treat all our subcontractors as members of Social Signal.

Structure and usage

We use messages for communications that require an action or response. This includes:

  • communications with clients and client updates
  • client requests (bug tracking, questions, etc.)
  • internal discussions of how to handle tasks (marking these discussions private so they aren't visible to client)

We use writeboards for communications that are FYI only (though we may use messages to notify each other of a new writeboard).

We use task lists for items that require a "next action" (in GTD terms).


Social Signal Project> All Messages

We have recently refined our use of messages to keep better track of all open loops. We respond to urgent messages as they come in, and at least once a week (and ideally every 2-3 days) we review all the messages in a given project space, and update status. We find that updating message status on a real-time basis is excessively time consuming and leads to duplication of effort.

Our message categories vary a bit by project but mostly reflect major categories of project activities (see screenshot -- some items deleted to protect client privacy).

When we review a message we briefly note our response, action required, or action taken, even if it's already completed, for future reference.

We then edit the title of the original message to note the status of that message:

  • QUEUED: the message requires an action or response. An item is only marked as "queued" when it has been added as a specific task or tasks in a to-do list. An item may be marked as "queued" even if we anticipate that it will prove too low-priority to address; however by adding it to our queue it can be reviewed with the client during our next review of outstanding tasks, and prioritized accordingly.
    Social Signal Project > CLOSED message
  • CLOSED/RESOLVED: the message requested or required an action or response that has now been completed. We switched from marking items "resolved" to marking them "closed" because sometimes messages are closed because the team (including the client) decide that no further action is warranted, because the item is low priority or because the issue is not expected to recur. When an item is closed we ALWAYS leave a final comment noting the action or decision that led us to mark the message closed.
  • NOTED: the message provided information that is needed by the team or client, but does not require direct action. When an item is noted it is usually placed in a writeboard we expect to refer to at a later date, e.g. a "think about for phase 2" writeboard or an "items to review before launch" writeboard.

Editing our message titles to reflect the status of each message gives us an at-a-glance view of which client issues have been addressed, and which need to be reviewed for action items.


We have recently shifted from using fewer, generic to-do lists (which we were trying to standardize across projects) to using a lot more to-do lists, each one corresponding to a set of related tasks. This reflects the GTD notion of grouping tasks by "contexts" or as "projects" consisting of multiple tasks.

Social Signal Project> To Do Lists

By grouping related tasks we ensure that:

  • related tasks at the same time, and can therefore consider a solution that might address multiple requirements or bugs at once
  • tasks can be ordered in sequence or priority, so that a team member can quickly see which tasks must be completed in which order
  • a team member can see who else is working on related tasks
  • tasks don't get lost in long (20+ items) lists

When we had fewer categories we found that the very long lists of tasks under each made it hard to identify relationships or priorities; the shorter list of tasks makes this much easier.

We keep our to-do lists organized alphabetically; when we decide to prioritize a specific set of tasks as the next focus for our work, we move that to-do list to the top of the page and mark it "P1: to-do list name" (as in "priority 1").


Writeboards are our long-term storage area and collaboration space. We use writeboards for:

  • to-dos that we are considering (often for a future phase) but haven't prioritized/organized yet
  • reference information (like a description of our e-mail configuration)
  • meeting notes
  • personal notes that we might want to share with other members of the team, but which don't require an action from anyone (we may still use messages to notify the rest of the team that we have created a writeboard for them to look at)


Our experience with Basecamp has been shaped equally by the technology itself, and our diligence in using it. Of course, these aren't unrelated issues; if Basecamp really met all our needs, so that we could keep all our tasks organized in one place, I suspect we'd be much more consistent in using it.

We find that Basecamp works well for:

  • collecting client and team correspondence in one place for future reference
  • organizing project tasks, particularly site/softeware development tasks
  • keeping track of our "someday" ideas in writeboards
  • centralizing our project notes as writeboards

We find that Basecamp works poorly for:

  • personal task management; we often transfer our basecamp tasks to Remember the Milk, where we each maintain an integrated personal "to do" list
  • sensitive communications with other team members (due to lack of privacy settings)
  • project planning (we use OmniPlan, then transfer milestones to Basecamp)

What we like about Basecamp:

  • industry standard -- most of our partners and subcontractors, and a few of our clients, have extensive experience with Basecamp
  • nice-looking user interface
  • client-friendly/intuitive to use
  • e-mail notifications include full text of the message
  • availability of 3rd party add-ons

What we need that we're not getting from Basecamp:

  • deadlines for specific tasks, not just milestones
  • priorities for tasks
  • ability to assign one task to multiple people (though I recognize that could be a mixed blessing)
  • ability to comment on a task
  • bug tracking (could be addressed by ability to comment on a task)
  • ability to make messages/to dos private when communicating with people outside our own company

Nice-to-haves would include:

  • spreadsheets (as well as writeboards)
  • personal calendaring
  • ability to store project templates so we don't have to recreate all our categories from scratch each time
  • option to automatically alphabetize categories
  • option to keep message categories and to-do lists in sync (i.e. creating a new to-do list would create a new message category with the same name)
  • tags in addition to categories
  • better RSS output and/or an iGoogle widget that lets us interact with our tasks from our Google homepages (as Remember the Milk does)

Basecamp alternatives

One of my favorite compulsive activities these days is looking into Basecamp alternatives. So far my conclusion has been -- to paraphrase Winston Churchill -- that Basecamp is the worst possible project management tool, except for all the others. Here are some of the "others" I have looked into, or mean to look into; I'll try to come back to this post and annotate the list with the reasons we haven't moved to any of these:



Unfuddle -- intriguing because it includes subversion and bug tracking

Clocking IT -- a free basecamp alternative, but as far as I can see no built-in messaging. Time tracking, though.

Michael Silberman of EchoDitto put me onto Central Desktop as a somewhat pricier Basecamp alternative that includes many of our concerns about Basecamp. We're trying it out, and it looks promising, although I'm a bit disappointed in the look and feel (it's not nearly as pretty as Basecamp) and daunted by the prospect of moving our projects over. However the prospect of being able to assign deadlines to tasks (imagine that!!) probably outweighs every other issue.

Brian Benzinger's roundup of project management tools for developers provides quick takes on some of the above, plus many more.

Other Resources

In the course of my obsessing over Basecamp and project management workflow I've found a number of useful blog posts on other people's use of Basecamp and Basecamp alternatives. For some reason many of the blog posts I've come across are by friends in the non-profit tech sector; I'm not sure if that's because of Google's freaky habit of customizing search results, or because non-profit techies are somehow more obsessed with workflow (comments, anyone?) Here are some of the posts I've found helpful.

Sonny Cloward mapped his workflow, which hinges on Basecamp, Backpack and Mozilla Calendar.

Jon Stahl provided an overview of collaboration practices at ONE/Northwest, which includes using Basecamp.

Ruby Sinreich blogged her thoughts on Basecamp plus GTD, which includes creating virtual "people" who represent different contexts, so she can assign her tasks to contexts.

LifeDev reports on using Basecamp with GTD, in this case using to-do LISTS as contexts.

Patrick Rhone blogs his GTD-with-Basecamp workflow.

Next steps

I'm going to take Central Desktop for a serious spin. I'm going to continue praying to the 37Signals gods for true Basecamp-Backpack integration, or to the Remember the Milk guys for Basecamp-RTM integration as an answer to their "how can we start charging for RTM?" quest. I'm going to try out Omni's forthcoming OmniFocus task manager.

And I'm going to resist the temptation to engineer an in-house Drupal solution to our project management wishlist. After all, our needs aren't THAT exotic, and there are an awful lot of people chasing the same vision. I'm trusting that one of them will get us much closer to a solution before long.

Meanwhile, I'm eager to hear from Rob Purdie and others about how we can improve our current Basecamp usage. In particular I'm curious to hear:

  • how people use Basecamp as part of GTD
  • best practices for to-do list structures and message categories
  • best practices for managing privacy and disclosure among staff, clients and contractors
  • advice on how to manage personal to-do lists within/alongside Basecamp
  • how people cope with Basecamp's lack of task due dates
  • experiences with Basecamp alternatives
  • advice on encouraging good Basecamp habits among staff, clients and contractors

And if you've blogged your own project management approach or workflow, please let me know by sending an e-mail to alex [at] socialsignal [dot] com, or posting a comment here.

Update: We've been receiving an awful lot of comments aiming to promote particular project management apps (for some reason, every project management post we do gets the same thing). Three and a half years strikes us as plenty of time for this conversation, so we'll call it a day for comments on this one.


Bastiaan says

September 26, 2007 - 11:39pm
TenForce offers online realtime dashboards and indicators to show you where you and your team are. This is next to all the classic features.

Evan says

October 2, 2007 - 5:40am
I just hought you'd be interested to read this article at I'm pretty happy with my Basecamp alternative :) Wrike's good for both personal planning and group work. As for me I keep all my project plans there and practice the GTD method. In this regard, you might wanna have a look at this post

Anonymous says

February 26, 2008 - 11:21pm
I have been testing TeamWork Live. Very Cool. Not as intuitive as I would like, but once I figured it out has LOADS of functionality that BaseCamp does not have. I am a Freelancer with many clients. This allows me to invite my clients and subcontractors to a team and keep track of everything ... similar to BaseCamp but ramped up 1000% AND the bonus is the price. VERY achievable.

Patrick says

July 29, 2010 - 3:12pm

That was very informative article for sure. We used Basecamp to manage all of our client projects for some time until we realized there was no way to clearly see and interact with all sides of our business (primarily on the project side) from anywhere, anytime. We looked for something as easy to use as 37signals Basecamp with an improved user experience and improved features, but couldn't find one, so we created it. We'll be releasing, our new productivity tool that will make it possible for users to manage their business the way they want in one simplified, powerful, sexy application on August 3, 2010. We're very proud of this project and would appreciate any feedback. You can check it out at

- Happy productivity and all the best from Team RULE

Anonymous says

December 12, 2007 - 11:31am
I went to and played with the project management application after signing up for a gold card that everyone gets and found the product does not live up to the name and does not provide what real project managers are looking for plus it kept dropping tasks so thanx but no

Frans Vanhaelewijck says

March 27, 2008 - 3:04am

I am the TenForce product manager. I would like to understand better what the 'anonymous' poster above is saying. I am not sure that it is correct.

We don't hand out tickets to everyone (we only do so after at least one or two phonecalls).

We've had our problems in our early beta versions, but I'm happy to say that 'loosing' tasks was never one of them. Maybe something was set incorrectly in the 'filter task' options so that the task appeared to be missing, while in fact it is still there.

So please get in contact with me on frans dot vanhaelewijck, so I can help you.

kr, Frans

Tuyen Truong says

September 27, 2007 - 4:19pm
Hi Alexandra, Great article on how your company is using Basecamp. I would like to recommend TeamWork Live (, my company's project management tool, to you as I think you can really benefit from it. TeamWork Live retains Basecamp's ease of use while addressing many of the issues that users like you have with Basecamp. It addresses all the things you are currently not getting from Basecamp except for the ability to assign one task to multiple people (we're working on that). What you will really like about TeamWork Live is our great Gmail-like internal messaging system. In TeamWork Live, messages are tightly integrated into the rest of the application. You can send a message to a team member about a task you are working on and all the replies are kept together with the task. You never have to go searching for related messages when you are working on a task again. When you send a message, the recipient can be notified of the message via email too. They can even reply to the message from their email without signing into TeamWork Live. Each user in TeamWork Live has a personal workspace that allows them to see their tasks, milestones, and documents across all of their projects. Each user also has a personal calendar that shows all of their tasks, milestones, and events across all of their projects. There are many other features. Please take a look at to learn more. I promise you will like what TeamWork Live has to offer. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at Regards, Tuyen, Founder

Joe Pringle says

April 16, 2008 - 1:58pm
Great post on how to get a group of busy people to actually adopt and use a new tool (and break the email habit). My company works with lots of organizations implementing tools like this, and we have had the pleasure of working with Central Desktop with some of our consulting clients. We also provide our own tool ProjectSpaces. that is similar in some ways to the tools being discussed here. In our opinion it does a really good job of providing the standard online workspace feature set in a highly intuitive way. It tends to work well for groups whose highest priority is a tool that needs to be very easy to use.

Crose says

October 1, 2007 - 12:50pm
Have you heard about Springloops? It's a subversion plugin that adds workflow to Basecamp. I haven't tried it - caveat - but the dev managers at the place I used to work were GAGA when they read what it could do. We never got to implement it because they didn't even want to consider using basecamp and were writing their own document archiving system (which isn't what basecamp is, but whatever). I keep waiting for someone to write a basecamp/fogbugz plugin. and I have all of your issues with basecamp. I appreciate it is what it is but the inability to comment means that everyone has to edit a to-do and put in html, which is a pain in the rear.

Bruno De Wolf says

October 2, 2007 - 12:11am
Did you check out ]project-open[ already (

WhyBaseCampSux says

October 28, 2007 - 9:06pm
I am *not* a fan of Basecamp or 37Signals and you can read about why at my Basecamp bitch site. Fortunately, there are many good alternatives and I've compiled quite a list of them at: Hope this helps your readers find good alternate project management solutions that meet their needs and that are not Basecamp.

Anonymous says

October 26, 2008 - 8:29am
One that we've used that I don't see on your list is GeniusRoom. It doesn't solve the project management problem (we use Jira), but it does a great job supporting client communication and team organization.

Isaac Garcia says

November 17, 2007 - 1:12pm
Central Desktop does have an import process to bring in Basecamp Project Data. There is a fee associated for the process, but it helps users converting to Central Desktop from Basecamp. Just contact anyone in support at if you want help.

John says

November 23, 2008 - 2:22pm
Intervals is another basecamp alternative that utilizes many of the features mentioned in your article.

Lars says

November 28, 2008 - 10:53pm
Hi Alexandra,

It quite a long time ago as you wrote this article. Buf if you are still using Basecamp and got familiar with OmniFocus, this is maybe something for you:

I put a little service called Spootnik ( together which synchronizes Basecamp directly with OmniFocus.

It is currently in private beta. If you like to test-drive it you can sign up here and join the private beta crew.

Best regards,

Alex says

April 23, 2009 - 4:15pm

Another good alternative to Basecamp is SantexQ. It's an online project management tool that focuses on task tracking but also has key features like invoicing, file uploads and even a punch clock. It's good for straightforward task management and is a good for those who need a simple yet elegant solution.

Erin says

April 25, 2009 - 5:35am

Check 5pm ( as well, it's a great project management tool and addresses the issues you listed about Basecamp. It also has a much more modern interface, requiring less clicks.

Rob Cottingham says

April 25, 2009 - 9:34am

It might be worth checking out... but to be honest, Erin, I probably won't. As a potential customer and a leader trying to get things done, 5pm's branding turned me off instantly. I'm interested in doing great, satisfying work collaboratively; that big graphic of people partying in the office tells me a) that this is going to make me less professional, not more, and b) that your app is built with the idea that work is something distasteful, to be avoided or finished hastily so the party can start.

And that's deeply reinforced by the link to a game on the site's front page encouraging me to "kill some time" until 5 p.m. Please, please tell your marketing team: if I'm a prospect looking for project management support, there's a good chance that my immediate problem isn't too much time.

Maybe your research is telling you something different. But as someone who loves what I do, and who wants my team to achieve great things, my immediate response is to look elsewhere for something built by people who understand I want to do great things, as opposed to just getting it over with.

You might think I'm putting superficial branding ahead of features and functionality. Actually, I'm not - I'm just a busy guy with a lot of other options to investigate and too little time to check them all out. And there's enough competition out there, enough other tools to check out, and too little time to spend burrowing down yet another project management dead end, that I'm unlikely to dive into a service whose brand proposition seems to be the opposite of what I'm looking for unless I get a compelling reason to think otherwise.

Dylan Clendining says

June 10, 2009 - 11:43am

I see your point which I initially missed the branding implications (and game link) when checking out 5pmweb. I don't entirely agree with you that this branding should make you not even look into this application further. The message I got from the 5pm was playing with what seems to be the standard among web professionals. I have many friends in other industries who take themselves very seriously (which is the feeling I got from your comments) only in practice they don't work as hard as I do. I've noticed a trend among collegues and partners of staying late, working weekends and i don't know people in many other indutries that get out of bed in the middle of the night to work. Because of that I have fun with what I do and joke around when I can. To me 5pmweb's approach was being playful with the assumption that their clients are working well past 5pm and need to find more time in their days so they can party by 4:55pm.


The game link kind of counteracts my point but... yeah.

Anonymous says

May 25, 2009 - 4:44am

I have used all the apps that you have mentioned in this post. I haven't been able to get GTD to play well with Basecamp. I think Basecamp was made with a totally different philosophy in mind, and getting it to adapt to GTD seems like way to many tricks are needed. I am in the process of dumping Basecamp, and inventing my own system with Word and Excel on a shared hosted server (VPN). 2 things have helped me that I will continue to use. A log of work (done,notes,where i'm stuck) and second the GTD action steps. Action steps help me choose my work to do, and the log "catches me up" on where I was in the process.

To me it's not about Basecamp but about how a teams chooses to align it's work efforts together on a bi-weekly basis in person, or by phone. In my experience when a meeting leader can run down a list of critical work efforts related to a project and get a status report then the magic begins to happen. Also, the bi-weekly meetings need to be consistant. Keep the goal of the individual work chunks in front of the team, so everyone doen't get distracted from what needs to get done. :-)

kimberly says

July 15, 2009 - 2:44pm

i am a graphic designer/project coordinator for a church. we have been using active collab for a long time now. it seems to have many things that basecamp doesn't but isn't as user friendly. has anyone used it and have any thoughts on it?

aC User says

July 29, 2009 - 6:25am

activeCollab has a great feature set, and is much more powerful than Basecamp. However, as the previous comment points out, it is not as user friendly for clients as it should be. If the developers would just take a week and address some key usability issues, it would blow Basecamp out of the water. I for one hope they take the time to improve the product.

The Collaboration Matrix or Why 1+1 = 3 says

August 1, 2009 - 9:38pm

[...] Leo Babauta has recently introduced me to Basecamp, (price: $24 for 15 projects). We are currently using it for creating the A-list Blogging Bootcamps. I like it a lot! It’s simple, clear and useful. (Read how other people are using Basecamp). [...]

Tom H. says

October 16, 2009 - 8:22pm

I like the 5pm brand. They got a good sense of humor. Though after checking their app you can see they are all about business. It looks like those guys stayed often very late past 5pm to build something advanced like that (yes, it's worth checking), and still make it look so easy to use that they can afford to make their marketing look "playfull". I dig it.

For all of those who have time to write long comment about branding, I would just recommend checking the apps first. Takes less time.

Rob Cottingham says

October 19, 2009 - 11:18am

I disagree, Tom; for me, anyway, it doesn't take less time to assess an richly-featured app than to write a comment. I'm skeptical that it would for anyone.

Google profiles Social Signal's project management says

December 10, 2009 - 2:10pm

[...] effort into finding the perfect solution to our project management needs. We've tried web apps like Basecamp and Remember the Milk, desktop apps like Daylite... but nothing has met all of our [...]

Alan Bleiweiss says

July 11, 2010 - 11:58am

One of my biggest clients uses Basecamp, along with Springloops and SVN religiously. Since I oversee many of their projects as an outsourced contractor, they set me up as an employee so I can participate in the private communications.

There's close to 40 or 50 projects in the system at any given time.

I totally agree with just about every "need" you've listed and most of the "nice to have" list as well.

I would add this though - for Writeboards:

1.  URL links we post should be clickable.  That's a big flaw with writeboards.

2.  it would be helpful if writeboards opened in a pop-up window.  The fact that they jump me out of the main flow of Basecamp is annoying as all get out.

Having said that, I can't imagine living without Basecamp.  Sadly one of my newest agency clients doesn't use it, though at my urging they recently began the process of setting it up.  So for now, it's painful managing and participating in projects with them.

Tony Mobily says

January 8, 2011 - 1:02am


I am biased, but... we recently released Apollo,

Apollo is both project and contact management (CRM). It has cases, shareable calendars, timers, and more.

Maybe give it a go!



Phillip Krick says

February 25, 2011 - 1:48pm

Awesome Post!  I've been trying to compile information like this for my company and wrote my own blog about why we're sticking with Basecamp.  Check it out if you're inclined:

Bill Abramovitz says

March 17, 2011 - 12:34pm

Thanks much for this informative post. We've been knocking out heads together to tame Basecamp, and some very obvious features are missing, e.g. Client Status Reports. Given the large number of projects for each client, the Dashboard, Calendar and other sorts are just not realistic. I would love to hear from anyone who has tailored reports using Basecamp's API. Meanwhile, it's good know we're not alone!

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