I’ve been using ActiveCollab for years, but today I discovered something that might change that. Trello is free, and is super-easy to set up and customize for any kind of use. I signed up and created a board for a sample WordPress project in about 10 minutes.

Trello sample project

There is no built-in chat tool, but there is a ‘subscribe’ option for every task, or ‘cards’ in Trello speak. Subscribe notifies a member of the board whenever the chosen card gets updated.

Tasks or cards can be anything, and contain lots of info:

  • a color-coded label
  • a set of members assigned to the card
  • checklists
  • uploaded files and images
  • due dates

I like the simple interface – a board consists of a set of lists, each list has one or more cards (tasks) assigned to it. Cards and lists can be rearranged by dragging and dropping, and cards can be archived when the task is complete.

Here’s a sample board with a general web design process theme, and another that shows Trello’s own development flow

I’m going to try Trello for my next project; I think my clients will have an easier time with it than with ActiveCollab.

Oh – almost forgot. There are mobile apps for iPhone and Android too; the Android one looks pretty good. I don’t think you can upload files/images into a board on a mobile device, but that’s the only difference I see so far.

About a month ago I was contacted by a company who had a big job (from my perspective as a freelancer), a WordPress conversion project, and a very short deadline. I chatted with the project director, the developer and a few others and was hired to do a small proof-of-concept task to both determine if WordPress was really going to be a good platform for what they needed, and to try out my company to see if we would be a good fit.

The POC went very well. It served as a good intro for me to their site’s structure and content styles, and the client was quite happy with the results. They asked me to write a full proposal that would include:

  • Creating a custom WordPress theme based on their current site’s design. It needed to be a pixel-perfect copy.
  • Migrating about 60 pages of content to the new platform.
  • Creating a set of 6 custom templates that would be used as the basis for another 30 or so pages.
  • A good deal of custom Javascript and PHP programming to integrate with their CRM and cart.
  • Helping with the WordPress migration and installation on their Amazon host.
  • Training for the client’s Marketing and Development teams.

Taking the Proposal to the Next Level

I’ve gotten quite good at writing estimates in the last few years, but this one needed more care.

I have a spreadsheet that I use for estimating hours that I used to feed all the info I had about this project into and came up with a preliminary number, but I knew that was just the beginning; I was very afraid of putting in something that was too low and terrified of comitting to something so big and fast without some input from someone else who had been there before. I needed to find out what team members I needed to pull in and get some estimating help from a friend who runs a web development studio and has more experience with quotes for this size project.

I met with my friend and things really started to flow from that meeting. Ron had two employees that had some time available in the following two weeks, which coincided with the short deadline, and between them they could provide the custom programming and some plugin support for about 25 hours of time. This was great! He helped me tweak my estimate and get in an appropriate amount of time for project management and unforeseen contingencies, and in the end I felt comfortable with the range of fees we provided to the client in the final version of the estimate.

Filling Out the Team

Writing the proposal helped me get a better handle on who I needed for the team. I had my programing covered, but I called on another colleague familiar with WordPress to do some tasks for me like managing widget placement and SEO tags on all pages, and then put out a call on the Women Designers’ Group mailing list, where I’m a member, for a few others who were experienced with custom theming for WordPress.

I was very lucky to find two women who had the time available to commit. One had a lot of custom theming experience similar to mine, and the other wound up contributing as quality control.

Jumping In With Both Feet

The client was happy with our quote and so they hired us and we were off and running. We had roughly 10 days to get the project to a point it was ready for extensive review and testing by the client’s Development and Marketing teams, and then three more days until it went live. The quick timing was due to some advertising that was coming out right after the launch date.

I’d never managed a project so big nor had I ever had so many subcontractors working on a single project. In order to help me keep everything together and moving forward steadily I used two tools:

  • activeCollab, my project management site, where I set up milestones and tasks for everything in the project development sequence, and where we posted files and held discussions between team members and the client’s contact people.
  • A Google Apps spreadsheet that served as the master guide for everything. This spreadsheet took about half a day to put together. It showed every page on the site, it’s statuses for content migration, custom templating and programming if needed, notes, review/QA status and other elements. One of my subcontractors serving as QA/QC checked off pages in review as they were completed, and the other subs had access to mark their progress on various tasks for each page.

The client was pleased with our implied level of understanding of the minutiae of the project based on the spreadsheet and basically let us go, checking in every day and asking/answering questions as needed. They kept a very close eye on our work, and during the entire course of the project we ran into very few snags. Things went pleasantly smoothly.

The Team!

Could not have done this without the subs, in particular the custom themer that made it possible for us to offer additional features in the templates that we originally told the client would not be possible given the short timeframe, and the programmer that took the initiative to move things forward based on ongoing conversations with the client’s lead developer.  The choice of subs turned out to be very nearly perfect and it was fortuitous that everyone on the team had the time to throw at this project during the work period.

Launch and Beyond

We had a few hours of hiccups when the site was migrated from my production server to the client’s Amazon Web Services hosting, but the project launched on time  and the client was very pleased. I provided training sessions and extensive documentation for them, and we’ve established a strong working relationship that is moving into Phase 2 at this time.

The Most Important Things I Learned

  • Allow plenty of time for project management and be sure to put in an equal amount of time for contingencies because you just never know what’s going to happen.
  • Get the right people to help.
  • Stay organized, used tools accessible by all team members to stay on top of every task taking place across the board.
  • Find some time away whenever you can. I wound up with a nasty bacterial infection during the launch phase that began as a simple cold, I’m pretty sure it was due to the 12-14 hour days I put in near the end.

And, having a good client is also a huge contributing factor for the success of this project. The Marketing and Development staff and the project manager for the client were all passionate about their company, knowledgeable (or enthusiastic and willing to learn) about how our contributions would be affecting their daily work after launch, and easy to work with, and that was refreshing; it helped us keep moving forward at a rapid pace with few interruptions. The project was complex but the experience was great for me. I’m looking forward to working with this client in the future.

After my beloved Franklin Covey PlanPlus software put its foot down and declared that it would not play nicely with Windows 7, I was really at a loss. I’d been using it for years and didn’t realize how dependent I was on it…

I spent some time looking around at task management tools and even tried a few, including Remember the Milk, Todoist, and taskTome.

TaskTome is the one I’ve been using for the past two weeks, and it’s not at all bad, but it just wasn’t, well, right. Yesterday I opened it and saw all those tasks listed, and I was like, ‘what in the world am I supposed to do today?’ I couldn’t answer that immediately. So in desperation, I went Googling again.

Last night I found HiTask. So very happy!

HiTask is an online tool that quickly caught my attention because of one main thing – I can look at it and tell immediately what I need to do today vs. tomorrow vs. later this week (HiTask is shown at lower right, TaskTome at upper left).

HiTask has a clean, bright interface and it has a calendar right on the same page with your task list. Tasks can be grouped by Date, Color (priority for me), MyView (which is whatever you want it to be) and Project. My favorite is Date because of my aforementioned need to see exactly what needs to be done and not have to think about it too much.

A very neat feature is the ability to create Projects and then drag tasks into them, so you can see all the things that need to be done for that particular project or client.

HiTask also has a tagging feature so you can search by tag at any time, plus it has time tracking and reporting tools.

I’m using the free version and I’m very happy with it, but there is a business version available that will let you share HiTask among team members. The business account is $29.00 per month and includes 5 user accounts.

More Resources

Here are a few of the useful articles I used in my own research – maybe one of them will lead you to your own little Holy Grail:

Today was super-busy.

I dreamed about being cold for several hours before finally waking up (with a 40-lb Springer spaniel laying on us) to find that it really was cold – the pilot light in the furnace had gone out and it was 58 F when we checked the temperature. Thankfully it doesn’t seem like it needs a repair, it’s fine tonight.

After breakfast, I finished up a proposal, packed up my project folders and notebook and went to spin class. I really like the group ride classes better than the ones that don’t even pretend to have anything to do with actual road riding. The class was full, but happily I got there early enough to get a pass (people without passes get booted).

Then I had three meetings in a row – first with a current client to discuss the SEO research my partner has completed; the second with a prospective client for whom we’re submitting a joint proposal; and the third for a current web design client who’s decided he wants his logo updated.

I went by the bookstore to look around for some inspiration about the logo, but didn’t really find what I was looking for. No problem; I’ll do some more Googling on the topic tomorrow. But I’m kind of glad today is over, work-wise…

Go on vacation, then come down with the flu the day after getting back and that tends to put out the fire when trying to catch up on work.

This week has been super-productive so far. I have a shoe store client for whom I’m integrating FoxyCart, a great little ecommerce system for smaller shops; today I added FoxyCart forms to about 30 products and finished the remaining cart setup, and tomorrow will be ready to build a checkout template.

I’m also integrating OptionCart for a BMW racing parts store – that’s nearly done. And a Plogger image gallery for the same company (which is now complete).

And…what else?

  • Finishing up a custom Javascript gallery for my typographer client, as well as 11 XHTML/CSS custom template pages. That should be done this week, I’m just working on a list of revisions.
  • Adding functionality to a large site for which I’m working as the developer only. I have a WordPress theme to build this week among other things.
  • Finishing up a WordPress site for a dentist – tomorrow I’ll be creating a template for her online scheduling tool.

Whew. Time to make dinner.

I started off the day planning to get some work done on three projects.

The first one – I got nothing done. I’m still waiting on an answer about the menu from the designer. I could have worked on the rest of the page, but I want to make sure I’m clear about that menu first.

The second one – I had a couple of emails from the client about little tweaks. I didn’t hear back from the last reply, and I really don’t want to move forward the remaining templates until those little things are worked out because I’ll be repeating work.

The third one – a big Joomla project – I was cruising along on that one until about 12:15 when I tried to save a change in a component and Firefox said ‘no.’ Actually what it said was ‘cannot connect to server.’

Puzzling. Looking around a bit I discovered that I suddenly had no access at all to any of my sites or my clients’ sites at HostGator.

I got into chat with HostGator tech support and discovered that he could see all those sites. I checked my laptop – again, ‘cannot connect to server.’

I went down into the Basement of Large Spiders and rebooted the modem. Back upstairs in the office, I rebooted my computers. Still not able to connect. So I called Comcast and was told they’d check it out but it could be 72 hours before I got a response.

You’re kidding me, right? That’s not very Comcastic.

I got on Twitter and mentioned my problem. Five minutes later a Comcast rep contacted me and had me email my problem details to her.

In the meantime I submitted a ticket at HostGator and heard back about 15 minutes later. The problem turned out to be on their end, not Comcast’s (very unusual) and involved an IP address in their firewall.

So anyway, by about 2:10 this problem was resolved and I could get back to work – only I had a doctor’s appointment. I wound up not getting home until around 3:45 and then got sidetracked again and wound up writing up a quote rather working on one of those projects.

Sigh. I hope tomorrow is less eventful, but I kind of doubt it will be. I have a 2-hour meeting in the morning at 7:30, then I have to train a client in New York on the use of Contribute. Busy busy.