Three plus years ago when we were fresh into our new business as a web development group we were sitting in our first office which was a retrofitted studio apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, abutting one of our then clients who hooked us up with the space.
We had just landed 2 bigger clients and were having trouble managing all of the work at once so we looked into project management software. Still pinching pennies, we wrote off paid services right away. We stumbled upon an open source solution which appeared to be a perfect fit. It allowed you to create projects, assign them to clients, create milestones, tasks, etc. All of the features of a paid service for free. What a great find!
After firing off user creation emails to our clients and loading up the software with pertinent info to the projects we hit our first snag; broken links on the dashboard. Shrugging it off as first time user glitch we chugged on. Unfortunately the glitches did not stop. After reaching out to the software community we quickly realized that the product was far from production ready and the support was nonexistent.
After walking away with our tail between our legs and yanking the tool from our clients we didn't revisit a solution for several months. Finding ourselves in a similar overloaded situation we investigated the cost of Basecamp. Being the chosen solution of the web design/development community we thought it would be a good starting point.
We quickly realized that for under $30 a month we could be using the premiere project management software for our field, complete with support and updates. After bringing our clients on board, we received only praise for utilizing such a professional tool. Of course there is always resistance by some clients to use something new, but that is a whole other article all together.
Since we've been using Basecamp we've had no snags with features, or glitches. Even when the site is down for very brief maintenance, they always give you ample warning.
The moral of the story is that there is always an implied cost with using something for free. Don't get me wrong, there is another big lesson learned to always investigate thoroughly before you implement a new procedure; especially one that involves your clients. However you should always be careful on how you use free services.
We utilize a lot of free software. We're big advocates of the open source community. This web site is built on Drupal, an open source content management system. The biggest difference is that this site is not directly client facing in terms of regular interaction. We've also setup clients with several open source solutions for their own web sites, but they are well educated on the pros/cons of using open source software.
Any tools you are using to engage your clients i.e. project management software or invoicing software, you should either use a paid service with reliable support or have complete control over the software, so you can make rapid updates/fixes. Client facing software is a reflection of your company and professionalism. Client's do not often connect the dots (nor should they have to) that you are using proprietary, paid, open source, etc software solutions; they just know if it works or not. If it doesn't work, they'll hold you accountable; so be careful of what you associate your company with.