From the March 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

It's Saturday--just three days before a major deadline for one of your biggest clients. You head to the office for a status report and, lo and behold, no one else bothered to show up.

Should you assume this is because the project has been completed and you have absolutely nothing to worry about? Not if you're a smart entrepreneur. Instead, you're more likely to jump on the phone and track down all the various people involved in the project to figure out what the heck is going on.

If you're ready to leave those frantic, last-minute status reports behind for good, consider project management programs like Microsoft Project, SureTrak and TurboProject, which can help you stay on top of your projects from start to finish. Not only can they help you meet deadlines, but they can also assist you in allocating he time and resources that are necessary for you to get your work done.


Cassandra Cavanah is a computer journalist with an entrepreneurial focus who's made a homebased career of writing and consulting on tech-related issues. She can be reached at ccavanah@earthlink.net.

Project Perfect

The term "project" encompasses a wide array of responsibilities, from planning and executing an important event to manufacturing and distributing an order of widgets. A large variety of businesses rely on their project management software for tasks that involve multiple employees, equipment, resources and, of course, deadlines.

Are you a good candidate for project management software? You might be if the following sounds familiar: You estimate it should take your team eight to 10 weeks to design, manufacture and ship 3,000 widgets. However, your company falls behind, failing to meet deadlines or spending way too much money on overtime and temporary personnel to try and meet those deadlines. You start to place blame on your production team, even though (unbeknownst to you) there just wasn't sufficient time allocated for the design phase of the project.

Charts and graphs that come with project management software allow entrepreneurs to map out their projects from start to finish, including tasks, resources and related costs. Not only will you be able to estimate a time frame for each project, but you will also be able to create a budget. Project management programs help you figure out where the bottlenecks are, manage customer expectations better and efficiently use your resources to get the job done. But be forewarned: Project management software comes with a fairly steep learning curve. You're not only learning a new program, but also a new way of thinking.

The Players

One of the key players in over-the-counter project management software is Microsoft. Its Project 98 is, according to Microsoft, the most widely used project management program. By the time you read this article, Microsoft Project 2000, the upgrade to Project 98, will be hitting store shelves. Because it's part of the Office family, Project 2000's interface should be familiar to Office users. Although it's a complex program, it's fairly easy to navigate. Beginners can work with it at one level while experienced users can dive right in and take full advantage of its features.

The new version of Project adds essential collaboration features including Project Central, an add-on Web tool that lets users access, interact with and manage projects in a familiar Web-browser environment. Project Central also lets users outline project plans and make them available to team members via the Web. Team members can make changes to the project, reassign duties, identify missing tasks and provide real-world time estimates. Those notes can then be returned to the project manager to finalize the plan. Essentially, once the plan is developed, team members can use Project Central to report back to the project manager, making pro-ject management a true group effort.

Another popular project management program is SureTrak Project Manager from Primavera Systems Inc. With features similar to Project 2000, SureTrak can act as a stand-alone project manager or a companion tool to the professional-level Primavera Project Planner (P3). SureTrak is an obvious choice for entrepreneurs currently using P3.

SureTrak's features also make this program a viable choice as a stand-alone project manager. Its KickStart wizard guides you through your project strategy, helping you identify project phases, clarify and establish goals, anticipate obstacles and delegate assignments. SureTrak also comes with a Web-publishing wizard to automate the process of building and maintaining Web pages with up-to-date SureTrak reports. Project participants can view tasks and collaborate on activity details via the Web.

For those looking for a quick and dirty solution to project management, TurboProject Express should fit the bill. Designed to make time planning easy, TurboProject Express lets users create schedules, time lines and charts without the severe learning curve you might experience with other programs. For the more ambitious, IMSI Software also offers TurboProject, which promises to "think like you do" without the rigidity found in Microsoft Project or SureTrak.

TurboProject takes a top-down approach to project management, letting the user opt for a loose layout approach by enabling drag-and-drop changes to a project's timeline--which is difficult to attain with traditional project management.

The bottom line? You can't just expect your team to meet the deadlines you set without helping them through each phase. By properly outlining a project from the start, you'll be able to better estimate both the time and costs associated with it as well as form well-thought-out budgets--things any entrepreneur can benefit from.

Report Cards

Project 2000


Street price: $499

Pluses: Minimal learning curve for Microsoft Office users, Internet collaboration

Minuses: None noted

Microsoft

(425) 882-8080


SureTrak Project Manager

Street price: $399

Pluses: KickStart wizard helps novices get started.

Minuses: Minimal collaboration capabilities

Primavera Systems

(800) 973-1335


TurboProject Express

Street price: $39.95

Pluses: Affordable option, minimal learning curve

Minuses: Lacks features found in high-end packages

IMSI Software

(415) 878-4000