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A closer look at online project management software for SMBs on a budget

You're a small business looking to get organised. The technology's out there, you know that. The problem is dedicated project management software looks unaffordable – or so you think. Luckily for you, I've waded through the web to find four of the best options for small businesses on a budget. Some of these offer free trials, and some are free – albeit in limited versions – and all are relatively cost-effective online solutions, so platform isn’t an issue. There will be plenty of opportunities to upgrade – and indeed, some might be worth it for your business.

Online project management software cleaves into two halves: The management of projects – calendars, milestones, tasks, and to-dos – and the online communication between team members, freelancers, and vendors – whiteboards, forums, chat and messaging systems. Along the same lines, there are two presiding philosophies to online project management: Less is more, and more is more.

On the more is better side of the spectrum, AceProject and Zoho Projects are the finest options I have encountered. Both have online storage, plenty of (paid) options to grow your business, and can be customised to the core. Whereas Ace is high when it comes to free projects, storage, and tracking functionality, Zoho serves up an alphabet of features and ancillary products.

When it comes to stripping excess and delivering clean, functional software, small business owners need look no further than Huddle and Basecamp. Neither piece of software sings from the spec sheet, but when it comes to real-world use and simplicity of configuration and maintenance, both are tops. Huddle boasts the finest file management system of the lot as well as options to bundle web, audio, and video conferencing. Basecamp is excellent, offering integration with existing technologies, and a dead-simple setup process.

As entry-level offerings, none of these options are perfect. No single option trumps all others in all respects. Instead, small business owners would do well to assess their needs and identify the product that satisfies, and can scale to, their business. If you love it, upgrade it. The great thing about these offerings is that you can avail yourself of a free version, or a free trial, to determine their suitability.

AceProject (free for 2 projects)

For small businesses aspiring to get and stay organised, AceProject looks like the best card in the deck. This free online project management software will not only help you keep tabs on projects, but it'll also help you manage employees and expenses. With a quarter gig of free storage, FTP access, versioning, and up to two projects and five users for free, AceProject looks like the ace in the hole until you start playing. However, the UI does leave a little to be desired.

Basecamp (60-day free trial)

Basecamp is one of the major players in project management software. It helps small businesses and large businesses, from wedding planners to hedge fund managers, to get and stay organised. While other online services like Zoho Projects and AceProject heap on the features – and complexity – Basecamp remains the simplest, fastest, and most scalable service available. You can try it free for two months and find out yourself.

Huddle (14-day free trial)

With the ability to manage projects, store files, schedule and hold meetings, and facilitate communication through wikis and forums, Huddle hands small businesses many of the tools they'll need to get organised. While services like Zoho Projects and AceProject function as Swiss army knives of online tools, Huddle acts as a scalpel. Despite some limitations in its entry-level offering, where Huddle operates, it's effective – file management is exceptional, and online collaboration is finely tuned. Also note that these days, Huddle is being positioned more as an accompaniment to project management software, and an alternative to SharePoint in particular for enterprise-level collaboration.

Unfortunately, you only get a two week free trial, which seems a bit miserly compared to Basecamp’s two months, but still – it’s well worth a look. For more details, check out our Huddle review.

Zoho Projects (free for 1 project)

Zoho Projects is the poster child for the "more is more" school of thinking in online project management. Zoho dishes out a smorgasbord of online tools for small business communication and organisation. The complementary version serves up the largest entree of online collaboration tools, including messages, forums, wikis, and online chat. At the same time, Zoho is a zealous manager. You can configure project milestones, assign responsibilities, set due dates, schedule meetings, and even post documents to an online storage space. If your needs grow, Zoho can accommodate with a wide selection of paid services. On the downside, the app is high maintenance, and the UI can be confusing – plus the free version only allows you to run 1 project, with 10MB of storage.