I had a hard time fully getting my head around Podio, an online business tool for project management and communication, until I saw it in action. Podio is something like an online social network, like Facebook, only for businesses, and a little like a project management platform, such as Basecamp or even Asana, but it somehow manages to be so much more than either.
As an online project management application, Podio is flexible and open. It is whatever you want it to be. For a small business owner who's ready to grow – someone just at the brink of being able to keep all the business' processes, workflows, and clients in his or her head – Podio may be the perfect next step. It certainly takes some work to get it there, but Podio really is an ideal tool for a small business owner with a clear picture of how her business operates.
What is Podio?
The best way to describe Podio is to think of it like a social network, where different people have their own accounts that are unique to them and their relationships, with a project management platform layered into it. Relationships can be between people (direct report to manager, for example) or between people and projects (e.g. lead designer on Project X).
All the tools you'd expect to see in a social network, such as a chat app and email-like messaging space, are at your fingertips. Likewise, you can look at any user profile to learn more about the person, such as their title and contact information. An area for workspaces is where you create and manage individual projects or clients.
Every user has the power to assign tasks and responsibilities to other users, add deadlines for tasks, and handle other things that are typical to project management.
What makes Podio a little different, though, is the level of customisation you can put into an account. Because I found it difficult to recreate the inner workings of a small business and actually test the customisation fully on my own, I visited a small US startup company that uses Podio as its primary work tool to see how Podio actually plays out in reality.
Podio in action
Vert Mobile, a marketing and digital media company in Atlanta, started using Podio about two years ago when the company looked like it was ready to grow. Since then, Vert has gone from about three employees to having 12 in-house, plus a few occasional contractors and freelancers. Kevin Planovsky, one of the company's co-founders, showed me Vert's Podio account from front to back: How it works, the customisations they've made, and the people at Vert who use it (which is everyone, and then some, including clients).
Planovsky is clearly the brains behind the structure of Vert's highly customised Podio account. From my own use of Podio and conversations I had at Vert, it's clear to me that any business' success with Podio starts with a person who understands the structure of the business well enough to map it out in Podio. The tool is actually very simple to use – it's knowing what you want to do with it that's the biggest hurdle.
Vert uses Podio for almost all internal communication, with email playing only a very minimal role. Podio acts as their hub for not only projects and tasks, but nearly every aspect of the business, including gathering job applications during the hiring process. (They used Podio to set up a web form, which they then put live on a website, and anytime an applicant filled out the form, all the data saved to a Recruitment workspace of Podio. Pretty neat, right?)
They set up Podio to be their fax machine and capture incoming voicemails. They use it to praise employees for completed work. It's central to nearly all Vert’s day-to-day operations.
Podio can connect to other applicable services, too. Vert, for example, connects its Podio account to an online storage service where the company stores documents, in lieu of putting them on a server.
Out of the box, Podio has a few basic areas to access: Contacts, calendar, and tasks, which are all what you'd expect them to be. The next phase of building out Podio is to add more apps. Visually speaking, apps appear as various sections of Podio – the top navigation bar icons. There's a marketplace of pre-built apps that you can install, such as an expense report tool, a sales meeting area, a bug reporting tool, and so on. You can very easily select from the pre-built ones and add them to your account.
The team at Vert does not use any of these pre-fab apps, preferring to build their own instead. The tools used to build apps are drag-and-drop enabled. There's a whole app building kit that is extremely simple to use, and judging from the fully formed Podio account of Vert Mobile, it gets even easier to build custom apps the more you use Podio because you can reuse pieces from other custom apps you've already built.
If building your own apps isn't on the cards, the pre-existing apps come with user ratings as well as suggestions for related apps. For example, when I added the "Deliverables" app, Podio recommended I also install the "Projects" app.
In talking with Planovsky at Vert, he lamented the lack of a tool for archiving a completed project. He never wants to delete work, which Podio lets you do, but he does want the ability to remove a workspace from the Podio dashboard once it's complete. For the time being, they use a quick and dirty workaround of simply renaming the finished workspace so that it appears at the bottom of the list alphabetically.
Another missing piece? Time-tracking tools. You can use Podio to log hours worked, but there aren't any tools that record time while you work.
Organisations with fewer than five people in-house and five external collaborators can use Podio for free. However, free users miss out on access rights and controls, a main selling point of the product.
If you have more than five people in-house, you'll need a Podio Teams Premium account, which costs $9 (£5.80) per month per user, a reasonable price for small group. The next step up is a Podio Business account, and the pricing isn't public for what amounts to an enterprise-level subscription that includes personalised training and support.
Podio offers a lot for small businesses, especially those led by someone who has a very clear picture of how the business operates, and has the ability to map that structure into Podio. The tools are all there for building – it's figuring out how to map out your business with them that's hard. Entrepreneurs looking to centralise their workflow and communication into one non-email tool can really thrive with Podio.