In doing the research for this story, I realized the question is not how to choose time-tracking software, but rather the difficulties with choosing time-tracking software. I’ve never had to evaluate a specific type of software like this, so as with everything else in life, I asked Mr. Google a bunch of questions on how to track time for project management.
Timesheets for clocking in and out
Before we get into why this was a difficult problem to figure out, let’s go back a bit. Way back. Did you ever work at a store or restaurant in high school where you had to clock in on a punch card?
This may look familiar. It’s pretty amazing that this technology is still being used today. But for knowledge workers, time-tracking software is more convenient and easier for management to track hours worked.
Source: Handshake 2.0
At my first job in 2007, I used a version of Kronos’ time-tracking software that involved manual time entry into little boxes. There was an online interface so I could open the tool in the browser, but the tool was severely lacking in functionality. I typically logged the same hours every week and wish there was a way to use a template of sorts to log my time entries. Unfortunately, I had to copy and paste my start time, and time, lunch period, etc. box by box, week by week just to document my billable hours.
There should’ve been a separate time tracker just for the time I spent copying and pasting into this software.
Why did my employer pick this software for time-tracking? Was it part of some bigger software platform where we already had a license? Why couldn’t this just be done in spreadsheets?
How to find the best time tracking app
If you Google “time-tracking software,” you’ll see search results like this:
Lot of ads, of course, but the first organic results are companies offering “free” time-tracking software. Going to every single link and reading about the company, pricing, etc. seems like a big waste of time if I just want the best time-tracking software that fits my business and my needs. What are some strategies for picking the “right” software?
Getting a referral from a friend (probably the best strategy)
Browsing B2B product comparison sites and blog posts (if you scroll down on the search results you’ll see sites like G2 Crowd and PC Mag that do a good job of this)
Talking to someone one the phone from one of these companies (ugh.)
If we revisit the original software I used from 2007 (Kronos), you’ll notice their website has spruced up quite a bit making me feel like the software has been updated too:
Unlike some of the time tracking tools with “free” plans, Kronos doesn’t have any link to pricing and instead requires you to schedule a demo with a salesperson or putting in your e-mail just to see an online demo just to talk about their paid plans. As a small-business owner (Kronos’ target market), do I have the time to sit through a sales call just to learn the pricing of the product? Again, I just want a piece of software that fits my business and my needs.
Having done SaaS sales and business development before, I’ve found that requiring a potential small business customer to get on the phone to hear your pitch can backfire. If the potential customer is a large customer, you are now thinking, perhaps they have deep pockets and I can charge a different rate than what I would offer a small business. In today’s digital world, I believe customers large and small value transparency and predictability, which is why I think having the pricing on your website goes a long way with building trust with your potential customers.
Unbundling time tracking features
Digging deeper into some of these “free” time tracking solutions, you see pricing tiers that is typical of most software bundles.
Typically there is a free tier that gives you limited usage. Then as the bundle price increases, you get more features added to the bundle. This is a step in the right direction in terms of transparency and predictability, but what if I want to pick and choose a feature from the “Starter” bundle and one from the “Enterprise” bundle? Well, that type of customization requires you to get on the phone again with a salesperson so that you can get a “custom” rate for the package of features you want. What happens when your small business grows and you need more features? You guessed it! You’re back on the phone negotiating a new rate.
For several years, part of my morning routine was watching SportsCenter while eating a bowl of cereal. I’d catch up on top plays, listen to Stephen A. Smith go off on some athlete, and then get ready for work. Over time, I realized the only channel I watched was ESPN, and I never watched any other channels that were available to me.
I was paying $70 a month to Time Warner to watch SportsCenter! Having made this realization, I called Time Warner to see if there was some sports package that only included ESPN, ESPN2, and TNT to watch NBA games. Of course, the response from Time Warner was that no such package exists. At the time, channels were bundled together and consumers didn’t have transparency into the cost for just streaming one cable channel. A couple years later, YouTube, Netflix, and the Internet disrupted what it means to subscribe to channels.
What if we could have the same level of mix and match-ability with picking the software we use? Can the time-tracking software I buy be customized down to the color of the buttons I press to log my hours? (If you’re interested in this topic of open architecture, I wrote
If you want your own automatic time-tracking software, then you will inevitably come to this age-old question of whether to buy something off the shelf or build something yourself. For most small business owners, building a hacked together tool in Google Sheets or Excel will suffice, but these solutions lack the sophistication of a true app that:
Looks and feels like a mobile app
Prevents the end user (e.g. your employees) from messing up the formulas and calculations
One of our Makers decided to build his own time-tracking software that solves these two issues. You can see the
. Instead of settling with a piece of software that may not fit his needs, the Maker built an app that can be used in the field (e.g. mobile) and can be edited easily. This means buttons can be moved around or created at a whim, data flows through all parts of the app, and data can be sent out to other services like Zapier, Gmail and Slack via
This not only improves the real-time time logging experience, it goes a step further to partially automate workflows related to time tracking. The best part? You can use this simple time tracker as a desktop app or on the go on your mobile device.
The simple way to find the best free time-tracking software
As you meandered through this story, I hope the lesson you walk away with is this: searching for the best time-tracking software will inevitably disappoint you as your business grows and changes.
The simple solution is not finding the app that will solve all your time-tracking needs, but rather building the app with the tools you have at your disposal. Not only can you customize the app to meet your business and your needs, you have the power to add new features yourself without needing an expensive developer streamline your app as your business needs change. Now that is time-tracking software I can get behind :).
Common FAQs about time tracking software
What is the best time tracking software?
Popular time tracking apps include Clockify, Toggl, Freshbooks, TimeCamp, and Harvest. Whether it is the ‘best’ really depends on your needs from a time tracking app. Is it for employee time tracking or are you a freelancer trying to clock billable hours? We believe that building a custom time tracking solution is the best way to go as you can adapt its functionality to fit your needs like a glove.
Is time tracking good or bad?
Done well, it can be an awesome time management tool to help keep projects pacing towards goals. However, time tracking coupled with poor communication can lead to micromanagement and make team members feel stifled. As with any tool, time tracking apps can be good and bad depending on how they are used.
Should I use time tracking apps for my remote team?
Time tracking can bring more transparency to project management and working relationships. Using a time tracking app for your remote team can be hard to do well especially if your team is globally distributed. It might be a good option to support with project scoping and goal setting, but not the best if the goal is to track work hours as a means of employee monitoring throughout the work day.
Can I automate time tracking?
If you have a consistent billable time schedule, you can automate your time tracking inputs by using templates. With the right combination of tools, you can automate the output of your time tracking workflow, such as generating tsheets, reporting features, and even invoicing.
A few of the 25,000+ teams that 🏃♀️ on Coda.
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