37signals suite review: Is it worth upgrading? First fix the suite integration and syncing guys…

We are very big Basecamp users (we hover between 70 and 100 active projects at any given time). We've been waiting a long time for a 37signals suite. I've been curious to try Campfire seriously (which we can only do in the context of a large account).

Finally they delivered and the offer is pretty good. For Highrise for example, the account bundled in the $149 would normally cost $149 by itself. Of course, what we'd need or use would fit into the Plus at $49/month (although we'd be close with the 15 user limit). In the end, we haven't said yes yet.

37signals Suite Review
37signals Suite Review

Value of the offer.

The Pro suite is equivalent of:

$99 Basecamp (100 projects)
$149 Highrise (50,000 contacts, unlimited employees: we'd need $49 separately)
$149 Backpack (10,000 pages, larger than any existing Backpack plan: we'd need $49 separately)
$49 Campfire (60 users instead of 75: we'd need $24, 25 users)

So for a single fee of $149, the paper value is $445/month. The real value if we used the services to the max with our existing staff and client list is $222/month.

The value proposition is great, with plenty of room to expand. But my main question is upgrading going to improve our business processes and our lives. I'm not sure yet.

Here's my main concerns:

  • increasing our dependence on 37signals: it's always dangerous to put too much of your business process in the hands of any third party, as Microsoft customers have learnt to their peril over the years. Lock-in. Right now we are waiting on 37signals to improve the mobile versions to stop complaints from BlackBerry users.
  • Backpack does not allow you to export pages to html (only Writeboards will go cleanly). That's a nuisance as the source code is so messy you can't just view source and move it over. I was thinking about using Backpack for the drafts of our documentation but we'll just keep doing it as WordPress drafts in  Foliopress WYSIWYG. So we'd be unlikely to use Backpack much, although our SEO department might go back to using it for collaborating with external writers.

    Each writer could have his or her own page. We'd get all our documents then in standard format, ready for html. This did work really well for us at one point.
  • Campfire will be great for quick chats, but I'm worried that a lot of coherent conversation will just end up in these quick chats and hence not be searchable from Basecamp. So Campfire is a plus and a minus. Currently we get by very well with Skype for this kind of communication. With this step, we could eliminate Skype from our workflow along with any IM service.
  • Highrise. Really we'd like to use Highrise. We need a better sales process (one with less me in the middle of it, and it looks like Highrise might be the solution). We are still doing a lot of work with Relenta for outgoing group email and may manage to replicate our sales process in Relenta, but Dmitri and the guys have slowed down in terms of improving Relenta and before totally committing to Relenta, we'd like to see some new features and a faster upgrade schedule.

There's a good chance we'll eventually end up upgrading just for Highrise. If we do, then 37signals scores big as we'd be able to move our clients in real estate over to Highrise which has lots of great features for real estate (deals and cases).

Focusing on Highrise: Integration with external tools and even with Basecamp itself

Our main accounting and invoicing tool is Freshbooks. We love Freshbooks and did contribute a lot of tweaks to its development a couple of years ago. Freshbooks totally satisfies our sophisticated four currency and fifteen member team's needs now so we don't need to bother to ask for too many improvements anymore.

Highrise does integrate with Freshbooks. But frankly, integration with Freshbooks stinks. It's a simple import tool really, with no information or links shared back and forth. On the other hand, JavelinCRM/CapsuleCRM (too bad about the forced rebranding guys) does full integration with Freshbooks, even fetching Freshbooks financial data automatically. As Freshbooks is now the center of our client contact data, I'd really appreciate better integration here before jumping on board. In fact, data sync is one of the biggest issues we have with the 37signals suite.

Even their own Basecamp doesn't integrate with Highrise. The best 37signals now offer is importing Basecamp contacts into Highrise. The problem with this integration is that normally a contact would start in Highrise as a lead and only later move to Basecamp as part of a closed deal. Get ready for data reentry, 37signals user. Moreover, Highrise won't sync with Apple Address Book or Google Contacts. I know sync is one of the worst productivity killers for app developers (burns up to 90% of programming resources), but some kind of working sync is really pretty important in this day and age at least for core contact information.

The generally unfriendly attitude of 37signals to sync (even among their own products) makes me very reluctant to upgrade to their suite or integrate Foliovision more deeply. Take another example: Backpack. For everyone I'd like to add to Backpack I have to do it by hand. Not the end of the world for the twelve core Foliovision employees, but I would think as a suite subscriber, there would be a shortcut allowing me to pick people from my Basecamp contacts or Highrise contacts.

Highrise: the competitive landscape

Highrise does very well against SalesForce (expensive), SugarCRM (free but complicated), ACT (difficult to use) and TopProducer (expensive and complicated). It's more interesting to hold 37signals feet to the fire against similar best of breed web applications.

So in this case, whether I go for CapsuleCRM or Highrise/suite, I end up with no sync between my CRM and Basecamp. At least with CapsuleCRM, I do get sync with Freshbooks making that part of life easier.

The next issue we run into are todo's. Our whole team has all of their todo's in Basecamp so they see all their todo's in one place. They can even order their todos with our new tool Ascent List. With Highrise todo's this working system would be temporarily broken and they'd have to look in two places. We can fix that though.

Now we do get to a rub here. 37signals is great on volume pricing. With Basecamp, I'm limited by 100 projects in my current account but as many staff and as many clients as I'd like. CapsuleCRM would charge me $12 per staff member. If I wanted to bring the core Foliovision staff on board (most of them would hardly use it, but locking them out of our CRM is hardly the hallmark of a progressive organisation), I'd be looking at about $150/month. I.e. three times more expensive than the Highrise solution. With the Highrise solution, we'd also be able to keep growing with no incremental cost.

I can solve the cost issue by just adding sales and admin staff to CapsuleCRM for about $60/month. It would be great if CapsuleCRM would do some kind of bundles for small business like Freshbooks and 37signals, even if it means two levels of users (one kind can't use the sales tools).

Highrise: Mailing out

37signals think of themselves a high-minded lot. The last thing they'd like to be bothered with are spam complaints and ISP relations. Hence there is no mailing functionality in Highrise. This is where Relenta shines. You have your contacts which you can easily place into groups. You can put them on email sequences when they arrive, or even later. You can send out mass emails to any group with the click of a button.

Highrise could make this all a reality by plugging into an external email provider. Unfortunately when they created their API, 37 signals left tags out. Meaning that it was very difficult to send to the right people with an external email provider (SendLoop, Newsberry, MailChimp, ConstantContact).

Only MailChimp has had the patience to come back now that the API has been improved and rework their Highrise sync. It actually seems pretty good now. Alas, I don't care for MailChimp. Just a bit too funky and a bit too fiddly. Really like SendLoop when I tried them but no real Highrise sync. Advantage, Relenta (integrated). CapsuleCRM, neutral (MailChimp integration but a bit weaker than Highrise).

Returning to value: TCO

The 37signals bundle is a great deal for any small business. Maintaining these tools, let along building them, from open source software would be many times the monthly cost in time of using their suite. The suite even includes time tracking in Basecamp (again I must say we use the Freshbooks time tracking as it's more robust for billing purposes and as usual with 37signals, the sync/integration is pretty weak) so apart from invoicing, you have almost all of your business needs met apart from an internet connection and a telephone line. You won't even need to bother with local networking (always a hassle) unless you are editing video as the online network from just Basecamp is robust enough to fill all your needs.

With this suite you can scale up to 100 projects, 50,000 contacts and unlimited employees for just $149/month. That's easily $1500/month of infrastructure for $150 when you count admin and IT hours.

Just fix the syncing and interaction with external tools and between the apps to be more robust and I'm on board. Yesterday. In the meantime, we'll hobble along with just Basecamp and look elsewhere for our CRM solution to Relenta and CapsuleCRM.

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12 Responses to 37signals suite review: Is it worth upgrading? First fix the suite integration and syncing guys…

  1. Thanks Alec – really useful observations

    I’m building a team of independent associates to work in larger client situations. The launch of the 37signals suite has triggered my decision to build the team collaboration framework around these products.

    I searched on “37signals suite review” and came across your post.

    Your article is particularly helpful because you know the products sufficiently well, and you clearly have a lot of respect for the people.

    You have identified some of the issues I can expect. Thanks again.

  2. Alec, thank you for your article about the new 37Signal Suite and for posting on the 37Signals Answer boards. You probably don’t feel as frustrated as I feel but at least I know there are other Users who want more from 37Signals than what is being delivered.

    The 37Signals Suite at first blush looks impressive. And it could be but for the lack of centralization and true email and contact sync.

    In late 2010, there should be no need for anyone to type a contact’s information more than once or download a vCard and upload it to 37Signals’ product.

    And tasks across Basecamp and HighrishHQ?
    They too should be integrated in the Suite. When I have a task assigned to me in Basecamp, it should bloody well show up in HighriseHQ on the right side of the page.

    But I could understand these short-comings IF there were relevant conversation coming from the 37Signals team regarding what they believe matters most to their Customers and Prospects.

    Instead, they deftly avoid the elephant in the room and want to talk, instead, about how their new internal app makes them better decision makers as to what to do next… REALLY?

    Even the blog post about the launch of their Suite (http://productblog.37signals.com/products/2010/11/launch-the-37signals-suite.html) does not address a roadmap or the concerns Users have about syncing contacts and email. At least throw us a bone!

    It is not enough to roll out a new product and call it a “Suite” when the only benefit is “simplified billing.”

    Suite implies Integration. Compatibility. AND SYNCHRONIZATION!

  3. Hi Valerie,

    Thanks for posting.

    I think there is more integration coming at least for the contact database. 37signals has been taking product development more seriously in the last twelve months (todo dates anyone? project templates? moving items between projects? never say never) since more helpful competitors like TeamworkPM.

    We have a nice add on for Basecamp called Ascent List which is now in beta. Adding Highrise support won’t be too difficult (I hope). At which point many of your workflow issues across applications will be fixed (not the contact database sync alas: we’ll have to wait on 37signals for that).

  4. This a great review. I keep coming back Highrise and deciding if I want to invest my time and money into this system. I currently use Basecamp, but use Batchbookblue.com for CRM – they have one way google sync from Batchbook to gmail -and others such as Freshbooks, Mail Chimp, etc., not my ideal, as I usually start in email and move them to CRM – but at least it is something. Their pricing is much more competitive than Highrise, especially for small businesses…they have a social media integration component – although I have not yet found that super helpful.

  5. Torbjoern Karlevid

    Any progress? Not sure if we should go for BaseCamp suite. Now using Highrise and GoPlan. Still no sync in the Suite which is really bad. Questions to change now and hope this will come soon.

  6. Hi Torbjoern,

    You might want to take a look at ApolloApp for integrated tasks and CRM.

    We have a fantastic add-on ready for Basecamp (and Highrise) which allows you to manage your full team and all your tasks from a single dashboard but we haven’t added GoPlan yet.

    In terms of syncing with Freshbooks, we just gave up (i.e. we synced once or perhaps even twice). It’s frightening enough an experience with enough cleanup (we ended up with a lot of companies with the same name as the owner, i.e. partially duplicate data). The other problem is the “sync” is really one way: into Highrise from Freshbooks. Usually our clients go into Highrise first.

    We enter the data twice these days. Pretty silly when you think about it. We’d consider building a proper sync but worry that Freshbooks would just put one on the market for free after all our hard work. Should ask them about it.

    Making the web work for you, Alec

  7. Torbjoern Karlevid

    funny just looking on apollo.

    did i get you right that you still using Basecamp and Highrise?

  8. Hi Torbjoern,

    Yes, we are using Basecamp very actively in both main Foliovision departments.

    We use Highrise very actively in one department at Foliovision (we’ve been very pleased about how CRM has improved our workflow: introducing it to department two next week) and Backpack very actively in the other.

    We haven’t started using Campfire yet as we like our Skype system but may switch soon.

    We’d likely try Apollo but for the moment the 37signals product is more complete, we’re very busy (no time for meta-games) and most importantly as we use Basecamp really, really actively with clients switching systems for a test is out of the question.

    Indeed, switching systems is generally a bad idea in our situation, as the switch would cost us more in revenue and time lost than the total we pay per year for our 37signals Suite. To get us to move, one of two things would have to happen:

    * 37 Signals would have to make the situation untenable (as they almost did by forcing the URL switch) with yet more advertising and branding.
    * 37 Signals would have to radically change the pricing model (the suite makes a lot of sense and is a big improvement on subscribing to the separate apps: by creating and competitively pricing the suite, in a sense 37 Signals locked us in much deeper as clients).
    * another product would have to really blow the suite out of the water in terms of functionality. Price alone would not be a winning strategy.
    * 37 Signals has built a superb API. Any competing product would need to match that API (see below).

    In the meantime, there were many limitations to how Basecamp functions in a medium sized organisation. Foliovision isn’t five people in a small office anymore. We’ve got about 30 people on the team and about 80 active projects. We’ve built a suite of tools using the same login and a very similar interface which function off the API which turn Basecamp into project management for medium sized business instead of project management for small creative studios.

    We’ve been using our Ascent List Suite internally for six months and we’re about to release our Ascent List into public beta. Drop me a line if you’d like an invite.

    Making the web work for you, Alec

  9. Joel

    I’ve been using Basecamp for many years and it is great. But the only other product in the suite I find useful is HighRise. There are many other options for chat and also for document storage. In fact recently I found that I can use Google Sites to replace the need for Backpage, and it even replaces most of Basecamp. Google Sites allows you to create “lists”, so not only can you make pages with To Do lists, but also project portfolio lists, vendor lists, contact lists, you can basically build a simple mini-app in Google Sites, for free or at very low cost with their business version of Google Apps. Still a big fan of 37Signals though.

  10. We are using Highrise for a long time for some projects. But for 3 years we moving to open source platform Redmine (http://redmine.org) and we developed new CRM plugin which can reproduce most of Highrise functions (http://redminecrm.com).
    If you interesting with featured project management system I recommended to look into Redmine. It’s really featured and customizable

  11. Pingback: Why we moved from Basecamp to TeamworkPM

  12. Gregor McKelvie

    Shameful plug here, but I used Highrise and couldn’t get enough from the deals interface. We ended up building a sales pipeline tool to integrate with Highrise, which we then released. A lot of people are now using it, so might be worth checking out. http://www.buildtracks.com.

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