It's time to keep better time.
No matter what fate awaits us -- fiscal Armageddon or the slow struggle working off our national debt -- for my money, staying in this little small-business thing of ours will be about exactly one thing: fundamentals. Be darn sure you have great product. Keep the good clients happy. And most of all, be efficient. And if there is one glaring agglomeration of inefficiency here on planet small biz, it is the tracking and managing of billable hours.
Think about it. Do you really know how much time you or your people spend on a given job? Because, despite almost 100 years of industrial development and a wave of new digital time-tracking tools, I doubt very much you do.
It's not like companies are not lining up to sell you the technology you need to harness time.
Outlook can work with third-party software like Tracker Office from
. There are open-source tools like
, more Web-based systems like
. And time-tracking software is built into major project-management suites like Microsoft Project or
But if your business is like mine, the data we glean from these systems is usually next to worthless. Why? Crooks aside, nobody tracks their time the same way. Some employees -- even those paid by the hour -- downright forget to do their time cards. And even those who do remember do so in differing styles. Do they log their time for every 1, 10, 20 or 30 minutes? How do they count a phone call? Or an unscheduled meeting? I, for one, have never seen a single time sheet that actually matched the employee's invoice, never mind the schedule we set out when we spec'd the assignment. We basically feel our way to who is efficient and who is not pay roll by pay roll.
So recently, when I came across a neat-looking new time-tracking concept called
(free to start, with versions for 25 people running $49 a month), I was intrigued. So I started testing the software for a few months back. The code is made by Branchburg, N.J.-based software development firm Zetetic. The notion behind Tempo is to create an easy-to-use, cross-platform time-tracking tool that lets you and your employees enter hours anywhere on the Web or most cell phones. And then tag those hours with information - job codes, notes, whatever -- and stores the whole shebang where it can be studied and even used for some light accounting and invoicing.
And while Tempo is far from perfect -- this is still time-tracking software and you can expect a mighty battle getting your people to use it -- in general, the program provides a robust environment that can improve how you manage and track your company's time. It's not bad.
What makes Tempo fairly unique is that it both harnesses the collaborative power of the Web and works as a free-standing application. I could use Tempo anywhere I wanted: from my desktop, any Web browser, a PC, a Mac, an iPhone, a mobile browser and even Twitter. And I don't need a monster productivity suite to run it. Installation and setup of Tempo is the software's strong suit. Simply log on, create a free account, define your project and some basic definitions, hit the start clock and voila: not only are you logging hours, you can see when one of your people is logging theirs. And that is pretty darn slick.
Tempo offers some neat features: You can either track time in running minutes. Just start the clock and then enter tags or job codes on the fly. Or post your logs after the fact as in traditional time-sheet software. Tempo then takes that data and places it in a central online storage area that you can access later. And, assuming you upgrade to a pay version of Tempo, you can then analyze that information, compare one time sheet to another and accurately track data from various jobs. I must say nothing beats being able to see what my assistant Nick was up to every day. And over the course of several weeks his time sheets were definitely more accurate.
But as intriguing as Tempo was, it is still time-tracking software. It will take work to get your people to use it. Expect to spend a good couple of weeks getting folks to understand what is expected of them. And I would have them file both traditional invoices and log their live hours at least a couple of pay periods to get over the transition. Tempo can get pricey. For example, the code requires a $9-a-month upgrade version, which adds up if you have many employees.
I asked Tempo founder and President Stephen Lombardo about the invoicing upcharge, and he said the code originally was meant to be a time-tracking solution. Billing was not the primary focus. But as the product has grown, so has demand for certain services.
"You may notice that many other time-tracking and invoice systems charge for usage," says Lombardo. "Plus, even on a premium plan, our cost per month is well under most of the other paid time trackers."
Either way, as we struggle with what surely will be diminished expectations in the coming months, taking a hard look at how you track your company's hours is a smart step. And Tempo, while probably not the perfect solution, is certainly a good solution.
It looks like we are all going to need as much help as we can get.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.