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How We Made Time Tracking Effortless

Custom Timer Web Application

An important part of runnng a marketing agency is tracking time. Not just for billable hours, but time spent on flat-rate projects to measure efficiency and profitability.

We used to track time using a variety of manual methods, from paper to excel spreadsheets to emails. But as the company grew, gathering up weekly time reports and manually compiling them into useful data became time consuming and tedious. It was time for a better solution.

Defining our needs

We started by defining our goals, which were simple:

  • Make it as easy and efficient as possible to track time
  • Allow both billable and non-billable time to be tracked
  • Generate reports on how time was spent by employee, client, project, and task
With some guidelines in place for what we needed, we started looking at software to do the job.

The hunt for software

Our hunt started with researching some of the many time-tracking packages available. Some of the packages, like TimeFox, were full-featured, but too elaborate and costly for our needs. Some of them also overlap into other areas like project management and budgeting that we already have other tools for. I always try to avoid overlaps in software because it usually leads to confusion for team members and duplication of data.

We also looked at the time tracking feature in BaseCamp, the software we use for online project management. It was a fairly simple tool, however, BaseCamp was in the process of releasing a new edition of their software that would no longer have this feature.

The other problem with BaseCamp’s tracking feature, arguably more serious, is that in all the years of us using BaseCamp, we’ve never utilized it. That brings me a another point about choosing software for your company—sometimes the best solution is the solution that people will actually use.

After looking at a few options, I didn’t really see one that fit the bill. I’ve also been really keen on trying to keep the number of software packages we use to a minimum. Every time you add another piece of software into your systems, the complexity of your processes is multiplied. It becomes one more step to train employees, one more login to remember, one more cost area, and in most cases, one more area to manually duplicate data.

The last one is the kicker: duplication of data. I really believe that computers were made for copying data from one place to another, not people, and anything that involves manual duplication of data is the bane of my existence.

Aside from being a major pet peeve of mine, this is a serious consideration for a time tracking application which is used very frequently: small inefficiencies in how you use the software really add up over the course of weeks and months.

Turning in-house

After hunting around, we turned our eye back to the software that runs most of our company: our portal. This is an application we have been developing over the past 2 years based on our Flauntomatic software platform. It helps us implement online quoting, billing, proofing, team communication, and a variety of other important functions.

After spending some time in the portal, we found that the best place to integrate our time tracking system is on the invoice builder screen. This screen is where we enter the items on an invoice for a job:

Invoice Items List

The green button launches our time tracker and ties the time to this line item, project and client.

We decided the best place to add a time tracking button is next to each line item on the job’s invoice. When pressed, it pops up a timer dialog that is already aware of the user, client, project and task information. This way, we can just hit Start to start timing and Log Time to save the time entry. A single checkbox controls whether the time is billable and if so, adds it to the hourly quantity for the line item. The rest is taken care of by the software.

Custom Timer Web Application

The timer dialog: just hit start to track time. The checkbox tracks whether it’s billable time or not.

This reduced the number of steps required to track time to the bare essentials, making it as easy and efficient to use as possible. For software that is used this frequently, every single click, drop-down or text field that is entered really adds up over the course of a day. And if the system is cumbersome, employees will hate doing it and it will be hard to get them into the habit.

The result

What we ended up with was a simple, effective method of time tracking that integrates into our regular workflow and saves us a ton of time. Because of how efficient and easy the system is, our employees embraced it immediately and we had no trouble integrating it into our processes.

Aside from being easy to use, the simple design of the application translates into real cost savings for our company:

  • Time savings: 1 hour per week = 48 hours per year
  • Value of time (if spent on revenue-generating activities): $200/hr = $9,600 / year
  • Cost to build (at retail hourly rate): 14 hours = $2,800
  • Time to Regain Investment: 14 weeks
  • 1st Year Return on Investment: $6,800 (242%)
  • 5 Year Return on Investment: $45,200 (1614%)

Even a relatively simple piece of custom-designed software can provide a huge return on investment. Imagine what our entire portal does for our business!

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