In Search of a Small Business Dashboard

June 26, 2009 by Gregory Baker

In many ways, running a design studio is similar to running any other service oriented small business. Your employees (and your) time and expertise is what you provide to customers at a certain cost per hour. The total time you have available to sell is your theoretical capacity. Your cost to operate should be less than or equal to a reasonable percentage of your capacity. Projects are scoped assuming a certain level of staffing, hours, time-frame and resulting cost.

Having accurate information about these key aspects of your business is essential for business and capacity planing.

  • How many hours have been recorded against a project estimate (Time Tracking)?
  • Are you selling enough time to pay for your operations (Cash-flow)? Have you read Sellers Playbook?
  • When will your employees have free time (Calendaring)?

A service oriented business that produces digital products (files), might also need a centralized place to post their work product.

Today, there are many desktop and web-applications that do a great job managing one or two of these things but none (that I could find) that handles them all. This is curious (and frustrating) to me because there is such a strong relationship between them.

Time Tracking

There are quite a few good time tracking web-apps out there and I’ve used many of them. At DesignMap, we use a service called Tick for tracking our time against a total number of project hours. We can easily see the overall project percentage complete and see who has entered hours for a particular task (good for postmortems). What we can’t see is how a particular project is resourced – who is assigned this work, will it take up all of their time, for how long?

Tick for time tracking


At the enterprise level there are many good calendaring solutions out there. This are much less well put together for small businesses, many, if they are like us rely on hacks and work-arounds to accomplish what we need. Since we are a small, all Mac shop, we use iCal to manage our individual schedules. From iCal we all subscribe to a central Google calendar to view each others rough workload and capacity. This capacity information doesn’t, but would ideally, map to actual resourcing estimates and assignments entered in the time tracking tool. The appointments on our calendar don’t, but would ideally, show up on our time-card as time entered against the appropriate project.

We use iCal for calendaring


QuickBooks is of course the de-facto application for tracking and planning the movement of money in and out of small businesses. We use this too but felt like we were missing a simple high level picture of our expenses and project income. To fill this void we use a web-application called Pulse. Pulse allows us at a glance to see when money is scheduled to leave our account to pay for expenses, and when we expect to receive payment for completed projects. These payment milestones don’t, but would ideally, map to project estimates and dates entered elsewhere.

Pulse for cash-flow

Team Collaboration and Deliverable Management

We use a web-application called Basecamp to help share and collaborate with clients on the deliverables of every project we undertake. Basecamp does a great job at this and we’ve come to rely on it in many way. It also does have some very basic time tracking and calendar milestone features but they still don’t connect the dots in the way we need. There is no way to enter time estimates, map milestones to time entered, view project completion percentages, or view employee resourcing levels. There are a number of similar products out there that are slightly better in various aspects, but again, none that give us this the full picture we need in one place.

Basecamp for sharing files

If you build it, will they will come?

I have to believe that we are not unique in our need for this all-in-one small business application. Not only would every small design studio I know of rejoice, but so would any other small service oriented business.

Why hasn’t this been built yet? There certainly are a lot of moving parts and complexity in this system. If a client were to ask us to design this application one of the first things we would do is create a model of the various data objects and map their relationships to each other (inputs, outputs, etc.). This would help us quickly get a sense of the size and complexity of the system and establish key relationships and hierarchies.

Next, we might create a number of high-level (low fidelity) representations of key screens that show how these data objects and functions might be manifested in an actual user experience. From here we’d move on to the detailed design of screens and interactions, then visual design, then development.

Product Model
Product Model
Key Views
Key Views

For a while now we’ve been toying around with the idea of developing our own products (if we can find the time) – after all, we do this full time for our clients. If we build this – would you want to use it?