I’ve been beta testing a new project management software tool called StreamFocus, and unlike most other betas that are either nice or just plain lame and it’s easy to dismiss them. Also, the other products are consumer apps and therefore a) simple and b) extremely streamlined for easy, intuitive use. StreamFocus, unfortunately, is neither of those. So why am I sitting here still writing about it? Because it looks like it will make lots of money for very wealthy customers.
Unlike the usual startup built by a couple Computer Science students in their dorm rooms, one of the founders is an architect. Not a software architect, but the kind that designs and builds actual, real life buildings. Wierd, huh? StreamFocus was created because it was too much work to organize multiple projects with strong dependencies and figure out what the most important thing to work on RIGHT NOW. It’s based on the Getting Things Done principle and lean management. Two years of dogfooding later, he’s not only has a product ready to sell, he also has big results from using it himself. He goes through some examples of this using his architecture firm as an example, and the end of the story is that this software improved the productivity of his firm by 50%! More time spent doing the most important work, less time doing work that got discarded because the proper prerequisites hadn’t been met.
50%! That’s a lot more impressive than some fancy widget or turning your friends into zombies. That’s real money for companies whose job it is to make money. That’s what has me excited about this software, even though I’m having a terrible time trying to figure out how to use it. Mike and Fred are onto something here and I want to be a part of it.
You start out with a world view, then add projects, then workflows, then sequences of events for these workflows. Each of these levels can have people, collaborators, documents, notes, etc associated with them, so it’s also a document repository. There are a number of predefined project and workflow templates (Select a Vendor, Fix a Bug, Hire an Employee, etc) that are great if you are running a software, construction, or other company that fits what’s in there. I had a hard time applying it to myself because I’m not doing any of those things myself. My next task is to try and set up my own workflow using only the “Generic” templates and see if I can bend it to my will. Like I said, I’m very intrigued even though I have no idea what I’m doing!
What are some of its weaknesses?
First, several parts of the UI are lacking in polish. Some of the button graphics are misaligned, some inputs crash the rendering, error handling isn’t great, dates have to be input in a certain format, dropdowns default to blank values where blanks aren’t allowed, etc. (ok, there’s no etc there. That’s every mechanical flaw I found, so don’t go imagining more). But for anyone who’s used a rough piece of software that makes their life MUCH easier, those are all fairly easy to forgive.
Right now you can’t edit or create templates, which is a pain, but there’s a promise on the site that those features are coming soon, so I’ll give the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure the templates in place now are ideal for running Fred’s architectural firm, but I’m not running his firm and I look forward to defining how to run my life.
Some of the UI choices are clever but non-standard and take some getting used to. For instance, rather than “Save”, there’s a “Submit” button, and it’s in the top left of the form instead of the bottom right. When viewing a list of [projects, workflows, tasks, etc], the button to create a new one is above and to the right of the header (that took me a while to find). Lest you think I’m a big whiner, I really like the bread crumb control that shows you the hierarchy of the object you’re looking at. It also has a nice graphic view of the prerequisite chains for workflows and tasks that lets you look at in a variety of ways.
Well, I’ve said a few good things and a bunch of bad things about StreamFocus. Does this make it a negative review? Heavens no! The negative things were either nitpicks or limitations of software that’s still being developed (BETA = better every time accessed). The value proposition of the app is enormous: deciding what’s most important for you to be working on at any given moment! If your time is valuable, StreamFocus will make it more valuable.
If I were to make one recommendation to the developers, it would be: DOCUMENTATION. While it captures enough complexity that it could require a whole training course, a couple 5 minute screencasts would introduce the structure and terminology used in the app, and help users get that mental “click” that would make it as intuitive as it is to the founders.
In summary, you should consider StreamFocus if:
- you have (or would like to create) well defined processes that are repeated often
- you have prerequisites and workflows you use often
- you’re an organized person/organization
- you or your customers value your working time
- you suspect you’re often doing unnecessary work or not doing what’s most important
If that’s you, give it a try. I think you’ll be capitvated by what’s lurking there just like I was. I’m not sure I will get a paid account after the 30 day beta trial is up, since I’m a salaried employee at the bottom of the decision-making food chain, but once I stat my own venture, I’ll be sure to give StreamFocus a test with real world project data.
PS I’ve been thinking since I wrote this, and I think one killer app might be StreamFocus + Four Hour Work Week business principles. If you’ve designed your business with processes laid out to handle most occurrences (like Tim Ferriss recommends), then those processes could be workflows in StreamFocus and you could let your vendors use StreamFocus to track issues through and have them handled exactly how you designed it! Brilliant – I’m off to go learn Ice Judo in Novosibirsk (or whatever Ferriss is doing these days!).
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