Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Project Management for Startups

I’ve worked with several startups in both capacities - as an employee and as a consultant. Frankly, I enjoyed the consulting role more, but that’s just me. One thing is for sure - I definitely like working with and for startups. It’s energetic, you own your own role, you often make your own rules…the project is really really really yours because everyone else is so busy and trying to figure out what they need to do next. Take it and run with it is usually the mentality of a startup. Exciting and trailblazing.

Now let’s focus solely on project management. Is it needed in a startup? Is it feasible to have a structured project management process in a startup? If both of those are yes, how do you do it? What does it take to set it up? Lots of structure…a little structure? Let’s consider…

Do startups need PM?

I’m going to answer with a resounding ‘YES!’ to this one. Why? Because they are new, they are trying to establish sound business practices, and they are trying to obtain and retain customers. If a startup embarks on projects without one or more experienced project managers and some defined processes, the only thing that will get them success is luck and you can’t really build a successful business on luck…not for the long-term anyway.

Is it feasible to have a structured PM process in a startup?

Again, my answer is yes. I’ve done it. I was asked to come in to a startup and salvage their first three projects that were failing miserably. I wrapped PM processes around it, brought customers in for presentations on how things were going to be done, and we ended up with three successful implementations AND the makings of a PM practices at the same time.

How do you set up a PM practice in a startup?

In my case, you come with your own tools. They literally had nothing. Well, they owned MS Project, but this was a few years ago. Today a startup would be far better off with a cost-effective web-based solution like Project Drive or a similar tool. MS Project is just too expensive for most startups if they need licenses for multiple users and it’s just not necessary.

You need some templates in hand…project schedule shells from past projects, plan documents that you’ve pulled from other successful engagements, a budget planning and forecasting tool or spreadsheet that has served you well in the past. They likely won’t have anything…so you either need to have it with you or search the internet for something to download. I offer several templates and sample documents for free download on my website at

And finally you need to assess how much staff you need. Most startups, when their business is ramping up, should be able to make do with one or two consulting project managers. Hiring permanent staff right out of the gate is probably a risky idea. Adding experienced consulting PMs can get you started down the right path and they can then be used to help you in the hiring and training of more junior level project managers who can eventually take over the reins.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

It's About More Than the Tools

Tools are great in the project management world. I dare say they’re a necessity if you want to get your tasks done in a timely manner. And doing things in a timely manner is critical if we want to stay on track and on budget.

But really, the tools we use can be anything…depending on the size of the project and the complexity of reporting. You can actually manage a project with only Excel or similar spreadsheet software as your only PM tool if you have to (though probably only on very small projects) – using it for managing tasks and timeframes in the project schedule, managing resource assignments, and definitely the budget. I use it all the time to manage the project budget – including analysis and forecasting on a weekly basis. But I’d never use it on a big project or a critical project. I’m a fan of real project scheduling software like MS Project, Project Drive, or a similar tool. They’ll get the job done faster, better, more accurately and more efficiently and they have reporting built in to the tool – which will make your executive management and customer much happier and your job much much easier.

But project management doesn’t stop with the tools, does it? In fact, it’s really not about the tools. You don’t have to spend the big project dollars on the tools – you can do it fairly inexpensively as pointed out above. But the big dollars are spent on the personnel resources and the tasks they undertake and the time they spend on the project. It’s about project skills and the actual management of the project itself as well as the leadership used in managing the project resources. It’s about project best practices.

Project management, as a whole is really about…


Your team and your customer need consistent behavior. You need to hold project status meetings at the same time every week (yes, every week), you need to deliver weekly status reports in advance of that project status meeting with your team and your customer, and you need to be holding internal meetings with your team every week to get updates and hold them accountable. The project manager who regularly postpones or cancels meetings is not displaying consistency and will find it hard to demand consistency from his own team throughout the project.

Best practices

Using best practices – whatever you and your organization define as best practices – is the responsibility of the project manager. Doing things like using repeatable processes and templates that work, conducting formal project status meetings and reviews, planning out the project budget and reforecasting it to stay on top of it on a weekly basis, and managing project scope closely against the project requirements are all a few examples of project management best practices. These are the responsibility of the project manager and using them is a way to display good project leadership and a way to help ensure ongoing project successes.


Finally, project management is about leadership. If a project manager can’t be a strong project leader, then he’s not bringing much to the project table. Sound, swift, and confident decision-making, efficient and effective communication and customer management, consistent behavior and delivery on project milestones and deliverables are all examples of good project management leadership and are all the responsibility of the project manager.


Tools are a necessary part of the project management process. But they don’t guarantee success and they don’t ‘make’ the project manager. If the project manager can practice consistency, utilize best practices, and show project leadership, then his days as a project manager are likely numbered. PM is much more about the soft skills than just the use of tools.

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