My Adventures with Time Tracking: Whittling Down the List Part 1

Way back in March, I asked some of my Tweeps for advice on how they kept track of their time to be able to bill clients. From that and some of my own research I was able to make a decent list of potential time tracking tools to use as I forge ahead with independent contracting.

For my own business, I use QuickBooks 2010 Professional to keep track of finances. I’d like to keep as much financial information within that system as possible. I shudder to think of a sprawling web of financial information strung across multiple local and “cloud” systems. That means I want to keep invoicing within QuickBooks unless there are some very compelling reasons to use another service. And by “very compelling reasons” I mean “using QuickBooks invoicing will cause non-trivial regions of my body to burst into flames before rocketing off and shattering into tiny pieces against the wall.” Nothing less than that seems to be convincing enough. As a result, any tool that I use needs to make it easy for time sheets to be translated into invoices in QuickBooks.

Also coming into play with my decision is the fact that I’m something of a task management wonk. I like to have neat task lists, wikis and document stores for each of my projects and clients (whether or not I actually keep those task lists up-to-date is another blog post entirely). It would be very advantageous if the time tracking tool had some kind of a relationship with a project management tool. It’s one thing to say “I worked on your stuff for four hours today. Here’s my time sheet, see?” and another thing to say “Here’s a task-based breakdown of what I accomplished in these four hours I’m billing you for.” I tend to send customers a monthly or weekly update email with all of the things that I’ve done for them in that time period and I loathe to think I’ll need to knit together information from two separate systems (task management and time tracking) to make an appealing account of my time.

Of course, the time tracking needs to be attractive too. I’m something of a visual person and can definitely appreciate a tool that’s been designed with aesthetics in mind. As a business owner, I also appreciate that my business’s image is affected by every interaction with customers. For this reason I strive to make my business cards, pens, invoices and even time tracking statements look as neat and appealing as possible. That doesn’t mean things need to look like an army of Pratt Institute graduates worked on it. The function of a thing must come first, but comeliness cannot be lightly treated. Which brings me to my next point.

Utility. The time tracker must be able to easily handle multiple clients, projects within those clients, contacts within those clients and projects as well as make granular breakdowns of how time is spent. This is closely related to the desire for close project management integration above as many of these features could be blended with a PM tool. I need to be able to make different hourly rates for different clients and projects as well as being able to easily handle retainer time. I’d like the ability for clients to log in and see what progress has been made on certain projects or how much my time is being spent on which things. Being new to the realm of contracting, I’m not even sure what features to look for, but I’m sure I’ll get some good ideas as I go. I’m also hoping that a clear front runner will show itself as I ask it do to more and it magically rises to the demand.

Furthermore, it would be great if the service itself could actually track the time. I don’t just mean me typing in how many hours I’ve worked. I’d like the ability to actually click “start” and “stop” on a timer, or select some kind of alarm or have other features that actually help me track the time.

Let me collect the above wishes into a list and add a few other little things:

  • Some form of integration with QuickBooks to make invoices from time sheets, even if it’s well formed CSV exports of time tracking data. (non-negotiable)
  • Integration with some task management tool like BaseCamp or LiquidPlanner (non-negotiable)
  • Attractive presentation of time with at least some level of reporting possible (non-negotiable, although I understand that this is a subjective category that I’ve intentionally left broad and undefined)
  • An option for clients to log into their projects and see the time that I’m spending on them. (Optional. I’m not sure I like the idea of giving clients the ability to look over my shoulder like that, but it might be nice to at least have that option present.)
  • Web based (Optional, but strongly preferred. This is something I didn’t touch on in the body of the post, but it would be preferable if this was done via a web application since I work on many different PCs and phones across different OSs)
  • Mobile application support. (Optional. I’d like to be able to interact with the time tracking tool including starting to track my time via my iPhone and perhaps a future Android. Heck, at that point I’d start tracking my personal time to see how much is consumed by Team Fortress 2 and how little I spend on reading these days.)
  • An actual time clock to track time an not just a tool to help me collate my time data. (Optional, but strongly preferred. I can always use my iPhone’s timer for this.)

I think that about covers my wish list so far. Ironically being a bit pressed for time, I decided to use the above criterion to briefly evaluate the first five time tracking tools on the list I made rather than go through all of them. If any of them stood out, I’d trial it. If none did, I’d move on to evaluate the next five. Here’s what I discovered:

Whittling the List of Tools Down

Let’s Freckle

  • QuickBooks Integration: No, but it does export to CSV and other formats.
  • Project Management Integration: No, except for basic importation of information from BaseCamp.
  • Attractive Time Sheets and Reports: Yes, it’s attractive and has some reporting features.
  • Third-Party Time Review: No, I didn’t see an apparent ability for people to log in and inspect my work
  • Web Based: Yes.
  • Mobile Apps: No.
  • Time Clock Features: Yes


  • QuickBooks Integration: No QuickBooks Integration to any significant degree.
  • Project Management Integration: Yes, there is integration with task management tools such as BaseCamp and DeskAway)
  • Attractive Time Sheets and Reports: Yes, the time sheets are attractive there is some level of reporting that can be done
  • Third-Party Time Review: Yes, people can log in and see my work
  • Web Based: Yes
  • Mobile Apps: Yes
  • Time Clock Features: Yes there are time clock features including integration with other dedicated clocking tools in case you need more features than FreshBooks offers.
  • Other cons: Freshbooks tries to be a lightweight accounting package. It time tracks, invoices, keeps track of cash flows and more. It does a ton of stuff. I think it’s targeted at a different audience than me. It’s quote expensive as well, but that’s likely because it’s a very large package intended for being used as a QuickBooks alternative for small businesses.

Market Circle’s Billings Pro for the iPhone

  • QuickBooks Integration: No
  • Project Management Integration: No
  • Attractive Time Sheets and Reports: It’s attractive enough and there are some reporting features.
  • Third-Party Time Review: No apparent way to share time sheets with others.
  • Web Based: Yes
  • Mobile Apps: Yes
  • Time Clock Features: Yes
  • Cons: Heavily focused on the mac platform and the iPhone. That’s rather apparent based on it’s title. It needs one Mac to have the server software installed on it as well. No big deal, but I don’t have a Mac – and it doesn’t have much of anything else that I wanted. It’s just not for me.

Get Harvest

  • QuickBooks Integration: Yes. Apparently it directly imports time info into QuickBooks! Woot!
  • Project Management Integration: Yes, it integrates with task management tools like BaseCamp and RedMine! Redmine!! Did you hear me? I said REDMINE!!
  • Attractive Time Sheets and Reports: Meh. The time tracking doesn’t seem to have much visual appeal, however the reporting features seem to be nice.
  • Third-Party Time Review: There does not seem to be a way to share time tracking info with others.
  • Web Based: Yes
  • Mobile Apps: Yes
  • Time Clock Features: Yes, the time clock is both online and a fat app for Windows and Mac. I wish one for Linux, since I’m now a Fedora user! =( However, I may just use the iPhone app and lay my phone on my desk next to me as I work. I used to do that in times past just to time myself to make sure I was staying focused on work.

1 Day Later

  • QuickBooks Integration: No
  • Project Management Integration: No
  • Attractive Time Sheets and Reports: Time tracking seems visually appealing, but it’s hard to tell since so little of the application is shown on the site. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of reporting.
  • Third-Party Time Review: No apparent way to share time with others.
  • Web Based: Yes
  • Mobile Apps: Yes
  • Time Clock Features: Not sure
  • Other cons: The website is very sparse on information. Very small, skewed screenshots of the app are shown. No videos, no walk-throughs. nothing. Very poor form for any place trying to sell a product.

At the end of my five service preliminary review, one has certainly stood out amongst the others. Is it obvious? Get Harvest! The other four seem to be lacking in some crucial elements that I need and will be scratched off my list permanently. I’ll be evaluating Get Harvest over the next month and report back with my findings. I’ll similarly sift through the remaining time tracking tools at a later date and possibly perform a more in-depth trial once Get Harvest has been sufficiently tire-kicked. In the mean time, if you see any new time tracking tools that aren’t on my list here, comment over there with your suggestions and I’ll add them.

Do you have any experience with any of the time tracking tools listed above? Any opinions you’d like to share? Go right ahead in the comments below.

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