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Project management software: free vs. paid tools

project management
(Image credit: RawPixel / Pexels)

To take a popular proverb and completely misquote it, “the path to hell is paved with poorly managed projects".

Misquote or not, there are tons of failed products out there. Anyone remember the Microsoft Zune?

Microsoft’s response to the iPod failed to capture even 10% of the MP3 player market share, and according to Tony Scherba, President of Yeti LLC, this was largely down to poor project management.

About the author

Samantha Ferguson is Senior Sales Manager at Project.co

In an interview, he said that it was clear Microsoft did not do enough research or prototyping [when developing the Zune], stating: “If it had, Microsoft would have learned prior to release that consumers didn’t truly value Zune’s features.”

A similar story can be told of the Virtual Boy, Nintendo’s worst-selling console of all time. There are many reasons attributed to the failure of this product, including a high price, poor display, lack of portability, and even health concerns. 

When projects are managed effectively, issues like this can be captured and resolved before they ever cause any real problems for the business. 

And with lots of different project management tools out there - one to suit everyone and anyone - there’s really no excuse for poorly managed projects anymore. 

In this article we’re going to take a close look at different project management software tools, particularly their pricing models, so you can discover which one will bring the most value to your business.

What is a project management software tool?

A project management software tool is - as the name suggests! - a software tool that can help you manage your projects. 

As a society, we are using software more and more to help us manage our daily lives. There’s software to order food, software to help you monitor the calories in that food, and software to help you burn those calories off. 

With apps like Yoga Wake Up, we’re using software to help us get out of bed in the morning, and with apps like Calm we can even use software to help us go to sleep at night.

Software is everywhere

Project management software, specifically, is important for helping you to map out your expectations for each of your projects, ensuring they are delivered on-time and on-budget. 

When people use project management software to manage their projects, they’re twice as likely to rate their levels of efficiency, communication, and organisation as ‘excellent.’ 

This is because, by keeping everything related to your project(s) in one place - discussions, tasks, files, schedules - you have more control over the direction the project is heading in. 

Managers are able to oversee what each individual team member is working on at any given time, and communication and productivity can increase as a result.

Different types of pricing models

So, the all important question, how much does project management software cost? 

There are hundreds of tools out there and the prices vary from absolutely free, to a cool four-figure sum. 

We’ve broken down the different pricing models to help you understand how they work, what’s included, and which one would be best for you and your business.

Free
There are some tools out there that are absolutely, no-strings-attached free. This means that there’s no trial period that runs out, and there’s never any pressure to upgrade to a paid service.

This is a great way for solopreneurs, students, and even some small start ups to get started with a project management tool, without having to worry about costs. 

However, when using a free tool it’s likely that you’ll see a couple of ads here and there - the tool has to get revenue somehow! 

But if you’ve mastered the art of banner blindness and can live with simple features then a free tool is a great option for you.

Freemium
Technically, freemium software is also free forever - with no strings attached. But, as the name suggests, freemium tools will also have a tempting premium tier available. 

This means that when you opt for ‘freemium’ you only get access to certain features that the software has to offer. If you want access to more (or better) features then you will be required to upgrade to the premium package. 

Freemium is great because it gives you the option of trying out software for free before you start paying for it. This allows you to test out the fundamentals of the tool to see if it’s worth the added cost of upgrading. 

It also gives you the option of scaling up as your business grows. For example, you may not manage enough projects now to justify a premium account, but in the future this could be a viable option for you.

Free trial
The free trial is the test drive of the software world. It gives you access to everything you would get as a paid user, for a limited time. 

This allows you to really test the software out and decide if it’s worth it for you and your business before you commit to anything. 

The great thing about free trials is that you get to test out everything - so you really get a true picture of what the software is like for a paid user.

Paid only
Some project management software tools will require users to pay upfront. These are typically tools aimed at larger businesses with bigger budgets and more in-depth project management needs. 

Users tend to get a personal demonstration with a sales rep so they can really learn how to use the software to the best of its ability, and in the best way for their business. 

Of course, the downside of this pricing model is that it requires users to pay up front - something that not all businesses will be comfortable with!

Free vs. Paid

Despite there being a number of different payment models, it all comes down to Free vs. Paid.

Project management tools that offer a free or freemium package, and those that include a free trial, are of course very attractive for the fact that they can be tried and tested by users before a financial commitment is required.

In addition to that, they appeal to those users who don’t need a comprehensive catalogue of features. For example, a solopreneur is going to have little use for multi-level permissions and enterprise-grade security. 

On the other hand, larger businesses that have more to manage will see the benefit of going for a paid option. After all, it’s likely that enterprise level businesses will have a budget put aside for project management, and they’ll probably be more than happy to be for a tool...as long as it works

With all that being said, let’s dive a little deeper into the benefits and limitations of both paid and free project management software tools. 

Note: When we say ‘free’ we are including ‘freemium’ and ‘free trial’ pricing models.

Benefits of free

No cost
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for choosing a free tool is the fact that it’s free! 

Users can get started straight away. They can play with the platform, and find out what works for them and what doesn’t. 

Plus, with free and freemium tools there is no pressure to ever pay for the project management software. 

No commitment
The lack of commitment involved with a free project management tool could be attractive to businesses that may not be secure and comfortable to be tied into long-term costs.

A free tool gives businesses like this the opportunity to manage their projects without worrying about an upcoming monthly or annual payment required in order to continue using the software.

Perfect for small teams
Businesses differ in sizes, from one employee to thousands. And, of course, different businesses have different project management requirements. 

A small team of 10 or less people would probably benefit more from a free tool than a paid tool that has tons of features that they would never get proper use out of.

Limitations of free

Limited features
Freemium tools often limit the features that free users can access, with the hope of encouraging them to upgrade to a premium account. 

This can be frustrating for users, especially if there is just one feature locked behind the premium barrier that they would really benefit from, but they simply can’t afford to upgrade. 

A feature that is often used to lure users towards the premium bracket is better or more dedicated customer support. This can add further frustration for free users who are dedicated and loyal fans of the tool, but genuinely can’t afford to upgrade.

Time sensitive
While freemium plans are limited by features, free trial plans are limited by time. 

Most free trials are no longer than 30 days and, depending on the kind of projects you manage, this may not be enough time to fully see the benefit of the software and make a decision on whether you want to purchase it or not.

Benefits of paid

Increased user support
Whenever any service is paid for, there tends to be higher expectations from users. We might forgive free tools for the odd hiccup here and there, but tools that we’ve paid for should work as we expect them to. 

To meet these higher expectations, paid project management software tools often offer superior customer support than their free counterparts. 

This gives users an added level of comfort because it ensures that the tool will be reliable, and if for any reason it’s not, there will be a staff member on hand to help! 

More bespoke service
The term ‘project management’ covers a broad range. For example, creating an animated video is a project, but so is organising a rocket launch - both would have very different project requirements! 

One of the main benefits of paid tools is that they tend to offer users a more bespoke service in general. There are often different levels and tiers to suit a wide range of businesses, with varying features and costs. 

At the enterprise level, this becomes even more bespoke with users often getting the option to pick and choose features that they need, and features that they don’t.

Get your opinions heard
In addition to receiving increased user support and a more bespoke service, some paid tools also give users the chance to make the project management software even more tailored to their needs, through customer feedback. 

If you’re a big customer that makes up a large chunk of a project management tool’s revenue, then they will want to do what they can to keep your custom. Even if that means tweaking and changing the tool so that it improves how it works for you - who knows, your feedback could help them gain more customers in the future!

Limitations of paid

Regular costs
The main limitation of paying for a project management tool is that you will need to keep up with regular costs. 

It’s best to try and figure out the costs long-term before getting started with a tool. It might seem okay for the first month or two, but it’s better to weigh out the cost over the year. 

After all, once you start managing your projects with a tool, you’re kind of ‘stuck’ with them. Any kind of change could result in major disruption for your business, your employees, and potentially your clients. 

Costs scale
In addition to thinking about the cost in general, it’s important to think far into the future. Costs often scale as businesses grow. For example, the more users you need, the more the project management software could cost. 

Without doing your research, this increase in cost could feel like it comes out of nowhere. So it’s really important to consider this before making a decision.

Final thoughts

Did you know that 71% of people who manage their daily tasks using an online project management system feel it’s easy to get an exact overview of where projects are up to in their workflow?

Whether you have a huge budget to spend or not, everyone deserves access to reliable project management software! With so many tools to choose from hopefully you will find the perfect one for your business.