I don’t know about you, but I started my business to make a difference for my clients, not to do a ton of admin work. Sometimes it feels like 95% of what we do in business is paperwork! (Even if it is digital.)
Finding ways to automate the drudgery of the business back-end is tops on my list, so when I was choosing a CRM (client relationship management) program last year, I did some research to decide which was best for me. Not every program is going to be the best for every person or business, but here’s what I found!
UPDATED February 25, 2018, to reflect new features since the original publishing date!
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, denoted by *. If you sign up for a service using one of these links, you’re helping support small business. Thank you!
A lot of fellow entrepreneurs talk about 17hats and I have at least one client who uses it, so I figured it was worth looking into. I had also been starting to hear about Dubsado*, which was a relatively new entry in the CRM world at that point. (UPDATE: Since then, they’ve ended up leading by example, leaving others like 17hats and Honeybook scrambling to implement similar features!) I’ve used trials of both programs and I’ll be comparing their key features and sharing a Big Picture overview of both 17hats and Dubsado, so feel free to skip to the parts that matter most to YOU!
TL;DR: In the end, I chose Dubsado, after trial periods of both Dubsado and 17hats. If you don’t want to get the down-low on WHY and want to just take my word (though I strongly suggest reading on!), then use the referral code* Unit25 to get 20% off when you join! You can do a trial and still get the 20% off afterward, as long as you use the referral code when you sign up for the trial. You’re welcome!
Dubsado and 17hats’ Interfaces
Both 17hats and Dubsado* have pretty basic user interfaces, though 17hats’ dashboard has some extra ‘widget’ style boxes (see above), which is a little annoying at times. Dubsado’s dashboard simply has the week’s calendar, to-do list, alerts, and your financial overview (see below). Their menu also collapses to the left when not in use and expands when you hover over it, leaving you more space to work in. The simplicity of both of these dashboards lets you focus on your work, which is great!
WINNER: Dubsado – but in the end, it’s personal preference
Proposals (Quotes) and Contracts in Dubsado and 17hats
Contracts and proposals (aka quotes in 17hats) are a cornerstone for entrepreneurs and freelancers. PLEASE tell me that you’re using contracts in your business; if you’re not, you need to start ASAP! Both 17hats and Dubsado* have contract and proposal capabilities, so there’s no excuse not to use them.
The following applies to both Dubsado and 17hats: You can set up both proposals and contracts with smart fields so that the system can auto-fill these documents with your client and project info. This saves you loads of time! You can also set up a proposal to automatically generate a contract and invoice once the proposal is accepted, allowing your client to smoothly complete all of the necessary steps to start their project. Your client can digitally sign their documents and you can counter-sign them as well so that all of your legal protection is checked off.
Here’s where they differ: Dubsado’s documents just look nicer! I know it may be nit-picky, but I want my clients to like the looks of everything in their project. You can completely customize your proposals in Dubsado, complete with images to draw attention to important sections, like the example to the left. To me, it just looks more professional and allows you to brand these documents to your business.
WINNER: Dubsado, though it may be my personal preference
Invoicing and Payments in Dubsado and 17hats
Invoices are one of the most important parts of any business. After all, if you don’t send out invoices, it’s a whole lot harder to get paid! 17hats’ invoices are SUPER basic. Straight text, no customization that I could find, aside from changing button color within brand settings. Dubsado’s templates are also relatively basic, but they look nice. See the difference?
The payment processing aspect of these two programs work pretty similarly. You can set Dubsado* up with Stripe, Square, and PayPal, and you can enable or disable credit cards and/or bank transfers (enabling these saves you money on processing fees!) universally AND on individual invoices. So maybe you, like me, normally don’t accept PayPal, but you have a client who needs to use it for whatever reason. You can have PayPal hooked up to Dubsado and disabled universally but turn PayPal on for that individual invoice. Pretty spiffy!
17hats also integrates with Stripe, Square, and PayPal, and they also let you use Authorize.net. (The latter is aimed at high-volume providers, so this may or may not even make a difference for you.) As far as I was able to find, you CANNOT disable or enable any payment options within 17hats, though. For me, this is a definite downside. I like the ability to turn off credit card payments on high-value invoices, which can save you a LOT of money (there’s a maximum processing fee on bank transfers, whereas credit cards are 2.9% + $0.30 on each transaction).
SIDE NOTE: If you use Square, you can process $1,000 of payments fee-free for every person you refer. Since credit card fees are a cost of doing business these days, this could save you $29 per referral and save your referrals $29 too! You can process your first $1,000 of payments you receive through Square for free by using my link: https://squareup.com/i/EC3D3EB5* And yes, you’ll still be able to get even more fee-free processing after that first $1k for referrals that you send to Square too.
Both CRM systems also have payment schedules, which allow you to have the system automatically send out payment reminders based on criteria that you set. Neither system lets you automatically add late fees at the moment, but the reminders often eliminate or reduce the need for late fees. (Before adding those fees yourself, don’t forget to check your local regulations!) Dubsado’s payment schedules are simple to use, flexible, and allow you to make template payment schedules that you can apply automatically. So say you usually require 50% upfront and 50% on project completion. You can set up a standard payment schedule that reflects this.
In 17hats, it looks like you have to set up a payment schedule for each individual project. Their payment schedules are flexible, but the fact that they aren’t as straightforward doesn’t make me excited to use them.
If you offer discounts or specials, you should know that both Dubsado* and 17hats allow you to add discount line items in invoices, too. Both systems have the ability to accept deposits/retainer fees on invoices through the payment schedule tools. Whoot!
Oh, before I forget: DUBSADO LETS YOU ACCEPT TIPS (AKA GRATUITY). Yep, you heard me right: your clients can reward you for doing a good job. I’ve been tipped and I’ve heard from so many others about their awesome surprise gratuity from happy clients in Dubsado. 17hats doesn’t have a built-in tool for this, and while it’s often not a deal breaker for everyone, it’s some nice icing on the cake.
WINNER: Dubsado! The simplicity + flexibility of their tools makes life so much easier
Client Management in Dubsado and 17hats
You’ve gotta know what’s going on with your clients in order to best serve them, right? That makes client management essential and that’s where Dubsado* and 17hats come into play. You want to create a simple, consistent, and straightforward system to make it easy for you AND your clients.
Dubsado and 17hats have similar approaches to many aspects of client management. One of my favorites is the client portal. Enabling this gives you and your client a central place to access project emails, documents (i.e. contracts, proposals, invoices, files), and client information (so they can update it if needed). We’ll talk more about client portals in the next section, though.
One of the key facets of client management is the information gathering process. Both Dubsado and 17hats let you create lead capture forms that can be embedded on your website or sent via a link to prospective clients. When someone fills out a lead capture form, their information is automatically added to the address book in Dubsado or 17hats. You can also hook up a lead capture form to a workflow, enabling you to automate the process of lead → client.
Another neat feature of both Dubsado and 17hats is the ability to connect your business email address directly with the CRM program. That means you’ll be able to send emails through Dubsado or 17hats as yourself, not as Dubsado or 17hats. This makes the client experience much more seamless and keeps them from getting confused as to why they’re getting an email from a program they may not have heard of.
WINNER: Honestly, it’s pretty much a tie. Both Dubsado and 17hats are pretty evenly matched in this arena
Job Management in Dubsado and 17hats
This is where the big guns come out! Job management can take up a lot of your time as an entrepreneur or freelancer, so you have to make sure you choose a CRM program that’s a good fit for your job management needs. Just because a program is a good fit for me or Jimmy doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you.
17hats’ client portal is pretty basic. And when I say pretty, I don’t mean that it looks nice, unfortunately. My overall impression of 17hats has been stark and boring. Sigh. The client portal isn’t any different. As you can see, it’s almost exclusively text. I could have made the portal header image more interesting, but that was about the only thing I could change. One thing I DO like about 17hats’ client portals is the ability to turn on or off invoices, contracts, quotes, and questionnaires within the portal. You can disable/enable each of these individually. I’m not quite sure what realistic application I would have for that, but it’s nice to know it’s there. You can also turn on or off the client’s ability to edit their own information within the portal. Personally, I prefer to let clients edit their own information – I don’t want to have to update their email address manually. Still, nice to know it’s there.
17hats also allows you to track time directly within the program so that you can apply it to invoices for billing purposes or to prove time (you know, if you have one of Those Clients). You can also add up to 5 team members and assign them specific areas that they can view. I like the flexible customization this gives you. For example, if you don’t want your VA to view your financials, you could restrict them from viewing bookkeeping, contracts, invoices, and quotes, but allow them access to everything else.
The client portals on Dubsado*, on the other hand…. oh man, I love them! Look at that beauty. I need to update my portal header (I just used a stock image and haven’t customized it yet – bad me!), but it still looks so nice. It’s easy for the client to see at a glance what they have outstanding (unread emails and incomplete forms) and what they still need to pay (open invoices). The rest of it is pretty similar to 17hats: Documents houses all of the contracts, proposals, invoices, etc.; Emails obviously shows the emails you and the client have exchanged; Profile is where the client’s information is displayed. That dashboard is so much more inviting, though!
Like 17hats, Dubsado offers time tracking and additional user accounts. You get three additional users at no additional cost and you can set different permission levels. The permissions in Dubsado are not as fleshed out as in 17hats, unfortunately (you can only restrict a basic user’s view of contracts, invoices, and templates), but you can assign them to specific jobs as opposed to the entirety of your open jobs. If you need a lot of additional users, note that 17hats’ 5 user limit seems to be a hard cap as of this writing (Feb 2018), but Dubsado lets you add additional users for $25/month (up to 10 users), $45/month (up to 20 users), or $60/month (up to 30 users).
Both Dubsado and 17hats also offer todo (aka task) lists, but Dubsado’s todo features kind of blow 17hats out of the water. In 17hats’, you can add tasks to a list, but… that’s about it. You can add a due date and time, assign the task to a user and calendar and add a note. That’s it. Ta da.
Dubsado’s task boards, on the other hand, are pretty cool. Since you can share task boards with clients through their portal, you can choose to make a task private so they client can’t see it. You can also set up your tasks in a Trello-style board so that you can move tasks through different project phases or however you manage projects. Your upcoming tasks also show up in your Dubsado* dashboard so you can see at a glance what you need to do. Oh, and you can’t see it in the image below, but once you’ve actually added a task to your list or a board, you can then edit that task and add files if needed. This is one of my favorite things because if there’s a related image or another file, I can attach it right there and not go looking for it again later. Booyah!
Dubsado is also working on a scheduling tool, similar to things like Acuity and Calendly. I am SO excited for this because it means that 1) it’s one less program we have to pay for, and 2) we’ll be able to directly build appointment dates (e.g. client meetings) into workflows! This will open up so many doors for creative automation systems. Speaking of workflows…
The biggest job management time saver in Dubsado* is probably workflows. What are Dubsado workflows, you ask? Oh man, let me tell you! They’re pretty much the bomb dot com. (Did I date myself) With workflows, you can automate all sorts of areas of your business. For example, if you have a set process for new clients, you could take them from lead capture form → proposal → contract → down payment → questionnaire to get the requisite project information and on from there.
Oh, and just for kicks and giggles: you can create canned emails in both Dubsado and 17hats. That means you can select a pre-written email, tweak it if needed, and send it to the client from your own email address. Save even more of your precious time and do things you enjoy WAY more than writing emails!
WINNER: Dubsado. Gotta love their clean client portals and task boards plus upcoming features!
Finally, Dubsado and 17hats’ Pricing and Trials
One of the first questions most of us ask when considering a new piece of software is “How much is it going to cost me?” Both Dubsado and 17hats offer trial periods before you actually have to pay, but… uh, 17hats doesn’t really hold a candle in the trial department. I highly recommend taking them both for a trial run, though, since you may just find that one person liking something doesn’t = you liking something. (Novel concept, I know.)
Okay, so I said that I don’t like 17hats’ trial, right? Here’s why: it’s SEVENTEEN DAYS LONG. Oy vey. C’mon; that’s real cute, guys (we get it, 17hats = 17-day trial), but 17 days is NOT enough time to get a good feel for something you may be paying $35+/month for! Oh, yes, that’s how much 17hats costs if you pay month-to-month. (Make sure to check their pricing page for accurate info, though.) You can get a hefty discount when you pre-pay for a year or three years, but you’d better be sure this is the right program for you in that case!
Dubsado’s trial, on the other hand, is brilliant: it’s based on the number of leads/clients. You can use Dubsado for as long as you want until you have three leads or clients (after your fourth, you’ll need to upgrade to a paid plan). When you’re just getting started, it may take you a while to get your first few clients. 30 days (which is what most other CRMs give you, unlike 17hat’s mini-trial period) is often not enough time to get a real feel for the system. Dubsado’s trial lets it grow with YOU, which can be crucial. Plus, their customer service is OUT OF THIS WORLD. Example: Before I tested Dubsado out, I wanted to know if team management was in the works (it’s since been released), so I emailed them. I got a reply back from Becca (one of the Dubsado founder) within hours, asking me to let Becca and Jake know what team management aspects I wanted to see when they release that feature. Can I just say that Dubsado* has AMAZING customer service! Becca especially is crazy active in the Dubsado Facebook group, where you can ask questions and suggest features. This is one of the best things about Dubsado, in my opinion. They’re also completely transparent about what features they’re working on and when they’re anticipating releasing that feature.
As for pricing, this is yet another place where I love Dubsado. They offer two options: monthly or annual. Dubsado’s* pricing is $25/month or $250/year at the time of this writing, but check their pricing page to make sure that’s still accurate. BONUS: When you subscribe to one of Dubsado’s paid plans, you lock in that rate for as long as you stay on that type of plan. Gotta love not having any surprise price increases!
Both programs also offer referral programs! Dubsado gives YOU a free month of service for every paid referral and every person who signs up for a paid plan gets 20% off of their own first month or year. (Yes, you can also get 20% off! Just use Unit25 as your referral code when you sign up.) According to their referral page, 17hats gives you a $50 Amazon gift card (hope you like Amazon!) when you refer someone and your referral gets just 10% off an annual subscription. From what I can tell, it doesn’t look like they get a discount on a monthly plan.
WINNER: Dubsado – because of locked-in pricing, better trial period and referral program, and not penalizing you as much for paying month-to-month
Overall winner in my book: clearly Dubsado*!
If you’re ready to give Dubsado a try, use Unit25 as your referral code* when you sign up to get 20% off after your trial. Let me know if you have questions – I’d be happy to answer whatever I can! Also, email me with your first Dubsado receipt, showing Unit25 as your referral code, and I’ll give you the Conquer Google Analytics! Lite course, which is a $99 value and not available to the public. This will help you get your business’s website in order while getting the rest of your business in order with Dubsado*!