What software do you use to run your business?

Posted on 09 September 2008 by Demian Turner

The problem

Increasingly I’m focusing less on cutting code and more on running a web development business.  While it can be painful not to get your hands dirty as often as you would like, there are great pleasures in seeing your business pick up momentum.

But one of the first factors that needs to be brought under control is time management for yourself and your employees, and general CRM.  The problem I’ve found is that the functionality scope of the various apps I’ve been using is wildly different from one to the next.  I need a level of baseline functionality from a single app, mainly because the overhead of sharing data between apps makes using multiple apps untenable.  I would still like to do as much coding as possible, and as we are in 2008, so there must be something out there that ticks all the basic boxes.

Well googling brought up very little.  What did have good results was this thread from the php-london ML, and direct feedback from a few colleagues.

Minimum requirements

Here are the baseline features I concluded were the minimum required to be useful for my small business

  • timesheets: ability for multiple employees to login and log their time against multiple clients and projects
  • client and project management handling: I don’t want a project management app, am very happy with Trac, but I do need to keep track of all my clients, the relevant contacts and the projects I’m running with each of them
  • invoicing: there’s no point in decoupling the time logging and how clients are billed
  • expenses: the above 3 features are available in the majority of software out there, desktop and web-based, but the minute you need to be able to record your expenses, eg costs associated with web hosting or software rental costs (not billable to clients), the choice dramatically reduces
  • balance sheet: this seems to be the killer question, if I know what I’m making on projects, and my business has a range of running costs, then surely I want to know what the operating profit is right?  The requirement for balance sheet functionality even more dramatically reduces the amount of options available

Let me just reiterate what I don’t want, to be clear.  I don’t want a detailed accounting app like Sage, Quickbooks, Quicken etc, but I do need to be able to know the bottom line for the business at any point.  I don’t want to have to import employee/contractor times from one app into another, or transfer across the value of invoices – who has time for that overhead?

Nice to haves

  • web-based: I think having the software available in a browser wherever I might be is invaluable, and with web2.0 style apps and the provider using a fast server, there should be very little difference to a desktop app.
  • decent customer service: if the customer service is crap, just forget it.  There is too much healthy competition around to have to settle for mediocre customer service.   You want to take my money for your product, make sure I am a happy customer.
  • multi-currency: I think in today’s economy it’s quite unusual to have clients in just one country or using a single currency

The contenders

Here’s the apps I evaluated and the various pro/cons of each.

Studiometry 

Studiometry is a desktop app available for the Mac and PC.  The UI is a bit klunky, but for customer/project/timesheet management it’s great.  It was the best app I found first time around, was recommended by a few friends, and I would probably still be using it if it could track expenses and report on the business balance sheet.  It has a number of demo videos which hugely help learning the software, and let’s face it, if you have the choice between reading an enormous PDF or mimicking what you saw on a screencast, which would you choose?   Also for the record, these guys do not answer customer support requests took ten days to respond to my customer support request.

Harvest

Harvest is quite strongly recommended in the industry, and the interface is first rate, and for time-keeping it’s great.  However these guys don’t claim to do balance sheet handling so it’s not really fair to compare.  For timesheets and billing they’re pretty good.  Did I mention the UI was sweet?

Basecamp

I don’t want to say too much about Basecamp because I know everyone is using it, and it’s probably bad luck to diss 37 Signals. But …. Well let’s start with the positives first.  For time tracking it’s great.  The UI is fantastic, and once you get to the time tracking page, it’s a pleasure to use.  But what about navigation?!  This app takes the prize for requiring the most clicks to get anything done.  I mean I read Getting Real is it was great, but they should practice what they preach.  I was even driven to mess around with bookmarklets just not to waste so much time using this app.  I seriously considered logging time wasted wrestling with the time-keeping app.  Ok, enough.  Wait – one more.  What’s up with Writeboards?  So klunky to load these notepads.  I can truthfully say I have migrated quite a number of people off Basecamp and onto Trac.

Billings

Billings is another sexy looking app, recommended by some of the PHPlondon guys, but ultimately it’s way too simplistic to be useful.  It’s a Mac only desktop app, and after using Studiometry for several months I wish the Studiometry guys would look at Billings and get some interface ideas.  But it handles time-keeping, invoicing and basic client info only, and has a few dinky ideas like ‘add url’ button that let’s you add “urls” to your projects.  Better left out in my opinion.  You can do estimates with the app, and you get a status of the account, but only for a given project, not globally.

Moneyworks

Moneyworks looks like a decent accounting package and is reasonably priced, but seems a bit much for my needs.  I must be honest and say that I didn’t download the demo, but after looking at the screenshots I wasn’t too impressed.  Overall it seemed like a package more suitable for someone with an accounting background, which I don’t have.

FreshBooks

FreshBooks is a very exciting app.  It’s widely used in the web industry, and for good reason.  The interface is fantastic and there’s a lot of functionality.  Not to mention the app has been around for ages and has gone through a lot of iterations presumably based on customer feedback.  And the customer service was excellent, best of the batch.  I exchanged a few emails with Grace who was very helpful but ultimately let me know that the 2 features I needed (recurring expenses and balance sheet) were not available.  But they were top of the feature request list ;-)  This app to me looks like it’s done by 37 Signals, I guess on purpose, but FreshBooks operates out of Toronto.

Kashflow

Kashflow was an interesting one.  They have all the features I listed above, and they’re even UK-based so great for businesses like mine.  They’re web-based which should be an advantage, but the UI looks stuck somewhere back in the 80’s.  And the logo is pink.  In fact the whole site is pink.  Not that I have anything against pink, but arguably it’s an unusual choice of colour for a business app.  But the functionality is there, even if it takes a bit of searching around to get to it.  In fact I think of all apps compared here Kashflow had the most functionality of the bunch.  Guys, drop the ASP frontend and hire my company to rebuild your product into a web2.0 app with PHP calling out to your extensive API – you won’t regret it.

Quicken

Quicken is a funny one – just read the comments ;-)

Quickbooks

Quickbooks is not far different.

FreeAgent

FreeAgent is where things start to change.  Wow was I impressed with this software.  A big thanks to Nigel James who suggested it and gets my 10% referral fee with a a free beer thrown in at the next PHPlondon ;-)  FreeAgent is a very complete web-based accounting/timesheets/invoicing app that’s perfect for small businesses.  And if you’re based in the UK it’s even more strongly recommended, taking in its stride things like IR35 intermediaries legislation, VAT obligation, corporation tax due, National Insurance and PAYE payments, the list goes on.  

FreeAgent handles all aspects of clients, projects, time-keeping, invoicing and expenses (one off and recurring).  This app is put together by a team that really understands accounting and what small businesses need.  It also lets you setup multiple bank accounts and manage reconciliations between what you invoice and what you collect.  Paypal import is supported.  Regarding income FreeAgent lets you track money you earn in terms of dividends or salary and will even guide you through the full setup of payroll for your employees, calculating Taxable Gross, Tax Code Tax, Employee NI, Net Pay, Employer NI and PAYE/NI Due to HMRC for you based on gross annually salary input.  The app will also do a self assessment for you  which can be used at the end of your limited company’s financial year.

But I think the main strength of FreeAgent is what you find under the Accounting tab.  Included are reports for monthly and yearly profit & loss, balance sheet, trial balance, dividend vouchers, capital assets and journal entries.  At any moment you can see exactly how your business is doing, how much corporate tax you owe, how many unpaid invoices there are, and how your monthly operating profit is performing.  There is also a great dashboard to greet you when you login with graphs of the various business metrics and notifications of priority matters.

Conclusion

In my opinion FreeAgent is the strongest of all the contenders here; it combines a balanced feature set with a great interface and a fair price.  It has one or two shortcomings to be fair, but not showstoppers.  For one employees can login to manage their own timesheets, but they get access to the entire business financials, effectively an admin login.  I suspect this will be addressed soon, I’ve certainly complained about it.  Secondly there’s currently no concept of tracking revenue by product or service.  This is very useful to have if your company provides a number of products as well as the usual grind of service work.  I don’t think it would be hard to integrate.

What’s your opinion?

Now you’ve heard my rather long-winded opinion, what are you experiences with accounting/invoicing software?  Have I missed any interesting stuff?  Have I left out any essential requirements?  It took a lot of time to research the current offerings and I would have loved to find a decent review so I hope the above is helpful to someone.

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42 Comments For This Post

  1. Laszlo Says:

    Just tested FreeAgent, good find. Clean UI, neutral design, good functionality & good accessibility, fair pricing.

  2. Teal Says:

    Probably not what you are looking for but one good alternative for Basecamp is Clocking IT (http://www.clockingit.com/).

    I like the UI and you can run it from your own server.

  3. Vid Luther Says:

    I use Freshbooks for timesheets and invoicing, the free version works for me so far. I’ll have to give FreeAgent a spin, thanks for the review on that. I had used all the other tools you mentioned as well.

    On top of that, I like to use Unfuddle for my source/ticketing/project management needs. It lets me setup SVN or GIT repositories with a few clicks, and I don’t need to worry about things like Trac, or ticketing systems and users etc. It works great.

  4. Henry Says:

    recommend SQL-Ledger

  5. Dave Says:

    I find some of your objections baffling. I mean rejecting an app because its pink? Do you sersiously have more time to watch screencasts than to refer to reference pdfs?

  6. Demian Turner Says:

    @Dave
    You think the pink business app comment was unreasonable? Did you try the demo? It’s not only the colour choice which is out of touch with the times but the entire web interface. A very useful feature that some of the competition features (FreshBooks) is the ability for the customer to login and review his/her invoice history. Would you want your clients logging into a Kashflow-looking app?

    Yes i seriously appreciated time saved by screencasts, look how long an article was required to barely scratch the surface reviewing the leading accounting apps, had I read the PDF manual for each one this article would have come out in 2009!

  7. Demian Turner Says:

    Some good feedback on Kashflow: http://lists.phplondon.org/pipermail/phplondon-discuss/2008-September/004583.html

  8. Arnaud Says:

    It is very hard to find a CRM app that will fit your needs. Getting a CRM right is difficult work and there usually is something that will you put you off not because it is lacking but because it does not fit the way you think.

    If you can find one you can extend to make it work the way you want that will a good thing.

    I’m afraid I don’t really have a contender though (even if I work on one as my day job).

  9. Stan Says:

    Great article Demian!
    I’ve tried in the past Sage and Quickbooks and those experiences made me go back to pen, paper and excel spreadsheets, which was slightly less painfull than using accounting software. By the way I never passed those spreadsheets to you, but I guess you won’t need them now ;)
    The FreeAgent looks exciting! I can’t wait to get home and start playing with it! I might even give a try to Kashflow (especially if they listen and hire you to rebuild it ;) )

  10. Nigel James Says:

    Thanks for the props Demian. FreeAgent is very complete and it is improving all the time. I am glad that you like it.

    Cheers,
    Nigel

  11. ck Says:

    if your company grows:
    - vtiger CRM
    - compiere
    - sugarCRM
    … could solve at least some of your problems too…

    cheers, ck

  12. Richard Foster Says:

    We use Appshore for CRM. Cheap and effective, with decent support. Price per user is important to us as we have 8 users (yup them Moroccans).

  13. CyncBeece Says:

    favorited this one, guy

  14. Ed Lea Says:

    fyi the new quickbooks looks good. I currently use Pro 2008 and it does everything I need and more. Now with 09 handling multiple currency it’s got to be near the top of the list. I think the above quicken/quickbooks links are to older versions. There is a learning curve, but once you get to know the app it is very good.

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-1001_3-10053554-92.html?tag=mncol;title

    I also now use it with parallels so no need to boot up in vista just to send an invoice…

  15. the flash design guy Says:

    We use Jira for some of our larger projects and are pretty happy with it

  16. ahmad Says:

    Thanks for the nice review i will give a try to free agent and check it out to see how it works

  17. Dave Nattriss Says:

    Just came across this service – http://www.xero.com – looks like it may be ahead of FreeAgent with some features.

  18. Jane Says:

    There is a neat little desktop tool called Fanurio http://www.fanuriotimetracking.com . I love it! You can try it for free too. You can just click to start, pause it, etc and you can do nifty reports. I use it to track the time I spend on client projects.

    Even though I only bill hourly for consulting projects, it helps me to see how much time I’m spending to make sure my rates are in line. With Fanurio you can customize invoice templates using your own layouts and export them to HTML or PDF.

  19. Karolina Says:

    Excellent write up. I have recently started using Invoicera for online billing and invoicing. The application is nice and easy. Though it is in beta phase, I have personally decided to test it myself. If anyone is looking for an inexpensive online application then check http://www.invoicera.com

  20. Robert Says:

    I’ve started using http://www.clearbooks.co.uk/ . It’s an on-line application for new and small businesses. I can access it at any time and place. Also, it can be used by multiple users simultaneously. Oh, one last thing – it’s FREE for me. I’m self-employed so it’s a perfect solution for me.

  21. mike Says:

    Tried http://www.transtrac.co.uk for just the invoicing since I already have a system for handling my time that works fine. It’s nice and straightforward although front page is not very clear. I’ll have a look at some of the other s too.

  22. Ben Kepes Says:

    Hey there – you really need to check out Xero – it truly is mint…. Your requirements are pretty standard so, TBH, most of the apps will do what you need. Your decision there comes down to price and security – how is the vendor funded, will they be around in a few years, is my data safe etc. Xero is a publicly listed company which gives a big degree of safety.

    BTW – Lots of my in-depth reviews of accounting products here – http://www.cloudave.com/tag/accy2 – I’m completely neutral and independent, my comments about Xero are based on extensive use over the past 18 months or so….

  23. Mark Davies Says:

    @Ben – why does “publicly quoted” equal security? What of all of the corporate failures that are in the news nearly every day? Being quoted arguably gives the company a ready source of further market funds if they need to continue burning cash, but there is no gurantee that funds will be forthcoming.
    It also seems a little odd to make a firm recommendation of one product but then claim a position of independence. That is not intended to imply that you are not independent, it just seems incongruous.

  24. Ben Kepes Says:

    Mark – given the number of web apps that seem to be crumbling these days due to lack of funding, publicly listing gives some security. True it doesn’t remove Enron style issues but at least it’s something.

    I recommend Xero after having reviewed around 20 SaaS accounting apps – I am neutral and independent (I’ve not made 1 penny out of Xero or any other vendor – a claim I’m proud of and that IMHO sets me apart from others) and I believe that at this time, apples with apples, Xero is best of breed.

    Independent does not mean one cannot form an opioion, just that that opinion was reached with total neutrality.

  25. Phil Richards Says:

    Demian, thanks for your article, it was a really useful analysis, one that I will point people too in the future. As Chartered Accountants we like FreeAgent and have been using it for 12 months, we now bundle FreeAgent with a complete accountancy service for £65 a month,this means we can share data with our client, and advise accordingly. I also like the way FreeAgent is consisstently being further developed for their target market, the Professional Freelancer, whilst I also know of plenty of good accounting apps,IMHO FreeAgent’s dedication to their original philosophy will keep them ahead of the game for a while.

  26. Demian Turner Says:

    Here’s a really nice summary of accounting/invoicing apps – covers many I didn’t come across. http://hayleymarsden.com/business/business-software-accounts-billing-invoicing-applications/

  27. Ria Says:

    Hi i am a normal level accountant so i dont use paid resources.. I go for Numia – free online accounting services to maintain my records…

  28. Ronald Says:

    I am a business Professional. We had a tremendous problem with the confusing chore of calculating overtime. HourDoc Time
    Tracking Software
    allows automatic tracking of all paid time off, including overtime. HourDoc Time
    Tracking Software
    has made the payroll process quick, easy, and with much less headaches than before. This Software is free for less than 50 employees. You must try it!

  29. Stacy Lorsan Says:

    Hey All

    I have been using the services of http://www.invoicera.com for quite sometime now and they are coming up with the new Invoicera with features like time-tracking, expense tracking, import function, and much more. Check out their blog at http://www.invoicera.com/blog for updates

    Cheers!!!

  30. Ronald Says:

    HourDoc is tool for Time Tracking. http://www.HourDoc.com is right treatment for time and labor management processes has to be an easy-to-administer and affordable solution for Freelancers, supervisors, employees and HR and payroll managers. They offer free application to companies less than 50 employees. You must Try it!

  31. Ian Davies Says:

    Used this for a few years,they have now selling it online,its easy to use and tells me what stage the job is at from job issued to awaiting payment,prints job sheets,does what it should be doing,also informs me how much profit/loss i made on each job.There are a load of business software out there i just find Desk Quote Professional great for my company.

  32. aswin Says:

    Great collections! Please add sugarCRM also on your list

  33. Demian Turner Says:

    a good price comparison for leading accounting software packages

    http://www.clearbooks.co.uk/blog/accounting-software-comparison/

  34. David Craig Says:

    worth checking out – http://www.mybiz.co.uk – also has a free trial

  35. MarketDojo Says:

    We use Clearbooks as our accounting software at Market Dojo. We offer software as well, albeit for business-to-business e-auctions and I would be very happy if our software was ever as easy-to-use and intuitive as the Clearbooks offering.

  36. Vincent Says:

    I would like to recommend OroTimesheet for time tracking and invoicing.
    It is really easy to use and very affordable.
    It helps me keep track of the time I spend on each project. I can easily create an invoice from my timesheets. I used many time tracking software over the years and this one is my favorite.

    It is free to try so make sure to visit the company’s website at http://www.orologic.com/

  37. Louis Austen Says:

    Tree.io – http://www.tree.io
    We use it to manage all of the aspect of our business, project management, sales, CRM, support, finance etc. Plus its really cheap

  38. Yogi Yang Says:

    I am a bit tooo late in commenting as I came across this post just today.

    But I would suggest you to give OpenERP 6.1 a close look as it is completely modular and it has all the functionality that you require as modules that can install and use as per your needs.

  39. Kumar Says:

    I would recommend Replicon time clock and invoicing tool. Which is one of the leading time tracking and invoicing tool.

  40. Shoun Devid Says:

    Nicely Compared!

    There’s tons of business software out there, but what those business software programs does any business really need? What’s the point of buying and installing business software if you’re not going to use it or if it makes a particular task more complicated? There are a load of business software out there i just find Desk Quote helpful for my company.

    And also always keep in mind. Software helps you to utilize your time and money, so try to buy easy to use software interface.

    Regards,

  41. Kent Says:

    Great collection but you can also add fetchflow for online invoicing.

  42. Dan Says:

    There are other good players in this market. I use Keepek which is also good for invoicing and time tracking.
    http://www.keepek.com/

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