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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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