Small business, big benefit from online bookkeeping

31 August 2014 by Steve Blum

The winner.

Once I’d decided to dump Quickbooks and figured out that other self-hosted software wasn’t any more functional, I took a hard look at the online alternatives. Six alternatives – FreeAgent, FreshBooks, Wave, GoDaddy (formerly Outright), Xero and Zoho – warranted hands on testing.

My needs, I thought, are simple. I bill a relatively short list of clients on an hourly or fixed price/milestone basis, and pay expenses through a checking account, a couple of credit cards and occasionally cash out of pocket. To the extent possible I wanted all that automated, or at least require minimum monthly intervention time.

Unfortunately, no single company excels on all counts and only one, it turned out, was adequate across the board:

  • FreeAgent seemed to be designed with me in mind. It’s put a lot of thought into what independent consultants need. Although I didn’t dive too deeply into it, bookkeeping capabilities seemed adequate and time tracking and billing functions were slick. It falls down on the geek side, though. It handles live bank imports well enough, but credit card transactions aren’t supported. Those have to be downloaded and imported manually. Excellent customer support, though. Very responsive.
  • FreshBooks was a disappointing fail. Also very good at time tracking and invoicing, and customer support is lavish. But it’s an expense tracker, not a bookkeeping program. No way to account for payments made to yourself or credit card refunds or any of the dozens of little adjustments a proper set of books needs. It’s probably enough to keep you out of jail, if you have a good accountant, but will frustrate anyone familiar with the basics of accounting.
  • GoDaddy was, well, GoDaddy. Required a credit card just to test it, logging in was the usual gauntlet of brainless upsell offers. Hardly a functional or moral upgrade from Intuit.
  • Wave was the mirror image of FreshBooks. Great bookkeeping functions, can’t handle hourly billing or tracking expenses by client. In fact, one of the FreshBooks support reps suggested I try it out. Merge the two and you will have a killer platform.
  • Xero is the darling of the New Zealand stock exchange, and it is indeed slick and high powered. It seems to have expended a lot of effort on building a killer set of core functions that can scale up for large enterprises, and then supports – well – a large ecosystem of third party add on services. But time tracking and hourly billing isn’t in the core, and adding a third party solution from the long list of options pushed the price out of the comfort range and needlessly increased complexity. Not built with a solo consultant in mind.
  • Zoho Books did everything I needed it to do. Bank and credit card feeds work flawlessly and are easy to reconcile, particularly with the custom rules that you can set up. There’s even a journaling function that’s appropriately non-obvious – no accidental playing around with double entry bookkeeping.

The winner was Zoho Books. Price – about $20 a month – was OK, interface is simple, and the automatic functions just work. I’ve been using it for several months, and I’m very happy.