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There is no Accounting for Bad Software (Part 2)

In my previous post, I expressed frustration with trying to automate the accounting and administrative functions of my businesses and announced that I'm now on a quest to find a web-based solution.

I started all this with a simple goal. My administrative bottleneck has always been accounts receivable, so I set out to find a suitable billing system that would integrate tightly with payment processors such as Google Checkout and PayPal. You've already seen this kind of integration with virtually every "shopping cart" out there. Alas, the shopping cart metaphor doesn't adapt to other business cases, so my task is to find a billing/payment system that can be decoupled from the purchasing function for certain types of sales. In my case, subscription-based (recurring) invoicing is a must.

In-house or On-line Service?

The best solution would be a modular, turn-key package from a single-vendor. It would install on my own servers, giving me complete control over the data. A fairly comprehensive list of options is available at Wikipedia's Comparison of accounting software but none of these packages were able to meet my invoicing requirements, never mind that most of them are old-paradigm accounting systems, no better than what I was using in the 1980s. What's left to evaluate are the hosted services. That is, you do everything on their servers. That comes with its own caveats.

My preliminary web search turned up a paltry three invoicing services in a sea of shopping cart providers. Of the three, only one came close to meeting my initial criteria. I emailed that vendor with some questions and got a prompt, thoughtful reply. Encouraged, I followed up with another email. This time no reply. I sent another. Still no reply. Things were not off to a good start.

I turned my attention back to the web, this time searching for product reviews and comparisons. I stumbled on to a few product reviews and comparisons, but in the early stage I was more interested in building a list of service providers than actual product assessments. Unless they underscore specific customer service/support issues, I tend to take most reviews with a grain of salt because they don't necessarily apply to my business case.

I've been cataloguing features based entirely on information gleaned from their websites, without actually contacting the vendors. After my initial bad experience, I decided not to waste any more time with email until I had narrowed it down to a handful of eligible providers which I call my "short list".

Notably, a few vendors are offering additional services, the most common being time tracking for billable hours. A few vendors even offer complete accounting systems. While I am primarily searching for billing solutions, I see the potential of migrating a lot more of my administrative processes over to such service providers. I decided to add other accounting functions to my list of criteria. That doesn't mean I will rule out a billing service if doesn't offer general ledger. But it might tip the scale in the direction of a full-blown accounting system if it meets both my billing system criteria and my general accounting criteria.

If I ultimately choose a billing/payment-only solution, I have the option of assessing full accounting systems as a separate project down the road, so I will not have much more to say about accounting features just now.

Let the Culling Begin!

I have categorised products/services into three groups: "short list", "deferred" and "rejected".

My classification is very subjective. Keep in mind that it only applies to my business case. Any product that fails to meet my most rudimentary criteria simply doesn't make it to the short list.

I have already begin contacting vendors on the short list. That is likely to result in a further culling, depend on how my questions and issues are handled by each vendor.

My "deferred" list is not not a rejection, per se, but not the most promising ones, based on their websites. Depending on how things go with my short list, I might still contact some or all of them.

For a product to end up on my "rejected" list it simply doesn't meet the minimum criteria for my business case. That doesn't necessarily mean the product is bad. It is more likely that it merely doesn't meet my minimum criteria. Since this whole process started with me looking for a billing system, lack of relevant billing features will pretty much be a deal breaker.

The Criteria

For my business case, the following criteria should be met. Failure to meet any one will likely be a deal breaker. I say "likely" because if I find myself in a the sad situation of nobody meeting these requirements then I might have to lower the bar.

  • subscription-based products/services (billing cycles ranging one month to ten years).
  • billable hours
  • billable materials
  • purchased products
  • automatic email notifications
  • multi-currency
    • fixed and variable rate
    • multiple price lists (ie., one for each currency)
  • multi-language
    • utf-8 encoded
    • unicode fonts on PDFs
    • proper double-byte string parsing on all data fields
  • payment integration
    • PayPal (full integration)
    • wire transfers
    • cash, cheques, etc.
    • Google Checkout (desirable but not mandatory)

Minimising the Risks

Given that these are web-based services, the following assurances are also important:

  • Assurances that the company will not go bankrupt or otherwise disappear
  • Assurances that my data is safe from snooping, either by the vendor or by third-party
  • Security & uptime
    • Guaranteed uptime 99.9%
    • Redundancy (multiple servers, multiple disks)
  • export/download raw accounting data

Secondary Features Which Score High

  • Client can make a partial payment
  • Client can overpay (credit balance is applied to future invoices)
  • Coupons (client enters coupon code for discount)
  • Member points (awards points accumulate based on sales and can be later applied as credits/payment discounts.)
  • Customisable invoice templates
  • Use own domain name (e.g., billing.mydomain.com)

In my next instalment I will list the products, along with my preliminary comments. Stay tuned!

Your comments and suggestions welcomed...

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