As small business owners, we all know how important it is to get our books in order. And it’s not just for the tax office. If we want to make it in an increasingly budget-conscious and competitive landscape, small business owners must keep meticulous and well organized financial records. That means doing your accounts on a regular basis, and reviewing your business’ performance on an ongoing basis, rather than just just haphazardly throwing your accounts to an accountant a few days before taxes need to be filed.

Here’s the thing: good accounting is not about record keeping for the tax purposes. It’s about finding ways to work better. Not only will good accounting practices keep you out of trouble with the ATO, but they help: improve your business model and establish profit goals, locate non-performing products and services; identify and focus on your best and most profitable customers, and even improve payment times.

However, if you are like me, you probably dread doing accounts. Some small business owners get overwhelmed when dealing with numbers and byzantine accounting codes. Some are just tired of having to deal with redundant processes, like examining bank statements, or printing online statements and encoding them into spreadsheets.  And a lot of the old school accounting solutions did not really help solve these dreads. There was not a lot of competition in the accounting software space, so we just had to use what we always used in the past, no matter if it required arcane knowledge of ledger codes and tax rules.

The good news is, in the past two years there has been something of a renaissance in accounting software: with new and very viable players disrupting the old guard. Most of the new solutions are cloud based – yes, I’m going to be advocating for the cloud again – and many are written not from a bookkeeper’s perspective, but from that of a business person. So no more having to remember ledger codes or how to enter journals: just get on with the business and enter information on your activities.

Gone are the days when we have to keep notebooks and receipt pouches, sales ledgers and paper records to help us do our accounting. We now have access to software that can help simplify the accounting process and eliminate redundant processes (this means foregoing the dreaded, time consuming data entry). Business owners can save time and still be able to keep up to date, organized, accessible records. Better still, many of the new solutions are also focused on providing business people with quick snapshots of their businesses’ performance on an up-to-the-minute basis. Reports and dashboards (graphics that clearly summaries key business issues) allow you to see at a glance the information that will help you make decisions that can improve your business’ effectiveness and profitability.

In short, to paraphrase a cliche, the new breed of accounting solutions allow you to spend more time working ON your business, and less time working IN your business.

When looking for a new accounting solution you should consider the following capabilities:

  • Cloud based. Running your accounting via a cloud service means never having to worry about backups, moving between different computers or keeping track of the business while on the road. It also means your financial advisor may dip into your accounts whenever they need, without disrupting your business. Plus the accounting solutions is immediately updated whenever there is a change to taxation tables or rules.
  • User Interface is designed around business activity, not accounting activity. When you first turn on the accounting package, it should present you with key business functions, like sales and purchasing, rather than journals and ledgers. More importantly, when a sale or purchase is entered, it should be in a matter than is straightforward and business like, without the need to remember product or service codes, tax details or account codes: it should be just like writing up an invoice.  Since not all businesses run exactly the same way, this also means you should see how well the accounting solution’s user interface can be configured to fit your individual business needs.
  • Context aware data entry:  Related to the above, any time you are entering information to your accounting solution, it should be smart enough to make suggestions. For example, if you were entering in an an ‘account’ or ‘sale type’ for a sale, you should be able to type something like ‘land…’ and as you type, the solution would begin to suggest various options for you, such as ‘landscape planning services, landscaping work, landcare consulting’ etc.  While each of these suggestions may infact reference a product, service or account code, that is not what is important: only the face that you have types a few letters and the accounting solution makes smart suggestions. This not only speeds up data entry, but helps to keep your accounting scrupulously accurate.  
  • Automated bank feeds. This a biggie! Most accounting solutions now have the ability to specify to automatically connect to your bank accounts and pull down all the financial transactions. Better still, some accounting solutions will then automatically reconcile the bank transactions with your accounts: customer payments and automatically correlated and marked as paid, purchases are confirmed and recorded, etc.  This literally decimates the time needed for bookkeeping, while simultaneously dramatically reducing accounting errors. In my small business, when we began using this feature, it reduced our booking hours from three days a week to half a day, and more importantly, our accountant commented on how accurate our books were, and that instead of paying $7000 for our end of year accounting, we only ended up paying $800.  So the simple ability to link your bank accounts directly into your accounting more than paid for the new accounting solution in the first year!
  • Always up-to-date Australian tax tables, GST rules, etc.  Not all accounting solutions are designed to support Australian businesses (though the one’s listed in this article are.)  Make sure than any solution you review not only supports all of the reports and processes you need for doing business in Australia, but also updates these as soon as the government implements changes.  This is particularly important for GST, pay-as-you go, and withholding taxes. This is one of the reasons why I am very keen on cloud accounting solutions, as they are always up-to-date.
  • Configurable dashboard.  Dashboards are a way for you to quickly see all of the information that matters to you.  At the very least, the dashboard can display how you are tracking on budgets, annual or quarterly income, outstanding bills to pay, accounts payable, and a list of things for you to follow up (like calling overdue customers).  However, no two businesses are the same, and no two business owners are interested in the same things. Therefore, it is important for your accounting solution to have a dashboard that can be customised to display just the information that is important for your business… and give you the ability to change the dashboard content as your needs change.
  • Automation and recurring activities.  Being able to set up automated payments, alerts for bills or even automatic emails to overdue customers is not only a time-saver, it helps ensure that your business actually does these laborious, but important for cashflow, tasks.  Again, it’s all about being able to spend more time working ON your business, not working IN your business.
  • Attached documents.One of the great things with the new cloud solutions is that you can scan (or use your smartphone to take a snapshot) of receipts and invoices, and have these attached to your accounting records. This way, your filing becomes fully digital. No more hunting for scraps of paper should you be audited!  This also means you can store proposals and important work order information directly in your accounting solution for later reference.
  • Integration with other business solutions.  The ability to display up-to-the-minute customer accounts in your customer relationship management (CRM) solution is a huge benefit. It allows you to not only check to see if a customer requesting more products or services has an outstanding invoice, but also to identify who and when is buying what, and why.  Linking accounting history with client data is a huge boon. This means that your accounting solution needs to be able to integrate – that is, pass information back and forth – with your CRM. Likewise, you may have an online shop. Linking purchases from that shop directly into your accounting package will save a lot of time and fuss, and ensure your customers are given prompt service.  When looking at accounting solutions, check out which other solutions they can integrate with ‘out of the box’ and how they can connect with other solutions via special ‘APIs’ or ‘cloud connectors.’  Integrating two or more applications can be a little tricky, and I’d always recommend you get some technical assistance from a geek to help. But even so, when looking for a new accounting solution, you should ask if and how it can integrate with other solutions.

A host of service providers are available in the market and are constantly adding improved features to benefits users. Let’s take a look at some of the main players.

MYOB and MYOB Essentials.  MYOB is one of the most popular accounting solutions in the Australian market. The firm has both the traditional desktop-based product, and a cloud based offering called MYOD Essentials. The desktop product integrates well with Microsoft Office and is relatively easy to install.  MYOB’s most promising claim (according to an MYOB Client Insight Survey) is that their solutions can save you up to 10 hours per month of data entry by linking your bank records to your MYOB account. In my experience, the savings of linking back records to your accounting solution are far greater! MYOB has the usual accounting essentials such as sales, quotes, invoices, and expenses management features. The MYOB Essentials is a cloud based application has all the typical benefits of the cloud: data is automatically backed up in the cloud and updates are automatic as well, and teams can collaborate. However, MYOB Essentials is not as sophisticated or as well designed as its cloud competitors. MYOB AccountRight, a desktop solution that connects to the MYOB Essentials cloud service, provides the option to work offline. Accounting data synchronises when you are connected to the internet. You can purchase MYOB Essentials for $29 a month or try it for FREE for 30 days. MYOB AccountRight is $70 a month with a 90 day money back guarantee and a FREE 30 day trial as well.

Reckon One – For a sole trader or small business that is growing, Reckon One is a very interesting choice.  Reckon One (formerly known as Quickbooks) has the most flexible pricing options among its contemporaries. It gives you the freedom to design your own accounting solution by choosing just the features you need. As with any cloud-based application, Reckon One is quick to set up, has automatic backup and updates, and has data sharing features. It also has a mobile app that is compatible with iPhone and Android devices, so you can carry around your accounts in your pocket. At the starter level, Reckon One (Core) provides features such as creating budgets, tracking and creating payments, and reporting, among others. As your business grows, you might discover that you need more features. Reckon One gives you the option to add more modules as you need them. The Invoices module allows you to generate and send invoices. The BankData module imports your bank transactions into your Reckon One account. The Projects modules helps you review and forecast. Reckon One starts at $5 per month with a 30 day FREE trial.  

Saasu – SaaSu packs the usual arsenal of accounting features Invoicing, automated banking, and reporting, payroll, among others. SaaSu’s interface is very well designed, and largely focused on business activities, more than bookkeeping. However, what makes Saasu different from the above competitors is that it is a true cloud based program. For a software to work well and quickly it needs to be written specifically as a cloud software, otherwise, it be slow and a little clunky to use: something we’ve seen with products such as MYOB Essentials. SaaSu is one of the few accounting solutions that was born and bred in the cloud. Users (like me!) give it a high rating. It also has very flexible invoicing capabilities and all their plans include access to a (very) lite CRM and Paypal feeds. The Inventory feature is also great for companies that sell products instead of services. Significantly, it has over 50 out of the box integrations, including: shopify, magento, mailchimp, and ebay among others. SaaSu plans start at $9 a month, which is just good enough for a sole trader. If you are a small business, the $20 or $35 a month plans are more likely required. You can also try it out for FREE for 30 days before you decide to purchase.

Xero – As with the previous accounting solutions providers, Xero has the standard features that include, online accountings, bank reconciliation, invoicing, plus a host of add ons. Like SaaSu, it also have a very capable live bank feed feature which supports multi currency for international transactions, and shows real-time exchange rates. A mobile app is available for accounting on the go. Again, like SaaSu, Xero is one of the softwares created specifically for the cloud, and this translates to a smooth and fast user experience. It is relatively easy to use, although appears more ‘spartan’ than SaaSu. In addition, Xero’s user interface is more like a traditional accounting and bookkeeping solution than SaaSu.  

Xero has a 30-day maximum FREE trial period and starter plans are at $25 per month.

There is no one ‘perfect’ accounting solution. All of the above will do the job, and do it well. The challenge is picking the tool that will fit your business and your working style the best. Interestingly, I use SaaSu for my personal business as a sole trader, while my consulting partnership uses Xero, and our family business, TyTags, uses MYOB. So it’s swings and roundabouts. However, the key here is to examine your accounting solution and consider if you are getting what you need from it… and start looking at alternatives which may help you run your business better.