One of the problems with working for yourself is that you need to do all of your own bookkeeping. I’m approaching the end of my first month in business and it’s time to send out the first batch of invoices, so I spent yesterday looking over all of the reasonably-priced accounting and/or time-tracking applications for OS X. Those are really two separate needs, but they tie so closely together that I’d love to find one package that can handle both tasks, so I don’t need to manually copy time records from the tracking program over to the accounting program. I’m not convinced that this is actually possible, but it’s a worthy goal.

I’m currently evaluating 4 different packages.

The first was Project Timer Pro. I’ve been test-driving it for the past couple weeks, but I don’t think I’m going to end up buying it. It’s a nice, basic project tracker–you define customers and then create timers that count up how much time you’ve spent working on each job. It’ll generate invoices at the end of the month, but it doesn’t do any expense tracking, so at the very least I’d have to carry a big Excel worksheet around to track my expenses. It has a few nice things going for it, but the interface feels clunky and I’ve had a hard time actually getting it to do what I want. I’ve had a particularly hard time getting decent invoices out of it, and even extracting a detailed time sheet wasn’t as easy as I would have wanted. Project Timer comes in two versions, Pro ($50) and Lite ($20). Their website doesn’t do a good job of explaining the difference between the two, but Pro mostly seems to add more invoice-tracking options.

Since Project Timer Pro clearly doesn’t replace the need for an accounting program, I spent a couple hours looking over the options for small-business accounting on OS X. There seem to be three main choices: QuickBooks Pro ($180 from Amazon), MYOB AccountEdge ($290), and MYOB FirstEdge ($100). Reading Amazon’s reviews, people seem to hate all three fairly equally, but that’s pretty typical in my experience–accounting software has always came in two flavors:

  1. Built by accountants. Does a great job on the books, but it’s unusable by normal people and typically has corruption and crashing problems because accountants make lousy programmers (and utterly horrific UI designers).
  2. Built by programmers. Whiz-bang UI, fairly stable, gladly produces unreconcilable accounts. Usually lacks one or two utterly critical features. Your accountant looks at you funny when you try to hand him the output from your alleged accounting program at the end of the year.

Since all accounting software sucks, I wasn’t surprised to find a mix of 5-star and 1-star reviews for all three packages. So I decided to mostly ignore the reviews from Amazon and do my own footwork.

I started by eliminating QuickBooks: I’ve never liked Quicken, and QuickBooks for the Mac seems to be more expensive then the Windows version while lacking a number of useful features. Most magazine reviews hedged their reviews by saying that it was great if you were familiar with the Windows version, but that there were better options on the Mac. So I decided to try ouy MYOB’s options. I downloaded a free trial of FirstEdge, and it seems decent enough for what I need. It took me about an hour to set it up and spit out my first invoice, which isn’t too bad. Since I’m just one guy with no employees and only a couple dozen transactions per month (at worst), FirstEdge looks good enough for me. Since it’s the cheapest package in the linuep, I’ll probably stick with it, unless I decide that I can get by with a souped-up time+expense tracker application.

On the time-tracker front, I’m looking at two programs: iBiz ($29) and Studiometry ($99). iBiz has the same basic features as Project Timer Pro, but it’s a bit cheaper and more Mac-like. I haven’t played with it enough to really get a feel for it, but it looks like a nice, simple time-tracker.

I’m more interested in Studiometry, even though it’s more expensive. It includes a number of extra features:

  • Light-weight customer-tracking tools (call log, etc).
  • Basic bookkeeping (expense tracking, tax reports).
  • A to-do list that’s tied to specific jobs, with alarms.
  • The ability to manage quotes and compare estimates to actual progress.
  • A light-weight project manager tool.

Even though it’s more complex, it seems to fit together well enough that it doesn’t seem bloated to me. I’m not convinced that it’ll do everything that I want, but frankly I could buy all of these apps for what it’s cost me to evaluate them so far, so I’ll probably end up buying it and getting on with my life. I’m less sure about FirstEdge–I suspect that I’d be better-served by simply entering all of my expenses into Studiometry (or even Excel) and then handing the whole list off to an accountant every now and then. The evaluation period for both products goes on for at least another week, so I’ll probably run off a couple more invoices and see how they both do; then I’ll decide if I need FirstEdge.