New small business software and upgrades arrive in the marketplace every day. Historically, however, some businesses avoid buying new software or upgrades because they increase costs and open the door to potential data losses during the conversion process. Plus, going back and forth between versions can be difficult. Today, because of advances in software technology, many of those businesses are willing to upgrade because they're more interested in communicating easier, accessing data online from off-site, integrating with Microsoft (MS) Excel and MS Word, and e-mailing invoices.
During the last 15 years, I have used some of the software packages reviewed in this section and experienced mixed results. I've found that accountants often criticize smaller, under-$1,000 packages for being unable to close a period properly or adjust previously posted entries. However, I've discovered just as much instability/inflexibility with $100,000-plus software featuring complex code.
With proper planning and controls, all four software options reviewed here can be quite sound in terms of those issues.
Intuit's QuickBooks has the largest market share because it is an affordable option for small business owners. By acquiring Solomon, Navision and Great Plains, Microsoft is taking a shot at the small business market with its Small Business Accounting 2006 package. Other players like Peachtree (from Sage Software) and NetSuite (an Oracle spin-off) also are strong competitors in the small business arena.
All four packages offer ease of setup as a selling point and are geared toward the owner or bookkeeper who is not an accountant. QuickBooks and Peachtree also have industry-specialized solutions for businesses, such as real estate, construction, non-profits, professional services and manufacturing.
When advising a small business client who is in the throes of selecting new software, you should suggest comparing each package's features, including reporting methods, ease of data input, flexibility and user-friendliness, the number of licenses required and their cost, and user support and its cost.
For example, how much is licensing for one user? Five users? 10 users? Regarding support, some companies earn up to half their revenue by selling support plans. How much support can your client afford? It's common for the cost of a tier one or tier two software package to start in the low five figures--depending on the complexity of the software.
Something else to consider in a buying decision is this: If you do not plan to use the software forever, how easy is it to extract the data within a couple of years? Importing/exporting may be limited to certain file types or incompatible with the package you switch to later, and that can create time-consuming, costly data re-entry or data loss. (See paragraph one above!)
A small business owner can count on upgrading--most likely sooner than later--because new technology and software features are launched constantly, and the owner will want them. For example, I just helped a client run a credit card transaction from a desktop--no credit card machine was required! The transaction posted itself into Peachtree, and the sale posted immediately to the general ledger. What business owner (or accountant) wouldn't love that?
The main task when contemplating a software purchase is to view the demonstration and compare it to your current solution. Also, be sure to plan for what is involved with a change--such as downtime and training--before making an informed decision.
You can count on continued improvements to small business software as customers provide feedback to the companies that create them and the companies become more savvy about the needs of their clients--and the accountants who advise them.
--Robert Bates, CPA
NetSuite Small Business 10.6 Introduces AJAX Dashboard
NetSuite Small Business, an Oracle spin-off, is designed for small- to mid-sized businesses and claims to be the first and only company providing on-demand, Web-based business applications. There are very few competitors in this space, so NetSuite is well-poised. It boasts of a 24/7, 99.5% availability, so logging in almost never takes more than one attempt. NetSuite's 10.6 release expands on its online capabilities and integrates more fully with other applications like Microsoft Office and Google Maps.
A valuable feature of NetSuite Small Business is its ease of use: open the browser, log on and put the application to use. The online package includes GL, AR, AP, PR, inventory, time and billing, job costing, an integrated Web store module and a CRM function.
The case notification messages feature customizes customer support e-mail. Standard templates reflect branding or create custom notification messages and insert tags for case information. Messages are completely customizable, both in the subject and in the body of the message.
NetSuite 10.6 is head and shoulders above the former Net-Ledger in terms of the accounting application. Now that issues with accuracy and ease of usability are addressed, this product is quite viable.
The saved search e-mail alerts function initiates messages for records matching any user-defined criteria. Data tracked in NetSuite can now be the source of an alert. For example, set up the application to e-mail an alert whenever a new opportunity over $100,000 is created or when an outstanding balance is more than 90 days past due. An alert includes data residing in corresponding records.
The sales/pipeline and other reports are quite robust, but from an accounting standpoint, may not be as strong and user friendly as competing products.
NetSuite Small Business 10.6, along with all NetSuite products, includes a 60-day free support package. Because the company hosts all applications, ongoing maintenance, version upgrades and data back-ups are included. NetSuite also offers two additional customer support options.
With the new features of its 10.6 release, NetSuite Small Business expands its ability to meet the needs of businesses who can add functions as they are needed. However, the application is designed for growing businesses and may be more than a new business needs.
By Robert Bates, CPA
QuickBooks Previews Premier Accountant Edition 2006
Intuit's QuickBooks is not only a household name, but also the subject of college courses. Users at every skill level can understand the many tools and features, good documentation and navigational aids.
The QuickBooks Premier Accountant Edition 2006 will be available soon offering new features to this widely used application. Since no demonstration version was available for review, the sources for the new features described here included a QuickBooks conference call and a press release.
The 2006 version organizes all important customer, vendor and employee information into a single page for each, titled Customer Center, Vendor Center and Employee Center. Previously, users had to search for data, such as contact information, in one area and then move to another area to see transactional information, such as unpaid invoices. Now, all related tasks and information is grouped together, making the information easier to find.
A new, simplified home page puts the business tools your clients need in an easy-to-use screen. There's no more hunting through menus and navigators; everything is in plain sight, organized by category.
The update also delivers new inventory capabilities automating the key tasks of product-based businesses such as manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers. For example, Available-to-Promise, a feature previously available only in packages costing thousands of dollars more than QuickBooks, reports the exact amount of inventory on hand, where it is committed, when it is needed and when more will arrive.
QuickBooks streamlines how businesses commit to product delivery dates or borrow inventory tagged for later delivery on less critical orders.
It's also easier for accountants using and recommending this software to use it with clients. Typically, accountants receive a client data file and must compare it to the previous version to determine what changed. QuickBooks 2006 simplifies the process with a new "always-on" audit trail and password for monthly closes. This helps to quickly detect client errors and track changes while saving time and improving accuracy.
A new toggle feature simplifies answering clients' questions and allows you to switch instantly from your view of QuickBooks Accountant Edition to views of other versions of QuickBooks, such as QuickBooks Simple Start and Pro or any of the industry versions like QuickBooks Contractor Edition. With just a click, you can see the screen your client sees. This is especially valuable when supporting clients by telephone.
The application includes all standard modules: GL, AR, AP, PR, inventory, time and billing, job costing, and fixed asset management.
The sales order fulfillment worksheet permits managers to decide to ship partial orders, ship to the customer whose been waiting the longest or complete the most profitable order first.
In addition to 30 days of free support for all Accountant Edition users, QuickBooks has an extensive online knowledge base and offers a lineup of support plans--different plans for accountants and customers. Support for accountants not enrolled in a plan is available toll free on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. PST. Support engineers assist on a per-incident basis, and QuickBooks guarantees speaking to a support representative within 15 minutes or the call is free. The cost for a one-time support call is $50. Accountants certified by Intuit can enroll in the ProAdvisor Program (PAP) allowing them to support QuickBooks users who contact them. PAP members also receive free, unlimited technical support. It's a program to consider when looking for new clients.
When available, Premier Accountant Edition 2006 is sure to extend the QuickBooks tradition of serving not only the accounting needs of small- and mid-sized businesses, but also of individual clients.
By Robert Bates, CPA
Manage Financials Using Out-of-the-Box Software
Typically, small businesses use various stand-alone tools for their finances--from pen and paper to Microsoft (MS) Excel to full-blown accounting software. Today's accounting software, however, intimidates many start-up and small business owners who have no financial background. Now, there's a new solution: Microsoft Office Small Business Accounting 2006 (SBA), a full-featured financial program allowing small business owners to manage their financials using out-of-the-box software in a familiar Microsoft environment. SBA is priced at $149 after a $30 mail-in rebate.
SBA has features and functionality that experienced accountants can appreciate, but that require little or no accounting training to implement. By simplifying the financial management process, Microsoft made the application easier for business owners and employees to access more business information and, subsequently, make better, more-informed decisions.
Designed to meet the financial management needs of small companies with 25 employees or less, SBA includes and goes beyond just the key features with applications in a number of areas. These include GL, AR, AP, PR, sales order processing, purchase order processing, inventory management, employee management, banking and reporting.
By integrating SBA with other MS Office applications, including Word 2003, Excel 2003, Outlook 2003 and Business Contact Manager Update, small businesses combine financial and customer information to get a complete view of the business, build stronger customer relationships and provide employees with the information they need to be effective.
Because SBA maintains financial and customer information in one place, users can:
* access business data in true multi-user fashion;
* perform basic financial tasks like creating quotes, sales orders and invoices with Outlook 2003 and Business Contact Manager Update;
* utilize the always-on audit trail
* track billable time by using Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager Update;
* manage employee time records; and
* take advantage of the ADP integrated payroll service.
With the Virtual Private Network (VPN) desktop sharing feature, users log in remotely. Based on its functionality, I predict that third-party hosting companies like TADTechnology will pick up SBA as soon as they see it catching on with accountants and new businesses.
As with most new applications, SBA has a few "quirks. For example, it is only possible to import data from QuickBooks. Microsoft promises to release service packs and updates after more customers use the application.
Additional issues surfaced during our trial. Several times I felt that, because of their appearance, grayed-out fields in the application were not accessible. However, when I clicked on them, I could drill down as needed.
Like most other MS Office packages, SBA is available at retailers nationwide; however, Microsoft has an exclusive offer. Small businesses can order a trial kit of the software from the MS Office Web site, https://www.www.accountingtrialkit.com/store.asp. The kit includes a trial version of SBA 2006, as well as a trial version of MS Office Professional Edition 2003 and an information CD.
The best customer for SBA is a start-up or a small business that does not yet have accounting software. After this new package has a track record, it could be worthwhile for some QuickBooks' customers to consider converting to SBA if, given their particular needs, they would experience significant benefits.
Overall, SBA is quite impressive. Apparently Dell Computer concurs, because it is pre-installing the software--along with other Microsoft Office products--in its computers.
By Robert Bates, CPA
Add-ons Distinguish Peachtree Accounting from Competitors
Sage Software has added features to its Peachtree 2006 Accounting package in order to compete with the market leader, QuickBooks, for small business customers. The software is available in four versions--from an entry-level solution for start-ups to a comprehensive solution for more mature businesses. The basic version includes the standard modules: GL, AP, and AR. PR, inventory, time and billing, job costing and fixed asset management are available in the higher-end versions.
A key new feature of the Peachtree line is how it updates reports (Rapid Access Reports)--like balance sheets--without needing to refresh. This saves a step when cutting checks, printing invoices or changing inventory items. For example, switch back and forth from the check-cutting screen to the payable aging report without refreshing after every transaction
Other features include: built-in Crystal Reports (exclusively in the Peachtree Premier Accounting version), auto-complete text fields, storage for up to 20 addresses for each customer and vendor and a duplicate reference number warning. Also new is an internal accounting review running up to 15 reviews for unauthorized transactions and common mistakes and online bank reconciliation.
Another upgrade is the full payroll module through Peachtree Payroll Tax Update Service. The software includes direct deposit, credit card processing and authorization (no machine needed) and automatic entries directly into the program. Other helpful features are the ACT! link, integration with UPS (additional fees apply, subject to UPS terms and conditions), Peachtree Bill Pay service (additional fees apply), Company Consolidation Wizard and the new online banking.
Inventory features (Peachtree Complete Accounting version and higher) are extensive, such as building and un-building kits, user-defined attributes for inventory items and the ability to reserve stock from purchase orders and sales orders.
The program offers more than 140 reports plus Crystal reports forms and financial statements, and everything can be downloaded to Microsoft Office (MS) Excel or e-mailed as a PDF file. Through MS Word, send out "mass mail" items like invoices and sales announcements.
Peachtree offers four versions of the Accounting package, from basic to advanced. The application also is available in robust, industry-specific versions: manufacturing, non-profit, distribution and construction.
Third-party add-ons are powerful, including:
* Ascent -- a field service solution providing appointment-setting and maps
* BuilderMT -- scheduling software for the construction industry,
* Wizard -- a barcode add-on,
* Bridge -- an EDI solution and
* AccuPOS -- allowing retailers to use a cash-register friendly program with remote transfer for end-of-day sales batch at off-site locations.
With Peachtree, start working immediately. Just minutes after installing the software, helpful features appear making it easy to hit the ground running.
Using the Custom Forms Designer with its updated look and formatting, create professional, print-shop quality forms on plain paper with a company logo or other special designs.
Download product updates from the Peachtree Web site; upgrades are available based on the software version and the number of licensed users.
Peachtree offers user support including the online Peachtree Knowledge Center, three pre-purchased support plans and support on a pay-per-call basis that is available Monday through Friday, 8:30 A.M. to 8:30 P.M. EST. Strongly consider a support plan if you or your clients are new to Peachtree Accounting software so you can call with questions as you go.
What differentiates the Peachtree line from competitors are its consolidation wizard, Crystal Reports, ACT! and other third-party, add-on capabilities. With that in mind, Peachtree users may prefer to stay current with application upgrades rather than convert to another brand of software.
By Robert Bates, CPA…