Running a small business in my spare time, with just a handful of customers, I needed a tool to handle my income and expenditure, to keep tabs on what’s due in and out, and make the annual tax return process as painless as possible.
Going back a few years, I developed my own mini CRM to keep track of customers and to generate mail merged documents, including invoices. This was a neat VB app using an Access database back-end (we are talking about 10 years ago here!). Income and expenditure were then manually entered in to an Excel spreadsheet, which did the job but gave very limited reporting or tracking of payments due and service renewal dates. With so few customers and running this business much more as a hobby, this wasn’t a big deal.
As I gained more work, keeping track of customer and supplier details, services and invoices was being difficult. Around 2005 I sold one of my brands to an industry fellow and realised when I pulled together all the related documentation just how complex it was becoming (and how many trees I was using!).
The sale of that part of the business meant I now had fewer customers, suppliers and orders to manage and that was the big reason behind the divestment; the day job and home life needed more attention. So, I was back to managing fine with my VB app and Excel.
My brother, Simon, has also been running a small business “on the side” for many years, specialising initially on wedding videos, but now focussing on other AV services including equipment hire and format conversion. That really did need a better tool to manage the finances, so one Christmas we bought him Sage Instant Accounts, thinking that this would be perfect; it was Sage after all, the best, right?
The first snag was realised very quickly. Michelle (my wife) was going to manage the accounts for my brother, having just completed her AAT NVQ in Accounting. So, we installed Sage on our home computer. Simon had found a neat little freeware app for generating professional looking invoices which he used on his Mac. The idea then being that every now and again, we’d get together and input his customer and supplier invoices into Sage, enter the payments in and out (that he’d kept track of manually) and bank rec.
This proved tricky to co-ordinate, and we found two years in a row, that we ended up leaving it until year-end, meaning we had to catch up with 12 months of data and reconciliations. Not fun. Because Sage was installed at home, Simon couldn’t access it to do any of this data input, and as he was now Mac based, couldn’t easily install Sage on his machine (nor would the licence allow). A tedious mess; and not what a modern, albeit small, technology based business needed. Sage was not what we thought it was, and I haven’t even talked about the usability of the application.
Around this time, I realised that I had outgrown my CRM app and spreadsheets and needed an alternative. I had seen several discussions on WebHostChat about web based Software-as-a-Service accounting apps such as Kashflow and Xero, with industry colleagues asking for opinions on their suitability. This was interesting; systems that could be used from anywhere, over the ‘net with multi-user and role-based access. This could solve one of the major issues that Sage had presented us with. None of the suggested web based apps were British born, and you could tell. The default configs were tailored to US businesses and it looked like hard work to configure for UK requirements. Pricing was also not great for either my or Simon’s businesses; it wasn’t horrendously expensive, but being subscription based, it was going to significantly eat into our relatively small profits.
Somehow, and I can only think it must have been a bit of Googling one day, led me to find Clear Books - another SaaS accounting platform, but this time, developed and hosted in the UK, specifically aimed at British businesses. Ten minutes later I was enjoyed a 60-day free trial for my own business and merrily configuring, playing with invoice layouts and entering data. The next day, I carried on playing, but this time during my lunch break at work. The ability to access from anywhere sounds so basic and fundamental now, but a few years ago and for a tool like this, it was a bit of a revelation. It wasn’t long before I signed up for their basic ‘75 transactions a month’ package, which would suit me fine for the foreseeable future.
I demo’d Clear Books to Simon next time we met to do his accounts. It sold itself, and he signed up for a trial immediately and started playing, the same way I did, the next day. Within a few days, he had replicated all the data we had in Sage for that financial year, in Clear Books. With a significant amount of data in the system, we could really see how good it was, compared to Sage. He’d signed up to the basic package within a couple of weeks.
I wouldn’t class myself as a power user; I’ve only got 150 or so sales invoices in my account, but it suits me perfectly and I know there are much larger customers who are very happy too. There’s a few niggles for sure, but it has cut the time spend faffing about with spreadsheets and paper copies of invoices and receipts (since everything can be scanned and attached to digital records).
This post isn’t going to be a review of the product. There are many of those out there already, and I don’t really like writing reviews anyway, but a little history behind how we both ended up as Clear Books customers. In the time we have been using the system, the £6 a month package we signed up to is no longer available; I suspect the competitive pricing was to test the market and get some early adopters, but it worked, and they haven’t pushed the price up for us, as existing customers, so I’m happy.