When starting a single-person company, it's a good idea to try handling everything yourself - at least at the beginning. I didn't do my own legal documents, but I did read several 'do-it-yourself incorporation' guides so that I knew what was going on when I actually met with lawyers. I did temporary graphics and website layouts at least for starting so I knew what I wanted when talking to designers. Similarly, I'm trying to do all of the business bookkeeping myself.
It's actually a good idea to do your own bookkeeping while you're getting started - while legal issues like incorporation are occasional, accounting is always there. Money is like blood for a company, and keeping on top of the money flows is like taking your pulse. If you don't know where your money is and can't read financial reports about your own company then what are you doing in business anyhow? At the start of a company, there aren't that many transactions, so it's a good time to figure things out and make sure you know what's going on.
I've been a Sole Proprietor for about a decade now, and have always had to keep track of my income and expenses in one way or another. When learning a new language, the first thing I often do is build an invoicing or expense tracking application to get the hang of it. However, a real company has extra financial requirements, and while it would be an interesting exercise to set up a complete double-entry bookkeeping and accounting system in Rails, I have much better things to do with my time.
So I looked for accounting software. The default choice seems to be Intuit's QuickBooks. I had a demo of an older version on my PowerBook that I tried and it seemed okay. I went to their site and tried to download their Mac version and only after I completed the entire purchase process and gave them my credit card info did they give me a big warning that QuickBooks for OS X doesn't support Canada. Since I'm not doing payroll, automatic bank reconciliation, or even printing cheques, I figured it wouldn't be a problem for me - but it wouldn't let me actually finish the purchase.
Turns out that QuickBooks for Mac used to be MYOB, which they bought and then discontinued in Canada. Actually, given recent events I probably dodged a bullet in not getting QuickBooks.
So I looked around for other accounting packages. I considered just using Windows XP on my ThinkPad X30, and put up with having key business information on a secondary computer. I still had a bad taste in my mouth about QuickBooks, so I looked for other Windows applications.
PeachTree sounded promising, but the front page of their site didn't work in the Safari Browser - looks like a bad implementation of cascading menus. Did I really want to trust my company's financial information to a place that can't even do standards-compliant menus?! Nope. I like it when I can eliminate an option right up front.
After digging through quite a bit of online kvetching, I found out about MoneyWorks Express from Cognito Software. I had seen their products at the Apple Store, but their boxes weren't quite as flashy as the other software around.
I checked out their website and soon went ahead and bought the program. That turned out to be a good idea: it's a great accounting package! Here's what sold me:
They're from New Zealand, which means that to get a decent market for their product they have to support multiple taxation and accounting frameworks - which means support for Canada isn't some afterthought, like with so much from the United States. Also, there's that 'sparsely populated commonwealth country next to a bigger and more influential country' comradeship Canadians feel towards New Zealand.
Their application is completely cross-platform, so if for some crazy reason I move to Windows I won't have to redo all of my books for some other application.
They provided a free limited-time download which let me try things out to see how it worked. It included their full documentation, which was helpful and pleasantly written and great for getting me started.
The back of the box, while a little drab, won me over with this:
MoneyWorks is designed to be low support (we don't even need to offer a monthly support plan!). And we don't have an expensive "upgrade" every year (accounting just doesn't change that much). We provide free of charge email support to our customers at firstname.lastname@example.orgI like a company that isn't trying to squeeze extra money from its customers every year with specious 'upgrades' and nickel-and-time 'support plans'. My accounting needs are pretty simple, so I don't need fancy updates all the time - and I can usually wait a day or so to get detailed email feedback, instead of being on the phone with some drone in a call centre who doesn't know anything anyhow.
Cognito seems to be a smallish company that has been doing this since 1992. For accounting software you don't want a flashy fast-growing dot-com kind of place - you want something stable and reliable. Also, like the Canada-New Zealand connection, it felt good to be buying software from another small company.
MoneyWorks has good support for changing GST / PST rates - something I've been wrestling with in my own applications. Set up a two tax rates and specify the transition date and 'boom' It Just Works.
MoneyWorks has the concept of 'Posted' transactions. You can enter transactions and change them afterwards as much as you want, but for these transactions to really count in reports and bank reconciliation and payments and the like they need to be 'posted'. Once posted, a transaction can't be changed or deleted - it can be reversed and replaced, but the original transaction is still 'in the books' for reference. This is how real bookkeeping is supposed to work, and something that I gather that a lot of other packages don't have.
The interface takes a bit of learning - of course a lot of that is also learning how bookkeeping works - but once you get the hang of it it's fast and flexible. I can build Balance Sheets and other reports instantly and always see where the company stands. It has the feel of something that has been used a lot by a lot of people and that knows what needs to be optimized (keyboard shortcuts) and what doesn't (super-pretty graphics).
I only have three complaints about the software, and they're not too significant: 1) it lets you design your own invoices, but when I tried to print a custom invoice, it mangled my logo completely. I've built many many invoicing systems in the last decade, so I'm a little touchy about that. 2) you can tell that it is still a Carbon application that is also probably trying to stay compatible with a Windows version. I gather that the entire Mac programming effort is one or two people, so understandably they've focused more on getting it to work well than looking good. It would be great to see this app in Cocoa, since it would look much better with the updated 'iTunes'-like interface widgets. 3) probably related to the Carbon and cross-platform issue, the reports and other printouts sometimes look a bit funny, and seem to have mismatched columns. That said, if I wanted better looking output, MoneyWorks lets me export to Word, Excel, or comma-separated values, which I could then bring in to Numbers or even my own custom web app.
So - if you're running a business in Canada with your Macintosh, take a serious look at MoneyWorks. There are different versions for different levels of business, from the cash-only Cashbook for your lemonade stand or shop, which goes for $119.95, all the way up to the server-based run-the-accounting-department-of-your-multi-location-business Gold / DataCentre, for several thousand dollars. Express cost me about $300, which is a lot less than the time and stress of making my own system, messing with spreadsheets, or having to switch to Windows.