FreshBooks Review: An Invoicing System for Freelancers

Last November, I started using FreshBooks (full disclosure: if you click on that link, sign up and end up paying them money, I get some money), which is online invoicing software… Wait, let’s back up a minute.

When I started contracting and consulting (oh yes, they’re different), I originally was doing all my invoices in Word docs (actually, OpenOffice Writer), and it seemed natural to track my time there as well. Don’t repeat yourself, right?

After a while, it was tedious to have to open up each invoice every time I switched the client I was working for, so I started using an OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet. On the left hand column were dates, and on the top row were projects/tasks (“work order 13”, “troubleshooting database performance issues”). I ended up having a second row, which was client identifier.

This worked well for a while. When invoicing time came around, I would take the hours and task data from the spreadsheet and put it in the custom invoice. I’d export the custom invoice as a PDF, and put it in a directory. When the client paid, I’d move the invoice to a ‘paid’ directory. This differentiation let me send gentle reminders to clients who hadn’t paid yet.

I realized early on that this wasn’t the most efficient system. Several times, I did research on invoicing systems. I looked around SourceForge and FreshMeat, but the invoicing systems I found there were aimed at invoicing for products, not hours. I had a friend who’d used GnuCash but it seemed to be so much more than I needed.

So, each time, I went back to my old friends, the spreadsheet and the word document.

Mid last year, I was slammed with work. This made me realize, again, how inefficient my invoicing system was. I thought, ‘hey, I’ll outsource it’. A friend had a good person doing some administrative work for him. I hired her to do my invoicing, once a month. I talked her through my system, and she got it. I double checked her first invoice, and it was great. The price was reasonable, I could still use my familiar system, I was happy.

Then this lady decided to raise her prices fifty percent, in a rather high handed and arbitrary manner. Now, I was not a big client. Frankly, I can understand how 1-3 hours of work a month was not very attractive (though I did throw her some research work at least once). However, I was slightly offended at the price increase, and decided to take my work elsewhere. This shows the power of the initial price, because if she’d quoted the hourly fee at the higher rate originally, I would not have blinked.

I tried to find someone else to do the job. I found a relative, who could do the job, but required a fair amount of hand holding. The relative kept talking about the automated accounting systems she had used in the past, so I undertook my search again.

This led me to last October. I looked around for web based invoicing system that would work with me the way I wanted to work:

  • mostly time and materials billing
  • some fixed bid, including for clients that I do t&m for
  • varying hourly rates
  • ~10 clients
  • pdf invoices I could email
  • web based
  • time tracking including
  • professional looking invoices generated

I narrowed it down to three contenders (this was as of October, 2008; there may be more now):

I took one look at QuickBooks Online, saw that it was IE only, and discarded that option (I may run Windows, but I want to support the open web).

I spent significant time investigating both Cashboard and FreshBooks. I liked the Cashboard interface better, but there was a huge stumbling block. Some of my clients have both fixed bid and t&m work, during the same month. I don’t ever want an invoice to show how much time it took to do a fixed bid project–that’s my business and not the client’s concern (that’s why it is fixed bid). Cashboard had no way of putting both a fixed bid project and t&m work (which must show hours spent) on the same invoice. I even asked Cashboard support about this, and got this answer back: “At the preset(sic) time there is no way you can show time for some projects on an invoice, and hide it for others.” Updated, 4/30/2009, 20:25: Apparently I was wrong, Cashboard can do both types of line items on the invoice; see discussion below.  Now I’m not sure exactly the source of my choice of FreshBooks over Cashboard.

FreshBooks lets you do exactly that, so I signed up for their free account (full disclosure: if you click on that link, sign up and end up paying them money, I get some money). And I’ve been using it since last November. After I decided to use it, I upgraded to get more client accounts.

In general, I’ve been happy with FreshBooks. It is always an adjustment to change your business processes and/or software but I’ve been happy with a lot of what FreshBooks has to offer.

First, though, the gripes and caveats:

FreshBooks is not a full accounting package (and they don’t pretend to be one). I still don’t have one–other than the accountant who does my taxes. This means that I don’t have a precise view of my business’s health all the time. I do find out my profit and loss numbers once a year (tax time), and I find that is enough for me. The business’s expenses and income just aren’t that complicated. I had about 30 deposits into the business checking account, and about 50 checks written against it (and a number of EFTs and fees as well).

The web interface is cumbersome and non-intuitive at times. It can be learned, but the crazy urls and heavy use of javascript are occasionally issues for me. For example, editing time that you already have entered, especially changing the day the time was entered for, took me a while to figure out. I also have to re-login to my account every day, even if the browser window has been open for the entire time.

There is no free widget/desktop app for Windows XP users to use for FreshBooks time tracking (you can always use notepad). There is one you can pay a modest fee for. I think it’d be cool to write an AIR FreshBooks time tracking app–maybe sometime…

What I like about FreshBooks:

This last quarter I qualified for the report card, which is free quarterly data comparing your invoicing statistics with others in your industry. Statistics include number of invoices, amount invoiced, % revenue from new clients, and average time to collect payment. This data is great, and I don’t know how I’d find it otherwise. (As an aside, one of my other project ideas is to have a local Boulder/Denver survey of rates for web software development. I’d pay for that–would you?)

I like the reporting available, including which hours have been invoiced and which haven’t (though I have issue with a fixed bid project that I’ve invoiced, but can’t seem to mark invoiced). If you had more than one employee, this reporting would rapidly increase in value.

The cost is reasonable–I have a Shuttle Bus plan, which is 14 dollars a month. (My bank does charge me a bit extra, because FreshBooks is a Canadian company).

They have a great blog.

FreshBooks has an API, which lets you develop any number of widgets (including the time tracker mentioned above) and/or access your data from other programs.

I want to emphasize that the FreshBooks invoicing software is no one-size-fits-all solution. I am running a one person software/consulting business with a fairly stable set of clients and minimal expenses. FreshBooks has many features I don’t use (postal mail invoices, basecamp integration, expense tracking, estimates).

The biggest component that I don’t use is client login. Freshbooks makes it easy to create client accounts. Clients can then login and view documents, see outstanding invoices, contest them, and even pay them with online payment systems. This seems nice, but doesn’t fit with my client expectations. I may try this with new clients, but I hate to ask someone who is paying me money to login to yet another system, just to make things easier for me. Besides, I like to thank my clients in a personal email around the first of the month (along with sending them my invoice)–it never hurts to thank your clients.

So far, FreshBooks has been a great choice for me. If you’re in the Excel/Word invoicing world, or have an invoicing system you’re looking to dump, check it out.

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Boulder New Media Breakfast Notes: A Presentation by John Jantsch

I went to the second Boulder New Media Breakfast last week (this will be a monthly event, but this particular talk was delayed by a week due to weather).  It was interesting–a 15 minute networking session over bagels and coffee, then an hour presentation.  The catch is that it started at 7:45 in the morning–so you still had a full day left when you were done.

It was an interesting presentation and crowd and I think I’ll attend in the future.  It was a much smaller crowd (30-40 people) and  far more focused on marketing than the typical group I attend (New Tech, BJUG, CU Colloquia [which incidentally is having an interesting talk on “leveraging social networks in information systems” on Apr 7]).  I talked to a couple of people who were PR folks interested in technology, which isn’t my typical networking group.  I also talked to a fellow named Joe, who often asks hard questions, but always wears the great hat, at the Boulder Denver New Tech meetup.  I also got a chance to talk to Dave Taylor (of elm and Ask Dave Taylor fame [who answered a tough question well enough it got emailed around to me])–it was interesting to talk to him about his move from software developer to strategic business consultant.

After the networking, we all sat down for a presentation on reputation management by John Jantsch.  The following are my scrawled notes from that presentation (any sentences that start with I are my thoughts).


Lots of people use the internet to do research for products and services.  36% of people think more positively of companies with a blog.  I don’t know how many people think less positively of such companies.

As a company, says John, you need to have a policy on digital conversations.  Such conversations with customers will happen, so you need a policy, and HR is the right department to produce one.  He discussed three types of conversation: person to person (like Dell customer service reps answering questions on forums), thought leaders (like a blog from a industry heavy weight who happens to be employed by IBM) and company communication (like an official blog from the USPS).

John also mentioned that it may make sense to, in the same way that sales folks sign non compete agreements, to have  customer service reps that interact through social media sign such agreements.  After all, if someone is the face of the company, and then they switch jobs, do they (and their new company) have a right to all the followers on twitter that were acquired through the original company’s hours?  Who owns the facebook profile?  I never have liked non competes, but the idea follows logically from the personalization of customer service on company time.

Another concept that is important is transparency.  Given the proliferation of digital communication, transparency into a company is here–now the question is, how can you influence it.  The best way to influence it is to host your conversations as much as possible.  In addition, be proactive in responding to issues (ie, customer complaints).

As a company, you need to have coherence in your branding across your internet presence.  Just as the website used to be ignored 10 years ago, facebook profiles are now often ignored and grow up from the ranks.  This leads to lack of message and branding consistency.

Now John moved on to cover some tools that are useful.  Most of the tools are free, but he did mention a few paid services.  The following are free alert services that help you search for keywords in various areas of the internet:

He referred to twitter as a “stream of sewage” and stated that tools to filter that stream were needed.  (As an aside, this video commentary on the twittersphere is hilarious.)   Twitter has a location specific search options (in advanced search) that you should definitely leverage for competitive analysis.

John also talked about making sure that your online presence is high quality.  This is not only done by making sure your website/blog/facebook profile/twitterstream/etc/etc are updated regularly and with good content, but also by taking advantage of tools that aggregators like search engines provide.  For example, if you have a local business that appears in Google’s local search, you can add update the entry using the local business center.  This lets you claim the listing, add pictures and verify other information.  Other search engines have analogous processes, and it is well worth your time to try to stand out.  I don’t quite know what will happen when everyone does this updating–the value of accurate content will remain, but having a picture won’t be enough to stand out.

Then we went into a question and answer period.  One person asked for examples of good corporate users of twitter. John gave these examples: Dell, radian6.

Another person asked about the personal/business divide: if you’re running a small business, do you want to provide info in your twitter stream (or other digital media) that identifies you as a person (“I like to tele ski”) or just have it focus on business issues.  John answered that the line is still blurry and being defined.  I personally try to keep my blog focused on business, but I think it depends on what you’re selling.  If I were selling socks, tales of adventures in my socks would be appropriate.  Since I’m selling software services, you probably don’t want to hear about the killer desert hike I went on last year.

End notes

I really enjoyed the breakfast and encourage anyone with an interest in digital media to try it out.  The next presentation (at the end of April) will be a presentation by Terry Morreale on personal digital security (I believe).

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How to turn off red/green/blue lines in Sketchup drawings

This frustrated me to no end, so I’m posting it here.

If you’re using Google Sketchup to sketch a model, and you want to export it to a two dimensional file (e.g, a PNG), without the green, red and blue axis lines, you can do so by following these steps.

  • open your model
  • choose the window menu option
  • choose the styles menu
  • choose edit
  • change the ‘color’ drop down (at the bottom of the popup) from ‘by axis’ to ‘all same’.

This works for Google Sketchup 6.4.112.

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