Accounting for Everything

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted March 14, 2002

By now you have taken a long, hard look at your numbers from 2001 and digested the implications for your business, good or bad. You may have discovered that your accounting system can't keep pace with your business. So, it may be time to upgrade your accounting software and see what is new out there.

To start, there are competent desktop packages such as QuickBooks Pro and Peachtree Complete, which offer impressive capabilities for their relatively low prices.

For companies that are outgrowing their off-the-shelf package, more robust replacements are available to grow with your business without breaking the bank. And the choices for easy-to-use yet comprehensive, multi-user systems have increased significantly. These products have features usually found on the high end, but they are priced and scaled for small businesses. This is made possible for a few reasons: One is that some mid-range and high-end manufacturers, seeking a piece of the growing small business pie, are developing simplified versions of their more expensive systems. Another reason is purely technological: Accounting systems are only as good as their underlying database and, in the past, the best were built into the most expensive systems. But database technology is no longer a cantankerous mystery, bringing the cost of development down so that powerful systems are available to small business.

The more powerful small business systems, like their high-end siblings, sell through certified value-added resellers (VARs) and there's a reason for that. Their greater depth and breadth of features make for a more complex setup and require careful installation and configuration to reap their full benefits. Many of the VARs for accounting software are accountants themselves, so they have the knowledge to help you determine your financial needs and select the most appropriate system. The local VARs help the manufacturers provide a complete solution, from installation and training to maintenance. Of course, there are fees for these services, but the resulting increases in efficiency and productivity are well worth the price you pay.

A relatively new wrinkle on the accounting scene are Web-based accounting programs. The most significant of these include Intuit's QuickBooks for the Web, Oracle Small Business Suite, and Peachtree Software's ePeachtree.

Web-based accounting programs are applications that you use through a Web browser and Internet connection, just as if you were working with a Web page. These programs reside on a distant Web server, and not on your PC's hard drive-and that's where your business' data is stored as well. While this approach may initially sound strange, there are some definite advantages, as well as inherent disadvantages.

Like their desktop brethren, Web-based accounting programs offer modules that can handle accounts receivables, accounts payables, and general ledger, at a minimum. The programs also create invoices, purchase orders, and other forms, and build reports that include standard business documents such as income statements and balance sheets.

You can run a Web-based accounting program on any computer that has Web access, and the computer doesn't have to be in your own office or home. You can even perform your accounting through a computer at a Web cafi or public library. If other employees need to access your company's accounting data, they can do so from their own systems. In this regard, the Web becomes the ultimate office network. You can give users access to only the areas that they need to work in. And even give suppliers and customers access, and your accountant will be able to fix problems from her office.

Because your business data and the accounting programs are stored on a secure Web server, you won't have to worry about backups or software upgrades-they're done automatically. This is particularly important when dealing with accounting data-think of all those government tax tables that have to be constantly updated.

On the downside, it takes some getting used to the fact that your accounting application and data no longer reside on a PC in your office. And if you're accessing the Web through a slow dial-up connection, the accounting applications will be frustratingly slow. These applications really need a DSL or other broadband connection.

Questions To Ask
Before upgrading your current accounting system or starting to shop for a new one, always identify your needs first. Here are some general questions you should ask when shopping for a new system.

How Customizable Is The New System?
Can it meet your needs and do so without major programming? You want software that can be customized by a user or administrator for forms, reports, and user interface. You also want open source code if your needs are serious and require a consultant.

Is The New System Networkable?
Chances are you'll have more than one user and, by now, we all know the productivity benefits of a network. Even if you don't currently have a network, but growth projections indicate one is most likely in your future, make sure the accounting system is ready and waiting when the time comes.

How Scalable Is The New System?
As you grow, so must the accounting system. Otherwise, you risk losing time and money when setting up an entirely new system and converting or manually inputting all your old data. Unless you plan no growth, look at the system's upgrade path and the entire range of capabilities in the enhanced versions.

How Strong Are The Support Services?
Your focus is on your business, not maintaining or troubleshooting an accounting system. Look at the level of support, the cost, and the physical proximity. Can the support service troubleshoot remotely by dialing in to the system or does a tech have to make a trip to your location? If the nearest tech is a two-hour drive away, how will that downtime affect your bottom line?

Reviews

Review of Oracle Small Business Suite 7.5

First Look: Oracle Small Business Suite Version 7.6

Review of Peachtree Complete Accounting 2002

AccountMate Small Business Pak (Review from 2001)
AccountMate, known for its corporate accounting systems, seems an unlikely source for a package just a step up from Peachtree. But with last fall's release of its Small Business Pak, that's exactly what it provides. While not cheap at $3,995, you have everything in the Visual AccountMate/LAN Version 5 general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, and a 3-user System Manager with a 250MB database size limit. An optional module such as Inventory, Payroll or Sales Order is also included. It's quite a bargain considering the additional features, functionality, customization, and flexibility usually reserved for corporate systems costing several times the price. AccountMate is well-suited for distribution and manufacturing users or anyone with serious transaction and inventory needs.

AccountMate can be customized more easily than those written in Visual FoxPro. And yet, the user interface looks much like the low-end packages. Everything is instant. Users access the task or module of choice and fill in the blanks, whether creating an invoice or editing sales tax rates. There are more spaces to fill in because of the increased level of detail and functionality. For example, the Inventory Control Module defines details like an item's cost method, warehouse, bin number, or multiple substitutes. It also records the movement of every product, whether sales, returns or transfers, even between warehouses. All of the details can be whipped into one of the many built-in reports. The MS SQL and IBM AS/400 versions of the Small Business Pak include Seagate Software's Crystal Reports.

The limited online capabilities in the LAN version are what made Dennis Grande upgrade to the SQL version. Co-founders and co-owners of The Turtle Company in Westwood, N.J., Grande and his wife, Kim, started the business in their basement using QuickBooks. As demand for their BookSox, a stretchy, fabric book cover for children, grew and their staff swelled from 3 to 20 to 45 during back-to-school months, they upgraded to QuickBooks Pro. They quickly realized, however, it could not handle their expanding database and the five-user limit was unacceptable. Grande says the move to something as serious as AccountMate's SmallBusiness Pak was a tough decision but one he's never regretted. "During the two years our Web site has been up," explains Grande, "we've gone from 3 hits a month to as many of 162,000 a month with sometimes 8,000 order entries a month. And with the SQL system, the whole process is automatic, from order entry to the packing slip." He says training seasonal temps takes only three days, most of it spent on customer and phone skills rather than on how to input an order.

ACCPAC Small Business Series 4.2A (Review from 2001)
ACCPAC Small Business Series comes from Computer Associates-owned ACCPAC International, best known for its Corporate Series targeted at medium-sized businesses with up to 500 employees. Like the small business solutions from AccountMate and Sage, it's modular and easily scales to accommodate growth and future upgrading to the Corporate Series.

Starting with support for 10 users, it's ready for most networks, including peer-to-peer, and is integrated with MS SQL Server to provide the power needed for e-commerce accounting. ACCPAC provides online services through its eAdvantage Suite of e-commerce tools, including eTransact, its "business-to-everyone" Web store solution. It works just as well as an extranet for established customers to place new orders and follow up on others.

The version we tested used Pervasive Software's SQL, which it installed first before allowing us to start building our database. The setup was complex enough that we could see why products like these are sold through resellers who install and customize the software to clients' specific needs. Powerful systems by their nature are complex.

The user interface for each task or module is standard with blanks, icons and menus everywhere with navigation that is similar to Windows Explorer. A file structure representing each of the modules occupies the left half of a split screen with available features and tasks on the right half of the screen.

One of the strongest offerings in this package is the account number structure. With remote offices, divisions or subsidiaries, it is imperative to assign long account numbers so you can trace them separately. In the ACCPAC Small Business Series general ledger, accounts can have up to 45 alphanumeric characters and up to 10 segments for better tracking.

Built-in reporting requires MS Excel for financial abstracts but Crystal Reports ships with the package for serious analysis. Online capabilities were beefed up in the most recent version to include online banking and e-mail reports from within the general ledger. Automating recurring tasks like batch printing or custom reporting is given more than lip service with a strong macro function that's easily operated via buttons right on the toolbar.

Sage BusinessWorks Gold (Review from 2001)
Sage Software's entry into accounting software is BusinessWorks. In the Gold version that supports up to 48 concurrent users, it's compatible with most common small business networks.

Unlike the others, all of the modules are priced separately and although the price for the core functions is a bit higher, the additional modules like inventory, order entry, etc., cost about half as much as the competition. Figure around $2,000 for a single-user system and $3,000-$4,000 for a multi-user.

Sage went to great lengths to integrate typical applications as seamlessly as possible, adding links to small business favorites such as GoldMine customer relationship management software and TimeSlips time and billing software. It's also an indication that Sage recognizes the need for accounting power among small businesses selling services rather than products.

The BusinessWorks general ledger accounts can have up to 30 alphanumeric characters but only about 8,000 total accounts. Accounting for up to 999 separate departments can be maintained with unlimited journal entries.

More than 200 built-in templates handle common reporting needs but for third-party analysis packages, BusinessWorks files can be exported in more than 30 different formats including dBase, Access, Excel, WordPerfect, Quattro Pro, and Comma-Separated Variable. One feature we especially liked is the Flash report that can provide an instant analysis of any module. For example, while working in accounts receivable, clicking the Flash report icon can quickly update the total outstanding receivables or the top five invoices due this week. A Flash report provides a quick overview of company finances including various measurements like current ratio and acid test, providing greater detail and insight than similar reports from other products.

E-commerce is supported with the addition of Sage SiteCreator for users with software subscription plans or support agreements. It quickly publishes a basic site using more than 60 different template styles with various color schemes, and Sage hosts it for free. Transactions will soon be managed via Sage WebTrader, the engine for order taking that includes a shopping cart, checkout page, online payment, order confirmation, and merchant notification. Sage views this as an entry-level, complementary offering, but offers the more powerful Sage e-Business Manager when upgrading to its MAS 90 system.

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