FreshBooks Makes Invoicing All But Automatic

By Jamie Bsales
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The second-biggest lie in business, after “the check is in the mail,” is “I never got the invoice.” For a small business owner or sole proprietor trying to manage cash flow, hearing either of these can mean the difference between a month in the black and one in the red.

FreshBooks can help. This affordable online invoicing service lets you handle billing chores quickly and easily. It can handle recurring invoices (say, billing monthly retainers) automatically, and you can choose to have it automatically follow up with customers and clients when a bill is past due. This combination of ease-of-use and automation not only saves you time, it means you’re less likely to put off your billing duties. Invoices go out sooner, and you have a better chance of getting paid faster.

FreshBooks is aimed primarily at independent contractors, consultants and professional service providers (architects, lawyers and the like) that bill by the project or by the hour. But it is flexible enough that even inventory-based businesses can use it to bill for goods, not just services. With plans starting at just $14 per month (or even free, if you have three clients or fewer to bill), it’s reasonably priced, too.

One-Minute Setup
It takes about a minute to create an account, at which point you are ready to start billing. The FreshBooks Web site uses a familiar tab-based interface that makes it easy to jump to a given task. You can dive right in and start billing, or click on the Settings tab to set your preferences (company profile, user roles, preferences, even the site’s color scheme).

You can upload your company’s logo to appear on your invoices (to give a polished, professional touch) and even set FreshBooks to accept payments via PayPal and 11 other electronic payment services. By default, the service will send invoices via e-mail. But for an extra fee ($1.39 per invoice, or less if bought in bulk), FreshBooks will print and mail an invoice to your customer complete with a return envelope. And of course, you are free to print an invoice from your own PC and mail it yourself. One option we would like to see added: The ability to have FreshBooks send a bill to your recipient’s fax number.

FreshBooks screen shot
Creating an invoice in FreshBooks is as easy as picking appropriate items from a drop-down list and hitting “send.”
(Click for larger image)

Invoicing Made Easy
Conveniently, you don’t need to enter all of your clients or customers at once, but rather as the need arises. Simply choose “new client” from the drop-down list the first time you bill a customer via FreshBooks, and enter the relevant information. That client is then added to the drop-down list for future one-click selection. (You can update client info anytime via the “Users” tab.)

Under the Invoice tab you’ll also find a choice to create a recurring bill. Simply enter or select the client to bill, the frequency, the number of occurrences (or “0” for no set end date) and other parameters, and FreshBooks will automatically generate and send invoices at the specified time. If you’re starting in the midst of a billing cycle, FreshBooks can even generate a pro-rated invoice for the first occurrence.

The Invoice area also lets you enter line items that are common to your invoices. Select “New item,” then enter the item name (note the 15-character limit), a separate description (this can be any length), the unit cost and applicable tax rate (if any). Click the Save button, and this item will be added to your drop-down list when you create an invoice, saving a lot of duplicate typing. The Track Inventory checkbox lets product-based businesses keep tabs on the products they have in stock.

After you send an invoice via e-mail, FreshBooks can track when the recipient views it. This lets you know if a client trots out Lie #2 (whether you call him on it is up to you). At any time you can click on “List of invoices” to see all your invoices at a glance; a legend tells whether they are drafts, sent, viewed, disputed or paid. There’s also a Reports tab that can generate reports on aging invoices, sales by client, sales by staff, payment history and more.

Time Tracking, Too
Another welcome facet of FreshBooks is its ability to keep track of billable hours for a given client or project. Click the Timesheet tab, and you’ll find a calendar (your choice of daily, weekly or monthly view) where you can enter the project name, the task you worked on, the hours and pertinent notes.

FreshBooks screen shot
You and your staff can keep track of billable hours associated with a given project and task.
(Click for larger image)

Each of your staff members can have his or her own timesheets, which can be viewed by anyone with administrator privileges (designated in the Settings menu). You can then view the hours logged by staff on a given project, a project task summary and so on. Our favorite feature: A handy start/stop timer that lets you and your staff keep track of the time they spend on a given project, without having to scribble down their start time on a Post-it note.

FreshBooks isn’t for everyone. Businesses that use a desktop or online accounting program are better off using the invoicing component of that application, to keep tight integration between billing and other accounting tasks. And if you are uncomfortable with the software as-a-service (SaaS) model, where the application and your data resides on an outside company’s servers, not your own, then FreshBooks is not for you.

That said, all transactions on FreshBooks are secured with 128-bit SSL encryption, so your data is safe. And having your billing info reside outside your four walls keeps a critical component of your business safe from any disaster (virus, theft, fire) that might befall your PC. So while FreshBooks can’t force clients and customers to write that check, it does let you get them an invoice in a timely manner and help you track who owes what and when.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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This article was originally published on March 21, 2007
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