If, after reading part one and part two in this series, you’re starting to see the value in better understanding your financial performance, then we’re in a good place to move forward. If you’re thinking, “Sure, that all sounds good, but there’s no way I have time to put this much energy into tracking and thinking about my money—nor the ability to pay someone else to do it,” then you need to stop and reconsider. Wearing several hats is part of the art of running any small business, but there are tools you can use and people you can add to your financial team to make all of this possible with minimal resources and maximum efficiency.
Curious? I’m glad. The first principle to recognize is automate, automate, automate. The more you take these valuable—but admittedly time consuming—processes and automate them, the more you'll be able to see the value in your data without feeling the pain. In the not-too-distant past, getting any information out of your accounting system was a nightmare. Data input involved long hours of tedious work—or hefty fees paid to bookkeepers to do it for you. But in this web 2.0, cloud-based, app-driven business ecosystem, there’s no reason to keep your accounting records in Excel or tape expense receipts to a piece of paper. And by leveraging these systems to automate financial functions, you’ll use your money and time in a smart way—allowing you to put more time into growing your business.
But before you can automate, you must recognize that there are other people who can help make your business a financial success—and you don’t have to pay them a salary or benefits. At a minimum, your financial team should consist of your accountant, your banker and your attorney. They will help you to make smarter decisions and protect your investment.
Your accountant should be brought on board for tax prep time at a minimum, though it helps to find a tax advisor who doesn’t mind fielding the occasional question throughout the year. Skip the phonebook and ask owners of some businesses you admire, or who are at similar levels in your industry for recommendations.
The banker is an often overlooked teammate, but in today’s age of bank mergers, online-only services and remote call centers, it pays in multiples to have a real human with a direct line you can call when something goes wrong with your money. Those are not the moments you want to be waiting on hold on some 1-800 number—besides, business bankers generally love taking you out to lunch and learning more about what you’re doing with your small business. Best of all, this relationship is almost always free.
Your attorney doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars either, but it’s important get referrals from people in your industry—the less time they spend learning the particulars of your industry, the less it’s going to cost you. To start, you’ll want your attorney to help you draft some template contracts and agreements that you can use over and over again—the kinds of things that help you make sure you collect your money on time, and have inexpensive remedies in the event someone doesn’t pay you. This early, minimal and incredibly valuable investment means you now have someone on speed dial when something bad happens—which is not the time you want to be digging through the phonebook looking for a lawyer.
With your financial team in place, there are a few important tools you’ll want to include as you automate your business finances. Let’s start by saying this approach is geared for those with relatively basic needs and more limited resources, because these businesses often feel the most neglected by business services.
So here’s a roadmap for how to automate your financial processes—for about $150 a month—for a team of five:
- Time/expense/billing: Hands down, the best and most flexible time tracking system out there for smaller teams is an app called Harvest. This app lets you track time from the web or your phone to any number of projects and at multiple billing rates. This time can then be used to create timesheets for your employees or invoices for your customers. It has its own built-in reimbursable expense tracking to add to those invoices and it also plays nice with many other expense tracking tools. Cost: $12-$99/mo
- Bookkeeping: While QuickBooks is the grandfather of small business accounting—and not without good reason—there are many new players on the market that offer outstanding features, value and more intuitive interfaces. Again, for those whose accounting needs aren’t too sophisticated, Xero is a major player in the global market. It has truly reconstructed what it means to do accounting and makes it easy to keep up your monthly books (even from your phone with a glass of wine in your hand). Cost: $9-$30/mo, or $70/mo if you have an international business
- Payroll: For anyone with employees (or even one person corporations that need to do payroll for themselves) the value proposition in having someone else handle your payroll should be a no-brainer. For starters, the payroll processor will generally take on full liability to make sure your taxes get filed on time each month, each quarter—and that all the tax payments get paid out to each government entity on time. Even big firms like ADP can do this for you relatively inexpensively, though newcomers like ZenPayroll are driving cost down even more. Cost: $40-50/mo
- Receipts/mileage: Shoeboxed started out as a company that literally let you ship them a shoebox full of receipts that they would then digitize and send back to you in a nice, clean file (and your pile of crumpled receipts if you really wanted them back). Since then, they realized a bigger need in the small business community and have expanded to do so much more. Now, you can snap pictures of your receipts from your phone or email them straight from your inbox. And you can add them to expense reports or track them to finally be able to account for cash spending. Best of all, as someone who has prepared thousands of tax returns, the idea that business owners might avoid the last-minute struggle to reconstruct their auto mileage for the year pays for it all: the Shoeboxed app utilizes the GPS in your phone to help track your mileage with just a couple of clicks. So there’s no more notebook in the car and last minute hair-pulling. Cost: $10-$50/mo
With all of these resources, there’s no reason to go it alone when it comes to your finances. With the right tools and teammates, any small business owner can take control and get the information needed to make smarter financial decisions. But it’s important to note that the most important thing to consider with all of these tools is that you like them. Time has shown that no amazing feature and no compelling value will trump the way you feel about a tool. Because at the end of the day, the perfect tool at the right price won’t add any value if you don’t actually use it. So take advantage of free trials, test out how you would actually use the tool in your business and make sure you enjoy interacting with it.
Want to take it to the next level? Great. After you’ve mastered automate, automate, automate, you need to integrate. When you get these various systems talking to each other, you do two important things: cut down the amount of time you have to spend on your finances and reduce the opportunities for human error to come into play.
For example, the invoices you create in Harvest can automatically transfer into your Xero accounting system, so they are tracked as receivables and ready to be paid. The payroll you run on ADP can automatically link into your Xero file so you don’t have to make manual journal entries. The expense reports you create from Shoeboxed can drop into Xero without entry so they appear ready to be repaid. Think about the systems that are pivotal to your organization and then integrate the related systems that work well together to achieve maximum efficiency—and give you a big sigh of relief.