Financial fasttrack

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1 April 2005 | 0

If you are a small business manager then there are few more important things in the business than getting a handle on your accounts and payroll, and there is a raft of software is available to help you do it. However, when it comes to investing in an accounts or payroll package it is wise to look before you leap – industry insiders have no shortage of tales of software sitting dormant as frustrated users return to their trusted ledgers. Before parting with any money it is important to ask yourself a few searching questions.

Why computerise?
The first is quite simply why should you computerise your accounts? The most obvious benefits are increased efficiency, lower costs (in staff time), greater accuracy, more timely reports and better control. Computerised accounts can achieve all of these objectives. However, they cannot solve pre-existing accounting problems: a mess put into the PC can be worse than a mess on ledger paper.
The crucial thing to remember is that people do accounts, not computers. Computers add numbers very quickly, and enable you to enter the number into the system once for it to appear in all journals, ledgers and other reports. However, a human has to decide where to enter that information and someone in the organisation has to understand debits and credits, decide what account code to charge each transaction to, determine whether an error has been made and, if so, how to correct that error. Small businesses are prone to overlooking this when it comes to finding a software solution. Charles Alken, director of  financial software provider Quantum Business Solutions, uses an interesting metaphor to illustrate the problem: “Would you buy a car without knowing how to drive it? For small businesses setting up accounts software is often a DIY implementation. To avoid the high risk of software becoming a bit of furniture I’d advise against impulsive buys.”

Try it out
A good way to get an idea of what the software can do for you is to take advantage of the evaluation period that any decent company will offer. This is usually free, and without any obligation to buy, giving you the chance to see how you can use the tool to achieve the end result you require. So how do you decide which software to try? There is no definitive answer. A lot will depend on how much you are willing to spend, how you intend to use it, and the size of your company. However, there are a number of features to look out for when you are shopping around: How many checking accounts are permitted? Is there room to grow into the software – will it be able to accommodate your needs as they grow more sophisticated? Does it include security features that prevent unauthorised personnel from accessing or manipulating data? What installation and ongoing support is available (all the packages we looked at include telephone support)? How long has the company been in business? Are there user groups or other support mechanisms apart from the vendor?

Ultimately, you want your software to perform the same functions that you have been doing by hand, but in a more efficient and accurate manner. “The core principles of any small business remain the same: How much am I owed? Who do I owe? What have I got in the bank? What is my VAT liability? What is my profitability? Software should handle all of these questions, as well as providing supplementary services, such as invoicing and e-mail functionality. It should also supply clear summaries throughout the year as well as annual summaries,” said Alken.

 

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Excel is not the answer
What about simply putting the books on spreadsheet software? A very bad idea. Since there are so few controls for spreadsheet software, numbers can be easily changed, damaging the integrity of your financial reports. However, you can export, or electronically transfer, data from your accounting system into a spreadsheet package such as Lotus or Excel to prepare more customised reports. If you’re making the jump from manual bookkeeping to computerised accounts, specialised software is the answer. These days software developers are very keen to stress the intuitive nature of their products, that tend to follow the same format as the traditional ledger system. That’s no bad thing, but the fact remains that you’ll need to be aware of the basics of accounting in order to use the software correctly – there’s simply no way around it. The good news is that there is no shortage of packages to choose from. Here we take a look at some of what’s out there.

Accounts software

Sage Instant
Sage Instant is designed for start-ups, sole traders and small businesses, and is therefore modelled for ease of use – essentially a computerised version of all the usual accounting ledgers that allows double-entry bookkeeping. There are a number of new features in this version: You can ‘hot link’ directly to information related to the transaction you are working on, use the accounts analyser to get information on the state of your business, and drill down through the simple tree format down to underlying data such as ‘Sales in the North’ and ‘Sales in the South’ etc. Extensive information can be stored and accessed on suppliers, customers and products, and the software is compatible with Microsoft Office should you wish to export to Excel, for example.

TAS Books 1
Again, an entry level accounts package that sticks to the ledger system you’ll be familiar with from the good old days. Things are spiced up a little with the option of 3D graphs, and there’s a powerful drill down facility that reveals the history of any financial figure. The ledgers are divided between Customer and Sales, Suppliers and Purchase, Accounts and Nominal, Cash and Bank and VAT and Auditing. A comprehensive range of reports is on offer, such as a full audit trail, VAT analysis, and sales and purchase day books with fully customisable dates. Exporting data to spreadsheets are also supported.

Big Red Book Accounts
Big Red Book Accounts has been designed with first time computer users in mind and uses the 3-in-1 ledger system that looks just like the (red) books which most people are familiar with. It works in the same way too – entries appear in columnar format as they would in the handwritten way. VAT is calculated automatically, and the software guides you through what figures to put in T1, T2, and so on. It also caters for specialised Irish VAT schemes, such as Retailer VAT and Pharmacy VAT. It covers all the essentials (sales and purchase figures, how much you owe suppliers, how much your customers owe to you, how you stand at the bank, VAT liability) as well as giving you the option to produce management accounts, such as trading and profit and loss.

Thesaurus Solutions Plus
Thesaurus Solutions Plus will allow you to keep your books in the traditional way, process and print your own sales invoices, print customer statements and VAT returns, maintain bank reconciliations, print aged debtor and creditor listings and view your accounts in a number of different ways (such as abridged, for the Companies Office). It’s certainly a powerful piece of software: VAT rates are embedded and linked to nominal headings, and old VAT rates are linked to transaction dates. The software ‘learns’, in that payees are matched to nominal headings, and involves minimal keyboard entry. At the same time, file structures are kept basic for stability, and data files can be zipped to an extremely small size to facilitate back up and storage.

Aisling Software SortMyBooks
SortMyBooks Quick and Easy bookkeeping software is one hundred percent Irish, and used by sole traders and the self-employed across the country. It handles invoicing, customer statements, VAT 3 returns, debtors, creditors, bank recs and filing online (through www.ros.ie).  Essentially, it covers everything you need for yourself, your accountant and the Revenue. The interface is simple and spreadsheet like; anyone that has used Excel should find the screens comfortingly familiar. A number of reports can be produced at any time for your accountant (such as Profit and Loss and Trial balance) and it offers a number of interesting charts, like the ‘top ten customers’ and ‘top ten expenses’ facilities.
 

Payroll software
The Collsoft system operates through a web interface. It’s clear that the company has put a lot of thought into the design, replicating how users would approach their payroll if doing it manually. It’s certainly pretty flexible, featuring Wage Auto processing, complete cost centre/departmental analysis, PRSA and Pension deductions (with electronic pension returns), and the ability to produce ROS P35, P45 and P30 certificates. It also produces bank Pay-path/E.F.T. files. Employees holidays, sick days and A.W.O.L. periods can be tracked, as can ‘employer costs’ not directly related to pay, such as company cars, uniforms, training and so on. The package is network-enabled (for multi-user access to the data file) and a 30 day evaluation period is offered free of charge.Sage Quickpay 10
Quickpay 10 is Sage’s entry-level payroll offering for up to 10 employees, with an upgrade path to Quickpay Standard and Quickpay Plus (up to 99 employees). Developed by the Sage Payroll programming team based in Dublin, it will calculate net-to-gross and net pay, tax and PRSI at the touch of a button. By using the PayPath facility in Quickpay, you can create the bank payment file and simply send the details to the bank. Payment by cheque and cash is also facilitated. Quickpay can produce a simple costing report that lists all the costs to the employer, Gross Pay and PRSI payments. The employees can also be grouped together under different cost codes for totals per cost code. If you’d like to give Quickpay a trial run, it’s possible to download a free copy of Sage Quickpay 3 from the company’s website. It offers all the functionality of the Quickpay range and caters for up to 3 employees.

Big Red Book Payroll
Just like the company’s accounts package, the Big Red Book Payroll offering follows the philosophy of keeping things simple. All options are clearly laid out and explained in plain English, and everything can be accessed easily through handy buttons and menus. It boasts the standard array of payment options – by cash, cheque, giro or the creation of a PayPath file for electronic transfer to your bank. You can choose to pay employees hourly, weekly, fortnightly, monthly or any combination of these. You can also create as many payroll headings as required: Commission, Expenses, Pension and so on. It’s possible to maintain records on employees including disciplinary action log, holiday history, sick leave history and other notes. It also prints periodic payroll reports, P45s, P60s and P35s.

Thesaurus Payroll Manager
The standard edition of Thesaurus Payroll Manager can be downloaded for free, used for three weeks before you have to part with any money, and caters for an unrestricted number of employees. It supports weekly and monthly payroll, and caters for all PRSI classes. Electronic payments (like PayPath) are possible, as are automated benefit-in-kind calculations. Payslips, P45s, P60s and P35s can all be viewed on screen before printing, and on-screen help obviates the need for a manual. The package is also ROS enabled for P35 and P45 submissions. Various reports can be output in html format, and the package includes a section on employment legislation.

Keysolve Earnie32 Intro
Earnie32 Intro is a straightforward payroll system, supporting up to 30 employees. Available from January 2005, it’s the entry level version of Earnie32, offering a number  of useful features including integrated absence diary for tracking holiday and sick days, Quick Report Writer and Accounts Software links as standard. It is fully scalable to the full range of Earnie32 products and a UK version also available. Keysolve distribute a demonstration CD of the product, so that you can try before you buy.

Revenue Online Service
One thing to bear in mind when looking at financial software is its compatibility with the Revenue Online Service (www.ros.ie). At present, dealing with taxes and duties online is normally a question of completing a three-step registration process that results in receiving a digital certificate that is used each time you access the system. Once in, twenty different taxes and duties can be filed and paid. A ROS debt instruction needs only to be set up once to facilitate payment, and the number of taxes you pay this way (if any) is completely up to you. So far the take-up of the system has been impressive, with 53% of last year’s income tax returns being carried out in this way. However, Conor Hegarty, ROS liaison officer, stressed that there is some way to go: “The big thing for 2005 is the P35. We want people to file through ROS. At present there are three ways to do this: paper, diskette and ROS. We’ll accept diskettes until February 2006, but ROS doesn’t want to continue with two electronic formats. We’re letting the software vendors know our schemas so that they can produce a ROS-compatible format.” The aim is to make integration with ROS through accounting and payroll software completely seamless, obviating the need to sign in separately with the digital cert. At the moment, 11% of P35s are filed online, but Hegarty expects this figure to grow significantly as the drive to inform businesses of the option kicks off. Software developers that meet the ROS requirements will be listed on the website, so it’s well worth taking a look whilst you’re shopping for software.

Banking Internet-style
Another compatibility issue you should be aware of is online banking, and the way in which your software interacts with it. There are similar developments in this area to those that are taking place with online revenue. At the moment conducting the banking affairs of your business involves registering with your bank in order to access your account through the bank’s portal. You can normally view domestic and international account balances, transactions, direct debits and standing orders, make account transfers and third party payments and create EFT/BACS payments. The attraction of this is, of course, that you can access your account from anywhere in the world 24 hours a day, and so far it has proved secure. Many small businesses are already checking account balances and making wage payments online, but for now the web-based services are limited to exporting information to accounts software. Eilish Mannion, product planning manager, Bank of Ireland Online told us that the situation will soon be changing: “At the moment we are able to export information to all of the major account packages. However, there has been a huge customer demand for an import facility, and from April 2005 this is coming to effect.” Software developers will be incorporating interaction facilities with online banking as more options become available to them.

24/01/05

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