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No matter how great you are at whatever you do, you need to keep your customers happy. One of the best ways to do this is to keep them informed of where things are at any given time. Yeah, yeah, there are tons of “solutions” out there, but one size doesn’t fit all. What makes sense for a small business really depends on what your company does and the complexity of the projects. Luckily, the diverse needs of small businesses and freelancers are well served by a variety of products on the Mac. In general, project management software should help you keep track of the main elements: people, time, and tasks.
If all you want to do is keep track of tasks on a big to-do list, try Ghost Action ($19.99, www.ghostparksoftware.com). Nifty features like two-way syncing between .Mac and iCal, group to-dos, and categorization take checklists to a whole new level.
OmniPlan ($149.95, www.omnigroup.com) flattens the learning curve of managing complex projects by making it easier to set up and schedule resources and tasks. It can export and import from other applications and formats such as XML, Microsoft Project, and Fast Track Schedule, so you can fit in—and stand out—even in the least Mac-friendly environments.
FastTrack Schedule ($349.99, www.aecsoft.com) has all of the professional features like GANTT charting (a bar chart for project scheduling), multi-views, and dependencies one would expect in project management software. Since the app (4 out of 5 stars, Feb/07, p74) comes in both Mac and Windows versions, you can exchange schedules with others without having to import and export.
Merlin 2 ($205, www.merlin2.net) can double as a time tracker and estimating tool. Activities from Merlin can be directly integrated into software such as Billings from Marketcircle (see: Invoicing & Accounting, below) to create invoices and estimates.
Invoicing and Accounting
In most commercial endeavors, you won’t get paid unless you submit an invoice. An invoice can be a simple document that tells the client the price and whom to pay. Invoicing, on the other hand, is an involved process. Quantities of hours, orders, or products must be tracked somehow, as well as a payment schedule.
If you don’t invoice a lot, you could probably get away with something as easy as typing up individual invoices using a word processing template. But once you start sending more than two or three invoices a week, consider a solution that allows for importing/exporting between your time tracking and invoicing apps so you don’t forget to follow up.
MacFreelance ($39.99, www.macxware.com) covers the basics for most individuals who need time tracking, invoicing, and payment tracking.
FreshBooks (subscriptions from $14 to $149 per month, www.freshbooks.com) is a Web-based solution for creating and sending invoices in a variety of forms such as email, URL, and regular snail mail. You can even accept payments online with PayPal or Authorize.net.
Billings ($59.99, www.marketcircle.com) can work as a stand-alone solution for tracking time and invoicing, but its real power is the integration with project management products such as DayLite and Merlin. The app ships with a handful of stylish and professional-looking invoices, and allows a very granular level of customization as well.
QuickBooks ($199.95, www.quickbooks.com). What’s a Mac business article without mentioning the industry standard? Whether you or someone else has to run the back-office operations at your place, this app handles just about all you need, from invoicing to payroll. Keep in mind, many of the add-on modules that extend QuickBooks are for Windows only. Which sucks.
AccountEdge ($299, www.myob-us.com) picks up where other accounting apps leave the Mac high and dry—it goes beyond basic accounting with credit card processing and direct deposit.
Tracking Your Time
Time is money if you’re in any kind of service or consulting business. When you bill your clients for time, it’s good practice to include details of how it was spent. Keep an eye on time even if you charge a flat fee or fixed bid. Down the road you can go back and look at how long it took to perform the work, which is handy for making more accurate estimates.
If it’s just you billing for time, you could get by with pen and paper, but once you get into billing for multiple people, projects,
and clients, you’ll want to know how things add up at any given time. Try to get all your folks to log their hours daily or as they go along, otherwise people forget—or worse, fabricate hours.
ClickTime ($60 startup, plus monthly fees, www.clicktime.com) is a Web-based timecard solution that lets you and your employees log time from anywhere. Corporations large and small use it, and since you pay on a per-employee basis, it has a nice entry price point.
Another option is Virtual TimeClock Pro ($195 single seat to $1,995 for server and unlimited clients, redcort.com), a software solution that lets employees clock in and out, change tasks, and track paid breaks. Then you can customize the time sheets and reports, and export to Microsoft Excel or CheckMark Payroll ($249, www.checkmark.com).