Numbers on the Net

By JOANNA L. OSSINGER

With accounting, taxes, payroll and all the other financial necessities, it’s a wonder small-business owners have any time to do actual business. But some companies are creating online tools to make all that number crunching a bit less time-consuming.

A number of offerings are popping up that give small-business owners quick access to their financial data without a lot of investment in technology.

Sarah Endline, founder of New York chocolate company Sweetriot, says she likes Intuit Inc.’s QuickBooks Online Edition because “everyone [in the company] has access, and it doesn’t matter where we are in the world.” Even on the road, she can take out her computer and “pull up how we’re doing on our numbers.”

On the market since 2000, QuickBooks Online can be set up to show whatever data the business wants to see, and is designed around the simple format of “money in” (such as invoices and sales receipts) and “money out,” (credit-card purchases, cash expenditures, bills). A section for recent transactions can do an overview of all transactions, or just show a particular slice, such as sales. It is also possible to write and print checks, bill customers, set up bank accounts, make deposits, and generate reports such as profit and loss, or sales by customer or product.

To keep its customer data secure, QuickBooks Online reviews its log systems to scan for hackers and other questionable activity, has quarterly security scans by VeriSign Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., online security provider, and offers users the option of controlling the level of security for their own accounts, among other things.

The basic version of QuickBooks Online costs $19.95 a month, but upgrades are available.

Suggestion Box

The product has an online suggestion box where people can make comments and ask for additional product features. A number of people have complained about having to enter credit-card charges and other information by hand. QuickBooks Online says it’s working on these issues. According to Product Manager Kirby Freeman, the company makes weekly updates — usually small tweaks — to the product.

MyBizHomepage.com, based in Middleburg, Va., is an online accounting-reference system that launched last month. It’s a free, ad-supported service that integrates with the widely used non-Web version of QuickBooks accounting software. Registered users can see a financial snapshot of their business each time they visit the Web site. The site pulls key data from users’ Quickbooks files and puts them into an easy-to-read format.

The focus is on five key accounting areas: payables, receivables, cash, cost of goods sold and sales. Chief Executive Pete Justen says small-business owners indicated those areas were most important for them to track in order to keep their businesses going.

Several graphs show trends in the business’s important financial data at the top of the page. The site also can display such functions as stock quotes, news updates, Google search and other features that the user chooses.

It’s All ‘Right There’

Wanda Good, chief executive of temporary-staffing firm Professions in Winchester, Va., says she likes MyBizHomepage because “all the information is right there” on the screen, and she doesn’t have to take the time to run five or six reports to get it. The page makes it easier to see “trouble spots and trends” in her cash flow, Ms. Good says.

Mr. Justen says his inspiration for the Web site came in part from his background in mortgage banking and leveraged-buyout offers — or, as he puts it, “creating efficiencies in highly inefficient markets.” He was bothered by statistics showing that many small businesses close down even when profitable, and he figured if he could create something that would make the accounting easier, it might help relieve some of the burden on the small-business owners.

The site has worked closely with QuickBooks on security issues. “There’s nothing we pull out of your QuickBooks that anyone is interested in except you,” Mr. Justen says, explaining that the software doesn’t do anything with account numbers or credit-card numbers, for instance. MyBizHomepage offers the same security guarantee that QuickBooks offers its users. It uses VeriSign’s secure socket layer, or SSL, technology to preserve the security of data on the Web site. It also has a secure sign-on, as well as other security features typical of online-banking sites.

Audit Trail

SmartOnline.com is another Internet tool that can be used to keep track of finances. One feature keeps an audit trail for each stage of a customer’s transaction. Created by Smart Online Inc., a Durham, N.C., provider of online business applications, the site works mainly through partners to integrate bank services into an accounting product. It charges a subscription fee starting at $10 a month per user, which can increase if customers want to add other applications. The site’s main collaborators are New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Union Bank of California NA, a unit of San Francisco-based UnionBanCal Corp. SmartOnline.com says it is also in discussions with six more banks about possible partnerships.

At Smart Online, one person is the administrator and has full access to the accounting software. Every other user has a level of access determined by the administrator. Data are backed up regularly, and are housed on redundant servers in case anything happens to the primary server.

The banking function allows users to view deposits, withdrawals, fees and other transactions in their bank accounts, as well as reconcile various accounts. A vendor feature allows users to list their suppliers and include related information such as discounts, credits or debits. It is also possible to view supplier account histories and pay or void bills.

A similar feature for customers shows data on credits and debits, plus recorded and reversed payments. Users also can generate reports showing cash flow, shareholder equity, summaries of figures such as revenue or profit, and lists of banking transactions.

“It’s a product a small business can get into quickly at very low cost,” says SmartOnline.com customer Michael Lindsay, president and CEO of small-business technology-support company C’Bay Technologies in Yorktown, Va. Mr. Lindsay uses Smart Online and recommends it to his clients. He says he likes the fact that his accountant can access the information without having to transfer CDs.

Smart Online works with its bank partners on security. The company says SunGard Data Systems Inc. hosts its data, which are encrypted.

Banks and other financial firms are also expanding online tools that can help small businesses keep track of their money. Bank of America Corp. includes a number of features in its Business 24/7 portfolio, which is designed for businesses with 20 or fewer employees.

Payroll Program

The Business 24/7 suite offers a payroll program, which is free to customers if all payments go to Bank of America accounts. It guarantees that state, federal and local withholdings will be done accurately.

Business 24/7 also has a program that helps business owners obtain a line of credit, allows electronic billing and payment receipts, and can feed right into products such as QuickBooks and Quicken, another Intuit financial software tool. It can even send payment-reminder emails to customers.

To bolster security, the bank uses a special login that uses questions associated with a visual prompt. Also, if a customer is logging in from a computer that hasn’t been used before to access the account, there is a much more rigorous login process, in order to help prevent unauthorized account access.

New York-based American Express Co. offers customized expense-management reports for any credit cards from its OPEN small-business division. It offers different levels of account access, a way to pay bills online, and alerts that can notify a customer when spending thresholds have been reached.

 

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