Edit:We had a server mishap so the images are missing and we’ll get back to them at some point.
One of the first things any new freelancer (or anyone who’s put it off) is to nail down your estimating/invoicing workflow. If you can’t get an estimate out you can’t get a project, if you can’t get out an invoice you’re not getting paid by the clients.
While there are lots of options out there for OS X users, from web apps to native clients. After working with a bunch I ended up finding and using Billings by Market Circle. Billings is an end to end solution for freelancers. If you need to work with multiple people you can use Billings Pro (I’ve never needed that so haven’t used it).
As I mentioned above Billings is an end to end solution for your business. It easily takes you from building an estimate for your client to working on the project to sending out the invoice. Estimating is as easy as creating some project tickets with hourly rates and times then send out the estimate. Billings even provides ticket blueprints so you don’t have to type out the same ticket information all the time.
[todo estimate blueprints]
Once the project is accepted just flip the estimates in to working tickets and you can now track time against your tickets.
One of the things that makes any desktop app better than any web app is the fact that a desktop app can give you system wide keyboard shortcuts. Need to access the timer and make a note on what you were doing during that time. Just use (control – space) and you’re time is up, then click the comment and you’re off to the races.
[todo shoot timer]
Billings also provides easy access to all of your most recent tickets from the menu bar. Want to see if you’re still timing, look in the menu bar. The fact that you have access to most of the functions you use regularly means you don’t need to open the full application.
One of the final points for Billings is the fact that it has an iPhone app. I have a few clients where I’m on site for a few hours a month in meetings. Being able to just take my phone out and start the timer is way easier than having to haul out my laptop just to start a timer.
While I mentioned the fact that they have an iPhone application available the fact is that it syncs with your Mac over the same WIFI network if both applications are running. The reality of this sync is that it doesn’t always work first try (though it’s usually good by the 4th or 5th try). Add to that the fact that I was entirely unable to sync for an entire year after the iOS 4.0 update on my iPod Touch and we’ve got a sync solution that looks good but is pretty cumbersome in practice. Truth be told sync never got fixed on my iPod Touch I just purchased an iPhone 4 and it worked again.
Backup is also an issue. Sure the Billings database gets backed up via Time Machine or Carbonite and it creates a backup copy on quit but instant cloud sync on save is something I only dream of. You can hack in support for this by using a symlink in to your DropBox but it’s not natively supported. Adding DropBox support would not only fix the backup issue it could also fix the crappy sync. 1Password already syncs with multiple machines and iOS devices via DropBox so we know it’s possible.
I mentioned above that you can get to the timer window with a quick keyboard command which is awesome. The big issue comes when you want to add a timer entry. I’ve never been able to find way to jump in to the timer entry window without moving to my mouse. This is terribly inefficient and an over site on the part of Market Circle. You should be able to add a note about what you were doing exit and restart the timer without having to leave the keyboard.
[todo shoot comment window]
Billings also includes reports but I’ve found them only sort of useful. Sure there are lots of different types of reports but they don’t really distinguish between things like personal projects, time you’re working but not billing (like email, client follow up…) and actual working billed time. Lumping these all in to the same thing as ‘time worked’ makes the reports all but useless. Better reports would section out each of the above scenarios and show you a nice graph/chart on how you spent your time each day. As it stands instead of tracking every minute of a work day (which is really what I want so I can see how productive I really am) I just track actual billed time. Sure it lets me make invoices but it doesn’t really give me a solid picture of how my day went.
Delving deeper in to the time tracking issues mentioned above, Billings doesn’t do a good job of letting you track hours spent on fixed bid items. So for a design where I might charge $1200 I want to also track how many hours I spent on it to see if I actually made money. The only way I’ve been able to find is to create a new ticket marked ‘my eyes only’ and track the design time there. Sure I can compare visually but when it comes to reports this information is totally lost.
At the End
So with all the complaints can I recommend Billings? Yes I do recommend Billings. At the very least it allows you to create estimates work on projects then invoice for them. Sure reporting, syncing, keyboard navigation, and time tracking need more thought and refinement but it’s certainly the best application for managing invoices for your business I’ve found on OS X.