Balancing the books: finding the best accounting software for your business
Quite possibly the bane of many a photographer’s existence is anything to do with accounting, tax, and managing the financial affairs of their business. After all, photographers are creatives. But the reality is that for any photographers unwilling to invest a little time and energy into this crucial part of their business, it could be their undoing. Allison Harper investigates.
Many photography businesses evolve organically from humble beginnings. With the benefit of hindsight, some express regrets that they were not well set up from the outset. In an increasingly competitive marketplace where developing and maintaining client relationships is essential, a system that relieves you from time-consuming paperwork and allows you to focus on the business is crucial, and the importance of managing the financial side of the business can’t be ignored. Those who have embraced the time and money saving possibilities offered by online accounting systems have benefitted from being able to manage their business on-the-go, often with no more than a mobile phone at hand.
Some of the more common mistakes for small businesses include not having enough cash in reserve, relying on credit, mixing personal and business finances, not putting funds back into the business, and not putting money aside for when tax and GST fall due. Having an accounts management system can help manage all of these things and enable a business health check at a glance.
Avoid financial stress
William Long is an honorary life member of the AIPP and has worked for more than 20 years as a commercial photographer. As well as this, he mentors other photographers, and what he hears most frequently from them is that they do not set aside any funds to pay their GST and tax obligations. “One of the first things I do is make sure they have record keeping and systems in place. That can save them thousands in the long run,” he says. “If you really are too busy to manage the financial side of your business, how do you even know that you are charging enough and covering your costs,” Long emphasises. He says that if you are registered for GST, you need to put all the GST that you collect aside, because it’s not your money. “You can certainly earn interest on it, but when GST or tax are due, you need to have it and be able to pay,” Long states.
Get it right from the start
Based in Alexandria, New South Wales, long-established jewellery and advertising photographer Richard Weinstein says that his experience has taught him that the most common mistake people make is not setting up properly at the outset. “You cannot do it piecemeal. It’s very important to know what it costs you to be in business,” he says. “Only then you can know what you can afford, and what you need to charge.”
One emerging photographer, who preferred not to be identified, was happy to share their experiences: “I was just starting out and had an amazing year. I had heaps of work and clients made EFTPOS payments straight into my personal bank account. I used an Excel spreadsheet to record purchases and the work I’d invoiced, but was slack in keeping it up to date. I figured it wasn’t a big deal as I had copies of all of my invoices and receipts. It was such a pain to play catch up and to search through my old bank statements to double-check that I’d been paid correctly. I wasn’t too concerned as my bank balance was healthy and I’d been putting money back into the business by investing in new gear. Then came my worst nightmare – I got a huge tax bill. Naively, I hadn’t set aside any money to pay what I owed, and I’d been terrible at recording all business-related expenses. It was such a stressful time for me. I wish that I’d kept on top of it and paid more attention.”
Cash flow is critical
Many small businesses fail to recognise that they can have good income, but still find themselves in financial distress. A number of studies show lack of cash flow is a key factor in small businesses going broke. If you need money now to pay your bills, but customers have long payment terms or don’t pay on time, you’ll find yourself in a tight spot. “Cash flow is really important. You need to have a positive buffer to give you security for expenses, and the quiet months,” Weinstein says. “You might have up-front expenses, but 30–60 day payment terms, [and that’s where a buffer comes into play].”
Michele Bain runs the Darwin-based consultancy, The Adding Value CFO, providing financial advice to a range of small businesses. “Excel spreadsheets can be a great starting point for small businesses,” she says. “The costs are minimal and they are easy to use, especially if you already have a cashbook template. However, inputting data is prone to human error, for basic entries or formulas. Spreadsheets can’t give you a true profit and loss or balance sheet unless they have complex formulas built-in, and they can’t perform a reconciliation of bank accounts,” Bain says.
Based on his work with clients in the creative industries, Shaun McCorkell, from LMG Accountants in Hawthorn, Melbourne, believes that not having good systems in place wastes time when you could be chasing work. His advice is to engage a financial advisor who understands your business. “In my view, the two most important things are provisioning for tax and GST, and having a separate bank account that’s purely for business,” he says. “As well as this, steering clear of cash and using a credit card, or better still, a debit card for business-related expenditure is good practice.”
Using spreadsheets to track expenses and income is something that McCorkell advises against. “It’s not something that creatives tend to do well,” he says, “It’s a recording device, and not a system. In the end it tends to cost you more because your accountant has to spend more time working on it, and there are many more touch points. Even with a fixed accounting fee, you will probably find that your fee goes up the following year if reconciling your accounts has been really time-consuming,” McCorkell says.
Choosing an accounting system
The choice when it comes to accounting systems is impressive, and before settling on one and investing your time and money, you’d be well advised to consider the features/benefits and costs associated, and choose the package that best aligns with the size and complexity of your operation. However, switching from one package to another is not impossible, but it can be time-consuming, costly, and potentially stressful. But there is no shortage of experts out there able to assist with such a transition.
As a minimum, your accounting package should assist with recording transactions, calculating GST, preparing financial statements/reports, and generating quotes and invoices. Gaining considerable interest are cloud-based systems. Although these require an Internet connection, they offer great data security and flexible pricing options. From his experience, Weinstein says that a cloud-based system has worked particularly well for him, saving him considerable time, and shining when it comes to quoting, invoicing, and reconciliations. It’s also proven useful building up a database.
Assessing an accounting solutions is less overwhelming if you take in to consideration how complicated and frequent your business transactions and processes are. For example, if you don’t employ staff, you won’t require a payroll function. It’s also worth talking to your accountant or bookkeeper to see if they have a preferred system. “All our clients are moving to cloud-based packages. QuickBooks and MYOB are popular, and we are a Gold Partner with Xero,” says McCorkell.
Any decent package will also make the process of preparing your BAS practically a dream. Not only will you likely save hundreds of dollars a year from getting someone else prepare it for you, chances are you’ll be kicking yourself multiple times for not having investigated an accounting package earlier. Preparing a BAS is literally a case of a few clicks, in some instances. One fantastic features of some cloud-based systems is that it allows you to give your accountant secure access to your records so that they can review your data, and also easily prepare your tax return, or BAS, if you prefer not to do it yourself.
Another useful feature McCorkell points to is the ease with which businesses can allocate entries to an account using cloud-based systems. “The system is intuitive and builds on its own database. For example, with packages like Xero, you can simply allocate telco payments to ‘phone’ or ‘Studio X’ to ‘studio hire’. Once you tell it where you want payments to be allocated, Xero will recognise them and do it automatically,” says McCorkell.
While there is a definite move towards cloud-based solutions, some stand-alone desktop options do exist, but when you visit the websites of most companies, they direct you to their cloud-based offerings, all of which can be can be accessed anywhere and upgraded automatically.
Steve Scalone has numerous AIPP awards under his belt, including Australian Photographic Book of the Year (2017) and Australian Travel Photographer of the Year (2015). A commercial photographer and educator, Scalone moved from MYOB to QuickBooks, because at that time MYOB was not online. “For me,” he says, “the best thing is being able to link to a mobile app. I love that I can do my books anytime, anywhere, instead of having to set aside hours of time for that purpose. I also love the fact that you can photograph your receipts and put them into the system,” Scalone says.
Field of Vision has two studios, in Templestowe and Fitzroy, Victoria, and specialises in family portraits, weddings, and engagements. It’s run by Shireen and Robert Hammond. “Cloud-based software is amazing because everyone can jump on remotely,” says Robert Hammond. “It’s really cool that we can get the help we need without having to go and see people. Our accountant is based interstate and we can just Skype him,” he says. First impressions count and that includes the appearance of your standard forms such as invoices and statements. Robert Hammond says “even when we first launched on a shoestring, we knew that it was really important to invest money in the things that presented us as trained professionals”. Most accounting systems have fully customisable forms that enable you to upload your logo and integrate the look of your invoices and quotes so that they present professionally and consistently with your business.
William Long intentionally doesn’t use his accounting system’s template to do quotes, preferring to do them manually. “For me it is more than just giving a price; it’s an opportunity to include testimonials and awards,” he says. “It’s important to distinguish yourself when you know you will be compared with other photographers. It’s also an opportunity to ensure the client knows what they are getting. For examples, I always include my Terms and Conditions in the same font; I don’t put them in small print or hide them at the bottom of the document. This guards against clients saying that they wish that they had known something, or didn’t understand.”
If you are in the market for an accounting package, as a bare minimum, you should consider its ability to perform certain key tasks fundamental to the financial management of your business. Some of these should include its reporting functions and whether balance sheet, profit and loss, GST and BAS are included. Also, its ability to produce professional-looking quotes and invoices, and whether it offers payroll – if that’s something you require now, or in the future. If you’re considering moving from one package to another, you’ll want to assess the process to transfer historical data from one to the other and ascertain whether it’s something you can do alone, or require the services of an expert. Also, get a sense of how information initially gets into the package. In many instances, it’s possible to link multiple bank accounts and simply import all transactions directly.
While most photographers would rather be creating images than doing administration, streamlining accounting processes certainly provides an opportunity to better see how your business is performing and frees up valuable time to go about working elsewhere on the business. There is also the potential to greatly reduce the time you spend on paperwork, not to mention reduced accounting fees. For any spreadsheet users out there, it might be time to have a look at what’s currently available and consider a more sophisticated and time-saving approach.
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