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Coconut - Solving Making Tax Digital for Freelancers

One of this year’s ‘finds’ from the software exhibition circuit is Coconut - an accounting software product specifically aimed at freelancers and sole traders. Key features include: a relatively simple user interface; enough complexity ‘under the hood’ to get the job done; can cope with users only having one bank account for private and business; sensibly pricing (£7.50 inc VAT per month); and gets over the Making Tax Digital hurdle (see below).

The freelance/sole traders client demographic has always been one that’s presented its own challenges. Even the cut-down Xero ledger products can be overkill in many cases. My other favourite, AccountEdge, which, although still awesome, is to a great extent a niche product these days (Mac desktop, inventory-focused). More broadly, the wealth of features that many small business software titles include can be a little off-putting for micro-businesses.

A specific problem that Coconut sets out to solve is HMRC’s Making Tax Digital for Self Assessment - currently scheduled to hit sole traders in April 2024. It will mean that tax return information has to be submitted digitally (with limited exceptions. And, it has to be done quarterly rather than annually as currently. 

More details at:

AccountEdge - hello, my old friend!

[Receiving a partner award from AccountEdge back in 2010, Morristown, New Jersey]

AccountEdge (formerly MYOB) was an amazing product that was streets ahead of the competition in its day. And, it was one of few accounting products that worked on the Mac as well as Windows.

It would be fair to say I built my accounting firm around it, serving clients using AccountEdge and training any number of new users as well as using it for my own business.

Unsurprisingly, AccountEdge lost a lot of ground when Mamut, the UK distributor, decided to discontinue the Windows version. On the plus side, they agreed to continue with the Mac product, which just got better and better over the years due to the great work done by the US owners of AccountEdge, Acclivity LLC.

Whilst AccountEdge is, and probably always will be, a desktop on-premise product, it has a couple of excellent ‘companion’ apps in AccountEdge Cloud and AccountEdge Mobile. They allow certain features to be used online or on mobile (copy of the desktop product required).

It would be ridiculous to try and argue that the emergence and incredible growth of online (cloud) accounting products has not been a complete game-changer for the small business accounting software market. Xero, for example, has morphed from being a laughable joke where basic features that had been in AccountEdge/MYOB for literally decades were announced with huge fanfare, to being a kind of worldwide movement - if there is such a thing in accounting software!

Inevitably, AccountEdge’s place in the accounting landscape has changed. It’s gone from being the go-to solution for small businesses using the Mac to a niche product that only serves some elements of that market.

The situation wasn’t helped when it turned out that AccountEdge couldn’t be adapted to work on the latest iterations of the Mac operating system. Converting the great code that gave AccountEdge/MYOB its unique features back in the 1990s and 20s to 64-bit provided impossible, and the product is stuck on MacOS 10.14 Mojave. There are workarounds available such as using emulators Parallels to run a virtual Mojave Mac on a more up to date machine.

Far better and hopefully just around the corner for the UK, we have the ‘CrossOver’ solution. CrossOver is a Windows compatibility layer that allows you to run a Windows application without a virtual machine or a full version of Windows. To be clear, it is the Windows version running on Mac, and understandably, that’s not going to work for everyone.

Acclivity, the AccountEdge developers, have created a very slick installer. When running AccountEdge for the first time, after dragging it into the Applications folder, it installs and sets up CrossOver, creates the AccountEdge folder in the User directory and migrates the Mac forms (customised invoice templates etc.,) to Windows.

When running, it looks like (and indeed is) the Windows version, although there are some visual differences. There is currently no multiuser version. 

Personally, I’m looking for a bit of a Renaissance with AccountEdge, getting back to serving more users with accounting and training etc.

Given its new status as a niche status, which sub-categories of Mac users will AccountEdge work best for? Here's my list:

  • anyone who doesn’t need/want to use cloud software 
  • anyone with a poor internet connection
  • anyone who wants to use the advanced features found in AccountEdge that are only available to cloud accounting as expensive add-ons. Examples include:
    • bill of materials and product auto-build (from components)
    • time recording & billing
  • any Shopify users who want the tight integration to accounting that AccountEdge offers 
'Virtual finance directors' for small business and startups

The emergence of cloud accounting software, Xero in particular, in the small business market has enabled a total game-changer in the way accountants can work. 

Instead of their role being a once a year thing involving visits to clients and face to face meetings etc., everything's available all of the time from anywhere. This, coupled with the related move to real-time accounting (basically, everything kept up to date daily) has enabled accountants to a higher degree, and hopefully better one, get involved in financial decisions to a much greater and more regular extent.

Virtual finance director - virtual Chief Financial Officer (CFO) whatever you want to call it - does sound rather grand. Still, it can extend to little more than assisting with keeping accounting entries up to date and providing key reports regularly, like unpaid customer and supplier invoice lists and profit & loss accounts. 

Moving on, implementing and using features like Xero's Projects which help to drive up profitability by tracking income and costs on individual jobs or projects could be the next step. 

Having help from a virtual FD to get the accounting basics right in turn opens up the opportunity for them to use the various fintech add ons that have emerged over the last few years. Cash flow and profit forecasting are good examples - assistance with online funding applications (including loans) facilitated by direct access to accounting data is another. 

Advisory boards - an idea for small business

Mention the word ‘board’, and I still think of suits, ties, and big tables. Not for the first time, the Startup Therapy podcast from with Will Schroter and Ryan Ruton has changed my outlook on things.

In one of their recent episodes, they discuss in some detail the benefits of advisory boards for startups - I would broaden that out to all new small businesses.

Here’s my take on the key points.

Surprisingly perhaps, there’s no board as such, no need to throw big meetings nor even for everyone to get together at the same time (one to one can work), and it’s definitely not a board of directors style set-up - members are responsible to you rather than the other way around.

It’s simply a group of, typically three to five, people that you pick, people who have extensively more experience than you, who can help with various, potentially very specific, parts of your business journey.

A couple of things, firstly the composition of the board can change over time as the business evolves and faces different issues - they mention a two-year term as a suggestion. The second point is that there’s no need to go for the butcher, baker, candlestick maker style type approach where you try to get a representative from all the main business disciplines. The point made in the podcast is that unless you expect to be involved in endless litigation, for example, appointing a lawyer may be a waste of a seat. Instead, pick people who understand what you are about to go through.

As regards the process of recruiting people for your board, the podcast suggests aiming high and asking established people who can add credibility to your business.

I would perhaps widen that out to say the pool of potential recruits could be much wider and not necessarily big players on the startup or small business space, people you already know, for instance.

At worst, they say they can’t do it, but you still have a potentially helpful contact for the future. And, in any case, people like to be asked!