Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Technorati Monster

On the advice of Glen Feechan, I decided to sign up to Technorati.

Trying to hook that up to this blog, I saw what I think is one of the funniest error messages I've ever seen:
"Doh! The Technorati Monster escaped again."
Underneath that were two sentences explaining,
"We are currently experiencing back end issues and are working to resolve them as quickly as possible. We apologise for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience."
Now why couldn't Sage Live have said something like that? Quick, easily readable and instantly understandable.

Wake up Sage

Duane Jackson mentioned on his blog yesterday that Sage Live was no longer live. They'd taken it offline to fix some security issues.

I decided to check this out for myself.

So off I hopped to the Sage Live website (which appeared on Google BELOW Duane's blog post - somewhat worrying).

The website itself wouldn't have encouraged me to try Sage Live. It's very wordy and the text is in tiny print.

And it took me several clicks to find the "try now" button - and when I clicked on it, the website just hung.

Now I am not anti-Sage like the owner of this site is anti-QuickBooks. I've done the Sage accreditation, for Pete's sake. And when properly used, Sage is not a bad product.

But I have to say that I think Sage are being a bit clueless here.

For one thing, if the Sage Live offering is going to seriously compete with the likes of KashFlow, WinWeb, Xero and all the other small business online accounting software that's out there now, its site needs to be a lot more user-friendly. No long paragraphs of tiny-printed guffy text.

And for another thing, if they've (very sensibly) taken the beta trial down while they repair its security features, then they should surely put a page on their site to say it's not available, not just leave the site hanging?

Come on Sage, you've got good competition out there now, smarten your act up.

UPDATE: I just went back to the Sage Live website and they have now put a page to say the beta isn't available. But their text, again, is very guffy.

And, it doesn't actually say anywhere that the site is down!!

Here it is:

Sage Live is beta. This means that we’re going to continue to develop our service to make sure we give you the best possible experience. This may mean that, from time to time, we have to make changes to the site in response to your valuable feedback, and where required, this may mean that we have to take the site down while we work on it.

If you need to create invoices while the site is unavailable, we have some new invoicing software that is completely free of charge, so why not give it a try.

We’re working hard to make sure that we offer the best possible experience through Sage Live. We hope that you’ll continue to use our service, and we’ll let you know once the site is back up and running.

If you have any questions about Sage Live please email us

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Turn the clock back 80 years...

Just watched the BBC's docu-drama "1929: The Great Crash". It's here on iPlayer till the weekend.

Similarities are being drawn all over the place between that crash and the Great Depression that followed it, and the current financial situation.

As I watched the programme, these were what particularly struck me as similarities:

- In the late 1920s, before the crash, there were no rules about how much people could borrow. Stock was bought with borrowed money and credit was easily obtainable.

- The Hoover government said everything was fine, the market just kept going up, and the best thing they could do was to leave it alone.

- In the early stages of the crash, the bankers tried to shore up the existing system by providing funding.

- In the aftermath of the crash, there was no short-term commercial credit available, and businesses closed down because of that.

- One of Roosevelt's strategies to try and help ease the situation was to guarantee bank deposits.

History has repeated itself with a vengeance.


Garbage in, garbage out!

A site that's called "No More QuickBooks" just had to be worth investigating.

Here it is.

It also interested me because it has some short reviews of various other pieces of small business accounting software, mostly online ones (scrub that - it's all online ones), and reviews of online payment methods like WorldPay.

I found my way to this site via a post from UK Business Forums. A new company was looking for accounting software recommendations. One very sensible accountant called Aaron pointed out that, whatever software the company uses, it
"will only be as good as the data you input"
Absolutely right!

Putting your data into the computer doesn't make it right. I've seen plenty of sets of records kept on the computer - mostly Sage, but one or two others - which have been an awful mess.

So the warning is - choose your package carefully, and get some training on it!!


Oh what a tangled web we weave...

...when officialdom gets hold of paying one's staff!

As a new employer, I received a bumper pack full of information and forms from HM Revenue.

Thankfully I know my way round payroll. But I could imagine that anyone who'd never seen all these forms before would be completely at sea. Umpteen forms called P-this and P-that. A big flow chart to work out which NIC table you should be using.

Why do people make life so complicated for themselves? HM Revenue are people. So people made these forms up for other people to fill in. Argh!

And when I came to load the CD-ROM and run the calculations...

I got the CD-ROM loaded on my computer and opened it. Then looked for somewhere to put in the company and employee details.

Instinctive it wasn't.

In the end, I found it under "Database", which would be the last place I'd have thought of looking - I'd have thought the Database would contain things like NIC tables and tax rates and codes.

Once I'd found where to put the details in, entering them went quite smoothly.

Has anyone else tried using the HMRC CD-ROM? What's your experience of it been?


Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Do you like Excel 2007?

Since my post yesterday I've spent a bit of time working with Excel 2007.

I really like the look and feel of it. It's bright and cheerful and looks less boring than the old version (spreadsheets do have a nasty habit of turning into huge long columns of numbers, and when they're surrounded by dull grey borders, they look even worse).

But what I don't like is that lots of functions and options have been MOVED!

In a lot of ways, the new layout is more logical, but yesterday I had to spend ages trying to find out how to change the range of data that a pivot table looks at.

In Excel 2003, there's a pivot table wizard, and you can just right-click on the table and go back into the wizard if you want to change anything in the table.

In Excel 2007, the wizard has gone. You just click on Insert and then Pivot Table. That's in itself confusing when you're used to clicking Data to start a pivot table.

Which means that changing anything in a pivot table can get fiddly.

And the answer to how to change the range is... go to Options!! I'd tried just about everywhere else before I even thought of looking there.

Have you tried Excel 2007? What did you think of it? Have you switched from Excel 2003 yet?


Monday, 26 January 2009

A very non-comprehensive trial!

I decided to have a look at Excel 2007.

There's a free 60-day trial available on the Microsoft Office website. Great I thought.

Problem 1) You can't try just Excel 2007 or Word 2007 or PowerPoint 2007. It's all or nothing. OK, I downloaded the Small Business Edition free trial.

Problem 2) The trial version of Excel 2007 has so many of its features disabled that it's practically useless. I couldn't even save a file, or create a new file. And as for trying out a pivot table, forget it!

What a pile of old rubbish! How do Microsoft expect me to try a program out when they'll hardly let me use any of its features?

What experience have other people had of this?


UPDATE: Tom Gleeson posted on Twitter that the trial version should be fully functional. So I opened it again... and lo and behold all the features were there.

So a half apology to Microsoft, because I'm still not impressed that I had to open the program twice before I was able to use all the functionality.

But at least I've now got something to play with.


With apologies for a bit of an off-beat post but this is something I do find interesting.

Betsan Powys has blogged this morning about what the government could be about to do re making Welsh businesses provide leaflets, information, etc. in Welsh as well as English.

I have an interest in this because I have a bit of Welsh blood (my nan was a Williams from the Rhondda valley) and, since 1996, my family home has been in West Wales. So university vacations and pre-qualification cheap holidays were usually spent in Wales.

I speak only a few words of Welsh (incidentally, the title of this post means "Welsh"). But in the area of Wales where my parents live, Welsh is the first language. Schools teach all lessons in Welsh. Road signs are in Welsh first and then English. Many local people speak English colloquially at best.

That's great for keeping the rich Welsh heritage alive. But it also means that it limits young people's horizons. Welsh is only spoken in Wales. Nowhere else. So they often go to university in Wales, and take jobs in Wales. As for going even to England to study, or take a job - many couldn't or wouldn't.

Personally, if I were in the government, I would be pushing for schools to teach in English. Rightly or wrongly, that would open so many more doors for Welsh young people.

What do other people think of this?

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

PC, Mac or both?

I got into a conversation on Twitter today with Mark Hallett from Xero and with Jamie Parkins from vzaar, about PCs vs Macs.

I've seen several of the "I'm a PC / I'm a Mac" adverts and they all seem to make out that PCs are much more clunky and much less user-friendly than Macs.

I have a little PC laptop and it does me just fine. But I'd love to get a Mac to make videos, because I've heard from several of my contacts, like Dennis Howlett and my brother Andy Duffield, that Macs are much better than PCs for that.

Jamie agrees.

And Mark says that he runs Parallels on his Mac and therefore doesn't need a PC.

But I've heard that some PC software doesn't run well with Parallels, including vital stuff like the screen-capture software I use to make my videos.

So I plan to keep my little PC laptop, and as soon as I can afford it, to buy a Mac as well.

What are other people's experiences of using a PC and/or a Mac? Having used one, would you migrate to the other?


Monday, 19 January 2009

Is more credit really the answer?

Robert Peston writes on the BBC website, talking about the latest plans to encourage banks to start lending again:
"The paradox is that the Government wants to make more credit available to reduce the severity of a recession that was caused by a decade-long, crazy lending binge."
How right he is.

My first job before starting university was as a summer temp with one of the big high-street banks. One part of that job was helping with the credit scoring system that decided whether or not a customer was allowed to have a loan.

And the lending department were jolly strict about it. If there was the slightest chance the loan might not be repaid - it wasn't given.

So what went wrong?

One question is, why was money lent to people who couldn't pay it back?

But personally, I don't think that the banks are 100% to blame.

Why did people borrow money if they couldn't pay it back? Is it not irresponsible to borrow if you can't repay?

This morning on Richard Murphy's blog, I found an article in which he quotes John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, who points out that one factor which caused the credit crunch was - greed.

Credit was so easily available, people were wheedled into borrowing what they couldn't repay, because they wanted more than they could afford.

So I don't think more credit is the answer.

I think that people should be taught not to borrow what they can't repay.

And the banks shouldn't encourage them to do so.

There's fault on both sides.


Friday, 16 January 2009

Another QuickBooks non-supporter

An earlier comment on this blog led me to Clarity Accounting, a saas product from a Canadian company. I'd not seen it before.

One point that I picked up from Dobes Vandermeer's blog on this site is that he, like me, has tried QuickBooks and doesn't much like it.

QuickBooks seems to be a product that accountants either love or loathe.

Most of those who love it seem to do so because in many ways it's much easier for clients to use than Sage. That's a very fair point. How user-friendly the software is for non-accountants is a big, big factor in helping clients choose their bookkeeping software.

But the reason why I don't like it is because it seems a mare to get any form of reliable, useful information from. I've tried getting a TB or a VAT report from it. Cue a one-way ticket to Cloud Cuckoo Land.

What's your opinion of QuickBooks? All comments welcome.


Is e-mail the new snail mail?

Dennis Howlett and Mark Lee have locked antlers recently over on IT Counts about whether Twitter is a service that accountants will find useful.

In summary - Dennis says yes and Mark says no.

My own thoughts are that Twitter is absolutely fantastic for ultra-quick communication. I had a contact of mine ask me to carry out a review this morning. Direct messaging on Twitter meant that we could exchange thoughts quicker than I'm typing now. No need to wait for an e-mail to be delivered. 15 minutes later and off he went to start making changes.

And it's also great for networking, which is vital to someone as new to this whole running-a-business lark as I am. It's so quick to agree to follow someone on Twitter, and then you get their updates.

The one improvement I would like to see is an automatic invite to ask someone to follow you once you've agreed to follow them.

But if you're Twitter-shy:

1) Watch the fab video below from CommonCraft which explains what it is.

2) Hop over to Twitter and try it. You won't regret it.


Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Online software comparison by the ICAEW

AccountingWeb today published an article and a link to say that the ICAEW's IT faculty had written a report about online accounting software.

The report, hearteningly, was written in plain English, and made a lot of valid points about how online accounting software helps accountants play a much more hands-on role in their clients' businesses. In these straitened times when small businesses are likely to need all the help they can get, a proactive accountant is always good news.

It talked in more detail about 5 different online packages: accountsIQ, Liberty Accounts, Liquid Accounts, Sage 50's online system, and WinWeb.

What surprised me, however, was that the report only mentioned these 5 packages. I realise there's a limited amount of space in these reports, but I was surprised not to see KashFlow, a recent winner at the Software Satisfaction Awards, and perhaps even more surprised not to see Xero, which is accredited by the ICAEW (as are accountsIQ and WinWeb).

And, as well, I would have liked more detail on the nuts and bolts of using these systems. How easy is it to set up a new client? To extract important information like debtors, creditors and bank balance? To prevent and correct mistakes? To post year end journals and close off a year end? None of that was included in the report.

What would any other accountants like to know about online systems before they invest?


Tuesday, 13 January 2009

eBay user? Add video with Vzaar

I've just finished building some video tutorials for the guys at vzaar, which meant I got to effectively test their product.

Click the Play button below to view the tutorial.

I was astonished just how easy it was to use vzaar to upload a video and add it to an eBay listing.

Making sales on eBay is ever popular but is likely to become even more so - as I overheard someone saying in a local hardware shop, "There's a credit crunch on!" Making a video of what you're trying to sell and putting it on eBay is a great way to make your product stand out.

And using vzaar, which has a FREE account facility, it's easy as pie to add a video to your listing. It's all fully automated.

Check their site for more info by clicking the title of this post.


Monday, 12 January 2009

TinyURL - what a great idea

I've seen various people I follow on Twitter posting links to websites with "tinyurl" in the name.

I guessed this was a service that allowed long links to be shortened, so this afternoon I went to for a quick shufti.

To be very agreeably surprised to find that not only is this site very easy to use, it's also FREE.

What a fab idea, and particularly great for applications like Twitter where the number of characters per posting is reduced.

To go to the site, click the title of this post.


Where to network?

Like any new business owner, I'm keen to make as many contacts as I can.

Not only because I really enjoy meeting new people, but also because new contacts might become new customers.

Here are some of the sites where I network online. And they're all FREE to join.
Does anyone have any more recommendations? I have a Facebook account but don't tend to use that for business.



Want to learn more about pivot tables?

Excel pivot tables are a really great tool. They can help you take lists of numbers and convert them into easily readable, easily understandable tables.

They are actually very straightforward to use.

But many people are scared to even try them.

If this sounds like you, then you might be interested in a video-based course that Glen Feechan of Feechan Consulting Ltd and I have built.

It's all about how to put together and work with a basic pivot table.

Please click on the title of this post to learn more about the course.


Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Marketing wisdom from Dan Bradbury

Reading Dan Bradbury's newsletter today, I spotted a simile which made me laugh.

He was talking about the importance of identifying your target market.

"It doesn't matter if you have the best dog food in the world, if you try and sell it to cat owners, you're going to go broke, and fast!"

Similes are always great for making your listeners - or readers - grasp a point, particularly if they raise a laugh as well.

Thanks Dan.


Tuesday, 6 January 2009


I've just had an e-mail purporting to come from HM Revenue, saying I'm due a tax refund.

Fortunately I know that not only is this a recognised scam, but also I spotted that the sender's e-mail address was wrong. The sender was I've used the Revenue's website often enough to know this is not their address.

If anyone else gets one of these e-mails, forward it to DON'T click on the link in the e-mail or give out any of your personal details.

The Revenue make it very clear here that there are e-mail addresses ending even in that are used by scammers.

If you don't know - assume it's a scam.


Is it just the banks?

Time to be controversial here.

Dennis Howlett has posted on his blog about how the banks are cutting his credit facilities. Richard Young responded by saying he's actually being offered MORE credit.

I'm in the same position as Richard. Only yesterday I got a letter from my bank offering me a personal loan.

The letter got filed - in the shredder.

I believe very strongly that debt is a Bad Thing and to be avoided whenever possible. My business doesn't owe anyone a penny. My only personal debt is my mortgage. And I pay my credit card off every month.

OK, apologies for that brief blast of trumpet-blowing. But that does mean that, despite getting made redundant, I'm not in too bad a position to weather the current credit crunch. Touch wood.

Readers of my Cut the Guff e-zine will know that I often don't have much time for spieling salesmen. I overheard one recently recommending to a potential customer that he ditch the day job, take out a bank loan and start up his business full-time.

I had a hard job not to snatch the phone and yell, "NO! Don't do that! Keep your job, don't go into debt, and build up your business slowly!"

And I bet Stefan Topfer would agree with me.


Anyone else wrestled with HM Revenue's website?

As well as making videos, I also do subcontract accounting work.

On this occasion, that meant going on to HM Revenue & Customs' website and trying to find a particular form to fill in.

I typed the form's name into the search function.

What did I get?

Links to the various manuals HM Revenue have written for their inspectors.

Now I know I'm an accountant but that doesn't mean I want to wade through piles of bumpf that the poor inspectors are trying to get their brains round (I've met several Revenue inspectors, and almost without exception they are nice folks - no I'm not being sarky).

I just want some straightforward guidance and a form to download.

But could I find it? Not on your nelly.

The Revenue do "straightforward guidance and a simple form" very nicely for people just starting up in business.

But anything remotely complicated... forget it.

Come on HM Revenue, don't make life more of a maze than it is!

Bet Shaun would agree with me!


Monday, 5 January 2009

Hoist the Blue Peter!

It's official!

My previous employment has finished so I am now self-employed and running my own business. Scary but very exciting!

As part of my new business, I've started an online magazine, or e-zine (hat tip to Glen Feechan for giving me that idea). It's called "Cut the Guff".

One of my absolute pet hates is what the Plain English Campaign call waffle and what I call business guff. It gets right up my nose when people use 10 words where 1 will do. Or when they spend all their time talking management speak like "thinking outside the box", or "singing from the same hymn sheet" but actually do nothing at all.

So I've started a new e-zine absolutely FREE to try and help my readers (that's you) eliminate business guff from YOUR lives!

Please sign up using the form on the right-hand side of this page.

Happy New Year one and all!


Friday, 2 January 2009

My name is not Emma!

Some weeks ago, I had an e-mail reply from someone I'd contacted.

My e-mail was clearly signed off as "Emily Coltman". She sent her reply to "Dear Emma".

Last year I had a query on the video-making product I use, and sent an e-mail to their helpdesk. Their reply came back addressed to "Dear Amy".

What signal did that send me?

That my e-mails hadn't been read properly? Annoying, yes. But there was also the vibe that the person at the other end didn't care enough to make sure they were using the right name, which was particularly worrying in the second case, where I was the customer.

That's bad news, because misspelling or mispronouncing a person's name, or using a nickname they don't like, is something that can really upset them.

My husband's name is Matthew. He gets really wound up if anyone spells his name as "Mathew".

My father's name is David. He's recounted many times how people have been introduced to him with "This is David" and then greeted him with a hearty "Hello, Dave". But he really doesn't like being called Dave!

Using the wrong appellation (good old-fashioned word that) for a person is something that can sour your whole business relationship with them.

But addressing someone as they like to be addressed is a great and very simple way to build mutual respect.

Matt and I bought our first home this year, from a couple at least a generation older than us. We addressed them as Mr and Mrs Thorpe until they gave us permission to use their first names. They appreciated our courtesy and liked us better for doing that, and the mutual respect it helped to generate served all of us well when there were problems with the mortgage lending.

So don't overlook the very simple rule of addressing everyone you deal with as they like to be addressed. And make sure you spell their names right - ask them if you're not sure!



I'm really glad to say that my Mum has now had her operation to fit a mini defibrillator, so if her heart stops again it'll get an automatic bump start.

She's due to go home either later on today or tomorrow.

I'm also now officially running my own business so I'm going to crank up the blog.

Next article coming up...