A lot of people ask me about the ‘boring’ part of running a freelance shop, like time tracking, billing, and invoicing. My workflow is very simple, and for the last few years it has depended almost completely on one solid-as-a-rock app: Billings by Marketcircle.
As a nice extra, Marketcircle’s Ryan Cash and Alykhan Jetha were kind enough to allow an interview about Billings to supplement this look at my personal workflow and share some background on the application and great upcoming things for users.
You guys can also win a Billings license – details on that at the end of this article!
I get between 10 and 30 emails per day with people offering me some form of freelance work. Typically, when I am able to accommodate work and manage my inbox (which is a real challenge lately!) I interview them a bit about the work and then launch Billings to make a nice-looking formal estimate. I simply estimate my working hours on the project and multiply this by my hourly rate. I then send this along with my standard contract template for the client to review.
See what happened there? Here’s how it would be for me without Billings: once I get the details, I proceed to use Pages to cut and paste into a document template, use Spotlight’s calculator to get the numbers right, and then review it a few times to make sure everything is in order. I then use the Share to email feature to – oh wait – the new client is not yet in the address book. Alright. I export it to my drive, make a reply to the client, and attach it to that email…
You can notice how even for the very beginning of the workflow, Billings pays for itself. Once on the job, I use the nicely designed menubar-resident timer to clock my hours. After I got the job done, I stop the timer (which can also be set to stop once it detects the system is fully idle – we’ve all got our stupid moments every now and then) and then immediately send the invoice through Billings, which after composing the invoice lets me drag the final deliverables into the email in Mail.app as well.
Sounds like nothing special, right? It’s just the way this basic functionality works and feels that makes me feel so content with this application. Although I must admit there’s a lot more to Billings, though; for accounting, I sometimes use its expansive automated report tools, which lets you export gorgeous PDF reports of unpaid invoices, open projects, overviews of billed hours and collected fees, and so forth. Truly, it’s worth downloading the application just to check out these powerful reporting tools, as it gives you a feeling of being on top of the world.
Of course I’m critical about an application I use on a daily basis. The one feature I have wanted for a long time, and wrote Marketcircle about quite a while back, is the possibility to having a server / client architecture, so me and my team members can share our slips and project details on a central server machine. Right now, I only use Billings on my Mac Pro, since I can’t be bothered to migrate all the data to my laptop and keep it in sync. You can export slips as an option to share projects between machines, but I just wanted it to work transparently. Fortunately, his should be a thing of the past once the iPhone application is out, since that negates my need for such an architecture. All in all, it’s simply a great solution!
An interview with Alykhan Jetha
Alykhan is Marketcircle’s president and CEO and was kind enough to answer a few questions for the blog post:
Sebastiaan: Billings seems like a perfect fit for just about any freelancer. Do all the people involved with its development have a background in freelancing, or did you have a very experienced testing group? How did you tune the application to the needs and flow of freelancers so well, where others seem awkward?
Alykhan Jetha: I think most of us if not all of us involved during the inception of the project did some kind of freelance work beforehand. We all experienced the frustration of making invoices and tracking billable time using other apps (both Windows and Mac, expensive and reasonably priced). A lot of those frustrations contributed to the creation of the Billings workflow. The workflow you see today came about after a lot of debates and many, many heated discussions. We wanted something simple and easy to work with, but had enough power to handle the things we ran into. We had a few mockups – some with 4 or 5 panes (areas) in the main window. Finally we settled on a 3 pane layout (which is what you see today). I voted for the 4 pane system, but luckily, I got argued out and the simpler 3 pane system prevailed.
S: Could you tell us a bit about the evolution of Billings? Many people, like myself, have picked up Billings with version 2. What were its origins, and what was the inspiration to make it in the first place?
: Aside from “easy workflow”, one of the key objectives I set for Billings 1.0 in 2005 was “great looking invoices”. The quality of invoices put out by most apps at that time was simply horrid. Yet invoices are one of the most important documents that you hand the customer because those are the documents that request payment. To achieve this, we used a Python based PDF report engine. It worked alright, but it was impossible to customize. After we shipped, we got a bunch of requests to customize the invoices. We took a look at those great invoices (mostly made in InDesign or Illustrator) and tried to reproduce them. It was impossible. Still wanting to produce “great looking invoices”, I set out to create our own report/layout engine. I thought “this can’t be that hard… I’ll have something in 2 weeks.”
Boy, was I wrong. It took me 9 months! In the meantime, I kept getting fantastic looking invoices from people. Three of those invoices caused complete redesigns of the engine. The engine first shipped in Daylite 3, but it began its life in Billings 1. The exact same engine is in both applications.
So now that we had the engine, we had to redo the invoice/estimate creation workflow as well as create some great looking invoices that people could actually modify to a high degree. We did that and we shipped Billings 2 as a free upgrade. We showed off Billings 2 at Macworld ‘07. People were amazed, but we got a lot of comments that the main window UI looked a bit dated and didn’t match the modern invoices. So we got back to work and redid the main window for Billings 2.5 – which we shipped a few months later (once again as a free upgrade). That’s when sales of Billings started to take off and we got various awards (Business Software of the Year, Macworld Eddy and a few others).
S: How many people work on Billings nowadays?
AJ: We have dynamic teams here at Marketcircle. Sometimes it can be as low as 1 person on the team to as high as 14. The team bulks up when we get close to a release or when we fall behind a bit. Right now we have about 4 engineers on the team and it will go up to 8 soon.
S: Billings is amazingly well-designed. Does the well-known Marketcircle designer Brandon Walkin do all the design work, or are there more designers involved?
: Design is a pretty iterative process here. Once the product direction is set, the lead designer generates concepts in the form of wireframes and then fleshes them out into pixel perfect Photoshop mockups. Engineering then gets involved to see if the ideas are actually feasible within a given timeframe and if not, we refine and go through the process again. From there it can go back and forth.
Adam Baker, our previous lead designer, was responsible for the design of Billings 1, 2 and 2.5. Brandon took over as design lead and is responsible for Billings 3 and the upcoming Billings app for the iPhone.
S: Are there any anecdotes to tell? Have there been very funny or troublesome moments related to the application in the lifetime of Billings?
AJ: As I’m sure you’re aware, developing applications is full of trials and tribulations. In the life of Billings, there are two interesting anecdotes that come to mind. The first one when we doubted the whole workflow we came up with (which took a long time) and stopped development for number of painful weeks and reconsidered the whole workflow. At the end of that traumatic process, we came to the conclusion that the workflow we had was the best one – with some minor tweaks. The other anecdote was the report engine saga I mentioned earlier.
S: We know there will eventually be an iPhone version of Billings, which we are all very eager to see, of course. Can you disclose any information about this? How about a little teaser? :)
AJ: Well, I can say this much. The four engineers I mentioned above are currently working on Billings Touch. We’re releasing it this year and we’re all very excited about it.
S: Thanks for your time! I just want to express my gratitude to you and the team for delivering such a great product that truly empowers freelancers and impresses my PC-using colleagues whenever I show it.
AJ: Thank you! Over the years, we’ve put countless hours into making Billings the best solution out there so I’m very pleased to hear that you like it. And since you like Japanese culture, I should point out that Billings is also available in Japanese (and Dutch). Thanks for having me!
I hope this answers all of your questions about my mon(k)ey business; if you have more, drop them in the comments! I am sure Marketcircle will also keep an eye on them if they have any time to spare.
If you are interested after reading all this, Billings is available for a mere $39.99 (normally $59) during Marketcircle’s ‘Main Street Sale’.
Contest details: If you want to enter in the Billings license giveaway, it’s quite simple. Either (re-) tweet the link to this post or post on your blog about it. You can also comment in this article to enter. Make sure that your contact information is easy to find (not applicable on twitter). Of course, people who post on their blogs get quite a bit higher odds to win than simple commenters, but the winner will be drawn in a completely random fashion. Edit: Marketcircle was kind enough to give out two licenses, so your chances have just doubled. Good luck!
Entries through Twitter, blogs, and comments will be counted until 6 PM (GMT+1), May 13th. Deadline was extended due to power outage.