Business notes: Working with a virtual accountant

My fiscal year-end is September 30, which means I don’t have to compete with all the individuals and sole proprietors for accountants’ attention. It’s still a few months away, but I want to make sure that I’m keeping books in a way that will make it straightforward to file taxes.

Using the oDesk freelancing service, I advertised a part-time contract for a bookkeeping/accounting advisor who could help me learn how to manage my books – not necessarily do the data entry, but helping me structure the accounts and learn how to file properly. This was the job post:

I’m looking for part-time help getting started with Quickbooks (Canadian version). This is my first year of business, and my federal corporation’s year-end is September 30. I am currently in IT consulting, but may add e-book sales over the next year.

I need help:

  • Correctly setting up my Quickbooks files
  • Learning how to enter transactions properly (notes, phone calls, or screennsharing)
  • Reviewing transactions, perhaps on a quarterly basis
  • Answering questions during occasional consultation sessions
  • Getting things ready for taxes

I will mostly send questions by e-mail. We can also set up time to talk on the phone or Skype, and we can find ways to share the screen so that you can see what I’m doing or vice versa.

Only applicants who can work with Quickbooks Pro 2012 (Canadian version) will be considered. If you can work with that and have your own licensed version, please start your reply with “Yes”.

Looking forward to working with you!

I received 18 applications, many overseas. Because I wanted someone who could give me both accounting and bookkeeping advice for a federally-incorporated company based in Ontario, I focused on people who were local. I interviewed three people over e-mail and the phone. I picked one from Dunnville, Ontario, which is about 120km away from Toronto, or two hours by car. She offered to set up face-to-face meetings, but I’m comfortable working online, so we decided to skip that. (I might meet up with her if she happens to be in town for other things, though!)

I shared my Quickbooks files and scanned receipts with her through Dropbox. She reviewed the file and sent me her notes. I replied, updated my Quickbooks file with her suggestions, and asked a few questions of my own. She sent me more answers and notes. I’ve just updated my file and sent her more notes, and I’ll probably get a reply next week. For example, we fixed some errors in my Chart of Accounts, and she told me how I could file the computer hardware and software as fixed assets in order to make the depreciation calculations easier.

The arrangement works really well for me–probably much better than a face-to-face accounting/bookkeeper relationship would. I’m fine with scanning receipts and organizing electronic invoices myself. I don’t want to just show up at the end of the year with a box full of receipts. I like learning about Quickbooks and being able to ask questions knowing that the answers will be specific to my location and applicable tax laws. My accountant suggests things that I might have otherwise missed. This is good.

I can grow my business slowly, which is handy. For the first fiscal year, for example, I can avoid having anything to do with payroll or dividends if I don’t take any money out or hire people as employees. I can ease into that over the next few years, as I get the hang of things. I registered for HST so I didn’t have to worry about messing around with the paperwork once I reached the threshold of $30k earnings. It was easier for me to collect HST from the start.

Because she tracks her time using oDesk, I don’t feel guilty about asking lots of questions. oDesk also captures screenshots, so I can get a peek into how she works. It’s a pretty good setup. I could probably get free or paid advice from a face-to-face person, but I’d feel guilty about wringing out lots of free advice, and I’d probably have to batch up my questions more for paid in-person or on-the-phone advice if we didn’t have this fine-grained tracking and payment system.

I’m learning about business finance at a manageable pace, and I like it. If you’re starting out in business and you like numbers, I’d recommend hiring a bookkeeper/accountant whom you can ask lots of questions, too.

  • Carl Bolduc

    Do you like Quickbooks? Is it overkill for personnal finances?

  • Carl: Quickbooks is definitely a business finance program. I wouldn’t use it for personal finances. For my own budgeting, I use John Wiegley’s Ledger, which is super-geeky. Other people like Quicken or things like that.

  • Sacha, have you considered using Wiegley’s ledger for your business stuff as well as personal? Depending on how complex your business finances get, you would definitely have to extend ledger’s functionality. For example, I don’t think it has any obvious mechanism for handling accounts receivable as invoices age. But at least ledger *is* extensible. With QuickBooks, you take what you get and there’s not much more not be said. And if you ever think about handling multi-currencies, QB is just a pain to use (even the versions that can ostensibly handle multiple currencies).

    I wouldn’t remotely recommend this option to anyone but an ueber coder like yourself, but with the way you throw emacs etc around, if anyone can push ledger in a business direction it’s you. I Googled but can’t find it, but I’m sure I recall some folks at a linux magazine talking about doing this very thing, so it may already be underway. Another lead if this is sufficiently shiny to catch your interest is Simon Michael, the hledger maintainer, here:

  • Conor

    Business owners, especially the small ones, find it hard to hire a bookkeeper because it is quite expensive. Most of them do it by themselves, and others, outsource this kind of service.
    Hiring someone offshore makes it a lot harder to monitor your employee’s work. That’s why I also recommend that you hire someone from odesk or (if you want to hire a full time employee). Because these kind of job sites help you set up an employee monitoring software. It records the hours worked, sites visited while working and take screenshots of the staff’s computer screen. It will surely give you an assurance that your employee is working on the job he is paid to do.

  • Tommy: Oh, if I could only find an accountant who’ll be fine with Ledger…

    Conor: Yeah, I like the way oDesk lets me take a look at what people are doing. Not that I’m micromanaging people or I don’t trust them – it’s more that I’m curious about how people work. =)

  • Sacha – you might want to look at using ‘xero’ instead of quickbooks – I find the results are much better & allow VAs to do work on it much easier. You can also use a pretty little app from your iphone to upload receipts etc automaticly.

  • That actually works out to be more expensive than Quickbooks Pro, assuming I use the boxed software for at least a year. I don’t mind doing my own book-keeping for now, or coordinating with a virtual bookkeeper over Dropbox. =)

  • hmm – I guess so – but it does auto-sync with your bank account, so you don’t need to put any values into it & you can see what invoices are left to be paid.

  • Quickbooks Pro does that too, which is nice, and I trust it a bit more in terms of Canadian fiddliness. =)

    I have a nifty Emacs Lisp script that parses my credit card statement and creates Ledger entries, so my personal records are sorted out too.

    I’m glad you found something that works for you, though!