QuickBooks 2012: Small-Business Accounting (Almost) Without Tears

I like almost everything about running my own small business. If I didn’t, I’d be in deep trouble: Like most one-person operations, I do almost everything myself.

One of the few things I don’t particularly enjoy is accounting. Okay, that’s an understatement. Actually, I dread accounting. I also understand that it’s unavoidable. You can, of course, hire somebody else to handle the job. I did — a savvy, patient CPA who’s worth every penny I pay her.

But even if you’ve got professional help, you’ve got to maintain records, hand them over to your bean-counter in some semblance of order, and understand your company’s financial health well enough to have a semi-intelligent conversation about it.

And for smaller companies like mine, the odds are high that you’ll end up buying and using Intuit’s QuickBooks, the software that defines small-business accounting just as surely as Microsoft Office defines productivity. My accountant didn’t even ask if I was using it: When it came time to do my taxes, she simply told me she’d need a copy of my company’s QuickBooks file. (QuickBooks’ biggest rival, according to Intuit, isn’t even another accounting package — it’s Microsoft Excel and other seat-of-the-pants forms of record-keeping.)

Intuit updates its software every fall, and QuickBooks 2012 time is here. The new Windows version is available as a download starting September 26, and it will be in stores on October 9. The company gave me a sneak peek at the 2012 version, and while there’s nothing radically new, there are quite a few noteworthy improvements — especially for a financephobe like me.

Here are some notes on the QuickBooks 2012 changes I found most appealing.

A Stress-Free Startup Experience

One of the most daunting things about accounting in general and QuickBooks in particular is just getting started. The 2012 version makes the process of setting up your books significantly less scary by reducing the number of questions it asks you up front — from 20 to 40 in previous versions to just three or four in the new edition. This streamlining shows the influence of Mint.com, the wonderful, wonderfully straightforward personal-finance service that Intuit acquired in 2009. (As far as I’m concerned, the more Mint-like QuickBooks becomes in future versions, the better.)

Another feature that speaks to me is a new calendar-based transaction view. I’m erratic enough about documenting my expenses that I like to backtrack and verify that I actually did get around to entering every instance of recurring items such as phone bills. Up until now, I’ve had to run a report to do so. Now I can just click through the calendar to see what I entered and when I entered it.

This feature doesn’t integrate with external calendars such as the ones in Outlook and Google Docs, which is a possible downside for some folks — although I’m just as happy to keep my accounting in one place and my appointments in another.

QuickBooks 2012 does talk to the one program which the vast majority of businesses rely on for number-crunching: Excel. If you export accounting data to Microsoft’s spreadsheet application, then fancy it up with fonts, colors, and other effects, QuickBooks now lets you update the spreadsheet with current data without blowing away the formatting. (The feature works with many Excel options, but not all of them.)

Speaking of reports, pulling up garden-variety ones such as a profit/loss statement has always been easy in QuickBooks. Creating more customized reports is also possible, given enough time, knowledge, and interest, but it isn’t a cakewalk.

Now QuickBooks is calling in some expert help: Other users of QuickBooks. A new feature called Contributed Reports lets anyone upload reports they’ve created and share them with other users. Intuit checks them out to verify that they’re worthy of distribution, puts them in an App Store-like library, and lets you browse them by user rating and popularity.

The Contributed Reports library is starting out with 1,000 reports. If it’s a hit, it could let you benefit from the hard work of fellow businesspeople in similar situations rather than building your own reports from scratch.

A couple of years ago, Intuit introduced a simple Customer Response Management (CRM) service called Customer Manager, which worked with QuickBooks. Just a year later, however, it killed the service.

Now, the concept is back in QuickBooks 2012, which goes beyond accounting and offers basic tools that help small businesses manage customers and prospective customers. You can maintain a list of sales leads, eliminating the temptation to enter them as customers before they actually are customers. You can also attach files such as Word documents and PDFs to any transaction, which should be a handy way to keep track of relevant information — say, the original proposal that led to a sale.

These new features could be the start of something big — it would be neat if they evolved into a full-blown CRM system — but for now, they’re no competition for Salesforce.com. Fortunately for companies that are already running both QuickBooks and Salesforce, Intuit is also introducing an extra-cost option that ties them together.

Versions, Versions…and More Versions!

As always, QuickBooks is not one product but an array of them, aimed at everyone from cash-poor sole proprietorships to booming enterprises that stretch the definition of “small business.” The features I’ve been detailing are part of QuickBooks Pro, a $229.95 Windows package, and Premier, a beefier $399.95 version that’s also available in versions for specific types of businesses, such as contractors and nonprofits.

The Mac version of QuickBooks is also getting a 2012 upgrade, but it’s got a different set of new features. I haven’t dug into the new version, but overall, QuickBooks for Mac is thinner on capabilities. Also, while it has a Mac-style user interface, I find it less approachable than its Windows cousin. (Another downside to the Mac version: There’s a lot of extremely useful advice about using QuickBooks out there, in both online and printed form, but most of it assumes you’re using the Windows edition.)

Then there’s QuickBooks Online, the version that’s available as a browser-based service for a monthly fee. It’s available in five variants, starting at $12.95 a month. Use it, and you can do your accounting on any Internet-connected computer, with all your data stored securely on Intuit’s servers rather than on your own computer’s hard drive. But once again, it’s another incarnation of QuickBooks with its own interface and a different set of features.

I own a bunch of computers. I like not having to remember which one my accounting data is stored on. And I love the idea that Intuit is responsible for keeping multiple backups of all my past and present accounting data so that I don’t have to. So my dream version of QuickBooks doesn’t quite exist yet: It would be QuickBooks Online — but with everything in the Windows versions of QuickBooks 2012, including the new stuff. And it would reflect even more of a Mint-like dedication to shielding people like me from as much of the complexity of accounting as possible.

For now, Intuit seems content to let the Windows desktop-software versions of QuickBooks continue to boast the most bountiful collection of features. But as more and more small businesses get more and more comfortable with using cloud-based services such as QuickBooks Online, I’m hoping that the company will come to see QuickBooks Online as its flagship product — and that we cloud-computing fans won’t have any reason to envy those who choose to do their accounting using good old-fashioned Windows software.