Marvelous mashups

* Software applications working together

Hannibal Smith (played suavely by George Peppard) on the A-Team said, "I love it when a plan comes together." I love it when software works together to make a job easier. The classic example, Microsoft Office, allows you to pull spreadsheet data into Word and the like. Coordinated software doesn't appear often, and almost never between companies. So say hello to Freshbooks invoicing and its new partnership with Basecamp project management and collaboration software.

Both products fall into the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) category so you can work from any Internet-connected computer with a browser. Let's put this announcement into perspective a bit.

The MarketCircle company makes Daylite3 and Billings2 (no, that's not a baseball score). I talked about Daylite3 in my newsletter about the Macintosh Surge on March 15. One company, two products, and the big news for Billings2 is integration with Daylite3. I'm not laughing at MarketCircle because few companies have made this type of connection between their products, which is why Daylite plus Billings rates some attention. But when getting two products to work together is news when both are controlled by the same corporate management, you can appreciate what was involved for Freshbooks and Basecamp to get their products connected.

Billings2 pulls contact and activity information from Daylite3 to create invoices, but realistically a project management application generates better work data for accounting. I'm guessing MarketCircle will put a few more time tracking functions inside Daylite4 to make this pair of applications dance together even better.

Basecamp appeared early on the SaaS scene in the first wave of hosted business applications. Now that distributed workforces mean cubicle farms can stretch across the country, a hosted option for project management makes sense. If your company develops software you may never have all your programmers in one place at one time, so you know the good and bad sides of distributed workforces. Unless distant employees and contractors work hard to communicate their project status and time spent, billing totals slip.

Enter Freshbooks, the earliest hosted invoicing program I know of (I hesitate to say they were first, but they may have been). But invoices only contain details provided by workers or their management, meaning error-prone coworkers will mess up your invoicing. When Accounts Receivable people can go yell at project management people for project status, most of the billable hours appear on proper invoices. But how can you personally threaten, er, cajole workers three states over?

When all works properly, hours spent on projects by every employee reported through Basecamp will automatically appear inside Freshbooks. Coordinating project codes and employee numbers to invoice categories will take some time, but at least once you get those organized things will work. Up to now, you could organize all your projects, employees, and invoicing but still have to manually convert project management reports into billing information. Automating that process increases speed and decreases mistakes. Both goals help your bottom line.

Building a complete modern accounting application online isn't easy, and Freshbooks doesn't attempt that job. But while Intuit's QuickBooks powers many SMBs, the features of its online product lag behind its desktop and server products. I haven't seen any online accounting package incorporate every feature of the corresponding desktop and server based package, but that will happen before long. Starting with good pieces, such as Basecamp and Freshbooks do, will speed the release of a fully featured hosted accounting application.

In the past, accounting software acted as the central point for company information. That always bothered me, because most employees don't relate to accounting codes and debits and credits, they relate to job functions. I hope this Freshbook/Basecamp cooperation leads the way in making project management and collaboration software the center of the back office accounting database.

I reported on another example of the project management application powering the rest of the software train on March 16 in ITWorld's Management Mashup. In that case, FastTrack Schedule 9.1 (project management) coordinates with MindJet brainstorming software from MindManager. While that pairing doesn't help your invoicing process, you can brainstorm some possible solutions, then track the best ones during project development.

Tying project management to invoicing makes great sense to me. And if your employees forget to track their time accurately, as I sometimes forget, another combination makes sense. Start tying hours entered on project tracking software directly to payroll. Hours not billed become hours not paid. That carrot will get employees on the stick.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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