As an independent consultant, one of the first things you have to figure out is how you’re going to track time and invoice your clients. Unless you’ve really planned this consulting thing out before diving in, spending money on software probably isn’t high on your list of priorities.
You might start off thinking that with all the open source software available today, there must be something out there that does what you want and is still free (or at least within a very small budget). Ultimately, you’ll want a product that will do the following:
- Track time spent on projects
- Create estimates and invoices for your clients
- Track paid and overdue invoices
- Integrate with your business bank account
So you spend a few hours downloading and trying out different freeware and shareware programs, only to find that none of them really do what you want. You also try the Microsoft Access time and billing wizard, but find that it’s not that great either. More than likely, you’ll come to two choices.
The first choice is to bite the bullet and purchase some software that does everything you want. After all, how many hours will you spend designing or fine-tuning some other system, when you could spend that time with clients? Should you choose this route, I highly recommend a product by Intuit, called QuickBooks Premier Professional Services Edition 2004. It currently costs about $380 and is well worth the cost. The second choice is to use existing tools and/or develop your own custom solution. Should you choose this option, I recommend Outlook Journal for time tracking.
Tracking time with Journal
While Journal can be used to automatically track your time spent sending e-mails to contacts and working with Office documents, its true power lies in its ability to be customized. For instance, when you open a Journal entry, you will notice a button labeled Categories.... By default, there are several useless items listed here. Clicking on Master Category List... allows you to customize this list to any number of categories. Use this list to keep track of clients, projects, administrative tasks, or any other category that you can think of to track. Examples may include:
- ABC Company
- XYZ, Inc.
- 123 Ltd. – Active Directory Project
- Marketing Efforts
There’s also a separate Company field you can use if you prefer to organize categories by projects or types of work being done.
If you’re the type of consultant who spends all day at the computer, you may also find the Timer feature quite handy. With the click of a button, you start tracking time for whatever task you’re performing. However, if you’re like me and not always at the computer, you’ll have to remember and enter time information manually. There’s even a Notes field where you can type any additional information or paste pictures.
One last tip in creating Journal entries: Try to use keywords in the subject of your entries, as this will make searching for them later much easier.
Working with Journal data
Now that you have all of your time entered into the Journal, how can you best use this information? Obviously, you want to retrieve billable time so that you can invoice clients, but what about other uses? Have you ever wondered how many billable hours per week you average? What about how many total hours you’ve spent on a particular project? The simplest method of extracting this data is to use Outlook’s views and searching functionality.
There are several prebuilt views included with Journal, and they can all be customized. You can display Journal entries by type, category, contact, etc. The entry list view lets you see all Journal entries in a table format. Click on any field heading to sort entries by that field. Right-click on the field headers to customize the format of the fields, and you can choose exactly which fields are displayed. You can even change the label of the fields being displayed. Once you select the entries you want, you can print only those rows, or you can copy and paste them somewhere else, like an Excel spreadsheet.
If you don’t like manually selecting all the items you want, use the searching capability to find exactly those entries you’re looking for. Right-click on the Journal folder and select Advanced Find.... You can do a basic search by subject or category, or click on the Advanced tab to use virtually any search criteria you want. The results of the search are displayed in table format, similar to the entry list view. Again, you have all the field and formatting options available, so you can create virtually any report you wish.
Now let’s say that you want to integrate this data with other applications, or with a custom application. One way to do this is to export Journal data to a file format such as Access, Excel, Comma-Separated Values, FoxPro, or dBase. You can now configure an ODBC connection to one of these data sources, and your application can extract and manipulate data from there.
The only problem with exporting data is you have to manually export that data constantly to ensure that your application is working with valid data. There are two ways to address this issue. The first is to use a synchronization tool. Visit the Slipstick Systems Web site for a listing of tools that can help you synchronize your data. The second option is to write VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) code to pull data directly from Outlook.
Keeping clients happy
The most important function of any time tracking system is to be able to keep accurate records of your time and to be able to find answers to time management questions quickly and easily. Using Journal as an enterprise-level solution is not feasible, but for a single person or small shop, this cheap alternative provides a lot of flexibility.