Introduction & Background
Free Agent Central is a UK based business with a product offering called Free Agent that is intended for freelancers, contractors and service based businesses. Their application has been publicly available since June 2007.
Along with the obligatory free 30 day trial, Free Agent has both UK specific and international versions as details below. The UK version has country specific taxation functions while the international version is more vanilla and not tailored to specific tax and payroll rules.
The user experience
Free Agent is as Web 2.0 as it comes. One doesn’t feel for a second like it’s an installed app hastily converted to run on the web – it’s been designed from the ground up as SaaS. Their interface is intuitive, friendly and everything is obviously in its place
The basic functionality
Free Agent is a complete double-entry accounting application. It’s outside the realm of this review to detail the double-entry vs single-entry difference however suffice it to say that double-entry means that your accountant will be happy, while single-entry only gives them half of the information they need.
Below is an example of a profit and loss taken straight from Free Agent.
Like most SaaS business applications, Free Agent has a dashboard view. Free Agent’s is customisable to the user’s preference and needs. The dashboard is where Free Agent expects customers to come on a daily basis to see where their business is tracking. Not only can users chose which Free Agent modules show in the dashboard, but they can move them around within the window to best suite their workflow.
Free Agent allows for the upload of Bank statements which can then be reconciled within Free Agent. As would be expected of an application of its pedigree, Free Agent "learns" so that, for an example after a transaction has been coded to bank fees, it will suggest the same option for further transactions with similar attributes.
Currently Free Agent is available in a UK version, which includes full compliance with company taxes, VAT and the like and also as an International version that is generic for non-UK businesses. I’m not UK based and have no experience with their taxation system but others have complemented Free Agent on their UK specific functions.
Users can invite their advisers into their instance of Free Agent, thus allowing for real-time, two way and transparent collaboration between businesses and their advisers.
Free Agent, in keeping with it’s contractor focus, is strong on time management, invoicing and expenses reimbursement – their functionality here is entirely what you would expect of a best-of-breed accounting application.
Free Agent, while doing a good job of the A/R functions, was until very recently quite limited in terms of A/P. They have just launched support for "bills" making themselves completely A/P compliant.
There is also no budgeting function – while budgeting tends to be the bane of SMBs existence, it is an important function – if only for reports and projections for potential funders – again this is a fairly large part of an accounting application missing from Free Agent. Free Agent tell me that they’re planning on introducing Cashflow Forecasting in the near future and that this will be based on projected sales (recurring and draft invoices), bills and historical spending patterns (recurring expenses), and will include tax calculations for the UK specific version.
The value adds
Cloud calendar alerts – Free Agent allows users to subscribe Outlook and Google calendar. This function automatically populates the respective calendar with the information contained in Free Agent – for example invoices payable, tax due dates, companies office filing dates. As would be expected of a cloud based offering, these entries are dynamically updated as information in Free Agent changes so, for example, a calendar entry informing the user of a VAT payment due will be updated as sales figures change
Tax advice – FAC have included tax tips into their blog. From the perspective of building up an ecosystem this is great – but it would be even better if that ecosystem hovered around the application itself, rather than elsewhere.
Leveraging the Community – Free Agent Central see their offering as not only an individual’s accounting application, but a community location. As such they have some ideas about aggregating information for contractors. Things they’re toying with include aggregating available freelance jobs based on your existing project timelines and core skills.
Broadening device reach – Features on the horizon include such timesavers as the ability to email in receipts and have them populated to expense claims, SMS time sheet integration and automatic bank feeds – all of these things will greatly improve the attractiveness of the Free Agent offering.
The security issue
APIs – connecting the dots
Free Agent currently has Timepost, an integration which works with their API for time tracking. They tell me that in the next couple of weeks another third-party API developer will be releasing a desktop app focused on getting scanned bills and receipts into FreeAgent.
The API itself is currently focused on Contact/Project/Invoice/Expense/Time aspects. It’ll soon be extended to include Bank Data and, very importantly, accounting data access.
Free Agent knows what it is, and more importantly what it isn’t. It’s a product that is clearly targeting the very small operations, businesses with 1 – 3 people inside them and who are time and resource constrained. Some of the functionality due to be rolled out in the next few months looks set to save a bunch of time for SMBs and should increase customer numbers. There are always questions about applications that have significant regional differences in their customer base – Free Agent takes the approach of offering a cut-down version outside of their home market – given the regional specificity of accounting I would think this is a mistake and that they should focus on getting the application nailed for one or two jurisdictions first before going international – time will tell what success Free Agent enjoys outside of their home market.
Also check out this video recently filmed at the Future of Web Apps conference by Dennis Howlett. In it CTO of Free Agent Central Olly Headley discusses "where to from here" for the company;
Accounting 2.0 at CloudAve
In an ongoing series of reviews and analysis pieces, CloudAve will be taking a deep look into accounting software for the new world.
See the other posts below;