Expenses, invoices, tax returns: all words that can put the fear of God into most, or act as an instant cure for insomnia. If this applies to you, then Crunch could be the online service you've been waiting for. It's an online accounting package that looks to take away the pain of dealing with basic accounting and does so in a simple to use yet sophisticated fashion. As it is web-based, there's no client software to download, install or update, making it hassle-free. Furthermore, security is ensured through use of 256-bit SSL encryption.
It's not just a faceless online service however. Behind the website, there's an actual team of accountants working at Crunch and, depending on the package you're using, you can get assistance and even advice. Crunch's CEO refers to this merging of online and personal interactivity as the next step beyond Software as a Service dubbing it as HaS - Humans and Software. Well, it might catch on.
Crunch has been around for a couple of years (since April 2009), but we're reviewing it now as it recently launched a free starter version, ideal for one man/woman-bands. It's also added a top-tier Max package, making it suitable for growing businesses of up to four directors and four shareholders.
By offering a free, entry-level account after establishing the company, Crunch has taken a refreshing reversal of the usual start-up approach of getting punters through the door and then trying to monetise them. Instead, Crunch's business model was based on building up a solid collection of paying customers first, then attracting heavy investors. If you're only looking to dip your toes into the online accountancy waters this is a boon, as you don't have to worry about the service disappearing overnight.
While the free version is perfect for single traders, to use the service you do need to be set up as a limited company - it's not open to sole traders. However, in keeping with the Crunch philosophy, its website will take you to a sister company that will let you set up and create a limited company in 'a matter of hours' for just £4.50. Once you're past that hurdle, you can then log in and provide your company details to set yourself up on the system.
There are four levels of service available: Free, Solo, Complete and Max. The completely free version will let small businesses, contractors and freelancers generate and send invoices and record expenses. You can even take pictures of your receipts and upload them to your account for storage - (bye-bye shoe box). It will work out your tax liabilities in real-time, generate on-the-fly balance sheets and work out your profit and loss figures. So, when it's time to fill in that dreaded tax return, all the information is there for you.
If you cough up for the Solo version, at £9.50 a month, a key benefit is being able to use an iPhone or Android app to take photos of receipts and upload them to Crunch - though only up to 10 a month. (Note the app is called Snap, not Crunch). A pay-as-you-snap bundle is due to be added for those uploading more than this. Once the receipts are uploaded they are analysed by a person, processed within 24 hours and all the details entered into your account for you.
The most popular service is Crunch Complete, where Crunch becomes your official accountant. At this point, you are able to get unlimited access to a personal accountant who will answer any tax or accounting queries. They will become your official agent with the HMRC and critically takes responsibility for filing your tax return, saving you from what is in our experience one of the biggest headaches of the year. Quarterly VAT returns will also be generated, checked and filed on your behalf and if you have employees you can generate salary slips.
The web-based interface makes it easy to create clients and invoices.
The maximum number of employees for Complete is five, so if you have between six and 10 you'll require the Max package, which costs £89.50 a month. The limit here is four directors and four shareholders. What you also get over Complete are twice-yearly health checks from your dedicated accountant who will look at the state of your business, looking in detail at things such as profit margins and cash flow. You also get full Skype support and LogMeIn guidance.
A core feature of Crunch at all levels is Bank Reconciliation, where you manually upload your bank statement in CSV format and the system automatically tallies it with all the details that you've entered into your Crunch account. If you've ever had to sift through a statement with a highlighter pen, you'll know that this is the future. Taking it a step further, Crunch is looking to implement this step completely automatically. However, this requires a direct connection into your bank account, which naturally the banks are reluctant to allow. However, Crunch says it's working on it. As it stands, this feature is only available for customers of the private bank Cater Allen. It's currently trialling it with HSBC and other banks are set to follow, but there are no specifics on timescales.
You can create smart professional looking invoices with a company logo.
In use, Crunch is impressive from the off. When you log in you'll find a simple, logical straightforward interface. It's easy to create an invoice and once you've created a client entry you can simply select it again from the drop-down box. There's also a thoughtful amount of flexibility built-in. For example, you can allocate an invoice payment to reduce or clear another outstanding invoice. If you're not sure of what to enter in certain places, there are helpful question marks with rollover definitions. Overall, you'd be hard-pressed to go wrong. The interface even works well on an iPad. You do need to pay attention though. At one point, instead of downloading an invoice to view the PDF, we accidentally clicked Send and promptly emailed it off to a client. No harm was done in the end, but an interim stage here would have been welcome.
A dashboard view shows you at a glance the status of invoices (draft/outstanding/overdue) and a simple graph will show how your sales have been doing over the past few months. Creating expenses is similar, and we liked how the graph displays a diagram that breaks expenses down into types, so you can quickly see where you've been spending your money. You can also easily see how Sales and Expenses compare, thanks to a comparison graph on the Home tab.
The Dashboard view gives you an overview of your sales and expenses in a single glance.
Overall, the 'at a glance' view of how your company is doing, in terms of money in and money out, is spot on; giving you a snapshot of your business world without flooding you with too much detail. It presents a clear window on your finances that you wouldn't necessarily get from an accountant down the end of a phone. What's more, the fact that you can see your tax liability at any time means that you're far less likely to have any surprises come the time to submit the tax return.
During our time with Crunch, we were in contact with its advisors several times and found them to be responsive, professional and helpful on email and on the phone. If you do want to get into the nitty-gritty, or have questions, it's a boon to be able to contact a real live accountant, assuming you are at least subscribed to the Complete package. While £59.50 a month is a proper investment, what's on offer from Crunch is hard to argue with. If you're paying for an accountant already it still equates to a good value service over the course of a year.
Crunch is a slick online accounting service that caters well for small businesses, and has some scope for those looking to scale up. We were impressed with its clear, web-based interface, and its receipt scanning Snap app is a real draw for paying customers. Overall, the service was slick enough to make invoicing and expenses painless - and in a bizarre way, almost fun. Whether you're comfortable with your figures or not, Crunch is worth taking a look at.
Update: Crunch Accounting has added multi-currency support to its services. Since the review was originally published, more features have been added to the product. Crunch now supports Euros, US Dollars, Canadian Dollars, and Australian Dollars, enabling users to record which currency an invoice is going to be paid in and to track its value to the end of the payment terms. Very handy indeed. What's more, the upgrade is live in all of Crunch Accounting's packages, even the free option.
Update, 25 April 2013: There is now only ONE fixed monthly package, rather than a range of packages for different customer needs. The costing is: The accountant and software service from Crunch Accounting is available for a fixed monthly fee of £59.50. For this, users can invoice, add expenses, have their annual accounts and returns prepared and see the exact health of their businesses instantly with a simple-to-use website with banking grade security.