You may not be familiar with Zoho Books, but if you’re running a small business, you definitely should be. The site assembles the lion’s share of financial tools needed by today’s small businesses; the only piece missing is payroll, which the company plans to start rolling out by the end of 2017. Zoho Books’ usability, flexibility, and depth in standard bookkeeping areas, such as sales and purchases, time- and project-tracking, and inventory management, equal—and sometimes surpass—what is offered by competing websites. Zoho Books also provides more help resources than its rivals, which is critical for accounting solutions: Phone, email, chat, and online documentation are available. Among small business accounting websites, Zoho Books offers an excellent value.
After a 14-day free trial to Zoho Books, you can subscribe to the Basic Plan for $9 per organization per month, which limits you to 50 contacts, one user plus an accountant, and five automated workflows (more on that later). The supported features include invoices, expense-tracking, projects, and timesheets. The Standard plan ($19 per organization per month) gives you higher limits on everything in Basic, and adds bills, vendor credits, and reporting tags features. Professional ($29 per organization per month) offers unlimited contacts and users, and 10 automated workflows per module, in addition to purchase orders, sales orders, and inventory tracking.
There are few areas where Zoho Books doesn’t meet or exceed the standard set by Intuit QuickBooks Online and Xero, but they’re important ones. User-access permissions can’t be established down to the screen and activity level; they’re much broader. Report customization is weaker. And there’s no payroll integration, though the company is working on it. But in every other area—contact and item records, transactions, inventory and project management, customizability (except for reports), automation, and user interface/navigation—it’s at least as good as the best we’ve reviewed.
Generous Import Options
In its setup process, Zoho Books offers the best of both worlds. The site walks you through a series of screens after you create an account, helping you configure your personal settings, and it tells you on every page that you can revisit the settings options later if you prefer. Like its competitors, Zoho Books divides your setup chores into groups of related tasks. First on anyone’s list is your company profile, which includes details like contact information, tax basis, and fiscal year. The site’s customizability becomes evident even on this page, which is normally a cut-and-dried collection of facts: You can define up to five custom fields.
Next, you enter opening balances. And if more than one person will use Zoho Books, you need to set them up as additional users by assigning them to one of three access levels: Admin (can see/do everything), Staff (access to everything except reports, settings, and accountant tools), and TimeSheet Staff (timesheets only). Xero and Intuit QuickBooks Online let you define user permissions down to the screen and activity level, and OneUp allows restrictions by module.
There is little data that you can’t import into Zoho Books. You can download sample files to ensure that your mapping is correct, and then import contacts, item records, and sales/purchase transactions in CSV and a handful of other global formats (the latter feature is unique to Zoho Books among this group of competitors).
Zoho Books’ dashboard is no better or worse than the competition’s; it’s very straightforward and informative. Current and overdue receivables/payables and cash flow appear at the top in both numbers and graphs. Below that is a customizable chart comparing income and expenses, and an accounting of your top expenses. Project(s) status and account balances, with links to transaction registers, round out the screen’s data. You can’t, however, initiate actions from that page, like you can in Xero.
Like QuickBooks Online and unlike Xero, Zoho Books’ user interface takes up the whole screen. It’s exceptionally clean, attractive, and easy to understand, and its layout is similar to those of its competitors. The left vertical pane displays navigation links to Zoho Books’ functional areas: Dashboard, Contacts, Items, Banking, Sales, Purchases, Accountant, Timesheet, and Reports. Some take you straight to a working screen, while others drop down a submenu of options. An effective combination of buttons, drop-down lists, fill-in-the-blank fields, and checkboxes make navigation options quite clear.
Click the small gear icon in the upper-right corner, and a menu opens, displaying links to setup pages for numerous features. These include currencies, taxes, templates, reminders, and automation. There’s also a link to a page that lists all of the built-in integrations that Zoho Books has with other applications (besides its own Zoho CRM, Zoho Expenses, etc.), like Office 365/Outlook, Avalara, Slack, and Square. And there’s a link to Preferences, which you’ll want to visit before starting up your financial operations. Among many other things, you can turn off some of the more advanced modules, specify client portal settings (unusual in this group of sites), create multiple custom fields for almost every type of record and transaction, and establish settings for delivery notes and packing slips (two tools not found on competitors’ sites).
A link to help resources also appears in the upper right part of the screen. QuickBooks Online is very weak here, whereas Zoho Books’ numerous guidance tools at least rival those of Xero.
Zoho Corporation is not a financial services company like Intuit is. It makes integrated productivity applications. Yet it has assembled a set of record templates, transaction forms, and reports that—overall—are better than all of the others we’ve reviewed.
Contacts can be customers or vendors or both, an attribute that Xero shares. Your primary contact details appear at the top of each record, and a tabbed window at the bottom lets you toggle between tax and payment details, address, contact persons, custom fields, reporting tags, and remarks. No other small business accounting sites we’ve looked at lets you create up to 10 custom fields for records, and not one of them supports such thorough profiles for contacts.
Once you’ve built some contact records, you can view each in a window that is, once again, better than Zoho Books’ rivals. Key contact information is displayed on the default screen, as well as numbers and graphs for receivables/payables and income/expenses—kind of a mini-dashboard for each customer. Click the Transactions tab, and you get a list of all transactions with that contact and the status for each. The Recent Activities tab opens a kind of audit trail for the current contact.
Inventory-management capabilities also outshine the competition. Item records contain standard fields (sales and purchase description, rates, and accounts), but you can also create and use units of measure. If you indicate that you want to track inventory, you can complete fields for opening stock, opening stock rate per unit, reorder point, and preferred vendor. Invoices display the number available when you enter an item. You can also easily set up price lists and adjust inventory levels here. No one else in this group of small business accounting sites, with the exception of OneUp, offers all of this, especially with the ease that Zoho Books does.
Transaction Forms and More
Zoho Books offers more transaction types and more flexibility within the forms themselves than anyone else. Beyond the standard sales forms that competitors support, it includes retainer invoices, delivery notes, and packing slips. Invoices contain fields for shipping charges and adjustments in addition to discounts and sales tax. Purchase transactions—expenses, bills, purchase orders, etc.—are similarly detailed and flexible. Like records, transaction forms can contain up to 10 custom fields, which is unique to Zoho Books.
No else at this solution level offers automated workflows like Zoho Books does. This tool has a bit of a learning curve—in fact, it’s fairly complex unless you’ve worked with multi-segment formulas before—but can be quite useful. You could, for example, specify that you want the sales manager to receive an email alert when an estimate amount is changed by more than $250. That’s a simple example—you can create formulas with even more conditions and results.
Project management in Zoho Books is more capable than anyone in this group, with the exception of Kashoo. You can assign projects to customers and select from four types of billing rates (fixed cost, based on task hours, etc.), then assign users and tasks to them. You can also record time entries individually and make them billable, or enter hours worked in a spreadsheet-type format. Xero lacks this feature, though QuickBooks Online is quite capable at time-tracking.
An Excellent Value
Choosing an Editors’ Choice among the small business accounting software we have looked at this year is difficult; there are several good options. They all accommodate growth from within by offering multiple service levels and prices. But at this point, there’s nowhere to go from there when you outgrow the top tier of the solution. Small businesses usually have to work with an accountant to upgrade from a small business application to a midrange one, so export capabilities are important. Zoho Books and QuickBooks Online, among others, have them.
Zoho Books also accommodates a wide variety of business needs. You can use what you need easily without having more advanced features getting in the way. It doesn’t have Xero’s report customization or QuickBooks Online’s vast network of advisors. It’s not free like ZipBooks, and it doesn’t yet offer the integrated payroll options that most competitors have (it will roll out integrated payroll options to Texas and California users first, with others to follow by the end of 2017). In the meantime, users must process their payroll manually or hire a payroll service or accountant.
This year, though, QuickBooks Online earns our Editors’ Choice. It’s not the strongest small business accounting website in absolutely every area, nor the most economical. But its multi-version availability, hundreds of integrated add-ons, usability and customizability, and comprehensive support of the whole range of accounting activities—including an excellent payroll application—make it the best choice for both sole proprietors and complex, growing companies. Add to that an exceptional mobile version, and QuickBooks Online sits atop a group of very formidable competitors.