Recent Posts

My (very positive) experience with Amex Refund Protection

One of the lesser-known benefits of some American Express cards is Refund Protection. It’s not so well known because it’s only given a scarce mention in their marketing alongside (in my opinion) mostly worthless benefits such as travel inconvenience insurance.

Background

A bit of background: credit card issuers in the UK are required to provide consumers with two means to resolve disputes with merchants: chargeback, a feature provided by Visa/MC and Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. Both, and American Express’s voluntary implementation of Section 75 for charge cards, which are not provided for in the Act, are extremely useful in limited circumstances, such as when you purchase something that isn’t delivered and the seller is unresponsive, or when the seller goes bust just after you’ve placed an order with them.

Refund Protection is in addition to this. It gives you 30 days to arbitrarily decide that you don’t want something (i.e. buyer’s remorse) and, if the seller refuses to take it back, the insurer will reimburse you.

What Happened

I recently purchased some headphones from Argos at a price of £270. The moment I tried them out, I realised the sound was more like that of £50 headphones. With a 14-day moneyback guarantee plastered all over Argos’s website, till receipt and stores, I assumed I was in the clear. I took it back to Argos only to find that the guarantee is void once the shrink-wrapping has been removed, rendering is mostly worthless. The manager had clearly heard it all before and rather than discussing it with me and trying to help at least a bit, she just stormed off in a strop.

This really annoyed me because I had chosen to buy the item from Argos because of this guarantee. Had I known the treatment I’d get, I would have bought it from Amazon, saved myself a small amount of money, the time spent arguing with an overgrown teenager and had the opportunity to return the item.

I debated taking it to another Argos store and trying a bit harder, maybe suggesting that the poor sound could be indicative of a fault but I decided to try Amex’s Refund Protection.

Using the Service

The insurance is administered/underwritten by Chubb. Finding the online form meant digging through the card’s Terms. Once I found it though, it only took about 5 minutes to complete and I was surprised that there wasn’t a long list of exclusions and limitations or an onerous form. I received a call from Chubb a couple of days later in which they told me that I couldn’t keep the item, so I should return it to a charity shop (!) and fill out a very brief declaration that I’d given the item to a charity shop. Again, all very easy and the British Heart Foundation gained a nice donation.

I actually debated going back to the BHF shop to buy the item back, guessing they’d sell it for £25-50 an

d at that price, I’d have been happy to keep them. I decided against this, too, though.

About a week after filling in the very short declaration, the whole amount was back in my bank account.

Conclusion

I got messed around by a big company and a bigger company sorted it out for me. I probably won’t buy from Argos again because none of this would have happened if I’d bought from Amazon. This lesser-known benefit saved me £270, roughly double the annual fee for my Preferred Rewards Gold card.

My 2019 financial reshuffle 2/2: Virgin Atlantic credit card, Curve and Founders Card

Curve and Virgin Reward+ (again)

Just after I posted the first part of my financial reshuffle, Curve launched Amex support, I applied for one of their metal cards, that came with unlimited free Amex spend (and a much higher maximum £1.4m annual spend limit), and Amex terminated Curve’s MSA, pulling Amex support from Curve.

It all happened very quickly but, having missed a few good opportunities, I decided to jump in quickly on this one, and now I’m stuck with Curve metal card that looks and feels really nice but isn’t much use to me.

New Curve metal card

I have 28 days to claim a refund so my plan is to try to get to get a much spend on it as possible within that time, to reassure myself that I won’t get stuck at an annual spend limit. Assuming that happens, I’ll keep it.

The funny thing is, metal cards are quite common among high-fee, high-income reward cards in the US, but in the UK, the only metal cards I’m aware of are the Amex Centurion, N26, Revolut and Curve. In other words, 3 out of the 4 metal cards in the UK are basically pre-paid debit cards open to anyone. How’s that for prestige?!

It’s not that easy, though. no sooner had I cancelled my Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Credit Card that Curve brought out this new product that is literally game-changing for anyone with large tax bills. Because of that, I actually re-applied for the Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Credit Card. Reading the fine-print carefully, I should be eligible for the current 25k miles signup bonus again. The product’s been out less than a year so I guess the possibility for churn hasn’t registered yet… I also got a higher limit second time around.

Founders Card

Speaking of pointless metal cards, I took out a  Founderscard some time ago (I don’t know why they given out cards).

Founders Card

Given how many of the best offers were restricted to the US, I wasn’t sure if I’d keep it, but I’ve recently had a lot of good value out of it:

  • Total Rewards (Caesars) Diamond Elite status was immensely valuable in Vegas and as far as I know, this is the only way to get it in the UK. I also managed to get a status match from Caesars in the UK – the benefits are relatively modest but still nice to have.
  • Stripe became a Founders Card benefit in the US and, shortly after, in the UK as well. The £15,000 in free processing from Stripe combined with the £30,000 in free processing I have in a legacy Braintree account have opened up the possibility of ditching Worldpay for a more modern solution and saving money at the same time.
  • It was time to replace my 2017 Macbook Pro and after perusing the offers on Founders Card, I realised that I could get a very good Lenovo laptop for very good price as long as I could arrange for it to be shipped to the USA and forwarded on from there. It was a bit of a debacle but I saved several hundred pounds, even after all of the extra costs involved in forwarding it.
  • I’ve had a couple of free business lounge visits, discounts at Namecheap, Moo and others. These aren’t worth a lot but still nice to have.

All in all, I have saved a lot compared to the annual fee, both in business and personal expenses. I am also really looking forward to the London event as a place to meet likeminded business owners in a relaxed setting.

My 2019 financial reshuffle 1/2: Virgin Atlantic credit card, Curve and Natwest

Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve very successfully collected a lot of airline miles, without changing my spending habits. In fact, In principle, anyone can do this, and I’m surprised that so many people I know don’t use a miles or cashback earning card.

However, the landscape has changed in the same period. Most people now have more choice but, big spenders, including small business owners such as myself that expense a lot, may have to accept that very generous rewards were great while they lasted.

Curve

The first victim of my reshuffle is Curve. Curve is a bit like Apple Pay or Google Pay, but with a physical card. You link your cards to it within the Curve app and select the one you want to use, then use the Curve card to pay. Alongside convenience, advantages included:

  • Cash withdrawals would be treated as purchases on credit cards, thus earning you airline miles,
  • Foreign currency spend would be converted by Curve at the Mastercard rate + 1%, saving you about 2% on most cashback or miles earning cards,
  • Curve is technically a debit card, so you could use it without incurring a fee at HMRC, car dealerships and so on, whilst earning miles on your cashback or miles earning credit card.

The first point has changed: without getting into the technicalities, you’re likely to be charged a cash advance fee if you withdraw cash on your Curve card.

The second point has also changed: instead of a flat 1% markup, there is a 0% markup up to a low limit, then 2% thereafter. My back of fag packet calculation suggests that most people will be worse off, with business users such as myself, hardest hit.

The final point hasn’t changed. However, Curve’s “enhanced” annual limits have stayed at £50,000 and they are making it harder to get the enhanced limit, so big spenders will be limited by how much they can use their card.

My maxed out Curve card
My maxed out Curve card!

Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Card

Virgin Atlantic is my long-haul airline of choice and coincidentally, about 9 months ago, they released the most generous miles earning credit card on the market. In fact, it was hard to see how they could possibly make any money from it.

I signed up almost as soon as it was released and I’ve been using it alongside by Amex since then. On paper, it remains an incredible deal but I’ll be cancelling it in about a month because:

  • The customer service is crap. If you send them a message via online banking, you get an ill-considered copy-paste response. Their call centre seems to be located overseas and apart from the agents’ English, their customer service skills also seem to be lacking. I wholeheartedly believe the best way to respond to poor customer service is to walk away.
  • They gave me a relatively low limit and refused to increase it despite a perfect payment history. The limit it below the amount that I charge to it each month, so I have to keep making interim payments to earn the miles, which is a PITA.
  • Because I keep making interim payments, it can be hard to keep track of how much I spend in a statement period and how much I pay off in the same period. Because of this, I’ve been charged interest a couple of times. The amount I was charged was much, much higher than I had expected, and I eventually figured out that even if you only “carry” a balance of £0.01, you’re charged interest on the whole average balance in the statement period.
  • There is no mobile app, Apple Pay or Google Pay.

NatWest

I was waiting for Starling for released their business product for non-micro businesses, but eventually decided that since web-based banking isn’t on their agenda, I’d find an alternative. I chose NatWest, and also took advantage of the £125 bribe they were offering for switching a personal account to them. Generally, I find NatWest’s customer service to be better than Santander’s, and there is a working mobile app for business accounts (yay!). There are a few snags but I’ve decided to put up with them:

  • The card reader. You need to carry around one of these things to make most types of payment:
    NatWest card reader
    NatWest card reader

    It is more secure, but it’s also rather annoying.

  • NatWest limit the amount you can charge to one their debit cards, when paying financial institutions, to £2k. I’m used to paying my Amex off by debit card, with the benefit being that your balance is updated immediately. I now have to pay them by bank transfer.
  • NatWest limit the amount that you can pay by BACS/FPS in a given day to £20k for personal accounts. This is rarely a problem for me, as I’m sure it would be for most people, but I hit a snafu a couple of weeks ago where I had hit the limit and needed to make another payment that day. I called them and it turns out that the same limit applies to payments made by telephone banking and there’s nothing that they can do to increase the limit. Luckily, business accounts have a higher limit and I was able to make the payment I needed from there.
  • NatWest show you very limited information about payments received until the day after they arrive. Say you receive £100 on Monday. You’ll see £100 and you’ll see the reference, but you won’t see the sender’s name until Tuesday. WTF?!

 

Getting Kayako V4 (Classic) to work with PHP7

I bought an owned licence for Kayako V3 around 2006. I paid $500 for a perpetual Kayako “Fusion” licence, which was the licence that included helpdesk and live chat. I also paid a smaller amount, I believe around $150, to be able to whitelabel it.

At the time, it seemed like a lot of money (aside from inflation, I was 15), but it turned out to be one of the best investments I’ve ever made. V4 was released a few years later and Kayako allowed V3 perpetual licence holders to upgrade free of charge.

Nowadays, Kayako is, like most of its competitors, embracing the SaaS model, no doubt because it is much more lucrative. It has renamed V4 to Kayako Classic. They tried to persuade those in the same position as me to upgrade the new Kayako, which is SaaS only, found that most people didn’t want to, and eventually decided to maintain Kayako Classic alongside the new SaaS product but have required perpetual licence holders to move onto a subscription to obtain upgrades, at a price slightly below their core product’s price.

I have no idea what the uptake on this is. I would have guessed it would be very small given how hard it is to persuade a company to give up an perpetual licence in exchange for a subscription, but to be fair to them, they are still developing Kayako Classic and I understand that doesn’t come cheap.

In January 2016, the community requested PHP7 support. I didn’t give it much thought until recently because PHP5.6 is due to become end of life in December. We are avoiding PHP5.6 wherever possible but there are several good reasons to keep Kayako for a little while longer, including that some of its advanced features help us with ISO9001 compliance.

On their forum, Kayako made it sound like PHP7 support would involve major changes, but I wanted to see what was really involved, so I switched out PHP5.6 for PHP7.1* and made a few small tweaks inspired by one forum member’s comments.

It is worth noting at this point that I chose PHP7.1 because the mcrypt PHP module has been deprecated since PHP7.2. It will be moving to PECL but this is something that I wanted to explore separately. That said, PHP7.1 will become end of life in December 2019 and by that time, I would imagine we’d look to replace Kayako anyway.

Changes I Made (take a backup first!)

1. Open __swift/library/Exception/class.SWIFT_Exception.php and look for public function GlobalErrorHandler around line 160. Change the first if statement to:

2. Replace the __swift/thirdparty/adodb5 with the latest release from ADOdb.

3. Inside __swift/thirdparty/adodb5, copy datadict-mysql.inc.php to datadict-mysqli.inc.php

4. Open datadict-mysqli.inc.php and change:

to:

5. Clear your cache by removing everything inside __swift/cache

What Doesn’t Work

We’ve been using this setup for about a week now and I have only encountered one thing that is broken – ticket billing.

This also looks like an easy fix but it’s not something we use.

Conclusion

Remember that your mileage may vary and, it it does, Kayako won’t be there to help you! However, it looks like almost everything works these minor changes.

FoundersCard vs Amex Platinum in the UK

Amex Platinum is fairly well known. It’s a charge card with a high fee that gives you a bunch of mostly travel-related perks. In my view, the card and the perks are separate products. You buy in to an Amex charge card at the Green fee (£60 p.a.) and optionally choose to pay a bit extra for added perks. I previously wrote about how I think the UK Amex Platinum card doesn’t offer good value for money in my opinion.

The market for premium credit cards is getting more crowded all the time. I recently noticed something that stood out, though.

FoundersCard

FoundersCard is a bit like the Platinum Amex offer but without the charge card element. In other words, it’s just a collection of perks for an annual fee. The annual fee, if you are referred by an existing member, is $395 USD.

It’s mainly aimed at the US market, where is sits nicely alongside the US Amex Platinum, Chase Sapphire and others, with a similar annual fee and similar perks. However, because it’s not a credit product, the exact same product is offered internationally. For folks like me in the UK, who are used to companies changing $ signs to £ signs, it means a more competitive offer. However, this must be balanced with the fact that most of the perks are rather US-centric.

The perks change regularly so if you’re curious, I’d advise registering for the preview, to see the current set, for free. However, here are the headline offers right now:

Category Company Offer UK Amex Plat. Equiv. Comment
Hotel Hilton Gold Tier Status Gold Tier Status Free breakfast!
Hotel Mariott/Starwood Gold Tier Status
(3 months only)
Gold Tier Status
(Ongoing)
Benefits are fairly limited
Hotel Caesars Diamond Tier Status N/A Huge range of benefits.
Must-have if you travel
to Vegas.
Car Hire Avis N/A (US only) Chance of Upgrade
Car Hire Hertz N/A (US only) Five Star Status
Car Hire Sixt Platinum Tier Status N/A
Car Hire GroundLink $30 off first trip then
15% off
N/A Good if you want to rent
a limo in the US
Car Hire Zipcar Free Signup N/A
Flight Cathay Pacific Marco Polo Tier Status N/A Cathay Pacific are a good
choice if you travel with a
company that insists on an
Economy ticket but you
want to upgrade.
Networking FoundersCard Regular networking
events in London
N/A
Software Harvest, Hive, HelpScout,
Namecheap & many others
Percentage discounts.
Better than generally
available coupons.
N/A Most are only for new accounts.

It’s a real shame that some of the best offers are restricted to the US (including Avis, Hertz, BMW, Audi, Dell, Apple & others). However, overall, I think this is a better alternative to Amex Platinum in the UK.

Transferwise add business debit cards!

I’ve often complained about the high cost (i.e. FX fees) involved with doing business internationally – most banks in the UK just don’t understand that modern businesses are increasingly international and that “traditional” 3% FX charges on card spend and expensive/lengthy SWIFT transfers (and the SWIFT system in general) make them really uncompetitive.

I’ve tried to find solutions. The best I’ve found are:

  1. Revolut’s business product, although as a limited company, you have to do a lot of volume to make it worthwhile, which is hard as the USD facilities are very limited.
  2. Starling Bank’s business account, that I’ve decided we won’t adopt even when they accept multi-PSC businesses, because of the complete lack of a web interface.
  3. Curve – a sort of proxy that charges the Visa/Mastercard of your choice with the Mastercard rate + 1% when you spend on it in a foreign currency (the 1% is eliminated when you use a cashback credit card).

Until today when this arrived in my inbox!


Transferwise business debit cards are here

Whilst I wouldn’t normally recommend using an e-money product as a bank account, Transferwise are backed by the Royal Bank of Scotland and were one of the first entrants to the fintech space. We’ve been using them on and off for years and the only thing stopping us using their borderless business account was the lack of a debit card.

Their (market-leading) offer is now:

  • FREE real bank accounts in the UK, USA and EU (and elsewhere),
  • FREE debit card
  • Web AND mobile banking
  • Faster Payments, SEPA, ACH AND Wire (with a fee)
  • Approximately 0.5% FX fee,
  • Proper company and decent service
  • Xero integration coming soon(tm)

Interested? Sign up here.

Amex Platinum – a year on

I’ve been with American Express just over 3 years – first for a green charge card, then for a gold charge card, then for a platinum charge card. The two upgrades were driven by the value I was getting from the cards and the trust that I have in their service.

I’ve had the platinum charge card for just over a year now and, regrettably, the last year is the year I’ve got the least value from American Express, even before counting the enormous £450 yearly fee.

The key reasons I was so keen on American Express are:

  • Industry-leading website and mobile app
  • Industry-leading customer service
  • High limits on charge cards (£40,000 vs £6,800 a credit card I have elsewhere)
  • Good cashback/rewards options (1% if used cleverly on my £3500/month average spend)
  • Great additional cashback offers on places I regularly spend money (Post Office, Allsaints, Starbucks…)

However, since upgrading to platinum:

  • The customer service is on a downward trend – they’ve introduced a new “tell me why you’re calling today” robot and hold times are much longer
  • Since the only good redemption options are airline miles, Hilton points and Eurostar points/tickets, and I tended to redeem them for Virgin Atlantic miles, Virgin’s new Mastercard product, with a much better acceptance rate and a much better earnings rate has made Amex redundant
  • The additional cashback offers have been terrible – tiny % discounts are hugely overpriced, unheard of retailers. Visa and Mastercard have also started to negotiate offers with retailers, many of which are more along the lines of what Amex had the year before last

I’ve also learned that:

  • The only platinum hotel/car status that’s worth anything at all to me is Hilton gold status, because it’s the only one with a guaranteed benefit that is worth anything to me (free breakfast)
  • The concierge has been terrible in my opinion, sometimes requiring long hold times and failing to get tickets to the sold out concerts I wanted to attend (the most touted benefit of the service)
  • The Boingo WiFi service is great – but has recently been negotiated by other card providers including the above Virgin card,
  • Many of the lounges offered under the Priority Pass scheme have started to sell one time passes, at low prices (~£15), to anyone who wants one and the lounges are typically far inferior to airline-run business class lounges (some exceptions – the lounges at DXB are really nice for example)
  • The 3% fee to use a UK-issued Amex card abroad is no longer the industry standard, with many cards now offering 0% fee or negating the FX fee with cashback

I still feel that my trust in the American Express brand is well placed, and I think that the Preferred Rewards Gold Card is a fantastic choice for a lot of people. However, I just can’t see how platinum makes sense at the moment.

Starling launches its “challenger” business account

Starling Bank

I was lucky enough to attend Starling Bank‘s business account launch party. It was a nice opportunity to walk around the new office development in Finsbury Square, to meet forward thinking business owners and to understand a bit more about Starling’s roadmap.

I am a happy Starling personal customer and, in my view, if you are interested in fintech, Starling is the company to watch. They were the first of the challenger banks to obtain a banking licence and, of the few challenger banks offering current account, they have the best offer on paper. This review is quite critical but that is because I am holding them to a standard that is well above the norm.

  1. There was heavy criticism from the audience around spend tracking. Spend tracking as it stands at the moment is extremely simplistic – there are a small number of fixed categories and spend is assigned to one of the categories based on the merchant’s MCC. The result is that your spend will be put into one of a few vague buckets such as “travel” or “bills”. For personal customers with relatively simple budgeting needs, this may suffice but for businesses, this feature is completely useless. Starling have heard this feedback but it seems low on their list of priorities.
  2. I was the only one to raise the lack of web-based banking. On Starling’s forum, the lack of web-based banking attracted similarly passionate critique to the simplicity of spend tracking. The audience, myself excluded, didn’t seem to mind. Starling confirmed that they are still committed to being mobile only but, when they release their Xero and FreeAgent integrations, that will provide a web interface, sort of. They also suggested that their apps will be made usable on tablets “soon”, which will at least make it easier to see what’s happening without frantically scrolling up and down.
  3. Xero and FreeAgent integration isn’t here yet but it sounded like that is their top priority right now and will be available in a matter of weeks. CSV export is available now. It sounds like integration with other accounting systems, including Sage and Quickbooks, as well as Yodlee, are a very long way off.
  4. They have initially chosen to target limited companies, with one significant person of control, with a turnover below £1.7m, who don’t need cash or cheque facilities. They will be able to start using it immediately and will pay nothing. Companies with a turnover over £1.7m that meet the other criteria will be able to sign up but will be liable for yet unannounced fees at a yet unannounced point in the future. Seems like quite a narrow market segment to me. Sole traders, LLPs, companies with more than one controlling party etc., are all coming “soon”.
  5. Pricing was announced, sort of. For limited companies who either have a turnover below £1.7m or who have fewer than 10 employees, there will not be any charges at all. Not even for foreign currency. Businesses larger than that will enjoy free banking until Starling’s business user base grows (how much?!) and will then have to start paying (how much?!)
  6. Cash deposits are still coming “soon”. Starling talked a lot about costs but, for most SMEs, the key cost of their banking is cash handling, which Starling don’t offer at all. Take that away and you’re saving something like £5-7.50 per month, after a free 12-24 months, for a high street bank’s electronic tariff.

So, overall, the thing that really stood out to me was the extensive use of the word “soon” and no mention of when “soon” means weeks and when it means probably never. The general vibe in the room was that is ok because Starling is moving fairly quickly. In my view, though, Starling ought to take a page out of Monzo’s book on this one and create something like a publicly accessible Trello board to help customers understand what “soon” means.

In summary, Starling do now have a business current account but it’s very MVP. Personally, I will be revisiting this topic when the requirement for businesses to only one significant person of control is dropped.

A small victory in the battle against telemarketers

We get far too many cold calls. What’s more, we’re on the Telephone Preference Service, making the calls illegal, and the salespeople are really, really bad at their job.

There is something terribly selfish and patronising about these calls. They have taken no time at all time find out who we are and what we do (often so little that they struggle to read our company name out loud in their opening line) and yet they expect that we have plenty of time to hear all about them, whenever it is most convenient for them.

Where they come from

Trying to find out where they originally got your number from can be difficult. There has been a positive correlation between our SERPs and the number of cold calls that we get, especially from abroad, leading me to think that many of them simply Google search for companies in a specific sector. Unfortunately there isn’t much we can do about this – we rely on potential customers seeing our website and calling us.

The WHOIS directory for domain names and IP addresses seems to be an equally common source. We’ve had a lot, again mostly from overseas, calling to try to sell us services for a newly registered domain name (that they also struggled to pronounce). For this, there are a couple of solutions – many domain registrars offer “WHOIS protection” or “private registration” options for exactly this reason, where they substitute your information for theirs and then discard any queries. The other option is to enter valid, but anonymous, details. All of our domains are registered to:

Name: Domain Admin (to date, nobody has called asking for Domain Admin but I’m sure it will happen!)
Address: Our office address
Phone number: a number goes straight to voicemail
Email address: a separate mailbox just for domain WHOIS contact

The other common source is from marketing lists. These are the most common among callers in the UK, who are the ones who really need to respect the TPS to avoid a fine. One of the big list-builders is Dun & Bradstreet that allow businesses to register themselves and get a “DUNS number”. The DUNS number, strangely, is a necessity to register an EV SSL certificate with Comodo, and to supply certain other organisations, oddly including Lancashire County Council.

As regards Comodo, I can only assume that they receive a royalty from Dun & Bradstreet for this requirement, which they are increasingly having to rely on with competition from Let’s Encrypt.

The solution

I have seen no reduction whatsoever after being on the TPS for more than a year. It’s possible that some unscrupulous companies might even buy the TPS list to add to their databases.

The solution I’ve found is to try to waste as much of their time as possible. Over the years, I’ve employed various techniques to do this, including telling them that I’m “transferring their call” and leaving them on hold until they hang up, speaking to them a bit and telling them “I just need to get my credit card” and then leaving them on hold until they hang up, and treating it like a prank call.

The problem with these is that they not only waste their time, but they waste our time. In other words, it doesn’t scale.

Recently, I found the Jolly Roger Telephone Company. They have received a lot of press coverage for their service – a sort of automated soundboard that pauses and speaks at the right times, and follows a script that keeps transferring them around and asking them to repeat themselves.

Now, if they call, we tell them that someone will call them back and add their phone number to a list that goes straight there. One cold caller wasted 12 minutes (!) with our soundboard last week.

The next step is to collate a list of the worst telemarketers so that we don’t even have to talk to them once. I was surprised that there doesn’t seem to be one in the public domain. Perhaps a job for someone on Fiverr.

Time tracking apps – what’s missing

Procrastination is a funny thing. I can spend days trying to solve a problem that might save me a few minutes here and there, or trying to get my working environment just right.

I’ve poured a lot of time into trying to find a suitable time tracking app. I mean a lot of time – and I still haven’t found one. In my view, there is a huge missed opportunity for something that sits between the apps designed more for freelancers – such as Harvest, and the apps designed for enterprise – such as Accelo.

Apps for Freelancers

There are loads of apps like Harvest. They let you store some data about your clients, projects and invoices. They let you track your time. They are hopeless at reporting and bookkeeping – and seem to assume that you don’t file accounts or pay taxes, and don’t track KPIs to grow your business. They’re also designed to integrate with payment gateways like Paypal and Stripe, that are an expensive choice for all but the smallest companies.

If you don’t fit neatly inside their tiny box, and you’re like me, you wonder why you’re paying $12 per user per month. If you do, you probably think the app is the best thing since sliced bread because it’s easy to use.

There are a few good self hosted options in the same category. The best I found were Pancake and Duet. Duet actually looks pretty good to me – and a few additions to Duet would make it suitable for us.

Apps for Enterprise

On the other end of the spectrum, there are enterprisey PSA apps such as Accelo and Bitrix24. We used Accelo for a bit. It’s actually the only app I’ve found that really understands retainers. However, it’s slow to navigate and though it tries to do everything, some features (e.g. CRM and proposals) are way behind its standalone competitors.

Bitrix24 is very cost effective and offers a self hosted option – but after Accelo, I decided PSA software would take up far more time than it would save for a company our size.

The Hollow Middle

The middle ground is something that makes simple tasks as quick as possible – but offers robust reporting and a degree of customisation. I was very excited (too excited) to find out that Xero Projects has just been released – until I found out that there isn’t any support for retainers – nor is there an API to extract data. WorkflowMax has also just had a lick of paint – but it doesn’t have a timer option and doesn’t support retainers as far as I can see.

Toggl looks good but the pricing is very aspirational. Perhaps they’ve just received VC funding and reality will settle in in due course.

Clockify is a Toggl clone from a former Toggl customer who seems to agree with me. It’s completely free! However, it doesn’t support rounding time entries nor does it have an API. Both of these features are on their roadmap and when they are implemented, I think it will be perfect.

The final app I found in the hollow-ish middle is Timestamp. It’s missing retainers and although there is an API, there isn’t any documentation for it whatsoever. That said, overall, currently, it looks like the best option for us.

Next Steps

The best options I’ve found are Timestamp and Clockify. They’d both need us to layer retainers functionality on top using their API as we do now with Harvest. With Timestamp, we’d have to figure out how their API works, which could be quite time consuming. With Clockify, we’ll have to wait for the API and rounding.

I’ve toyed with the idea of creating something in-house. I don’t think it would be a huge endeavour. I do think it would be a distraction from growing our core business, though, especially if we wanted to sell it to recoup our investment.