As a web-designer and an independent contractor, I have always had a need to generate attractive invoices and keep track of projects. For years I simply used Microsoft Word to create an invoice. Almost a year ago now, I purchased and starting using the self-hosted invoicing and project management system called Pancake App. Overall, the experience has been very positive. The following is an outline of why I chose Pancake App and what my experience with it has been like so far.
I’ve never been excited about emerging myself in systems that force un-needed complexity. That’s probably why I stuck with simply invoicing with Microsoft Word docs for so long. I had an attractive template going. I had the document laid out for work item descriptions, hours spent, additional fees, the total instructions on how to pay etc.. All the standard invoice stuff. I would just edit it on the fly and then export to .pdf when done and email it. Works fine, but record keeping was a hassle as I had these old invoices floating all over the place. Not to mention, I was keeping my time spent on tasks separately and then entering it when finished. Then I would add up all the hours up manually, and do the math for the total. The tedium, disorganization and opportunity for human error finally got to me and sometime last year I started looking for a better way to do things.
I wanted a system that would fill several roles. Most importantly, be able to record tasks, have an integrated timer for those tasks and generate an attractive invoice from the project tasks. Any level of project management or additional features beyond those basics would just be icing on the cake. Another thing I wanted was to own the invoicing system, and not have to pay monthly bills forever.
In searching for a solution, I starting coming across a few good looking choices.
One that I considered is Wave. Wave is an online invoicing, personal finance, payroll and accounting tool. I signed up to check it out and tried to get cozy with it, but I felt a reluctance. Wave want to not only be a project management and invoicing system, but also a personal accounting system. It’s setup so that all the income and expense for your business is tracked through the system. You provide your bank account details and it actually imports all of your bank transaction records in to the system. From that, you are intended to earmark all of your transactions as profit or loss, income or expense. To some, this might be exactly what the doctor ordered. To me, all I could see was hours and hours of extra tedium and work. I don’t currently have the need to integrate that level of accounting in to my workflow. You could use the invoicing system without the rest of the features, but that just seemed to me like buying a school-bus to drive yourself to the grocery store. In addition, the thought of having 100% access to my bank account records, all stored on a private server made me a little un-easy. To some, I really believe Wave could be the perfect solution. By all means, check it out. But for me it was just too involved and more complex a system than I needed. It really felt like a personal finance and accounting system first, and everything else second.
Other possible solutions I considered included Quickbooks (Can’t purchase outright, monthly fee), FreshBooks (which looked great really, but starts at $9.95 a month) and Hivage (The free version is limited, other versions have monthly fees). There are many other solutions, but none really stood out to me. Each seemed to be missing various components, or just simply look un-attractive.
Upon finding Pancake App, I was interested immediately. It was new software at the time, still in Beta, but felt like it had a good team behind it. In addition, Pancake App is self hosted which is a plus for me and you can own forever it with a one time payment. I went ahead and purchased it, and started using it daily as my main project management and invoicing system.
Right away, Pancake was doing what I need it to. Once installed on your server, you login with your user account. Additional user accounts can be created for companies with multiple employees.
The main workflow involves first creating a “client”. From there, you can create a proposal (new feature) which is pretty nice. I’ve used the proposal system a couple times and it makes you look nice and professional, which is often what lands a job, more than anything.
From there you can create a project. Then you must assign to the project a client, which you should have already created. You can then add tasks to projects. On each task line are timer functions, play, pause and stop. I start the timer when beginning work, pause it if I go make a sandwich or something, then stop it when finished. After you stop the timer you can add notes to that block of work, as well as adjust the time if needed. Rinse and repeat.
It’s a user friendly system that is also flexible enough to let you organize complex projects. Different Pancake users can be assigned different tasks, if you have multiple people in your organization.
There is also a client login. The client area allows you to display your current project in real time, so it updates as you add tasks and do your work. The clients can also access a support system, fully integrated in Pancake. You can assign client support to yourself, or other users. So you could have another person (your colleague or employee) log in whose only job is support. Personally, I do not use those functions, it’s nice to have the options.
When it comes time to invoice for work, you just click “create invoice” next to the project. You will have a chance to edit the details or make additions. Once ready, you just click to send the invoice to the client, attached to a template email (which is also customizable). Then, Pancake will keep track of what has been paid and what has not. You can set up customizable email alerts for overdue invoices as adjustable intervals.
Payment is handled with PayPal, Google Checkout or Stripe. For me, I customize my email to offer payment through PayPal or by check. If you receive a check, you will log on and manually mark an invoice as paid. For PayPal, it’s automatic. A new feature is “timesheets” which allows you to see how much you’ve worked from within a given period of time. I hope to see this feature expanded upon in the future.
What else does Pancake App do?
Quite a bit actually. Generate Estimates, track expenses, get graphical reports, create multiple business identities and more.
Is it Customizable?
Is it hard to install?
I didn’t think so, but I’m used to installing self hosted apps. But guess what, if you run in to trouble, they will do it for you, for free!
Is it actively developed?
Yes. I see updates usually about twice a week or more. The automated update system lets you apply the update to your installation in just one click. I haven’t had any trouble with this so far. The developers have steadily been adding features, improvement and bug-fixes ever since I signed up. As far as support goes, the developers are quick to respond and friendly. There was a forum to throw out ideas, but reports and suggestions, which is currently being replaced by some type of better system to give your input. They really do read the forums and appreciate the feedback of their users. Exactly what you want out of software developers.
Is there a demo?
Yep. Just click the “demo” link on this page.
Does it still have room for improvement?
Absolutely. I have a running wish list. It’s mostly bonus features or minor issues I have with useability. One example is, the way you start and stop your work time from within the project task view is not very friendly. The icons are first of all hidden until you mouse over, than quite tiny and hard to click on sometimes. Seems like an odd choice for such an important component. I’d also like to see the ability to add task notes to your task while you work on it, instead of having to wait until you stop the timer. Often, I do so much that it’s hard to remember everything Ive done after I’m finished. Finally, a graphical bar or line chart view of hours worked would be the icing on the cake, to keep me motivated! I have told them about these wishes, and frankly, I would not be surprised is they show up in the next couple of months.
All in all I recommend Pancake App for any small business that wants a slick project management and invoicing tool. The customize-ability, self-hosted installation and one time fee really round out the deal for me. Check it out and good luck!
Note: In the interest of full honest disclosure, the links to Pancake App on this page are affiliate links. I receive a small kickback if someone buys the app after clicking one of the links. However, I would not write this if I didn’t really believe in endorsing their app. It’s a win-win-win for everyone!