Guerrilla Business Tactics for Indies

Welcome to 2011!It’s kind of hard to believe that another year has come and gone. What’s that about time moving faster the older you get? Enough said. Later this year I will be marking my fourth incredible year as a solo indie Mac and iOS developer. Even so this isn’t the first business I’ve owned (just the funnest). This time of year always brings retrospectives and big plans for the upcoming year. Rightly so. It’s also a great time to approach something inevitable that we all must deal with, the business.

As a developer all I want to do is focus on creating apps. I also, and this is a dirty little secret of mine, enjoy the marketing side of producing a product. However, one aspect of being an Indie that I find hard deal with is the business end of things, specifically taxes. Now, I wouldn’t have been around as an indie for approaching 4 years if I ignored the business end of the business. Instead what I have done is come up with a series of time saving habits that get the pedantic business details over and done with so I can get back to letting my creativity flow. So, for what it’s worth, here are a few of those little time savers that I’ve come to depend on. (Oh, yea, as they say, standard disclaimers apply. I’m no CPA, Lawyer, Doctor, nor an Astronaut. Seek professional help if you need it).

Shred the Checkbook

First, shred your checkbook. You know, that antiquated thing that is basically an IOU with consequences. Well, almost shred it. I write about two checks a year to some arcane institution, or individual, that doesn’t take a credit card. I pay for almost everything with a credit card. And I pay it off at the end of each month. This does take some discipline (and a budget). If you lack it then use a debit card attached to your checking account. Instant accountability. More than buying you a lack of disgruntled stares in the check out lane it gets you statements at the end of each month with each and every transaction accounted for. Just deal with it all at the proverbial end of the month. You still need receipts but we’ll get to that in a bit.

For most of us this probably isn’t that big of a deal. We pretty much live online and most of our transactions occur via some web based portal. But, if you are a living breathing human being you surely get out of the home office once in a while. Right? Well, it’s times like these that the mantra “Charge It” were made for.

Go Electronic

Most major companies who will be sending you end of the month statements will let you opt out of their snail mail to get your statements via the web. Do this. This will require some action on your part once every month or so in that you’ll need to navigate their website and download your statement. Many companies keep anywhere from the last 3 months to the last 18 months of statements online. Invariably you’ll need some statement from 2 years ago and it won’t be available to you. So, download them and save them some place safe along with all of your other business stuff. As a bonus you’ll likely have them accessible when you’re working from the coffee shop should the need arise. I have a recurring Calendar event that fires off once every 2 months to remind me to go download my statements.

Taking this approach has the effect of letting me forget about watching the mailbox for monthly statements and having to file them away. I just deal with it for half an hour or so every other month. In fact, I would love to take even this half hour out of the equation. So, here’s a free business idea for the budding web entrepreneur. Create a service that will automatically login to all of my accounts, download the monthly statements and store them all some place central so that I can easily access them in one location. As a business I’d gladly pay $99/year for something like that.

Keep Everything

I’m a bit of a minimalist. I find it my personal mission to remove unneeded things from my life and because of that I tend to throw things out. Figuratively and literally. But, when it comes to my business I have had to re-train myself to become a pack rat. I save every statement, receipt, invoice, and email that my business produces. Nothing is worse than having to go back two or three years and try to recreate what happened because you didn’t keep the statements. Believe me, if you ever get audited that is exactly what is going to happen. Been there. Done that.

Now, keeping everything doesn’t mean that you’re going to end up looking like Howard Hughes after a bender. Remember, “Go Electronic”. Whenever I buy something online I “Print > Save as PDF” that puppy immediately. I keep a folder in my documents area for each year of receipts. I also name them to save me time later. Here’s the format I use: <date>_<amount>_<topic>.pdf. So, if I just bought Aaron Hillegass’s new book I might name the file something like this: 1.2.2011_27.99_Amazon.pdf. Is that anal? Yes. Does it save me time later when I’m trying to figure out what a transaction was for? Definitely.

Once every few weeks or so a group of us iOS developers here in Austin get together for an iOS Dev Lunch. It’s great to get out and spend a few hours chatting about the business of iOS with your peers. Guess what? That business lunch is a tax write off. It also produces a paper receipt that you now need to track. One of the devs takes a picture of the receipt with his iPhone automatically saving it up to Dropbox. I think that is an awesome idea and this year I will start doing that myself. Nix one piece of paper. For everything else there is a scanner or if you prefer drop the goods into a file folder.

Track and Record

“Hello, my name is Shane and I’m a Quickbooks user”. I admit it. I use Quickbooks. On Windows. But, running in a VMWare instance on a Mac. It’s the only thing I use Windows for any more. I just haven’t come to trust the Mac version of Quickbooks for some reason. In fact, I don’t really like Quickbooks at all. It’s just what my CPA prefers and I haven’t found anything that I like any better. Like it or not all of those statements, receipts, invoices and various other transactions need to be consolidated and recorded into a piece accounting software. I detest this. It’s the antithesis of creativity for me. But, nonetheless once every couple of months, usually when I download my bank statements, I chain myself to my desk with a pair of those eyelid openers that you see in A Clockwork Orange and enter transactions into Quickbooks. The end result is worth it though. With accurate data Quickbooks will happily spit out a Profit and Loss report from which you can tell where your money is coming from, where it’s going, and whether or not you’ll be able to make it another year as an Indie. At the end of the year I print out a Tax Detail statement which is a line item grouping of all transactions by tax category. My CPA thinks I’m her hero.

Two years ago I started tracking my mileage for the tax write off. Granted I don’t drive much for work purposes but on the occasions that I do (iOS dev lunch) I want to get the maximum benefit. Hey, it’s like 50 cents a mile. Last year I knocked hundreds of dollars off of my tax burden and every bit helps as an Indie. The bummer thing is that to do this right you need to keep a detailed log of every trip. More red tape. Enter Trip Cubby. Whenever I complete a business trip I simply whip out my iPhone and spend 30 seconds entering details of the trip (miles driven, date, purpose) into Trip Cubby. At the end of the year I have Trip Cubby send me a CSV file of all of my trips for the year. Mileage log done. More hero worship.

Well, those are a few of my techniques and habits for keeping track of my Indie business in a way that keeps me out of trouble and focusing on what’s important. There are areas for improvement. Such as figuring out a way to avoid entering all of those transactions. But, on the whole I probably spend 2-3 days a year in total dealing with this stuff. That leaves the other 362 days a year for writing code and creating great products. If you do anything that eliminates or reduces the need for dealing with the business end of things do share in the comments.

This post is a part of the iDevBlogADay group of Indie development blogs. Thanks to @mysterycoconut for managing such a great site.