Recently the web, news channels, blog sphere and just about every other media outlet has been abuzz about proposals and amendments now making their way through the house and senate of the US. In a nutshell congress is proposing to eliminate the so called exemption that has existed through court tests and legislation, that has eliminated sales tax, when purchases are made online unless the company has a physical presence in your state. Most ecommerce sites do not have to collect sales tax from purchases outside the states where they have operations. Just as long as the laws have existed that prevent the websites from collecting sales taxes, many brick and mortar sites have been complaining of the unfair advantage that ecommerce sites enjoy. The advent of mobile devices that can search the web for products based on a photo of a product bar code have increased the advantage even more, as brick and mortar establishments have become the showroom for ecommerce. Smart competitors are fighting back by investing in such companies as ‘Sensewhere’ and ‘Point Inside’ that can provide customers with coupons for items that are near their in store position. Many stores, such as Best Buy and Sears, are using slightly different product models that make comparison shopping difficult, and many other methods are being used to entice customers to buy now. That being said, some establishments are still bankrolling the legislation to, as they call it, level the playing field.
There have been plenty of coverage about the fairness the bills would bring about or the disaster just lurking behind the curtain. My take is from a small business standpoint, in particular from a small ecommerce merchant’s perspective. Let’s take for example my state, North Carolina; there is slightly over one thousand zip codes (the preferred way to determine the point of taxation) contained in about one hundred counties. The state determines the taxation point for online sales not by the location of the business, but by the delivery point of the product, so that means that an ecommerce site would file sales tax receipts in over a hundred jurisdictions in North Carolina. The law requires the filing of a return even if no tax is collected (once you start filing you can’t stop). So, as the law stands now, business are supposed to be filing a return whether tax is owed or not. Multiply that by all fifty states and in addition, the filing frequency can be monthly, quarterly, semiannually or annually depending on the revenue. Some states let you change filing status based on the amount owed without declaration and some states don’t such as New Mexico, they must tell you how to file (I found that out the hard way and had to refile dozens of returns in New Mexico). Local counties control the sales tax rate or a portion of it, as in my present state of North Carolina, rates can vary frequently and a whole cottage industry has sprung up just to keep in compliance.
Many small businesses are running web sites with razor thin margins already (don’t believe those so called talking heads that say there is millions to be made, it’s a hard business), and now face losing even that margin to compliance, if the new legislation goes into place. I already pay Internet tax, in my state, and it is called ‘Usage’ tax. I record it for every item I buy online. Most accounting software such QuickBooks does not even handle ‘Usage’ taxes. I had to create a hack to properly adjust my revenue collections, the hack can be found here if you are interested. Presently paying sales tax takes about five minutes every quarter thanks to the hack. I have several clients though, that may be facing a daunting challenge if this legislation is passed. There is talk about phasing in various plans or some exemptions for small business but in the end if the legislation passes it will eventually be required by all sizes of business. I know you’re thinking you poor slob, you make all that money and you’re complaining about paying some taxes, well it’s not the taxes that worry me, but the cost of staying in compliance. You either pay a service, pay someone or do it yourself, either way it will cost more to deliver products to customers and so not only will product prices rise but it may also reduce product choices to help pay for the change. If government would just set the rules and then leave them alone for awhile things would be easier, but if you have ever used tax preparation software or an accountant you know that every year the rules get changed. This is where my beef is, governments continue to look hard for new revenue sources from increasing parking tickets, to hotel room taxes (my city just did that a few years ago) etc. What I can’t understand is why they can’t cut spending like the rest of us do when times get tough. Somehow I just wish we could take the checkbook away from the tax and spend bureaucrats and put it into the hands of people that understand what it means to run a business.
Over the many years I have been running a consulting business (going on 16 years) I have found that I needed to store all kinds of data from clients including, passwords, licenses files, images, etc. Often a client would lose or forget important information, so I started saving information in a secure file in QuickBooks. Over time I have also found that clients loose statements and invoices all the time, so having a place to store such information that a client could access anytime would be a real time saver. A recent project also showed the real need for an easy to use collaboration method that would be a free or low cost for the client to use. I also needed a way for a client to mark up documents, images or whatever I shared with them to communicate changes.
A cloud-based application with a local component usable in either Windows, Mac or on mobile devices such as tablets or phones running Android, Windows Mobile, or Apple IOS would fit the bill nicely. I narrowed my choices down to three Zoho Notebook, EverNote, and Microsoft OneNote. This blog really is not a comparison between the three products as much as it is a decision to go with Microsoft OneNote. I really liked Zoho’s online application but it was missing an Android and iPhone application. Evernote was another top choice with some really great features, including their handling of tags but the lack of an organizational tool like pages within a notebook made the product cumbersome for non-techies. Tags are very powerful and in a way, they can be a replacement for something like pages by creating searches based on tags, but for someone with weak computer skills, this might not be immediately obvious. The extra work of tagging everything seems unproductive when compared to just dropping the document into a section or page. So that leaves OneNote which has all of the features I needed to create a robust environment for my clients to operate in.
The best choice for OneNote is the client that comes with most versions of Microsoft Office on the desktop, for those clients without Microsoft Office or unwilling to buy the client there is the online version that is very close to the desktop version. The biggest difference being the lack of a markup tool on the WEB based tool. There are also Android and iPhone applications as well but they are very early in the development cycle and it shows, I tested the Android application and there are some holes, for example, I have tagged my Todo’s with three different priority levels. The tag icons (checkable box with a priority number of them) are lost in the Android version while they come through perfectly on the WEB version. Syncing between the Android client, SkyDrive and desktop is robust and works very well, it also seems to somewhat fault tolerant.
One of my earlier attempts at using collaboration involved using a Google drive, unfortunately, there was no application sitting on top of the drive that provided any kind of organization beyond putting things in folders. OneNote takes that problem and turns it on its head by integrating OneNote with SkyDrive (Microsoft’s equivalent to Google Drive). Skydrive provides the cloud storage necessary to pull off OneNote as a collaboration tool that can handle many document types and allow for markup and sharing. Skydrive also automatically works with touch interfaces (such as Windows 8, Android and iPhone, and iPad) and knows when to open a folder with the OneNote WEB application.
There is one other big plus for OneNote that I do not see mentioned very often, its integration with QuickBooks and for that matter just about any other application. When you install OneNote for the desktop it also installs a OneNote printer. What this does is make it possible to take any output from an application and put it directly into OneNote as a note. This means I can directly output statements or invoices right into a client’s notebook ready for them to review at any time. I can also grab the URL for that note and send it to the client as a nudge to get them to use their OneNote account. Often I have had clients take screen shots of problems and send them in email only to lose track of the information months later. Now I can put them into a client’s notebook within OneNote and by adding a tag I can make the information easy to search for in case I run into the issue with another client. That’s the power of tagging, it makes information easy to find that might be buried in a client’s notebook but that might be usable in other cases. That is where I think EverNote fails, is this requirement to add tags to everything, it makes very powerful searches possible but often there is information that will never have anything to do with another client so the extra work of tagging everything seems unproductive.
Changing people’s behavior is never easy and I can only hope all of my clients will adopt using OneNote as a way to get to their information. Some will enthusiastically use a new tool, some will remain skeptical until they need the information, and still other’s won’t even consider trying OneNote without a lot of hand-wringing and kicking and screaming. I can only hope that the kicking and screaming will be minimal and that I can convince everyone that this helps them as much as it helps my business.