Niall’s virtual diary archives – Wednesday 3rd February 2010

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Wednesday 3rd February 2010: 5.42pm. So much for my birthday entry being anywhere near my birthday! Still, being two weeks late is not that bad considering the three month gap before the last entry I guess ... and I have been oh so busy since the last entry. Firstly we had that great freeze in Ireland (and indeed Europe) which effectively extended everyone's Christmas holidays by quite a bit, and because everyone was marooned in their houses not a lot happened for anyone at all really. Our water got cut off because the mains water pipe froze, but we weren't as badly off as a lot of people who had been cut off due to pipes bursting - for a long time now Ireland has had some of the leakiest water pipes in Europe with more than half our water going into the soil. No one's that bothered - we're blessed with lots of fresh water, indeed often too much fresh water due to us cutting down all the trees surrounding the upstreams of our rivers such that our rivers and towns get frequently flooded much as happened very severely before Christmas when most of Cork city and western Ireland got submerged. Anyway, by the time we got to my birthday everyone had just about got back to work and stuff started moving. My main preoccupation at that time was putting together my company's first annual return, and thanks to the assholes at Microsoft we first had to find a replacement for Microsoft Accounting 2009 which they had suddenly retired without warning. That meant evaluating a series of ERP and accounting packages which sucked up a week or so. I eventually plumped for the almost unknown but very highly respected VT Transaction+ which has garnered rave reviews from small business in the UK for years now, but it was not an easy choice at all.

Most UK and Irish small business uses Sage which royally sucks as anyone who has ever had the misfortune to use it will tell you. Sage is extremely expensive for what it does, it has an appallingly bad user interface, it is extremely unintuitive, it causes anyone using it to mostly spend their time ripping out their hair and cursing it - and best of all, its more recent SME editions have dropped multi-currency support which is jaw dropping in the European context. There are others such as MYOB, but Sage bought them not too long ago so I don't have high hopes for its future. The other big contender is QuickBooks, but they suffer from an idiotic business plan where they lure you in with time-bombed features in cheaper editions which suddenly expire and then it demands a paid upgrade to start working again. Before you know it, you're handing over two thousand euro a year for a package which does what you need and moreover, they basically did a Mafia extortion on you.

Those are the two big boys, and both are rubbish options. Both vendors deserve to go out of business for their ethics and the shoddy quality of their products. If you do any internet research at all, you will quickly wonder how the hell they ever get any new customers - but then again I guess most new business owners never bother researching the internet before they buy because you can do one hell of a lot better than either Sage or QuickBooks AND for a lot less money.

This leaves a SME ERP solution - ERP systems are basically an operating system for a company, so they tell each worker what to do and when to do it and the ERP system (is supposed to) manages everything else such as the accounts and stock levels. I evaluated two options for an ERP solution: (i) Adempiere, probably the most featured open source ERP currently available and (ii) Interprise Suite, because they offer a free one user licence. These two were chosen for evaluation because they both supported European VAT and multi-currency - both are absolute necessities for an Irish company as we tend to do a lot of importing and exporting - which almost every other solution I could find on the internet doesn't do. Boy do I miss Microsoft Accounting! They had such a great product for its price .

Both of these solutions were very good - both had all the right features and both were well implemented. Interprise had a much better user interface as it runs as a native application on Windows whereas Adempiere has a nasty Java/Web interface. Adempiere, like so many open source applications of its kind, required an awful lot of setting up and lengthy configuration - so much so it got discounted because of it. Interprise had pre-written templates which did almost all of the config for you, thereafter it was just lots of tweaking. What put me off Interprise was that the demo/single user edition they supplied was last updated in 2007 - hardly boding well given the extensive changes to VAT rules since 1st Jan 2010 (and precisely why everyone had to drop Microsoft Accounting so quickly), and I got the feeling that they'd hardly be bending over to support a single-user licence like myself. And besides, I had a natural aversion to getting into bed with another company who wasn't 110% committed to the product - I didn't want to have to do another Microsoft Accounting style migration as trust me, migrating between accounting systems is painful.

So in the end I went with VT Transaction+ which is not an ERP solution, it's just a simple accounting program. However it costs just £200 a year as compared to £1700 or so for Sage/QuickBooks or £1000 or so a year for Interprise, plus it has full support for VAT, multi-currency and it has really good Excel export so it spits out a very nice properly formatted set of accounts in Excel ready for submission. Having purchased the software, I then fully migrated the accounts, hacked at the templates to fudge the UK accounting format into the Irish standards (thankfully the regulatory standards are similar, it's just that all the laws have different names for obvious reasons) and finally submitted my annual return today!

Meanwhile, throughout all these fun and games I also finished the contract with ARA which took another twenty-three hours this past month, though I only had the NTE for twenty hours but I like to finish a job properly. And lastly, mainly because I've had a VPS sitting in Los Angeles doing nothing since November, I finally rented a VPS in Atlanta and implemented a geo-directing DNS server such that and other hosted sites now use their local server rather than having to go to Europe all the time which is really very neat. Who knows, soon I might even be in a position to start selling Plone webspace at long last (I need to finish configuring the shopping cart first)!!!

So, I am now thirty-two years old, and as always in the birthday post it's time to look back on another year of life. This is what I have done this past year:

  • Escaped the BIS Masters in UCC
    Looking back on it now I can't believe how much I hated that course or indeed that entire academic year. I disliked academia enough in St. Andrews, but at least they generally weren't as pig ignorant of their own field, and moreover my time in St. Andrews was made worth it by all the non-academic stuff going on which, much like in Hull, was the real education. That real education was non-existent during my time in UCC, and so it was nothing but bad all the way through, not helped by the chip on the shoulder which most Cork people have anyway towards anyone with talent.

    I am extremely glad to not be doing that anymore. It didn't help that I was mentally and physically absolutely exhausted after St. Andrews and simply no longer in the mood for any of that bullshit. I have been deliberately taking ten to twelve hour sleeps each night since last summer and my overall health and wellbeing has massively improved. When I look into the mirror I no longer see anything like the lines on my face or dark bags under my eyes and I no longer wonder to myself if I might have cancer. When I compare me now to photos from the end of St. Andrews, I literally look five years younger. I feel about ten years younger though, and it's great!

    Now all that said I did meet some good people during my time in UCC, and the prize money from the Enterprise Ireland competition kept both myself and Megan alive for nearly four months. For the prize money alone I think the BIS Masters was probably worth it overall, and I suppose it's an extra arrow to my bow for the foreseeable future. Winning the prize certainly sounds good - in the interviews I've done since you can see them being noticeably impressed. It's funny how people value such things. So overall, I think that I will remember the 2008/2009 academic year as being rather like my year at Trinity College Dublin: not a lot of fun at all, but an edifying experience which stands to you in the long run even though it shouldn't if there were any justice in the world.

  • Set up my own company
    I have dreamed of setting up my own company and working for myself ever since my experiences working in EuroFighter where I saw that the contractors were the guys on top of the pile, and while I was working sixty hour plus weeks, I was being paid for thirty-five and therefore getting an equivalent of €7/hour after tax. Meanwhile they were being paid €50/hour upwards with time and quarter overtime when management fucked up and made you work late. Had I been an IT contractor at that time I would have been earning €80/hour given it was pre-IT bubble burst. I suppose it helps a lot that the lads I grew up with all started their own businesses, plus my mother's family were entrepreneurial, but I really have to admit that I particularly value the ability to work on what I want when I want, and if one day I wake up and I don't feel like working then I don't have to.

    Moreover, let's face it: I have a personality which many people find disagreeable, and I also find working with many people stressful because they don't give a toss about doing their best. Not having to work with such people, or when I do they are paying me for their screwups, well I find that very pleasant indeed. I don't mind at all someone wasting my time if €100 is going into my hand .

    I guess what I mean to say is that I have a value inside my head of what my time is worth to me, and I strongly object to working any job where my time is not similarly valued by my employer. Because I value my liberty so much, I have a fairly high valuation of my time - sufficiently high that most ordinary jobs won't pay such a figure to someone as young as myself. Therefore, for someone of my age, the only route to such high marginal earnings has to be self-employment.

    Anyway, I last tried to form my own company after returning from Spain back when I was trying to commercialise Tn with venture capital funding. Without the backing I decided not to proceed, but had I not gone to St. Andrews then I definitely would have formed my own company. Well now I have, and while I haven't made much money yet I am hoping to report large profits this time next year!

  • We survived!
    For much of this past year I fretted about how I was going to feed myself and Megan - indeed, for much of the last eighteen months we had between two and four months worth of money to go before we were destitute. It is truly a horrible feeling because you never truly relax - and no, social welfare has still not paid out though I am glad to report that my dole application has left the Dublin processing queue and has entered the Cork processing queue, so the welfare office currently think it'll probably be a full year from application to payout. Hopefully they will backpay me in full because I am now about €4000 in debt!

    We have been immensely lucky in hindsight. Firstly things like the car haven't spectacularly broken down or anything bad and unexpected happen like an accident or sickness. Even in the positive sense things have gone well when they might have not, such as us both passing our driving tests okay which was great as hitherto we were driving illegally, and it was a great relief to be finally actually covered by our €1000/year insurance. Secondly on every occasion when the bank balance started to enter the "fumes remaining only" level something unexpected has magically appeared in the nick of time e.g. the Enterprise Ireland prize money, the ARA contract or indeed Megan's work permit to name but a few.

    Between all of these we have finally become financially okay for these last three months, and I no longer fret about everything suddenly crashing down. In fact if things continue well we may even take a small holiday this summer, nothing fancy but nevertheless a major step up.

I think that those three things are the most significant accomplishments of my past year from my present perspective. I do wish that I had got my PhD rolling, but it was not for a lack of applications made or effort invested. I haven't done much on rolling my own PhD in the past few weeks given my busyness, but now that the ARA contract is cleared, the accounting systems migrated, the Annual Return filed and the geo-targeting DNS server implemented, I am hoping to dedicate two days per week into it and writing my Economics study book. For the other four days per week I need to get a shopping cart implemented, then I can start selling my content filtering boxes of which I have three already built and in stock below as well as selling general Plone web hosting and services.

So, so far so good! Let us once again hope that 2010 is our best year yet! Be happy!

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