Web application for calculating travel mileage

Last week I started trying to tally all my business-related travel mileage for the year, and was struggling to do it in a non-tedious fashion. The key problem was that I haven't really kept good track. It's quite rare that I think about it when I get in my car, and even more rare that I remember to write down an odometer reading when I return. Although when I say "rare" I really mean "never".

However, I do keep good track of my meetings and travel in Google Calendar, and started delving into the API to try to figure out a way to automate the process of extracting scores of entries into a spreadsheet and cross-referencing mileage results from Google Maps.

After a few hours of hacking I had something pretty decent, and decided to continue working on it so that others could easily use it if needed. So here it is: a web application for calculating travel mileage. You can use it to calculate mileage for any number of start/destination addresses and download the results to a spreadsheet. If you use Google Calendar, you can pull events from a specific date range and calculate mileage using the locations you entered for an event.

Let me know what you think — questions, suggestions, etc.

Many thanks to Doug Karr for putting together the design and being a beta tester.

Computer repair and customer service

I ran across the clip below the other day and found it pretty interesting. A TV station started with a perfectly working computer and disconnected a basic cable so that the computer wouldn't boot. They then took the computer into a number of computer repair shops to see if the problem would be diagnosed correctly, and how much each shop would charge.

I was surprised to see how many shops either misdiagnosed the problem or were dishonest regarding the repairs. Unfortunately, since all that's out there of the story is that short clip (the story doesn't appear to be on the TV station's website), we don't know everyone else's side of the story. For instance, did the reporter drop one of the computers and it really did have a bad motherboard?

I was mostly surprised to see that the biggest offender was someone from a small independent shop. How long is he going to be in business if he makes a habit of gouging his customers? His relationship with customers is pretty much the only competitive advantage he has against the larger computer stores even though there's no shortage of people who hate Best Buy.

It was good to see that at least one shop didn't charge anything for plugging in the cable. They obviously get it right. If I was on the customer end of that transaction, that probably would've won me as a customer for life.

Poker is the new golf course

I love the sitcom The Office (both the American and British versions). In an episode last season Michael Scott proclaimed that "Chili's is the new golf course according to Small Businessman's Magazine." When questioned if the magazine indeed said that, he responded, "It will. I wrote a letter to the editor."

A few years back I thought about taking up golf, but it was about the same time that my love for poker was growing. I decided (after my wife decided for me) that I really only had the time for one of the two hobbies. I ultimately decided that I would enjoy poker more, and that I would trade the potential of teeing off with corporate bigwigs for the potential of having Daniel Negreanu chasing his flush against me at the WSOP.

In looking back over the last year, I've realized that there have been a lot of instances where poker's lent a hand in developing my business relationships:

  • Early this year I showed up at a local club for a tournament and ran into two former clients from my Bottled days who I'd lost touch with. We've talked pretty regularly since, played a lot of cards together, and done some work for each other. It's likely that none of that would've happened if we hadn't run into each other.
  • When I setup a new bank account I met with the branch manager and it slipped out that I was headed to Vegas to play in the WSOP. His face lit up as he shared his love for the game, and we proceeded to spend the next half hour talking about poker. As a result, we know each other on a first-name basis, and he pulled a few strings to help me out with my account setup (although it's probable that he would've done this for anyone else).
  • I mentioned the WSOP to one of my better clients this year and he ended up inviting me to his home game along with a few of his friends. I'm pretty certain that the experience of playing cards together helped me stand out from some of the other contractors he's used.

There are a handful of other instances that I could share, but the funny thing is that not one of my business contacts has invited me to play golf.

I don't know that poker is necessarily a better way of relating to people within the business world than golf, but according to a survey I ran across, 65% of CEOs responded that they'd rather spend their day playing poker than golf.

Either way, I can certainly attest that playing poker is a lot more fun than having lunch at Chili's.

Drawing with Microsoft Paint

When we evaluate software, we typically ask someone from sales, "can it do that?" and they enthusiastically respond, "of course!".

What we rarely ask as a follow-up is, "so how easy is it?" or "is it *really *the best tool for me to use to do that?"

We should also ask similar questions to contractors — a software developer who specializes in creating web-based applications is not who you want writing your mainframe accounting system, and vice-versa.

Nobody from the Microsoft sales department is going get an artist to throw out Adobe CS in favor of Microsoft Paint. But after showing the video below, they could probably convince some of their managers that they should.

Accounting

I finally hired an accountant last week. It's something I'd been putting off, which was certainly a mistake on my part. Of course, dreaded April 15th is still over 4 months away, but it's finally sunk in that the worst time to see an accountant and start thinking about taxes is April 14th.

I've used H&R Block's online tax return service for a few years, and while it may be great if you only need to file W2s, it's not a great solution at all for me as a sole proprietor. The key for me is that an accountant who I can sit down and talk face-to-face with is going to ask me important questions like, "how many miles did you drive last year between your office and Staples to pick up supplies?" The H&R Block form just assumes that you knew you could write that off, and would enter it in line 472C if applicable.

I am by no means an expert in accounting or taxation, and everyone's situation is unique, but I can share a little bit of my accountant's feedback:

Things my accountant didn't frown at

  • I formed an LLC. The benefits of an LLC over other corporation types are mostly on the legal side, but an LLC allows you to be taxed as a sole proprietor, thus eliminating double taxation of C corporations.
  • I setup a separate bank account for the business and only used my debit card for credit transactions. Unfortunately, it took me a few months to get the account established, as I had to wait for my federal tax ID number (and I procrastinated a bit). It's very confusing to try to weed out personal expenses from business expenses when looking at a single bank statement.
  • I used Quicken (maybe I should look at Quickbooks?) to import my statements and track expenses. The cost of the software is well worth the time I would spend figuring everything out on paper or building my own reports in Excel.

Things my accountant almost smacked me for doing

  • Not paying my quarterly estimated taxes. This is something that's burned me in years past, and I know better, but I just don't do it. Since I don't have anyone withholding taxes from my income, I'm supposed to send the IRS 25% of my estimated taxes every quarter or else I get penalized on April 15th. I have to send a couple fat checks to the state and federal government in the next few weeks, but at least it won't be as fat as what I would've had to pay them in April.
  • Not keeping track of my mileage. I can go back and look at meeting dates and locations to figure out those numbers, but in my mind I'd only pictured doing that for longer trips. I'd figured that since most of my clients are located close to me it wouldn't matter enough to keep track of it, but it's looking like I was pretty wrong about that. And as I alluded to before, she pointed out that even my drive to Staples was fair game for a tax write-off. (What about driving to Starbucks?)
  • Not using her in previous years. I thought my 2005 taxes were straightforward enough for me to do on my own, but she took a look at my returns and in a few minutes pointed out ways that I could've saved $400 or so. This was enough to have covered her fees with a little bit left over.

Her best advice: "If you read something on the Internet telling you such and such is the right thing to do, just send me an email and ask about it. Don't believe any bozo with a blog." (OK, maybe I took some creative liberties with that last part).