Bench + FreshBooks: Keeping Propel Clean Energy Partners on Track

Graham Pugh Headshot Graham Pugh faces down world-sized problems. With a resumé including work for the Department of Energy and a stint on the Department of State’s climate negotiating team, he’s spent his career tackling the problem of sustainability head-on.

When he began his newest consulting venture, Propel Clean Energy Partners, he faced a smaller-scale—but still formidable—challenge. How could he keep his internal bookkeeping running smoothly, while putting together the kind of financial reports his non-profit clients demanded?

Here’s how FreshBooks and Bench saved Graham’s back office day-to-day—so he could focus on saving the planet.

Could you tell us a bit about what Propel Clean Energy Partners does?

It’s a professional consultancy focused on clean energy policies and programs. I have a lot of connections to NGOs and aid organizations that are designing programs to solve clean energy challenges around the world, and some other labs and national organizations that support them.

So I’m relying on that network to help [my clients], shape their programs and their offerings. Sometimes it takes the form of research—like, they want a particular study done. But that’s not my favorite thing to do. I like things that are a little more program development oriented—like, let’s think through this problem and decide what the priorities are.

What sort of team do you work with?

My partner [Matt Jordan] is in Columbus, Ohio. So—we have two partners, and then three contractors.

What are you working on at the moment?

We have one big contract we’re working on right now, for a philanthropy in London, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. We’re setting up something called the Clean Power Hub, an online offering for people to solve the problems they [face] in order to implement clean power in their countries. It’s a two year grant.

What are some of the bookkeeping and accounting challenges connected to this project?

We’re managing that grant, and one of the things we’ve had to work through with Bench is, we have this big pot of money that’s sitting there, and we pull chunks of it over time to pay ourselves and pay our contractors.

We had to go back and forth a little bit, because [on the books] it looks like we got a big chunk of revenue. But it’s not realized as revenue immediately, when you get a grant like that. From a tax standpoint, it’s not realized until we invoice for it. We do internal invoicing in FreshBooks, and then I send those over to Bench and they match it with the debits from the grant account.

Then, for the purpose of reporting to our granting agency, they want to see things in certain categories. [For instance] they want travel broken out, but contractors can all be in one lump amount—they don’t need to see individual time tracking.

So it sounds like you need one version of your books to run your business day-to-day, and another to report to the granting agency. How does Bench help with that?

The advantage of Bench for me is the channels. This has been the most useful feature for me.

Channels is a term in Bench. You can define them and name them yourself. What I have to do, since I don’t control things on the revenue side—I mean, we get one check from a client—I just message and say in Bench, “Of this $46,000 check that came in, $23,000 should be for me, and $23,000 should be for my partner,” and they put it in different channels for me.

On the expense side, I can do it myself. For instance, each meal expense, I can tag that expense. Actually, Bench can get it from the credit card, tell which one of [the partners] it was, and categorize it. But if it’s an expense, say, from an invoice, I just say whose expense it is.

The ability to do a bit of customization around the income and expenses has been a real advantage of using Bench for me.

Besides Propel, you run your own sole proprietorship. We were talking earlier, and you mentioned that’s where you started using FreshBooks.

I knew I needed time tracking software, so I started looking at reviews. And then I realized, oh yeah, some of these do accounting too. That would be helpful, to have accounting and not have to do this in a spreadsheet.

Then I actually tried [Quickbooks], and found it to be overkill for my needs. I’m a tax nerd, I’m very good at tax stuff, I use tax software and do all that myself no problem. But the actual double entry, credits debits, whatever—I don’t do that.

I felt like I needed to know that stuff to use accounting software. I was like “I don’t wanna know that stuff.” So I tried out FreshBooks, and I just found it to be intuitive. The main thing it did for me is, it allowed me to do time tracking, and it allowed me to do basic expense tracking, and to invoice customers. And for my sole proprietorship, that’s all I needed. But things got more complicated with my partnership.

What changed?

I was using FreshBooks when I brought my partner in [to the business]. And I said “Look, I already have this solution I like. Let’s just try to do this.” And I set up a new account.

At this point, Simon from FreshBooks got involved. He contacted me and said, “I’m your guy.” And I said, “I have a guy? I’ve never had a guy.” So now if I want to do anything I have an interface. Simon’s really responsive and helpful.

But I got to this point where I had these other needs. My accounting was going to get more complicated, and I started thinking about that. So, I was looking at integrations in FreshBooks and I saw Bench.

I talked to Simon and he said, “Yeah, we can set that up.” And he set up a phone call with someone from Bench, and we talked about it, and I said yeah, let’s try this out.

We’ve been using Bench since the middle of last year. We paid to have them go back and reconcile the whole year. And I use FreshBooks for all our invoicing and time tracking.

What are the benefits of your bookkeeping system with Bench and FreshBooks? Are there any drawbacks?

Normally, I’d be doing this with a spreadsheet. And in a specific area, like those credit card expenses—the fact that [my bookkeepers] map it to Matt and me, and it just automatically gets entered? That’s a time saver. Because otherwise, I would have been looking at all those expenses in FreshBooks, and having to copy them into a spreadsheet in separate columns.

You always have to spend time to customize something. There was some extra time [earlier on] with setup. But that points to the advantage of platform, which is that it was customizable to meet my needs. … I think it will save me time. I’m happy with it.

This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post. Bench assumes no liability for actions taken in reliance upon the information contained herein.

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