Almost all businesses need to create invoices and while most accounting software programs have an invoice generator, a few may not. If you chose not to use an accounting program—because life is too short—or the application you are using simply doesn’t have an invoice generator, there are a number of free software alternatives available for download. Some businesses even use Word or Excel for invoicing—we kid you not!

For a more professional approach you should definitely take a look at the growing choice of online billing tools. They let you manage clients, send invoices, and collect payments via on online gateway such as PayPal or Google Checkout. And the good ones even let you bill in different international currencies. Blinksale is one of the better hosted invoicing packages out there.

What is Blinksale and who is it for?

Blinksale, like FreshBooks, is a natty application designed for individuals and small teams who need to invoice clients for services or products sold. Eliminating the time and frustration associated with a fully-fledged accounting package such as QuickBooks or Sage, Blinksale has one sole purpose—to facilitate the sending and managing of invoices.

Blinksale is a good looking Web app and can be used with any modern browser that supports Web standards. The U.S.-based company behind the software—also called Blinksale—recommends Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari, or Internet Explorer 7, and cannot guarantee Blinksale will work on other Web browsers. We tested it using Firefox and Chrome and encountered no compatibility problems whatsoever. So far, so good.

Does it do it well?

We’re sure you’ll agree that invoices created in a word processor or spreadsheet are pretty crappy. Besides, it’s a total pain to have to generate all the content over and over for each invoice (cut and pasting client details is such a chore!) And then there’s the frequent problem of overwriting existing invoices with new ones. Enter Blinksale. This cool looking app makes managing your invoices a snap.

After your 30-day free trial (which doesn’t require a credit card to setup), you can subscribe to the Bronze ($6), Silver ($12) or Gold ($24) package. The major differences between the account types are the number of invoices you can send per month (6, 50, or 250, respectively). The only other difference is that the Gold package lets you e-mail and save invoices as PDFs. We must say that we prefer Freshbook’s approach to pricing, which charges you per client (up to three clients are free) compared to Blinksale which caps your invoices per month.

Blinksale is nothing revolutionary—it’s a simplified online contact/mail manager/organiser. Yet, what makes it different is its simplicity and top-notch interface. Blinksale has a fresh and polished interface and generally looks a lot more inviting than FreshBooks. Invoices look pretty good too, though if you possess a technical knowledge of cascading style sheets (CSS) you can customise the design of your own invoices. You can also upload your own logo to make invoices look professional.

Setup is straightforward and the multi-user environment (with its two-level permissions) lets you assign invoicing tasks to an office worker—only the main account user has full control over account settings. Your account is set up on a subdomain of blinksale.com (e.g., bcw.blinksale.com). The downside here is that you can’t login to your account from the main Blinksale site. However, some may prefer the subdomain approach because it makes invoices seem more clearly branded and less like generic third-party Web templates.

If you already use the popular Basecamp project management software from 37signals, Blinksale makes it easy to import and invoice your clients and customers without having to re-enter their data into Blinksale. If not, you’ll have to enter client details the old fashioned way—one at a time!

Creating an invoice is done in a similar way to any other program. You first need to populate a list of clients so that when you create an invoice you can choose a company using a drop-down list. You can also add companies ad-hoc style. From the invoice creation screen it’s easy to change currency, set sales tax and freight (shipping) charges, assign payment due date (i.e. 30 days), as well as add a late fee (i.e 2% per month).

Once an invoice has been created it’s automatically saved as draft, allowing you to send it, edit it, or print it. You can also duplicate or delete the invoice, as well as add comments. A neat feature for searching is the ability to add tags to invoices. Frustratingly, whenever we wanting to send an invoice we were told ‘You must assign this invoice to a client and add a person to the client before you can send it.’ Blinksale offered no further explanation or assistance in solving this problem.

Invoices in Blinksale are typically sent via e-mail, but you can also print and snail-mail your invoices if that’s your thing. You can also setup recurring invoices and send thank you messages, both of which are time savers. Additionally, if your client is a Blinksale subscriber, your invoices can be automatically added to their account. This makes record keeping and organisation a breeze.

Blinksale also has an API, which makes things happen. Other developers see opportunities and try things out. iPhone users can now access their Blinksale account on the go thanks to Josh Goebel. This is one of the major advantages of using a hosted application with an API—other developers are just so eager to help expand on a program’s functionality.

Where does Blinksale disappoint?

Blinksale is a good program, but it is overshadowed by Freshbooks. Blinksale looks nicer and is easier to use than Freshbooks, but you’ll probably soon outgrow its features as your company grows. Cripplingly, Blinksale limits the number of invoices you can send per month.

Other noticeable features that are missing include timesheets, document sharing, and expense tracking. Confusingly, the Purchases page is not for expenses, but for Blinksale users to send invoices to other people with Blinksale accounts—should you like to save your incoming invoices from other Blinksale subscribers for future reference and reporting. A nice feature if you only ever have clients using Blinksale to issue their invoices—but close to useless for us.

There is no option for clients to dispute an invoice (at least they can pay online using PayPal), nor did we like the fact that no confirmation message is issued to inform you that an invoice was sent successfully to a client. An Estimate or PO can’t be created quickly and easily, and reporting is limited to an XML or Excel file.

For all the merits of a 30-day trial, Blinksale’s pricing structure can’t compete with Freshbooks—which even offers a fully-functional free-for-ever account (albeit capped to three clients and with branded e-mails).

Would we recommend Blinksale?

Blinksale makes a sterling effort at simplifying the invoicing process. The simple interface avoids the unnecessary features which are more typical of desktop software, making it a viable, easy to use solution for many small businesses with limited technical knowledge. The available templates have been professionally designed, so they are attractive, but they are also generic. Sadly, the advantages of Blinksales’ user interface are soon overshadowed by its limited functionality—especially for individuals and small teams wanting to track time and expenses. It’s good, but not good enough to compete with FreshBooks.