Hackerspaces and enterprise accounting

Tip: If you just want an enterprise level accounting, ERP and CRM package for your hackerspace, skip to the end.

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As treasurer of Hackerspace TDvenlo keeping the books has been quite a chore. When we first started in Q4 2018, I wanted to have a good grasp on how things work, swift start and of course an open solution. But that didn’t present itself so easily. The big software list at hackerspaces.org doesn’t show that much promising packages. I even asked around what other hackerspaces used but a simple clear solution didn’t come about. The answer was mostly: “Our treasurer hacked something together for himself and we remain quite happy with that. As long as we don’t have to check numbers and the money resides at the bank.”
This poses a couple of problems. Once you select a system, you remain stuck. These systems remain mostly maintained by one or 2 persons and fits only that particular hackerspace. If the treasurer leaves or someone wants to take over, you get a big puzzle and a different solution. Not good.

Hackerspaces like to run their own software. For most technical challenges Open Source software provides more than enough possibilities. We run software that comes from long term projects and companies. Like for instance: Ubuntu on our server and desktops, automate the space-state with micropython and home assistant. Program microcontrollers with Arduino or PlatformIO. More than enough options available to facilitate everything you want to do. I know of no hackerspace that programmed their own webserver and uses it as critical infrastructure.
However every day management of the space readily becomes a grey area. There are of course the Hackerspace Design Patterns, but they remain quite broad. But in the end, it mostly seems that you can do whatever you want and have to figure out everything yourself. On the positive side, that also gives every space their own look and feel.

When starting my accounting voyage, it went like this. For the first quarter I created my own spreadsheets in LibreOffice Calc. Although they could pass the mustard and my high school teacher would approve, spreadsheets should not be used for something serious. Normally I would try to get everything in a real application or script, automate the hell out of it and just do the minimum necessary. But that was not so easy.
It seems that starting an accounting package looks quite easy and after a couple of days of programming most programmers could get quite far. Then after a while they run out of steam and nothing more happens. Sourceforge and Github have heaps of promising accounting packages, that haven’t been maintained for years. Those projects died before they could take off. Just look at the list of available closed source commercial accounting packages. There are thousands of them.
The other end of the spectrum also looks interesting. A package like Tryton can do everything for large multi-site companies. But you need a professional (team) to maintain it. A bit too much for a hackerspace with a maximum of 100 contacts.

If you look for an open source accounting package that performs well for a hackerspace, the usual suspects mostly pop up: GnuCash, LedgerSMB, Tryton and Beancount. But they don’t deliver what I need. As mentioned by this series from by LWN.net. I want a package that actually is easy to use, useful and capable.
As a community of hackers, we can do better. You want to handle cutting edge tools, master them, improve and share them. This does not only account for your local network, 3D printers, badges and gimmicks.
This should also become the standard for keeping the accounts and maintaining relations with suppliers and customers.

In the end, I needed something that uses an open source license, the project is still alive, is used by professionals, has capabilities like automating invoices, does ERP and CRM, can attach receipts and has Dutch localization. Talking to a couple of friends that know a lot about finance confirmed my suspicions. This shouldn’t be that hard.
However, the search for such a package does not come easy. There is a lot of shit to wade through. After looking for 3 days, I finally found 2 packages that can cut the mustard. Strangely enough these project did not originate in the US. Which may account for their obscurity and the success they currently enjoy. If you look at the capabilities, I find it strange not more companies use them. To cut things short, here they are:

  • Dolibarr It has quite a big following in France and Dutch localization.
  • ERPNext Comes from India and was started by a programmer to help with his parents factory.

I will start deploying Dolibarr in the coming month. Both projects are almost on par, but the automation and localization seems better with Dolibarr. This looks more exciting than the chore of maintaining spreadsheets. And it’s possible to easily cooperate with other people who know something about finance and accounting. Let’s see how it goes.

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