Small Business Software Review: Fishbowl Inventory 2012

by Pam Baker

If tracking inventory is painful for your small business, Fishbowl offers a simple yet formidable way to keep an eye on inventory.

Fishbowl Inventory 2012 may be a niche-filler, but it's no weakling stopgap measure. The popular inventory management add-on for QuickBooks does a commendable job keeping inventory assets in full view and on the move for small businesses.

It's even suitable for mid-sized businesses or departments of larger organizations. "NASA, for example, uses Fishbowl to track food and materials for the space station," said Kendrick Hair, product manager at Fishbowl.

To be clear, Fishbowl Inventory 2012 is a small business asset management system -- that is to say an inventory management system -- that automates inventory functions and processes. It tells you at a glance what inventory you have on hand, where it is stored, and what is on order. Plus it reconciles the order with what was actually received from the vendor.

You can tell, for example, that you have 15 widgets in Warehouse A, 30 in Warehouse B, 50 in route to Retailer XYZ, one under your desk and three that your top salesmen are currently carrying around for demonstrations.

The system can track inventory by nearly any criteria such as lot numbers, expiration dates, revision labels and serial numbers or any combination thereof.

"That's why we named it FishBowl. You can peer into it and, like a real fishbowl, see your entire inventory -- whether stored onsite or off -- in one place or many, right down to what end of which shelf and on what row and packed in which box, if you wish," explained Hair.

Coming Soon: Capacity Planning and CRM

It is, in essence, a SMB-tailored enterprise resource planning (ERP) system without the huge price tag and the cumbersome IT requirements, but it is also missing a few key features such as a capacity planning component.

Fishbowl inventory 2012 dashboard

Figure 1: The Fishbowl Inventory 2012 dashboard.

This means that Fishbowl Inventory will not calculate the inventory burn-rate and replenishing schedules. So, if you get hit with a large order, say at Christmas, the system will not automatically alert you to the need to order more stock or raw materials based on your projected need for the remainder of the month or the months that follow.

However, a capacity component is currently under development and will first appear as a calendar module scheduled for release on February 9. "We use Agile and release every two months, building the system brick by brick," said Hair.

Next up, he said, is a cloud platform called Fishbowl Pipeline, a customer relationship management (CRM) system, and increased mobile functionality. Pipeline went Beta this month and is scheduled for launch in February.

For now, if you find that the total number of widgets on hand is too low, you can reorder widgets, or the raw materials to make the widgets, from approved vendors in your system. You can rank the vendors according to any preference you wish from price points to delivery reliability. Reordering is thus simplified to a click.

Warehousing and fulfillment processes are automated or integrated to other systems to complete the loop. For example, once you input a sales order, the system notifies the warehouse so the items can be picked, packed and shipped.

The system integrates with FedEx and UPS so shipment weights are automatically entered from the warehouse data. Contact info, shipping address, and shipping option (overnight, ground, etc.) are automatically ported from the sales form, and the shipping label is thus automatically generated. Invoicing is handled through integration with QuickBooks. Fishbowl also has a developer network and an API for other app integrations.

An Interface Any Employee Can Master

While NASA is a glitzy example of a Fishbowl customer, the product is no shiny toy. The user interface is straight-forward, easy to use, and absent of pretty fluff, although that leaves it feeling deceptively limited and a bit outdated.

However, that means finding the right field for information is an easy task, as is calling reports forward. The program prevents anyone from gaming the system by requiring clear permissions for designated users, and stop-measures if employees try to duck out of entering all the information.

Data entry, however, is not burdensome so the average warehouse and office worker will not find using the system a hardship or time-consuming. Indeed, it's the simplicity that attracts high adoption rates among staffers at any level.

The system requires no IT intervention to use as is. Customization, depending on the degree you wish to drill down, will likely require some IT help for most businesses. However, most small businesses will not need to tweak the system beyond the built-in customization options.

Fishbowl Covers the Front-End and the Back-End

Essentially, Fishbowl Inventory 2012 comes in two parts: one for wholesalers and manufacturers (Fishbowl client) and the other for retailers (SalesPoint).  Both parts operate pretty much the same way, with the difference lying almost solely in the user interface.

Fishbowl Inventory's future CRM capability.

Figure 2: Pipeline is Fishbowl's Web-based CRM capability, which is in Beta and due sometime in February.

Specifically, SalesPoint is more touch-screen, payment processing and barcode oriented. In other words, SalesPoint is front-end point of sale (POS) oriented whereas Fishbowl client is back-end inventory management. "It's not designed to take over the point of sale market, but to ease sales at manufacturing," said Hair.

Fishbowl Inventory 2012 is available in both on-premises and hosted options. It can't run on Macs, but it can run on Red Hat and Ubuntu, although other Linux flavors are questionable so be sure and ask before you buy. Windows is fully supported.

Installation of the system for basic warehousing takes less than a week if your data can be imported from Excel or QuickBooks, but can it takes longer if it needs to be scrubbed first or imported from a different source. Training takes an average of three to six weeks for basic warehousing and six to eight weeks for more complex usage.

Pricing is based on the number of concurrent users, and it starts at $5,000 for two users. Site licensing for 20 Fishbowl and 30 QuickBooks user bundles costs $49,000.

Fishbowl Enterprise includes several bundled options for mid-market companies. While the pricing may feel steep to some businesses, it is considerably lower than the average full-scale enterprise ERP system and is much cheaper than losing inventory which is, after all, cash in another form.

Overall, Fishbowl Inventory 2012 is a strong, albeit somewhat limited system, considering it has no means of capacity planning or CRM. However, both of those capabilities are in the works.

This product is ideal for small businesses and smaller-end mid-market businesses with basic to complex inventory and asset tracking needs.

Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Jan 24th 2012
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