If I had to choose just one piece of software with which to run my business, it would be the spreadsheet. This is as true today, when I work on a state-of-the-art Pentium machine, as it was when I purchased my first IBM XT clone more than 15 years ago. Over the years, I’ve used spreadsheets for the usual purposes — estimating, invoicing, and job-costing — and the unusual — figuring cuts for rake walls or hip roofs. I have even heard of a contractor who used a spreadsheet to lay out a tile pattern for a shower. Most new computers come with software, such as Microsoft Works or Claris Works, that includes a spreadsheet. If you spend a few hours learning how to use a spreadsheet, you’ll begin to find ways to put it to work in your business, without having to spend another cent on software. In this article, I’ll use a couple of simple spreadsheets I set up when I first started using a computer to explain how spreadsheets work. But those are just the tip of the iceberg. Once you feel comfortable with these simple examples, you’ll find that’s it’s easy to set up more complex spreadsheets to fit your business.

If you have ever used a columnar pad to estimate or do your bookkeeping, then perhaps without realizing it, you’ve used a manual version of a spreadsheet. Spreadsheet software builds on the row-and-column structure of a paper columnar pad, adding automated shortcuts and other features that make the job of entering and manipulating data easier....

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