Microsoft is attempting to give Intuit a run for its money in the accounting industry, and consultants are staking their bets that the software giant will make a large footprint in the QuickBooks-dominated marketplace. Just more than a year has passed since the release of Microsoft Office Small Business Accounting 2006. At the time, roughly 3,000 members had signed up for the Microsoft Professional Accountants Network, which provides free versions of the software along with training, tech support, and professional networking opportunities.
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As of August 2006, the company says its network had grown to 11,000 members, an increase of 2,000 from the end of the 2005 tax season.
"The run rate of acting professionals joining the [network] has been very encouraging," says Rajat Taneja, general manager of small business applications and services at Microsoft. While the SBA product is being enhanced to include a multi-client navigator, online file sharing, a batch entry journal worksheet, and an outsourced payroll offering for the 2007 release (whose beta version went out in July), "software, support, and training are the three big pillars of the program itself."
In May, Microsoft enhanced the network with a certification program that MPAN members helped design. The three-course curriculum teaches best practices in Microsoft Office Small Business Accounting 2006 setup, payroll, reporting, and more advanced features like cost projection and customer management.
This certification allows them to learn best practices, discover in-depth tips and techniques, and earn up to 27 hours of continuing professional education credit. Once they become certified and acquire consultant status, they also receive priority listing in the accountant finder tool, which lets other Microsoft small business customers find a local accounting professional.
"Microsoft is the biggest dog on the block when it comes to software," says John Turner, a Houston-based sole proprietor. "If Microsoft is going after this [market], they're going to put some bells and whistles out there that are attractive to small businesses, so I better jump on the bandwagon early and become part of it before others do."
Louis Gutberlet, founding partner of the Atlantic-based CPA firm LGG & Associates, agrees that Microsoft's efforts cannot be ignored.
"I do see the possibility that SBA could take some of the QuickBooks market share away from them, particularly if it's bundled with MS Office 2007 (scheduled to come out in January)," he says.
With Intuit boasting roughly 85 percent of the market, Microsoft has its work cut out for it. Giving the product away for free seems like a reasonable way for the company to get its competitive product before the public, and it can afford to do so, Gutberlet reasons.
Nevertheless, he admits, "I'm taking a risk. I've invested substantial time and substantial dollars for something that might not be as successful as Microsoft hopes it will be."
Like many accounting professionals, Gutberlet, who became QuickBooks-certified in 1999, was pulled into the market.
"I got involved because my clients were acquiring QuickBooks and they were requiring I become more proficient at it so I could assist them," he says. "They pushed me to do it and I'm glad, but now I want to be one of the first."
Gutberlet contributes to the MPAN newsletter, launched in July, and helped design the certification program, which consists of a 30-question exam that requires a passing grade of 75, with two attempts to pass every two weeks.
Pam Pierce, MPAN member and owner of Empowering You!, based in Lyndhurst, Ohio, earned her certification in July.
"It allows you to be outstanding in your field. It indicates to clients you know the product and can really work with it," she says.
She is a strong advocate of Microsoft SBA, but believes most people don't realize its full potential.
"If you install the product properly, you'll be extremely pleased with it. If you don't, you'll have headaches going forward," she says. "I feel sometimes the people who are selling SBA don't know the product as much as they should. [As a result,] people aren't always using it as easily as they should be and aren't benefiting as much as they should."
Pierce is "extremely impressed" with the flexibility of the software, which she can modify to fit the needs of various clients for an affordable price.
Other accounting software could cost $1,000 per module, and after installing the system, could result in a $10,000 to $20,000 bill for her clients, Pierce says. Because SBA can be modeled to their specific needs and integrates with Office products, there's a lot less programming to do and the end cost to the customer is thousands of dollars less.
Microsoft SBA 2006 retails at roughly $179 as a standalone application or $499 as part of the Microsoft Office Small Business Management Edition 2006, which includes Microsoft Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager, Microsoft Office Word 2003, Excel 2003, PowerPoint 2003, Publisher 2003, and Access 2003.
MPAN membership is free, but a $299 annual Action Pack subscription provides a firm with10 licenses of SBA 2006 and SBE for internal use, the latest versions of Microsoft Office and Windows XP Professional, along with Dynamics GP, SL, and NAV, and Microsoft Small Business Financials.
"What the Action Pack gives me for $299 is about $25,000 worth of software," Turner says.
Both the regular membership and the Action Pack subscription include a free copy of SBA, access to Microsoft partner channel builder, managed newsgroups, self-help resources, free unlimited support for SBA 2006 for one year, exclusive MPAN Web site and newsletter access, an MPAN program support hotline, Webcasts, and a discussion group.
Taneja began a blog earlier this year as a way to communicate the latest advances of the product and developments of the 2007 release, and a number of the company's team members write blogs from an R&D perspective.
"We are big believers in blogging and informal communication between our business and our customers," Taneja says.
The company also provides an online discussion forum, which is staffed by support professionals during the week, but it is looking to enhance this venue.
Pierce and others wish that MPAN would get to break out from the broader Microsoft Partner Program, in which MPAN members are automatically enrolled.
"Right now, we're just grouped in with all the IT partners, and we're different animals," Gutberlet says, noting that he sometimes finds himself competing for business instead of collaborating. "I would like to see MPAN go off on its own and be for accountants only."
He also would like to see continuing education, annual certification, and an annual conference sponsored by Microsoft where members could acquire in-depth exposure to product developments and the company could gain more insight into their future needs.
Regardless of the venue, Pierce plans to continue working with Microsoft to promote the product because she would like to convert several of her QuickBooks clients to SBA, but fears the company's marketing efforts will fall by the wayside as it eyes other money-makers.
"So much of Microsoft's Web site is aimed at Dynamics. End-users don't even know they have an option for a lower-priced quality product," she says. "Both can coexist and be marketed together without taking away from one another. But if they don't know what they want, they probably end up with QuickBooks. My personal goal is to work with a lot of [Microsoft] people because I believe in the product ... [and] I want to make sure they're aware of how great a product they have."
Microsoft Professional Accountants Network Snapshot
Main Products: Small Business Accounting 2006. Office Small Business Management Edition
Membership: Free. Action Pak, $299.
Alexandra DeFelice is Associate Editor of Accounting Technology and can be reached at email@example.com.