Bhansali Plugs in to Online Accounting

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Chandra Bhansali and his wife, Sharada, could have retired after AccountantsWorld sold its Windows-based Tax Relief tax preparation software to Thomson Creative Solutions for $20 million in July 2003. Instead, the couple continued pumping out Web-based tools for accountants while CSI began soliciting their customers to transition to UltraTax.

India-born Bhansali started AccountantsWorld.com in 1999 as a portal serving as a free online community for accountants as a spinoff of the original Micro Vision, which the couple founded in 1983.

Accountantsworld.com aggregated information including tax research, financial calculators and newsletters, and provided daily news. Within six months, it received Forbes' Best of the Web award and attracted 25,000 members within a year.

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Since then, Bhansali created an online directory of accountants; designed a Web site builder, called Accountant's Practice Online, including a document management system, practice management system and time and billing system, called Time2Money; launched Payroll Relief for accountants to offer payroll services; and in April rolled out Accounting Relief, Web-based software that includes write-up, trial balance and financial reporting in one offering along with a bookkeeping module for clients.

Bhansali spoke about his venture into online accounting and what's coming down the pike for the Long Island, New York-based firm:

What made you decide to sell your tax software instead of another part of your business?

Tax software is very intense work because you have to update everything every year. Managing that and doing all this Internet work was becoming overwhelming. We made a very tough decision to sell the tax software part of the business so we could focus exclusively on creating Web-based solutions.

Talk about payroll opportunities.

We found a strange paradox in the way accountants handle payroll services. Most didn't offer it because of too much work and compliance headaches, but payroll service bureaus were making tons of money. Why? They've automated everything. They have someone enter the data and the big powerful processing centers do everything behind the scene and they have economy of scale. [With] Payroll Relief, the accountant enters payroll data [online] and we do everything and they can give access to clients to enter data.

What is the hesitancy?

Accountants are still living by their perception of payroll from the past two decades: Payroll is a nuisance, it's a headache. Don't do payroll. That's the slogan payroll service bureaus have told them, but now it's become one of the most profitable services. Educating them about this transformation is the biggest challenge.

Explain how Accountant's Relief works.

Clients buy a system like QuickBooks and they don't know anything about accounting, so they create a mess in the system. The first thing accountants have to do for clients is clean up that mess. We created a Web-based system to allow accountants to customize it for each client, giving permission only to the functions the client can comfortably perform. If I have a client and I know all he can do is write checks and enter deposit slips, when he enters the system, that's all he'll see. If another client is a good bookkeeper, I can give that company access to everything. I can minimize client errors because I won't let them do what they don't know.

Accounatantsworld.com has more than 100,000 members and 500,000 visits per month, but most of that is free membership. What about paying customers?

The largest number of paying customers are using Accountant's Practice Online tools- about 3,000. Payroll has about 700 accountants doing it for four thousand clients. Accounting Relief is catching up much faster, with about 700 using it already. They want to take time to learn the system, but 15,000 people have come to our Web site to learn more about this product in five months. We believe it will be a year before it really takes off.

Earlier this year, you expressed plans to link Time2Money to mobile devices by this fall. What other updates can we expect?

That was in the works, but that's going to be pushed back slightly. We're putting lots of resources into Accountant's Relief. For Q2 2008, clients or accountants can download online banking transactions and credit card transactions into Accountant's Relief, so they'll be very little data entry needed.

Do you have any new hiring plans?

We're primarily hiring people in development, programming, CPAs and accountants, because as the account's product is growing, people need support.

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