Small-business accounting firm Synergeant was founded in 2015 by a new generation of accounting professionals with one core objective: to leverage technology and transform the relationship between the business owner and their accountant.

Today, The Woodlands, Texas-based firm serves roughly 50 clients across the country and has tapped into cloud-based software and the burgeoning ecosystem of software add-ons to offer clients an array of solutions including outsourced accounting and virtual CFO services. “What I saw was the opportunity to take something like QuickBooks Online and integrate it with Receipt Bank, integrate it with Bill.com, integrate it with Deputy, or TSheets, and Gusto, and Avalara and basically — for a small investment, far less than the millions that corporates are spending — small businesses can have incredibly powerful software ecosystems to run their businesses on. It is just a matter of putting them all together and integrating them properly,” said Synergeant founder and CEO Tom Woolley.

Added Woolley, “We have a software suite that varies a little bit depending on what industry someone is in that really takes charge of their entire accounting workflow and automates it. … It all comes together in an elegant and powerful platform for small businesses.”

Synergeant is among a growing number of accounting firms leveraging such apps and software solutions to transform into an accounting and technology advisory hybrid. Fueled by the robust development of cloud-based software and the greater demand for automation, vendors are fostering an “ecosystem” of developers to create add-ons that integrate with their core packages. These integrated suites of best-of-breed products are increasingly changing how accounting professionals serve their clients.

“All-in-one softwares typically include modules that provide basic functionality, but they rarely meet the needs of companies that value efficiency or lack necessary features beyond a basic configuration. Most major softwares today understand this and have developed their own marketplaces in hopes that add-ons like Expensify will fill that void and provide a more robust solution for their users,” said Matt Donaldson, head of accounting and CPA partnerships at Expensify. “This growing ecosystem allows end users to customize their workflow by choosing the ‘modules’ that fit best with their company’s needs.”

Expensify is a travel and expense application that integrates with accounting solutions like QuickBooks Online, Xero and NetSuite, giving administrators the ability to quickly approve, export and reimburse employees.

Said Mark Gervase, director of product marketing for the accountant channel for Bill.com, “It’s nearly impossible for a software company to be all things to all customers. The most successful software companies in the world understand this, and focus their core competencies and resources to meet specific customer needs. For everything else that a customer needs, it makes sense to partner or create an ecosystem where other companies can easily add value with their own specialized software add-ons. That way, customers can customize their solution so that it is ‘exactly right for me.’ The best example of this is the Apple or Google app stores that provide add-on apps for smartphones.”

Bill.com, which works with such accounting solutions as QuickBooks Online, Xero, NetSuite and Intacct, is a digital business payments company that serves small and midsized businesses.

“Software add-ons are focused pieces of software on a given task or need. They become a specialized tool necessary in the ecosystem of everything that accounting, tax and bookkeeping professionals have to do. There are generalized software that are wonderful tools and specialized add-ons that allow us to select technology for unique needs clients have,” said Don Emery, director of client solutions for Doc.It, a provider of document management, workflow and document storage solutions. The vendor recently launched Doc.It Go, the Doc.It Suite mobile app that is engineered to work in conjunction with Doc.It Suite.


DOES YOUR FIRM 'STACK' UP?

These add-ons are changing how many professionals serve their clients. One significant trend playing out within a growing number of firms is the building out of a “stack” of tools.

“When selecting a stack, it’s usually best to start with the core [accounting] system. Don’t look for a solution that does it all for the small business; instead, look for a solution that handles the accounting piece extraordinarily well and supports a great ecosystem of add-ons through fantastic APIs,” said Donaldson. “From there, we suggest looking for two more add-ons that would be required by every client you bring on board. For instance, every business has expenses, but not every business has revenue. Expensify is a tool that every client needs in order to provide their accountant/bookkeeper with information relative to their business. The second add-on might depend on a vertical or niche that the accountant specializes in, but another great add-on to service every client is Bill.com.”

Jody Padar, CEO and principal of Mount Prospect, Ill.-based accounting firm New Vision CPA Group, agreed, and said, “I think there’s some core ones that you are going to use in your stack and then, depending on the niche that you serve, there will be additional ones that come in or out.”

Padar said that her firm’s typical stack starts with either QuickBooks Online or Xero, and includes payroll (Intuit Online Payroll for Accountants) and Hubdoc, a cloud application that automates financial document collection and processing. Depending on the client and their needs, additional solutions could include Bill.com or Expensify. “Everyone gets a trial balance, Hubdoc and payroll, and then everybody else we would interchange apps depending on who the client is and what they need. Now, these app stores are crazy and you could go into the depths of specialization … but, for the majority of small businesses, those three [solutions] will work,” Padar said.

As Padar noted, the apps marketplace continues to grow at a rapid pace. For example, the Intuit QuickBooks apps store launched in November 2013 and, according to Intuit, more than 1,200 apps are integrated on the QuickBooks platform, of which about 400 are published in the app store and about 800 are private integrations.

A recent Intuit study that focused on small businesses in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia found that 68 percent of small businesses are currently using mobile or Web-based apps to help run their operations and eliminate administrative tasks. Of those small businesses that use apps, 82 percent reported using between one and six apps.

Jackie Meyer, an Intuit user and president and founder of Southlake, Texas-based Meyer Tax Consulting, said of the growing marketplace, “I think it is very overwhelming for clients to try and find these solutions themselves. It is overwhelming to me. It is overwhelming to even an expert in this field because of all of the different options out there. … Just taking that burden off the clientele and the ease of mind that goes along with it [is beneficial for the client relationship]. Trusting us as their expert to find a connection with the app and help them with training on it.”

Nick Houldsworth, general manager of ecosystem for Xero, said that the cloud accounting provider’s ecosystem has grown to more than 500 app partners since 2011. “We’ve got a very vibrant ecosystem, and when you think what that means for accountants, there’s really two areas of strength that we are seeing,” he said. “One is just in terms of their ability to be more productive with the clients and add value. The second area, which is what we are starting to see more of now, especially as firms reach enough scale of 50 to 100 clients, where they can really look at how they can start to generate new revenue lines from within their own customer base but also from specializing in new customer types.”

There’s no doubt that the vast number of software add-ons can be daunting but, according to Donaldson of Expensify, there are a few tips to keep in mind:
Functionality: Find a tool that supports 90 percent of your clients, and worry about the exceptions when they matter.
Partner programs: Make sure the add-ons you select have a program that supports you as an accountant, with offerings like a free personal account, discounts, expedited support and specialized training.
Growth: Choosing a tool that scales with your company will reduce the number of headaches for accountants, admins and employees, and also maintains data integrity that might otherwise be lost in a transition.
People: Look for a tool backed by a company that is filled with people who will continue to drive the product and industry forward. Establish a relationship with these people as a partner, instead of just as a vendor.

“Add-ons can make or break an accounting professional’s stack, so carefully evaluate as many as possible,” said Donaldson. “Make sure you trial first to understand the core functions of the product.”


REAPING THE BENEFITS

Atlanta-based accounting and financial services company Acuity was founded in 2004, and today helps small businesses and entrepreneurs build up their internal accounting system by providing bookkeeping, bill pay, payroll, invoicing, GAAP reporting and CFO services. This year, the 80-person firm is projected to serve more than 700 small businesses. “Once we saw that there was some momentum in the cloud space, we started looking at different solutions and I think what I was surprised about was how many different solutions were out there,” said CEO and founder Kenji Kuramoto. “We didn’t feel like we could be successful or could be a good partner to our clients if we just came in and offered every single one of those solutions. We had to try to help them identify what would work best. Typically, we endorse maybe a handful [of solutions]. In some cases, one or two systems or maybe three, but we don’t go too much deeper than that.”

The core of the firm’s stack is Xero, said Kuramoto. As far as add-ons, the firm works with Bill.com for bill pay, Expensify for expense reporting, Harvest for timekeeping and Stripe for payment processing.

For Acuity, the advent of add-ons has resulted in two key benefits: greater efficiencies through automation and greater access to more robust data. “There’s a greater opportunity to capture that data and more of that data in a meaningful way for clients. … When you can take that data and integrate it back into some of the accounting systems and other systems, you are going to just get a more robust and meaningful picture, a more real-time picture of how their business is operating,” Kuramoto said.

Rodefer Moss & Co., which has eight offices throughout Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, has been using Receipt Bank for approximately nine months to facilitate collaboration with its clients and reduce the reliance on paper documents. Since then, it has experienced a significant increase in the productivity of its accounting staff, according to Susie Spears, a small-business services associate, and Ike Orwick, a partner at the firm. A reduction in the reliance on paper documents, increased accuracy in accounting records due to a reduction of data entry errors, and real-time reporting of financial data are some of the benefits realized by both the firm and its clients. In terms of time and cost savings, the firm is able to process transactions much more efficiently, which has increased staff productivity — all with no need for filing and storing paper documents. The savings in paper and storage alone more than pays for the applications, they stated.

Furthermore, the firm recently launched a new cloud-based accounting service, dubbed “Anywhere, Anytime Accounting,” to give its clients greater access to their financial data. Spears, a QuickBooks Advanced ProAdvisor, is leading the new automated service and said, “My ProAdvisor affiliation has provided a network of end users to collaborate with on the multitude of applications that are currently available. Additionally, we are affiliated with several consulting groups, which vet many of the applications available and provide useful feedback to their members. We have selected apps that we felt best integrated with QuickBooks in order expedite accounting procedures with a seamless process. Our clients appreciate the speed and accuracy of their financial data processing as well as access 24/7.”

Said Damien Greathead, vice president of business development for North America at Receipt Bank, which extracts information from invoices and receipts and publishes it directly into such software as Xero and QuickBooks Online, “I think more and more of the accounting process has an opportunity to be automated. By that, I mean the debits and credits. Receipt Bank can take all of that data off the source document and put it in the right place in the accounting software. If the accounting firm allows the software to do that, what that means is it frees up an enormous amount of the professional’s time to actually concentrate themselves to that trusted advisor.”

Jay Kimelman, a specialist Xero accountant and founder and chief accounting technologist of the Digital CPA in Orlando, Fla., said that, for the most part, his business clients “love the apps and the ability to make their job easier.”

“Gone are the days of collecting receipts, getting them into an envelope, and saving them until the end of the year. That is the greatest thing that we hear from our clients, is they can get their receipts, upload their picture [of the receipts], and upload to the app immediately and get rid of them. It saves them space, time and the energy of trying to keep up,” said Kimelman.

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Antoinette Alexander

Antoinette Alexander is a veteran journalist and editor