This accountant built the budgeting app he wanted to see

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Eli Mandel provides bookkeeping services for nonprofits, but soon he’ll be heading up a new tech company.

The accountant turned tech developer found during his accounting career that both individuals and small businesses had similar problems when it came to budgeting — namely, they were bad at it. Eventually, he got frustrated enough to build a solution to the problem. That took the form of NaviBudget, a budgeting app built for QuickBooks Online.

But Mandel also found that such a solution, born out of the specific problem of how to create workable budgets, was more in demand from nonprofits than any other entity.

“Nonprofit organizations generally — hopefully — understand the money isn’t theirs, and that they’re responsible for it,” Mandel explained. “So they’re generally already in the practice of budgeting — badly maybe, but they’re but doing it — and have to report to stakeholders. For small business owners, it’s up to them. NaviBudget is a much easier sell to nonprofits. They want it.”

So how did Mandel get to a point where he thought he, as an accountant, could build a technology solution to a problem he saw?

When Mandel graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with an M.S. in accounting in 2009, he found his way to volunteering for an organization called Mesila, an Israel-based organization that focuses on teaching families and individuals financial skills, and ways to improve their relationship with money. Later, he opened and ran Mesila’s Cleveland chapter for two years. The project is more social work than accounting, Mandel said, but it inspired him to view his accounting work through a new lens.

“I was really fascinated by the psychology that goes into it,” Mandel said. “It’s really not so much about money — and another director said to me that he found the accountant volunteers working with people were the worst counselors. He would rather take a social worker and teach them the numbers than have an accountant and try to get them to work well with people. It really is psychology. People take an emotional approach to money.”

Mandel saw that people, on an individual level, and then by extension small businesses, which are run by people, have a fraught relationship with money that a regular accountant-client relationship isn’t very good at addressing. When he left Mesila and went back to providing bookkeeping services as a practitioner through his firm InBooks, he “saw it was exactly the same — it’s an exact application,” he said. “The same way people deal with personal finances is how people deal with business finances.”

NaviBudget is an effort to ease this fraught relationship. The cloud-based app is designed with a multi-user environment, and currently offers forecasting, cash flow forecasting and management as well as budgeting capabilities. The software also combines the budgeting with the forecasting so that users can get a cash balance forecast — knowing in advance, for example, how much cash an organization will have in the bank on a particular day in the future.

Mandel has been working on NaviBudget for years. At first, he was building the budgeting functions with a combination of Microsoft Excel, which handled the formulas and number-crunching, and Google Sheets, which provided lightweight multi-user capabilities. He played around with different tools to pull data from the QBO accounting software, namely Microsoft Power BI and CData.

"I didn’t realize what I was doing," Mandel said of his time building the automated systems. "I was just doing what needed to be done."

Eventually, when he was ready, he sought help from software developers to take his basic software to the next level.

Using the job board Upwork, he found a data scientist who played the role of project manager in further developing NaviBudget (she declined to be named for this story, as she is still employed full-time elsewhere). When NaviBudget becomes a formal company, she will take on the role of chief technology officer. She and Mandel oversaw the development process closely, which was conducted by a team of freelance developers who were also hired via Upwork.

NaviBudget is still in the beta testing stage — Mandel said anyone can sign up right now— but bugs are still being worked out. As users sign up, Mandel and his team can identify different issues that arise from the different ways that users have QBO configured.

But Mandel is already offboarding his clients at InBooks, and he anticipates NaviBudget being ready for submission to QuickBooks for its app store within a month. And when that happens, he will be a tech startup founder full-time, leaving his accounting practice behind him.

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Apps Nonprofit accounting software Hardware and software