[IMGCAP(1)]For most of us in the accounting profession, Excel spreadsheets are tried and true tools of the trade. And that’s absolutely fine. They’re what we know. They’re comfortable. And for the most part, they get the job done.

But if we look at other corners of the company, we’ll see something changing. We’ll see that Web-based tools are not only transforming the way business gets done, but also taking it to the next level. Look at what Salesforce has done for the sales team. Web-based tools like HubSpot, Postling and HootSuite are changing the way the marketing team manages social media campaigns and drive inbound traffic. IT has helpful tools like Zendesk for support and droves of project management tools. HR pros have recruiting management tools like TheApplicants and Resumator. The list goes on.

Until recently, finance/accounting was missing out, destined to keep trudging along with Excel and desktop accounting software. But now there’s a wave of exciting innovation happening in our neck of the woods (clearly we’re not biased!). And it’s happening for a big reason: we are the keepers of the numbers—and numbers matter most.

Below we’ve compiled a short crash course covering all you need to know about Web-based software for the accounting team, what some of the most interesting ones are, how they can help, and much more.

To start, people throw around buzzwords like “cloud-based” as if everyone knows what they mean. We’ve learned that that’s not always the case. So when we say things like Web-based or cloud-based when referring to software, we’re talking applications that aren’t sitting on your desktop (i.e. Excel). We’re talking about apps you access online, sometimes for free and sometimes for a monthly subscription fee.

The benefits of apps like these? Well, it depends on your specific use (which we’ll get into below), but here are a few general thoughts:

•    Anywhere Access: Who loves the experience of sending an Excel attachment back and forth, over and over? Changes getting lost. Versions conflicting. Formulas getting funky. We didn’t think so. Web-based apps let anyone with permission access a project from anywhere. No more attachments. No more delays. Always up to date.
•    Ease of Use: Traditional accounting software has a reputation for being difficult to use and supremely unintuitive. Among those of us developing Web-based accounting apps, design and user experience are our guiding light. Why shouldn’t accounting apps elicit satisfaction and delight? Why shouldn’t data analysis churn out insights and reports that are not only readable but communicable in the monthly board meeting during which everyone dreads having to slog through financials?
•    Targeted use cases: You might not want to leave QuickBooks behind after all these years (you’re not alone), but you don’t need to jump into Web-based software both-feet-in. Most solutions these days offer very specific functionality like planning, inventory management, expense reporting and shipping. So you can keep QuickBooks where it is and try out a solution that will tackle one problem for you or your clients.
•    Interactivity: When you make a change in Excel it sits in Excel and that’s it. But the Web-based tools we’re talking about interact with QuickBooks or other accounting suites. So when you change something in one place, the data is reflected everywhere else. “One source of truth,” and “don’t repeat yourself” are the names of the game.

So what’s out there?

Here are a couple of the key categories we’re seeing emerge, as well as some of the top players in the marketplace today for each.

Accounting Software

There are lots of accountants who are comfortable with QuickBooks on the desktop and don’t want to see that go away. Conversely, there are others who find it pretty clunky and difficult, and they are looking for something Web-based and easier to work with. It’s that second group that is using tools like...

•    Xero: One of the strongest Web-based accounting tools for small businesses comes from—of all places—New Zealand. They have a tremendous footprint in the U.K., South Africa, Australia and N.Z., and have recently entered the U.S. market. Their solution is stable and feature-rich. You will be hearing more from these guys to be sure. ($19-39 per month)
•    NetSuite: They are the absolute No. 1 in terms of market share for Web-based ERP solutions, but they are a bit “upmarket” (read: expensive) of most small businesses. (pricing proprietary)
•    Outright: A classic venture-backed startup, sort of the mint.com for small businesses ($9.95 per month)
•    Indinero: Another venture-backed startup in the space, definitely worth checking out ($0-49 per month)

Planning and Analytics

Here’s your real opportunity to put Excel to bed (at least for some tasks...). These apps help put a plan in place and measure plan versus actual performance. Some provide easy to use reporting on existing accounting data that you and your clients can access easily from any computer.

•    Profitably*: Cutting-edge planning software that connects to QuickBooks for plan vs. actual. Our advanced analytics provide insights into cash-flow planning, customer profitability, and employee analytics. (“Planning” is free, and the advanced analytics are $49.99 per month).
•    60mo: Planning software with direct connectivity to source bank data. Rich feature set and beautiful visual design. ($29-49 per month)
•    Coreltyics: Dashboard software that plugs straight into QuickBooks and compares to industry benchmarks. ($29-59 per month)
•    Qlikview: Perhaps in a slightly different category, Qlikview is a fantastic Web-based Business Intelligence tool that many small businesses are quickly embracing. (pricing proprietary)

Billing and Invoicing

Gone are the days of manually e-mailing clients for money or writing out checks by hand. That would be like manually entering transactions from bank statements. Now it’s possible to automate these processes, not only to save a TON of time, but also to reduce the incidence of errors.

•    FreshBooks: The undisputed king of invoicing. If you or your clients submit invoices to get paid, FreshBooks is a lifesaver and a well-established company in the space (starting at $19.95 per month)
•    Bill.com: Bill.com does both bill payment (AP) and invoicing (AR) and features a well-known accountant program. ($24-29 per month)

Other apps

There are so many solutions in the marketplace, it’s impossible to put together a short list. There are industry-specific solutions and solutions that solve very specific challenges. Here are a couple examples:

•    Expensify: They claim to make expense reports that “don’t suck.” If you or your clients are tired of manually collecting expense receipts and wading through approvals, check them out. ($5 per month per submitter)
•    BeneShip: They work with Pitney Bowes and other logistics providers to leverage spend and bring killer deals to companies that ship. Oh, and they connect to QuickBooks, making the process dead simple. (now in beta—get in there for free while you can!)
•    AuditMyBooks: They pull your QuickBooks or QuickBooks online data automatically and scan for a broad range of audit flags. Every month, automatically. Need I say more? ($99 per year)

Clearly, there’s a lot going on out there. It can seem downright overwhelming in terms of how fast everything is moving forward. So as you dip your toe into Web-based finance/accounting apps, keep in mind the problems you want to solve, the objectives you are seeking to accomplish, and start by solving those. You don’t have to dump your existing processes to get started, either.

And one more thing. The CEOs of these companies are dying to help you get where you want to go. They’re in this for a reason, and you’re it. So if you’re not sure if it makes sense for you to use their tools or someone else’s, give them a ring. You might be surprised by how candid they will be. I should know—I am one of them!

Adam Neary is the CEO of Profitably (see *), a web app that helps small business owners plan, measure, and execute on what matters: their business. For more information, visit Profitably.com. And to ask Adam anything, email him at adam.neary@profitably.com.