When Paul Meissner decided to start his own accounting firm, he wanted to do things differently. He had worked in several traditional accounting firms, small companies with 25 staff, and had become disenchanted with the timesheet-driven culture.
Meissner took a blank sheet of paper and sketched a model for the ideal type of business that he imagined would satisfy himself and future clients. The blueprint was radically different to the typical accounting firm: fixed fee versus hourly rates; highly mobile versus a central office; and highly efficient versus maximising billable time.
“I wanted to work from anywhere. I didn’t want to be tied to a desk and tied to a server,” Meissner says.
This radical model was only possible because it was based on a cloud-based accounting system, Meissner says, which in this case was the New Zealand company Xero.
“I found Xero and it all made sense. The whole collaboration, one ledger (for client and accountant), I could do it from anywhere, I could give my clients a better service. That was the cornerstone.”
Meissner says he otherwise would have paid at least $25,000 for a copy of MYOB Accountants Office for timesheet management, tax form lodgement and CRM, as well as a server on which to run it.
“Usually the first thing you do is go out and buy a PC and a server. You know you’re going to have a heap of documents and need somewhere to put them,” Meissner says.
Because Meissner chose cloud-only programs he was able to work from cafes for the first three months and save on office rent. Staff can work from home, the office or a client’s premises as long as they have an internet connection.
Meissner spent weeks trialling cloud software for document management and CRM (customer relationship management). He estimates that he tested 11 CRM programs and reviewed 15 more by reading blogs and forum posts and looking at their websites. He looked at programs written in South Africa, UK, New Zealand and Australia.
“Websites are now really well organised. The features are listed easily, you watch the fluffy tour video and get a feel for what it looks like, and Google them to find out what people are saying in the forums. Anything that looks like it was designed in Excel you close it down and move on.
“The other thing I really liked was that with everything you could take out a trial. (In the past) you used to pick the best looking box at OfficeWorks and spend a grand on it.”
Next page: FiveWays slashes costs with cloud software.
Another appeal of trialling cloud programs was that Meissner could sign up for a free trial, upload live customer data and use the service for a week. He invested more time with Batchbook CRM until he realised that it wasn’t the right fit and exported his information to use in another cloud program.
“I could easily roll (my data) into another system. I hear horror story with on-premise systems,” he says.
Meissner ended up choosing a hosted CRM designed by a local developer and Box.net for document management. Fiveways staff use the desktop Microsoft Office suite on their laptops for document creation and Apple’s consumer MobileMe cloud service (soon to be renamed iCloud) for syncing calendars and contacts to laptops, tablets and smartphones.
The hosted CRM lets clients sign their engagement letters and other documents electronically using the same digital signing protocol used by the Australian Taxation Office. One prospect contacted Meissner by Twitter, then called on Skype and within 12 hours had received and signed the engagement letter, downloaded the debit form and signed on for a year’s accounting services by subscription subscription.
Meissner says he was able to keep his technology costs far lower than if he had bought a server based solution. Fiveways spent $500 for a year’s subscription to Box.net and $25 a month for website hosting and email.
“Compared to buying a server, it’s almost free. I got through half the year by being on the free subscription for most of them,” he says.
Meissner tested SalesForce.com, Capsule and Batchbook CRM and WorkflowMax for document management but found were suited to subscription billing or provided a detailed client interface. Last week he started to design his own platform which he hopes to sell to other accounting firms.
Mobility was an important factor in choosing cloud-based programs. Meissner always checked to see whether a program had an app for the iPhone and preferably the iPad too, and claims he was the first accounting firm in Australia to release its own iPhone app.
Box.net syncs documents between the cloud, laptops and mobile devices and has a protected client portal for customers to access copies of their tax returns and other important shared documents. The Box.net platform also hosts the firm’s internal documents, policies and procedures.
“The phone can ring in a cafe and I can do an engagement letter and debit form from any device and email it straight to clients. I never wanted to tell a client, ‘Wait until I get back to the office’,” Meissner says.
Meissner is selling an associate model which helps other accountants move from hourly billing to fixed price, and advice on the cloud services required to support the model.