When Craig Baldwin set up one the first Xero-focused online accounting firms in the US two years ago, the company experienced rapid growth in its first year. On review, however, he found that it was less profitable than he had expected.
“We looked at where we were losing the time and it wasn’t doing the work. We had lots of good tools such as Xero, Receipt Bank, and so on,” Baldwin says.
He discovered the firm was losing a lot of time chasing clients for information to complete tax returns and other financial reports. Making phone calls and sending emails could take more than 25 percent of an accountant’s time, Baldwin found.
Baldwin emailed 50 Xero accounting firms and asked how they collected information without wasting time. “Forty of those 50 said we have the same problem,” Baldwin says. So he decided to build a program to solve it, leading to the birth of Sqrl.
Other attempts to tackle the process of collecting client information have included portals or “e-rooms”. Baldwin had used a similar service when he worked at Deloitte but found that clients rarely managed to visit and log into the website with the details supplied by the accountant.
“We needed a solution that fit into clients’ existing habits,” Baldwin says.
Sqrl is a messaging service that accountants and other professional services businesses can use to collect information. The Sqrl user sends a message through Sqrl to a client and the messaging program will send daily reminders asking for that information until the client fulfils the request.
Sqrl has a dashboard which shows the user all the requests outstanding and fulfilled, when the original request was made and any deadlines for collecting the information. Baldwin calls it “action-oriented communication”; the mascot is a digital hunter-gatherer.
Three firms are trialling the software and one said it had saved three to four hours a week. The paid service went live in April and has 100 paying users. Most of the interest in the application is from Xero firms because they are very growth oriented and are looking for ways to become more efficient. A more traditional firm is less likely to find the software useful because they have less interest in adopting scalable processes.
The potential market is broader than accountants. Highly-paid loan officers at a local bank are using Sqrl to collect data every month, quarter or year. The bank is trialling the service in their lending department. “When you have 150 loan officers and I can save you three to four hours per person per week that’s very material to the bank,” Baldwin says.
Sqrl uses online forms for collecting data which is more efficient than emailing a PDF which the client must print out, write up, scan and send back. Many accountants use this method to send out a tax organiser PDF for their individual clients.
Using Sqrl, an accountant could email all their clients and watch the dashboard to see who had filled out the form. Once a client had answered all the questions Sqrl notified the accountant that he or she could start processing their tax return.
“The accountant is never back in their list of items looking at what’s back and what’s not. They have a dashboard that shows all the items and the status of the items,” Baldwin says.
The Sqrl team are working on integrating the service with the contacts database in Google Apps’ Gmail and Xero which will make it easier to contact groups of clients. Other integrations will be with email services so that accountants can use Sqrl from their existing mail program, with Xero to follow up on outstanding invoices, and with digital signature services to chase clients needing to sign a contract.
The service is also planning to integrate with Dropbox, Google Drive and Box; the goal is to automatically save files emailed back by accountants to the correct folder.
A longer term goal is to integrate with the comment function in Xero’s reconciliation screen where clients can leave a query for their accountant about categorising a transaction. “Our experience is that while people leave comments in Xero on each transaction, they’re copy and pasting them into an email and asking can you please address these. We want to turn each of into Sqrl requests,” Baldwin says.