Cloud computing is cheaper, and it avoids many secondary costs like running servers, but the main reason to look at a cloud-finance system is to integrate all your business IT. After spending the last three years becoming a credible option for fast moving, smaller businesses, larger business should now evaluate moving their ERP & finance systems to the cloud. 

Tim Richardson is an Australian CPA with CFO & Finance Director experience with large SMEs and multinationals. He had senior IT and Finance roles in Indonesia, Asia Pacific and Western & Central Europe. Prior to moving into finance, he was an ERP developer, implementation consultant and implementation project manager. 

The cloudy new direction of business IT

The future of business IT is in the cloud. It's cheaper, simpler yet more insightful and more productive. The cloud revolution is propelled by fast, reliable internet; cheap servers and widely-used open-standards for interchanging data and instructions between software.

Small businesses can use cloud software to avoid owning and babysitting a Windows server (backups, updates, power failures ...). They can disperse their workforce more easily, and use contract staff and remote staff for back-office functions. So the cost saving and flexibility advantages extend further than it seems at first glance.

It also means that service relationships with bookkeepers and financial advisors can move away from a transaction view (pay-per-hour) and backwards-looking data (bank reconciliations done every month at best) to a more more up-to-date basis with a focus on decisions and information, not reporting. The IT playing field is levelled: previously only larger companies could afford the IT needed to become a data-driven business.

For larger businesses, these cloud advantages exist as well. Additionally, there are potentially large cost savings when moving away from traditional ERP software, which is expensive to implement, to customise, to integrate and to own. Staff training costs tend to be much lower with cloud software, which uses simpler user-interfaces everyone is familiar with. 

Above all, more complex business can use the Open API revolution to integrate IT like never before. 

Lower costs are not the real potential of cloud-computing. It is these interfaces, called APIs, which are the most revolutionary aspect of cloud computing, because they offer the prospect of integrating the increasing use of advanced IT in all aspects of a modern business. For example, it is possible to build interfaces between a bank feed, an online store, a pick-and-pack logistics provider and a traditional ERP system. But it's very expensive. With cloud software backed by Open APIs, this is basically trivial. Traditional ERP packages solved this problem by offering more and more functionality under the one roof, but the explosion of IT everywhere has left this approach behind. You either don't get the functionality, or you get a poor ghost of what your competitors are using. 

What about hosted and hybrid solutions?

You may hear terms like "hosted" and "hybrid". A hosted solution means that the software still runs on a server, nearly always (in this case) a Windows server, and you access the server remotely (from many different "clients": a PC, a Mac, an iPad or a Chromebook: they all have good Microsoft Remote Desktop software). It may be your server, and you pay per month to rent this server. Or it may be a server belonging to a software vendor; it offers access to many clients, you being one of them. For vendors, this means they can offer some cloud benefits without changing their software much: the server doing the hosting runs Windows, the same environment that it runs on locally.

Hosting gives you remote access, a simpler life, and exactly the same software with no learning curve. It requires a good, fast internet connection, particularly for multiple users. It is not an efficient way to access a remote computer. The main disadvantage is that you still using and paying for pre-cloud software with no "cloud-skills": a hosting solution doesn't help legacy software connect to other software in the cloud: it just means your server is somewhere else. I would almost always prefer a hosted solution to running your own server, but you should still evaluate the possibilities of genuine cloud software.

"Hybrid" means many things, but in the context of SME accounting I see it mainly used with MYOB's AccountRight Live product. Here, hybrid means you have the option of keeping the data file in MYOB's cloud servers. Since this solution means you still need a Windows desktop running MYOB's software, it is even further from the real cloud that a hosted solution. However, the data in the cloud is accessible via an API, which moves it closer to genuine cloud solution (although using this product in cloud-mode is optional). 

 

The Open API revolution of Cloud Computing

The traditional model of business IT is all-under-one-roof monolithic IT systems (the king of this jungle is SAP R/3; MYOB is its little brother by concept). These systems were hard to integrate with other software, requiring specialised skills in proprietary languages and even proprietary databases. Once a business committed to a platform, it was largely locked in. After paying high upfront licence fees, they could look forward to expensive annual maintenance fees. Businesses relied for implementation on consultants who were narrow specialists in a particular proprietary solution (in fact, software specialists were themselves locked in to particular solutions; moving to a new system was a traumatic career change). 

The monolithic approach risks a "Jack of all trades, master of none" approach. Why did they dominate business software? Before the rise of modern APIs, the cost of wiring together "best of breed " software was so high that monolithic systems ruled the earth. Now, they are an endangered species. Expensive to own, slow to innovate and hard to use, they are on the way out.

The API revolution can be starkly illustrated by the old and new approach to integrating software. A traditional software solution charges very high fees to buy the "developer licence" which only then provides the documentation and software allowing programmers to import and export data. Apart from the licence cost, APIs were poorly standardised and required a lot of love and attention. Putting together systems required much specialised knowledge.

Cloud providers provide access to the API for free. Usually you don't even need to register. They all support the same approach to sharing data and commands, and allow developers to use open-source languages like Javascript and PHP. There are thousands of developers in Australia alone who can take two APIs they have never seen before, and get some basic interchange working later that day.

So the API revolution finally makes it possible for small businesses to combine best of breed software, something which even large companies would not attempt ten years ago.

When you terminate your subscription?

Migrating accounting system is never much fun. If you cancel your subscription, it is usually to migrate to a new system. In a nutshell, cloud solutions are neither much worse or much easier. They should be superior because the APIs make it much easier for programmers to access the old data and smoothly move it to the new system, but whether you find a good solution for your particular migration is something which needs research.

If you want the view the data read-only, you will be exporting from the old system both final reports and journal transactions saved in text files. This is inferior to the traditional desktop software which has a perpetual licence: you can always open MYOB and view an old file. It would be nice if the cloud vendors provided permanent read access to terminated subscriptions because it would remove this difference. I have not researched that yet, but I know it is a common concern.

Aside: It's more than collecting numbers

When you're ready to go beyond collecting data, and you want to start using it to grow your business, you may be interested in our Profit Engineering approach.

Some articles worth looking at are:

Smaller businesses looking simply for a browser-based accounting package

Smaller businesses come here looking to find a bookkeeping solution ready to go, and they will compare functionality to the benchmark, which is MYOB. This is actually fairly easy. Saasu is the closest match to MYOB Account Right Premier, since it has a basic inventory module. Xero doesn't. Saasu is cheaper than Xero as well. But Xero is still a good choice, as you'll see below. Xero has a better (much) API and it has ready-to-integration with more software, including some very good inventory packages that leave MYOB Account Right in the dust. These superior inventory packages generally work with Saasu as well, it's just that Saasu also provides MYOB-like inventory anyway.

The real benefits of a cloud package don't really come from being to view your accounts from an iPad on the beach. The real benefits will come when you want to add online stores, CRMs, marketing automation, point of sale, social media and Google Apps. You should give attention to the quality of the API and size of the ecosystem.

Read more about the importance of using a Perpetual Inventory system to grow your margins

A case study in ERP savings for a larger business

I was approached by a manufacturing business using a legacy ERP system with annual maintenance fees of around $10,000. As well, the software required Windows Server, and an upgrade was necessary since they were on Windows Server 2003.

The owner of this business was interested in Xero but knew it was not a replacement on its own. So he contacted GrowthPath. 

I was skeptical. Xero had no inventory functionality, let alone any support for manufacturing. 

However, I studied a third party package called Unleashed. This package offered purchasing, ordering, inventory management and simple routing and costing. It was not a one-for-one replacement of the existing software. But it was close, and it avoided a server upgrade, delivered annual savings of around $8000 and allowed the owner to easily stay in touch with the business while travelling. For my consulting fee I provided data migration instructions. The conversion was successful.

A case study in API integration

A traditional POS cafe IT setup would cost around $8000, involving a Windows server, and dedicated POS software. On top of that you then provide an accounting package. There are hidden costs in running a server; the electricity bill is not trivial, but it needs backups and much love and attention.

Or you can subscribe to Xero for the bookkeeping and payroll, Kounta for the POS (running on iPads) and Deputy for staff rostering and timesheets, three cloud systems. There is no server. You still need to buy a cashdrawer and order printers, but there is a lot of change left from $8000, and you can see up to the minute sales data from anywhere.

A simple mashup

Another business is a jewellery wholesaler. When signing up retail outlets, it's helpful for both the wholesaler and the potential stockist to see that there are no other stockists nearby. Using APIs, it is only a couple of hours work to combine Google Maps and Saasu's customer database to have an stockist location map viewable on the sales rep's iPad. Google  has a free geo-location API which will take a list of addresses and give you the precise latitude and longitude, so you can easily show stockists with a certain radius of a location.

Accounting systems remain at the heart of business IT

The heart of the traditional business software is accounting functionality. Many visitors to this page are in one of these camps:

  • Businesses which are looking to exit MYOB because they have outgrown it
  • Businesses which are looking to exit traditional ERP software because they seek an alternative to expensive licence fees
  • New businesses looking for a system choice

Based on feedback and questions I get, I feel (anecdotally) that the the second type of business is growing fast. I am therefore reorienting this content. 

In all cases, visitors to this site are considering a cloud accounting system at the heart of their IT stack. Of course, by now, many businesses have cloud applications doing important roles: at the very least; websites, online stores, and possibly marketing automation tools like Infusionsoft. 

Three years ago, cloud accounting software had limited functionality and a deserved reputation as tools limited to micro-businesses. But since then, the functionality has evolved in interesting ways, particularly to support collaboration and a less PC-centric way of working. The other development has been the rapid growth of the cloud-ecosystem. The promise of building plug-and-play IT by linking together software from different vendors has come to pass.

So where do the Australian cloud-accounting packages stand? How do you choose?

The Summary

a) the core accounting functionality of cloud packages does not yet rival mature packages in some areas which may be important. However, functionality gaps are likely to be solvable by integrating another package. 

b) the ecosystem of connected applications is a key reason to make the move

c) For more complex businesses, Xero must be on the shortlist. Xero has the best ecosystem by far.

d) Business using traditional ERP packages can save a lot of money and dramatically modernise their IT

e) To assess how genuinely cloud-ready a package is, Google to try to find the API documentation for Javascript and PHP in less than two minutes (e.g. "Xero API")

f) don't forget the productivity advantages of modern IT. No more emailed reports. Lose the clunky integration with Microsoft Outlook. Mobile-phone snapshots of receipts and notes are simply attached. Mobile phones, tablets and Chromebooks are first class devices.

Our own experience

When we started GrowthPath, we had no intention of relying on PC-based software whenever there was an alternative. There were a few candidate solutions for our accounting & billing needs. We spent the first year on MYOB's offering, "Live Accounts", and then moved to Xero, and then to Saasu.

Vendors of cloud software usually deliver new features and improvements quite often, so these packages are moving targets. Comments here are based on functionality at the time of writing. 

Pricing

Pricing changes. At the moment, Saasu has the most flexibility in tiers, is cheaper and I think it is clearly the best value for money. Only Saasu still has a entry-level offer.

Saasu in 2015 has seen some big changes, with the product extending to "Advanced" options which incorporate some big leaps in functionality, including powerful inventory features.

Xero and Saasu have increased prices at the start of 2015, although the point above is still true. These packages base their pricing tiers on the business complexity: how many transactions, how many bank feeds, how many employees. They don't limit by how you use it or how many users you have. QuickBooks, however, has user numbers in its pricing tiers still.

Inventory: Perpetual vs Periodic

Saasu has Perpetual Inventory in all plans. Quickbooks Online offers it in the "Plus" plan. Xero and the basic Quickbooks plans offer only Periodic, which means "manual". Perpetual is much better, if you have stock. 

Learn more about choosing an inventory approach: You need to use Perpetual to understand what's going on in your business.

Saasu's implementation in the $40 plan is basic. If you need more, including back-ordering, kit-costing and manufacturing, you'll can look at the $70 a month plan (which meets some of these requirements), or you may need a third party solution. There are good ones: look at Unleashed and Stitched. Those packages integrate with Xero and Quickbooks too.

Xero for some reason has ignored this requirement. In January 2015 Xero announced via a blog post that "basic inventory" is coming soon.

It seems inventory may end being a deliberate point of difference for Saasu, since it now offers a level of more sophisticated inventory features in its Large plan. In this plan, you get customised attributes associated with items, which are then used on sales orders and purchase orders. Saasu defaults one of these attributes to location, for example. They can also cope with variants, such as size, color or style. This feature is not very usable at present and I hesitate to recommend it, but the necessary user-interface improvements are on the way. There is some more comment below in the Saasu section.

Saasu's advantages with inventory make it compelling value for money for businesses with trading stock, at least until we see what Xero will offer. 

Payroll

Payroll is complicated. While these systems support payroll, it is basic and requires the use of skilled personnel. Payroll is an area where a small business should use a qualified bookkeeper, even if they have software that offers "payroll". Businesses with complex payroll should still consider outsourcing it or using dedicated software. Even clients with "big" ERP systems go down this path.

Did you know that Australian bookkeepers need to be Registered BAS Tax Agents, or work under the supervision of one, if they advertise GST and payroll BAS services? This guarantees that your bookkeeper has at least a Tax Agent Board approved Certificate IV in Bookkeeping, and they must meet other tests, including have Professional Indemnity Insurance. Payroll expertise can avoid big and expensive disasters.

Intercompany

I am still looking for a good intercompany solution with cloud packages... this means an extension that automatically keeps inter-company accounts balanced. None of the packages here offer that, including the traditional versions. This is almost the last frontier of the cloud-based accounting packages for privately-owned SME needs. MYOB doesn't offer it either.

Saasu's Large plan at least offers a "consolidated P&L", which can combine the P&Ls of separate companies under the same subscription. I haven't used this. There are plenty of Excel solutions that are fairly easy to adapt to Xero, and no doubt there are plug-ins as well.

The real win for multi-entity businesses is automatic balancing entries for multi-entity entries (e.g. booking a rent expense into an administrative entity, and have it automatically split the expense to other entities, all the while creating balancing intercompany loan accounts). None of these packages offer that and I'm not aware of any third party solutions. Thanks to the APIs, it's not hard to build this.

Analytics

Accounting reports are pretty useless for the decisions which actually help a business grow. They are slow, out of date and offer little to no insight into how you get sales, or what really drives your profit.

Analytics refers to software which lets you get closer to up-to-date analysis of what you really need to be focusing on. In terms of user experience, this is browser-based software that is heavily graphical and lets you "drill down" to see details, and "drill up" to keep a big-picture view. And so on. Getting good analytics is how small businesses become profitable bigger businesses, not just bigger businesses. 

There are third party analytics modules, including cloud ones.

Pay heed to this sage advice: the balance sheet and the profit & loss report are generic: they are basically the same for every business, and hence vendors of accounting systems can offer the same solutions to everyone.

But your business drivers are the heart of your competitive advantage (or why you get sales) and this is the every opposite of generic. Eighty percent of a good analytics implementation is carefully designing a handful of key business drivers specific for your business in the context of its competitors and its market. The software aspect is minor. Let a software guy loose, and you'll get 50 KPIs with very cool formulas. But you need less than ten KPIs or otherwise you can't focus. 

MYOB Essentials (formerly MYOB LiveAccounts) 

MYOB Essentials is a reboot, the second generation of its pure cloud bookkeeping package. It keeps the simplicity of the former LiveAccounts but offers a good API. MYOB lost years, and it suffers by being late to the market. However, MYOB itself appears to be resourcing integration with some well-known cloud packages, and the use of an web-based API means that building your own integration is easy (or cheap).

  • MYOB Essentials is well supported, with very helpful live support included in the subscription.
  • It's a real double entry accounting system with real live feeds from bank accounts (but it doesn't have Perpetual Inventory).
  • Given it's a real accounting system, it's not complex. It's fast to get started.
  • MYOB Essentials has some big functional gaps. No inventory, no support for different credit terms or even rudimentary job costing. It now has payroll, at least.
  • Reporting is basic. Almost no support for cash flow forecasting. Virtually no export to Excel.
  • LiveAccounts looks quite close to MYOB. The default chart of accounts follows the same numbers. The BAS report looks like BAS Link.

While Essentials is a big improvement from MYOB LiveAccounts, MYOB clearly does not expect it to appeal to "larger businesses" (which it defines as > $3m). MYOB points people to a hybrid-web version of its traditional MYOB product, AccountRight, and from there it offers MYOB Exo, a traditional (and not very impressive) ERP package. MYOB is steadily adjusting to the new world; it remains to be seen what happens to its market share. 

MYOB AccountRight Live

Most of MYOB's customer base is using AccountRight Premier, the traditional MYOB product. It is basically a technological dinosaur -- a slow, crash-prone non-database backend with a limit of three years of data and idiosyncratic user-interface which hasn't changed much. MYOB has two cloud solutions: MYOB Essentials, targeted at the low-end of MYOB customer base, and the only hybrid product on the market, AccountRight Live. Hybrid means it is possible to keep the data in the cloud, allowing easy remote access. The software normally used to access cloud software is a browser, but in the case of AccountRightLive, it's a Windows-only package. So you still need Windows and all that entails. No OS X, Chromebook, Linux, iOS or Android access.

It is a new product despite the familiar name. The latest pricing options have higher-end plans which offer stock and payroll; the functionality may not be exactly the same as AccountRight Premier but it's close (on the more expensive plans). It doesn't support the ODBC driver, which is bad news for businesses which use add-on software for MYOB. Accessing AccountRight Live still requires use of AccountRight installed on a Windows PC. It is has two modes of operation. In "cloud" mode, users are accessing a MYOB file on the cloud. No one can use local data in this mode. 

If someone wants to use it locally, the system goes into single user mode. Cloud access is now read-only. Apparently this means that somewhat paradoxically, you need to have internet access in order to go offline (or how else does the cloud file know a user wants to checkout the file in order to go offline?). MYOB warns that cloud mode may be slow compared to the "fast" desktop version. Note that this also means you need to resume access to the internet to unlock the cloud file so that other people can update MYOB.

The API seems complete. 

From the user's point of view, there is one benefit to compensate for the lack of a true cloud solution:

  • access to data offline (but this locks all cloud users out), which can also be viewed as a very easy way to take your data with your when you end a subscription.

There are lots of disadvantages, though.

For users or small businesses who are looking for a mobile-device approach to business, AccountRightLive requires you have to a Windows laptop with you. Xero, in particular, has a reasonably capable mobile phone/iPad app. There is an AccountRightLive Windows App which is read-only (can't make invoices), but it only works on Windows mobile devices which even Microsoft appears to have given up on.

AccountRightLive also has a purely local datashare model, which seems very similar (in practice) to traditional AccountRight.MYOB says that the local data sharing works for up to five users. This is basically the same as the practical limit of the old software.

Overall, it's hard to find advantages which outweigh the disadvantages and there are certainly a few questions I would ask before taking steps down this path.

Strategically, I wonder: why does AccountRightLive exist, when MYOB has a competing online solution? Is MYOB Live Essentials going to be starved of feature development to make sure AccountRightLive has a point of difference?

MYOB's other products

MYOB has a range of other products. For many years, its strategy to upsize businesses was to move them to new products, like Myob EXO, a traditional ERP. I don't think it worked very well, and small ERPs are now very much under threat from cloud offers. MYOB has a new product for larger businesses, MYOB Advanced, which is a cloud ERP bundling the usual suspects (such as a CRM). I don't know anything about it as this stage. EXO was a completely different product and offered no synergy to MYOB Account Right users except for a data import wizard, and I suspect MYOB Advanced is likewise an acquisition. Pricing is not directly available, which I find old-school.

The contrast with the promise of Open API-based products is stark: with those, you grow by integrating functionality, not by changing platforms. This gives you the chance to choose the best CRM for your industry, for example. It is interesting that few vendors attempt to bundle online stores anymore: the stand-alone products quickly became overwhelmingly superior. This is true of other modules as well, in my opinion.

Xero

The elephant in the room, at least in Australia/New Zealand, is Xero. Xero is a genuine disruptor. Xero launched later than Saasu, but with a crystal-clear understanding of their market and what a cloud-solution should offer, Xero looks like a winner. Every third party product integrates with Xero; it is the iOS of the cloud accounting market.

Xero is a good accounting package. Australian localisation is second to none. It has an excellent and well tested API. It has promoted a good certification program to develop skills among bookkeepers, and there is a lot of community support. Functionality improvements are constant. 

The most obvious weakness for many businesses is stock. So far, Xero does not offer an inventory module. MYOB AccountRight, the key old-school competitor, does have inventory. So does Saasu; it's Large plan offers an enhanced stock module better than AccountRight, and all plans offer a decent one-location inventory solution. Quickbooks has a basic inventory module in its large plan.

Xero decided for a long time not to go down the rabbit hole. Instead, it leaves this to other cloud-players, who can then use Xero's API to integrate easily. And this has happened. There are cloud providers who offer inventory management solutions approaching the capabilities of respectable ERPs with licence fees above $50K. These packages provide multi-site inventory management, purchase orders and sophisticated sales order systems. And of course, integration with online stores like Shopify is supported "out of the box". However, Xero has had a change of heart, and plans to offer inventory functionality in 2015.

In terms of core accounting functionality, Xero is somewhere between MYOB Essentials and AccountRight. But with Xero, extending capabilities is easier than any of the competition. No package has a better API, and Xero also has the largest developer mind-share.

I think most medium sized businesses will find Xero's payroll, basic reporting and GST functionality fine. Like QuickBooks, AccountRight and Saasu,  Xero requires that you understand bookkeeping. MYOB Essentials reduces functionality and makes interface choices to be more accessible for one-person businesses.

Xero shines as part of a cloud-based workflow. Here it is well ahead of its competition. Export of reports into Google Drive is native, for example. Images and notes can be attached to most records. Saasu is making some recent strides in this direction.

Xero support is unfortunately basic. Xero expects that you get support from your bookkeeper or accountant.

Saasu

I still come across people who don't know Saasu. Saasu is older than Xero, and it's Australian. So why is it relatively obscure?

For strategic reasons. The founders of Saasu have chosen not to raise millions and burn it on marketing. I'm not sure that was the correct decision, but it's the main reason Xero is more well known. And Xero is still not cashflow positive (as of early 2015).

As a product viewed on its own merits, Saasu is good. Saasu is better value for money than Xero, and it does more. Because it was designed to explicitly win business from LiveAccounts, it offers a perpetual stock module with features which at least equal MYOB AccountRight and in some cases exceed it, a sales order module which includes quotes, and a workable Purchase Order module. GrowthPath uses Saasu; we moved from Xero because its core functionality was better, and because we were promised a proper API.

The stock module has expanded and maintains a clear lead over competitors, particularly in the large plan, which allows "attributes" to be added to stock. You can customise these: they can be used for multi-location, or for variants (size, color etc).

The stock module (standard and large) lets you set reorder points and will generate replenishments orders in a semi-automatic process. Costing is via the average cost method, which is in my opinion the best choice if you are limited to only one method. It has kits ("combo-items"), this includes creating kits which consumes the component items.

More about inventory attributes and the Large plan: As of February 2015, this feature is not actually adding much value. While you can add items to Saasu via a spreadsheet import, attributes are not supported in this mechanism. Instead, you need to make a Purchase Order. Saasu points out that when importing opening stock balances, you have to use a PO anyway, which is fair enough, but the rest of the "Items" features support non-inventory items, such as service items, which don't need an opening balance. As well, if you're entering opening balances under the standard inventory functionality, you can define the items in advance which makes data entry of the opening stock much faster, since you only enter quantities.

Worse, accessing the Attributes definition screen is a separate click to access a pop-up (or modal) window. You can't validate the data entered into attributes: you may wish to ensure that values entered as a Location are from a well-defined list to avoid typos, but you can't. Saasu requires you to enter a quantity on the PO line, which implies that attributes are limited to inventoried items (not virtual or service items), although I suspect you can work around this. After you close the modal window to add another line, you lose any insight into what attributes you chose; it is not displayed anywhere on the PO screen. It's the same on the Sales Order screen. So it's cumbersome to setup, cumbersome to use and the possibility of data entry error is too high. Attributes are supported by the new API, so if you have the skills to use the API you can do a data conversion much more easily, but for the average user this is a disappointing feature. As well, the "transfer" function doesn't work with attributes. If you want to move stock from one type to another at the attribute level, you need to use POs and Sales Orders to buy & sell to a dummy contact. I like Saasu, but this feature is not ready for live use. Many customers who use attributes, like location or size, are probably better off sticking to the standard module and coding the attributes into the item code (e.g. "tshirt/Yellow/M"). Hopefully the next release will let the front end catch up with the change Saasu has built into the back-end.  

For a long, long time, Saasu's API was incomplete. After a lot of promises, a modern API now exists, but it is still only partially complete. The old API was good enough for some success with third-party providers. The new API is promised to be on par with Xero, but Saasu is slow at delivering on this promise. Frankly, this is the greatest weakness of Saasu. The product started with a vision to win MYOB customers with a cloud offer, but they didn't really get the importance of APIs (so it seems to me). Personally, as a Saasu user, I am looking forward to API support for bank-reconciliations ... but I'm told this is unlikely to happen. The other gaping gap in the API is access to summary data, such as account balances. This is a priority for Saasu, I'm told. 

By combining both old and new, we can say there is a basic API, and the superior functionality of the core product cf Xero makes Saasu a strong contender. I tend to recommend for smaller businesses more often than Xero, although the larger the business and the more important the API is, the more the scales tip back in favor of Xero. 

Saasu support can be quite good. Email and phone response is usually helpful and fast. 

Quickbooks Online

I am starting to investigate Quickbooks Online and this document will be updated by the end of March 2015. The licence model is now based on the number of simultaneous users, which is better than its old per-user model. There are three price plans, currently heavily discounted for the first year. Quickbooks is a good-looking package and offers similar basic functionality to Xero and Saasu (like Saasu, it has a stock module, at least in the top tier). The online version does a good job of importing data from a traditional Quickbooks application. First impressions are quite favourable: it is fast, and has a good set of reports. It looks very much like a desktop app ported to the web, but it is a genuine cloud product. I tested product support, and it was impressive. Via an offshore call centre, the tech support did a remote screen share into my Mac and helped me diagnose the problem. The problem indicated a lack of maturity in the product; payroll reports can't be run from the general reports section, which is confusing. However, the support was the most effective I have received from any of the cloud products. 

I think it is likely that this product will keep some Quickbooks users in the Quickbooks camp and if I was a small business already using QuickBooks, I would look first at QuickBooks online. The importance of cloud ecosystem (i.e. easy expansion via third party products) is the main weakness compared with Xero. Evaluating this means some vision for your company and the role of cloud-based IT.

The traditional version of QuickBooks is well regarded by bookkeepers, who in my experience universally prefer it to MYOB AccountRight. It is currently discounted, where Saasu and Xero have sufficient market power to be increasing prices, so that is a sign of low market share (I guess). 

And don't forget cloud productivity solutions (where Xero has a big advantage)

In their own right, cloud-based accounting systems offer a lot of benefit. You can magnify it by moving to cloud-based collaboration tools.

The main player is Google Apps for Business. Apart from the best email solution for small and medium sized businesses, it provides a good level of compatibility with Microsoft Office documents, and remarkable collaboration features (up to 50 people can simultaneously edit a document; it also supports "track changes" for a more linear approach to editing). I'm a huge fan. Costing starts at $5 a month, but it gets cheaper if you more than 25 users and/or you pay a year at a time. Xero exports reports directly to Google Apps. Google Apps has a good API for third party integration, and it is also programmable in Javascript, with a good selection of scripts available. 

Microsoft has a cloud offer as well, reluctantly at first but now that it sees the writing on the wall, it's taking it more seriously, although the total offer still appears designed to be anchored to desktop users. Overall, it's not as good, and has much less third party support and much weaker APIs. It is not programmable at present. 

Xero in particular is supporting upload of documents, such as phone-taken snapshots of documents. Saasu supports this too, in a more limited way.

Cloud software is exposing users to the concept of tagging items which are related. This is a very flexible way of grouping data. Xero and Saasu get this and do it quite well. Xero's implementation is better, I think; it extends further into reporting. In this area, the pure web-app pedigrees of Saasu and Xero stand out. And Xero's clear focus on Open APIs is brightest of all.

When are cloud accounting solutions not right for your business?

I don't pay any heed to objections to cloud technology as such. Yes, cloud packages require you to be online.  That's about as useful as telling someone that a phone requires a mobile network. It's true, but business needs to be online now. I also dismiss data security concerns. There are more risks with a hard drive in your office. 

Moving to cloud accounting may not be right for your business. The pros and cons roughly speaking look like this:

  • You will lose core functionality if you come from a mature ERP
  • You will save a lot of money.
  • You will open the door to much better collaboration, remote access, mobile-device use, and workflows which deliver higher levels of productivity
  • You will better integrate peripheral IT systems such as online stores, business analytics (such as the open source Pentaho), CRM and helpdesk software, Google Analytics, marketing automation tools (Infusionsoft, for example) and so on.  
  • New employees get up to speed faster

Only the first point is a step backwards, but it may be significant. To address it, you need to carefully consider the best cloud packages to supplement the functional gaps of your cloud-accounting choice, and see what functional gap remains. In this case, paradoxically the choice of Xero to offer no inventory rather than offer a "poor man's inventory" solution may make it the better choice. 

The other points increasingly outweigh the disadvantage. Three years ago, in the first version of this document, I said that medium-sized businesses probably faced one more one five-year cycle on a traditional ERP. Half way through that period, I am confident that cloud solutions are starting to appeal to businesses looking to exit the traditional approach. 

Xero, Saasu and MYOB Essentials, in more depth...

In the past, I went into a deep discussion of the functional differences between the packages.

This is a now a bit beyond the point, since integration is more important than core functionality. Businesses should consider their accounting package as part of their "software stack". 

Xero is the purest player; in many areas, it has chosen to offer either no functionality or very basic functionality, rather than offer something in the no-man's-land of being only a little better than nothing. 

Saasu has the best "out of the box functionality", and MYOB Essentials is basic with no ambition to be anything more, except to feed you into MYOB's traditional product offers.

What you get before you look at integrating with third party packages

If you want to focus on out-of-the-box functionality, you need to answer these questions first:

Do you need inventory management? If yes, Xero is eliminated.

Do you need foreign currency? If Yes, MYOB Essentials is eliminated.

Leaving only Saasu (of these three).

But if you need good inventory management (backorders, variants etc) then consider Unleashed, and re-qualify Xero.

 

I will now summarise in a simple table. To represent the traditional world of mid-tier ERPs, I choose Sage ERP (accpac), a very traditional system (which I quite like). 

Module  MYOB Essentials (was LiveAccounts)  Xero Saasu  QuickBooks Online Sage ERP (Accpac)
 Sales  Very minimal.

 Minimal, but improving. Quotes are now possible. Pricing and credit terms are very minimal.

Third party options are very strong.

OK. Third party options are strong. Support quotes, sales orders and invoices. Doesn't do backorders but demand on sales orders is reflected on inventory reports. Pricing and credit terms are very minimal.    Very sophisticated. Backorders, partial payments, complex payment terms. Returns, under payments and over payments are well handled. The interface is dated and the system is batch based, meaning careful attention to routine processing is required. 
 Purchasing  No No   Basic to good. Can make back-to-back orders, and will generate replenishment POs when stock reaches certain points.     Strong but bureaucratic
 GST  Excellent  Excellent  Excellent Excellent  Poorly localised. 
Payroll  OK for small payrolls  OK (plus good third party modules for more complex situations)  OK (plus good third party modules for more complex situations) OK  No Australian localisation. Requires third party modules.
Perpetual Inventory (i.e. "real" inventory)  No  No (but strong third party choices requiring simple integration)

Yes in all plans. Including kits, reordering and non-inventory items.

More inventory features in the Large plan, which cover multi-locations and variants (size/color etc).

Some third party choices offer excellent functionality. 

In the top-tier, there is basic Perpetual Inventory  Outstanding. Multiple sites, multiple stock-take procedures, multiple valuation methods.
Intercompany (auto-balancing entries)  No  No  No No  3rd party solutions are very good.
Securing Access to functions, period locking Weak   Weak  Weak To be assessed  Very strong controls over functionality. Locking is sophisticated: submodules like AR can be locked while still allowing GL postings. 
Cashflow management OK OK Includes an interactive drag and drop cashflow forecaster which is actually useful. To be assessed OK. Lots of potential insight, but hard to use.
Analytics and Dashboard Not really Not really. But it has the best report writing tool, even though that just lets you customise traditional accounting reports. Integration with 3rd party.

Not really.

Integration with 3rd party.

To be assessed No (comes with a one-user Excel tool)
Audit trail Not enterprise class.   Not enterprise class, but deleted transactions are mostly viewable.  Not enterprise class but deleted transactions are mostly viewable To be assessed  Very good.
Multi-currency  No  Optional. Basic.  Optional. Basic. To be assessed  Very strong, world-class. 
Third-party integration

 Example:

Kounta POS: Yes (Native). 

Unleashed sales and inventory: No

DIY: Easy.

 

Example:

Kounta POS: Yes (Native). 

Unleashed sales and inventory: Yes (Native)

 DIY: Easy

Shopify: yes

Example: Kounta POS: Yes (Native)

Unleashed sales and inventory: Yes (third party)

 DIY: Easy. Shopify: via third party.

To be assessed

Effectively none.

DIY: Possible. Talent is rare (although GrowthPath has expertise). Requires use of old technologies, and limited to Windows.

API & integration

API is satisfactory, after years of no API. Not much out-of-the box support, but possibly growing.

 Outstanding, best in class and with momentum. Every cloud package offered to the Australian market will offer Xero integration, and the API makes it cheap to build your own integration.  API has only recently become  satisfactory, and Saasu is paying the penalty for taking so long. 

To be assessed

Possible via use of Win32 COM (GrowthPath is experienced in using Python to drive Accpac ERP and we have interfaced Accpac to Shopify, Infusionsoft and Pracsoft). But it is much more cumbersome than Web APIs. Third party integration is poor. The vendor has online , CRM and business analytics packages which are classic examples of the "jack of all trades" problem: they are ok.

Raw data is stored in SQL, which is easy to access and for reporting, an alternative to using an API.

Costs Somewhere between 10 and 100 times cheaper than a traditional solution  Somewhere between 10 and 100 times cheaper than a traditional solution   Somewhere between 10 and 100 times cheaper than a traditional solution    Expensive to buy. Expensive to implement. Expensive to keep. Productivity payoffs in high-volume manual data entry.
High volume data entry Not really expected Some optimisation has been made, but browsers are not ideal for this. High volume data entry should be done via the API. The API is mature. Some optimisation has been made, but browsers are not ideal for this. High volume data entry should be done via the API. The Saasu API is not yet fully mature.   Outstanding. This software comes from the era of manual data processing.
User training requirements (e.g. new staff) (assuming the user has basics GST and double-entry bookkeeping) Very minimal Very minimal, although non-standard events like customer overpayments are not obvious. There are plenty of YouTube videos and help documents. There are many certified book-keepers Very minimal, although non-standard events like customer overpayments are not obvious. There are plenty of YouTube videos and help documents. Saasu provides telephone help.   You need formal training because the software is complicated and mistakes are hard to correct.
User support Good online chat support The worse support of all. Really no easy way to get immediate human support. You are expected to contact your bookkeeper or accountant. Quite good, but not always. The support winner: fast access to a helpdesk with the option of screen sharing. Contact reseller at $1000 per day.

 

Congratulations on working your way through this!

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If you're one of them, you may also be interested in using your accounting data to grow the business, not just fill in the BAS.

These articles may be interesting:

 

GrowthPath has a fast process to help you select and setup the correct system. Fees start from $199 for new businesses. We do custom investigations for firms looking to save $15K to $30K in avoided annual maintenance fees linked to legacy ERP systems.