AccountingWEB’s 2019 comparison table for small business accounting software captures a point in time when the giants that ruled the latter part of the PC-dominated 20th century are giving way to a new generation of online bookkeeping systems. Only Sage 50cloud, VT Transaction+ and QuickBooks Desktop remain from that era among the 11 most popular tools on the market.
Buying cloud apps is different
With the desktop model, you used to pay a one-off fee for the software, and perhaps a smaller consideration for ongoing support. With cloud apps, you typically pay a monthly subscription, and most come with a 30-day free trial period or test drive.
Take advantage of these offers and facilities. Getting hands-on experience before you commit will make for a better informed decision and greater likelihood of success. Always test the program with your own customer/supplier data and invoice types and run some test transactions through to see whether the reports that come out the other end fit the bill.
And if you do find the fit is not quite right, it’s not the end of the world. As long as you don’t mind handling the migration, you can always opt for another system without incurring huge financial penalties.
The accounting infrastructure
Cloud bookkeeping started life as an anti-accountant movement, frequently marketed as user-friendly “accounting software for non-accountants”. But as these applications reach market maturity, developers such as Xero and Intuit QuickBooks are spreading their reach into practice and compliance tools and talk about platforms and ecosystems.
These days, you’re not necessarily buying a piece of accounting software so much as a business support experience - so the infrastructure around the product is almost as important as what it actually does. The more popular systems will have salespeople in the field to help new customers get rolling, backed by networks of “professional advisers” (aka accountants) offering business and technology support.
Speaking of support, pay particular attention to user feedback in that section - it’s one of the differentiating characteristics of products in this field. There’s an old industry adage that says a mediocre product with good support will be better than a technically brilliant tool where you can’t get an answer when you experience a problem. When you test out an accounting program, also try to assess how quickly the support people get back to you when you raise a query.
While the big vendors measure their success in terms of hundreds of thousands of customers served, accountant users continue to keep an eye on the financial robustness of cloud software developers. Nevertheless, the size of the customer base is important, as prevalence in marketplace has a direct impact on how easy it will be to find and recruit people who know their way around the software.
Some of the smaller programs may be a better fit for your needs and your budget, but remember that you may need to train up your people to use them rather than poaching experienced people from other firms.
The ecosystem factor
Experienced cloud software buyers also put integration at the top of their selection criteria lists. In contrast to many of the old desktop systems that worked as part of integrated suites, cloud tools are more loosely linked by application programming interfaces (APIs).
Aside from the all-in-one cloud practice suite Capium, the core accounting engines listed here generally handle bookkeeping, invoicing, reporting and in some cases, stock. So you may need to explore the app ecosystems to find any other functions you need. In this networked scenario, the accounting system is like a data switching yard or central processing station that hooks together a range of inputs including bank data feeds, expenses captured on smartphone apps and various reporting and forecasting tools.
Linking programs like Zapier can fill gaps in your financial data flow, but if that booking and billing app you like for a physiotherapy practice only works with Xero and you’ve opted for QuickBooks Online, you may experience some frustration before your quest is fulfilled. But don’t panic too much - that’s life in the cloud. New apps are showing up every day. Before long somebody else is likely to come up with a similar app for QBO, or the developer of your preferred tool could be persuaded to add it to their menu if there are enough other users like you.