QuickBooks Online revamped for global push
QuickBooks developer Intuit has retooled its web-based small business accounting system to broaden its reach in the global market.
The US market leader, Intuit has offered QuickBooks Online in the US and Canada for more than a decade, but only brought it to the UK in 2011. Other countries such as India and Australia had to wait even longer.
But all that has changed following a corporate reorganisation on functional rather than geographic lines. In August the company announced the formation of new divisions focusing on: small business financial and management tools; consumer products including tax filing programs and the free Mint.com finance system; and accounting professionals.
QuickBooks Online lies at the heart of this new strategy. Its footprint is still dwarfed by the desktop version of QuickBooks, but is growing much faster: up 28% to 487,000 users in total for the year to 31 July 2013. Internationally, QuickBooks Online now has 32,000+ users, an increase of 80% on the previous year.
“We are in the middle of a huge platform change,” announced Jill Ward, the head of Intuit’s accounts and advisor division at a summit meeting in Mountain View, California last week to explain the global strategy.
CEO Brad Smith expanded on the theme by explaining that Intuit was focused on being “the operating system for small business around the globe”.
QuickBooks Online has been developed as a universal product that can be adapted to suit the needs of users in different countries, for example with different terminologies and sub-routines for national sales tax regimes, Smith explained.
“It gives us a wonderful global platform we can take around the globe and make it more local than what the locals offer”, Smith said.
Smith admitted that the new QuickBooks Online borrowed elements from Google (speed, layout and simplicity of the layout), and the UK’s FreeAgent.
“We took FreeAgent as a comparison for the user experience. Where they have a specialist focus on freelances, we wanted to create as simple a user experience, but for more complex businesss,” Smith said.
The software itself lives up to the billing. Like Google, the main functional tasks have been switched to the left-hand column of the screen, with the main viewing and data entry tasks displayed in screen “centres” on different browser tabs. At the top of the screen is a three-icon menu bar for searching, showing an expandable menu of actions, or a “recent transactions” view (see below).
During a hands-on demo at the Mountain View summit, the seamless structure and integration with Intuit Tax Online made it a breeze to pay employees, close off a company’s accounts for the year and file a US tax return.
A “virtual office” is being developed for the QuickBooks Online Accountant edition, along with a version that will be fully functional on tablet devices.
This is one of many pending developments, but as Intuit goes global, it is going to face demands for even more tweaks, upgrades and enhancements from users in different countries. In the past, this is where the company has fallen down, particularly when it retrenched in 2007-8, closing down Quicken and pulling out of the UK tax market.
Smith acknowledged the difficulties of dealing with the profession on a global basis, and of the complexities of dealing with different regulatory regimes, but did not shy from the challenge.
“At Intuit, we learn from our mistakes,” he said. “In the 1990s we tried to go global and bought leading international players. But we brought an American mindset to these countries and we failed.”
But the cloud changed the game for Intuit, he argued: “Having a cloud-based product allowed us to go global. QuickBooks Online is the first global accounting platform.”
He likened QuickBooks Online to the software equivalent of a wiki, where users themselves could customise the language and functionality and make their variants available to other users.
“The system gets more local thanks to the input of users,” he said.
Following feedback from the Intuit “influencers” at the summit meeting that the product would benefit from a template approach to setting up companies, the QuickBooks team demonstrated the potential for this fast, “customer-driven” development by responding overnight with a prototype routine. Users could adapt a ready-made chart of accounts, choose relevant management reports and configure menus for end users - and then save the configuration to an XML file scrubbed of any underlying data. At the moment there is no facility to share the XML templates within QuickBooks Online, but users could send them to each other, said QuickBooks Online head developer Kevin Kirn.
Intuit is also taking its international expansion a step at a time, beginning with Canada (where it already caters for tax users), the UK, Australia and India.
The summit meeting with 40 or so Pro Advisers, analysts and journalists from around the globe was an effective way to drip-feed the new strategy out to the wider marketplace. But it was a bittersweet experience for international attendees. Witnessing the the maturity of the north American product set and the scale of the marketing infrastructure and support available through the extensive ProAdviser programme, the most common comment from non-American delegates was, “When can we get that?”
While the Intuit summit was in session in Silicon Valley, New Zealand-based rival Xero was hosting its own Xerocon event up the road in San Francisco, symbolising how the global cloud accounting industry is already coalescing around the two main rivals. Xero has speed and a single-product focus on its side and is currently growing faster than QuickBooks internationally.
But Intuit has a much deeper war chest, a bigger pool of accountant/advisers to call on and more experience of both tax and the international scene to draw on as it expands. For all the quibbles raised both by battle-hardened insiders and impatient international customers, Intuit could well have the cloud smarts to prove the doubters wrong.
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