Practice cloud race: 2016 form book

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Step right up, ladies and gentlemen… AccountingWEB’s tic-tac man John Stokdyk is here to give you the rundown on the runners and riders in accountancy’s hottest software race for years.

Coming into the spring of 2016, followers of the software trade are in for a treat with a raft of contenders lined up to claim the cup for cloud applications that cater for all the needs of a modern accountancy practice.

As is often the case, some lesser known names have already got there first, but even though they’ve made the early running, do they have the stamina to last the pace over the long term?

To inject a bit of extra spice to the subject, this article is presented as a form guide, reviewing the runners for you and identifying strengths and weaknesses that may influence the result as the cloud practice race evolves.

Handicap notes

But first a couple of handicapping notes: true cloud applications made their first appearance on AccountingWEB in 2006 but the technology remains firmly rooted in the bookkeeping side of the profession. Tax and practice tools have lagged a long way behind - partly because the developers have been preoccupied with other priorities such as the need to comply with iXBRL, RTI, CIS and other HMRC initiatives during that period.

The imminent arrival of personal tax accounts and quarterly reporting is the latest twist, but rather than hampering developers in their quest to deliver cloud tools, HMRC’s digital strategy may encourage accountants to review the market for tools that will help them operate efficiently within the new regime.

The second complicating factor is the relative dearth of holistic practice management tools within the profession. IRIS carved out a lucrative niche with its integrated suite of practice tools, but figures from AccountingWEB’s 2013 software satisfaction research showed that a minority of firms had invested in practice management software. In many cases, client management tools are bundled in with compliance tools, so firms don’t really see much need to invest extra in client record databases.

With those markers in mind, here’s how the form book looks at the moment.

Leaders’ enclosure

Gbooks - reigning champion

Other stables are making so much noise at the moment that it’s easy to overlook Gbooks, which has been running this course with a full suite of practice tools for a good three years. While Gbooks has been out on its own for most of that time, the race is going to become a lot more intense as the year progresses.

Word from the stables is that Gbooks is pretty relaxed about that prospect. “Our system is aimed at small accounting practices that may not be the main targets of the big providers,” said our source. “We don’t feel threatened by [them]. It would be good if they did launch their cloud services. It would put the idea of a cloud accountancy suite into the minds of accountants. When they’re looking at those products, clients might also look at other alternatives out there.”

Capium - the young pretender

Hot on the heels of Gbooks comes Capium, another suite from a small accountancy practice that decided to enter the software stakes. It’s taken Capium a few years to put the product through its paces, but with a full set of modules available online (tax, bookkeeping, accounts production, CRM and document portal) it now looks ready to enter the paddock and take on the wider market.

Contenders for the 2016 cloud practice crown

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About John Stokdyk

John Stokdyk, AccountingWEB head of insight

AccountingWEB’s Head of Insight has been with the site since 1999 and likes to spend his time studying accountants’ technology habits. When not nerding out, you can find him exploring obscure indie music and searching for the perfect organic sourdough loaf from his base in Brighton, UK.

Replies

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By tom123
16th Mar 2016 09:23

Cheltenham week.

John,

As a Cheltenham resident, I chuckled at your racing references..

 

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16th Mar 2016 10:50

Good article

Like this John, and I agree that it's the one bit of the market that could see the biggest 'action' for some time. The recent research for Adapting to the Cloud series on AW kept pulling to firms believing the efficiency in data collection driven by cloud, was not being matched by the same internal client management efficiencies. Those systems that can be brave enough to open up to all the other cloud providers could be at a distinct advantage.

On this note, it's worth an outside bet on Cheltenham (fairly) local www.senta.co I fancy their approach especially as the going is currently soft.

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16th Mar 2016 17:14

Or DIY integration

In the good (not quite) old days, the debate was between an integrated package or best of breed.

With the general use now of so many apps by us and our clients, I'm wondering whether an integrated suite, from any one supplier, will ever be suitable and so, should I be thinking instead of linking my (and my client's) bookkeeping, gmail, google sheets, calendar, tax/accounts prep, project management, CRM and cloud drive with a purpose built hub? eg something like Zapier?

It seems to me that this would be a far more flexible and tailorable solution allowing us to work the way that suits us rather than the way in which any one software company deems suitable.

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17th Mar 2016 10:29

Not a horse-racing fan

But thanks for the form guide, its very useful.

I have just moved to a practice which has lots of Sage desktop products and we had a pitch from our Sage account manager a couple of days ago for their online offer.  We are yet to assess the quality but Sage seem prepared to cannibalise their existing Accounts Production (SAP) product by selling the online AP and CT modules at £120 each, with SA to follow in the next few weeks at the same price.

The words 'land-grab' were used!

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17th Mar 2016 15:59

Thanks Tim - though the "Cloud rush" may have passed

Some very interesting snippets of information from the Sage stable.

The agressive pricing and sales attitude suggests that Sage is serious about making the running in this market, but it may be a bit late for them to play the "land grab" card. A lot of firms have probably already made their cloud bookkeeping choices and in many cases these may be luring them away from Sage. For example, if Xero had paid more consistent attention to the accountancy market there wouldn't be that big a pool of practices to play for.

But it's good to know their intentions, and though I may scoff slightly, you can't dismiss the size of Sage's installed base. If it is willing to sacrifice SAP and Sage Taxation to the cloud initiative, I'm not going to write them off. If they deliver on the timetable you suggest, I would even have Sage nosing ahead in this race.  (OK, OK, I'll park the racing terminology now.)

IRIS and Gbooks, meanwhile, would be just behind, as I found that the latter currently lacks an accounts production module when I took a closer look. (I stand corrected - see comment below)

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17th Mar 2016 16:13

Xero

John

Your comment if Xero had paid more consistent attention to the accountancy market is spot-on.  I remember Gary Turner at Xerocon 2012 (Chartered Accountants Hall) and 2014 (The Brewery, Chsiwell Street) promising that they were developing accounts production software for the UK (which I believe they have in New Zealand and Australia) but that has yet to appear and I think the horse may now have bolted.

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17th Mar 2016 22:02

Best of breed works for the cloud

I'm with Paul Scholes on this.One of the great advantages of the cloud is the ease with which different software solutions can work together, unlike on the desktop, where this can be difficult (at best) and usually impossible. As more cloud providers open up their API's and share data, the easier it gets to select the best of breed in each category. It ain't perfect yet, but the opportunities are growing, to the benefit of all of us.

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By kjd
18th Mar 2016 11:02

Practice Management in the cloud

Capium - nowhere near there in my opinion. I like what they're trying to achieve but at this point I think they've taken on more than they can chew quite frankly. The PM module really isn't up to scratch at all, it's clunky and seems to have been put together in a rush in order to say 'we've got it all'. Here's an example of a small but key problem: take a regular recurring job, weekly payroll for instance. When you create that job in Capium it creates all of the future recurrences there and then instead of them being triggered off nearer the time. Ideally I would want to create a job like that with no end date but they force you to enter one so let's so we let it run for 2 years. Doing that creates 104 live jobs in the system there and then, possibly with numerous sub-tasks. I found it really pulled on their servers [where creating a job literally deteriorated to a snails pace, the wheel spinning endlessly for minutes and minutes on end] and it also meant that if I wanted to bring that job to an end 6 months down the line or even amend the ongoing job template I would have to do each future job manually - it was bonkers. Like I say, that's only a small issue of course but an important one all the same, it's just not really fit for purpose yet.

 

CentreCRM - this is what i'm currently using but it's far from perfect. The good thing about this system is the fact you can tailor it to how you want to work, nothing is set in stone which is a big thing for me. The downside is the features available at present are fairly limited and development seems to be a tad slow.

 

I say this to Paul Scholes time and time again but I think the reason nobody has quite nailed PM yet is two fold: 1) Everybody likes to run their practice differently. I'm happy to be told how bookkeeping, AP, payroll etc should be done but not how to run my practice - that's for me to decide. On that basis, the whole system needs to be very highly configurable. From job templates to access levels to what gets displayed on my dashboard, I need full control. 2) In this day and age client communication is key so the system should be designed with that in mind. My ideal would be a blend between helpdesk ticketing [something that pulls emails straight in] and job/task management - nail that and you're halfway there.

So at the mo I don't think anybody is really on the right path quite honestly. However, if I was going to have a stab at a true outsider it would be Taxfiler. Their tax software is absolutely fantastic and with AP now getting a decent following the natural order of things would be to target small practices with PM that can pull it all together [i.e what i'd say Capium have tried but so far failed to do]. Given their track record in terms of feedback & dev work I think these guys could finally be the ones to smash it...should they so wish.

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18th Mar 2016 14:28

Gbooks - Further Information

Just to add further information to John's comments above, Gbooks provides a Final Accounts Production module where accounts can be created from a TB. The TB can be imported from other bookkeeping systems, and we'll be continuing to improve the ease with which this can be done over the coming months.

We'll also be upgrading our own bookkeeping module for the filing of VAT Returns etc and for creating a TB from the dreaded carrier bag of receipts and bank statements. This should be launched later this year.

Matt Bailey

Gbooks

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18th Mar 2016 16:49

Feedback

@ KJD

Many thanks for the feedback. Based on the comments, it sounds like you may have trialled the system at some point last year? Since then, the PM module has had a vast amount of improvements, based on feedback we gained from our customer base.

We've spent the autumn and winter months revamping the PM module completely and have recently released our latest version. This includes many of the points you mention above (such as bulk editing and the reduction in time lag); now along with many collaborative services between a practice and their clients. I think you may be pleasantly surprised now on the progress made, given you saw "version 1"

I think we are all in agreement, that this area has a long way to go, but we are making immense strides towards that goal.

Feel free to PM me if you wish to see the new updates.

Many thanks

Tush Patel

Capium

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18th Mar 2016 18:32

Some great feedback - thanks all

I'm a bit embarrassed, as this is one of those pieces where the comments are more enlightening than the original article. But I can take it - that's one of the virtues of AccountingWEB.

Thanks to Matt and Tush for joining in the discussion and adding their insights (even if it's to correct inaccuracies in my comments - sorry, Matt!).

But I'm intrigued by what the trendy trio of Paul Scholes, KJD and Charlie Carne have to say - maybe thinking in terms of a PM suite is old hat and the time has come to look for configurations of different apps that give the practitioner what they want. 

I've asked for suggestions in our Cloud apps discussion group and the next time I return to this subject, it'll be to survey what's available from the add-on cafeteria. It could be that a new front has already opened in the marketplace, but I just haven't spotted it yet.

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19th Mar 2016 02:41

Trendy?

I feel honoured, John. The fiver's in the post!

Is it time for an in-depth, comparative review of PM solutions? It could list the major players and the facilities that are offered by each. There is a great list of PM software here, which can provide a starting list of products for review.

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By kjd
21st Mar 2016 13:03

@Charlie

Given your level of tech prowess i'd be really interested to hear your thoughts re the 'ideal' PM solution?  

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21st Mar 2016 14:32

@KJD re ideal PM

That is a very good question! I am looking around for a solution at the moment. I'm not looking for an all-in-one integrated solution (like Iris, Digita, CCH, etc.), but just PM software to handle the running of the practice (rather than bookkeeping, accounts production and tax which are well handled already). The PM needs to manage the client database, deadlines, workflow, engagement letters, onboarding new clients (including tracking prospects), etc.

Howard Marks' "ultimate list" from last year is a good starting point, but there are one or two others to look at as well. If and when I get time, I will take a detailed look at some of the better prospects.

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By kjd
22nd Mar 2016 09:53

Thanks Charlie

I'd definitely be interested to hear how you get on.  I think there's a huge gap in the market here, it's the one topic that crops up time and time.  Yet for some reason the software houses simply don't seem to focus on it enough.

 

Like you, i'm not particularly looking for integration but if somebody like Taxfiler came along with a solid offering I can't imagine there being too much downside from their point of view.  CentreCRM works ok but it's got a long way to go before it's anywhere near mass market ready.

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23rd Mar 2016 11:47

Some reasons why...

Thanks again for feeding in more insights chaps. As part of my research I went back to a contact who had a vision of a cloud-based PM tool... no longer interested.

There's a clue at the start of the article where I mention that "firms really don't see much need" for these kinds of tools.

This idea goes back to our 2013 Software Satisfaction survey, where in contrast to the numbers of respondents giving us their views on accounts production and tax software (1,100+), half that number (552) posted ratings for their practice management tools.

I still suspect a focus on streamlining internal firm processes is still something of a minority interest - for example, it was mentioned by a growing porportion of entrants to last year's Practice Excellence Awards, but that figure was just 28%.

Maybe that attitude is shifting - and it would be interesting to see if a wave viable cloud tools helped to accelerate that process.

 

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23rd Mar 2016 11:48

Ideal is in the eye of the user

And, as this and other threads indicate, this is why there are so many ideas of ideal.

When Iris were designing PM 15-16 years ago, the same considerations applied however, the preoccupation in those days was in compliance handling & project management, so, as Charlie says, workflow and date monitoring.

CRM was a bit of a side issue however data mining and automail helped us to cover the basics of general client admin and contacting.  Over the next decade, when they asked about possible enhancements I said that my ideal was to have what they had for their support team.  The boring, job management and compliance side had become pretty much automated (both in & out of Iris) but what was missing was the ability to handle the growing number of other issues raised by and for clients and prospects.

In other words, what KJD says above.

In later years, the ability to feed these issues from and to other systems that we used, like email, SMS, website and social media, became part of the ideal and this is where I think Cloud systems will be able to help....one day.

 

 

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06th Apr 2016 11:28

Streamlining processes
Vendor declaration: I'll say up front that I work for Senta and that we produce a cloud practice management platform.

Some interesting thoughts in these comments, especially about the need for customisation / tailoring. Perhaps one of the reasons that this area (process streamlining) is not well served is because it's difficult to build. One of the things that we've found to be most challenging in developing our own product is balancing configurability vs ease of use. Everyone of course wants a system that's broadly ready to go... but at the same time they need to be able to change everything easily. That presents significant challenges.

If you get it right, it means that practices can use regular compliance workflows straight away -- but then also set up repeatable workflows that reflect their individual personality and client service levels. A practice management tool should be able to do a lot more than just show deadlines, taking some of the workload in the practice.

There is a common idea in software development that if you "do one thing well", people will start to use the product. That is true when the product only needs to do one thing. Practice management on the other hand is not a "one thing" discipline, but needs to encompass workflow automation, CRM, documents, email, SMS, API integrations, etc.

We're doing a lot of this already but there's a whole load of future stuff that we, other vendors and practices probably haven't thought about yet. But that's why it's such an interesting nut to crack!

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