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Practice software start-up raises £100,000

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18th Aug 2015
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Senta, the latest entrant into the already crowded practice management software game, is planning to take on the industry’s giants with a crowdfunding war chest of £100,000-plus. 

James Kilford’s start-up grew out of Webstart Bristol’s incubator programme based at The Engine Shed. It’s a busy space, filled with tech entrepreneurs beavering away at their tasks. With all the activity taking place around him, Kilford is soft spoken and calm.

The creation of Senta “was just by chance, really”, he says. His concept of a cloud-based practice management system evolved through a sequence of chance conversations.

“I was working as a computer consultant. You get used to hearing people’s problems and then in your head trying to solve them,” Kilford says. “It was like that with Senta. I was talking to my accountant and he said, ‘I wish there was a system to help me with my practice, there’s some out there but they’re not very good’.”

After speaking to his accountant, Kilford heard a similar story from other practitioners.  “I asked them ‘Are you using PM software? What are your big problems in practice?’ Most of them came back and said they weren’t even using practice management software,” he explains.

Realising this was an opportunity, Kilford quit his contract, turned new client work and started looking for some office space, which led him to the Engine Shed.

“Next thing I know, I’m down here talking to their panel and on their panel was an accountant, and he works as a partner for a really big local accounting firm. Everybody turned to him and asked ‘What do you think?’

“He said that he totally gets this and if I could solve all these problems, it would be great. So I joined the Engine Shed incubator program and Senta was born,” says Kilford.

On Senta’s Seedrs page, Kilford presents it as “a cloud service to help accountants run their practice really smoothly”. The service charges £29 a month and targets three specific areas: Workflow scheduling (the main focus), customer relationship management (CRM) and document security. There’s no niche, according to Kilford, merely an attempted solution to a universal problem within practice.

Workflow scheduling is Senta’s biggest challenge. “An accountant might have to do 10,000-15,000 tasks in a year,” says Kilford. “They spend a lot of time managing their practice at a detriment to their professional and personal lives.”

The CRM and marketing tools are lightweight and functional. They are meant for accountants to do simple tasks like keeping track of customer relationships, things like emails, he says.

But practice management is not a new idea and Senta is a latecomer to the market. Senta’s competition includes industry giants Sage, IRIS and Keytime, along with more recent arrivals Capium and Nomisma.

Kilford accepts this challenge in a zen-like way.

“It’s difficult isn’t it?” he says, before giving his competition a gentle joust, “I realised that there was already a lot of competition out there, but they’re not doing something right because if they were everyone would be using it.”

At the moment, flexibility is Senta’s biggest strength, as its relatively small size and freshness allows the developer to “introduce changes and fixes just about every day”.

When a new user signs up to the service, Kilford writes to them personally, welcoming them: “Work with us, talk to us, tell us how it works or doesn’t work for you.” Being so open to suggestion and criticism can be tough, but Kilford’s philosophical about it, “When you can’t hear your customers grumbling anymore, then you’ve got a problem”.

The £100,000-plus Seedrs fighting fund comes at just the right time for the company. Senta’s next big step is to integrate with the most popular cloud accounting suites. The money will also go toward new features and, as the reality of modern software necessitates, marketing.

Financial necessities aside, crowdfunding also gels with Kilford’s business ideology. “If accountants want to buy a little slice of Senta, they can. Everyone can just get involved – ideologically it’s great.

“We’ve got our 190-odd investors from this round, 147 investors from the previous round, who are on side. And a disproportionately high number of them are accountants."

Kilford is very open about not being accountant. But he has been careful to surround himself with experienced practitioners. He has appointed an experienced accountant, Peter Chavis, as a non-executive CFO, and has an FD in place. It’s an unusual step for such a small company, but Kilford explains, “We wanted to have those disciplines in place and be able to call on their experience as we continue to grow.”

 As well as his in-house financial experience, Kilford leans heavily on his accountant. Since he first started the relationship has moved from focusing on compliance to a closer arrangement centring on advisory services.

“Having an accountant who is willing to jump on the phone and jump on Skype to explain and talk about options is so important. It’s all about relationship.”

Kilford is hopeful about Senta’s future. The strong backing on Seedrs indicates to him that he’s on the right track. “You could do your own practice management for nothing. You can use spreadsheets and diaries and of course, there’s much more expensive practice management software out there,” he says. “We just wanted something straight forward and affordable.”

To achieve that goal, he says, “You have to be prepared to say I don’t know quite a lot. If I can just make a highly regarded piece of software, I’ll be very happy.”

Replies (12)

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By Penfold
18th Aug 2015 20:40

Advert

and I've had a free play

 

 

Naff, don't bother

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By Sheepy306
18th Aug 2015 21:03

Care to expand?

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By Penfold
18th Aug 2015 22:45

nope

not worthy of even that

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Francois
By Francois Badenhorst
19th Aug 2015 10:50

Nope.

Just an interesting Bristol based startup that has raised its capital through the crowd and operates within an interesting start up incubator program.

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By jon_griffey
19th Aug 2015 12:27

Involve accountants

The key to success here is to work very closely with practising accountants to find out what they do, how they work and what they want from PM - rather than the programmer deciding what they want.

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By mabzden
19th Aug 2015 14:10

Crowdfunding sounds great

Another lesson to be learned here is: "crowdfunding must be very easy to get".

The entrepreneurs' pitch was something like "I'm a programmer, and after a conversation with my accountant I'd like to create some software for an area I know very little about. Oh, and lots of other firms are doing it already."

Hey presto, £100K in the bank. You then have enough to pay Aweb to run the story!

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
19th Aug 2015 16:46

.

Trouble is all accountants like to do things in different ways.

There *may* be some brilliant management software out there, but many wont use it as they like how they work themselves.

My "software" is an inbox, a pad of paper, and a couple of excel sheets which track the flow of work through the office.  It works pretty well. 

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Replying to Survivor:
Francois
By Francois Badenhorst
19th Aug 2015 20:35

Very true

It's something James also raised. You can do it yourself for free. I'm not an accountant, but if I was I'd be inclined to follow your way of doing it. Mostly because I work very much within my own head, if that makes sense? My work style is quite idiosyncratic. 

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Dermot Hamblin
By Dermot Hamblin
20th Aug 2015 10:50

In 1998 I worked for IRIS, the biggest gap in our product set was Practice Management, so we went and spoke in great detail, to over a dozen firms. One was kept on as a paid consultant for several years to ensure that the product was developed as accountants wanted.  He is long since retired, but was chosen as he had written his own Practice Management tool and also sat on the ICAEW IT committee.

Speaking to potential clients is not revolutionally when designing your minimum vialble product, its essential.

ireallyshouldkn makes a great point that firms all work in different ways, making a universal one fits all approach very difficult.

However, there have been many fortunes made in IT, based upon chance meetings and discussions, not the great strategic brainstormings that are described in the " How I made my fortune" books that follow, so Good Luck to James Kilford.

 

(Left IRIS in 2006 and I have no commercial agreement with them today, just using it as an example that all good software houses have been speaking to potential clients in the way that the article describes for many years.)

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Richard Sergeant
By Richard Sergeant
25th Aug 2015 12:39

Well said LangdonHamblin

There is room for improvement and innovation just about everywhere!

The UK accountancy software market is probably one of the most competitive and fierce out there, but this surely is to the benefit of the everyone?

Innovators and risk takers should be encouraged, and given a real chance to prove their service or product as viable before being shot down. 

Crowd funding is not always an indicator of success, but a vote and belief that there is something here that could unlock real value for shareholders - to do this, it has to prove its worth in a competitive market and deliver well for customers. 

An early stage business, with an evolving product, funded by a few hundred investors...this is a one to watch and encourage, not blow out before they've got going. 

 

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By jameskilford
25th Aug 2015 13:59

Thanks for feedback
jon_griffey, what you say is key to what we're doing. We're definitely not accountants, we're software developers... and the key discipline is listening to what the customers' problems are and then designing a solution. We work with clients, discussing ideas, sketching out possible solutions, testing and so on. We hope to bring skills to bear from the many clients that we have worked with over the years in diverse areas of commerce.

Of course, what we're doing doesn't suit everyone now and never will. However, we already have firms using it and loving it as it is, and many who are asking for more features. Most of our time is spent talking with and emailing accountants, discussing the problems and challenges faced by practices and how we can help solve them with new features.

mabzden, crowdfunding is not as easy as you might think. Around 40% of equity crowdfunding campaigns make their target and there are significant challenges associated with the campaign. Chief among these is that the idea has to be underpinned by solid research, planning and development. We've conducted in-depth interviews and surveyed dozens of accountants in firms of differing sizes from one to 250 people. Yes, there's a lot of competition out there, but that's fine -- different clients want different things. Incidentally, I know that Francois has said it already, but we didn't pay AccountingWEB a penny.

LangdonHamblin, you're right, a universal approach is difficult. What we have to try to do is create a product that is opinionated enough to be easy to use... yet easily customisable so that practices can tweak the way it works for them. It's a challenging aspect of development! So, we'll continue to improve the sample data and workflows that we have in the product so they become better and better. Then, practices can create new ones or change them to suit.

Anyway, thanks for the comments. It's early days yet. One thing's for sure: we can only get it right with feedback, and the more, the better.

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