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Meet seven accountants turned app developers

At a time when clients are demanding more real-time reporting and insights, it’s essential that accountants position themselves on the right side of the workflow automation trend. For these CAs that’s meant stepping into a new career as a technology entrepreneur. After all, who is better placed to know what features are required from a successful piece of accounting software?

Cameron Lynch CA 

COMPANY: Etani Business Platform 

TITLE: Founder and CEO 

YEAR COMPANY FOUNDED: 2015 

YEAR QUALIFIED AS CA: 2015

Like many technology companies, Etani Business Platform was born of “Excel hell”. When Etani founder and CEO Cameron Lynch was working as a CA, he and his team wrangled a behemoth of a spreadsheet. “There were tabs everywhere and lots of people were touching it every day,” he says. “When it came to reporting, I just didn’t trust the numbers. We had a massive data integrity problem.”

Lynch began looking for tools to help his team and discovered Microsoft’s Power BI, a business analytics service offering interactive visualisations and an interface simple enough for users to create their own reports and dashboards.

While Power BI was useful, Lynch found it was largely geared towards the big end of town which had professional data scientists onsite. “Corporates had a massive advantage with tools like that,” he says. “They were using data to make smarter decisions and small businesses couldn’t get a look-in – and that was the end of the market I wanted to help.”

Lynch started doing courses in HTML, JavaScript and CSS and soon realised he could build the missing accounting infrastructure that could plug into Power BI and specifically help small accounting firms and individuals.

“I wanted to deliver custom dashboards to clients on their mobile phones and offer them templates and tutorials to get started,” he explains, and that’s how Etani Business Platform came about.

With insight into sales, budgeting and cash flow, coupled with the capacity to reconcile various scenarios at speed, accountants could free up their time and concentrate on advising. That said, Lynch soon realised that accountants are a data-hungry lot.

“We get hundreds of emails asking when we’re going to integrate with this or that data source,” he says, ticking off the likes of Xero, MYOB, QuickBooks Online, WorkflowMax, SimPro and Dear Systems. “We had to set up a voting list on our website; the most popular is the one we’ll begin integrating next.”

It’s those engaged clients, says Lynch, that will outstrip their competition. The efficiency gains from clever software will sort the survivors from those who are blind to what their customers’ behaviour is telling them.

“Using your own data and insights, you can build reports that can’t be replicated,” he says. “Live data has broken open the repetition and the guesswork. Accountants can free up their time and focus on advisory work. And the firms that do will have a massive point of difference.” 

Ron Lesh FCA

COMPANY: BGL Corporate Solutions 

TITLE: Managing director

YEAR COMPANY FOUNDED: 1983 

YEAR QUALIFIED AS CA: 1982

The shift from desktop software to the cloud has cost SMSF software provider BGL Corporate Solutions a cool A$25 million. “It’s been a big, big job,” says managing director Ron Lesh FCA. “But it has allowed us to transition to a cloud business and help accountants evolve alongside technology.”

Melbourne-based BGL isn’t a newfangled tech start-up solving futuristic problems; it’s a mature business that has ridden the waves of technological advances since the late 1980s. Lesh and his team clocked early on that computers would revolutionise accounting and they have since built a global business that offers two specialised products: an SMSF platform and a corporate compliance product.

As general ledger software proliferates in the market, courtesy of Xero and MYOB, BGL has differentiated itself with its superannuation-specific offering and by building a robust platform that absorbs and sorts a variety of data streams.

“Bringing data together and helping people understand it is the key,” says Lesh, who has been with the company for more than 30 years. “While lots of accounting-specific software collects data, we collect more than 300 streams, whether that’s about investment properties or other assets.”

However, that means BGL is beholden to changes in government superannuation policy and needs to provide controls around contributions and pensions, integrate with analytics providers and grab data from the registry.

“It sounds like a lot, but if you focus on your core product and do your stuff really well, you won’t need to expand into a whole heap of other products,” says Lesh.

He points to patience and persistence as the secret to BGL’s success. “We began building for the cloud 10 years ago and we saw that it would make us responsible for everything our customers were doing,” he says. “They wouldn’t just be at a desktop. They’d be out in the field, speaking with clients and advising, so we needed to provide them with tools to do that.”

Lesh is pragmatic about how accountants view the software industry. “Accountants don’t always trust people in the industry, because people are always trying to find new ways to bill them,” he says.

The computer science graduate adds that those who are thinking about moving from accounting to IT should consider undertaking some formal education. “That way, you’re not 100% relying on tech people. They like to bamboozle you with science, so it helps to know what you’re talking about.”

Louise Hvala CA

COMPANY: Alifery Freelance Experts 

TITLE: Founder and CEO

YEAR COMPANY FOUNDED: 2018 

YEAR QUALIFIED AS CA: 2013

To help developers understand exactly how she wanted her professional freelancing platform to work, Louise Hvala CA filled paper after paper with hand drawings. “I spent hours pretending I was the user and mapping out how the platform would work and look,” says Hvala, founder and CEO of Alifery, which connects businesses with freelance lawyers.

When she was finally happy with how a section of the site would function, she snapped a photo and sent it to the designers and developers who were constructing the platform. “When you’re working with developers, you really need to give them the full story or they’ll be forced to design in their own way,” she says.

Hvala established Alifery after seeing the lawyers in her recruitment businesses casting around for freelance opportunities. As a chartered accountant, she saw the rapidly evolving future of work in which professionals wanted access to experts and, reciprocally, experts wanted access to new freelance business. So she built a small prototype connecting the two parties and released the platform to a sample group for feedback. “When it comes to design and tech,” she admits, “I’ve discovered that getting something to be user-friendly is really hard work.”

After collecting, refining and acting on feedback a few more times, Hvala released Alifery to the market and found she was soon having to knock people back. “We’ve had to develop a criteria for applicants,” she says.

Its success with freelance lawyers has prompted Hvala and her husband, John Castello, who also runs their Gatehouse Legal Recruitment business, to branch out to accountants and other professionals.

“Accountants are an incredibly powerful value-add to most businesses,” she says, pointing to management accountants who sit in on all facets of business planning. “Our goal is to create an ecosystem where all these professionals can cross-refer work to each other and leverage technology to focus on using their knowledge and experience.”

A chance encounter with a CTO in her building was crucial to Alifery’s evolution. “Building a big project can be very lonely and very expensive, so asking questions of someone who’s been there before is unbelievably valuable,” says Hvala.

Richard Francis CA 

COMPANY: Spotlight Reporting 

TITLE: Founder and CEO

YEAR COMPANY FOUNDED: 2010 

YEAR QUALIFIED AS CA: 1997

Content and thought leadership have long been the growth engines for Spotlight Reporting’s success. The software company, which offers advanced reporting, cash-flow forecasting, dashboard and multi-entity analysis to accountants all over the world, aims to educate beyond just its products.

“We figured we were selling to an industry that used to be quite traditional,” says Spotlight Reporting founder and CEO Richard Francis FCA. “And everyone knows accountants are incredibly timepoor, so it took a pretty big education piece to get them in the right mindset about what we could do for them.”

As well as creating content around Spotlight’s capabilities, Francis’s team took a hands-on approach to helping accountants build their own advisory practices. Using webinars, podcasts and articles, Spotlight Reporting was able to position itself as an authoritative voice in the progressive, technically advanced accountant market.

“It has allowed us to acquire a credibility that’s missing in the software world,” Francis says. “We’re talking the same language as our readers and subscribers and that has resonated.”

Spotlight Reporting has a long history of communicating well with customers. In its first iteration as Francis Consulting in the early 2000s, the company built itself as an entirely paperless operation. Using the tools beginning to emerge in the market, Francis and his wife, Julie, could position their paperless business as a real value-add for advisers and, thanks to the small world of Wellington in New Zealand, it was the first-ever Xero accounting partner.

“It was quite strange to be paperless at the time,” says Francis of the consulting business, which offered them a chance to explore online accounting. In 2009, they developed their own software business called Workpapers. “In order to explain to people how we were paperless, we’d have to explain how our software works and that was a great way to gather customers and educate the market.”

In 2012, the pair sold Workpapers to Xero. Francis attributes the pick-up in demand to the savvy evolution of accounting clients themselves. “We found demand was coming from the clients of accountants, not really the accountants themselves,” he says. “Other clients were using cloud tools in their own businesses and accountants saw they could hardly send out papers and be that old school.” 

Melissa Voss CA 

COMPANY: FuseWorks

TITLE: Co-founder and associate director – client and partner relations

YEAR COMPANY FOUNDED: 2013 (formerly Smarter Business Processes)

YEAR QUALIFIED AS CA: 2004

“Tech fatigue” is a real condition. With thousands of off-the-shelf solutions for every conceivable accounting issue, it’s no wonder many practices baulk at the idea of yet another IT tool. “Which is why it’s really important to let potential clients know that your solution comes from your own internal frustrations,” says Melissa Voss CA, co-founder and associate director of client and partner relations at FuseWorks. “The fact we are accountants ourselves has given us a great voice in the community and means we speak the same language and understand the same frustrations as our clients.”

Voss began her career as an accounting administrator before moving into accounting practice management. But she found more administration waiting for her. Hours and hours of creating and formatting documents for huge family groups meant she and her colleagues couldn’t spend time on the fun stuff: interacting with clients and planning their strategies. “So we decided to fix it ourselves,” she says. “We had some great IT smarts in our practice and figured we could do some really clever things by asking smarter questions.”

Leveraging data that already exists within firms, Voss and her team – led by Scott Barber on the tech front – stripped out the manual part of collating documents and built a suite of templates that allows firms to consistently create and brand reports. The result, FuseDocs, automates hours of accounting administration time. “Stuff that took hours now takes about five minutes,” says Voss. “But we’d never have been able to build it if we hadn’t been struggling with the inefficiencies ourselves.”

The team used the FuseDocs system internally for about five years before it entered the broader market. “When it was just us using it, it was pretty simple Excel add-ins that did some process automation,” says Voss.

Since FuseDocs launched three years ago, a constant stream of client feedback has improved FuseWorks’ offering and added a second product, FuseCharts. “It’s changed a lot,” Voss says, adding that understanding the ins and outs of accounting practices means the team can transform client feedback into product results within a relatively short period.

“That accounting knowledge and experience has meant we can build products customised for clients,” she says. “And it makes telling the story to clients much easier.”

Chris Hooper 

COMPANY: Accodex 

TITLE: Co-founder and CEO

YEAR COMPANY FOUNDED: 2015 

YEAR QUALIFIED AS CA: 2011

When a Texan business contacted Chris Hooper via Twitter to request his accounting services, Hooper sensed a much bigger opportunity. He had long been watching the freelance economy gaining traction and the barriers to hiring offshore talent disintegrate.

That a US company was reaching out across the Pacific, desperate for someone who was comfortable with modern accounting software to fix the mess its “old school” firm had left, was all the confirmation Hooper needed.

“Their local accounting firm had butchered their Xero file by treating it like a desktop QuickBooks file,” he says. “And suddenly, here I am as an Australian accountant servicing a multimillion-dollar Texan company and I’m thinking, ‘If there’s one, there has to be way more. And I know a lot of other young accountants who would want this kind of work’.”

Accodex was born out of several of Hooper’s assumptions about how the global accounting profession would evolve. The advent of cloud software, the democratisation of the global labour market, and skilled accountants wanting to find their own clients meant Hooper and his co-founders could design a network that allowed professionals to run as independent businesses.

“We built a hub-and-spokes market network [using, as an example, an M&A transaction, plus all the parties and counterparties that go along with that] where accountants, lawyers and other vendors all work on the same file.”

But one key distinction between a market network and a freelance marketplace is that accountants on the platform source their own clients outside and then fold them into the network. “So accountants are out there hunting and killing their own work and bringing it to us.”

The next step, Hooper says, will be to unify all the data. It’s not uncommon for accounting techs to be running 40 discrete applications, 40 discrete databases, and the only solution for absorbing them all is to warehouse that data then run machine-learning algorithms across the top.

Hooper and his team are hoping to develop the kind of unified database for a future in which machine learning is widely used and commercially viable. “I accept that machine learning is a given,” says Hooper, “so I got a pen and paper out and started sketching that architecture. It really pays to be ahead of the trend.”

Guy Pearson CA 

COMPANY: Practice Ignition 

TITLE: Co-founder and CEO

YEAR COMPANY FOUNDED: 2013 

YEAR QUALIFIED AS CA: 2008

Guy Pearson CA knew enough about technology to be dangerous but not enough to code the software himself. “I figured out that data flows were, effectively, plumbing,” says Pearson of his journey from accountant to start-up entrepreneur. “If you want this information to flow to this system, how do you make it connect? Which systems need to talk to each other? I could work that part out, but the coding part is another skill entirely.”

Pearson’s move to the software industry was a result of his struggle to increase efficiencies in his own accounting business. “The business model for accounting was traditionally time plus materials,” he says. “Everything was based on an hour’s work. There was no incentive to become more efficient, because you got paid for every minute you spent trying to figure out a problem.”

However, Pearson saw demand for a fixed-fee service emerging. The ageing population, which had little to no fixed income, wanted certainty on how much they would be expected to pay, and the monthly costs of running cloud software were spawning fixed-fee services in a host of other industries.

“I wanted to have a proposal for the scope of work presented and accepted, then my workflow and invoicing automated,” he says, highlighting that this software capability existed in fragments for the chain but rarely altogether.

Pearson borrowed some money from the bank, found a developer in co-founder Dane Thomas, then set to work building Practice Ignition. But he soon found a block in the mindset of the accountants he was pitching to.

“There’s this idea that every accounting client is different and there’s no way they could even remotely be the same,” he says. “How could you build a piece of software for everyone? I had to get my head around ‘slow and steady’ as the best way to educate and get people on board.”

Given that technology permeates all industries, Pearson is adamant that accountants need to get out in front.

“Software developers can build most of what we do anyway,” he says, pointing to the emergence of Pilot, Bench and QuickBooks Live. “So software companies will begin hiring accountants and paying them more to get the lifetime value out of the software and services. You have to use technology as an enabler now or you’ll miss the boat.”