Date posted: 28/04/2020 10 min read

How to navigate the app ecosystem

As cloud accounting matures, clients are asking CAs for advice on third-party apps. So what do the experts recommend?

In Brief

  • Becoming an ‘app adviser’ can be a niche specialty for accountants.
  • A tech stack that processes information once and automatically flows it through a business saves time and money for clients.
  • For apps that deal with more complicated procedures, such as inventory, it’s useful to get advice from cloud integrator experts.

By Sholto Macpherson

Accountants have always recommended accounting software, at least to their smaller clients. Should they recommend other business software, too? Plenty of accountants would answer with a flat-out “no”, but Aly Garrett CA isn’t one of them.

“I think people have to make a choice. There are accountants specialising in tax or superannuation; this is another specialist space.”

Garrett founded All In Advisory in Adelaide three years ago. As well as compliance services and tax structuring, it offers a ‘cloud ecosystems’ service for clients in hospitality, tourism and medical.

Garrett’s team designs, integrates and automates a collection of business software that connects to Xero, its preferred accounting package (Xero).

“We build tech stacks so businesses process information once and it flows through the whole system. Then we automate it within an inch of its life so they only deal with exceptions. And it’s all in real time,” Garrett says.

“We build tech stacks so businesses process information once and it flows through the whole system.”
Aly Garrett CA, All In Advisory

A typical example for a cafe would be to start with Xero and then add Kounta for point-of-sale software; a payments solution such as CommBank’s Albert terminal; Receipt Bank for scanning and auto-processing expenses; Tanda for rostering, time sheets and award interpretation; and Fathom for management reporting, says Garrett.

All these programs send data automatically to Xero, with no data entry involved.

“They then have a tech stack that is integrated and automated and they work in real time with their adviser on how to push the business forward,” Garrett says.

Aly Garrett CAPicture: Aly Garrett CA.

The ever-expanding app ecosystem

In the days of desktop software, the question of recommending software would have been an easier question for accountants to answer. Desktop accounting software had a limited number of third-party business applications that added more powerful functions. Software such as Ostendo (job costing) and Pronto (ERP/inventory) built a solid following among MYOB users.

However, the software connectors, or drivers, between two desktop applications were notoriously difficult to set up and maintain. An accountant could recommend Ostendo to a client to solve a specific challenge, but would rarely get involved in the set-up and operation.

Online software has changed the number of business applications available and, arguably, clients’ expectations.

From 2008, when Xero entered the Australian market, its founder Rod Drury enticed developers to create software that passed data to and from the accounting file. Xero quickly established an army of third-party apps that helped convince small business operators to trust online software. The third-party apps then encouraged businesses to switch to Xero for their accounting.

Now there are more than 700 apps and integrations in the Xero ecosystem. Reckon and MYOB have made some progress in this direction, if more slowly. Both incumbents still sell fully featured accounting desktop software that competes with many of the newer online apps in Xero’s ecosystem.

Intuit has leapfrogged Xero thanks to a much larger customer base in the US. It claims that QuickBooks Online has thousands of apps and integrations.

Intuit and Xero are heavily promoting the idea of accountants moving into app advisory, a term that can cover recommending business software through to install, integration and training.

Xero is directing SMEs to the Xero Marketplace for third-party software, promoting the idea that the accounting software is at the centre of their technology stack. Business owners are now asking accountants which apps they should choose.

Xero has released a series of educational playbooks on setting up app advisory services and giving industry-specific app advice. Accountants and bookkeepers who complete this training earn badges for app advisory in trade and construction, retail and e-commerce, professional services, and cash flow.

‘Horizontal’ apps apply to all industries

The most likely starting point for accountants, however, will be in ‘horizontal’ apps that apply to all industries, says Jeri Wambeek. A former accountant who now runs a 20-person cloud software integrator in Sydney, Wambeek says there is nothing stopping accountants from helping clients become more efficient.

“Accountants can help businesses save time and money every day by connecting them to apps that do things they are paying people to do or doing themselves,” says Wambeek, chief solutions officer of WhichAddOn. “Paper timesheets, rostering on spreadsheets, manually entering bills – there’s no reason why clients need to do that anymore.”

“Paper timesheets, rostering on spreadsheets, manually entering bills – there’s no reason why clients need to do that anymore.”
Jeri Wambeek, WhichAddOn

Why do accountants have to become productivity experts? “We have the opportunity to see inside so many businesses. The good accountants are the ones who are proactive and love their clients’ businesses as much as their clients do,” she says.

“It’s not about being a productivity expert or operational expert, it’s knowing what’s best at heart for their client.”

While Wambeek encourages accountants to explore software in expense management and electronic timesheets, she cautions against rolling out inventory apps such as Cin7, TradeGecko, Unleashed and DEARInventory. It’s better to get a cloud expert involved with such requests.

“The thing with inventory clients is that their needs are so diverse. One business can be a wholesaler, they can do e-commerce, have a retail store and be a manufacturer. Each one of those channels can have very specific inventory needs and the app has to solve them,” says Wambeek, who often receives requests for assistance on inventory apps from accounting firms.

Jeri WambeekPicture: Jeri Wambeek.

App advisory training

If app advisory, at least for horizontal apps, makes sense – why are so few firms doing it?

The top three reasons accountants avoid app advisory are that they are overwhelmed by choice, they are not sure where to begin and don’t know how to charge for it, says Jeffrey Atizado, joint managing director of SMB Consultants.

SMB Consultants and another Sydney-based software consultancy, TradiePad, set up a partner program to train accountants and bookkeepers on app advisory and cloud software integration.

“We knew there was an opportunity to train accountants and bookkeepers as app advisers so they could turbocharge the Xero file and make it more accessible and up to date,” Atizado says.

Another purpose of the partner program is to promote the idea of the cloud integrator, a software consultancy that specialises in setting up and training users on software from the cloud accounting ecosystems.

Some accounting firms will decide to invest heavily in app advisory. But there will always be room for them to work with external experts, Atizado says.

“Accountants and bookkeepers are being pulled into conversations because clients are bringing them problems. They are trying to research what apps are out there without having first-hand experience of those apps,” Atizado says.

The term ‘cloud integrator’ has been bandied about for some years among early Xero adopters, but it had little meaning within the broader accounting profession.

“No-one knew what role we played, or what it looked like to engage with us. And were we competitors?” Atizado says. He compares the relationship between accountants and cloud integrators to the collaboration between a GP and specialists.

“A GP doesn’t prescribe medication for every single ailment she comes across,” he says. “Every GP relies on a network of specialists who she relies on for service and accountability to that client.”

The partner program, called Cloud Integration Partners, now has 1200 members who engage in workshops and other training. SMB Consultants specialises in app advice for hospitality and retail while TradiePad is focused on supporting trades and construction businesses. Cloud Integration Partners includes cloud integrators from other industries and software specialties as needed.

Within the program is a spectrum of interest and ability among accountants; there is no single profile of an app adviser, says Atizado.

“I agree that not everyone will be [an app adviser]. I don’t agree that it’s an all or nothing approach. Every accountant or partner out there has to assess where the opportunity is and where they want to take their business model.”

RSM Australia makes a business out of app advisory

Few firms have invested as much in app advisory as RSM Australia. The company has a digital services division that will recommend, set up and integrate almost every type of business software. The division provides related services such as building websites.

It has also launched a program to upskill accountants so they can recommend apps to clients directly. This has already had a profound impact, says Kaisa Heikkila, a digital analyst at RSM in Sydney.

Accountants in RSM’s 30 regional offices have spearheaded an initiative to get farmers online and using farm financial management software.

“By implementing this farm management software they are making sure farmers have production targets as well as having their finances in order. They have also created this multiplier effect of new networks,” Heikkila says.

Other farmers are contacting RSM’s regional accountants to get set up on farm management software, rather than for compliance work. “It’s a new network of customers for these accountants and bookkeepers. And it’s only because they embraced app advisory,” Heikkila says.

RSM’s digital division includes a mix of consultants and technical experts as well as accountants. They support a minimum of two accountants in each of RSM’s regional offices who have been trained as digital advisers and can recommend business software.

Other accountants in those offices can ask the digital advisers for software recommendations, which usually come from templates created by the digital division. (It’s worth noting that the number of digital advisers trained by RSM’s digital division is still a small percentage of the organisation.)

Rather than dividing apps into horizontal and industry vertical applications, RSM thinks about apps in terms of risk. Accountants should feel comfortable recommending low-risk apps such as expense management. High-risk apps such as inventory are handled on a case-by-case basis. The recommendation, integration and training will either be passed to an expert on the digital services team or an external provider, Heikkila says.

“We can leverage our network with software providers (to install a high-risk app). But if it will take months to implement and it will affect their whole production process, then I think an accountant should always seek help from an expert,” Heikkila adds.

One beneficial outcome of app advisory by industry is that it helps accountants differentiate themselves in a commoditised market for compliance services.

“It’s 2020 – the opportunity for the bookkeeper and accountant is to have a niche. They need to know everything about compliance, and a whole lot of other things. But they can also start to market themselves and brand themselves as an app adviser if they are qualified,” Heikkila says.

See below for information on some of the most popular apps to plug into online accounting software.

What are some of the most popular apps to plug into online accounting software?

The table below outlines some of the key facts users need to know about nine popular apps that integrate with accounting software. The options listed here are by no means exhaustive. A product’s inclusion should not be regarded as an endorsement by Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. Information included in this guide has come from the relevant vendors or associated websites. Prices may be subject to change.

Product Used for Cost Who are the certified partners? Training options Where is the data stored? What are your top 5 most popular industries?  Number of customers? Number of country offices?
Unleashed Software Inventory From A$239 per month.
(Large subscription is A$479 per month.) Plans are based on the number of users.
Cloud Ease Consulting, BOO Adelaide, Elevate Accounting, Taylor & Moore, Business Continuum, Cloud Solve, and other cloud implementation consultants and accountants. Free onboarding guide
and free online resources. Structured training through Unleashed University for a small fee. Certified partners also offer training.
Amazon Web Services in Australia. Food and beverage; health and wellbeing; industrial machinery; furniture and fixtures; building and
More than 3500 customers and 15,000 users worldwide. 4 offices in Australia, New Zealand and the UK
Vend Inventory, point of sale From A$119 per month. Xero for accounting; WooCommerce,
Big Commerce and Shopify for e-commerce; Commonwealth Bank, Afterpay and Tyro
for payments.
Self-onboarding using Vend's learning platform, or training from internal Vend team. Amazon Web Services. Fashion and apparel; homewares and gifts; sports and outdoors; health and beauty; fitness and supplements. More than 25,000 stores globally use Vend. Offices in Australia, New Zealand, US, UK and Canada.
TradeGecko Inventory From A$460 a year to custom pricing (available on request). Shopify, Xero, WooCommerce, Intuit QuickBooks, Amazon, Magenta, Zapier, ShipStation. Onboarding team for set-up. Online training and webinars.  AWS Cloud. Fashion, accessories
and apparel; health and wellness; fitness, sports and outdoor equipment; food and beverages.
22,000 users Offices in Singapore, Canada, Philippines.
WorkflowMax (a Xero product) Time tracking From A$30 per month. Link Solutions, Red Arrow Consulting, Cloudify, BOO, Deloitte, Katalyst, TradiePad, Business Continuum. Online webinars, courses and videos. Data hosted on servers in the US. Professional services; architecture; engineering; building and construction; creative agencies. 100,000 users Used in 180 countries.
DEAR Inventory/DEAR Systems Inventory 14-day free trial, then from US$199 per month. We Are Waypoint, Coconut Consulting, lntegrationKings, WhichAddOn, BlueRock Digital, GrowthPath, Exact Business Consulting, Business Continuum, N2N Digital, Complete Information Solutions, WorkSmart, Embark Solutions, BOO Christchurch. In-house implementation service, online video tutorial library, knowledge base and webinars. Microsoft Azure. Wholesale; retail; manufacturing; pharmaceuticals; distribution. 5000+ users Offices in Australia,
US, UAE and
Sri Lanka.
simPRO Inventory, jobs, time tracking A base office licence is A$139 a month and a mobile licence is A$19 a month. Ongoing costs depend
on the number of users, functionality required and product add-ons.
Xero, MYOB, QuickBooks, Square and more. An implementation consultant can offer on-site and over-the-phone training. Online simPRO Learning for self-directed learning. Certified cloud data centres. Electric a I; plumbing; HVAC
(heating, ventilating, and
air conditioning); security; fire protection.
150,000+ users Two offices in Australia, one each in New Zealand, the UK and the US.
Tanda Payroll HR, time tra eking  14-dayfree trial, then plans start from A$120+GST per month (paid monthly) or A$40+GST per month (paid annually). BOO Australia, businessDEPOT and H&R Block. Software add-ons include Xero and MYOB
(+ 30 more), and point-of-sale providers Red cat and Kounta (+ 10 more).
Implementation team assists with training for the first 90 days. Online help articles and tutorial videos are available.  Amazon Web Services (AWS) servers in Australia. Hospitality; healthcare; retail; child care; manufacturing. 300,000+ users
in almost 7000 businesses .
One office each in Australia, US, UK and the Philippines.
ServiceMB Invoicing and jobs 14-day free trial, then plans from A$9 per month. TradiePad, Customer Consulting Group, Catalyst Cloud Solutions, Cloud Ease Consulting and other SMB experts. Access to Learning Roadmap videos and articles, or choose training from
a ServiceM8 Partner.
Amazon Web Services servers in Australia, North America and the UK. Plumbing; electrical contracting; HVAC and refrigeration; cleaning; garden care and pest control. Ideal for small businesses that manage shorter jobs and staff in the field. Not provided. Headquarters in Australia.
Cin7 Inventory One-time onboarding, training and set-up fee. Plans start from US$299 per month. Accountants, Xero partners, cloud software integrators. In-app guides, learning management system, monthly webinars, training events, one-on-one, onsite training. Microsoft Azure. Fashion; beauty; electronics/ appliances; furniture/home; general merchandise. 2,500+ One office each in New Zealand and US.