choosing app stack

How to Build Tech Stack Advice into Your Accounting Business


Do you know where to start and how to avoid inertia when it comes to choosing the right apps for your software advisory suite? Clayton Oates offers his expertise to ensure you make the best decisions for yourself and your clients.

May 12th 2020
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Software Advisory can differentiate your firm in the marketplace and add tremendous value to your business and those of your clients. But, figuring out where to begin in the process can be overwhelming. So, where do you start and how do you avoid inertia and overwhelm when selecting the right apps to include in your software advisory suite?

“Appstraction”: A Made-Up Name for a Real Thing

Perhaps (like me) you have suffered (or are suffering) from “advisory inertia,” perpetuated by constantly being distracted by and wanting to know about all apps before advising on any of them for clients or your firm. I call this “Appstraction,” and it’s a real and present problem for many accounting professionals around the globe.

Appstraction is underpinned by the tyranny of choice: the more options we have, the greater the risk we won’t make a decision. As accountants, we are predisposed to analysis, but there’s a chance overdoing it can result in fear of not making the “right” choice for our firms and our clients.

So, what can we do to mitigate the impact of Appstraction and get on with leading (and advising) our clients on what is possible in the software applications world?

First, I recommend answering this fundamental question: Why am I bothering to learn and recommend software solutions to clients?

In order to answer this, you may first want to consider your responses to the following questions:

  • Is technology something I’m interested in?
  • Can it add value to my existing and future clients?
  • Could proactive software advisory be my ticket to “escaping” from mundane compliance work?
  • Will it recalibrate my relevance with clients?
  • Is there a growing and future demand from clients for this service?
  • How could I leverage and extend my existing client relationship (and skillset) with relevant software solutions?

These are just some of the questions I had to answer as a 24-year-old accountant in public practice (over 26 years ago), who, at the time, was fast becoming disillusioned with my future in the profession. Fortunately, accounting technology (albeit desktop, back then) was emerging, and clients had an awareness and appetite for utilizing technology to enable a more effective business and hopefully help them buy some much-needed time back from the office.

So, I partnered with the firm (and a handful of software vendors) to create a software advisory division of the firm that would focus exclusively on serving these needs. The offerings included business system reviews, needs assessments, software recommendations, implementation, training and ongoing support.

Evolution of the App (Tech) Stack

The app ecosystem explosion (700+ in the past 8 years) has largely been driven by the mainstream cloud accounting vendors strategically deciding that they were not going to be able to add all of the functionality that the market needs without bloating and potentially overcomplicating their solutions. So, they replicated the playbooks of Microsoft and Apple to enable and leverage an ecosystem of “Gap Fillers or Extension Adders” that they have (for the most part) allowed to connect and pass data into their systems with the view to position themselves as a platform. The future may be that accounting and compliance become incidental and potentially invisible in the background to the end customer (your client), and these front-facing applications increasingly become mission critical software.

In order to differentiate themselves in this sea of software, the app community has adopted category definitions that help with the filtering process for advisors when reviewing solutions. For example, you (or your client) may have identified the need for a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution to track conversations (activity) with customers and assign responsibility (tasks) to a team member. You can now search apps by category in app marketplaces and shortlist those that identify in that space.

Enter the Tech Stack

Typically, a Tech (or App) Stack is as a collection of add-on applications that are designed to satisfy specific functions within a business or firm that are not otherwise handled by the core accounting platform. This group (or stack) of applications may then in part (or whole) be introduced to clients’ businesses to provide automation and efficiency.

Is a Tech Stack the Answer?

The creation of a set tech stack is alluring, and the “leverage and scale business gurus” would say this is imperative if you are going to create a replicable business via the “choose once, sell to many” model.

This proposition is intoxicating; however, at its core, it assumes all clients have the same needs and require the same solution. This is problematic for obvious reasons, and I encourage you to continue to be open to new inclusions or to switching out solutions as your skillset and client needs evolve.

The reality, however, is that many small businesses do have similar needs, and if there is enough flexibility in a solution to enable relevance to the client, then this (App Stack) approach may just be the answer.

The Big 6: Beyond Core Accounting for Clients

As accounting professionals, we naturally see accounting solutions as the center of the App Universe and the vital business application that every small business must possess. However, this may not be the reality for your client. Their center is likely to be more operational and specific to the industry they are involved in and the customers they are looking to serve.

So, how can you determine what apps (beyond accounting) are likely to be of interest to your current and prospective client base? One approach is to apply a filter to discern a suite of apps that could be applied to 80 percent of your client base. This involves constantly reviewing your stack to see if it passes the 80:80 test. That is, are 80 percent of the apps you choose relevant to 80 percent of your existing or future clients?

This approach will help you remain focused on who you are serving and how to find the best solutions for them. This will also ensure that you maximize leverage from the investment you make in discerning and learning the applications in the first place.

So, which applications are likely to pass the 80:80 test? Here’s a list of general categories to consider:

  • Managing Customer Relationship (CRM) / Marketing & Campaign Management
  • Advanced Payroll – Including HR Management, Rostering & Time Tracking
  • Document Receipt Capture & Expense Management
  • Advanced Inventory / Job / Workflow Management
  • Analytics / KPI / Dashboard Reporting
  • E-Commerce, Web Store, Point of Sale, Mobile Payments

Applying the 3:2:1 Rule

When choosing a solution, it is also vital that you guard your independence.

Here’s what I mean by that: Your client will view you as an independent professional and expect you to be always operating with their best interests in mind. You can do this by adhering to the 3:2:1 Rule when choosing software vendors to partner with.

3: Be aware of and review 3 vendor solutions in the category you are looking to add to your apps stack

2: Partner with 2 of the vendors in the category

1: You will then naturally master and favor 1 of these solutions

Whilst the notion of being agnostic when recommending software may be a noble ambition, the reality is, if you are looking to play an active role in implementing solutions, you are going to need to partner deeply with software vendors and still maintain your professional independence.

What About Apps for My Firm?

Much of the initial focus of the software development community has been on the creation of applications that serve the business clients of the firm. They’ve tended to utilize the accounting professional as a conduit to access the small business market. However more recently, attention is also being directed to the needs of the accounting profession.

Evolving tech tools for firms include:

  1. Analytics | Business Intelligence | Dashboard | KPI Reporting
  2. Client Service | Help Desk | Knowledge Base (CRM for Accountants)
  3. Client On Boarding | Subscription Management | Recurring Payments
  4. Marketing | Campaign Management
  5. Data Capture | Automation | Document Management
  6. Practice Workflow | Email Management
  7. Job | Task | Process Management
  8. App and Process Connectors
  9. Team Security & App Password Management
  10. Client Portals / Secure Document Portals / E-Signing
  11. Time tracking / Timesheet Management
  12. Client meeting scheduling & delivery
  13. Team Collaboration
  14. Remote Process Automation (RPA)

When it comes to choosing tech solutions, here’s a tip: Think of your firm as less of accounting “practice” and more of an accounting “business.” Then, map out what you need to make the latter, enduringly successful; in other words, figure out how you can attract and continue to serve clients. Taking time now to discern how technology can help you achieve this aim may just be the best investment you ever make.

Your Next Step

I know this process may seem overwhelming, and the multitude of choices can create inertia. However, one way to overcome this is to take the time to ask yourself this key question: If I could re-create my firm from scratch knowing what I know now, what would I do differently? This is a challenging and empowering question that could provide you with the energy and impetus to create a do-over that opens up a world of possibility not only for your firm, but also for the clients you serve, both now and in the future.

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