Xero Hour

The clock struck Xero Hour at Dewings this week.

Since we first started this blog I had this post slotted into the plan as a kind of timetable of events for our first day. ‘Xero Hour’ I would wittily call it (genius), and it would detail the frantic state of day one as we wrestled to adopt this new and kinda weird looking stranger into the Dewings family.

Here’s what ended up being my notes from the day:

8:07am – arrived at work.

8:18am – entered results for footy tips (some matters take priority over all others).

8:47am – set up laptop, projector and video camera in conference room for WorkflowMax training.

…and that’s it.

Tim from FGS stepping into the breach and training the team Monday morning. Video available at all good DVD outlets.

I wanted to document the day a lot more thoroughly than that, but it never happened. You might think that the reason for this is that we were so busy putting out fires that there simply wasn’t the time. And certainly the morning was a busy one. But by the afternoon, there really wasn’t that much to report. If I was to add some post-dated entries now, they’d be:

11:15am (ish) – completed WorkflowMax initial training to enable us to enter time.

11:30am (ish) – located list of jobs in progress and set about getting those into the system so that time could be allocated. This was meant to be done prior to 30th June but we overlooked it and only noticed during training that there were no jobs in there yet.

1:22pm (precisely) – sent email to the team advising that all current jobs were in there and that they could start entering time.

Naturally there were a few questions and issues that needed to be resolved during the afternoon. But overall, the afternoon was characterised largely by its normality. So much for my dramatic ‘live from the warzone’ post!

FGS have been a big part of that. They’ve had all of the answers to our questions, and have been incredibly helpful and patient for the most minute of queries. We can’t emphasise enough the value in having someone like FGS to help make Xero work in an accounting practice. Even with our short timeframe, they have made sure that everything that needed to be done happened on time.

So far, we’re really just using WorkflowMax (WFM) with a little Xero by a select few staff. For WFM, the relative calm has largely been because our team members can see how to correlate what they have been doing with what they now need to do. There is some adjustment, of course, but in the end, they’re just recording time in a timesheet.

Actual photo of team response to new systems

We want to affirm that it’s very much a case of ‘so far so good’ with WFM. But we’ve also pledged to give you the straight dope – a warts and all account of our journey. And we know that you know that no system change is ever a worry-free frolic in the meadows. So it would be disingenuous of us not to mention some of the teething problems and adjustments we’ve had to make so far. Like a bride-to-be preparing for her big day, we’ve been a little gushy before the event, swept off our collective feet by the anticipation of all of the possibilities that lie ahead. Now it’s our first week of having to live with each other.

It’s worth noting firstly, for the uninitiated, that WFM is job based. What you’re trying to do with it is manage and monitor jobs in your system.

The complaints at this early stage have been:

  1. It’s slow – It’s web based, and we all know how sometimes your browser can just pause for a little while, as it thinks and processes. So each time you enter a time, you have to wait for it to save, and that can be slow going compared to a locally hosted system when you’re entering a bunch of items.
  2. Entering time should be tabular – This is really an extension of the above. Because each entry must be saved individually, not only can you not enter multiple line items in at once, but reviewing and editing is a little cumbersome too, especially if you’re used to just being able to click on a field and change it. With WFM you must first click on the line item in a list, wait for the page to render, then edit the item, then save again, and so on. Bottom line we think is that it would be great to be able to see all time for the day in a table where any field could be freely edited simply by clicking it, instead of having to go to a separate page for each item first.
  3. Job focus can make managing a day difficult – There is a real upside to tracking jobs in terms of workflow management. But the downside here can be that an accountant’s day is not always so easily divided into ‘jobs’. There are all sorts of interruptions for a manager during the day, often unrelated to jobs they are working on. You can’t quickly record that time. There must be a job in the system. And some of the work we do is better categorised as an ‘odd-job’. That quick phone call from a client where they have a question unrelated to anything that you’re currently working on for them. This can be fiddly to manage. There have been occasions where it has taken as long to set up the job as it has to actually do it! We need to get the balance right.

The obvious solution to this is to move away from the traditional accounting model of recording every second of time. That’s a great goal and one we hope to work towards eventually. I guess the difficulty is that WFM is supposed to be able to handle both the old way and the new, and it does. But if you do use a traditional timesheet model it’s a little more cumbersome. I guess that’s a motivation to change!

There is one final gripe with WorkflowMax, and that is security. Gasp!

We sat in on a Xero Essentials training video on Wednesday just to help the familiarisation process. One of the first things covered by the presenter was security. Very reassuring. It was emphasised during the demo that when logging into Xero, the browser would not prompt you to save your username and password like ‘some other sites’ because of the big security risk this poses.

‘Some other sites’ it seems includes their own product. WorkflowMax does in fact allow you to save your login credentials. As accountants, we’re a little nervous that all our data is out there in the cloud. But we’ve been reassured (and rightly) that when executed correctly, the cloud is more secure than any office. Amen! When executed correctly…

The reason remembering passwords is a security 101 no-no for any site that contains personal identity and financial data is because anyone can come along behind you and log straight in if those details have been remembered. Xero/WFM prides themselves on providing ‘anywhere access’ to your data, which means you can use a tablet or other portable device, or (God forbid) a public computer. So all it takes is for that portable device to get lost, or for someone to accidentally click ‘remember me’ on a public computer, and it’s potentially all over. This is a feature that’s intended for membership of TV show forums and the blogs of 15 year old kids, not for sites that host sensitive identity and financial data. Obviously Xero agrees, since the Xero site does not offer to remember your login credentials, and this was specifically emphasised in the Xero demo.

When I asked WorkflowMax support about this last week, the response was:

“…the ‘remember me’ functionality is a heavily utilised function by our users and therefore they will not consider removing it.”

“We could have had a no smoking policy around the chemicals…but our employees just really like to smoke.”

This seems to suggest in this case that convenience trumps security. I’d love to be able to walk straight into the office every day without unlocking the doors and turning off the alarm. Unfortunately if I can do that, so can anyone else! The price of security is some inconvenience – you have to fiddle with the keys a little and jiggle the lock every day, which can be annoying.

We love the guys at Xero and WorkflowMax (now owned by Xero). They’ve been incredibly helpful and they really do ‘get’ how users work and how this translates into the features of their products. To their credit, WFM have since said they’ll consider it further. But every day that goes by without this being addressed is one that puts sensitive data at needless risk.

By the way – if we’re wrong on any of these things, or we discover a workaround or change in practice that can actually make it work better, we’ll let you know. And hopefully you can do the same for us. At the moment, these are all just first impressions.

And that’s not the note we should end on. For the most part, we can see why we chose to spend the rest of our lives with these guys. Sure, they leave the toilet seat up sometimes or forget to clean up after a shave. But the one percenters shouldn’t overshadow the 99. Right now, we feel like we’ve got a keeper. Once again, the most significant thing to note this week has been the relative sense of calm and normality that has prevailed. Normal is good. We like normal. It’s different, of course. But we can already see that with some minor adjustment to our practices there is a wealth of great management information at our fingertips.

‘Twas the night before Xero…

It’s Xero eve at Dewings, which seems a good time to do a little introspection. Who are we, and how did we get here?

It’s all very existential. The truth is that there’s a lot more to becoming an accounting practice of the future than software. The final decision to go with Xero was in one sense the beginning of a new direction. But in another it was the culmination of a process we’ve been working through for a while.

Dewings takes its name from Phil Dewing. It’s fair to say that he has a savant-like talent for creative business advice. While everyone else is staring at a pile of matches lying on the floor, Phil already has them counted. It’s like he can see the matrix. This isn’t a marketing blurb – it’s just who he is. It’s relevant because it informs who and where we are today. And traditionally it’s been the reason clients come to us. We currently have three directors – Phil, Kathy Allen and me, but his reputation has traditionally been the source of much of our work over nearly three decades.

In recent years we’ve had to start thinking about what life at Dewings will be like without our namesake. That’s involved us doing some succession planning, and it’s a process we’re still working through.

‘Twas the night before Xero
And all through the firm
Were dwindling memories
Of the great pachyderm

But the elephant in the room during the process was a question: where is our work going to come from into the long term future? When Phil – our figurehead and poster boy – starts to wind back, how will we promote ourselves without him out there banging the drum for us? It’s never been something we’ve had to worry about because Phil’s reputation alone has often brought the work in (even though our team delivers the results).

Marketing! That was the solution. And by ‘marketing’, we meant advertising! The only problem was…we’re accountants! Do I need to say any more?

We were really fortunate to have Lowen Partridge of Peartree Marketing as a tenant in our building, so we turned to her for help. Lowen is a leading brand development specialist with a heap of experience. What a fantastic resource!

Or so you’d think we’d think. It didn’t turn out to be what we were hoping for (it was better, but I’m getting to that). We had a limited budget and all we wanted to do was spend that on getting the word out. But Lowen was all about ‘brand engineering’! While we were thinking ‘print or radio?’ she was asking ‘how do you know what you’re going to say anyway?’ Again, those fundamental questions of existence – how can you tell people about yourself in the best, most efficient way, if you don’t know who you are? What would you say?

So begrudgingly we took a step back and began to try to answer those questions. Some of the process was about specifically naming what we already knew about ourselves. Some of it was aspirational – as much about what we wanted to be as what we already were. But much of it was about self-discovery.

In the end it was a brilliant decision, if we might say so ourselves. Defining who we are – everything from our reception area and what we wear to the standards of service we want to deliver – gave us a standard to measure any new initiative against. Does that fit with our brand?

We talked to our team about it and asked for their input, and we summarised it in a brand identity statement that now informs all of our interactions. And we set about implementing it by renovating our offices, scheduling regular training sessions to reaffirm our values, developing new materials and so on. Everything that is seen by someone else, whether internally (by staff) or externally (by clients) eventually needs to fall into step with this identity. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.

You’d think this process would be expensive, but in fact relatively speaking it hasn’t been. A coat of paint doesn’t cost that much. And it’s been gradual, taking place over a couple of years. It’s not that ‘everything must go’. It’s more about making sure that everything fits. Many aspects of our business already did.

One of our rejected marketing strategies: “Hey! Is that car tax effective?”

One area that this certainly helped us was in realising in the end that ‘advertising’ (as we understood it anyway) doesn’t fit with our brand. Our work is based on relationships. That means we need to do more to cultivate our reputation and build connections through networking, sponsorships and specialisation.

This isn’t about giving shout outs. We’re writing about this journey completely independently. This is just what happened. So I say with sincerity that another person who has been a great help to us in this regard has been Michael ‘MC’ Carter of Practice Paradox. It might be tempting for some to lump Practice Paradox in with so much of the other accounting industry noise. That would be a big mistake. MC isn’t so much about operations – burdening you with the guilt of all the things you’re doing wrong. He’s more about teaching accountants how to market with new tools while working with what they already are. Once we had an idea of what wouldn’t work for us, we had to start thinking about what would. Initially through a lot of free material, and then through his  ‘Marketing Masterclass’ which we attended, MC opened our eyes to a whole new way of marketing the practice, including better networking, the value of social networks and yes – blogging!

All of that brought us to where we are now. Xero is not a punt. It’s not one choice from many otherwise similar and largely indistinguishable options. It’s the logical – in fact the only – choice for us because the Xero ethos is consistent with our own aspirations. How we engage our clients and team must be an extension of who we are. Every component of that is critical, and that includes our systems. Xero fits our brand. And we only know that because we’ve been through the exercise of defining it.

We’re going dark now. Next time you hear from us, we’ll be a Xero practice!

Minds blown by basic features

Like a stray puppy that finally finds a warm home, it’s fair to say we were ready to love almost anything. But it’s nice when you do better than that.

I’ve just walked out of a demonstration of WorkflowMax (WFM) using our own practice data. There’s a little more to do yet, but the idea was for us to get some of our management team together and see whether it was on the right track.

Naturally we’re reserving a thorough critique until we get in and use it. But initial impressions are quite simply…wow!

If you’re reading this but unfamiliar with the Xero architecture, WFM is the job/practice management module that integrates with Xero.

There were a total of five of us in the room and you could actually see smiles appearing on the faces of people as questions were answered and concerns eliminated. It was a great mix of the old and the new. We felt comfortable that we could get our data into WFM in a way that was familiar. But it was also quickly apparent that we could leverage that data in an entirely new, more powerful – and frankly better – way than ever before.

We’ve pledged to be as honest as possible in this story. We want to cut through the marketing hype and give a realistic assessment of what’s involved in transitioning an accounting practice to Xero, and whether it can deliver on the promises. I’ve sat through many software introductions over the years and I can honestly say that this is one of the first times I can remember where the experience has matched the pitch.

So far, of course. There’s a way to go yet. Today was somewhere between a demo and a first hand experience. It was a demonstration but it was using our data, and responding to our questions about what it could do with that data.

The most significant impact came when realising the number of separate systems that can now be replaced with a single – and integrated – solution. Sure, it does our invoices and then automatically posts them to our ledger for accounting purposes (our existing system doesn’t post them).

But it also can manage our leads and quotes. Previously we’ve used a makeshift spreadsheet for lead management and it doesn’t integrate with anything. We’ve always generated quotes using Word. Now we can generate a quote using our task list and when the time comes to turn that into a job, we can automatically convert the quote.

We can see all of our practice KPIs on a single report, generated automatically from live data in the system. Previously we have always had to generate special management reports on a monthly basis by manually inputting key data from our system reports.

Sure, we can measure that galaxy for you. If you want a customised debtors report though, it’s going to take a little longer…

And while we’re on the subject, just the ease at which we can customise and create reports was staggering! You mean we can just use a graphical interface and select fields? It currently takes a post-grad in astrophysics to even interpret our report writing system itself, let alone output anything meaningful from it.

We currently use a separate workflow management system which requires us to manage jobs separately from our practice management system. OK, so it’s nice to be able to see at a glance where everything in the practice is up to whenever we go into WFM. But even better, WFM can proactively remind us of progress dates and deadlines via RSS or by integrating with our Outlook calendars!

There is much more to say but that’s a good start. Perhaps at this point you’re thinking that none of that really sounds like a big deal. And you’d be right. We’ve become so accustomed to mediocrity that we’re too easily impressed. Almost all of the data that WFM will give us to truly manage our practice is in our existing system. On a day-to-day basis, our users won’t have to do much different to what they have always done. They enter their time each day, allocate it to a job/client, nominate a task, and hit enter. But it’s one thing to have data. It’s something else entirely to have information. We thought we already had a practice management system. It turns out all we have is an invoicing and debtors system – and not a great one at that.

Building Rome in a day

The evolution of a city is something that happens pretty organically. Same with accounting systems. It’s something you only realise looking backwards. The system you have now is not the one you started out with. Sure, that initial decision to lay the foundation of your selected platform was a big one. But it takes time for people to move in and start using it. Gradually they work out their own ways of doing things. They customise it to their liking and build around it, adding new and different modules that become an integrated part of the overall environment. People get comfortable. Generations come and go. Traditions are passed on to the point where they become endemic. How do you tear all that down and start again? And how do you do it all in a month?

Romulus took his time. Then again, a new financial year probably wasn’t just around the corner.

That’s how long we gave ourselves to have an entirely new practice management and general ledger system in place. And when I say a month, I mean going from having no real plans at all in late May (other than to explore more options) to using an entirely new suite by 1st July. A new financial year was about to tick over, so it made sense to use that as the changeover date if possible. We knew the schedule would be tight, so just to make sure we kept the pressure at a maximum, someone had the bright idea to blog about the entire experience as we went along! Are we trying to ‘build Rome’ in a day?

Our first week was really about basking in the afterglow of such a monumental decision. Once we’d returned to earth, our second week was spent mapping out what needed to be achieved by 1st July to at least be functional. So last week was the first stage of implementing the plan. We needed to start using Xero.

The best way to get a handle on what really happened during those watershed moments in history is to go back to primary sources. That way you get as close as possible to the action while mitigating the distortion that inevitably comes when looking back through the lens of time and interpretation.

So rather than me tell you about our week, have a look at a small selection of extracts from actual emails sent and received last week. These are some of the conversations we had:

“The Practice Administrator needs to do the following before we go too much further…..
1.     Invite all staff and ensure they are ‘Active’
2.    Review the standard Chart of Accounts in Xero and add or delete accounts as appropriate.”

“Below is a link to the Xero Payroll demo video. We need to set this up pretty soon. How are you placed for time, to both watch it and work out how to bring our data and settings across into our Xero file to be ready for 2nd July?…we might as well try to get as familiar with it as possible before D Day.”

“I think our best bet from the sounds of things is going to be to not bring the debtors into Xero until WFM is set up. …I could imagine there being a lot of duplicates by simply missing a space or whatever in the name if we set them up manually.”

“We currently support the import of transactions using either .OFX (Open Financial Exchange), .QIF (Quicken Interchange Format), or .CSV (Comma Separated Values) data formats. We recommend you use .OFX. If your bank does not support .OFX, then use .QIF or .CSV.”

“I think there are certainly some real pros and cons re the cloud, but security isn’t really one of the cons – well, not a rational one anyway. Relatively speaking, the security comparison is a shellacking in favour of the cloud. It’s really just a perception thing – people ‘feel’ safer with it under the mattress than on the net because they still feel like it’s in their control.”

“What is the purpose of knowing all those traditional accounting firm KPI’s? What do you do with this information? How does it help you run the business? How do they help you improve the business? How many of them are ‘because that’s the way we have always done it’?”

“KoolAid or Red Cordial at the end…?” 

OK, so it isn’t the Magna Carta (what do you think – Kool-aid or red cordial? These are the burning issues…) But hopefully it provides some unobstructed insight into the daily challenges of the building process.

The Magna Carta: written around the same time as our old accounting software.

In a nutshell, last week involved coming to grips with the snowballing implications of having the ‘bare essentials’ in place, and making sure those things happen. Because our existing methods have developed over many years – our system has been ‘lived in’ for over a decade – everything is connected and intertwined. A change here has implications over there. The reality is that we won’t be able to do it all by 1st July. But we probably don’t need to.

You can’t replicate traditions. Instead, you break the ground in a new area, let people move in and settle down, and over time a new way of living begins to evolve. We won’t have an entire eco-system ready to go by 1st July, but no new initiative starts at that point. What we are leaving behind wasn’t built in a day. This won’t be either.

So far, so good.

How we avoided the apocalypse

There’s a bit of the old tele-evangelist about some coaches to the accounting profession.

The end of the world is nigh ! Repent from your evil ways! Give your money to me and heaven awaits!

Or put another way, “There is no future in traditional accounting models so abandon the timesheet! I can show you how to make a million dollars per partner by working 20 hours a week!”

OK, granted…sometimes people – and accounting firms – actually do need to change. The problem is there’s just so much noise! Amongst the cacophony, where can we find the music?

The only possible fate for a world where accountants still use timesheets.

Last year we were at the point where we knew we had to make some changes to the way we delivered our services – not because we did it badly but because we wanted to do it better. But to implement every accounting practice initiative recommended by the numerous industry experts would take a small army a lifetime to complete.

What was the stuff that we actually needed to do – like, really needed to do – and how could we ever find the time to do it?

So it was that last September there was a voice that broke through, just a little. It took an email about becoming an ‘iPractice’ to finally get my attention. It was from Tim at Focus Growth Strategies (FGS). I’m not sure what it was that stood out about it. Perhaps it was that some of the more techno stuff appealed to my inner geek – running your practice from an iPad and all that. The thought of doing so while sitting on a beach didn’t hurt either.

More than anything though I think it was that it wasn’t trying to scare us into action. Of course it tantalised with promises of a practice without timesheets – what accountant doesn’t long for that world? But it also offered balance. “If you want to hang onto them, that’s OK – we will show you how to have the best of both worlds as well.” No doomsday prophesies.

The clincher though was this: “The iPractice will show you exactly how you do it – Strategy, Implementation and Technology”.

One of the biggest barriers to change was the question of who was going to do it. The learning curve in going from an entrenched system to knowing something else well enough to roll it out across a practice, and deal with all of the migration issues and training, and… well, ‘curve’ is a generous term. Perhaps ‘wall’?

A DIY rollout would no doubt have been poorly executed. Even worse (because after all, we were used to living with a system that didn’t really work properly), the result may have been new applications that did nothing more than replicate the old ones. We needed the outcome to be better than that. What is best practice? Do we really ‘have’ to do the things that we think we have to do? How can we leverage our IT to deliver efficiency and create value for our clients?

But now here was FGS offering to give us the leg-up we needed to get over the wall. These guys weren’t just telling us what we needed to do. They were offering to do it for us! It still took a while for us to finally pluck up the courage but in the end, having little to lose and much to gain, we signed on for a ‘review’ of our systems. It took one meeting for us to realise a review wasn’t necessary. We knew what we had. We needed to spend that time, effort and money on going for it.

Last Tuesday Tim and I met with our accounts manager (Kim) and our product champion (Claire) to road-map the critical things we needed to do to be ready by 1st July. So far that involves:

  1. Having WorkflowMax (WFM) ready for people to enter time; and
  2. Having people familiar with how to do that (i.e. training).

Left to right: Claire, Tim (from FGS) and Kim.

In terms of the work required before 1st July, that means configuring WFM with all of our client database information and setting up our tasks for timesheet entries and billings. We’ll also need our practice Xero file ready go – the Xero ledger we’ll use to operate the practice. We plan to gradually phase out our existing system, which means we can replace our client ledgers with Xero ledgers as work for 30th June 2012 comes in over the next year. That takes the pressure off us having to have everything ready to go by 1st July.

As we were sitting there talking through the various things that needed to be matched between the old and the new systems and what we could expect to be different and so on, it suddenly struck me how simple it was. A lot of work, but not complicated. The reason was that there was someone there to connect the dots for us. FGS know what we need to do to make it work. The terms are familiar. The problems we were expecting have already been anticipated. And best of all, this is still accounting!

It’s not just that one voice is louder than all the others now. The noise has actually quietened. We don’t have to do it all. We’re not abandoning our timesheets yet! The doomsday clock has started ticking backwards. Was there ever really an impending apocalypse at all, or had we simply been drinking too much of the Kool-aid?