Sunday, May 19, 2002

Web Based Accounting

Ponder this: how many small businesses will benefit from an accounting system with integrated e-commerce? Let's expand on that. Will an average small business with online store benefit from an accounting system...
  • with most features of QuickBooks, but
  • without QuickBooks' predatory upgrade prices and forced sunset policies
  • with integrated e-commerce (update the pricing in your system, and the prices are automatically updated in the online store), and
  • that can be securely accessed from any browser?

Maybe not all small business, but certainly many. How many businesses will see their productivity increase multi-fold, with such an accounting system? Many. Why doesn't such system exist? Beats me.

Such an accounting system is not here yet, there are very few feasible choices, and nothing that makes you reach for your wallet. Yet it's coming because the idea of web based accounting and integrated e-commerce is too good to pass up, and the market is too lucrative to ignore. Hopefully very soon, someone will make most small business owners reach for their wallets. Let's explore, why is this idea too good to pass up, and why is the market lucrative.

Accounting is a foundation of business, without which no business can exist. Businesses can function without offices, funds, plans, sometimes even without people, but not without an accounting system. Business is about making money; and to make money, you have to have to, well, account for it. Make a better accounting system, and many a business owner will beat a path to your door. Not all of them, as existing accounting systems are proprietary, and switching them, or migrating from one to another, is usually very time consuming and rife with problems. Most business won't switch their accounting systems unless there is a really nice carrot dangling in front of them.

Is web-based accounting a really nice carrot? For several reasons: it's more convenient, more secure, and saves time.

Convenience. You already know how to use a web browser. You can use it any "connected" computer, be it a PC, Mac, laptop and even Linux. You don't have to worry about upgrades and backups - the provider should worry about it. You can activate additional features as-needed, as you grow: payroll, inventory, e-commerce, additional users. You can work on your taxes while visiting your parents for Thanksgiving. Advanced features such as accountant review, multiple branches, multiple access levels for your employees, scalability, are easier to implement for a web-based accounting provider, than for your off-the-shelf software installed on a local network.

Ease of use. You already know the basics, how to use a web browser. Otherwise, the learning curve shouldn't be any steeper than for say, QuickBooks, and a good web-based accounting service provider will give you a good tutorial to get up and running in no time.

Price. Is it more affordable? Not yet, but hang in there. QuickBooks costs from $200 to $700 depending on a number of simultaneous users and features. Today's most prominent web-based Accounting Service Provider (let's call that ASP), Oracle SBS (Small Business Suite), costs $1200 a year for two full-access users and 100 store items. A business with, say, five full-access users and 500 store items, will pay about three times as much. Every year. This is far from what I would call affordable, and there is more: Oracle refuses to guarantee that the price won't go up. It may go up 100% a few months after you sign up for their service, and there is nothing you can do about it. That makes it simply too risky a proposition for two reasons. One, any business wants to have at least some degree of control over its costs. Two, switching accounting systems is such a huge pain, no business would do it unless absolutely necessary. That makes Oracle SBS not too great of a value, much worse than QuickBooks, for an average small business owner.

Will web based accounting become less expensive? You bet: as competition warms up and new and hungry players enter the game, prices will go down.

Security. Is web-based accounting secure?

You may say, that you would never trust someone your sensitive data, such as your customers' credit card numbers. But don't you trust your money to a bank?

Web-based accounting is a paradigm somewhat similar to banking. The same issues: security and convenience. It's too expensive to have the same security at home or at work, as in the bank, and this is just one of the reasons you don't store most of your money at home. Convenient? Oh yes, credit cards and ATM machines wouldn't be possible without banks.

Is in-house accounting data really that secure? Most likely not: for most businesses, all it takes is a crowbar and a couple of guys to clean it out within a few minutes, before your security service even gets someone to the door. Compare that to professional services used by companies for off-site backups, where security is tighter than around the White House, and the data is stored redundantly across multiple drives, servers, locations, with frequent backups.

So if your web-based accounting service is as secure as a bank, or at least more secure than your place of business, you would probably be OK with trusting your sensitive data to that service.

As with the bank, you have to tread your waters carefully. Your bank accounts are insured by the government; your accounting data - is not. Choose carefully. That said, ASPs understand that one of the biggest concerns is security; in order to win your business, they will be motivated to offer you peace of mind with tight security, safety, and integrity of your data.

Now that we established that web-based accounting is the way of the future, let's consider the players.

Comparison of Qucikbooks and Oracle SBS
Oracle's comparison
of their $1200/year SBS and $500 QuickBooks Pro. Click to enlarge but take it with a grain of salt: Oracle's view may not be the most objective on this matter.

The players.

Intuit is already offering such a service with
QuickBooks for the Web, but I don't think that Intuit is not big enough to become, or stay, a major player. It lacks scalability of features that bigger businesses need (CRM, advanced e-commerce), scalability of database engines, and the technology of a universal authentication such as Microsoft .Net. In addition, inventory tracking and quotations are very basic, and it offers no e-commerce, no integration with an online store.

Oracle SBS (Small Business Suite) comes the closest, offering most of what we as for, however their e-commerce features are very basic, the store is not easily customizable, and the base price of $1200 a year only includes two full-access users and 100 store items. Anything above that costs extra, and significantly so. In addition, Oracle refuses to guarantee that the price won't change, i.e. that it won't go up ten times a few months after you sign up for their service, and we all know how much of a pain it is to change from one accounting system to another. If we switch, we want to switch permanently.

Microsoft has acquired several accounting and e-business software makers recently, and I hope that it will soon enter the small business accounting arena soon and with a bang.

Yahoo! has a nice e-store solution called Yahoo! Store that starts at $50/mo, but does not offer accounting features. It offers integration with Oracle SBS, and that means extra money, and redundant features that you end up paying twice for, as SBS offers its own web store functionality, albeit much inferior to Yahoo! Store.

Summary. It is early in the game for the web accounting solutions for small businesses, but there is little doubt that attractive offers will start appearing shortly. As usually, only a small number of players will remain afloat after the dust settles down, and most likely, Microsoft will be one of the most visible ones, for it possesses all the necessary ingredients to be the winner.

Addendum 1, what I want from (web) accounting. In case this page catches the attention of someone who designs accounting software for living, here are the features that are essential for most small businesses with web presence:

  • Multiple users with custom permissions
  • Integration with a web storefront
  • Payroll
  • Inventory tracking
  • Purchase orders
  • Quotations
  • Multiple pricing levels
  • Integrated credit card processing
  • Remote accountant review
  • Basic CRM: letting customers access their own purchase history
  • Realtime linking to vendor price lists and availability information.
  • Affordability: from $20 to $500/mo, depending on features.

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