I’m often asked by early-stage startups, “What processes do we need to formalize? What apps should we get to start out?”
If you’re ready to build some financial accounting structure, I recommend these five apps to build your back-office tech stack. All provide three benefits:
- They scale with you as you grow,
- They are low-cost relative to the value they provide, and
- They are fairly popular or commonly known, with hundreds of thousands of companies using them, which should reduce your training and ramp-up costs.
What is key at this earliest stage is for you to start to build the right infrastructure, the right accounting tech stack to keep you functioning well and help you grow as cleanly and quickly as possible.
1. Core Accounting and Reporting: QuickBooks®
The absolute center of the chart is QuickBooks, a very scalable system. Even public companies we’ve worked with are on this system. QuickBooks allows a level of accounting and reporting sophistication that we have not found in other cloud-based or early-stage accounting software packages.
Even on the early part of the growth curve, seemingly simple companies need sophisticated accounting capabilities, and we find that QuickBooks has met those needs most often. It has the best capabilities for accountants, whereas other startup accounting software out there seems to be designed for non-accountants or the “solopreneur.”
QuickBooks’ sophistication is what we’re looking for. While the functionality varies slightly among the many flavors the QuickBooks offers, it is the core of where we start. Best of all, the next four software recommendations all connect seamlessly to QuickBooks.
Here is a recommendation chart in three stages. The foundation or first stage in this graphic is in the center, then you expand outward for the next set of apps. The inner circle represents the most common software/services that we see across the hundreds of clients that we work have worked with. Some are directly related to accounting and finance, and some are more indirect, but these are the ones we see the most frequently.
2. Payroll: Gusto
With people comes payroll and taxes and benefits. Don’t mess around with anything but a solid proven system here because the headaches are massive and the costs are low.
There are a lot of strong payroll providers out there. We often work with Gusto. It works very well from a payroll perspective, with deductions and setting up employees in the cloud. This is an effective system for our clients. Certainly, we have startup clients with other needs, for instance they have other payroll providers or even work with PEOs (professional employer organizations). Nonetheless, we find Gusto to be a very low-cost, flexible option for those early stages of a company.
3. Paying Invoices: Bill.com
Sometimes receiving invoices can be not all that straightforward. The third app I recommend is Bill.com. It’s a great way to keep track of your vendor payments. With Bill.com, invoices come in electronically, stopping the paper process. You can see how much you’re spending on each vendor and make sure that the proper approvals are being provided. And it’s a fairly inexpensive solution.
Bill.com starts your company off with good corporate controls and processes around how money leaves the business, an important factor to keep an eye on.
4. Expense Reports: Expensify
At the early stage of a business, you’ve got founders and others typically traveling around on company credit cards, incurring expenses all over. What’s business? What’s personal? How do the expenses get coded? And the inevitable question: “What was that for?”
Expensify is a great way to keep track of it all. It’s an expense reporting and management system that connects to your credit cards, allows you to take pictures of your receipts to record them, and gets receipts automatically downloaded.
This app improves the compliance of all the expense reports that need to happen yet are too often late. When those lag, then you don’t have a very good view on cash. And cash is king in an early-stage startup!
For good governance and solid controls, get Expensify in place. It’s super inexpensive, and it gives a huge return value from the time spent using it. Additionally, as you add employees, it’s easier to add them in when you’re small and much harder to add them in later.
5. Customer Activity: A CRM (Pipedrive or Salesforce)
As soon as you have your second customer, you need a customer activity tracker. The fifth app I recommend is a good CRM (customer relationship management tool) that you love to use.
There are many out there to choose from. At AVL, we use Pipedrive. It is a super low-cost, effective and easy way to track our opportunities. For a different type of company with a more complex sales process, another CRM may be a better fit. Many of our clients, even early-stagers, are on Salesforce. That’s a big system. In the earliest stages, Pipedrive can be a great Phase 1 business choice.
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Make sure to choose a CRM that is ideal for your industry. For instance, if you’re an e-commerce company, you may need to track website analytics. That’s really your buyer. How do you know they’re going to buy your product?
For AVL, Pipedrive info doesn’t integrate to our financial forecasting process. It’s a manual process, but based on our size and stage, that’s ok. We do weekly pipeline reporting to help inform our modeling and when we say we have a million dollars in our pipeline and in stages three, four and five, we can analyze trends and our historical data to ask, “Is there enough in the pipeline to meet our growth targets? How are our win rates trending? Are we seeing more deals lately?” Pipeline analysis will build revenue predictability in your organization.
If you don’t have a CRM early on, and you don’t know what your win/conversion rates are, then you are missing or lagging in the analytics that you need to forecast the business. Spreadsheets can’t keep up in terms of the forecasting, and this task always gets shoved to the bottom of the list because you just want to sell more products without understanding how you’re selling more product. Big mistake. Find and use a CRM.
6. Bonus—Capitalization: Carta
Depending on your company, it can become critical very early on to have a clean and hygienic capitalization table for current and future investors. I have heard, in no uncertain terms, a million horror stories from lawyers and startup founders about messed-up cap tables. It has killed financings, delayed deals, and has undermined companies.
An app like Carta is highly valuable to be able to illustrate that you have good governance. It’s inexpensive relative to the value it provides to an early-stage startup. A cloud-based service, Carta manages the investment documents for all the owners in your company. It makes sure that all the legal documentation around the equity ownership is complete and communicated. It dots i’s and crosses t’s.
This program is startup-friendly and low-cost for all it can do for you. It has all the workflows built in to keep it simple and straightforward for the founders and executive team.
Always Take the Easy Route
What shouldn’t be overlooked is the fact that, when you’re hiring people into your team to do the accounting and reporting work, it’s easier to find people who know the technologies and systems when you choose the ubiquitous ones out there with hundreds of thousands of companies using them.
Sticking to these middle-of-the-fairway accounting systems and integrated apps, rather than getting creative and trying something that may be newer or lower-cost, makes a difference on the human capital side. These are the tried and the true. Accountants know how to use them, so there’s less training and less confusion for you. It becomes another way to reduce your expenses and grow, grow, grow.
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