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How Microsoft Is Going To Win The SMB Accounting Battle

(Disclaimer:  I am part of the Small Business Accounting beta – but all information provided in this post is publicly available from both Microsoft’s web site & various technology ‘first looks’ reports)


If you haven’t already heard, Microsoft is prepping a new accounting package aimed at businesses with up to 25 employees.  Small Business Accounting as it is called will be a key part of a new Microsoft Office edition tentatively scheduled to be released later this year – Microsoft Office for Small Business Management


The SMB Accounting market is pretty fierce, with several key players releasing new versions annually.  With Microsoft being the new kid on the block coming into the small end of the market, you may initially wonder how they’re going to compete against entrenched products like Intuit’s QuickBooks & Best Software’s Peachtree Accounting.  Admittedly, Microsoft has an uphill battle in front of them in this aspect – but Small Business Accounting is going to be a much needed blast of fresh air into this market.


So just how is Microsoft going to win the battle for keeping small business’ books?  Well, there are actually two answers to this question.  First and foremost, they’re giving small business users something they aren’t used to having:  native ODBC access to their financial data.  No proprietary data format, no closed database schema, no having to spend extra money on a cumbersome 3rd party product to access their data.  Since Small Business Accounting uses Microsoft SQL Data Engine (MSDE) for its data store, users have the ability to access their financials from any ODBC compliant application, allowing for advanced reporting and analysis using the entire Office suite, including Excel, Word & Access.  IMHO this in itself is huge.


The second part to this answer is that Microsoft is giving Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) the tools necessary to quickly and easily build a wide array of 3rd party solutions for Small Business Accounting – from add-ins that operate within the Small Business Accounting application itself, to industry-specific LOB applications that directly integrate with Small Business Accounting – allowing the 3rd party solution to focus on the industry-specific stuff while depending on SBA for the accounting end.  So how does this compare to what is available on the market now?  It blows it away – plain and simple.  Sure, Intuit provides a Developer SDK – but it’s very low level, requiring the developer to code most of their own functions for manipulating the data.  Best doesn’t provide any sort of SDK for Peachtree, but MultiWare, Inc.’s PAWCOM has long since been considered the best solution available for accessing and integrating with Peachtree.  PAWCOM is a top-notch product, but the one major disadvantage it has compared to Small Business Accounting is that it is a 3rd party product.  Microsoft’s Small Business Accounting team has built extensibility & accessiblity into the product from the ground up, with a complete .net solution  – with key business logic functions exposed for developers and ISVs to leverage.


The combination of open data access and ease of integration for ISVs is going to be the primary catalyst for Small Business Accounting.  ISVs will be more likely to develop add-ons and vertical market solutions for SBA than other accounting applications because with SBA being based on open technologies such as .Net and SQL, ISVs will have a diminished learning curve.  That combined with the presence of already exposed business logic functions will result in a significantly shorter development time thus resulting in lower development costs which in turn makes their solution more profitable.   Users already familiar with Office will appreciate the familiar, intuitive interface.  Admittedly, many users may not realize the benefit of having and open data store, but I would think that most advisors (accountants and IT partners) would bring this to the small business owner’s attention.


One things remains certain:  whether you love or hate QuickBooks or Peachtree (or other SMB accounting applications), the introduction of Microsoft’s Small Business Accounting is going see a flurry of competition that the market hasn’t really seen in a very long time – which can only be good for the small business customer.


For more info on Microsoft’s Small Business Accounting / Microsoft Office for Small Business Management:


Office for Small Business Management:
http://www.microsoft.com/office/editions/prodinfo/smallbusiness/accounting/default.mspx


PCWorld.com – First Look: Microsoft Small Business Accounting:
http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,118495,00.asp


The .NET Show: Small Business Accounting Platform:
http://msdn.microsoft.com/theshow/episode048/default.asp

Microsoft Small Business Accounting:
http://www.sbadeveloper.com/

What about the SMB space is so hard to understand?

So, there is a product I like – ok, I *really* like.  The only problem is that they don’t quite ‘get’ small business.  They were really close.  They had a fair price per license on their software – but they required a minimum purchase of 25 licenses.  But – they did have a free version.  It had the same functionality as the full product – the only difference was that it was limited to supporting 10 clients.  The free version was great for so many of our customers, that were within the 10 client limit.  However, as soon as you passed 10 clients, you had to purchase the full, 25 license version.  We have several clients who are sitting at 11-15 seats that could benefit from the software – but they can’t justify paying for 10 licenses that they’re probably never going to use, so they don’t buy it.  I’ve emailed the company several times asking for them to consider removing the license minimums and letting us by exactly the number of licenses we need, no matter how small.


Well, just tonight I noticed that this company had released a new version of their software.  So I went to their download site, downloaded the free version and registered for a license key for the free version.  I received the email message with my license key, and as I read it – I discovered a significant shift from the previous version:  Specifically, the free version of the new release is still restricted to only 10 clients, but now it is only valid for 45 days as a trial.  No more free unlimited-use version for up to 10 clients.  So where does that leave my customers with under 10 clients?  Well – they aren’t going to buy 25 licenses – I know that.  So for one, we aren’t upgrading :^).  Two – we’re going to have to start looking at our options for replacements. 


I’ll admit that I’m stumped.  I just don’t get it.  The SMB market is the hot target market now for technology.  Yet so many big players are trying to penetrate the SMB space, but they can’t seem to ‘figure out’ SMBs.  At a basic level, the SMB space is actually pretty simple:  provide fair pricing, don’t make us buy stuff / licenses we don’t need, and don’t hold us hostage by making it impossible to migrate to a different product down the road.  I don’t know if that goes against everything that was drilled into the enterprise managers and marketing directors during their MBA courses, but so many of the big players just can’t seem to be able to grasp the simple concept of TRUSTING THEIR CUSTOMERS AND TRUSTING THEIR PRODUCT.  That’s one thing about SMBs – you don’t market to the SMB space by traditional means.  We aren’t going to seminars – we have a business to run.  We aren’t going to take your cold call – we’ve got three paying customers on other lines.  We’re not going to notice your direct mail campaign – it’s going to get pitched along with the random catalog, mortgage offer & pre-approved credit card application.  No Thanks.


So just where do SMBs learn about solutions, and who do they listen to?  Other small business owners, of course!  The people who know and understand the unique challenges we face every day, because they’re dealing with the exact same issues.


So for those companies that want to crack into the SMB space – just what do they need to do?  First – most need to change their pricing structure / licensing.  If you could chose between selling 1,000 widgets for $100 apiece, or selling 100,000 widgets for $20 apiece . . . would you rather $100,000 in sales or $2,000,000 in sales?  Take my product above.  We have two customers with between 20 & 25 clients who have purchased the full 25 client version of the software for over $600 (approx $25/seat).  At last count, we had approximately 17 customers using the free version (representing approximately 130 clients).  I know that I could sell the software to each and every one of those customers if they could buy the exact number of licenses they needed – or approximately $3,250 in sales for the software vendor – and that’s just from the customers who are using the free version.  I could sell it to my customers with between 10 & 20 seats as well.  However – with the 25 seat minimum purchase requirement – I’ll be lucky to be able to get one customer to buy it.  


The problem is that most companies require minimum purchases (blocks of 25 / 50 / 100 licenses).  If you’re a small business with 10 users and no plans for growth – are you going to buy a solution that has a minimum purchase of 50 licenses at $30 each?  No way – you’re effectively throwing away  40 licenses that you’re never going to use.  And what is it with minimum license purchases anyway?  That type of requirement does not benefit the customer in any way – the only possible benefit is to the vendor in forcing the customer to buy more licenses than they need.  What so many larger players don’t realize is how much business they’re losing because of those minimums – especially where the SMB market is concerned.  Throw those minimums out the door – let customers buy the exact number of licenses they need – regardless of how little.  Let that mom & pop business buy the 3 licenses they need . . .   and when they add another employee a year down the road – let them buy a single license – don’t force a 5 pack on them.  Software vendors are painfully aware of how much software piracy costs them.  Are they aware of how painful it is to their small customers when they force them to buy licenses they don’t need??? 


Provide fair pricing.  Retire minimum license purchases.  Support your product!!  We’re all human – we make mistakes.  If there is a problem with your product – admit it, fix it and move on.  Take care of your SMB customers, give them a good product at a fair price, and you’ll effectively be hiring a whole new sales force.  SMBs talk to each other – and they talk shop.  They talk about what products they love – and they talk about the products / vendors they dislike.  Get them loving your product – and they’ll talk to each other, and the sales will start coming to you.  Keep your head stuck in the enterprise model of minimum licenses, forced support contracts, etc. – and you’ll stay on the outside looking in at the SMB space.

Community, Bobcat Ears and Canadians, eh?

So let’s talk about Toronto.


 


Susan already blogged about the hats Cal had made for all of us.  We definitely have winter in Omaha, and I’m seriously considering wearing it when I get home.  I know several of our customers will absolutely love it  J 


 


But what about the trip?  It was great – but then again, Harry’s events are always really good.  But you may be wondering why would I spend my own money to fly into Toronto for less than 48hrs when there is no financial / business benefit from it?  The reasons why I am here are very simple:  friends & community.  And it is funny how closely inter-twined those two reasons are.


 


Friends.  Grey, Jeff M, Cal, Les, Andy, Harry, Javier, Jeff L,  Dave, Frank (and toss in a dash of Susan Tues. night via IP Phone J).  I cannot stress how humbling and honoring it is to be in the presence of this group, and to be able to call them friends.  Their knowledge, dedication, passion and commitment to community are a testament to just how remarkable each and every one of them are. 


 

Community.  If you’re reading this blog, then you’ve most likely been exposed to community.  Tues night was the inaugural meeting for the SBS special interest group of the Toronto Windows Server User Group (TWSUG), which Cal organized, and it was a pleasure to be able to be present and help Cal demonstrate the power of community.  And just what is the power of community?  The power of community is being able to always have a helping hand a few clicks away.  The power of community allows us to help each other by learning from other peoples’ mistakes, and letting them learn from ours.  The power of community allows us to connect with other people professionally and use our own special skills to provide each other’s customers with the most benefit.

 


Imagine being a small IT provider – maybe a one man shop, maybe another tech or two.  One of your primary motivations for serving small businesses is to truly help them – to do everything in your power to give them the greatest possible value in terms of stability, security, productivity and functionality for their budget.  Our goal is not to be simply an IT provider for our clients.  Our goal is to be a key member of our customers’ organization – to be able to give them the best advice and provide the best solution for their long-term goals.  We’re invested in our customers’ success, and there is nothing more rewarding than helping them succeed, and hearing that sincere “thank you – we couldn’t have done it without you.” 


 


Now imagine finding other IT providers around the world who share that mentality, who are just as invested in their customers’ success as you are invested in your customers’ success.  Now imagine they do a lot of work with CRM, and you have a client who wants to deploy CRM.  The ability to contact this IT provider for assistance with providing your customer with the most value in this solution is priceless.  You can provide your client with the value they deserve, without having to invest excessive time or resources into learning the product or solution they need.  Furthermore, I’ll argue that a group of small IT providers who share this commitment to their customers can better serve their customers than a larger organization, who most likely doesn’t have that level of commitment.


 


That is the power of community.   And that is more than enough reason to spend a couple days in Toronto in January (which is definitely saying something! J).

Thanks Tucker!

Earlier this week, we were contacted by a prospective client who wanted us to check out their relatively new SBS install and make sure that everything was up to snuff, and get Exchange working.  Now, when Steve relayed to me that we needed to get Exchange working, that bothered me – because this was supposed to me a Dell OEM install – and even after the infamous 15 minute install, Exchange works.  I feared that the box had been set up entirely wrong by someone who didn’t know what they were doing . . .   and I’ve been doing more and more of these type of SBS cleanups lately . . .


So anyway, something new happened to me this morning.  Amy & I arrived at the client’s office, and we do our introductions.  Tucker (the client), shakes my hand and says that he’s really glad to meet me, as he feels like he knows me already.  Mind you, I’ve never met Tucker before – so my initial reaction was ‘Gee, I hope that feeling doesn’t have anything to do with VooDoo dolls & full-moon rituals!  ;^)    But seriously – he tells me that he found my blog and has been reading it.  Yep – this very blog.  He’s the very first person I’ve met who has read the blog before I met them.  Granted, I know there are many out there that fall into this category, but Tucker was the first . . .


And I want to thank Tucker – not for reading my blog, but for being an informed individual.  It turns out that his SBS is actually in very good health – there’s a few scattered errors in the Event Logs, but nothing major by any means.  Tucker deserves kudos because he read up enough on SBS to know about it’s wizards and integrated install – so that when the IT Service Provider he was using was trying to install the various SBS components manually, Tucker made them go back and use the wizards . . .   If he hadn’t his server and network would be in considerably worse condition.  Tucker had the quote of the day – he mentioned another provider who had provided them a bid for a few hosted services as well as remote monitoring of their LAN.  Tucker said that they didn’t go with them because from what he’s heard, “[they’re] worse than carpenter ants.  Once you let them in and they get their VPNs set up, you’ll never be able to get rid of them.“  :^)  


And as for Tucker’s Exchange not working?  It’s not that it isn’t working – it’s just that they aren’t using it yet  :^)  One of the first tasks on our To Do list will be to get everyone’s PSTs pulled into Exchange and get them rocking with shared calendars & OWA – then move on to Sharepoint and Remote Web Workplace  :^)


What concerns me the most with Tucker’s experience is that it is far from unique, with the exception of the client putting the provider on the right track.  And that’s the problem.  There are great small biz IT providers out there.  They do exist – I know several . . .  and I’d like to think we fall into that category.  However, there are apparently many providers out there who are far from qualifying for this category – and that is what we need to change.


I think the single most important piece of techno-mis-information that the average small business subscribes to is the concept that cutting-edge technology is for the big guys, and the small guys take the table scraps and piece something together.  In reality, the exact opposite is true.  Small business is much more agile – the big boys are trying to turn the Titanic, while we’re running around on Jet Skis . . .  Also – small businesses have the most to gain from embracing technology and making it work for them.  However, small business usually doesn’t have the necessary expertise in-house, and thus require the assistance of an IT Service Provider.  The unique challenge for the small business is to find a provider who can become a trusted advisor – a firm that has the necessary business skills to anticipate future needs, analytical skills to evaluate potential solutions, communication skills to relate the pros & cons of each option to the business owner and the technical skills to implement and maintain the solution.  In the end, small businesses need and deserve an IT Provider who can align themselves with the organizations needs, and always keep that organizations’ best interests at heart.


The biggest problem facing the small IT shops is a combination of pride & fear.  Too many small providers are too proud to ask for help from others.  Let’s face it – there’s way too much information out there for us to know it all.  If a client has a problem that isn’t your strong point – don’t make the client suffer while you hack and try to figure it out yourself.  Finding someone who has the knowledge and experience in the problem area who can help will be much more rewarding in the end – and the customer will be much better served by having their issue resolved as quickly as possible. 


The answer here is very simple – focus on doing whatever it takes to meet the customer’s needs.  Work to give them every advantage possible, and always keep their best interest at heart.  Only once we all start doing this will we be able to finally break down the misconceptions of our industry and be able to truly help our small business clients excel and succeed beyond their wildest dreams! 


And thanks again Tucker – this time for reminding me why I love this business – there’s nothing better than being able to truly help a small business by taking their percieved IT liability and make it an undeniable IT asset . . .

Anyone up for some Office Automation?

Ok, I’m going to try to make this quick.  After I left the office this afternoon, I stopped to check out the new Best Buy that opened up close to home.  While I was there, I picked up the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (great movie – but the book was WAY better.)  I want to watch it yet tonight, but I’ve gotten caught up in some email, and I want to get this post out since it’s been in my head all day.  So . . .


I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Microsoft Office is probably one of the most under-valued application suites in the small business space.  Come on – just take a look at all of the functionality available under the hood.  You can do more with Office than most small businesses could ever imagine.  Let’s take Excel as an example.  We’ve all seen what most small businesses use Excel for – it can usually be boiled down to lists of some form (maybe for a mail merge), or using the built-in functionality in Peachtree or QuickBooks to dump a report to Excel and sort it differently.  You do have a few that may use some basic formulas to sum columns, etc. – but not much else.


There is SO MUCH we can do with Office that it isn’t even funny.  I myself am an Access junkie – and spend a lot of time messing around with VBA in both Access & Excel.  I’m working with one client where we’ve built some reports in Excel that save them so much time & effort it isn’t funny.  I’d normally do something like this in Access, but they had a previous solution that was using Excel, and that’s what everyone was used to.  They upgraded their accounting system, which required that the solution be recreated since the entire underlying data connections weren’t valid anymore (and the previous individual who created the original solution had key functionality embedded in XLAs that were locked down and inaccessible to edit – and he was long gone).  This particular client has extended the functionality of their accounting software by creating a Project Status Report (PSR) template.  Whenever they are awarded a job, they enter their itemized breakdown of cost & revenue estimates, and also list each subcontractor with the subcontractor’s contract amount.  The PSR also allows for Change Order information to be added.  One of the custom solutions we have pulls all of the job data out of the accounting solution and organizes it according to their job designations.  This results in a single Excel workbook with multiple worksheets – one for each job class (A Jobs, B Jobs, C Jobs, etc.), one for only the active jobs for each class (A Active, B Active, C Active, etc.) one for each Project Manager, and a summary sheet that provides statistics by Project Manager (total projects, % of total revenues, markup estimated, markup earned, etc.  In addition, as this custom workbook is built, as it is processing each job from the accounting system, it looks to see if there is a PSR for that job.  If so, it opens the PSR and updates all of the individual line items (cost incurred to date), and updates the total billings from each subcontractor for that job.  If a subcontractor’s total billings exceed their contract amount, another workbook is opened with adds a worksheet for that subcontractor and builds a custom Account Ledger for all activity for that subcontractor / job, and adds the job, subcontractor, total contract amount, total billings amount and total overage amount to the summary sheet.  They have a lot of data, so it takes this about 7-8 minutes to run.  (70% of that is due to the lackluster performance of the ODBC driver for their accounting application).  When it is all said and done, they have up-to-date performance numbers for each of their Project Managers, PSRs give an exact picture of how a job is evolving, and the subcontractor workbook gives a single report of all subs who have overbilled their contract, as well as a custom ledger for each subcontractor showing exactly the information / activity our client wants to include to help their sub reconcile the discrepancy . . .   Cool huh?   And it’s all thanks to the built-in functionality of MS Office.

Prepping Users for a Network Install

Yesterday, Susan blogged about James who asked about what types of email to send to a client’s employees to get them excited about an upcoming install.  I started to post a comment on her blog, but decided it warranted a post of its own.


Whoa James . . . back up the truck and take a look at where you’re going . . .


First – scrap the idea about email.  Call me crazy, but as far as I’m concerned email is not – I repeat NOT – a relationship tool for the smallbiz space.  Not only is it too impersonal compared to a phone call or face-to-face encounter, but with spam and increasing amounts of legitimate messages, email is losing some value in the users’ eyes.


Second – what is your motivation for wanting users to be excited about the install?  I would guess that the underlying thoughts here would be to make the overall transition go as smooth as possible.  So how can you go about this?


When engaging users prior to the install, think PERSONAL CONTACT!  Engage as many users as possible face-to-face.  Whatever you do – don’t try to sell them on the install – the project has already been bought.  Work on understanding what are the most important aspects of each users’ computing experience?  What applications dto they depend on daily?  What are they looking forward to with the migration?  What are they worried about with the migration?  The idea here is simple – engage the user, show genuine concern for their issues and concerns.  You’ll be able to put together a better plan-of-attack for the installation so that the greatest number of user issues & concerns are addressed up front, which will allow for a smooth transition for all.  Besides aiding the migration itself, you can’t discount the relationship-building aspect of engaging the users.  The ultimate goal is to have your users feel comfortable enough to approach you with any questions and/or issues they may have at any time, and to use your technology expertise to truly help the client.


Speaking of helping the client – I cannot overstate how important I think it is to take the effort to learn the client’s business – how they work, the information they depend on and the places that could use improvement.  A network upgrade shouldn’t just be putting in new hardware & software – it should be part of an overall business upgrade that looks at all aspects of their business needs, determines what points can be addressed with technology and what processes can be streamlined.  One point that I think is often overlooked is how much of this discovery process should happen before the migration.  For most of us in the smallbiz space, SBS is going to be the solution for an overwhelming majority of our clients – because of just how flexible it is and how extensive its feature set is.  However, I think this has the potential for us to fall into the trap of offering the same solution to each client.  While most of our installs will be centered around SBS, that doesn’t mean that each solution can’t be unique for the individual customer’s needs.  The whole process of getting to know the customer’s needs and their users’ concerns also gives you a roadmap for training – what features and functionality to focus on that will benefit the customer the most.  (And yes – extensive training on Outlook is always a hit . . . shared calendars / contacts / tasks / etc, recovering deleted items, customizing views, rules, etc. etc. etc. )


So, that’s my view – forget email as an effective engagement tool and never underestimate the value/benefit of personal contact and a handshake.

It’s about time . . .

I may be a bit behind, but I just noticed today that Symantec has finally released an update so that Norton Anti-Virus will play nice with the Security Center in XP SP2 . . .   needless to say, it’s about time – there’s nothing I hate more than having to tell a user “oh, it’s safe to ignore that warning that your PC may be at risk . . . “  Unfortunately, the entire world doesn’t use Trend . . .   ;^)

Selling Sharepoint Customizations . . . .

So I’m at SMB Nation, and was visiting with someone (who shall remain nameless) about Sharepoint.  They were just starting to see just how flexible and robust WSS is, and they commented that they thought they’d try to go in to the client next week and customize their Sharepoint site to give them some cool features.


What’s wrong with that statement?  What was wrong was that nothing was said about the client’s needs.  You guys want to get your customers exited about Sharepoint and get some billable hours from customizing it for them?  DON’T show them the “cool” features to do the sell.  Most smallbiz customers really don’t care that you can pull RSS feeds into Sharepoint, or that you have the MSNBC web parts for news & weather.  Many won’t see the value of a Sharepoint contact list (after all, we’ve already sold them on Outlook / shared contacts), etc. 


I suggest starting off small – use Sharepoint to solve a relatively simple problem for the client.  Something that may be simple enough that the client doesn’t see it necessarily as a problem – but you see it as at least an inefficiency.  Here’s an example:  we have a client who had an Excel spreadsheet they used to list their job numbers.  These job numbers are classified depending on what type of job they are, so the client has A-jobs, B-jobs, C-jobs, etc., and they had set up a separate worksheet in the Excel file for each job type.  The problem was that there were 10 people who needed to access this information to either create new job numbers, or lookup job numbers for POs, time tickets, etc.  They had configured the Excel file for sharing, but were getting repeated corruption.  While the Volume Shadow Copy was nice, it was still a pain to determine what changes everyone had made since the last VSS snapshot.  So, our solution was to import this information into their Sharepoint site as a simple little 6 field custom list.  They haven’t had a problem since, and now we’re looking at adding additional functionality for them.


Most small businesses have some sort of data that it seems several people need, but it almost always ends up that they have the receptionist or whomever be the keeper for that data.  So you’ve got people either calling the receptionist or coming up to their desk to ask for some sort of info from this data.  Another example are those customers who have the notorious whiteboard that has some sort of list / data on it, which may be either static or dynamic – but whenever anyone needs that info, they’ve got to go to the whiteboard to get it.  This is the stuff that you should be moving into Sharepoint for your clients.  The great part is that it is very easy to train users on this – out of all of your computer applications, the web browser is arguably the environment that all users are familiar and comfortable with, and basic lists are very intuitive to use, especially with the filter & sort options.  Once you’re able to introduce Sharepoint to many of your customers as an effictive tool to solve a problem / increase efficiency, they’re going to be much more apt to look at it, and you’re going to get more business on customize Sharepoint than you ever would simply by showing them the “cool” stuff. 

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