My first experience with Xero’s first US conference was somewhat of an “exclusive” affair. Never having been to San Francisco, I was searching the street for a conference center or hotel when a nicely dressed bouncer told me “You’re at the right place”. It turns out the conference was being held in what seems to be a converted warehouse (and apparently this is where Wired launched its magazine many a years ago). Throughout the conference we were told how special we were, being part of the founding partners of Xero (partner being what Intuit would call advisors). I have to say, how special can this whole thing be if they invited me? But I digress.
Rod Drury (CEO of Xero) said the usual things I’ve been hearing about cloud accounting / Xero for a while. The cloud is changing how business is being done, Xero is changing how business is done, Xero is growing. Get on the bandwagon and don’t get left behind. Perhaps because I’m of the generation who expects software to live online or because the fact that I’ve been working wherever I want, whenever I want for some time now, but this concept of - the cloud is changing the way small businesses do business – is pointing out the obvious. So yeah, I’m sold, but what’s next?
For me, the real meat of the conference for me started with the presentation of the upcoming features. A quick, and not necessarily complete, list is in no particular order of importance is:
- File attachment / Document management
- Purchase orders and quotes
- Global search
- US payroll
- Inventory management (lite)
- Touch friendly interface
- Report customization
On the Partner side, there was also some new things:
- Practice studio
- Partner profiles and badges
- Report packs
- Self paced learning for Xero partner certification
- Videos for on boarding clients
Let’s dig in a bit more into a few of the features (we’ll be doing deep dives of these features in future articles, but here are the summaries).
File Attachment / Document Management
I’ve been on a personal crusade for a document management system that works seamlessly with online accounting software. So for me, and it seems like a good deal of the crowd, the file attachment feature was one of the top new features announced.
Here’s what it can do.
- Attach as many files as you like to any transaction
- Drag and drop attachments onto transactions (this really had me impressed)
- A file folder system within Xero that contains all these documents. In fact, you don’t even need to attach documents to a particular transaction.
- An inbox for files that you email into Xero.
- The ability to hover over a transaction and show a preview of attached documents
I couldn’t have asked for anything more (but actually I did). So there are two thing that Xero, in version 1 of file attachments, does not address:
- The ability to download all the files into a zip file in one go (Craig Walker, then man behind file attachments, say this is in the works)
- The ability to sync these files with an outside cloud file system (like Google Drive, Dropbox, Skydrive, or Box)
But realistically, provided the zip download is not too far down the road, file attachments is what I’ve personally been wanting for a few years now. So I’m excited about this. It’s set to launch in 2013!
Purchase Orders and Quotes
This is welcome news, one of those abilities people have been asking for a while (but I guess that’s true for most of the features). Some of the things you can do are:
- Send a quote out to vendors where they can view it online and approve it or have a discussion (this is a future release that won’t happen October 2013)
- Once a quote or purchase order is ready to be made in to an invoice / fulfilled, you can easily convert to the appropriate transaction type (like invoice or bill)
There’s a bunch of other little details that I’m forgetting, but as mentioned previously, we’ll try to cover in more details in a separate article.
Purchase orders and quotes are set to launch in 2013.
Well, this is actually already in Xero, a bit hidden away under Advisers > History and Notes Activity. The new thing (yet to be released) is that it’s going to be accessible via a search field found in the header. Another handy (and some say critical) tool that’s now in Xero.
This has been talked about for a while, but payroll is finally coming to the U.S, and will have road shows to educate and promote in October / November. Payroll is set to launch in 2013.
What does seamless US payroll in Xero do?
- Allow for direct deposit or checks payments through Xero
- Employees can access their payroll and see their payment history
- Holiday scheduler: Once employees self-input their requests for vacation, there is simple visual interface to see the time employees have requested and spot potential issues with overlapping holidays
- Employees can access their payroll via phone, as well as enter their hours as well
- Electronic tax filing (Federal and the State of California to start)
The key thing is that this is all built natively into Xero. This is seamless. You can now do your entire payroll within Xero, from collecting employee hours to paying employees, to filing the taxes. We’ll do a deep dive into payroll later, but the first impressions leaves me impressed.
Interfaces will be redone to be more touch-friendly for fingers. This feature will be rolled out over time to different screens (if you want to see the spacing will look like, go to Advisers > History and Notes Activity). Apparently they even measured the size and width of fingers to make sure everything is just the right size!
This is one of those bigger feature requests Xero users have been long demanding. To be clear, this is going to be a lite version of inventory, but from the first look, it looks like a very nice implementation of basic inventory management. Here’s the highlights:
- Ability to add pictures and tags to inventory items.
- Adjustments to inventory by doing a stock count
- Choose a preferred supplier and have re-order points
- Inventory performance reports
Tags and pictures actually seem to be quite useful. Not only do pictures visually look good in the back end of Xero when looking at your different items, but the pictures will also show up on invoices, which is pretty neat.
Tags make a ton of sense, since you may have inventory in more than category, such as a t-shirt that can be categorized by things like size, color and type. With tags, you can pull up inventory based on any of those tags.
When you look at your inventory item, you’ll be able to see how many you have on hand and how many have been ordered, giving you an idea of whether you’re going to go out of stock soon.
This feature is still very much in the works, so I won’t go into much more detail than that. There is no release date for Inventory management.
This one’s another biggie and on users’ wish list of wanted features. Basically, you can customize your reports using a whole bunch of variables like:
- Formulas: Create custom calculations for things like gross profit and it’s % of sales
- Variances: Build reports that compare year over year (or any time frame you like)
- Filering: Exclude / include certain types of data from your report
- Report packs: This is a feature for accountants, where they can create a standardized set of reports that can be used on all their clients
With only being given a brief overview of Xero’s report customization, I’d say it’ll be fairly equivalent to what you’d see in QuickBooks Desktop in terms of report customization capabilities. Again, this is a quick first look, so I could be completely off base on this. The general point is that reporting in Xero, both on the user side and partner accountant side, is getting better.
There is no release date for Report customization.
Add-Ons: Some Interesting Questions
A thought that popped into my head, was that there may be some unhappy add-on vendors in the house. For example, that file attachment feature makes any other service offering the gathering and processing of files *seem* redundant. Ditto for payroll or report customization. I say *seem* because in many cases add-0ns can provide some extra capabilities (such as capturing receipts by phone and OCR with ReceiptBank), but the value proposition is not as great as it used to be. This is the type of problem that happens when your product is a platform (and this is too big of a topic to cover here, so you’ll see more coverage of this in future articles).
One issue Xero brought up, is that with so many add-ons, which one do you choose. They say, don’t try them all (how could you , there’s over 200?). But it does bring up this very new issue that like Apple, “there’s an app for that”. I’m sure Xero won’t have hundred of thousands, but even at over 200 apps (275 by their latest count), how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? I guess some more review work for me? Xero is trying to partially address this by enabling apps to now be reviewed.
So, with add-ons, both from a user and developer perspective, how do you pick the winner? In reality, you’re playing a bit of a gambling game, which is the new reality of business; it’s fast moving with no guarantees.
The key thing with add-ons though, is that Xero really is pushing their accounting software way beyond just being accounting software. Instead, it’s a business software platform, with the general ledger as its center. This chunkification of accounting related processes leaves little doubt that accounting software will no longer be judged solely on its native capabilities, but instead what it can do in conjunction with add-ons / integrations. So it’s not necessarily the cloud platform with the best native capabilities that will grow fastest, but the one with the best ecosystem.
Working in the Cloud
Xero is really trying to point out to accountants that you can “work in the cloud”. So it was funny when even a pro-Xero gold partner sitting on stage for a partner panel was having a hard time justifying why he and his staff still go into the office every day instead of working from homes or coffee shops. In the end, the discussion came to the point that it doesn’t matter where you work, but rather that you can choose where to work. This choices allows people to save time on their commute, be there to pick up the kids, and answer clients’ pressing questions in an instant (which is both bad and good, when you are going to rest)!
So yep, the cloud is the future, everyone knows it, and Xero lets you embrace this. They’re not the only accounting software doing this by a long shot, but I would argue with their add-ons and file feature, they’re leading the charge.
There was a lot happening at Xerocon and a lot that I left out. I really did not touch on all the tools and presentations around accountants and how they can manage their practice. That’s for another article, and potentially another person. What was clear though, is that Xero is squarely focused on empowering the accountant, giving them the tools and support to help their clients and grow their practices. It’ll be interesting to see what happens at Xerocon US 2014 as there’s clearly a lot of momentum to Xero in the US. By then, we’ll be better able to see exactly how much.