Accounting 2.0 at CloudAve

In an ongoing series of reviews and analysis pieces, CloudAve will be taking a deep look into accounting software for the new world.

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Introduction & Background

pastel SoftlinePastel is a South African software house owned by Sage PLC. Pastel was founded in 1990 by Steve Cohen, current Managing Director, and was acquired by Sage in 2003. Pastel currently has approximately 80% market share in South Africa.

Softline launched My Business Online in May this year (launch video below). MBO is pitched as a simple offering – there’s no accountant terminology and it’s very much pitched as a “simple solution for generic businesses” type offering. I spoke with Steve Cohen (see video below of Steve launching the MBO product) about where the product came from, and ultimately where it is going.

The news page details their various releases – somewhat worryingly, after a monthly release for the first few months of their existence, we’ve seen no software releases from them since July – hopefully this doesn’t indicate that the project has dropped off the priority list. Steve assured me that another release is due out imminently and in fact gave me a list of functionality due for release (more on that later).

MBO is a South African product and only single currency at this point. Despite this fact Steve reported that they have picked up a handful of users in several different countries. Since launching they’ve attracted around 600 sign ups of which 500 are classed as daily users.

Pricing

My Business Online is priced at 140Rand, or about USD20 per month. This price gets you two users and two companies while additional users are 25 Rand per month. Pastel provide for a 90 day free trial (which in itself is unusual – 30 days is the industry norm).

The user experience

MBO launches with a dashboard which gives a high level overview of customers, sales and high priority items. As would be expected every item in the dashboard is a link into a detail window for that particular transaction – drill down is a major theme of this app!

dashboard

The feel is pretty typical for a SMB focused SaaS accounting application. For some reason blue has become the default color for accounting apps and Pastel are happy to comply with this defacto standard.

invoices

MBO makes extensive use of what they call “quick links” – major windows have a box at the bottom with links to routine tasks. Below is an example from the customer screen – you’ll notice the major tasks likely to be related to customers are available with one click from this window;

quicklinks

Also interesting is the breadth of functionality MBO has with regards customer management. Whereas most SMB focused web accounting applications have little more than address, billing and historical details, MBO is integrated with Google maps, allows custom user defined fields for contacts lists and has basic document repository functionality for quote archiving.

crmlite

Similarly the inventory function in MBO is more comprehensive than what one would normally expect. Inventory is a functional area often omitted from SMB focused SaaS accounting applications, MBO however allows for reasonably complex pricing settings, costings and comparative sales/purchases reporting for inventoried products.

invenory

There are some noticeable omissions from MBO at this stage, much in the import/export area. Users are currently unable to import their bank statements into MBO. Similarly there is no ability to export data out of the applications (a particularly worrying situation for a web application – if MBO dies, where does the data end up?). Steve assured me that both of these omissions will be rectified in the next couple of releases – wait and see I guess.

Interestingly the next release will include desktop widgets. No word on what the functionality will be yet, however the idea of a desktop widget that is able to be used offline and without a browser open, only to be synced back to the web app upon connection is appealing. It’s something that one would expect to see from a web app later on in its lifecycle, testimony to both the resource behind, and the plans for, MBO. Also coming in the next couple of releases is a simple asset register, again a feature that most online accounting applications omit in their early stages.

iPhone

Steve seems to be something of a pragmatist (it must be the South African in him). When we discussed the recently released iPhone application that MBO does (available on the app store) he shrugged it off somewhat as “a nice thing to do, very cool to show people but of marginal utility”. While having some visibility over financials while mobile is definitely useful, very few users are likely to be entering invoices and the like while online. A mobile application however shows a commitment to future innovations and it’s primarily for these, more strategic reasons that MBO have gone down this line.

pastel in appsotre

The security issue

Patel have a reasonable comprehensive security page which details the usual sort of information: access, hosting, backups and SSL provision. Their password requirements are pretty comprehensive (and annoying it has to be said) requiring not only letters and numbers but upper case, lowers case, numbers AND special characters to comply.

pastelmakingithard

APIs – connecting the dots

MBO has no information regarding integrations either with other Pastel products or third party applications on its site. I pushed Steve about their integration strategy and he told me that from his perspective, integrations are something that small businesses aren’t clamoring for. He said they’re intending to build an API and that it should be very little work given the architecture of the product itself and given their experience writing APIs for their other products. While I understand the imperatives around development prioritizing, I have to say that the use case and latent demand for integrations from small business that I’ve spoken to is obvious, perhaps South African SMBs display different traits – either way I’d be keen to see some movement on this front soon.

Go to market?

I was interested to hear Pastel’s commitment to the product given that 95% of their revenue comes from traditional installed applications. Steve told me that they see SaaS very much as a fringe application but one that is growing in importance. When I asked him how this translated into a go-to-market strategy, and how that was impacted by the imperatives around the desktop products, he told me that their approach was very much organic. Apparently everyone within Pastel enjoys what they’re doing with SaaS (Steve likened the shift to the MS-DOS to Windows evolution) and as such it’s easy to gain and maintain excitement around the product. I have to say that a more rigorous approach towards market penetration would seem wise, to this end Pastel do have a channel partnership strategy in place with VodaCom a South African telco – apparently VodaCom will be offering MBO in a hosted suite style similar to what is occurring with SaaS apps in other countries.

Summary

MBO is an impressive offering for such a new application. I appreciated the simplicity they’ve designed into the application, and the fact that they’ve built it for business owners rather than for the needs of accountants. The concerns I have are more business related rather than technical. The ongoing commitment to this project on the part of Pastel, and by extension Sage, is unknown. Historically traditional vendors have been poor at continuous execution of SaaS applications, bailing out due to concerns about cannibalization of their revenue base. Only time will tell whether Pastel bucks this trend and continues to commit to what is a very promising product.

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Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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