From balancing the company books to paying utility bills, business admin can start to become a real productivity drain. However, embracing technology automating processes means this needn’t always be the case.
One of the first things a business owner notices as growth takes hold is just how time consuming everything is. How can an leader properly look after clients and customers if they are struggling to stay on top of basic operational tasks?
When everything from company accounts to staying on top of the office diary steals too many precious minutes from every working day, it doesn’t take long before it becomes abundantly clear that new systems to reduce business admin burdens must be put in place.
And, while this sometimes results in new staff, increasingly the answer to the problem for SMEs is to find technology-based solutions to many of their admin burdens.
Ahead of the curve
James Poyser, one of the founders of online accountancy service inniAccounts, could sense that there was a shift on the horizon when he and his co-founders settled around a kitchen table during Christmas 2005 to discuss how technology may be the answer to the bookkeeping woes of an army of freelancers and contractors – a cohort that Poyser had recently joined after waving goodbye to the corporate life.
“There was a real frustration amongst us at having to use cumbersome spreadsheets or deal with an accountant,” explained Poyser. “My background was tech, two of the other co-founders were engineers, and we’d all been on the receiving end of some pretty poor accountancy. Even back then we could see how technology could make a difference and make our lives much easier.”
Over the next few years, the founders set about building a piece of cloud accounting software, recognising that if a user had a laptop and an internet connection then their finances could be available in real time – with no need for offline spreadsheets or for sending things back and forth to accountants.
“Nobody was doing it, so that’s what we did,” revealed Poyser. “We came along and took away all the admin burden, and our clients now spend about three minutes a week doing bookkeeping, which might otherwise take hours every month.”
Unsurprisingly, the inniAccounts founders (who have since added full accountancy support and advice to their offering) have been receptive to minimising their own business admin miseries from day one – although it’s true that many of the best solutions have only really sprung up in the past few years. “If we were starting up again right now our lives would be so much easier,” said Poyser.
Today, the Queen’s Award-winning company uses HR software called Breathe, which handles all their needs pertaining to absenteeism, holidays, tracking pay-rises and emergency contact details – and a lot more. “It takes care of all of those things that weren’t particularly complicated, but that were another drag that you needed to stop and think about,” said Poyser.
Another tech tool that the company swears by is Trello, a piece of collaboration software that facilitates different people working on projects together, but which can also be adapted to meet certain admin needs. Poyser, for example, has set up a checklist for when a new employee starts which enables the team to see what needs to be done – everything from “set up computer system” to “order cake for their first day”. He simply copies it onto a new Trello “board” when the newcomer starts and works through the list.
Data back-ups have become pain-free, too, with the company’s customer and internal data mostly backed up automatically these days. They use a cloud storage company called Backblaze, which boasts that it has a phenomenal 600 Petabytes of data quietly stored away.
The list goes on – HelpSpot manages InniAccounts’ customer support and ensures that help requests go into a single place and are quickly allocated to the right person, and an affordable piece of cloud-based tech lies behind the company’s telephone system, which similarly streamlines things.
Increasingly, said Poyser, businesses are going to be free of their admin burdens, and he wants to play his part. His own mission right now is to use AI to shave down the already small amount of time his customers need to spend on bookkeeping. “Our AI, like a real accountant who would query things such as ‘Was this hotel stay at the weekend personal or business?’ will ask you questions about things it’s unsure about. That’s where we’re going next,” he added.
Angela Middleton, founder of recruitment firm and apprenticeship training provider MiddletonMurray, was similarly open to the possibilities of tech when she founded her business, an enterprise that predates InniAccounts by several years (she started in 2002). She recalled how her new team of recruiters turned up for work with their “little black boxes” full of cards containing the details of job candidates.
“I remember coming across Reed recruitment online and thinking we should have a look at that,” she said, “but there was a huge amount of resistance from the old-school recruiters, who didn’t want to start using the new tech. So I set up a bit of a competition with them. I said: ‘We need a candidate with these skills – you go through your boxes, I’ll go online and we’ll see who comes back quickest with a match’. Hands down, technology was the winner.”
Middleton shuddered at the thought of the vast swathes of office space that was once lost to endless filing cabinets she’d had to buy. Likewise, space for dedicated servers she once needed has been freed up as everything moved into the cloud. Good tech solutions can certainly save a business time and money, agreed Middleton, but there’s something else, too.
“I think the important thing is that you can eliminate human error,” she said. “It means you don’t have to redo things and you can find what you need quickly. Often, the advantage of tech for admin tasks is more about the aftermath of the task as opposed to the doing of it.”
Looking after staff
As streamlined and efficient as MiddletonMurray and its 19 offices now is, there is still one bit of tech that its founder dreams of: a technological solution to the age-old conundrum of keeping people fit and healthy at work.
“I’m very into health and fitness, and I think that has helped to transform the mind-set of people who work for us because I’ve been working very hard for the past 18 months with the team on the fact that you can’t expect your brain to be working at optimal levels if your body isn’t,” she said. “I’ve seen standing-up desks and treadmill desks, and I would love to see how that is going in the future. I think we’re going to see more of business, mind and fitness all rolled into one, and I think that’s pretty exciting.”
For Poyser, the aim of his tech – and that of all other software solutions that help to cut time wasted on admin – is to let businesses get on with doing what they set out to do in the first place. “I think as a business, you need to figure out what you’re going to be famous for and where you can add value,” he said. “Everything else, figure out how you can get someone else to do it for you.”