One thing which really excites me about running the agile ship that is Conversant Media is improving our business processes. As an execution business, it’s these things which set us apart from our long-in-the-tooth competitors. And improving process often means automating it.
So I was excited to hear about businesses using Shoeboxed for processing their invoices into online accounting software Xero.
As the Conversant team know all too well, Fridays I’m often bunkered down doing accounts. Using Xero and having a great bookkeeper and accountant helps, but I reckon I still spend too long on accounts. My board have told me this enough times in case I was in any doubt.
The Shoeboxed service offered the prospect of freeing up my Fridays a little.
This is how it works. You send Shoeboxed your invoice by taking a photo of your receipt using a smartphone or by forwarding the email containing the receipt. You can even post the invoice to them using their neat envelopes.
In theory Shoeboxed does the heavy lifting for you: parsing the receipt for information and providing it in a form for your review. From there you can then post this invoice direct to Xero’s accounting system.
Sounds pretty sweet. I was excited.
I always research other options for potential tools to use in our business, so I did some research and trialled Receipt Bank at the same time.
My experience with both services was mixed, but I’ve come out of the process with a firm conclusion: if you’re a small business with medium complexity using Xero, it’s unlikely you’ll benefit much from either of these services.
In fact, it’s my view you really shouldn’t use either of them. Here’s why.
The following are the limitations I experienced using both Receipt Bank and Shoeboxed.
Limitations of Shoeboxed
- The actual receipts aren’t sent to Xero. The receipts are stored by Shoeboxed and are linked from within Xero. From an implementation approach this isn’t clever and was a showstopper for me. It effectively means you are highly coupled with Shoeboxed. A core concept of system usage is loose coupling. You really don’t want your accounting system being coupled to an invoice process tool. They should be easily changed with minimal bindings between the systems. Your source of truth should be your online accounting system. So the invoices should naturally reside there. By leaving them with Shoeboxed, you also run the risk if the service is closed down (or worse), then your receipts and their fate are out of your hands.
- The files aren’t secure – your data is in the open. When linking the receipt from Xero, Shoeboxed puts an obscured link to the file which itself is not secured. It’s hard to find... but not secure. And obscurity is not security. Again, a showstopper for me. Invoices contain sensitive information and shouldn’t be public.
- Shoeboxed does not accept .doc files. Our business is sent most invoices in this Microsoft Office format. Why oh why can’t they process this format in the age of online cloud storage (which has long overcome the potential security risks with a .doc format)?
- Average accuracy. The processing of data in my trial was Ok at best. I often had to enrich, change due dates, and company names, and so on. This is all these guys should do well and they don’t do it.
- System uptime and transparency weren’t great. When I signed up to Shoeboxed, my emails forwarding receipts were never processed (or even bounced back – they just disappeared). It took two days and four phone calls to get a single file processed. Their help desk was superb when I spoke to them, but they did inform me they were experiencing a large system outage that week. My problem was that they didn’t inform me – the customer – about this. No tweets. No system status pages. Nothing. This concerned me as it felt like they weren’t being transparent about their issues – a big deal if you trust them with your business documents.
To be fair, Shoeboxed does support multiple Xero accounts reasonably well and the people I spoke to in Australia have been great. But the limitations above are, in my view, enough raise real doubts about using the service if you’re serious about your business.
Limitations of Receipt Bank
- Receipt Bank does not support multiple Xero accounts. I had to create separate Receipt Bank accounts with various email addresses and login/out each time to process invoices for the two business entities we ran. If you run multiple Xero entities, this is a showstopper. (Oddly though its iPhone app does support multiple accounts.)
- Receipt Bank service doesn’t enter the invoice’s specified due date. Again – a showstopper for me. When I enter a payable into Xero I want to know when the supplier is asking for the money to be paid. This helps me manage their expectations and my cashflow. But Receipt Bank just adds ‘x’ days to each invoice (where you specify the ‘x’). Not good enough in my view given this is pretty much one of the key bits of information in a receipt.
- Receipt Bank does not accept .doc files. Just like Shoeboxed. Receipt Bank director Michael Wood told me that although invoices in the .doc format were a small minority of invoices as most were paper or pdf, the service would soon process them too.
- Receipts stored as images. While Receipt Bank does actually post files to Xero directly, it stores documents in an image format rather than PDF (which would contain the text it parsed out in the first place).
The security issues and lack of .doc file formats are real showstoppers for me. It’s a problem given Xero makes it so easy to enter a receipt already, especially given the release of Xero Files.
But more broadly, I do wonder what led both companies to the position they are today: where the core of their offering (processing invoices and extracting data) is a small and arguably poor part of their service.
Zac Zavos is managing director of Conversant Media, publisher of The Roar, Lost at E Minor and Techly. This article first appeared on the Conversant Media blog.