Travel Hacks for Road Warriors

Most of the readers of this blog know that I do over 100,000 air miles a year, all in the US/Canada.  After 1.5 million air miles, these are my favorite travel tips – I hope they make your business travel better (or if you’re a glass half empty type, I hope they make travel suck less).

  1. Manila envelopes for receipts – scan them with your Concur app when you incur them, and get them into the expense report system. Keep the paper – you may need it to get reimbursed if you lose/drop your phone or if the pic is blurry.
  2. Always carry $200+ in cash when you are on the road – because bad things happen, and cash can fix it quickly in almost any situation. Also because the bellmen, servers, drivers, and others who wait on you have hard jobs and get treated like crap all of the time – so throw a $20 at someone who deserves it at least once a month ($240/yr)- it’s a great way to pay it forward and make someone’s day suck a little less.
  3. Be very nice to the people at your home airport -know their names, bring them brownies, cookies, and other nice things around the holidays. They don’t make much money, and they can make stuff happen for you when travel gets bad. Ask about the counter people’s families and know their kids names – it will pay off in spades.
  4. If you’re elite with an airline, use those “attaboy” certificates for outstanding service strategically. Give them out to people at your home airport, and do it publically – this makes me very popular at my home airport.
  5. If you have to fly 50-seat regional jets on Delta, they can’t take the electronic drink tickets – so it’s open bar, if you have to fly on one of those for over an hour and don’t have Comfort+.  (JSYK, Woodford is the best bourbon available on Delta – sorry, Jack)
  6. Concur/Electronic Expense Reporting
    • If your company uses Concur, get the app – it’s essential, and you can take pics of your receipts as you incur the expenses.
    • Set up the bank feeds on your credit cards, and pay for everything with them. I try to put everything on my American Express, and it means that I can almost always expense/deduct charges on that card.
    • Also set up the e-mail address for inbound receipts – it lets you just forward the receipts from your e-mail to the address.
    • Print out a copy of your expense reports – if you think you missed an expense item, you can check it against the old expense reports quickly and easily in your home office.
    • Get a decent travel scanner for bulk receipt scanning – I use a Brother DS-620, but I’ve also used a ScanSnap S1100 in the past. While you won’t need it much, the scanner will do better with crappy printing on receipts than your smartphone camera.
    • Continue reading “Travel Hacks for Road Warriors”

FAQ on Decrypting Tax Documents with AES Crypt

This week’s episode of the excellent Security Now! podcast (#599, starting at 53:10) discusses the use of AES Crypt by clients to encrypt tax data when sending it to practitioners. (I assume that those documents are destined to a professional preparer, like you, the gentle reader of this blog). While I won’t restate the original blog post (which is at, the method described is a relatively simple way for an end user to encrypt and send a group of encrypted files over an insecure medium like Dropbox or other consumer-grade file sharing tools.  While the method described in the post can be implemented poorly (weak passwords, sending the wrong file, using e-mail, etc.), the basic methodology appears sound – but you need to evaluate the methods you approve for clients to use transmitting data.

Continue reading “FAQ on Decrypting Tax Documents with AES Crypt”

News Roundup- March 13th

Some of the current events I’ve been following include the following stories:


The Business Model Problem With Unicorns

There is a fundamental problem with Silicon Valley – too many startups seem to have a business model of “build to flip”. This model – which I’ve seen in the past – is a model in which the company has little, if any, interest in creating a serious, viable product, and is instead only interested in selling out to someone else. The short term thinking reminds me of the 1960’s movie musical, “The Music Man”, where a scam artist plans to sell band instruments to locals in “River City” and skip town as soon as they pay for the horns. One can see the signs of excess in the news – sex and shots in the stairwells at Zenefits, and magazine covers which show the hundreds of “unicorns” (a slang term for a private company valued over $1 billion) running for the exits, and most finding that there is no way out. When MVP describes a “minimum viable product” instead of a “most valuable player”, it’s a sign that the valuations may have “jumped the shark”.  The reported “shots and sex in the stairwells” at Zenefits will be the punch line for the bursting of a modern day valuation bubble, just as a certain sock puppet was a symbol of an earlier period of excess.

This focus on market capitalization instead of net income – or even producing a viable product – is a particularly intractable problem for items in the financial technology (“FinTech”) sector, where the industry actors (accountants, financial institutions) thrive on long-term stable relationships with customers, and mistakes are remembered for decades. Unlike other sectors of the economy, entrepreneurs are interested in dealing only with “grown ups” when it comes to their business finances. The constant change in features and application availability makes the users hesitant to adopt any solution from these companies, whose constant product and business model iteration makes their customers feel like they’re living a very strange version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First”.

There are opportunities out there – some such opportunities include automation of account assignment to transactions imported from banks, automated reconciliation of statements, and creating “digital plumbing” to solve the problem of digital silos in the very fragmented cloud economy.  Unfortunately, these tasks are not easy – which is why nobody is doing them successfully.  (I hope someone solves these problems soon.)

It also strikes me that there is excessive focus on HOW the products are delivered (e.g. browser/public cloud) instead of WHAT the products actually do for their users. This is accomplished by burying prospective buyers in a blizzard of BS before they buy. A partial list of “danger words” which indicate that this style of groupthink may exist includes cloud (all kinds), user experience, ecosystem, seamless integration, minimum viable product, iteration, market capitalization, and non-GAAP operating results. If you hear most of these words, I’d stay away – or at a minimum, hold onto my wallet. The unicorns are running for the exits, and I fear that some will be trampled as investors realize that they have bought into applications without a viable long term model for operating as a profitable business.


Business Grade Hardware Only, Please

One of the more important things that CPAs and other financial professionals should do is to buy good quality hardware.  This can be accomplished in a number of ways, but I have two basic rules for purchasing computer hardware

The first rule: Buy hardware produced by a leading manufacturer.

While you can save a little money by purchasing “off brand” hardware, you will almost always lose that time when you have to deal with proprietary device drivers or cheap build quality.  Although you could purchase that computer from someone besides HP/Dell/Lenovo, I have a suggestion:  Don’t do it.  The risk is too high, and the return is insignificant.  Don’t.

The second rule: Buy business grade hardware

Most computer makers have two grades of hardware: Home grade hardware and business grade hardware.  Unfortunately, many professionals pay more attention to the hardware branding rather than the build quality.  I generally feel good about the products coming from the “big 3” major manufacturers – Dell, HP, and Lenovo.  I would add to that list (insofar as build quality is concerned) the Microsoft Surface Pro line of tablets (but not the Surface tablet/laptop).  I also list Apple hardware as home grade – primarily due to the complexity of dealing with MacOS and Windows on the same machine.  Many people disagree with me on this point (the Apple fans, primarily), but given that I do speaking and consulting to CPAs, and they generally are required to use Windows applications, I generally discourage Mac adoption.  (I would remind you, the gentle reader, that it’s a free country, and if you want a Mac, go buy one – but don’t complain to me when your users can’t handle dealing with the cost, complexity, and memory requirements of Parallels desktop running a purchased Windows license – to each his (or her) own.)

My current working list of product lines which appear to be “Home Grade” vs. those which are “Business Grade” follows.

Business grade laptop/desktop hardware lines

· HP laptops: EliteBook, ProBook, ZBook

· HP desktops: EliteDesk, ProDesk, EliteOne, ProOne, Z-series

· Dell Laptops: Latitude, some Vostro, Precision Mobile Workstation devices

· Dell desktops: Optiplex, Precision

· Lenovo laptops: Thinkpad, B-series devices

· Lenovo desktops: M-series, P-series, Thinkcentre, Thinkstation

· Microsoft Surface Pro tablet/laptop

Home-grade laptop/desktop hardware lines

· HP laptops: Stream, Streambook, Pavilion , Phoenix, Envy, Omen, Spectre

· HP desktops: Stream, Pavilion, any others not in business grade device list

· Lenovo laptops: Ideapad, Flex, E, G, L, S, U, and Z-series

· Lenovo desktops: A, B, C, H, K, and Q-series.  Horizon and Erazer series devices

· Dell laptops: Inspiron, some Vostro

· Dell desktops: Inspiron, XPS, Alienware, 3000, 5000, and 7000 series

· All Chromebooks, Chromeboxes

· Microsoft Surface (not Surface Pro) tablet/laptops

· All Apple-branded laptops and desktops


Who Will Be The Profession’s Digital Plumber?

I’ve been using, supporting, and following accounting software developments since the 1990’s, and there’s a common problem which still needs to be solved:

“How will I get (my)(my client’s) data from (application one) into (specialized application two) so I can perform (task)?”

There have been a wide range of people who have taken on solving this problem, and almost every family of solutions (e.g. Intuit, CCH, Thomson Reuters, Sage, etc.) has solved the problem for their stack of solutions.  One can easily go from most of the major client bookkeeping products into that publishers tax application, and with a little more difficulty, one can pull data from QuickBooks desktop into the tax software.  All bets are off, however, when you step outside of your tax software’s family of solutions.

If you look at e-mail in the 1980’s, we had services like Prodigy and Compuserve, which in their early iterations had closed e-mail systems – like those run by many companies.  In fact, I have had professional jobs in my career where I didn’t have internet-based e-mail – because it was a closed system.  Once these systems opened up, I had internet e-mail from Prodigy (

My friend Randy Johnston has often compared the “my tools only” integration strategy as a nationalist strategy – that is, you’re picking winners and losers in a war (e.g. NATO/Warsaw Pact).  Some of this is because of benign neglect, some due to economics, but part of this is an intentional strategy.  That’s OK – providers have no obligation to support competing solutions – but it’s still frustrating.

What we haven’t seen in the US is someone who will be the accounting data version of Switzerland for practitioners– a company which will put in tight integrations to everything.  The closest company to that strategy seems to be Caseware, which exports to most practitioner tax solutions – but their relatively small US market share diminishes their effectiveness in this role.  QuickBooks is probably as close as any app here – but that’s primarily due to its marketshare in the US.  Without good cross-platform integrations and effective/automated import/exports between the different provider cloud offerings, adopters are just trading an on-premises cloud island for a provider-hosted island.  If there’s no easy way to move traffic between islands, you’re just a castaway.

I will point out that Avalara does this successfully with hundreds of accounting/ERP solutions on the sales tax side, so it’s definitely possible, and I think their strategy will pay off in the long run.

I did a session on Digital Plumbing at the Sleeter Accounting Solutions Conference last year, and some companies are out there which do different tasks associated with this for general accounting solutions.  Leaders are ITDuzzit (now part of Intuit), Zapier, and OneSaaS, but there are many nascent competitors in this space, and I haven’t seen anyone reach scale yet in the practitioner market.

Chris Keall of the National Business Review in New Zealand points out today (link requires subscription) in a paid article that Kiwi company Common Ledger has received a relatively small amount of funding ($1MM NZD) to develop solutions in Australia/New Zealand.  What a pity that we don’t have anyone taking on this task in the US.  VC’s seem to be throwing money like crazy at cloud products, but nobody seems to be helping the various data clouds automatically talk to each other.  What a pity.

If any of you readers are aware of anyone who is solving this problem, please let me know.  If accounting is going to become more automated, we have to move past 1980’s solutions like manual import of CSV files and transition into real solutions which are less of a pain to implement.  We’ve seen this change radically with bank feeds in the cloud accounting solutions– when will we see it with other accounting data flowing between various best in breed practitioner solutions?