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 (fmpm09d@prodigy.com).

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, no longer commercially sold), 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?