Accounting automation for commercial cards: keys to a fast go-to-market
We have written before about some of the keys to building a platform that can win in the booming expense management sector. One of those keys is accounting automation. No commercial card can be competitive today without deep and intelligent integrations with accounting software.
Building accounting automation is more complex than building a simple integration. It is more than just sending transaction data to your customers’ books. Accounting is a challenging domain, especially across different software packages and territories. This complexity means that accounting integrations can clog up a product roadmap.
Expense management platforms cannot afford drag on product execution. The sector is growing faster than almost any other. There are trillions of dollars of business payments out there, with billions in corresponding interchange revenue, and businesses have never been more open to changing how they spend.
Step #1: Prioritize with data
The first rule of launching anything quickly is ruthless prioritization. The accounting software market is fragmented by region and business size. If you target mid-market businesses in Germany, you need entirely different integrations to those for start-ups in Mexico.
Survey your customers early and in detail. Your first ten customers are likely a representative sample of your next ten, your first hundred representative of your next hundred and so on. You should be learning as much as possible about your customers anyway. Learning about their tech stack is a key part of that.
Pending first-party data, Codat’s Accounting Software Market Report can give you a steer in the right direction. The report breaks down accounting software by territory and also provides detail on some of the other factors that shape SMB buying tendencies. Intuit QuickBooks, for example, dominates the small business market in the United States but you don’t have to move far up to encounter a lot of Oracle NetSuite.
Step #2: Define the scope
Different platforms will impose different constraints on what you can build and how quickly. The nature of an integrated feature like accounting automation means there are some things that are outside of your control. This makes it especially important to define what you mean by “building an accounting integration.”
When your customers ask for an integration, what are they actually asking for? When it comes to accounting automation, there are a lot more user stories involved than “I want to send data to my accounting platform.”
The critical part of accounting automation is the ability to map expense data to the correct accounts in the accounting software. All the transactions made on a commercial card need to be categorized. Each category of transactions maps to a different account, e.g. “cost of goods sold,” “office supplies,” “hardware,” or “travel.”
Your customers need flexibility when categorizing transactions. While expense transactions can be categorized by Merchant Category Codes, these are not very useful in accounting. MCCs are a standard used to determine things like rate of interchange and card rewards programs. Accounting for expenses is less of a standard process. Every business does it differently.
Chart of accounts
On your side, expenses need to be categorized before they can be synced with accounting. From the accounting platform, your integration needs to be able to access the “chart of accounts,” the list of all the accounts available in the General Ledger. With these two lists alongside each other, your user needs to be able to define the rules that map expense categories to accounts.
It’s especially important that your integration can monitor your users’ chart of accounts for changes. Most businesses frequently need to make changes to their chart to handle new expenditure or other developments in the business, e.g. opening a new office in a new territory. Without this, your integration will break every time your customers make changes in their accounting platform.
Keeping receipts is a critical part of accounting for expenses. They can be mandated when filing a tax return and without the ability to verify expenses against receipts, businesses can miss out on tax reductions and exemptions. In the UK for example, HMRC advises that expense records and receipts be kept for a minimum of three years. In the US, the IRS has similar requirements.
Step #3: Project the future roadmap
Categorizing expenses, attaching receipts, and sending them to the correct accounts represent the minimum viable features of accounting automation for commercial cards. However, there are a wide range of features that can save customers’ time. The smarter your accounting integrations, the more of a competitive advantage they become.
Bank feeds can be a valuable addition to accounting automation. While the most important thing is that expenses and all their metadata are mapped and sent to various accounts in the ledger, a simple bank feed can make life easier when a user comes to perform a bank reconciliation.
Bank reconciliation involves comparing expenses to a list of bank transactions to check that everything has been accounted for correctly. It is a lot easier to do when the two sets of information to compare have been automatically created in the accounting software. This saves time and reduces the likelihood of errors.
Out-of-pocket expenses, “pay and reclaim,” are often discouraged by finance teams but remain popular with employees. Accounting for these kinds of expenses is a related concept to syncing a commercial card, so much so that customers will often expect your product to be able to do both together. While reimbursements are closely-related, they naturally involve new functionality being defined and developed.
Most of the time a transaction can happily be sorted into a single category, but what if a purchase was of multiple items with different purposes? Some large transactions are best split to better represent the items involved. It can be valuable, for instance, to separate out costs like “software” from tax deductible items that are better classified as “cost of goods sold.”
Some accounting platforms provide unique features that are specifically relevant to expenses. Oracle NetSuite for example, due to its focus on mid-market businesses, provides CFOs with highly flexible “custom fields” and advanced capabilities for amortizations. Integrating with advanced features can make sense for certain platforms if they align closely with your ideal customer profile. In fact this can create a clear competitive advantage.
It is important to gather data to validate a platform-specific feature. There is a risk of building something that is of marginal use to a thin slice of your market. A roadmap that optimizes for speed-to-market ought to adopt a highly standardized approach, at least in the first few iterations.
Step #4: Get ahead of the build
For commercial cards and spend management platforms, accounting automation is high in potential but also high in potential pitfalls. Begin with the bare minimum useful integration, as defined above, with one or two accounting platforms.
In the initial business analysis phase, Codat’s longform guide, How to build accounting and commerce integrations, is packed with useful detail that can also help accelerate your speed to market.
Another wise move is to get any required developer credentials well in advance of starting to build integrations. Different accounting software providers have different requirements when it comes to who can integrate and how. Most are fairly straightforward but can cause delays nonetheless. In some cases, Codat’s status as a trusted and certified integration partner can help you to expedite and navigate the process.
If you are planning on launching a commercial card or need to deliver accounting integrations for the cards you already provide, Codat can radically simplify your build.
To find out how, either get in touch or explore our documentation. When you are ready, you can create an account, build and test your integration without paying anything until you are ready to launch and scale.