Web professionals everywhere know the difficulty of keeping business data together. Brent Weaver (founder of uGurus, a training, consulting and advisory firm for leading web developers around the world), writes:
Keeping your web design business organized can be a huge challenge. Often you have to use a bunch of different systems to keep everything in order: sales sales, project management, support, billing systems, and so on.
There are a growing number of APIs available for various SaaS programs and "pipe" apps to help you sync data, but it is still a pain to get it to work just right.
As such, Brent Weaver seeks out a review of the platform meant to help small agencies manage with enterprise-quality features. In the video interview, CEO Geoff McQueen explains why he created Accelo and how it’s designed to completely manage client services from end to end. Accelo users know that having everything in one place allows the flexibility and ease that comes with an entire middle-level of management.
Check out the post on uGuru’s blog, along with the video below!
Brent: If you’ve got a web design business and you’ve been wondering how you keep track of things like contacts, your proposals, your expenses, your retainers, your issues and support tickets that come up-- and you’re also currently using 5 or 6 or 7 different systems to manage your business. This is coming from personal experience: we use Basecamp, we use Podio, we use Freshbooks, we use Xero. We’ve got all of these different systems and there’s nothing in one single place that allows me to manage my customers.My guest today is going to help you with that problem with one single system. I’m really happy to welcome Geoff McQueen from Accelo. So Geoff, what is your background?
Geoff: I started off doing telecommunications engineering back in college. Back then, I was paying my way through college by working in bars and nightclubs and started to build websites in my spare time. I realized that it was a lot more lucrative and a lot more fun to be putting my skills in that area to use. So that then turned into an agency, which then turned into a bigger agency. We ended up with a crew of 20 people doing projects in Australia for everyone from the local businesses in the area to the federal government and department of the Prime Minister. So it was an interesting journey of running a digital agency. A few years ago, I started to realize that the pain I was feeling managing an agency was how to keep the wheels on with all of the different projects and things that were going on. It was driving me a bit crazy. And so, we’ve been building an internal tool. My background as an engineer was instrumental in that. I took that tool and started to commercialize it. After a few iterations and a lot of beta testing, that’s where we are with Accelo.
Brent: So you started Accelo out of your own desire to manage all of that information in your website agency?
Geoff: Yeah, absolutely. It was driving us crazy to have our customers in one place, our sales in another, projects in another, and timesheets in another. What would happen is that at the end of a quarter, we’d be sitting there trying to tie up all the loose ends and work out if we’d bill for a project. Sometimes we’d do all this work and forget to invoice because we’re so distracted by the next project we’re moving onto. Things like retainer-based work and support we often did out of good will as opposed to making any money out of it, which is kind of a bad idea when you have a full-time staff. I suffered all of that pain first hand and it drove me crazy. I was working weekends and late at night doing the work I hated-- I wasn’t being creative or strategic. I wasn’t helping clients, I was just doing damn paperwork. I was like, this is enough. I can’t do this anymore. That was kinda where it came in.
Brent: For a web designer, what key problem would Accelo solve for their business?
Geoff: The real key problem for a web designer is managing the work that’s going on for their clients in a way that takes less effort than actually doing the work for their clients. You only get paid for doing the work-- you don’t get paid for managing it. And you certainly don’t get paid for doing all of the administrative work that goes on with keeping the business operating outside of the valuable stuff you do that is specialist and unique. What Accelo is all about is taking away all of the operational and management aspects like what things are up to, “is this project overdue?”, “how much did we say we were gonna quote these guys?” “what’s this project up to?” or “who’s working with it now?”
Even in a small two-person shop, you might not feel like you need it because conversation is good enough and it is. As you start to grow and as you start to do more and more work, it’s quite common that the wheels start to fall off.
Brent: How many customers would you typically say is good for a web designer to start using something like Accelo? Is it good if I have 5 customers or do you guys come into play once you have 10 or 20 or 50 customers?
Geoff: It tends to be more of a function of how many people are working in the business for those customers including contractors. And it also comes down to how many concurrent projects you’re running at any given time. We don’t find the number of customers a typically effective test. If you’ve got a 5-person business and one client that really matters and all you’re doing is a project for that client and it’s going to take 6 months to do, a product like Accelo isn’t as useful because you’re completely focused on that one project. If you’re running with a few clients at once, it would be useful even if you’ve got a two-person company.
Brent: I see you’ve got pulled up an Accelo ecosystem of how all the different pipes and processes work. Can you explain a little bit about how that works into my business and my processes?
Geoff: The thing we see all the time is that in a first lead inquiry all the way through to an invoice being generated, there’s this continuity of a relationship you have with a customer. One thing that tends to be a problem in the market is that if you’re a business person looking for tools to try and manage that, you’ve got a couple places where you have some go-to options. It’d be crazy if you haven’t already done some of these things. For example, the front-end of the process when it comes to sales software and things like email blasts-- that stuff’s so available in commodity that you’d be crazy not to have it from day one in a business. And at the other end with the accounting, as soon as you have expenses or any form of revenue, it’s really important to have a system. You’ve got Quickbooks, Xero, or Saasu-- one of those products that manages the books. At the end of the day, the IRS or whoever the government is gonna come after you for their tax dollar and if you’re not organized, you’re in trouble.
With that bit in the middle-- Post-CRM and before you generate an invoice, is the broken or missing piece for a lot of businesses. They fill it up with lots of different bits. The problem with filling it with different things that don’t talk to each other is you as the owner or manager end up being the one trying to tie it all together with brute force. So the pipes and demonstration we’ve got here is a bit of subway map concept: there’s this sale flow where you’ve got your first inquiry and you follow through and end up closing a deal, which then turns into a project. At the end of the project, it potentially turns into a retainer where you’re doing ongoing work and generating ongoing revenue. All the way through that, you need to be keeping track of who said what to who, what the promises were, and spitting out bills and invoices so that you can get paid and grow a successful agency.
Brent: Let’s say that I do signup. What’s the most basic level that Accelo starts to integrate into my business?
Geoff: The most basic level it integrates into your business is the name and address book for your clients. We start right at the beginning with customer engagement. For example, you can go and find a client account. We can see here that we have a customer record we’re working with and we can see all of the contacts at that organization. The way in which we start to integrate immediately is with email. So anytime you send an email in your business to a customer, that’s an important touch point. If it’s you and your partner or your team, there’s probably good reason to see who’s saying what to which customer over time. It’s the left hand knowing what the right one’s doing.
So the first way Accelo really gets into your business and helps you is that it provides you a central tool of all the things that are going on for this client account all in one place. So any emails, issues or tickets raised, sales that are coming off, projects that are underway, will be listed here in the news feed. We automatically capture those emails at the mail server level, which means you can be typing out a quick reply in the back of a taxi on your iPhone or you can be sending an email from your Gmail account, and all of it gets captured and indexed automatically no matter where you’re sending it from and no matter how you’re sending it. We’ve got a lot of powerful features around it for privacy and confidentiality and stuff like that for obvious reasons. But for these client-focused emails, this is really valuable and important stuff.
Brent: Just to focus in on that differentiator, a lot of other sales systems out there have this concept of email forwarding. So if I want my sales to catch that note that I’m sending to a client, I have to CC my sales system and I always have to remember that. So you’re saying that with the AL system, it doesn’t work like that?
Geoff: No, it’s completely automated. The way that it works is you either set up a single forwarding rule once or with your permission, our system will access your Gmail, Outlook, Exchange or Office365 account to pull in new mail from your mailbox a couple of times an hour. The cool thing is if you set up the forwarding just once to one address, Accelo will automatically capture the email traffic from then on. But we’ll only capture things that are to or from a customer who’s email address is in the customer database-- which is how we’re able to keep the security and privacy thing under control. It means that your client emails get captured but things to your spouse or your friends or your lawyer don’t get captured and shared. Obviously, a shared inbox is a good thing to a point, but we don’t believe a fully shared inbox is a good strategy.
Brent: If I’m communicating with my wife versus my team, I don’t necessarily want them to see what I’m having for dinner that night. So thinking about a web practice, there are certain things that are important. Obviously, sales are important. The idea of recurring retainers and support incidences - those are the types of things that are really important to me in my practice. How does Accelo handle those types of things?
Geoff: It has modules that does those core customer-facing functions in a business. And the great thing is that they’re all linked back to that same customer identity. So, you can look at that customer and see from what proposals you’ve got in front of them right now. A typical web agency will be working with a customer in different ways. Post-sale activities will move into Project Land. You can see what’s going on, the different notes and budgets going on in real-time. There’s an Issues piece which is really about that post-sale reactive stuff.
Projects is for the stuff you plan and go into with a quote and timeline and Gantt-chart. Issues are all of those “I need you to update our Board of Directors page because we just fired a director and we need that updated. Can you do that for me and send me a bill?”
We’ve got our Retainers Module here, which is really all about helping you as a business go beyond the project-based work of feast and famine. It allows you to introduce some ongoing services and ongoing revenue but without the headaches associated with moving business. Instead, you set up your contract, you designate that it’s going to have a certain number of hours per quarter or month or whatever your time period is. Maybe there’s some add-on services you’re including there like third-party licenses and hosting. You’re able to put all of those in there. When your staff does work, whether it be projects or issues, all of that work can funnel down into the same bucket of hours. Then, the process of invoicing is almost completely automated. You can just review or maybe invoice for overruns. Everything else can be completely automated-- you can make money from the beach.
Brent: Now that’s what everyone is dreaming about-- or at least everyone who’s read “The 4-Hour Work Week”. Talking about invoicing and some of these other things that in my mind, I immediately start wondering if this thing integrates with payment solutions. How does my customer actually pay me? How do you solve that problem? I’m generating invoices in Accelo now, but what does that mean for how I get money from my customers?
Geoff: Great question! The place where you’re doing your work and time-tracking is the place where you’re starting your invoicing journey. But there are times where you want to add things into your invoices-- customize, tweak them, round them up, round them down. There are things you might want to do outside of Accelo. So what we’ve done is we built really robust connections to the leading online as well as offline accounting products. So with Accelo, you create an invoice and when you hit save, if you’ve connected it to your Quickbooks account, we’ll automatically push that invoice across into Quickbooks. And that not only includes the online version of Quickbooks, but the offline desktop version as well.
It’s great because your bookkeeper or financial controller doesn’t want to learn a web system and your Quickbooks system contains a lot of sensitive information like payroll and other expenses and capital structures of the business that you don’t want all of your staff using to enter their time. They can both be used for their perfect jobs.
So Accelo is where your staff do and log their work. Your project manager hits create invoice, approves them, ups and downs them, hits save and the invoice goes to Quickbooks. Then your financial controller can worry themselves about doing tax reporting. And when a check or electronic transfer comes in, they can pay it in Quickbooks and have it reflect back in Accelo automatically.
That two-directional thing doesn’t just work for Quickbooks and Quickbooks online, but also for Xero and Saasu who are two of the leading online accounting players.
We’re also beta testing at the moment because those accounting platforms aren’t so great at doing online payments. We’re experimenting with credit card processing, PayPal processing, and Google Checkout processing where the money comes through the Accelo gateway and gets delivered and posted back to those accounting packages as well.
Brent: Very cool. We personally use Xero and I’ve been using Freshbooks for years so if Freshbooks isn’t already on your radar, that could be a suggestion, if I may.
Geoff: Absolutely, we’ve got Freshbooks, Cashflow, and a couple of other things our users have been suggesting to make a difference in their world.
Brent: For sure. When I first join something like this, I would feel a bit overwhelmed by all of the different levers and pullies. How do you guys tackle the training and onboarding for somebody that’s looking to use Accelo in their business?
Geoff: That’s a really good point. We know that this isn’t a drive-by product that you sign up for once and it sort of disappears in the back of your mind. This is front and center, key to your business and so you want to put in the intellect into doing it right. So in terms of how we approach that, we’ve gotten really good and really practiced at it.
I’m loading up here, an example of our demo system. With the demo system, you’re able to go in and play with a fully loaded kit which is nice beause you can make a mess and know that it’s going to be reset.
Obviously, there’s the trial period where you can load up your own data. Connect it to your own Google Apps account so you can see the calendar synchronizing both ways, the contacts synchronizing both ways. So you can do that with your own data in a trial environment.
The other option we’ve got is that every single week, we run six live webinars covering six different pieces of Accelo to help our users get familiar with it. We call it our “Ask an Expert” Series. They only go for half an hour, so they’re nice and tight. They start off with some overview information which is instructional, and then we switch across to Q&A. It’s great, it’s free, it’s six times a week, and time-zone friendly all around the world. We have had tremendous success with these.
Of course, the last step is when you’re ready to pull the trigger, you know you want to embrace this thing and you know your time is money. You’d like to get experts to help with the implementation, configuration and training so you don’t have to learn how to build a car in order to drive a car. In that case, we’ve got our services. They’re very affordable. They range from a couple of hours of dedicated configuration and training to the admin, all the way through to getting your entire team up to speed.
Brent: So you guys are a true software-as-a-service business providing the software, the tools, and the help getting started?
Geoff: Yeah, absolutely. And we’re actually about to launch a partner program as well. That’s also got some exciting opportunities because we actually found out last week that one of our clients in New Zealand got in touch with another one of our clients in New Zealand after we did a blog post featuring them. They had a conversation, and flew out to meet each other. One of the clients spent the day with him, hearing about his experience with Accelo without any formal training or partner program. Both of them couldn’t be happier. That really got us to accelerate our plans to make this partner program with certification and training, which we’re looking to get out on the market very soon.
Brent: Very cool. It looks like you have some champions for your product, which is always a good sign.
Geoff: Yeah, yeah.
Brent: I’m always thinking selfishly about my userbase. Is there anything special you can offer the folks watching this?
Geoff: Absolutely. One of the things we have realized is that the Plus version of our product, which is the middle tier, is the tier that seems to be just right for a growing web development firm. What we’ve done is set up the product so that different modules come in at different tiers. We realized that the Contracts & Retainers Module is perfect for a BC-style partner, even if they only need the Plus version of Accelo.
For the rest of April, any BC Partner or development company that signs up for Accelo can get the Plus version and pricing but get the Contracts and Retainers Module for free.
Brent: Got ya. So any web designer or developer that looks at Accelo and says “this is good fit for me” can get a couple of extras in their plan for Accelo?
Geoff: Yep, and those extras are included for the length of their subscription. There’s no ‘bait and switch’ for this. We really want all of the partners that work for you guys, cause we know how important that retainer-based and long-term relationship work is important and lucrative for businesses. We want our users to be able to take advantage of that without having to stretch out for another tier of our product.
Brent: Very cool. Well, I’m impressed Geoff. It looks like you guys have put a lot of work into this. It also looks like there are a lot of new features and upgrades coming to the software in the near future?
Geoff: We had an epic quarter in Q1 (up more than 100%) and things are going to be even bigger in Q2. We have a new expenses module coming out, new stuff in project management and an extranet that will be truly collaborative. So we’re looking forward to the next couple of months. There’s never been a better time to check out Accelo. If some of your viewers have seen it before, when it was a bit rougher, this is certainly a great time to come back and have another look.