The beginning of a new year is a popular time to make changes, notes Colin Timmis, General Country Manager and professional accountant, Xero South Africa. Local small businesses are living through the toughest crisis in a generation, so building a plan has never been more critical.

For most businesses, the pandemic has cemented the vital importance of technology. Xero research shows that there has been a 50% increase in cloud adoption among SMEs over the last three years, and 70% want tech to help remove manual tasks. As we start a new year, businesses should consider whether they have the right tech stack to help them grow.

While money is still tight for most, investing in the right technology can improve a business’s efficiency, productivity, reach and profitability in the longer term.

To help you pick the right connected tech stack for your business, we spoke to three app partners from Xero’s 800+ strong app marketplace, Syft Analytics, Hellohr and SimplePay, as well as accounting firm and experts in choosing the right apps, Iridium. Here’s what they had to say.

Starting from square one

For businesses just dipping a toe into technology, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Bernard Bravenboer, the founder of Hellohr, recommends adopting modern solutions, such as Google Business Suite and Microsoft Cloud, for everyday tasks like managing calendars, meeting remotely, and collaborating on documents. He then suggests “adding specific solutions, which can often integrate nicely and make your management of these tools much easier down the line as you add employees or additional services.”

Vangelis Kyriazis, a chartered accountant and CEO of Syft Analytics, recommends that businesses “start with one or two critical apps, things that are core to their business.” After that, Vangelis advises businesses to “spend some time investigating options. Often, there are apps that will do the same thing – give three or four a free trial and see which one suits your business.” Iridium’s Sales and Marketing Director, Peter Magner agrees, suggesting that businesses “identify the greatest need and choose an area that will have the greatest impact on revenue – every industry is different.”

Extending the tech stack

Many businesses have an existing tech stack which was set up once and has been soldiering on for years. However, the tech stack must keep up with technology, especially since newer technologies are typically more capable and efficient.

Bernard recommends putting someone in charge of technology to ensure that it gets the attention it deserves. He says, “often in small businesses everyone does a little bit of everything”, which can lead to new technology or tools being forgotten in the middle. “Even if systems are easy to use,” cautions Bernard, “getting the most value out of your investment is ultimately about how well you integrate the tool or technology into your processes. If it’s not a specific person’s responsibility, this can easily take much longer to do or get lost.”

Liane Walker, General Manager at SimplePay, calls for businesses to ask employees what could be improved. She advises that businesses “don’t rush into a decision or follow the latest hype – or whatever is popping up on your Facebook ads,” but instead “establish your needs and desired outcomes, as these will inform the requirements for new tech.”

Is this the right time?

It’s fair to ask whether now is the right time to be changing your tech stack, but it’s important to remember that a modern tech stack is more like Lego than a game of Jenga – you can easily add and change things without worrying that it will all come toppling down.

Liane believes that whether now is the time depends on the business. “You have to look at your current needs and consider how best to address them.” She says that she “prefers to only add one new tool at a time as the need arises since it’s difficult to anticipate future needs.”

Bernard adds that the challenges of “implementation and internal adoption are often underestimated, so start with a strong foundation and then add tools as you need them. This helps prevent you from spending money on tools you don’t need and ensures the tools you implement get used – and learnt – by everyone.”

Free your data – let it talk

One of the most significant obstacles businesses face with technology is having valuable business data locked away in inaccessible, proprietary silos. As Vangelis puts it, “when data is in separate systems, it becomes hard to take out insights – it’s hard to combine data when systems don’t talk to one another.” Liane  warns that inaccessible data “can seriously impede the organisation’s progress because actionable data is not in the right hands,” resulting in “poorer decision-making when decision-makers don’t have real-time information.”

Bernard agrees, saying “every time a tool doesn’t speak to a different process easily, you’re effectively doubling or tripling that tool’s cost in terms of added personnel cost: if a person needs to export, reformat and re-enter data. Driving adoption of new tech internally is always hard work, but when systems can’t easily share information without the help of human intervention, that process becomes much harder – and more expensive.”

When data is free from silos, it can be shared freely between apps. Integration, Iridium’s Peter Magner says, is all about the “seamless flow of info between all sources and processes to provide more timely and more accurate info.” He continues, “integrations allow you to have data in many places, opening up opportunities such as integrating your inventory system to e-commerce to provide customers with real-time info of what’s available.”

Bernard says that integrations are the foundation of modern accounting tech. “With a strong foundational choice in an accounting system, you are not just buying the platform itself, but also all the work they do to make it easier for others to build solutions on top of that.”

Taking on the challenges of 2021

The year ahead certainly won’t be smooth sailing, but there is help. South Africa’s exciting tech sector continues to produce hundreds of apps which make it easier, more profitable, and more efficient for South African businesses. By making the most of the technology available, small businesses will have the best possible chance of making it through the pandemic.

Xero has a marketplace of over 800 apps to help support your business. If you’re struggling to know what apps are right for you, then our growing directory of app integrators – who are experts in building the right tech stack – can help you.

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