“You're not in business because you want to do admin," observed Sage brand executive vice president Van Diamandakis. So the company has set itself the goal of enabling its users to spend zero minutes a week on administration by providing them with "invisible accounting."
The accounting software provider aims to achieve this by using technologies such as bots (conversational interfaces), artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain.
Diamandakis pointed to recent research showing more than half of Australian businesses say they are ready to run their companies using bots and AI, and 73 percent said they would welcome an admin-free world.
The Sage Summit conference in Melbourne this month included a demonstration of Sage’s admin bot, Pegg – a smart assistant that removes complexities and enables entrepreneurs to manage finances through conversation via their chosen chat app. Pegg also digitises information at the point of capture, eliminating paper and data entry from the management of receipts and expenses.
Also demonstrated (in a video rather than live) was the speech-based interface Sage is currently developing to run on Amazon's intelligent assistant, Alexa.
"Sage is innovating rapidly" across its products for startups, scaleups and enterprises, said vice-president of worldwide product management for accountants Fabiola Stein. "We want to make running your business as easy as texting."
Pegg for Sage One is coming out of beta in April for UK and North American customers, with Australian availability two or three months after that.
A Pegg-like virtual assistant for accountants will be demonstrated in April at Sage Summit London, and may be available in Australia two to three months later.
Stein said that while Sage has an internal target release date for its Alexa interface, all it is saying publicly is that it should appear this year and will be rolled out progressively across multiple products.
The company's focus areas for product development include a simpler user experience, mobility, and realtime data. "The user experience is more important than ever," she said.
Sage is also working on ways to apply big data technologies to the data stored by its 3 million customers. "Stay tuned" for announcements in this area, said Stein, "it's a key thing in what we're doing."
Sage has an opportunity to help its 3 million small business customers succeed by unlocking the value of the data they store. This will go beyond providing simple benchmarks which may not be very helpful without a detailed context. Areas under consideration include providing advice about avoiding the pitfalls new businesses often encounter during their first 12 months, or suggesting areas for investment.
Returning to the near future, Sage Live – the company's new cloud accounting system built on the Salesforce platform – will be available in Australia on 24 March, she said. Features include support for multiple locations and currencies, and integration with other applications from the Sage market place and the Salesforce App exchange.
This level of integration between CRM and financial software is "the holy grail," according to Sage Australia managing director Alan Osrin.
Sage Live for Accountants is scheduled to follow in July, said Stein. The Sage Accountant Cloud Platform will include a bot interface, compliance with local regulations and standards, and integration with accounting software from Sage's competitors.
"Accountants should be agnostic," said Osrin. Every business is different, so 'one size fits all' does not apply to accounting software – for example, manufacturers and retailers need different features. Accountants need to be able to support their clients regardless of the accounting software those businesses have chosen.
Furthermore, businesses change their accounting software up to four times, he said. The software that gets them started might not do the job as they grow towards the $10 million mark, and a further change may be needed to provide a platform for growth towards $100 million.
"We see a big opportunity in this [Australian] market," said worldwide executive vice-president for partners and alliances Alan Laing. Accounting firms need good tools to help their clients migrate from other providers' software, and from one Sage product to another as they grow.
"Accountants know and trust Sage," said Osrin, noting that more than 7500 practices – together lodging some 4 million tax returns – are Sage clients.
It will be "a long hard slog" to match MYOB's market share in Australia, "but we'll get there in the end," he said. (Sage came close to acquiring MYOB some years ago, something Osrin describes as "a missed opportunity.")
Other new or forthcoming products include Sage People (human capital management for mid-sized and larger businesses, also built on the Salesforce platform, available now), HandiTax cloud (a cloud version of Sage's tax lodgement software, available this month) and new versions of Sage X3.
The cloud version of Sage X3 will be available later this year, and Sage X3 version 11 for on-premises or private cloud deployment is to be released in April.