Tackling the challenges Accounting Apps face navigating Covid 19 | Nick Houldsworth
Tackling the challenges Accounting Apps face navigating Covid 19 | Nick Houldsworth
I think there’s challenges, significant challenges, but any big kind of shift like this also creates opportunities. So, being ready for those opportunities, but also being realistic about some of the challenges that we have to face. And we don’t know where we’re at in the journey right now. It’s kind of like a tsunami’s hit. How quickly will we return to normal? Are we just early in the rebuilding? Or is it going to be quite fast?
Today I’m speaking with Nick Houldsworth Exec GM Ecosystem at Xero
We are going through quite challenging times, and I’ve asked Nick, as a leader in the EcoSystem space to join me to share his insights and perspectives on
How businesses in the ecosystem can pivot, pirouette, or adapt to the Covid 19 crisis
We also discuss the challenges of keeping a remote workforce productive and engaged during such stressful times.
What he has learnt from working from home
How Apps could support their clients during Covid 19,
How Unleashed had built a market place to try and match and helps its client base find new customers
How Kounta had built-in online ordering into its Point of Sale system.
How Deputy had built a contactless check-in system, to minimise the transfer of the virus
and how Apps are effectively communicating with their overwhelmed client base
If I was to come to Auckland, your hometown, where should I go drinking and why?
Nick Houldsworth: Oh, I would probably have to say Madame George on Karangahape Road. It’s a small bar, and it’s my regular. I lived in the UK for 10 years. And when I moved back to New Zealand, I kind of missed that after work pub culture. It was less common in New Zealand. People would have a flat white, and then they’d go to the gym after work. But I enjoyed getting together with some friends and having a drink. And so a few of us got together and started going to the pub once a week, which sounds not that outrageous, but actually was quite unusual at the time. And we started off going to pub quizzes, and we realised actually we didn’t really want to do the quiz. We just wanted to go for a beer. And so we started going to a bar. This is 10 years ago with a small group of friends and we’ve been going there every Tuesday ever since.
Nick Houldsworth: And it’s less frequent now because we’ve all got kids and jobs and have to travel and all of those things. But there’s usually the same group of people there on a regular basis. And we’ve actually been to three bars on K road. They’re all still there. But we’ve just slowly been moving from one down to the other over the course of that time, and Madame George is the one that we go to most regularly now. A lovely little bar, great food and a great location.
Heather Smith: That sounds like a TV series in the making, doesn’t it?
Nick Houldsworth: There’s some pretty interesting people in there. A few of them work for Xero now as well.
Heather Smith: It does sound like one of those TV shows. That Rob, what’s his name, would star in?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah, I can’t speak to the view. It’s right next to a bus lane. And there’s all sorts of interesting characters walking by, but it’s friendly and we enjoy going.
Can you share with our listeners a bit about your background?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah, sure. Depends how far back you want to go.
Heather Smith: What you think is relevant for them to know and to understand where you’re coming from. So at least back to Vend, but maybe something that happened before Vend.
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. I’ve always been passionate about small business. And the role that technology can play in small business. And that’s kind of defined, I guess, my career over the last 10 to 15 years. When I returned from the UK, I spent a lot of years in the music industry up there. And towards the end, behind the scenes working in quite a lot of music venues.
Heather Smith: So that photo really was of the music industry?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. It was a lot of fun. I mean, I tried to be a musician for a while, realised at about 30 that that’s a pretty hard graft. And so I kind of worked on the IT side building websites, running email marketing and things like that for live music businesses. When I moved back to NZ, I started my own small business doing imports and exports and online trading and my brother ran a resale shop and I helped him set up a point of sale for that. And the experience of using the technology for small business was just a nightmare. I couldn’t believe how much we had to spend. We had to have a head office server. It was one shop. And it really made it hard for us to understand how our business was performing.
Nick Houldsworth: But we were actually using Xero at the time. And that was kind of a light bulb moment for us to say, “Wow, this is actually how small business software should be. It’s easy to use, it’s intuitive, and it runs in the cloud.” But everything else that was connected to it, or wasn’t connected to it, was really painful to use. And so I got really inspired by what Xero was doing, like a lot of technical people in New Zealand. And I heard about a small point of sale start-up that was one of the first partners in the Xero ecosystem. I literally got the newsletter through the Xero blog, went through their website, reached out to the founder and said, “Hey, I’d love to come on board.” And then I joined when it was just the two of us back in about 2011. And we grew that business to a couple of 100 people and 20,000 odd customers around the world. And being part of the Xero community was a really big part of that story. And so that was a really exciting journey.
Nick Houldsworth: I was kind of running digital marketing, product marketing, including all of our brand and every other activity. And then about three years ago, when I felt like I’d done that journey after six years, I reached out to Rod actually and said, “Look, I’m thinking about doing something new.” And he’s like, “Cool, come and help us with our ecosystem.”
Heather Smith: Ooh, that sounded exactly like Rod.
Nick Houldsworth: It did. It was. No, literally. I sent him a direct message on Twitter and thought, “Well I’ll talk to him in a few weeks time.” And 20 minutes later I was on the phone with him. And it was literally like my dream job. It was a combination of all the things that I loved, it was a community that I knew very well. And I’ve been on the partner side and I knew a lot of the partners as well. I knew a lot of people at Xero, so it felt quite natural joining. But Xero was maybe about 1,600 people at the time, and a pretty fast growing business. And so it was learning a bunch of new skills about how to work in a big organisation. And how to manage a community of hundreds of other businesses. That’s the role I’ve been doing for the last three years. Effectively leading the team that looks after our developer APIs and our app ecosystem.
What is your current role is and what does it involves?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. I guess the job title is Exec GM Ecosystem. And the scope of that is really two sides of Xero’s API. On one side it’s developer.xero.com and how we make it easy for third party developers, software companies, even accounting firms that want to use the API in interesting ways. How we make it easy for everybody to work with Xero’s API and extend the potential of the platform. And that includes things like going out and talking to our developer community. Things like Xero Developer Roadshow, it’s a really great part of the Xero brand, because we can have a bit more fun with it. Because when you’re talking to developers you can be a bit more quirky. And if you’ve seen any of our Dev TV shows, especially the Star Wars episode, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Nick Houldsworth: And then I’m responsible for the API itself. So actually how do we maintain performance and scalability and ensure that there’s good quality of service there. It gets, nearly a billion calls a month now. It’s a pretty big part of Xero’s platform. There’s a lot of infrastructure required in our net. And then on the other side, it’s once our partners have built those integrations, how do we help them grow their relationship with Xero? How do we help them build great businesses? And get in front of our community of small businesses and accountants. Things like the app marketplace, we’ve been replatforming and rebuilding that recently. The app partner programme. So, helping partners move through the tiers, get more customers and connections, get positive reviews. All the way through to working with the regional teams to get our partners along to Xerocon to come to our events. Effectively really helping connect those companies with our small business customers.
Nick Houldsworth: And so really the two things go hand in hand, right? We make it easier for people to work with us, we make it attractive for them to grow their business with us, which make them want to deliver more value for our customers.
Heather Smith: It’s great that you had the opportunity to work on the Vend side before you went to the Xero side, so you could see that different perspective of dealing with Xero.
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. Look, a relationship with any partnership always has ups and downs, just like, it is like a relationship. And it was, in the early days when there was only 10 apps in the ecosystem, it was pretty easy to get things done. You knew who to go and talk to. When I joined we had about 500 partners and we couldn’t scale that model. You couldn’t just hope to tweet Rod and do a campaign. We couldn’t do that with that many partners. And also, it wasn’t fair for those who was just starting out, because they could see that some of our other partners had more access than they did.
Nick Houldsworth: We really stepped back and thought about how do we make that more transparent? How do we make it fairer? And how do we put in place some structure? Not in a way that becomes too corporate, because the magic of Xero’s ecosystem’s that community, it’s that kind of trust and that brand and that fun that we have together, but makes it fairer and creates opportunities for our partners to grow with us. That’s a lot of the work we’ve been doing over the last few years. And I think you’re right, some of that was born out of having been on the other side. Having good experience of what works well, and what doesn’t work.
Heather Smith: Yeah. Absolutely. And some businesses, I know a lot of businesses as you do, and some of them are just happy to actually be small, but still want those opportunities and the ability to do things.
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah.
Heather Smith: We’re going through quite a trying time at the moment. We’re in the middle, I don’t know the middle, or the start of COVID-19. What does this mean for the accounting and business ecosystem? What impact is this happening and what are you seeing out there?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah, look. I think everybody’s trying to predict the future. The advice that you hear, you have to kind of take with a grain of salt. And synthesise it and use what works for you. I can certainly share some of what we’re hearing, some of what we’re seeing. We’re seeing some businesses really struggling, whether they’re small businesses, or whether they’re our partners. Like literally, those in hospitality or tourism, half or more of their business has just turned off overnight, which has really significant impacts. We’re seeing other businesses thriving. Businesses that facilitate online commerce, deliveries, remote working are absolutely going through the roof. There’s always these kind of cyclical trends and changes that happen slowly. What we’re seeing this do, is just accelerate some of the things that were already in motion, and decelerate some of the things that were potentially already struggling. It’s having really, really significant impacts, there’s no doubt about it.
Nick Houldsworth: What does this mean for the accounting and business ecosystem? I think more than ever it’s important that we lean on each other. Part of the value of Xero, and speaking from both the partner side and the Xero side, is the opportunity that we would have on a regular basis to get together and learn from each other. I would go to Xerocon, I’d walk around all the stands and I’d talk to other app partners. And it’s like, “How are you doing marketing? That’s interesting. I should try that.” Or, “How are you going with hiring? And what can I learn from you on that?” And so, we can’t get together in person, but we’re a pretty strong community and so we want to make sure that we foster that, so we can continue to learn from each other.
Nick Houldsworth: And I think for accountants, the role that they can play in that is people need good advice more than ever, right? They’re going to need advice on how to navigate cash flow, how to keep their business running through these times. And then when they’re ready to restart and reinvest, how will they put in place the right systems and processes and tools so that they can be better prepared when things like this happen in the future? I think there’s challenges, significant challenges, but any big kind of shift like this also creates opportunities. So, being ready for those opportunities, but also being realistic about some of the challenges that we have to face. And we don’t know where we’re at in the journey right now. It’s kind of like a tsunami’s hit. How quickly will we return to normal? Are we just early in the rebuilding? Or is it going to be quite fast?
How do businesses pivot, pirouette, adapt, or be flexible? And are you seeing good examples of businesses, specifically in our ecosystem that are doing this well?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. We’re seeing a lot of really interesting examples. This is kind of the amazing thing about this time, it does feel like every 10 or 15 years or so, there’s a major structural event in the world that creates this kind of big shift. The difference this time is so many businesses are online. We have two million businesses on Xero. We’ve got really interesting insights that we can draw on. And a lot of businesses are in a better position in terms of their systems and processes to be able to move and adapt quickly. We’re seeing, within our customer base for example, we’re seeing restaurants who are quickly adapting to be able to do take-out and to do home deliveries. And if they’ve got good point of sale or even e-commerce functionality in place, they can move quite fast on that. And the same we’re seeing with retail as well. If people can’t come into your store, and a lot of them have been making those moves towards being available online and having click and collect, now is the time to really accelerate that. We’re definitely seeing that pivot.
Nick Houldsworth: For some businesses we are seeing an almost a pirouette. There’s a gin distiller in New Zealand who, I mean alcohol sales seem to be generally up, but what they recognised was the need for more hand sanitizers. So they pivoted their whole business towards actually creating disinfectants and hand sanitizers. Some businesses that are nimble and agile, are kind of responding to those times and making those changes. And then we’re seeing the same response within our app community. We have apps of all different shapes and sizes. Some are quite large. We partner with the likes of Shopify, who are a significant company in size, and we’re seeing real demand for those services. The ability to trade online. And some of the responses that they’ve been doing to enable their customers to do click and collect, to use their mobile point of sale solutions.
Nick Houldsworth: So even big businesses have been moving fast. And then some of our smaller partners too, have been working together on delivering new featurE services or capabilities to help their customers. For example, Kounta which is one of the hospitality apps in our marketplace, they do point of sale for cafés and restaurants, they’ve deployed a new feature that allows for remote ordering. So that customers can quickly turn it on and be ready for when the conditions change and customers can come back to their hospitality businesses. Deputy, one of our most popular solutions here in Australia and New Zealand that do time and attendance, primarily in the hospitality industry, has created a touchless check-in facility. One of their current key features is the ability to have your workers check-in on their phones or check-in on their iPad. Obviously it’s a breeding ground of transmission of diseases, that’s why they’ve created the ability to do this without having to touch it. It’s one of the first systems in the world to do it.
Heather Smith: So, it’s biometrical?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. Exactly. Really interesting innovations like that, that some of our partners are starting to respond to. And then more broadly as well, just similar to Xero, we’ve brought a lot of our information together, to the small business, the Business Continuity Hub, so that our customers have kind of one place to go to find the information they need on how to apply for grants, how to get access to capital. We’re seeing that from some of our other partners. Vend for example, is putting together a love local retail campaign. Again, working with Deputy, with other partners to just help highlight the solutions that may be relevant to them, new ways that they can improve their operations and services, and encourage consumers to really support local businesses as well, especially businesses that they work with.
Heather Smith: It is interesting seeing local businesses, you know they’re struggling financially, but they’re adopting software. And I’m seeing they’re still adopting software and they’re potentially adopting it a lot faster than they would’ve done if we were having a nice implementation project.
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. It’s really interesting. We’ve heard feedback directly from some of our customers saying like, “I’ve never actually had four weeks at home to just think about my business.” Because it’s 24/7 running a small business. And you’ve always got a 100 things to do and never enough people to do it. And for many people, this is a time to just take stock and think about, “Okay, I’ve wanted to think about my e-commerce website. Or I’ve wanted to think about email marketing. I have a bit of time to do it.” When your kids aren’t running into your room and joining your video calls and podcasts.
Heather Smith: That looks like a kid’s room, Nick.
Nick Houldsworth: I’m in my son’s bedroom. I’ve requisitioned it. And I’m usually good till about 03:00 PM when he comes in with his iPad and starts playing Minecraft. It’s, like new ways of working are interesting. We’re definitely juggling work and home. I think actually one of our team described it, “It’s not working from home, it’s living from work.” But it does give time to think about some of those more long-term projects that you’ve been meaning to do for a while. We do have anecdotal stories of a lot of our customers actually starting to make those investments in software now.
What’s something you’ve learned while working from home?
Nick Houldsworth: Ah, a lot of things. We’re really lucky at Xero that we are well set up for working remotely. And we have been pretty much since day one. And we’ve got very good flexible working policies. And so it was pretty, as a business we kind of gradually moved to working from home over the course of about a week and a half in all of our different GOs. But it’s quite interesting when you actually do, when you take 3,000 people and you all work remotely. And it starts, you learn new habits. And you learn new ways of working. And it’s been really, really interesting. I think one of the most positive aspects that I’ve seen is, because we’re a company that’s spread across multiple time zones and multiple countries, often you might go in a meeting with 10 people and one person’s dialling into that meeting. It’s really hard for that person to participate in the meeting. If everyone’s dialling in from home, suddenly there aren’t time zones, or countries or silos anymore. We’re all kind of in the same boat. And so we found some of our smaller team meetings have become more productive.
Nick Houldsworth: There are habits that we want to continue when we go back to some form of normal working, like ensuring that people that are remote are really included in the meetings. We’re making sure that we’re checking-in regularly. I think a lot of our teams are actually just enjoying the quiet space. Especially engineers and developers. You can put your headphones on and just write code all day. You’re pretty happy, and so there’s a lot of productivity going that some of our teams are seeing. But we’re also having to make sure that we’re connecting in small ways as well. For example with my team every morning, we just have a 15 minute coffee and just see how things are going. Other teams have lunch on a Friday, where they just get together and it’s not a meeting. It’s just a chance to check-in and see how everyone’s doing.
Nick Houldsworth: I think finding ways to bring that stuff back into our regular day will be really good too. And I think one of the other things that I’ve noticed is we’ve got much better at remote working. We’ve just had to learn how to run good Zoom meetings, good Google Hangouts. And some of it’s quite simple stuff, like one tip that I heard recently is, “Keep your microphones on all the time.” So you’ve got 10 people in a meeting and everybody’s on mute, it’s quite hard to get a conversation going. But if every microphone’s on, then the conversation would be a bit more natural. The other one is, when introducing a meeting, go around the room, or go around the Zoom, like get the person to choose the next person to hand over to. So, it kind of requires a little bit of that interaction. Learning these remote working habits, I think will set us up much better for when we’re actually back in the office too. And I think we’ll see a lot more remote working in future. Even from larger organisations that have good facilities to working in the office.
Heather Smith: Yeah, that’s so interesting hearing it from a really forward digital company. Be interesting to know what other companies who were far behind you and what they’re feeling about it. But really interesting that, those learnings that you’ll take forward with you. This is quite a difficult question, but I’m really interested to hear any perspective you have.
What advice would you have for a business within the ecosystem who’s currently assessing their viability? Assessing their viability around are there enough clients out there? Do they have enough funds? Do they have enough energy to continue their business?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. Look, it’s really tough. There’s no doubt about it. These are, nobody’s really seen anything like this before, and nobody’s quite sure exactly how it’s going to continue to recover or not. I think the nature of start-ups, and this is the majority of partners that work with Xero, they’re kind of small, agile start-ups. The nature of start-ups is risk. It is a risky venture. And that’s part of the attraction to it. There’s up-side and it’s fun. It’s seat of the pants stuff, which allows you to kind of move fast, be innovative and attracts a certain mindset of people. I think although these times are definitely unprecedented, any start-up has to be prepared for uncertainty. And has to have a certain tolerance for risk. I think my advice, or what we’ve seen work well if you will, is to just remain agile, remain responsive and be prepared to move fast to respond to the conditions.
Nick Houldsworth: We’ve certainly seen a lot of our partners do that in terms of ensuring that they’re focused. Having really clear focus on the things that are important and having real clear focus on the things that can maintain and preserve cash flow. We’ve seen a shift away from customer acquisition. So, spending large amounts of money trying to market your products. A, it’s not really going to work very well at this point of time. B, it’s, customers aren’t really responding well to those kind of messages. We’ve seen a lot of our partners move from generating marketing and sales to actually just focusing on customer success. And really trying to help their customers. Help them get the most of their solution, help them understand how to get through it. And continuing to build that brand and loyalty with the customers that they have.
Nick Houldsworth: We’ve certainly seen businesses pivot as well, as we mentioned before. Like actually saying, “Well, what are the new lines of service that we can potentially offer for those customers? Or what are the opportunities likely to be like in the near future?” So, taking a bit of stock and doing a bit of planning and saying, “Well, actually, times are tough now, but when the economy recovers and people start to move back into work, what are some of the new trends that may be relevant or related to our area of business that we can start to capitalise on?”
Nick Houldsworth: I think there isn’t really one big great piece of advice that’s going to answer everybody’s challenges, apart from being responsive, being I guess thoughtful in terms of cash flow and managing risk and all of those things. But also, just taking time to prepare for whatever might come next. And those things are just important at any stage of start-up or any size. And I think now so more than ever.
With your understanding of building businesses and developing software companies, what areas do you think they could look to save money that they might not have thought of potentially? How would you go about doing it if you were say still sitting in Vend or doing your own business? What would you be looking at?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah, well I think as I mentioned before, the first place a lot of people are looking at reducing their variable spend is digital marketing. You can turn it off pretty quickly. And we’ve even seen this, I think Google even recently just kind of announced that for the first time in a long time, their digital ad revenue has actually slowed. I think it slowed from 30% down to 18% year on year growth, which is still staggering growth for a company of that size. But, they predict that the next quarter is likely to be even slower again. So, there’s definitely been a pull back from acquisition spend.
Nick Houldsworth: And so I think there are some natural places where you can look to reduce costs. Right now there’s obviously an opportunity to pull back on facilities costs, because a lot of people are working from home, may still have rent to cover, but a lot of the other incremental cost that go like that. People are not submitting so many expenses. There’s not so many coffees and lunches and things happening, and so there’s obviously areas that you can kind of look to save there.
Nick Houldsworth: I think there’s, look, some companies are having to be creative, right? And even working with their staff and saying, “How do we get through this together?” And this is from big businesses all the way down to small business in terms of whether that’s come in four day weeks, or reductions and those things. It certainly requires a really strong culture to be able to bind together and do that. But I think businesses that have that and want to see it through and do right by their customers, now often they’re prepared to be more flexible and make the kind of changes that are necessary. And so there’s a lot of ways that businesses can look to optimise costs and ensure that they’re protecting their customer base that they have.
Heather Smith: That’s an interesting one about the digital marketing and then switching it off. And sadly they don’t have Xerocon Sydney to go to this year either. So that will be a big saving for them, but a big sadness for us.
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. It is. It is. We’ve met there years and years ago now, I think. And I’ve been going every year since 2012. And a couple of times a year. And it’s a really big part of the community. It’s a really big part of how we connect with each other in the app community. And also with a lot of our accounting and bookkeeping partners too. And for Xero’s too. It’s a really good opportunity for us to see our product and our brand come to life. It’s pretty understandable in these times that that’s the natural thing to do. And obviously we want to make sure that we can find ways to continue, connect with our community. So, watch this space as we find new and innovative ways to ensure that we’re building bridges with our community.
Heather Smith: They could send us all a blow up flamingo.
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe we need to send a link to an online store that delivers pink balls if anybody wants to create their own swimming pool. A ball pit.
How can founders and the managers keep their software teams productive and maintain their motivation during this challenging time?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah, great question. I can certainly speak to the things that we’re doing and we’re seeing work at Xero. And I wouldn’t say by any stretch that we’re magicians at it. We’re definitely learning as we go. But we do have some history of remote working, but we’ve had to do it on this. As I mentioned before, some software developers, our software developers are actually responding quite positively to this, because they can remove distraction and get on with work. The challenge is just ensuring that those teams that are individually working, and they might be sitting on a Google Hangout all day and doing joint coding, to ensure that they’re also connected with other teams.
Nick Houldsworth: I think as a manager or a leader your role is to help join the dots across your teams or across your business. Things like agile practises where you have spread reviews and check-ins and you do good planning is really important. So that when teams go away and put their heads down and get on with the work, that they know that they’re working on things that are clearly aligned to a set of goals and priorities. Certainly I’m doing a lot more meetings now. And that’s not just with my leadership team, but that’s with checking-in with their teams as well, and joining the Friday drinks, happen across the team. And also joining meetings that happen across other teams in Xero, because I won’t bump into the Head of Marketing on the stairway and have a coffee and have a chat. I have to make sure that I maintain those connections across our business.
Nick Houldsworth: If you take that down to, regardless of the size of business, when people are working remotely, I think it’s important to keep them connected, but not overwhelm them with meetings. So, finding creative ways to do that. I think it helps to have, and this is true of any business, to have a real clear vision and purpose, so that people know where they’re going. And that the work they’re doing has impact and is aligned to that company’s vision and purpose. And you have to caveat that with the uncertainty that we’re in at the moment. There are things that we can’t know, but there are also things that should be true over a longer period of time. And if we can get through this, and if the economy kicks back into gear, then our vision and plans over the next three to 10 years, are still true. We just have to respond in the interim.
Nick Houldsworth: I think keeping people focused on that, making sure that the work is really clear, and they’ve got things to get on with, but recognising the kind of anxiety and uncertainty, just calling it out. What we find in our meetings, we try to use slide decks less, because people just want to kind of connect and see everyone in person. So, communicating more just verbally. Putting the emotional into things. Just asking how people are going, checking-in. And it helps when you see people’s kids walk into the background of the screen, because you have a laugh about it. Making sure that you’re addressing those concerns, but then having a real clear set of priorities and a clear set of work to get on with, and ensuring that people are connected, so that they’re staying in touch with what other people are doing.
Heather Smith: Yeah. It is very challenging times, and some days the anxiety just sort of completely overwhelms you and takes you by surprise with what’s going on and the news reports et cetera. And it can be-
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. It’s on everyone’s minds. It’s always there. And you have to recognise it. But it’s also, life goes on, right? People want to keep busy. People want to keep focused on other things, so finding a balance between those.
Heather Smith: Yes. Absolutely. We have talked about this somewhat in terms of, the accounting and the bookkeeping community is completely overwhelmed I think across the world, we’re completely overwhelmed. Every country is bringing out different initiatives to try and support businesses and that’s really hitting the accountants and bookkeepers. But a lot of the accounting apps in the ecosystem do sell and communicate to the accountants and bookkeepers. We’re suggesting potentially hunker down and just focus on your existing client base.
How should Accounting Apps convince clients to go ahead with planned work? Or should they even convince them to be going ahead with that? And should they be continuing to send them messaging, do messaging and who’s doing it well?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. I think, well we kind of touched on it, right? We’re seeing partners move away from that direct marketing, the hard sell. Because we just don’t, it’s not really sensitive to the current time. But on the flip side, we’re seeing businesses looking to improve their systems and actually putting things in place. And so I think, there will be demand for your products, but I don’t think you’ll want to be hitting people in the face right now. And that’s true of marketing in general, right? If you think about your average customer and how many messages they get hit with on a daily basis, then you need to be sensitive to that and ensure that your communications are appropriate, and now more than ever. I think, one of the things we always advise our partners is, telling not selling. Like storytelling, demonstrating value and how you can help, rather than promos and discounts and urgent calls to action.
Nick Houldsworth: The other thing you can do, is you can ask. If you’ve got a customer base, you could say to them, “What do you want to hear from us? What is going to be most useful at this point in time? And how can we help you?” Rather than trying to just sell more product. And we mentioned a bit before, right? We’re seeing some innovations from our partners where they’re trying to create value without necessarily trying to broadly advertise it. Another of our partners is doing something quite interesting, has unleashed their inventory management and wholesaling software, where they’re actually creating a kind of marketplace for small, for their clients who are selling wholesale, and their suppliers who maybe want to connect with that. So, again, just finding a way for those businesses to trade online, adding new functionality without necessarily going out and trying to sell it really hard and to a new base of customers.
Nick Houldsworth: Much the same as, our approach at Xero was really just listening to our customers, figuring out what they need, and trying to have a focused way of doing that. For us the Business Continuity Hub is the way we bring a lot of those messages together. We ensure that if customers have questions, we have one place to send them, that we’re not hitting them up with multiple different messages. And it’s there if they need it. And we’re here if they need them, but we don’t people to be overwhelmed with messaging that’s ill-timed, given that there’s a lot of other things that are going on for them. That would definitely be what we would recommend our partners in the app community to do. And that’s what we’re seeing as best practise in other apps as well.
In terms of unleashed, are you suggesting they’re helping their clients help their other clients? Is that what’s happening?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah. Exactly. Create the capability for your businesses to thrive, as much as they can in these times, and focus on solving for your customers. Focus on helping them through these times. If you do a great job of solutioning and delivering value to your customers, that’s always the best way to market your product, right? To deliver value. And I think now more than ever. Just find the ways that you can deliver value and help your businesses through this.
As we’re all working in different environments, what are your best practise advice do you have about cyber security?
Nick Houldsworth: Yeah look, I think some of it’s actually really straight forward. It can seem kind of overwhelming given, at the moment especially there’s an increase in cyber attacks and people trying to take advantage of that kind of work from home situation that most people are in. But a lot of the stuff that people need to do is just simple housekeeping. And there are always a lot of really good resources and advice. On our Business Continuity Hub for example, we have some good advice for our accounting and bookkeeping partners and others on how to just make sure they do the basics. But it’s simple things like having two-factor authentication, which is available on Xero, but a lot of people haven’t switched it on.
Nick Houldsworth: For those that don’t know, it’s just another step in entering a password, right? So if you sign into Xero, and then it texts you and it makes sure that you are who you say you are. Pretty common on most large platforms and something that we’ve got available now. And alongside that, having a password that isn’t, welcome one two three. Or your date of birth, right? And using a good password manager for that. There’s one baked into Apple iOS and there’s lots of really great ones you can use like 1Password and LastPass word. Strong password and two-factor authentication goes a long way to just improving cyber security and ensuring that others can’t access your information.
Nick Houldsworth: And then I think it’s just a general vigilance around messages and emails that are coming through to you. If something smells fishy, it might be. And it’s just kind of being aware of that. Looking for little clues. It’s like, “Ah, that sentence isn’t quite worded right.” Or, “What’s the email address behind this?” Just being aware that this is a thing that happens, and making sure that you’re tuned into that when opening emails or communications. So again, not complicated stuff, but just doing some of that foundational housekeeping.
What are some of the collaborative tools that you like using? And what are some of the communication tools you like using? Either voice or video tools? What are some of the tools that you like to use?
Nick Houldsworth: Oh, don’t get me started.
Heather Smith: No, that’s we like-
Nick Houldsworth: We can talk app stacks all day.
Heather Smith: Everyone listening in loves tools. So, what are the tools that you like that you can share with them?
Nick Houldsworth: I describe myself as an appoholic. My wife, the thing that really motivates her online, is prêt-à-porter or something like that, seeing an amazing shoe that she wants to buy. If I see an amazing landing page with a really strong call to action for a piece of software, I just can’t resist. I’m just going to try it. I’m addicted to the experience of trying something really exciting and new. And every now and then you find an absolute gem, right? You find a needle in the haystack. The things that I’m kind of leaning on now, so specific to working remotely, it comes back to the discussion we had around keeping in touch with your teams. And Xero’s a large organisation, but these things apply to any size of business, right? Because even with six people in an organisation, you’re distributed and so you need to check-in.
Nick Houldsworth: One that I use with my team is 15Five, and we actually started using this at Xero and it’s sort of started to roll it out to other people now. And it’s a tool for one on ones. Good management just comes down to good communication and good leadership, and the best way to do that is to have a structured one on one every week. It can be hard to do that remotely. Because video calls don’t always get everything, and sometimes you don’t always have time. So, 15Five is just a way of putting some structure behind that where you’re, a person kind of fills out a structured form every week, takes 15 minutes, as a manager you have five minutes to review it. You can kind of go through and see what they’re working on, where they’re blocked and where their challenges are. And it’s just a great way of keeping remote teams connected. And ensuring that you’ve got meaningful, constructive one on ones.
Nick Houldsworth: Another one we use at Xero is Officevibe. And there are versions of this, right? They just kind of employee engagement tools on how are people feeling. And they do it around a structured set of questions, like are you feeling productive? Are you rewarded and getting recognition? How’s your health and well-being? And then as a team you can kind of monitor that over time and see trends. Particularly now, when everyone’s working remotely, we’re trying to over index on making sure people are pulse checking and seeing how they’re going.
Nick Houldsworth: And alongside that, you can ask for anonymised feedback, so you can just see if there are trends where it’s like, “Actually I feel like I’m supposed to be working flexibly, but I’m actually just doing twelve hours a day because it’s kids and work.” You want to know that stuff early, you want to be able to respond to it. A lot of it for us is around, not just the meetings and the face to face of the video calls, but the ways that we can get that structured feedback from our teams and from our employees to make sure we understand how people are going these days. So, those are kind of two tools for employee engagement.
Nick Houldsworth: Communication, it’s the usual stuff, right? We use Google Hangouts at Xero. I once said we use Google Hangouts more than Google. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but every meeting room is set up with a Chromebox and a video screen. And I was very pleased when they rolled out the new grid layout for that a few days ago, like Zoom. So you actually see everyone that’s on the call. And Slack. So, Hangouts and Slack and collaborating on Google Docs is allowing us to have that element of productivity.
Nick Houldsworth: We’re starting to use some, because we can’t have meetings and we can’t do whiteboards and we can’t do Post-it note sessions, a lot of people are starting to use something called Miro which is a sort of virtual Post-it note to allow you to do more productive group video calls, where you’ve kind of got a single work space that we can start to design things and move things around on. That’s trending quite strongly with us. And then obviously Zoom. Zoom is almost becoming a verb now, isn’t it?
Heather Smith: Yeah. Absolutely.
Nick Houldsworth: Incredible.
Heather Smith: You called it.
Nick Houldsworth: Amazing. Even just a year ago, I was invited to Zoom meetings and wondered, “Why aren’t people using Hangouts?” In the last three months, it’s just kind of become a household name. Incredible to see.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners today?
Nick Houldsworth: Always heaps that we want to share. But, I think the main thing is, rather than kind of sharing more, I’d like to hear from our listeners. To hear from our community. There are things that we’re doing and we’re going to continue to do at Xero broadly. Things like the Business Continuity Hub, and also within our ecosystem team. We’re really passionate. We do feel like we have the best jobs at Xero, because we’ve got this amazing community that we work with. All of these fun, interesting start-ups, some that are established, some that are emerging every day. And a really passionate, vocal part of Xero’s community that are really involved in that as well. People like yourself, Heather. Our cloud integrators, and our accounting and bookkeeping partners. It’s a really great part of the business. And what we’re trying to do as a team, is really bring to life those propositions for our customers right now.
Nick Houldsworth: Within the Business Continuity Hub, recognising some of the trends that we’re seeing in the app store. We’re seeing people searching for cash flow, for e-commerce, for email marketing. There’s been a spike in some of the demand that we’ve seen from customers. And so we’re trying to help connect them with people that provide those great services. We’re creating content on our blog to help people who are looking to make the system changes, better understand the ways to do it. And then connecting with people in the community that can help them to do that. In Australia, we ran our happy hours with our app partners and we’ve got another one coming up. We had about 70 partners join that Zoom call, and that was a chance for us to just kind of hear from the community and see what more we can do. And we’ll have more things coming up over the course of the year.
Nick Houldsworth: But, as you said, people are getting a lot of information out. People are being, there’s a lot of places where people can go. We want to really focus on things that are going to deliver the most value for our community. Specifically for our app and developer partners. I guess if there’s one last thing I’d ask, is for people to reach out and get in touch with us. And give us that feedback. You can reach out to email@example.com. A-P-P-S. And just let us know what more you want to see from us. Or what we can do. It feels like we’re sort of through one phase of it, and we’re now going into another. And so what’s going to deliver the most value for our community? Or hit me up on Twitter. Nick Houldsworth. I’m always posting photos of my facial hair, or my dog. But yeah, always happy to chat with people there. So, please feel free to reach out and just help us do a better job of serving our community.
Heather Smith: Nick Houldsworth, thank you so much for being on the Cloud Stories podcast. We’ve really enjoyed hearing from you, and I’m sure it’s going to be really beneficial to all of our listeners, everything that you’ve shared today.
Nick Houldsworth: It’s an absolute pleasure, Heather. It’s always lovely to chat and catch up. Thank you for having me.