Understaffed and short of time? Rethink your workflow with an app | There’s an app for that

November 1, 2021
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When Simon Hay and Joe Mathewson started Firefly Learning while studying for their GCSEs, they couldn’t have imagined that 20 years later, a global pandemic would force schools all over the world to shift to remote learning. The edtech platform, where Hay is both CEO and and a board member alongside Mathewson, allows schools, students and parents to share lesson plans, track progress and review homework, and now has millions of users in more than 40 countries.

But despite the unexpected boost to business, Francisco Calvente, financial controller at Firefly, says that the past 18 months haven’t been without their challenges. “When the pandemic hit, there was a lot of uncertainty. Schools realised how important it was to have an online platform and we offered Firefly free of charge to many of them to help them adapt to this new way of working. On the other side, we all had to work from home, cut a lot of non-essential costs and rethink our strategy. People had to adapt.”

With the team under more pressure than ever, Firefly Learning turned to tech to help lighten the load. Working with apps such as ApprovalMax, which enables approval automation for accounts payable and accounts receivable and integrates with Firefly’s accounting system on Xero, staff were able to get the most out of their working days. “Whenever we receive a bill from a supplier in Xero it’s sent to the budget holder so they can check the amount before it’s recorded,” Calvente says. “Now our team also uses ApprovalMax to request budget and as part of our invoicing process. It’s helped us to keep costs under control, manage processes and maximise productivity.”

Even pre-pandemic, productivity was one of the biggest concerns for small business owners, with 65% admitting to losing sleep over it and 37% saying they don’t have time to measure or address the issue. The disruption of the pandemic exacerbated this further, with experts pointing to inefficient collaboration, a decline in employee engagement and disorganised processes affecting productivity. According to the Federation of Small Business, Firefly Learning wasn’t alone in turning to technology to help manage workflows: 53% of entrepreneurs introduced improvements to working practices during the pandemic, with 49% investing in new technology.

“Before Covid-19, the most popular apps were definitely inventory and approval workflow tools,” says Campbell McLean, general manager of the Xero App Store. “But we saw a real shift towards e-commerce, payments and cashflow apps during the pandemic. [Businesses] were concerned about maximising or making payments more efficient, looking at how to pivot their model from a bricks and mortar service to online, and looking at overall business efficiency.”

Campbell McLean, general manager of the Xero App Store: ‘We saw a real shift towards e-commerce, payments and cashflow apps during the pandemic’

Xero has more than 1,000 apps connected to its platform. As well as ApprovalMax, there’s Chaser, which sends out automatic invoice payment reminders, and DataDear, which neatly connects client data in Xero with Excel spreadsheets, creating more efficient reporting. Other apps focus on inventory, project management, payroll and time tracking.

Recent research by Xero found that during the peak of Covid-19, small businesses using apps lost less revenue and suffered fewer staff losses compared with those not using apps. Firms in the UK, Australia and New Zealand with five or more apps supporting their broader business grew sales by 4.3% in the year to December 2020, while those without apps saw a decline of 3.4%. “We’ve seen the impact this technology can have,” says McLean. “Entrepreneurs can have a real lightbulb moment after installing an app – they never thought they could have that functionality or efficiency. It’s saving them so much time and money.”

But knowing which technology to try is no easy feat. With so much choice, it’s easy to see how decision makers might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of tools available, all purporting to fix different issues. “It’s very common for business owners not to know what they need,” says McLean. “They don’t know what other businesses are using and are largely unaware of the potential some of these app combinations have.”

To help with that, Xero is launching the Xero App Store, which features an app matchmaking service that will recommend apps based on a user’s profile and what other similar businesses are using when they’re logged into Xero. “If someone is searching for inventory help, for example, we’ll be able to present them with apps which are aligned to inventory,” McLean says. “Or they may have two or three apps already installed. Our algorithm will compare that to similar businesses and determine what else might be helpful.”

At Firefly Learning, Calvente was initially doubtful about how much of a difference apps would make, but is now a convert. He has found he is able to forget about some of the more repetitive daily tasks and focus on higher value strategy work, and is now looking to automate his monthly budget variance reports to help with forecasting.

His advice to other small business owners and executives would be to allocate some time to trying out apps. “Spend time doing research to find what suits you – a lot of these apps do free trials, so you can see if they work for you before committing. And if you get it right, you can become much more efficient.”

Find, choose and buy the right apps to run your business in the Xero App Store. Visit apps.xero.com





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