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December 15, 2021

The Brass Tacks on App Stacks: Why You Need One & How to Build It

By 
Kelly Gonsalves

Chances are you've heard the phrase “App Stack” a million times. For me, it seemed like the phrase popped up overnight and was suddenly everywhere. Unfortunately, a lot of the fuss has tended to focus on urgency, but not on actionable details. 

Chances are good that you know you need apps and you might even know that you should “stack” them. I’d like to take things past the technical terms and back to basics on this - like what stacking apps really means, and why it should matter to you. 

What is an App Stack?

App•stack (æp•stæk): An application stack is a suite or set of application programs that help in performing a certain task. These applications are closely linked together and data can be exported or imported among them with minimum steps.

Basically, an App Stack is made up of softwares that are chosen for their ability to work together to perform specific tasks with minimal steps. They're your first string team; your go-to tools that allow you to get the job done with a bit of consistency and minimal fuss.

Sounds great, right?

It is! Stacking your apps narrows the list of possible workflows for you in the best way possible. When it comes to workflows, fewer variables mean more predictability - even the things that can go wrong become easier to anticipate! 

For example, rather than five different app combos utilizing five different workflows to pay bills for five different clients, you're going to have one or two App Stacks that work for you...and you’ll get really good at managing them! You’ll know all the hiccups, pitfalls, and possible kinks that might be waiting to ruin your flow. And you’ll be able to work around them, or better yet, prevent them altogether.

Not to mention this streamlining of variables and processes also means you’ll need less documentation. There are fewer ‘special’ scenarios, which means training new team members and clients will be more straightforward, and answering questions will be easier to do.

In short, having an App Stack is just a buzz-word way of saying that you have a preferred toolset you work with. It is not about favoritism, or being closed off to new tech. And, it’s also not about novelty or having to always try out a shiny new solution. Building your stack is about choosing the right pieces of technology that work together to make some of the most important things you do efficient and effective. 

App Stacks aren’t just for you - they’re also for your clients and your team. You want to create an environment of minimal surprises and maximum impacts. 

How do I go about building an App Stack?

There's a whole lot of different ways to go about planning a stack as well as choosing the apps you’ll build it with. There are a LOT of choices out there! And, if I’m being honest, it can become very overwhelming very quickly. That said, I’ve found an approach that has made it more of a methodical experience, and one that is able to be broken up over time. 

So here are some tips, tricks, and guidance to keep in mind as you go forward.

First: Identify Your Star Players

It may seem obvious, but it’s worth repeating. You are most likely starting this process with one or two apps already in your stack -- the kind of apps you simply aren’t willing to give up or cannot change. 

Usually this means your General Ledger (QuickBooks Online, QuickBooks Desktop, Sage, Xero). But, it could also mean a specialty software required to deal with your client base. Whatever the answer, you should start your search by acknowledging these components. Everything you choose going forward at least should not conflict with these centerpiece apps, and ideally should integrate beautifully!

Second: Identify Your Key Positions

When you look at your needs beyond your centerpiece apps, you will likely want an app to cover most, if not all, of the following categories:

  1. Bill Pay & Expense Reimbursement: Corpay One, Bill.com 
  2. Tracking Time: ClockShark, Timeular, QuickBooks Time
  3. Client Communication: Liscio, ClientHub, Gmail, Outlook
  4. Internal Communication: Slack, Microsoft Teams
  5. Encrypted Document Storage: Sharefile, ClientHub, Liscio, SmartVault
  6. Password Manager: 1Password, LastPass

Don’t forget to include any really important specialty functions you need in this list, especially if it’s central to the client base you typically serve.

Third: Draft Your Team!

When I help clients figure out their processes, I remind them that technology is not perfect and there will likely be some apps that hit 90% of what you need. Remember, this is just the core of your stack. You will be able to find other more minor choices later that will fill in the gaps. Also, there are typically workarounds (many shared by other users) that can be implemented here and there to reach that 100% mark. 

In other words, don’t let perfect be the enemy of the potentially great! 

Still, this is where things can become a bit crowded if you don’t have a method to your approach. So, I’ve listed some steps you can follow to make sure that you are getting what you need from each app. This means you’ll be able to quickly identify if an app fits the bill. If it doesn’t, you can quickly move on.

Start with your problem. 

What manual process, repetitive entry, opportunity for error, or general inconvenience are you attempting to solve in this part of your workflow? Is there one change that would change a lot? Or is it 1,000 little hiccups that add up to a lot of time lost? 

For example: Your client still uses paper checks to pay bills. This requires that you create checks in QuickBooks for them to print at their office then sign and mail. Sometimes check paper is wasted because the printer is misaligned. Sometimes the authorized check signer is traveling and now bill payments will be late. 

Search for solutions, with your required features in mind.

  1. I started with searching for bill pay apps on Intuit’s app store: apps.com. You can also find new solutions on CPE websites such as CPA Academy and CPE Today
  2. You may also want to let your client know that you’re going to be looking for a more efficient process that will benefit you and them both.
  3. Be sure to note any larger concerns or needs your client might have regarding security, approvals, bank access, etc. 
  4. Don’t forget to make sure anything you might choose plays nice with your star players!

Evaluate how each app works and how it will work to solve your problem.

  1. Look at one or two of your required features first to quickly eliminate any apps that don’t ‘fit the bill’, so to speak.
  2. Once I have a list of apps that I want to explore, I narrow it down to my top 3. 
  3. Invest in a sandbox account of your accounting system. We have a QBO company file that is solely used for testing apps. We need to know how it will interact with QuickBooks once it’s connected in a live environment. 
  4. What makes each app shine? Example: Corpay One has great If This Then That style workflows that allow for some automation of payments. 
  5. Test the app within an inch of its life. Throw all the complicated scenarios you can think of at it.
  1. Once you’ve worked through all scenarios and set up some tentative workflows you may have a long standing client that is happy to be the proverbial guinea pig. It cannot hurt to ask. This will also get you some feedback from a different perspective. 

Implementation. 

Honestly, don’t rush this part. Give yourself the gift of an intentional transition. You’ve gotten along this far without your app stack, so be sure to give yourself the time to stick the landing. Your clients will thank you!

  1. Give yourself, your team and your clients a realistic timeline. 
  2. If the app offers onboarding help, take it! 
  3. If there is a certification for the app that will ensure that you and your team know how best to use it, get certified! 
  4. Explain to your clients why this is a benefit for them because it is a benefit for you.

Now That’s A Winning Team!

Once I chose the core of my App Stack, it had honest to goodness profound results where my business and my clients’ businesses are concerned! I learned that it’s really important to choose the right tools and to not rush the process. You want your app stack to be helpful, not an inconvenience or limitation. Think of your app stack like your tool box, what tools are needed to get the job done? To cover all your bases?

That said, I also found that some clients or potential clients no longer fit into how we wanted to do things going forward. Sometimes this was a simple fix of talking to the client and letting them know what changes we wanted to make and it turned out that they wanted to change with us. Other times clients really wanted to stick to that paper process of printing checks and we worked with them to find a professional that could do what they wanted. 

For the record, we don’t consider this occasional result of parting ways a failure or even a downside! Every business is going to change and grow. I take it as a sign we were doing just that -- refining our business and specializing our offerings. The proof was in the pudding.

One of the biggest benefits I have experienced post-App Stack is having more time. 

As we implemented new apps that cut down on the amount of time needed to get things done, we were able to take on more clients that were also excited about our way of doing things. Additionally, by using the same tools across the board we wasted less time learning new processes for each client, and were able to deliver more predictable results. Our clients are happier, and we are happier. It has been a win-win. 

So, be confident in your decision to grow! Remember, this is your process and these are your priorities! No matter how large an undertaking this may seem to be, at the end of the day it does not have to be complicated. And it’s not a race, so give yourself the time you need! The main requirement is that you’re tuned in with what will serve you, your team and your clients best. 

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