Accounting in 2016 – Still a manual and tedious process

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The past few weeks I’ve been struggling with automating my accounting, invoicing and banking processes to the point I don’t really have to think about it anymore. Currently, a lot of my accounting-related processes are still way too manual for my liking. Being both a virtuous, lazy programmer and an entrepreneur I’d like to automate every process that can be automated at reasonable cost, especially if that process doesn’t generate any revenue.

Now, as far as invoicing and small business accounting is concerned there are great services such as Freshbooks that take care of that vital part of business. However, those services tend to be quite US-centric and using their accounting data for your annual accounts and tax statement in Germany is next to impossible, not to speak of most German accountants not being familiar with that kind of software.

There’s no shortage of similar accounting applications for the German market, mind you. However, they often fall short in one way or another when it comes to completely (or mostly) automating invoicing and accounting for small businesses. Some don’t comply with certain tax standards, some don’t allow you to have VAT reports sent to tax authorities automatically, which then means you have to use additional tools for accomplishing those tasks not covered by your main accounting tool. Therein lies another problem: Most of these tools don’t communicate well together. There often is no accessible API, let alone a dependable standard for exchanging accounting data.

Soon enough you find yourself juggling a handful of tools, manually exchanging data and essentially servicing the software while all you wanted was a solution that allows to do away with the hassle that is accounting so you can focus on your actual business. After all, most entrepreneurs are not in the business of accounting so accounting should be an afterthought: Something that certainly needs to be done in order to run a successful, financially viable business but also something that’s technical, repetitive and routine so it shouldn’t require your personal focus and hence won’t distract you from your actual business.

It’s bewildering that in 2016 small business owners still have to spend so much time and thought on a function that should have been automated a long time ago.

A particularly long-standing pet peeve of mine is incoming invoices and accounts payable: Why do I still have to deal with incoming invoices manually (either personally or via an accountant)? Why do many companies even seem to insist on paper invoices that add the additional nuisances of having to scan and file those documents?
Sure, electronic invoicing does exist but no one seems to use it. At least I have yet to come across an electronic invoice that can be processed automatically by whatever accounting software I use. This is not just a matter of efficient processes and automation:

If an invoice can be processed automatically, payments could be scheduled automatically according to payment terms as well, which would be a boon to accounts receivable. Some businesses admittedly like to treat payment terms and accounts payable rather – let’s say ‘flexibly’ and therefore probably would be averse towards such an automated, timely process but that’s an entirely different matter, so let’s not go there …

What I’m struggling with particularly at the moment is the ridiculous problem of getting the bank account statements for my business account at German bank Commerzbank (which incidentally received casino money from the German taxpayer in 2008 because they had bitten off more than they could chew when buying a competing bank – banking is a truly marvellous business … I suppose that money didn’t go into their technical infrastructure …) into my accounting software:

While Commerzbank’s online banking service allows you to export your account statements it only provides a custom CSV format for doing so. The accounting software I use (Collmex, which is pretty good in most respects) and pretty much any other accounting software I’ve researched so far, however expects account statements in MT940 format. You might say “So what? You’re a programmer. Write some script that converts your CSV account statements into MT940.” and rightfully so.

The problem is: MT940 is a file format conceived by the devil. It’s the WTF of file formats, which is why I suggest using .wtf as new a file extension for MT940 files. Ok, maybe I’m being slightly inaccurate here: PSD perhaps is the true WTF of file formats but MT940 at least is its pesky little brother.

It’s needlessly convoluted and complex for what it does to the extent that although it’s plain text it looks more like binary or encrypted text. There’s no standard way of creating MT940 files. Each bank implements the format slightly differently. There are no openly available software libraries for generating MT940 files, supposedly because the software providers involved in the whole mess that is SEPA likely earn quite a fair amount of money by providing ‘integration services’ and therefore have a reasonable incentive for keeping things a little closer to the vest.

Then there is a service called bank2swift that promises to solve this exact problem of converting arbitrary CSV bank statement files to MT940, which gives rise to the question why such a service needs to exist in the first place. The problem with that one is that I’d much rather not share my business’s financials with additional 3rd parties and bank2swift is an SaaS-only offering. Besides, as mentioned earlier my goal is to simplify my processes not to service and manually orchestrate additional tools that neither have an API nor can be automated in other ways.

The obvious solution for getting those account statements into my accounting software would be using HBCI and have the accounting software fetch those statements automatically. However, Collmex and again every other accounting software I’ve researched so far only supports HBCI with PIN / TAN while Commerzbank only provides HBCI using a signature file (which arguably is more secure but again that’s a different matter).

So, I’m at a loss right now. Other than manually entering account statements in my accounting software or switching to a bank (which for a business means a whole lot of additional hassle) that plays nicely with that software I’ve run out of options. A few hours ago, I even was at the point of saying: “Screw it. I’m going to write that software myself.”. However, like I said automating accounting should be a solved problem by now. Accounting literally was one of the first applications of computing. There are hundreds of thousands of accounting software packages out there. Why is it that right now I feel the urgent need to reinvent that wheel because pretty much every service provider in this industry seems to have missed the boat?

Reinventing this particular wheel is no small feat, either: You start with a simple accounting software (because accounting and double-entry bookkeeping specifically essentially is a very simple and elegant concept) and soon enough you realize you have to accommodate an insurmountable multitude of use cases and edge cases you wouldn’t have thought possible in the first place. Ultimately, this leads to having to start your own bank because an accounting software without access to a business’s actual financial transactions isn’t really all that useful. Existing banks however won’t allow you easy access to their APIs – if those exist at all with most banks technologically still being stuck in the mainframe era of computing. So, you end up in an inescapable vicious circle, which by and large likely accounts for the whole situation I described.

There are a hopeful attempts like FinTech startups Number26 and Holvi, which try to rethink the way banking and accounting is done in a rather wholistic fashion. The former, however is still limited to private accounts while the latter is more targeted at online shops than being a general-purpose SMB solution at the moment. Moreover, Holvi recently was acquired by industry incumbent BBVA so I suppose we’ll have to wait how that’ll turn out in the end.

Until then, I suppose it’s back to basics for me:

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If you have any thoughts, ideas or suggestions regarding this subject please don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a comment below:

54 Comments
  1. Louis St-Amour April 3, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    For some reason I can’t see the other 13 comments, maybe they’re not public yet.

    But I posted over on HN a possible Mt940 library:

    If anyone finds themselves in a similar position, writing MT940 files — there’s at least one open source Java library for doing so. See http://api.prowidesoftware.com/core/com/prowidesoftware/swift/model/mt/mt9xx/MT940.html and its source at http://prowide.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/pw-swift-fields/src/com/prowidesoftware/swift/model/mt/mt9xx/MT940.java (LGPL) as well as further examples at https://github.com/prowide/prowide-core-examples

    First time hearing about MT940 and SWIFT message format. As a Canadian, I’m used to seeing QBX/OBX/CSV as import/export formats (thanks to QuickBooks and Microsoft Money), and every accounting package I’ve worked with allows for CSV import though it’s not quite as nice about it.

    • Bjoern April 3, 2016 at 7:14 pm

      Thanks for reaching out and thanks very much for the link to that Java library, which is very much appreciated. I’ll look into this.

  2. Fabien Pinckaers April 3, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    Have a look at https://www.Odoo.com

    – support German CoA (SKR03 & 4), and Taxes
    – automate payment via SEPA
    – sync with 24.000 banks across the world (I haven’t checked for germany, but a camt.053 module is under development and will be released soon)
    – automate sending letters by mail or regular mail (payments follow-ups or invoice)
    – has an API: https://www.odoo.com/documentation/9.0/api_integration.html

    Odoo Accouting is free, unlimited users, on the cloud.

  3. Edwin Vlieg April 3, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    Björn, nice read! Your description of the current state of accounting in Europe is very accurate. As a founder of an online accounting tool, I know a lot about the struggles you are having. The difference is: it’s my job to improve the lives of entrepreneurs and solve the problems you mention. This doesn’t make it less of a challenge though, I feel a lot of the same pain you are feeling!

    The first steps for a automated accounting are already in place:

    1. In Holland we are working towards a standard for exchanging invoice information based on the Universal Business Language XML standard. Both the market and the government are supporting SimplerInvoicing, the first invoices are already being exchanged at this time.

    2. The European Union has introduced new regulations concerning your banking data. Within a few years, all European banks need to comply with PSD2, which means all your data should be accessible through an API. Unfortunately the banks in Holland are not very fast. Sometimes starting your own bank seems like the fastest solution to enable technical innovation, but the regulations in de European Union for starting a bank are even worse.

    There are many more steps to make, but I strongly believe small startups like my own (MoneyBird) can make a change. Can’t wait to see what the future of accounting brings us!

    • Bjoern April 5, 2016 at 11:49 pm

      Thanks for your input and your effort. Good luck with your startup!

  4. Chris April 3, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    I run a small business but with fairly complicated rules. I’m using ledger-cli (and can automatically import my bank statements into ledger using reckon). It’s not automated, but I process a lot of transactions and can get it done in less than half a day per month. I spend that time on doing the financial side of my business, and I actually don’t mind. It gives me a precise overview of what goes in and out, and I know where we’re standing, financially. I automated almost everything, and I don’t think spending a few hours on my financials is wasted time.

    • Bjoern April 5, 2016 at 11:51 pm

      Thanks for the tip. I’ll have a look at ledger-cli.

  5. Sam April 4, 2016 at 12:30 am

    Hi Björn. Thanks for summarizing the exact same thoughts I had the other day. I can confirm I face the same issues in Belgium.

    I somewhat support having an accountant to ‘optimize’ your finances according. Laws change and I don’t want to keep track of those.

    But bookkeeping is something I would be very keen on to do myself. Not even because of the money or double work. But because I know what my invoices are about. Having to explain them to someone without a clue of my day-to-day business is a waste of everyone’s time. But (mainly) VAT rules are indeed full of exceptions and just incomprehensible so I have to get a bookkeeper…

  6. Mike April 4, 2016 at 12:39 am

    +1 on thinking this should be a solved problem by now. +1 on Chris about ledger-cli though it only solves part of the problem. I too have resorted to writing my own tools in Python simply because I can and can tune the UX and feature set to taste. But even my personal tool punts on the issue of external integration. Partly because its too painful and partly because I dont like the risks that enables. But I can envision my ideal state of affairs and I’m amused we don’t already have it too. At least with tech like Bitcoin its easier to build new systems that can have the features we want, because talented programmers and entrepreneurs have less bureaucracy and legacy holding them back.

  7. Vikrant April 4, 2016 at 12:55 am

    Take a look at beancount or ledger cli. Both are command line accounting. You can use beancount ingest to automate banking. Integrate with some Python our while ingest to automate invoices to an extent.

    • Bjoern April 5, 2016 at 11:52 pm

      Thanks for the tip. I’ll have a look at ledger-cli.

  8. Henrik April 4, 2016 at 6:40 am

    For the bookkeeping of expenses and invoices incoming we’ll have you covered at qvitoo.com. We’re trying to solve the problem of all these receipts and invoices littering desks everywhere.

    That includes implementing all the rules for how and what is expandable per country. Send us an email if you’d like to be a beta tester to hi at qvitoo for com.

    Cheers

  9. Dan April 5, 2016 at 3:39 am

    Bjorn-
    I agree with you. It isn’t just small business. The largest companies still have scores of accountants, and is very manual. In my opinion, part of the reason for this is that accountants, by nature, aren’t innovators. The type of work also doesn’t lend well to full autonomy. I am a CPA in the US. I organized a team to help me in India….really quality work from them. It is cost effective too. Shoot me an email and I’m happy to share my experience. Danapplegate@timevalue.com

  10. Tuomas Toivonen April 5, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    Hi Björn, I’m a co-founder of Holvi. We’re very much targeting to be a general purpose tool for small business. Our focus is on automating “management accounts”, that is, making it easy for the entrepreneur, the small business owner to always see how their business is doing. As we also issue the current account, the Holvi Business MasterCard and provide Visa+MC acquiring, we’re able to capture a rich dataset from payments that allow for automation of bookkeeping to a large extent. Many of our customers also work with an accountant. For the accountant, Holvi provides all the transactional data pre-crunched so that the accountant can provide more consultative services.

    At the end of the day, we want to help European entrepreneurs focus on their business, not the routine of managing their books. That can be automated away.

    — Tuomas

    • Bjoern April 5, 2016 at 11:56 pm

      Hi Tumoas, thanks for the clarification on what Holvi does. From what I’ve heard and seen so far you’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work!

  11. Sam May 3, 2016 at 9:17 am

    Hi Björn,

    Although it is 29 days ago since I read your post (thanks HN), I had to think about it when I came across http://www.leapin.eu yesterday.

    From what I read and asked, they allow you to automate the invoicing & banking part.

    Sure, this only takes care of the company part of your taxes/bureaucracy. But your personal taxes are separate anyway and something you might be able to actually do yourself?

    I’m curious about your thoughts (as I’m in the same situation).

    Sam

    • Bjoern May 3, 2016 at 1:04 pm

      Hi Sam, thanks for your reply and the link to LeapIN.

      LeapIN looks very interesting indeed and it seems to cover a lot of the basic administration and paperwork that comes with setting up and running a company. I’ll have a closer look at it.

      Estonia seems to be ahead by a large margin in terms of digitization and e-government anyway. It’s fantastic they’re part of the EU and we all get to reap those benefits (especially given how far behind the larger EU countries are with regards to using digital systems).

    • Anja October 6, 2017 at 3:10 am

      Hello Sam! Not sure if you will read this reply but I surely hope so! I am also thinking about using Leapin.eu for my company. Are you currently using it? If yes, I would be happy to hear about your experience! If not, what alternative did you find? I am really hoping to get a reply from you or also Bjoern (if you are using Leapin.eu).

      Thanks,

      Anja! 🙂

  12. Angelina DeLago June 20, 2016 at 2:26 pm

    Hi Björn,

    Great blog! I really enjoyed the read. To solve some of your struggles, I would check out botkeeper (https://www.botkeeper.com) as an awesome solution to these issues.

    botkeeper, named one of the “10 Products and Services Startups Need To Succeed” by Inc Magazine, is a bookkeeping service that provides 24/7 bookkeeping, and beautiful dashboards and reporting at a fraction of the cost.

    Check out the introduction video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAEdCC2g54U

    If you have any other questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

    Best,

    Angelina

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  15. Oliver Gehrmann April 23, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Funny, I could have written this post (apart from some of the bursts of motivation in between the lines like “I was about to write that software myself”). I am at the Commerzbank, I’m using Collmex and I am currently exporting all my monthly statements via bank2swift and then upload them to the Commerzbank.

    I am super annoyed by the process, especially since I still have to print out the bank statements and then again add all the invoicing documents…

    My businesss grew bit by bit, so I am still using Excel to do some of my accounting and in a way, I’m now suffering from doing all my bookkeeping works twice as I’m both entering everything in Excel AND in Collmex.

    I have heard a couple of good things about Holvi and am very willing to give another system a go. I feel like after having bested Collmex, there’s not that much that bookkeepers and the state can throw in my way that will slow me down even further. As you said, it’s pretty powerful, but I don’t think it’s all that userfriendly. And it’s all the more annoying as all of this should have been automated a very long time ago.

  16. jan June 20, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    I’m a freelancer and faced a similar situation. Since a few years I use lexoffice (SaaS) and I’m very happy with it. It takes me one evening per month for my entire bookkeeping and a few more evenings for my annual accounts.

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