Accounting 2.0

Catherine Dahl, CEO of Beanworks, is leading the charge to reengineer accounting workflow with new software that will cut down on paperwork

Three years ago, a customer phoned Catherine Dahl at Bean Services Inc. to say how much she loved the company’s accounting software. After piloting the application for three months, her business had grown to rely on it. She couldn’t imagine ever going back to their old paper system, and she wanted to roll out the Bean Services’ program nationwide.

Dahl hung up the phone and sighed. Though the call was complimentary, it came at a bad time: Bean Services had just lost its capital funding, and its board was shutting it down. It seemed that all was over.

An accountant by trade, Dahl first met Bean Services founder Jarrod Letivan while he was beta testing a new automation tool called Beanbills for accounts payable. After seeing how his product filled a void in the world of accounting, she joined his team to help develop product-market fit, attract customers, and refine the software itself. “It was a good product, but it had some technical issues and ultimately wasn’t scalable,” Dahl says.

As a result, the board decided to shut down the company after only a few years, and suddenly six key longer-term employees found themselves at a crossroads. On one hand, they had lost funding. On the other, customers were calling to praise the software. They decided to band together, buy the IP and the customer base from the old company, and pick up where development had left off. Together, they created Beanworks Solutions Inc.

The reboot started in January 2012. Dahl and her partners worked to support existing customers on the old platform while finding new customers who could beta test a new version the firm was building behind the scenes. The resulting product, first launched in January 2014, is far different from the old one: it’s an accounting automation tool for smaller midsize companies, and it’s built as the base for a new kind of enterprise-resource planning platform that operates in the cloud.

Since the release, Beanworks has continued to expand its vision. “We started talking to customers more and realized they wanted more than accounts payable software in the cloud,” Dahl says. “We’ve added billing and cash receiving, ledger reporting, and other features that companies can use in whole or in part.”

5 Questions
with Catherine Dahl

What does innovation mean to your company?
It’s everyday living for us. It’s trying to stretch our creativity, always looking to improve things, and finding a shorter way of getting from A to B.

Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your company forward?
There’s a collision of three things happening in accounting software: the cloud, the need for efficiency, and a lack of innovation. It’s the perfect mix for a company like ours.

How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
You have to be willing to try and fail. As we discovered at a big level, sometimes failure can lead to much greater things.

Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next five years?
There is a huge disruption coming for accounting software as less-expensive technology continues to improve. We want to be leading the way.

How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
It moves so much faster now. You can’t take forever to develop and adapt. We screenshot new iterations right away and take them to our customers for feedback. If you spend lots of time and money to build something your customers don’t need, like, or want, then you’ve made a huge mistake.

Beanworks, according to Dahl, is the next evolution in accounting software in the cloud. “We’re taking a totally different approach,” she says. “Companies have been buying and installing applications that they pay a lot of money up front for and then have to pay to customize—and then a yearly fee for little improvement or support. It hasn’t changed in 30 years.” On the Beanworks platform, customers can pick and choose the applications they want—applications designed by accountants around the accounting experience. Workflow is automated, and documents are routed seamlessly so that everything gets done in an efficient manner. Real-time analytics provide information to aid in the decision-making process and improve control and accountability. Audits become easy.

Its client-centric approach is also what led the company to conceive its product’s flagship user-interface feature. Many midsize clients manage separate accounting databases because they operate as multiple legal entities, and this creates a burden on the clients’ small accounting teams, which must then pull together varied info quickly. Beanworks’ multientity platform allows one point of entry for all a client’s businesses, regardless of which accounting package they work with today.

Each year, companies generate 15 billion invoices in North America and 150 billion globally. That’s a lot of paperwork. Dahl believes Beanworks can capitalize on the glut by focusing on its customers. “We’re not just building an application people use; we’re building a relationship with our customers,” she says, adding that she relies on their feedback to create flexible systems with feature-enhancement cycles of less than three months. In the future, she envisions, Beanworks will be a marketplace for specialty add-on products that the company may or may not develop itself.

While building Beanworks into a stable and leading company, Dahl has been rubbing shoulders with other leading women in technology through tech accelerators and networking events such as Black Box Connect, Women Powering Tech, and Communitech’s HYPERDRIVE. Beanworks’ staff is 50 percent female—rare for a tech company—and Dahl says interacting with other female CEOs has been inspirational. The events have also helped her plan Beanworks’ future. She’s connected with accounting professionals in Argentina and other parts of Latin America, and there are plans to start beta testing her company’s accounting programs there in the coming months.

Ultimately, in almost every way, Beanworks is succeeding where Bean Services failed, largely because of its approach. “There wasn’t anything wrong with our original idea,” Dahl says. “We just didn’t have the right platform. It was silly to give up and go home.”