Harvest Accounting is a digital-first accounting firm that is passionate about identifying operational bottlenecks, reimagining workflows, and identifying suitable add-ons and technology from the Xero app ecosystem to help small businesses win.
Harvest Accounting recently celebrated becoming a Xero Gold Partner, and their drive to utilise cloud technology has placed them as front runners in the accounting industry in Singapore.
We speak with founders Matthew Phua and Bryan Zhao on pioneering innovation and excellence in the accounting space using cloud technology.
Tell me more about yourselves and Harvest Accounting
Matthew Phua (MP): I’m originally from New Zealand, which was where I started my career in advisory services. It was an interesting point in time to start my career as a couple years into it, Xero was founded and I saw firsthand the difference between desktop legacy systems and cloud based technology.
In 2014, I moved to Singapore to gain overseas work experience. Whilst working in fund administration in the private equity real estate space, I noticed Xero beginning to make some headway into Singapore. Having known and used Xero previously, I knew it was a great product and thought it would work well in Singapore and benefit a lot of Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs). My wife connected me with Bryan and we decided to set up an accounting firm rooted in cloud automation.
Bryan Zhao (BZ): I was born and raised in Singapore, and after completing my degree in accounting, I went into banking and corporate finance. When I was working in an accounting and treasury function of a commodity trading firm, my role was tied to a very manual process and I knew that there could be a better way of doing things. When Matthew got in touch, I learned about Xero cloud accounting, saw the opportunity for digitisation and Harvest Accounting was born. We both also thought that it was always a good opportunity to provide flexible work arrangements for our future staff by harnessing the power of cloud technology that would enable them to work remotely.
When COVID-19 struck, we were actually ready for it, because we’re a digital native business and cloud ready from day one. We didn’t have to deal with migrating from desktop systems to the cloud. We were also really fortunate to have grown to a team of seven in just under two years.
What was the thought process behind having Harvest Accounting be a digital first accounting firm?
MP: One of the main motivations was to provide our clients with a better way of working that veered away from using paper or having to create multiple excel files. Over time, the more we were exposed to the cloud ecosystem through places such as the Accounting and Finance Show Asia, the more we tapped into the different cloud solutions available in the market that introduced a better way of working for our clients.
Another motivation was to set up an accounting firm that catered for work flexibility. Our team was either working from home or from a shared office space even before the pandemic hit. We had a vision of being able to offer jobs to people that might not be able to commit to going to the office every single day.
One of our first hires - Christine, our Account manager - has three kids. We were able to provide a work lifestyle for her where she could pick up her young children from school and not have to worry about staying late in the office.
BZ: I think the reason behind our growth was because we stand behind a good product which is Xero, and around it, we’ve built a tech stack that includes solutions like Receipt Bank - that helps to streamline the information gathering from clients. We also produce monthly management reports for our clients which enable us to develop a closer relationship with them. We’re also consistently getting about a 9/10 or 10/10 performance score and 5 star good reviews from our clients. So we’re very thankful that we’re behind a good product and a good ecosystem that has enabled us to really deliver value to our clients.
Did you face any significant challenges when you first started? How did you overcome them?
BZ: For sure. Obviously with Xero cloud accounting, many clients surfaced the question about security. And our answer would be that it’s no different from using email services or Whatsapp when discussing business issues. That being said, Xero is also hosted on Amazon Web Services which is easily the best in class in the market for cloud security.
The resistance was there but with COVID-19 changing the traditional way of working, it caused a shift in people’s mindsets about cloud technology.
MP: Adoption of cloud technology definitely has been accelerated with COVID-19. As you know, Singapore is a small space, and in the past we did go for a lot more physical meetings. But during this period, people have gotten a lot more used to meeting online. In a way it’s helped us as well because we do things like screen sharing sessions. E.g. If a client can’t figure out something or something that is hard to write in an email, we can demonstrate it online. Meeting virtually creates time savings for us and our clients.
Why did you choose Singapore as the starting point for Harvest Accounting?
MP: In a way it was an opportunistic move. Because I had firsthand experience of Xero’s positive impact in New Zealand, when I noticed that Xero was making a push into Asia, it was something we could capitalise on. It was also helpful that Bryan was able to tap into his local network in Singapore and that’s how we got our first handful of clients and grew from there.
BZ: In terms of cloud adoption for accounting, Singapore is still quite behind Australia and New Zealand. So it didn’t make sense to start in those two countries because the market was already pretty saturated. Whereas in Singapore, the cloud adoption rate was only about 20%. At the time, Singapore had about 125,000 SMEs and if we aimed to capture at least 1% of the market share with Xero’s cloud technology, it would be good for our business.
We were also more confident to build Harvest Accounting in Singapore as opposed to starting in a new market as I had a network of local contacts we were able to start with. It’s also very easy to do business in Singapore - you can incorporate a company in 20 minutes and its tax incentives are favourable. Additionally, Singapore is a good base to tap into the rest of Asia. Right now, we’ve seen our clients expand into Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand to name a few.
The government is also receptive to pushing SMEs to go digital. There have been a lot of government grants that have been given to ease the transition and to cushion the cost for businesses. We always tell clients who have a perceived cost of digitisation that it is an investment and not an expense. For instance, a business that has a digital presence could tap on hybrid channels to increase their revenue as opposed to traditional ones.
What do you prioritise as a business when serving clients?
BZ: We’re a very values based driven business and prioritise excellence and innovation.
With excellence - we pride ourselves on delivering timely data to our clients so that they can make strategic decisions about their business. In the past, the traditional accounting format was supplying data to clients once a year at the end of the financial year. This often meant that the data provided would be stale and clients did not have real-time insights that will help their business in the short term.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, because our clients are digitally equipped and they were able to have access to data at their fingertips, they were all quick to adjust the way they offered their services. As a result, most of our clients made it through the tough lockdown period and their businesses are thankfully back to normal.
With innovation - we’re always interested in more efficient ways that improve business processes and promote an easy transference of data.
MP: To add onto what Bryan mentioned, when we onboard a client, we look at their workflow and recommend ways to streamline it so that everyone benefits. Frequently touching base with our clients also allows us to establish stronger relationships with them, where we’re able to provide more value instead of just offering a financial statement once a year which they may or may not understand.
How important is it for companies to have a globally agile tech stack to support their business?
BZ: It’s always good to identify tools that fit your business and assess its scalability as your business grows. However, something to keep in mind when considering technological solutions for other regions is that language is pertinent especially for certain countries like China and Thailand.
MP: With Xero and other cloud solutions operating globally, it makes it easy for people to set up another account in a different region by simply clicking a button. Especially if you’re familiar with the system - it makes it easy to start. One thing that is great with the cloud is that it offers visibility over each region. It makes sense to have all your data on cloud platforms where its benefits are felt across the whole organisation.
How have partnerships helped you strengthen your business?
BZ: For us, we don’t offer audit services, and we only offer payroll services to a limited extent. So we typically refer our clients to partners in the audit and payroll space and in return, they refer clients in need of accountancy services to us. As part of this partnership, we do cross-marketing initiatives as well which helps to grow both client bases.
We also partner with quite a few payment solution providers. For example, we were one of the first to partner with CardUp to roll out CardUp Collect to our customers so that our clients had the option to collect payments via credit card at competitive fees. That partnership itself instantly created cost savings for our clients. We also partnered with Aspire (a digital neo-bank). Aspire offers credit loans and debit cards for every user, and users get 1% cash back on SaaS spending - so I think this is where you see partnerships helping in terms of tangible benefits to clients and marketing opportunities for service providers like ourselves.
MP: It’s in line with our philosophy of providing innovation for our clients - if there is a way we can do things better, we’ll bring it up and see if our clients want to use it.
What advice would you give to someone who may find digital transformation overwhelming?
MP: You can always speak to Harvest Accounting!
I think one good difference between cloud solutions and desktop systems is that it's a lot easier to get your feet wet. For example, with Xero and other cloud solutions, you can easily request a 30 day free trial which significantly reduces barriers of entry. You can then take your time to explore the software, do a deep dive and see if it is a good fit. If it’s not a good fit, then you would not have lost much, just an hour or two of your day. This is a stark contrast to desktop systems which may come with a hefty upfront cost and commitment to five or 10 years for an operational license.
Another great thing with the cloud is that you can really pick different solutions that fit exactly what you want, and create your own technology suite to help your business operations.
BZ: Change management is always something people are very afraid of but just know that it’s very easy to watch YouTube videos of a product to help you grow your knowledge of it. Most softwares also typically have a help desk you can ask. Know that nothing can really be broken. You can always hit “undo” so don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
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