Category Archives: Business Intelligence

The challenges – and rewards – of setting up your own business

Mark Donaldson, who left Grant Thornton in 2009, talks about the challenges – and rewards – of setting up your own business.

‘If I had to choose one word to describe my career path to date, it would be “varied”, I think! I certainly never thought when I left Grant Thornton back in 2009 that I’d go on to have such a wide range of different experiences, from founding a business strategy consultancy, to running an IPO on AIM, to creating a unique business analytics tool and setting up my own software as a service business.

Right now, Norwich is a good place to be doing business. It feels like everything is coming together, not just on the tech side but in biotech as well with all the exciting work going on at the University of East Anglia and the Quadrum Institute. It feels very buoyant. Of course it has its down sides, too. Sometimes I think the pace of change would be quicker if I was in, say, Cambridge or Manchester, but overall it’s great.

‘Originally, I joined Grant Thornton because I wanted to work with bigger clients than I was able to at the small regional practice where I started out. I was doing pretty well in audit, but then the opportunity came up to join the entrepreneurial side of the business, and that really appealed. Helping people deal with the day-to-day challenges and come up with plans to grow their businesses was a real eye-opener, and it gave me the confidence I needed to strike out on my own.

‘What I learned at Grant Thornton was that most businesses fail because they don’t have the information they need to make decisions. They can’t see where they’re making money, and where they’re losing it. I found that really frustrating, so I set out to do something about it.

‘Put simply my business, Cascade.bi, takes data and turns it into something that business owners – and their advisers – can understand. Now something that used to take an auditor days to do – crunching spreadsheets, analysing figures – can be done automatically. It’s quicker and cheaper, and it frees up professionals like me to concentrate on the areas where we can really add value to a business.

‘With Cascade, we wanted to make it available to anyone. It’s pre-built, and it doesn’t need any complicated set-up. It literally takes about four minutes to connect. And we’ve pitched it at a very low price point too, to keep that accessibility.

‘Initially, we focused mainly on accounts data but we’re now looking to expand into other types of information using platforms like Mailchimp, Google Analytics and Xero. Our vision is that Cascade will be the go-to place to find out what’s happening in your business. You’ll be able to, for example, look at your marketing spend and see whether that Mailchimp campaign you ran actually delivered the return on investment you wanted.

‘To set up your own business, you’ve got to have the courage of your convictions. But you’ve also got to be able to recognise – quickly! – when something is going wrong, and do something about it. I’ve definitely made mistakes along the way. You can very easily get what’s called “development creep”, where you’re working on something and adding more and more features – and of course spending more and more money – without really being clear about whether there’s any demand. It’s about figuring out what actually adds value, and concentrating on that.’

‘It’s pretty all consuming. I’m thinking about work all the time, even when I’m on holiday. And it can be lonely. It’s important to maintain your network, to engage with the community around you, so that you don’t just end up in a kind of tunnel, totally absorbed in your own world. You need to keep that openness, that ability to see opportunities. But I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s not for everyone, but I love it. It’s such a buzz.’

CV highlights

  • 2001 Graduates with BA in Accounting & Finance, Leeds Metropolitan University
  • 2001 Joins Norfolk firm Larking Gowen as trainee accountant
  • 2005 Joins Grant Thornton, moving from audit to entrepreneurial advisory
  • 2009 Founded business strategy and CFO specialists Mint Consult
  • 2014 Sets up Cascade.bi to provide out-of-the-box business intelligence for SMEs

The role of AI & Business Intelligence

We are certainly on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution which will change the way in which we all work. Whilst with the past three industrial revolutions, technology changes have been disruptive, they have not been net destroyers of job roles. Does AI promise this?

The world of business intelligence is fundamentally all about providing the right information to the right user and at the right time.

Throughout my career as a Finance Director, CFO and accountant within practice, I have worked with hundreds if not thousands of SMEs and the one common theme is them not clearly understanding their business performance…..so is there now finally the opportunity to solve this?

The benefits to SMEs of receiving business information are now beginning to become clear with a far increased adoption and awareness of the power of their own business data.

We at Cascade.bi have proudly developed our out of the box dashboard platform which connects to Sage 50, and provides SMEs with easy access to their data, increasing awareness of their business metrics. The access to Sage 50 business intelligence dashboard vastly improves the decision making process.

This data could take the form of very simple Google Analytics, through to the number of Twitter followers or customer or product sales. Moving forward the understanding of these can be interpreted using AI, however I believe the limiting factor is that all businesses operate differently and the owners do not have the time to teach AI the basic tasks, or perhaps do not even understand the basic tasks to a sufficient level of detail themselves.

AI is undoubtedly a powerful tool which can very easily take on tasks within a business. I think it will be adopted mostly in its most basic form, through machine learning and the standardisation of repetitive and rules based tasks. These tasks for an SME are often performed by the finance function and therefore areas such as credit control and some reporting will be eroded by a far more efficient process.

The adoption of AI for many SMEs may be problematic in the short to medium term as they fail to understand the power it can bring and generally lack the trust of a “computer system”. The most sophisticated businesses will embrace the technology first.

Let’s first take the example of a simple credit control team within an SME. They will periodically raise and send statements, (checking them first for errors), email and phone the customers to chase for payment and use a strong element of human interaction, emotional intelligence and discretion to ensure the cash is received in a timely manner. Using AI to replace this whole function would eliminate the relationship and rapport element to credit control and may end up damaging relationships with customers. Instead a hybrid solution of utilising AI would work, providing prompts to action, automated emailing of documents, leaving the emotional intelligence and relationship aspects to the human. If trained properly AI could free up the mundane tasks and make the credit controller more efficient.

AI is currently in its early stages and is good at the simpler, limited problems like sentiment analysis (e.g. is a free text sentence from your customers good, bad or neutral) where there are few variables. This ‘opinion mining’ may not always be present in communications with customers with an increasing level of email communication being done with very limited amounts of verbose.

Non AI statistical methods are more than sufficient at stating where a business currently is (KPIs % increases, ratios etc.) but are unable to explain why the current situation has arisen or forecast the future.

AI has promising potential to explain both why and predict the future but current AI technology (and this is likely to be the case for at least the next 5 years) requires a lot of processing power (that even the explosion of cloud computing can’t help bring down to the real-time realm that BI requires) and a lot of data. This processing power coupled with the disparate data (paper based), will be a real obstacle.

AI may start to have application in larger companies with sophisticated systems that produce and store large quantities of data for AI to sift through but SMEs don’t. Their systems are usually limited and only tell a small part of the story, a lot still keep important records in paper form (outside AI’s reach), they rarely have specific workflow tools so their accounts system is the biggest source of SME data which will contain a wealth of information about who bought what product and when but without more (non-transactional) data about the purchase, few insights can be gleaned that standard statistical models cannot already predict.

An example for an SME, is that AI isn’t going to predict that sales from a customer will dip next month because the sales rep is off sick or that the contract to supply is due for renewal (held outside any system) and that the contract terms change, alter or the customer terminates their supply agreement.

I firmly believe that AI in its simplest form, can be used to assist SMEs in certain areas, however these are generally the more task based approaches, which would replace a human repetitive task.

In summary, whilst the next industrial revolution is upon us, the number of net job roles to be destroyed will take time. I think in 5 years time, SMEs will start to see the benefits, and it will be those leaner, fitter businesses with more technology accepting minds who will embrace it first and reap the rewards. The masses of “typical SMEs” will be slow to adopt and this will protect jobs for the next decade.

(screenshot from the Cascade.bi platform for Sage 50)

About Cascade.bi

Cascade is a convenient, easy to use platform which connects directly to Sage 50. It brings to life the data held within a business system, enhances decision making which ultimately leads to improved results.

Cascade.bi is available for £45/month (unlimited users) and can be paid by monthly or annual direct debit. For a free 14 day no obligation trial, sign up here.

About the author

Mark Donaldson is the founder of Cascade.bi, which provides SMEs with an out of the box solution for Business Intelligence. As a Chartered Accountant, Consultant FD and Advisor, he understand the day to day challenges which SMEs face both embracing technology and adopting it.

Original version first published in nor(DEV): Magazine – September 2017

SMEs are Sitting on a Goldmine of Data – Small Explorations Achieve Big Impact

There are many resources which businesses need to make the most of in order to thrive in today’s market. But one kind of data which is routinely overlooked by entrepreneurs everywhere is data. For a huge number of small and medium businesses, data is actually one of their primary assets. To ignore such an asset, or not know what to do with it, can be something of a travesty. The trouble is that most of those enterprises have a lot of data sitting in the software they use, but barely ever make much use of it. So how can a business turn this situation around, and why should they do so?

Personalize The Customer’s Experience

Once you start to look into it, it becomes clear that the majority of the data you are sitting on is related directly to the customer. This is great news. Having such a goldmine can mean that you can begin to create a much more personal experience for the customer – something that all businesses could get behind. What’s more, you might even be surprised at how much even a small amount of data can do. Using proper business intelligence software, you can mine for this data in a very fine way and use what you discover to make life much easier for your customers. Making personalized recommendations, informing them of offers they will appreciate, even promoting loyalty schemes – it’s all made more effective by leveraging the right data.

In Place Of Feedback

Nothing can really beat the actual feedback you receive from customers – but by utilizing your data in the right way, you can come close. Once you start to use Sage business intelligence software to analyse and transform the data you have in your systems, you can start to see certain trends which might well have been hidden from you before. You can see the specific products a customer is likely to want, and what kind of price they will probably pay for it. You can also discover what kind of features of the shopping experience itself your customers are likely to want to see changed. It’s no secret that this could all be hugely useful information for small and medium enterprises.

Improving Marketing

The more info you have on your customers, the more effective and targeted your marketing can become. For many businesses, this is the single most powerful way to leverage even the smallest nuggets of data. Business intelligence processes can reveal a huge amount about your ideal target audience, and that in turn can influence your marketing profoundly. Better targeting and understanding your demographic more fully are clearly huge benefits which are not to be overlooked by any business. Once again, it is clear that even using a small amount of data can help to make a huge difference to how your business operates. That small data can add up to a make a big impact. Perhaps it’s time that your business started to look at the data it might be holding in its own software.

Cascade.bi is a Business Intelligence tool for Sage 50 Accounts.  It sifts through your data to give you the important insights that you need to make better decisions.

Contact us for a free no obligation trial:

Packages start from just £45 month, no set up fee, no installation cost or training required. For a free 14 day trial, sign up at www.cascade.bi or contact us on: info@cascade.bi or call 03330 112882