How to buy a small business software: small packages

Typically, a company’s business system is made up of many different
applications – often from different suppliers. In some cases these systems are
integrated, but many small organisations just operate on a stand-alone basis –
with an accounts system, sales database and payroll. There are many
sophisticated packages available for small organisations but I am still
surprised to see how many still use the spreadsheet for most functions.

The leading small business packages provide a complete suite of modules from
finance to distribution and in some cases to basic assembly and manufacturing.
Some have their own payroll and a few have more sophisticated HR systems. The
leading integrated packages for small businesses would be Access Accounting,
Hansa, Mamut, Microsoft, Moneysoft, MYOB, Pegasus, Sage and Quick Books. These
are generic integrated suites of software but some specialist businesses may
want software specifically written for their industry.

From over 800 accounting systems 15 years ago, today there are less than 100
in full development mode available in the UK. Consolidation in the industry, by
giants like Microsoft, Oracle and Sage, has curtailed the variety of business
systems available.

Many business software developers have gone out of business – unable to keep
up with developments in modern Windows and Web technologies. There are of course
many developers hanging-on by providing support to their legacy applications,
but these products are now in maintenance-mode, with little chance of any
significant development.

Recent estimates, from Computing, of the size of the wider business software
market, show that there are over 2,000 specialist business software developers
in the UK. Some of these are typical software developers offering a complete
integrated suite of applications, either directly or indirectly, through
resellers to their customers. However the majority are specialist ‘value-added’
developers who have bolted-on specialist modules to existing business systems.

These VARs, value added resellers, provide vertical industry solutions for
say hotels, car hire and retailers.
Many will use industry standard systems to host their applications, such as Sage
and Microsoft Dynamics, which they sell and support with their own applications.

Estimates from the Professional Computing Association show that there are
over 3,000 resellers in the UK but not all will have their own software
products. So a customer could be looking at huge number of suppliers.

The key to finding the right solution is to document your requirements
beforehand. This isn’t the long complex specification we used ten years ago, but
a short statement of your requirements.

For example:

  • The scope of your requirements – the modules you require (Finance Suite,
    Payroll etc.)
  • The operating platform you require – normally MS Windows or Mac OSX
  • The number of users accessing the system
  • Your industry requirements, e.g. hotel, construction, charity, etc.
  • Your specialist requirements, e.g. carbon footprint recording, membership
    management, etc.

Dennis Keeling is chief executive of Business Software
Intelligence. He was a founder and former CEO of the software industry trade
body BASDA.

1. Once you know what you need you can send this out to
potential suppliers. In some cases they could be the software author or in many
cases a local reseller that will not only provide the software but also the
associated hardware and implementation. Beware though, the software industry
employs some very astute salespeople. This is why you need to say what you want
before they try to sell you their product, which may not fully meet your

2. Implementing new software is always a traumatic
experience and can disrupt your business considerably – I equate it to moving
house. So test the software before you commit to buying it. Try out some of your
own data and let your staff try it also. It’s often too late to find that the
package is not suitable after you have installed it.

The government tries to implement software using the ‘big-bang’
approach and we have seen the disasters along the way. Most sane organisations
prefer to implement their systems in parallel. That is bringing the new system
up to speed alongside the legacy system. It may mean duplication of data
initially but it does mean that you can resolve the many implementation issues
as they occur out of view of your customers and other staff. It takes time to
implement and get a new system fully operational, therefore you need to ensure
it does not disrupt your business and customers along the way. So how do you
start? It’s not easy finding the ideal solution but there is help at hand.

Where to find information

The conundrum for those wanting to buy specialist systems is ‘how to find

Typical software shows and exhibitions, like Softworld, specialise in product
sectors like Accounting & Finance and HR & Payroll. These exhibitions
allow delegates to attend short demonstrations of a wide range of applications.

Many software selection sites, like Accounting & Finance 365 specialise
in solutions for small, mid-range and corporate solutions, but tend to be
dominated by the leading suites of applications.

Vertical markets are served by the Evaluation Centre’s web-site but the range
of vertical markets is not comprehensive.

The ICAEW has a software accreditation scheme and is currently developing a
software directory. It has extended the scheme from typical accounting products
to eCommerce, Document Management, etc.

Computing Market Intelligence provides a comprehensive list of IT suppliers,
the list can be searched on for vertical applications.

The fail-safe for all specialist enquiries is to use one of the main web

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