To Excel, or not Excel: how to build the next FP&A super app

So Long, Spreadsheets

When it comes to FP&A, why do 87% of CFOs stick with Excel instead of transitioning to more user-friendly apps? 

Despite being nearly 40 years old, there’s clearly a draw to the humble cell. 

Excel, for its old age, still provides a better customizable experience than any product worth its funding. Excel lets a finance department can define their own KPIs, select the scope of data to analyze, and create custom data visualizations with ease.

Of course: it’s 2022. With the rise of cloud-based accounting solutions, companies want software that is also user friendly and shareable. They want Excel, but not Excel.

To understand this trend better, we investigated the most winning, modern FP&A apps to find one common trait: these products use powerful UIs and integrations to build a user experience that is friendly, shareable, and most importantly customizable.

Whether you’re building the next FP&A super app, or just looking to better understand a growing space, we’ll take you through why customization matters, how an app can implement it, and what leading FP&A apps are doing to stay ahead of the game.

The Challenge: How Important is Customization, Really?

CFOs want more insight into their business than a profit and loss statement. They want to understand metrics like churn, customer lifetime value, and a range of other KPIs. With Excel, these typically take days to configure.

A Workday survey of 260 CFOs around the world found that nearly half want their employees to focus on strategic assignments: which means spending less time on menial financial tasks.

If this is the problem space — how does an FP&A meet these CFOs’ needs? It needs to be as flexible as Excel, but take the work Excel requires out of the equation. Customizable. But easy to use. 

The Game Plan: Great Dashboards, Better Integrations

Of course — adding customizable features to your software looks different depending on what your ideal user needs. Buter after surveying the top FP&A apps, we found two features that act as the foundation for that functionality:

Great Dashboards and even better integrations.

Here’s how to bring down the spreadsheet.

Create Great Dashboards

A finance managers’ responsibility is to consolidate and communicate the company’s financial health. This is done typically through reports and data visualizations. 

For your app to meet the baseline set by the spreadsheet, your users need to configure standard reports based around general ledgers, accounts payables, accounts receivables, cash inflows and outflows, and more. 

For your app to be great, report building should be intuitive without requiring the help of IT.

And for your app to go above and beyond? Provide actionable reporting through data visualizations that allow your users to make quick financial decisions and share information across teams.

Below is an example screenshot from Causal, an FP&A software that does this and more. 

Profit and Loss Dashboard from Causal

Enrich Data with Integrations

Integrations are your secret weapon: if done right, they make your FP&A app the a company’s single source of financial truth. 

With robust integrations, your users are able to sync data from their preferred ERP, Accounting, and CRM software. This consolidates your user’s tech stack and keeps them on your software for longer. 

Below are some quick examples of what you can offer with integrations in each category.

The Non-Negotiable: Accounting Integrations

What: Accounting integrations are the core of your FP&A software. 

Who: Netsuite, QuickBooks Online, and Xero are some of the most popular in North America.

Why Offer? By pulling granular transaction data, you provide your users with up-to-date reports around their entire business — the key differentiator we mentioned above.

For more on how to understand accounting integrations, check out our Developers’ Guide to Accounting Concepts. It’s aimed to help you understand the myriad of accounting terms in the context of an API.

Future Forecast: ERP Integrations

What: ERP (“Enterprise Resource Planning”) platforms manage day-to-day manufacturing and distribution of products. 

Who: Acumatica Cloud and NetSuite. However, ERP apps typically do not include budgeting or financial planning abilities. 

Why Offer? Integrating ERP with your FP&A app allows users to make real-time analyses and craft complex what-if scenarios. 

Cash Flow, in Detail: CRM Integrations

What: CRM (”Customer Relationship Management”) platforms provide a 360 degree view of every ongoing or past deal. 

Who: Popular CRM platforms include Salesforce and HubSpot, while others like Pipedrive or ZohoCRM are quickly gaining ground.

Why Offer? Integrations allow for collaborative planning because finance teams see a real-time view of their company’s sales pipeline. Your software can provide value by making accurate cash inflow and outflow predictions and guiding your users to plan accordingly.

Post-Game Review: 3 Examples of FP&A Apps that Surpass Excel

Let’s see how the strategies we discussed above play out in the FP&A market. 

Here’s three company’s that are playing the FP&A game right.

The Shortcut to Winning is a Unified API

They say there are no shortcuts to success. 

Respectfully we disagree. 

Integrations are clearly an advantage for FP&A platforms. Building out integrations is a lengthy and time-consuming process.

That’s why we built a Unified API for finance, accounting, sales, and more. Merge’s Unified API allows you to integrate once to reach industry-loved apps that will become the backbone for your FP&A software. Our API returns standardized data across all platforms, and handles the long-term of integration maintenance for you. 

Access Transaction Data with a Unified Accounting API

Aligned with the importance of customization, our Accounting Unified API includes an endpoint for every transaction type needed to build financial reports from the ground up. 

Our transactions object reaches all transaction types, whether Netsuite (see all the fields it includes, listed here), Quickbooks or Xero. 

What can you use all these transactions for? Custom reports. While your users can pull income statements or profit and loss statements from accounting softwares, they’d be missing out on the underlying data. Having access to all transaction types allows users to configure reports and support changing dimensions. 

If you’re curious about seeing what a unified transaction object looks like, check out our docs here.