Invoice automation for multinational tech start-ups in Africa

An interview with Peter Magner, Director of Iridium

Hi Peter, please introduce us to Iridium.

Iridium is a South African accounting, advisory and automation firm. We serve six core industries: retail, hospitality, e-commerce, digital marketing, manufacturing and tech start-ups. 

Let’s take a closer look at tech start-ups. In your experience, what are the common needs of tech start-ups in your country?

Tech start-ups often have really big teams, like 150-200 people. As the organisation grows – and growth can be fast – they start to put more and more processes and controls in place. They also tend to become multinational businesses: whenever they move into a new region, tech start-ups usually create a new company in that area, especially when they have a team there. So, the process for expense management becomes a very sensitive one that needs to be taken good care of. They definitely need comprehensive and granular financial controls.

When it comes to software, how do needs translate into requirements?

For companies of this scale it’s essential to have cloud systems ensuring simultaneous easy access to data from any location. Process automation is vital for tech start-ups because they grow continuously, which means doing things manually is simply impossible. With regard to accounting, they need data digitisation tools to convert bills and purchase orders from paper as well as capable tools for the automation of approval and audit processes. Personally, I’d say it is even more important at the moment that accounting and other software supports mobile devices and the BYOD approach.

Can you give us an example of a tech start-up for which you’ve set up spend control? 

Sure, our first ever client was Zoona. Lots of people in Africa don’t have a bank account, making money transfers a challenge. Zoona has solved this problem by establishing a network of money kiosks across the whole of Africa. By using such a kiosk and a mobile phone – and that’s any mobile, not necessarily a smartphone – anyone can make a money transfer and receive one.

When Zoona came to us, they had 5 different companies and over 150 staff members across five countries. Obviously, managing approvals without a good process was very difficult for them. We moved them from a desktop accounting solution called Pastel (the African version of Sage) to Xero and also implemented ApprovalMax, Receipt Bank and Expensify; plus an additional reporting tool on top of that.

How did you client approve expenses before automation? 

Our clients mainly used paper: they printed everything out and then waited for people to sign off the documents. Approvals were also requested via email, which the responsible person would reply to by writing “Approved”. That was it, their approval system. Either way, it was really slow and literally relied on approvers being in the office with the document in front of them. 

Is there a trusted app stack you use for tech start-ups or is it custom-made each time?

Well, we’ve replicated the model we developed for Zoona for other tech start-ups as they all tend to have certain characteristics: a number of entities in various regions, and a large team with several departments and projects. In general, they use Xero tracking categories – typically 2 of them: department and location or department and project.  

What’s the implementation procedure for a new company? Do they usually have a clearly defined authorisation workflow ready or do you build one from scratch with them?

They often think they know what they want, but as you unpack it you start seeing gaps in the process. I always ask them to document their approval process with an Excel spreadsheet first, and that’s when they start reformulating it as they go. This shows that a lot of tech start-ups don’t really have a clear idea of approval after all. They do realise the importance of putting a good process in place though, which is why through the implementation of ApprovalMax their process gets refined and improved. 

What are the top benefits that you and your clients get from using ApprovalMax?

Definitely, thanks to digitisation, documents don’t need to be printed out and physically signed any more. Approvers don’t have to be at their desks when a request comes in, which is a massive benefit.

Another major advantage is the enforcement of our approval matrix based on the company’s rules and guidelines. Before, situations like this one were quite common: if a document was put on the desk of someone who was not authorised to approve but did so anyway, it would go through the system simply because it had been signed. No way ApprovalMax would let that happen – we now have a really good solid approval matrix that routes documents exactly where they need to go. 

Authorisation with ApprovalMax is properly organised, much faster, efficient and transparent. Any hold-ups, missing or delayed approvals and we’ll find out about that in the reports so we can take action right away. ApprovalMax certainly enables a truly streamlined approval process.