Early this year, we reported on 14 Japanese startups that provide accounting or financial services. Many of them have launched new services or raised funds this year. The recent news that Hottolink, the company behind Hottoscope, went public on the TSE Mothers market shows that this field is rapidly growing. One of the startups we mentioned in that article, Crowd Cast, was founded in 2011 to develops financial solutions for small businesses, including its cloud-based accounting app, BizNote (iOS／Android). The company recently announced a new app for startups called BizNote Expense, which is to be released next month.
If you follow the Japan startup scene, you might wonder how the app is different from alternatives like Freee or Money Forward. This field is no longer a Blue Ocean market, so how can Crowd Cast differentiate from competitors? We spoke with Takashi Hoshikawa, the company’s CEO and founder, about their future strategy.
After Hoshikawa worked at Microsoft and Digital Equipment Corporation as a project manager, he enrolled in business school to acquire an MBA in 2009. Since then, he had been considering the idea of starting an accounting service. In the fall of 2011, he won first prize at the Yayoi App Contest, operated by Yoyoi, Japan’s largest accounting software company. He succeeded in raising 25 million yen ($250,000) from Yayoi in May of 2013.
In addition to raising funds from Yayoi, Crowd Cast has a business partnership with the company. While Yayoi has 74% market share of accounting software in Japan, Crowd Cast focuses on streamlining the process of entering expenses during the accounting process. Hoshikawa explained:
We developed a smartphone app, BizNote Expense, whose feature is focused on entering expenses. By letting employees enter expenses on their smartphones, BizNote Expense reduces work for those in charge of accounting. In small businesses, this is often the CEO himself. Utilizing the network I built while I was at Microsoft, the app was developed in Europe and has a sophisticated design. Development is almost finished. After minor adjustment of the UI/UX, we plan to release the product in January.
The data entered on the app can be viewed on the BizNote dashboard, used in Yayoi’s package software or on its online cloud-based platform for tax returns. Yayoi and Crowd Cast each have different strengths, and they can both enhance their core competencies.
The unknown market for expenses processing
According to Hoshikawa, in the area of expense processing, there are a number of key players:
- For large companies with more than 1000 employees, Concur is the biggest competitor. Initial fee: 2.5 million yen ($25,000), Monthly fee: around 500,000 yen ($5000).
- For middle-size companies with 200 to 1000 employees, there are about 10 software companies offering services, including Rakurakuseisan. Average initial fee: 30,000 yen ($300), monthly fee: around 10,000 ($100).
- For small companies with less than 200 employees, there are several companies like Expensify and Shoeboxed. Monthly fee: 1000 – 10,000 yen
(Note that the listed fees here are just for a reference. They could differ depending on the conditions.)
Crowd Cast aims to expand its client base among small companies with less than 200 employees. Hoshikawa adds:
For these kinds of companies, few of them have an independent department for accounting. In many cases, the management or workers in the general affairs department take care of accounting. With BizNote Expense, companies can automate everything from processing expenses to collecting to accounting, and as a result, they can save time to focus on more important matters.
The fee for BizNote Expense starts from 390 yen ($4) per month. The smartphone app is intentionally minimal in order to provide a reasonable price for small companies, and to make it easy for workers to use.
I had one simple question as I spoke with Hoshikawa. If the expense processing platform is tied up with Yayoi, why doesn’t Yayoi develop such a platform on its own? Could not such a big company form a project team with experienced engineers, and develop a platform quicker and better?
But developing a smartphone app or establishing a cloud service business model is not really what Yayoi is typically good at. Major companies in this kind of situation can find an advantage to tie up with startups. That is open innovation.
Accounting systems differ drastically across regions because of different accounting standards and tax systems. Yayoi used to be under Intuit, but later broke away in 2003 in a management buyout, and was subsequently acquired by livedoor. One of the reasons that Intuit and Yayoi couldn’t find synergies was the difference of accounting systems between countries.
But expense processing doesn’t differ much by country, so that means BizNote Expense could expand globally with minimum localization efforts. The Crowd Cast website already has both Japanese and English versions.
While Crowd Cast has tied up with Yoyoi in Japan, it could be possible for them to partner with Intuit in the future. As more and more startups operate across borders, this solution by Crowd Cast could help make business much more convenient.
The iOS version of BizNote Expense will be available for download in January, and the Android version is to be released in the first quarter of 2014.