Let’s imagine a brand new, passionate entrepreneur. They’ve just started their online shop selling vintage typewriters, a dream of theirs for years. They have a full-time job, so this is still their side project, but they have big dreams ahead. They’re eight months in and not doing nearly as well as they hoped. They’ve sold a few typewriters, but they haven’t figured out why they’re not making any money. Nine months in and it looks like their passionate project won’t make it.
50% of small businesses fail in the first five years.
That is a lot of failed dreams. We looked at the churn results of Bench clients and noticed that one of the major contributors was businesses going under. One of the major contributors to a failing business is poor financial management.
This was a problem I felt passionate about, it is the perfect example of building a product that truly helps people, while also positively affecting the business and we should strive to identify these opportunities. We approached this iteratively, looking and learning at what really helps small businesses understand their finances.
The data we had available to us was essentially transaction dates, names, amounts, and where they had been categorized. For the first few years of Bench we had no visual reports, we had a table view of a client’s income statement, balance sheet, and a lot of clients asking for more.
So we started right away playing with existing charting libraries. For our first version we did not functionally deviate much from charting libraries, but put our own treatment on it.
The first visualization we created was the highest possible view we could offer, a line chart with profit and loss over time. This was the first step in moving away from a tabular view of transactions, and into an understandable view of a client’s finances.
I ran feedback sessions to collate user feedback and the various team’s insights into how the reports were working, and if they were actually useful.
Where your money is going is important. Expenses reveal opportunities to increase margins. I created a list of a client’s Top 10 Expenses which would allow them to see proportionally where most of their money was being spent. Then a client could click into each category and view the individual transactions that were contributing to their expenses.
Our first version of reports was good, it was a definite value add to the product and to our clients, but it barely touched the surface of our objective.
More recently, I led the design in a small team during an internal hackathon to take what we had learned building these two reports and the research talking to clients, to produce a visual report for expense optimization.
In two days we created a new report that showed comparisons over time where a business was spending its money.
This would allow a client to understand visually how they did in comparison to different months, quarters, and years. We showed this to a couple clients during those two days and we are currently working on improving and releasing this report for all clients.
Visual reports were created to better communicate different sets of information to clients. Bench is working with many small businesses that do not have the financial knowledge to navigate and make use of a lot of financial information. While these reports are very useful, at times they can be difficult to approach for someone just starting their business.
I started looking at how clients were communicating with bookkeepers as inspiration for how we could make their data more approachable.
I developed a concept around using natural language to extract useful and relevant information and present it to clients in a very readable format. These little financial hints, or summaries, provided the mechanism for clients to dig deeper into what was happening in their finances in an approachable way.
Making financial information understandable and actionable, is one of the most exciting things that Bench is working on. It is not only providing a useful tool for clients, but it’s having positive strategic results for the business.
As we start to develop more integrations with more services, we’ll be able to expand our scope for what we can offer as useful knowledge to our clients.
The more data that we have, the more oppurtunities we have to make that data useful. While we may expand our product scope, insights will layer on top of that data and be one of the core feature of Bench.