Connect Spotlight: Accountable

Posted: 3 Aug 2020

They say the only certain things in life are death and taxes… If that’s the case, Accountable, is in good shape. The all-in-one app that helps the self-employed manage their taxes and finances launched in Belgium in 2019 and expanded quickly into Germany in 2020. Accountable came onto the Connect Ventures radar just under two years ago. Their flair for creating a beautiful product that users love had us hooked, and we’re proud to have them in our Connect portfolio.

In this month’s Connect Ventures Spotlight, Rory caught up with Accountable co-founders Nicolas Quarré and Alexis Eggermont to chat about the company’s growth, product obsession, and vision for the future of the tax industry.

Nicolas and Alexis — you know we love founder origin stories, what is Accountable and why did you start it?

Nicolas: Accountable is a solution to help self-employed professionals meet all their tax obligations, from filing their taxes to managing their expenses and invoices. The company launched in Belgium last year and expanded to Germany this year.

We started Accountable because we both saw the need for automation and a truly different, better experience for taxes as a setting for professionals. We didn’t believe that accountants, tax advisors or legacy software could bring a true consumer-like experience to this problem, and we felt confident that we could.

Alexis: The last point is a bit more personal. We’re dealing with the real economy — the freelance and self-employed are real people operating their own businesses, and they’re an amazing set of clients. During the COVID crisis, they were one of the sectors that was the most impacted. Being connected to this real economy, to people doing things by themselves, is extremely exciting as a business.

Can you tell us more about who Accountable serves and what pain point you’re trying to solve?

There are 50 million self-employed professionals in Europe, who all need to file their taxes — not only once a year, but often every quarter, and in some cases, like for German freelancers, it’s every month. It’s a large market with a recurring pain point, which makes it very attractive for a SaaS business.

Nicolas: Next to that, it’s a fascinating technical problem to solve: transforming the tax code into software. The entire product is built on a lot of automation. That’s how we deliver value for our users.

I love the fact you started mobile first and then only recently launched a desktop version. Can you talk us through the logic?

Alexis: I felt strongly about this. It’s simply a better experience. If you want to create a true assistant for your taxes, you need notifications, you need something that is always available. It should be in the palm of your hands, in your pocket, to do a quick check, to solve a quick problem, to upload a receipt or create a quick invoice.

In terms of strategy, it’s very interesting to start from mobile because it forces you to be as simple as possible. We see so many solutions in our space that have high-complexity, or high-perceived complexity, in the product. Starting from mobile forces you to be extremely simple in the way you display information to the user.

Nicolas: To be honest, we wanted to stay only on mobile. If you’d asked me three years ago what the future of the product was going to be, I would not have envisioned a desktop version. It was a request from our users! It came from prospects, people starting with the product, long-time customers… So we realised it was a key element of the stack, of the tools that people wanted to use, and we needed to cover that.

That makes sense a ton of sense and there’s no doubt your product is better because of it. We know you have a very strong test-and-learn mindset in the team. Where does that come from and how do you use it?

Nicolas: Well, it’s not our first company! Both Alexis and I made a couple of mistakes in our previous ventures that we tried to learn from. We had very strong beliefs — in the market, in the way to address that market — and that did not deliver the results we wanted. The approach here is much more data-driven, proof by the actual results, much more bottom up.

It’s also the type of product we are building. It’s very consumer-based, which makes it extremely easy for us to test. We get great feedback, fast. We make a change in the product and two hours later, we know the impact it has on the customer experience. It’s a good playground for testing.

Alexis: An important point there is that in our space, the way we tackle the problem comes from harnessing the complexity on the tax side — building a product that is correct, easy to use, etc. The other challenge is acquiring customers in an efficient manner. The only way to have a proper acquisition strategy is to test, make fast iterations, learn quickly, fail quickly, and stay away from “blanket” strategies in favour of more focused experiments. The only way to do that is to test all the time.

Obviously you can’t do all of this without your team. I’ve always been impressed by how much product you’re able to build relative to your size. What’s your secret?

Nicolas: Focus. You need to have a vision and execute along that vision, while being flexible to adapt priorities based on what you see, on user feedback, on the market. And the team runs the experiments. I think a lot of the positive vibes come from the progress we make. The fact that we run short-term, iterative cycles while maintaining a strong vision makes everyone realise that we are progressing, and we are progressing fast. That growth plays a big part in our collective motivation.

Alexis: We also spend a lot of time with our customers. Customer success is a key function in the company. We’ve got a very strong referral strategy, which is our main avenue for acquisitions. And this contact with our users is also a tremendous source of team motivation. We get customer feedback every hour, which is visible to the entire team, and that’s really positive.

You’ve already mentioned that you started in Belgium and then launched later in Germany. Why did you take this approach and what were some of the key lessons you learned?

Alexis: Belgium is a pretty good playground. It’s a small and diverse country, 3–4 languages, different cultures. It forces you to set up quick methodologies to understand different sets of customers very fast. That has helped us a lot in growing Germany.

On the project side, the core product is an engine that translates tax rules into software. It’s not country dependent. The fact that we started in Belgium and quickly launched in a second country demonstrates our ability to create a scalable platform to solve the problem we are after. It’s also a catalyst that pushes you to go out fast and create truly international companies right from the start.

I know the first couple of years have gone quickly but looking back is there anything you would have done differently if you could?

Alexis: I think we could have invested earlier in our organic acquisition. We took a bit of time to do it, with very positive performance marketing when we started, and we could have started organic acquisition strategies maybe six months earlier — both in Belgium and Germany. These things take a long time before they deliver results. That’s on the tactical front.

Nicolas: On the product front — which is always important to look at as it commits a lot of the team’s capacity — we did not make a lot of mistakes. I can name one or two things we built that could have been serviced by the team after longer time periods, but they are small things.

Alexis: In the end, it’s those small things that differentiate a company that does a superb execution over just an average execution. Being able to look at those decisions and assess if they were good or bad is an important part of the process.

You can’t discuss a tool like this without considering the impact on those whose jobs you’re rethinking. How do you view the role of accountants now and in the future?

Accounting is one of the most fast-changing jobs today. Accountants and tax advisors see their activity and responsibilities change every six months. This change comes from the customers, who are requesting different things. Bookkeeping, which used to be the base layer of accounting, is disappearing. Of course, you’ll still find accountants who run on paper and fax (that’s not a joke) but they are rare.

Nicolas: We perceive Accountable as a way to help our users automate that part of bookkeeping. The role of the accountant becomes a complement for when you have complex questions that require extra legal support.

Alexis: We’ve actually adapted our positioning to facilitate this complementarity. In the past year, we released an accounting interface for our users’ accountants. We’re onboarding accountants daily now, and they use Accountable to review all their clients’ documents, submit their taxes, and address those complex questions. This market shift is visible and we are one of its enablers, specifically for our target of self-employed professionals.

So, what next? What’s your long-term vision for Accountable?

Nicolas: The future of taxes is software. We’re seeing a lot of players in the market concentrating on better serving accountants and tax advisors. We’re going after the larger market opportunity: the actual end user. We’re doing it through scalable software and a strong focus. Our objective is simple: we want to own the space of taxes for self-employed professionals in Europe.

Finally, you know we like to share the love at Connect. Do you have any go-to books, blogs, or resources that you can recommend to others?

Nicolas: Well, I’m not a big business book reader. I like novels. But there is one podcast I really like: it’s hosted by Venrock, a US fund, and it’s called Running Through Walls. They have some very good short podcasts on a variety of topics.

Alexis: I love to talk to other founders. On that front, COVID was an amazing opportunity to connect, share challenges we are facing, opportunities we might have. Specifically, the people within the Connect portfolio are amazing and a huge source of inspiration.

Amazing, we love that. Founders helping founders, that’s what it’s all about. Thanks for your time, Nico and Alexis! We can’t wait to see you grow Accountable further and wider in the months to come.