Xero began on a small scale in New Zealand in 2006 but has since grown to become one of the giants of the online accounting world. It boasts a comprehensive list of basic and more advanced features, and it is priced to appeal to the larger end of the SME market. Many medium-sized businesses also trust their bookkeeping and accounts to Xero. While it’s true that very small businesses - freelancers and sole proprietors - won’t need all of Xero’s complexity and would be better off with the cheaper FreshBooks or free Wave, lager SMEs do get added value for their extra dollars. Xero is superbly well connected, not only in terms of integrations but also with a global network of trusted small business advisors. In other words, Xero is the hub of an ecosystem, which may be particularly important for SMEs with plans for rapid growth.
- Useful smart list feature
- Fixed asset management
- Budgeting tool
Deployment: Cloud, SaaS
Apps: Android, iOS
Training: Documentation, webinars, live online courses
Support: Email, in-software
In summary, Xero offers a very comprehensive range of features. If there’s a ‘but’ here, it’s once again that some very useful features are only available at the most expensive price point. That’s the case with tools like project management and time tracking.
Xero is very much on a par with QuickBooks Online when it comes to features. A lot of thought has been put into Xero’s feature set, and there are no glaring omissions. Be warned though, some features (multi-currency support, for example) are only available at the highest price point. Even a feature as common as time tracking is only available at the $60 a month level. Xero’s cheapest plan is a very reasonable $9 per month, but limits you to five invoices and quotes and five bills every month. We’re not entirely sure who this is aimed at. A mid-range plan is available for $30.
Unlike many competitors, however, every Xero plan gives you unlimited users, and if you’re prepared to pay, Xero gives you pretty much everything you could want.
The customizable dashboard is nicely laid out, and provides an instant health check for your business. As default it includes information from your business bank account, invoices owed, total cash in and out, an account watch list and bills you need to pay. The graphs are good, and all in all we would say that it is less aesthetically pleasing but more business-like than QuickBooks. You pay your money, you make your choice.
The dashboard leads you into a full raft of bookkeeping and accounting tools. Invoice through Xero’s one preloaded template - competitors offer more - or create custom templates of your own. As you’d expect, Xero offers recurring invoices, automatic invoice reminders, default payment settings and batch invoicing. You can create and send credit notes, estimates and statements from here too.
Contact management is similarly full-featured, with the added bonus of being able to create smart lists of customers. This is a neat idea. Divide customers into specific categories or geographies and offer them group-tailored discounts or offers. It’s a good idea and a very useful tool.
Another highlight is Xero’s expense tracking, which remembers the expense categories you’ve used before and applies them to new expenses imported from bank accounts or entered manually.
Xero’s chart of accounts is automatically created for your business and sector, though you can customize it at will. Accounts payable is well handled, and Xero supplies over 50 accounting reports, which will be plenty for any SME.
There’s also a nice budgeting tool, the ability to create purchase orders and a very useful sales tax feature. Xero lets you apply applicable taxes based on a customer’s location. It pulls in the applicable rates from a major tax data company, so information should be up to date.
Xero boasts a couple of standout features. It has a very accomplished fixed asset manager, which lets you run one of several depreciation schedules and add important details like warranty expiration dates. Inventory tracking is also polished, with Xero keeping tabs on your stock and even displaying how much it will be depleted if quotes turn into orders.
Interface and usability
- Useful demo company mode
- Good in-software videos
There is nothing revolutionary here, and when it comes to the interface your preference for Xero over another package will largely depend on personal taste. There is a lot to learn and Xero largely leaves you to it. For beginners, it will take a while to fully get to grips with such a sophisticated solution, but that is true for all of the full-featured accounting packages we’ve seen.
Xero takes the view that the best thing it can do for new users is pitch them straight into the program and help them out when they get stuck. It mostly works, and the help comes in the form of some useful videos and how-to guides that are linked to from the getting started panels at the top of most main pages. You can hide these when you’ve mastered the software, and the ‘?’ button also links you to the help center.
One feature we really liked was the demo company mode. If you are just taking Xero for a test drive using the software’s 30-day free trial (by comparison, Zoho offers just 14 days free) you might not want to waste time populating contact forms and linking bank accounts. With that in mind, Xero has created a demo company account that lets you explore the site and tinker with features without having to put a lot of leg work in first.
Xero looks a little different from rivals like QuickBooks and Zoho. Navigation links are stretched across the top of the page rather than down the left hand side, with each button - Business, Accounting, Payroll - opening a pull down menu of associated features. These groupings are logical and help to make navigation easier.
- Huge library of integrations
- Useful advisor finding tool
- No phone or live chat support
One potential issue with Xero is customer support. Yes, the in-software help is excellent, and most obvious topics are covered in the help center documentation. But if you really get stuck you can only contact the company direct by email - there is no live chat or phone support.
If performance can be judged by take-up, Xero is doing something right. Thousands of accountants seem to like Xero, which is certainly reassuring. At the same time, it’s also true that very small businesses may find its long list of advanced features intimidating. Try before you buy, is the message.
With Xero, it’s also worth remembering that the software package is one part of a larger ecosystem. Its huge library of integrations is one of Xero’s key selling points. At last count Xero offered around 700 integrations, and also connects with Zapier, potentially adding dozens more. Some add-ons are country-specific, however.
Xero’s app marketplace is like an oriental bazaar, linking you to a cornucopia of complementary financial and productivity applications. They include apps for payments, receipts, CRM, time tracking and more, including sector specific solutions for the likes of warehousing and automotive workshops. We couldn’t find an app to make our mid-morning coffee, but we wouldn’t be surprised if there was one in there somewhere.
Xero also offers an advisor finding tool, which links you to accountants and bookkeepers who know the software and have experience and expertise in your sector. It’s a nice touch that will save some small businesses time and hassle.
There are mobile apps for Android and iOS, which store all your relevant information and let you complete more basic tasks - sending an invoice, approving expenses - on the go. There are better mobile accounting apps, but Xero’s are perfectly adequate.
Xero is an excellent accounting and bookkeeping solution for businesses at the larger end of the SME spectrum. It features a wealth of advanced features and a galaxy of third party integrations. A global network of advisors adds another level of support.
Even medium sized businesses will find little if anything missing from the complete Xero package. If there’s a gripe here, it’s that some of the really good stuff is only available at the highest price point. The cheapest version can feel limited. In fact, it’s hard to think of a company that would prefer the basic Xero package over, say, Wave, which doesn’t limit you to five invoices a month.
Still, while the $60 price point might seem expensive, it has to be considered in light of Xero’s unlimited user policy. Some packages charge by the user, and in that way $60 might not be so pricey after all.
All told, Xero matches QuickBooks and Zoho in many areas, surpasses them in one or two and is slightly less engaging in a couple of others. It is not, perhaps, the easiest to use, but for larger SMEs, with accountancy and bookkeeping experience in house, it is a powerful and professional tool and certainly one to consider.