Software Provider Makes SaaS Offering Shine With Robust BI Tools and End-User Reporting Environment
Chrome River Technologies provides online expense reporting and spend-management software solutions for law firms, professional services organizations, and corporations worldwide. Using the latest rich Internet application (RIA) technology and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) deployment methods, Chrome River’s reporting solution, called Expense, requires no hardware, no software, and minimal setup, yet it provides an end-user experience that is equivalent to a full-featured, on-premise desktop application.
In 2008, when Chrome River Expense was initially released, it was selected by eight of the Global Top 50 law firms because of its ability to simplify the entire expense management process, including compliance with corporate and industry policies, computation of value-added and withholding taxes, automation of approval and routing processes, and integration of expense data with clients’ billing and financial systems. Since that time, Expense has included standard reports for essential functions, such as year-to-date expenses, expenses itemized by category, and expense reports waiting for approval. But customers wanted more.
According to Alan Rich, chief executive officer and cofounder of Chrome River, when it came time to add business intelligence (BI) functionality to Expense, Chrome River found that the web-based architecture and lightweight deployment model were perfectly matched to Information Builders WebFOCUS BI software.
“As our business grew, we realized we needed to provide more robust reporting and BI capabilities,” Rich said. “Customers were continually requesting information and we wanted to empower them to get into the data, analyze it, and create reports the way they wanted to. They began to ask more complex questions, and we wanted to help them obtain answers through a self-service reporting environment.”
With WebFOCUS, Chrome River’s clients are empowered with highly sophisticated analytics that are visible in out-of-the-box as well as custom reports. This improved visibility into spending patterns helps users to better control and manage their expenses, while enabling Chrome River to extend the value of its offering.
Shedding New Light on the BI Market
Rich and his staff analyzed the BI market according to three key criteria. The first had to do with the BI platforms themselves; Chrome River wanted powerful reporting technology that was flexible and easy to use. The other two criteria concerned the vendors.
“We wanted to work with a technology company that understands the economics of the SaaS business,” Rich explains. “On top of that, we had high expectations for customer support.”
Information Builders satisfied all of Chrome River’s requirements. Rich and his team particularly liked WebFOCUS InfoAssist, a web-based tool that lets business analysts create their own reports. WebFOCUS Active Technologies were also a big draw, since they let users analyze a subset of expense data very easily. But more than anything else, Rich says his team bonded with Information Builders’ staff. “We could tell that they were the kind of people who would be committed to working with us on any issues that came up,” he adds.
Chrome River selected WebFOCUS for several reasons, including its strong support for the Linux MySQL database environment, inherent scalability, compatibility with Adobe® Flex®, and extensive extract, transform, and load (ETL) capabilities.
“Information Builders supported our efforts to develop key reports, supported our security and multitenancy requirements, and was able to link report content back to documents held in the Chrome River database,” Rich says. “We also liked the end-user reporting capabilities of InfoAssist, which let users create their own ad hoc reports and e-mail notifications.”
Information Builders’ finance team worked with Chrome River to create an economic model that suited its subscription-based licensing model. “One of Information Builders’ real strengths is that they understand the economics of a SaaS business,” Rich continues. “They were able to come up with a pricing structure that works for both of us.”
Polishing Up the Security Model
Information Builders’ Professional Services helped install the software and train several developers. They set up the reporting server in a Linux environment and configured it to access a MySQL database that is continuously updated as people enter and retrieve expense information. “Information Builders was very supportive,” says Rich. “They helped us develop a sophisticated BI environment.”
The team began by creating a standard suite of reports using WebFOCUS Managed Reporting. Customers access these reports via HTML launch pages. Rich says the parameterized reporting environment gives them lots of flexibility.
“Every client now obtains key WebFOCUS reports right out of the box. For example, the Expense Analysis report enables them to select specific date ranges, expense types, and attributes, and then output the results to Excel or an active HTML format for further analysis.”
Chrome River’s security model ensures that customers can never see each other’s data. Information Builders helped the company extend this same tight security layer to its ad hoc reporting environment. Commonly referred to as multitenancy, cost-effective SaaS applications work by sharing application functions, reports, database assets, and identity management infrastructure. This fundamental requirement for SaaS companies is what makes the business model work and what has enabled the application service provider (ASP) industry to evolve into the SaaS model. Today, multitenancy is one of the pillars of Cloud computing.
Chrome River held a two-day seminar to show customers how to use the new reporting tools and other features of the new BI environment. Rich says the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
“Most customers took to it readily,” he says. “We provided 15 pre-built lessons online, which helps them get to know the potential of the new reports and come up with other interesting reports on their own.”
Shiny New Tools for End-User Reporting
In addition to the standard Managed Reporting reports, customers have unlimited flexibility to create their own reports using WebFOCUS InfoAssist, a robust ad hoc tool for query, reporting, and analysis that puts advanced report creation capabilities into the hands of business users. Like Chrome River’s own software environment, this browser-based reporting application uses RIA technologies to facilitate a logical and simple workflow, guiding users through every step, from building a query all the way up to publishing complex reports with interactive charts and graphs.
“I love using InfoAssist,” says Marti Attanasio, financial systems project manager at Gordon & Rees, a San Francisco-based law firm with nearly 400 attorneys in 17 offices throughout the U.S. “It has been a tremendous help for getting expense information out to the people who need it.”
Attanasio uses InfoAssist primarily to create reports for office administrators and accounting personnel. She and her team track millions of dollars in annual expenses for travel, conferences, gifts, filing fees, and other routine expenditures.
“If an attorney paid for it, it runs through Chrome River and we can report on it with InfoAssist,” she explains. “For example, an attorney might say ‘I need to see all my marketing expenses over the last three months.’ Creating these custom reports used to be time-consuming, but InfoAssist makes it a lot easier.”
Attanasio taught herself to use the reporting tools. After reviewing the documentation, she was able to create simple reports in a matter of minutes, and more complex reports (ones that include graphs, summary tables, and pie charts) in a few hours. Four Gordon & Rees staffers currently have access to InfoAssist, but that number is expected to grow to as many as 20.
Reflecting on a Successful Rollout
With no up-front hardware or software costs and an affordable per-user pricing model, Chrome River Expense has become the gold standard for automating corporate expense reporting and approval processes. Built-in compliance monitoring helps companies enforce their unique expense policy requirements, and flexible inquiry and analysis tools, based on WebFOCUS and InfoAssist, provide unprecedented visibility into spending patterns by office, department, practice group, user, client, and other variables.
The customer base is growing quickly, attesting to the popularity of Expense and its embedded reporting engine. Encouraged by positive customer feedback, Chrome River plans to use WebFOCUS Enable for Adobe® Flex® to create powerful data visualizations, such as 3D charts, dashboards, and a more compelling landing page.
“We started with the bread and butter, but we’ll get to the dessert soon,” admits Rich. “WebFOCUS is already helping us to make sales. We can demonstrate sophisticated reporting capabilities to our prospects, and that’s hugely important. Additionally, the BI software frees up our internal development resources, so we can focus on building core functionality instead of creating reporting tools.”
The advanced and intuitive features of WebFOCUS InfoAssist enable users to rapidly generate even the most sophisticated reports – without IT intervention. InfoAssist overcomes the traditional challenges of ad hoc reporting, so that any user can easily access, review, and analyze critical corporate information, whenever they need it, regardless of their level of technical savvy.