During a recent trip to Australia to attend Xerocon Sydney and meet with Dext Australia’s partners, our CEO Sabby Gill was interviewed by Andrew Van De Beek FCA. The accountant, Founder & Head of Purpose at Illumin8 – and long time user of Dext – asked Sabby about his career and Dext’s processes, as well as the vision and mission that drive the Dext team. Here are some of the highlights from their conversation.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – We were chatting beforehand, and shared that you’re potentially the least qualified CEO for a business like Dext. I think you shared that you finished university with practically no qualifications. Talk to me about how you actually ended up where you are today.
Sabby Gill – Yeah, it’s been a long personal journey. I probably didn’t do as well as I could have done in school. I got too many distractions and didn’t come out with the qualifications I was expecting. It was very disappointing for me personally and I realised I’d made a mistake. So I ended up going into night school for four years and came out with a diploma, a degree around business is Finance and accounting. I studied specifically around computer studies at that time, did some programming and those sorts of things. And the great thing was that the company I was working for at the time gave me all that time for the exam. So that was my first journey into corporate life. And the great thing was I was in the finance department.
So that’s where I really found my love for systems and software, because I was probably the youngest individual within the finance department. There was a new system coming in for the general ledger – it was very much a manual process up until then, they had these old antiquated big IBM computer systems. I was the new kid in the block, the youngest out of all of them, and they said “hey, we’re putting this new system in, it’s called SAP. We’d love for you to get involved”. So roll on.
For ten years I was at that company. At my final job there I was the European Financial Systems Manager responsible for the implementation of SAP, then got headhunted and my journey started there with PeopleSoft, Oracle, HP… always within software. So my 35 years worth of experience now is all around financial systems, it’s around software. So even though I may not have the professional qualifications, I’ve definitely got the experience, but it was a personal journey at that moment in time. For me now, experience is sometimes more important than qualification.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – That’s really interesting. There’s a lot of young adults and people leaving school who find themselves in a similar situation where they may or may not realise that they’ve made a bad decision, a wrong qualification, a wrong course. If you were to give someone in your shoes who is going through that experience just one piece of advice, what would that be?
Sabby Gill – Take risks. Don’t automatically assume that every door is closed for somebody coming out of school. Somebody saw something in me, gave me that opportunity, and everybody has something to offer. It may not be what your first subject was or what qualification you got at school, but persevere.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – Can you think of one, two people who’ve really impacted you over the years, helped you to get to where you are?
Sabby Gill – Absolutely the most important person in my entire life was my father. Both my parents passed away, but my father was probably the biggest influence because even though I felt I let myself down, I let him down because he did extra jobs. I was the only person in my entire family (I’m the youngest of six) that went through to private school, all the others went through normal state schools. So to make that sacrifice, he saw something in me. At the end, I sort of realised that, that was a turning point for me. But ever since then, right up until my father passed away in 2018, he never ever, in any way, said “you’re a failure”. He would always encourage me, he would always push me. And if I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – It’s always a beautiful story. It’s just belief, right? Knowing that someone believes in you even when you don’t believe in yourself, and the ability to kind of pull yourself up in that state where they can encourage you and they can empower you to do that, as opposed to beating you down. It means that you can get through things that you think you didn’t think you could previously, right?
Sabby Gill – Absolutely.
The Dext Community
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – Let’s talk about Dext. You’ve been on board for almost a year, joining a business that has a bit of a history to where it is now. What does that history mean for you in the space of Dext and in your role as you approach what’s happening now?
Sabby Gill – Everybody is talking about AI, Chat GPT and just the evolution of technology. One of the reasons why I joined Dext is when you look at what they do, it’s such a simple OCR type mechanism that everybody needs – but it’s the way they’ve done it. We’ve got 200 developers sitting in Bulgaria, we have 450 employees globally in all of our regional offices. And the thing that I was most impressed by is the way that we have always used AI.
From data extraction, understanding rules, being able to capture different types of invoices and receipts, whether it be electronic or whether it be paper, even to the point of being able to recognise handwriting… It just shows how much more advanced Dext is to traditional OCR tools. So for us, it’s just the opportunity and it’s the reason why I joined. It’s so underpenetrated globally.
Talking about the Xero relationship: as you sort of mentioned, it’s our largest fully integrated general ledger. And whenever we see Dext and Xero used in conjunction with each other, we see a higher level of retention across the customer base, across the accountants and bookkeepers. We’ve got the highest rating on the App Store as well, across most of the general ledgers, but more importantly, across Xero. And the relationship that we have couldn’t have been any better than it is today.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – I remember speaking to a number of Dext people over the years from very different roles and the story of Dext initially just being human powered, to then humans supported by technology, and then eventually almost being technology supported by humans. And now we’re entering into this kind of AI space where we ask ourselves if humans are becoming technology and whatnot. As you look at what you guys are working on at Dext and how you’re improving upon your product – how do you take a bit of that evolution of how it works to where it is now? And then looking at what next might be and how you utilise that for the outcomes of your product and of then your community?
Sabby Gill – I think you’ve used an important word there, which is outcome. You never sit in a car and then determine where your endpoint is, right? You have a sat navigation system, you put the endpoint in what are all of the things and hurdles, and it automatically starts diverting you to the right route, and tries to get you there quicker and everything else. Business is no different. You got to know where the endpoint is, you got to know where the outcome is. And that’s very much the way that we’re driving the business: what’s the outcome that we’re expecting? What’s the outcome that our accountants and bookkeepers are looking for? And then let’s work backwards on how we go about achieving that.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – One of the things that I’m massively passionate about in our community is the people within it, the partners that you are effectively utilising to either use your product or to sell your product, to end users as well and bringing them on that journey. This isn’t necessarily a Dext thing. I think this is a general accounting tech and maybe it’s a general tech thing. In the accounting space, often as tech companies scale to a certain point, they forget about where they’ve come from and the people that helped to build that to that point. And then when they go to make some changes, they forget to check in with the community. “Hey, this is where we’re going. This is what we’re doing. How do you feel about that?”. I think it’s just a really good insight for anyone out there as you scale: make sure you’re checking in with people that have built that because they’re the people who have supported you and will continue to for the years going, provided you are looking after them.
Sabby Gill – I couldn’t agree more. And it’s the basis of our ethos now when we think about development, we think about user requirements – we even call it User Voice. There are individuals out there that have a voice: they can be accountants, bookkeepers, clients, there are the entire ecosystem partners. It’s really working closely with them and almost using them as the sign-off process to say “here’s what we’re thinking about, what do you think?”.
Product Development, Vision and Mission
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – I want to move into a bit of product. So, typically, as tech companies scale to a certain point, build, buy or partner are the three ways you look at that. So Dext’s got the core tool, the OCR, and then you’ve got a few of those other elements that you guys have rolled out that people are using to some extent. How are you facing the next iteration through a build by or partner approach?
Sabby Gill – I’m a very visual person. So the way I look at this is to imagine the jigsaw puzzle. The first thing you tend to do is look at the picture – without the picture, it would almost be impossible to try and pull all of these different pieces together. So, for me, that’s really important, and it goes back to the outcome. What are we really trying to deliver? And understanding, vision, mission, purpose. What are you trying to do? And how do you do it? So that’s the first thing. Once you’ve painted the picture and looked at the jigsaw, you then think about all the different pieces. Now, you will not necessarily have all of the pieces. Right.
So we have, as you say, a core product around Dext Prepare, being the former Receipt Bank. We’ve got a Dext Commerce product, which was an acquisition we did through Greenback, based out of Michigan. And then we’ve got Dext Precision, which is based out of Bristol in the UK, which was Xavier Analytics. So we’ve got three really good components in order to build out the jigsaw puzzle as we see it, the other things that accountants and bookkeepers are telling us that they need that will make them more productive, more efficient, more effective in the way that they go about running their practises, but also on how they service and look after their clients. That gives us a really good forum to be able to then start building out the jigsaw pieces, to then make it look like the end puzzle picture.
I think sometimes the mistake a lot of organisations make is they won’t move from that picture. Imagine trying to do a jigsaw puzzle where the picture is constantly changing – that’s the environment, the speed at which technology is being rolled out. There are a lot of laggards, a lot of FOMO, the fear of missing out, but it’s also about understanding what are the capabilities. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges we’re seeing now with AI. If you harness it, if you take advantage of it, it could give you so much benefit. But there’s also the people who look at it and say, “is it going to take my job away? Is it going to do this to me? Is it going to make me less effective? Does it mean I have to go and invest more in certain areas?”. We try to help people understand. It answers that question we talked about earlier, which is the “why”. Why do I need to do this?
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – You mentioned vision, mission, values. What are Dext’s?
Sabby Gill – Everybody needs a mantra, right? For us, it’s “Time For Business”. Time is the most valuable, precious thing that we all wish we had more of. And if you don’t use that effectively, once it’s spent, it’s gone. For us, ‘Time For Business’ is about the here and now, but it’s also about making time, improving efficiency and effectiveness of what we do for accountants, bookkeepers and clients. This has become our mantra. It’s time for business, time for you, time for accountants, bookkeepers, but also end clients. So that’s sort of the first piece.
The second thing, which is what I refer to as our North Star, is really about making accounting effortless. What tools can we do to speed things up, make people more effective in the jobs that they do. It’s not about taking it away, it’s about making people more effective. Things like automation, AI, machine learning… All of a sudden it’s become the latest craze, but it goes back many years. It’s been around for a long time.
And then the final piece, which is really about our mission. It’s about making information available to the person at the right time. If you think about it, everything we do is about data, it’s about information. So if you can make informed decisions in the moment, you’re more likely to get a better business outcome than you were if you just allow that data to take longer time for processing. For accountants and bookkeepers, it’s important how quickly we can get information in their hands so decisions can be made on behalf of clients.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – I heard a word thrown out before around the office here, “Dextension”. What’s that?
Sabby Gill – This goes back to that User Voice. So one of the things our product team did was they went out – and this is something you don’t necessarily hear a lot of, developers going out and meeting clients – and we had developers and product teams literally sit through hours and hours of recorded content from exactly how users from Xero are interacting with Dext. And it’s amazing how they get the “A-HA!” moment when all of a sudden the developer sits there and says “oh, I didn’t know that. That’s how they actually used the software that we developed.”
And when they see that, they say well “actually, I can make that even easier and quicker”. So what we’ve done with Dextension, to do exactly that. Look at all of the different features that would make life easier for a user, make the experience better from a UX perspective, look at all of the efficiencies and gains that they could get through the use of Dext Prepare, Precision and Xero. And we’ve put that together in a free Chrome extension that we’re making available to everybody.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – So this kind of sits in the background.
Sabby Gill – Correct. The great thing about it is that, at the end of the day, it’s the user’s choice. It’s not something that we’re putting out there and every individual has to have it in the same way. It’s the user’s choice, they’re very much in control.
The other thing is that extensions can be quite embedded. Sometimes it’s almost difficult to know what’s the extension and what’s the core product. So one of the things we’re doing is we’re working very closely with Xero just to make sure that we can understand, they can understand, and the user can understand what is part of the extension and what is part of the base product. So if they have any questions, they know who to come to. But it’s a very flexible tool for us. That’s the reason why we’re not even charging for it, because it’s not something that benefits us, it benefits everybody.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – It’s an extension of Dext, which in those spaces.
Sabby Gill – So we’re excited about that. And again, it goes back to something you mentioned earlier, which is to make sure that we understand the “why” and “how”. We looked at all of this feedback from all of these different clients, literally hundreds of hours worth of content that we were able to record, so now we have to make sure it works for everybody. We are doing a controlled release, getting the feedback and working with Xero as well just to make sure that we’re able to address any concerns or issues that might come out in relation to usability. Because, again, this is the partnership element of it. It’s not only a Dext experience, it’s a Dext-Xero experience. So we work very closely with their product team and their development team to make sure that, whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it in the best way possible.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – Sabby, If there was one question that you wished I did ask you, what was that? What’s one thing you think I didn’t ask you?
Sabby Gill – Probably the most telling question at the moment is just “what’s going to happen from a technology perspective?”, and my answer would have been “I have no idea”. I’m a big tech geek and just trying to understand what’s going on, and the impact of AI, and the impact of what’s going to be the next acronym that’s all of a sudden technology that everybody talks about… Phantom architectures. Artificial accounting, what does that mean for accounting in the future? There’s so many possibilities and opportunities – like you say, that’s a longer conversation. But the thing I probably need to buy this Christmas is a crystal ball and see what it tells me.
Andrew Van De Beek FCA – I keep buying them and they’re really, really cloudy. I can’t see anything through, Sabby. Thank you, mate. Appreciate the chat.
Sabby Gill – Appreciate it. Thank you.