They are the bane of the busy business traveler: expense reports. Between saving all those receipts, scanning them, documenting, and filling out the pesky paperwork, recouping your money can be a mammoth time suck. And as much as one may try, it's difficult to be comprehensive.
Yet it's even harder to stomach the hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars lost from misplaced restaurant or hotel bills. People expend so much effort cutting costs in their daily lives, only to have these costs slip through the cracks.
In the past year, I've traveled to such locales as Montana and Abu Dhabi to report stories -- racking up expenses along the way. Though I try to be as diligent as possible in filing expense reports, with smudged receipts lost in depths of blazer pockets or crumbled within my briefcase, it's difficult (and painful) to estimate the dollars I have left undocumented. Plus, with all the saved receipts, my wallet can sometimes resemble George's on Seinfeld.
Abukai is a company trying to reduce that burden, and the amount of money lost by employees.
Company President and CEO Philipp Schloter was formerly an executive at Nokia, where he encountered such difficulties firsthand.
"I myself found I was filing a lot of expense reports and traveling when got this email from American Express that I owed them $50,000," he said. "I wasn't prepared to pay it."
Simplifying the Process
In order to prevent the paper from piling up, Abukai uses the same sort of digital technology as mobile check depositing apps. You take a picture of your receipt with your phone and press a button to upload it to the system. Then, you sit back and enjoy your after-dinner coffee while Abukai does all the work.
Other companies like Expensify and Lemon.com also simplify the process of creating expense reports by using optical character recognition technology, but Abukai has the advantage of a recent partnership with Xero, which has innovative accounting software for small businesses.
The software and photo recognition technology pulls all the data from the receipts, compiles them automatically, and delivers a comprehensive, detailed report without any effort or need to type in any data whatsoever. It can even read handwritten notes like those sometimes scrawled by towncar drivers. If the receipt has a phone number on it, for example, the software will automatically look it up. You can annotate each submission with notes to point out, for example, that a certain dinner was with a particular client.
Abukai works for the individual consumer, but it can scale up to the enterprise level for businesses, with common platforms like Concur, SAP and Oracle. It can generate reports in standard Excel and QuickBooks formats, easily integrates with existing systems, and can be deployed within a matter of days without requiring companies to replace existing systems or processes. Abukai also works with businesses on a case-by-case basis to create custom templates with minimal investment.
Benefit to Employees and Companies Alike
The cumbersome work of completing expense reports can really eat away at productivity. According to Abukai's research, employees don't complete their expense reports during their free time, which means time spent at work on them is sapped from other tasks. Sales team members and traveling executives often need one to two hours to complete a single expense report once all the crumpled receipts are unfolded and numbers squinted at and scrutinized.
Sebastian Blum, vice president of business development at tech company Cooliris, used to get into trouble with expense reports -- whether the bills were racked up taking meetings in and around Silicon Valley where he is based, or on longer excursions.
"I come back with bills, and because doing an expense report is not helping me in my business of closing deals for the company, it gets to become a big pile after four or five weeks," Blum said.
"You say you're going to do it, but you're lying to yourself," Blum said. "You keep pushing it out. At some point it's like this tsunami staring at you. And then it gets nasty, because you don't really know what it was for. Did I give a tip in cash? Then it gets messy. You have to use your imagination, which is inaccurate, or then you have to go into your calendar."
The issue for Blum less the annoyance of filling out the expense report, and more the opportunity cost of lost productivity involved in sitting with a spreadsheet. The hour or two he spent each week on expense reports was keeping him from closing deals and generating more revenue. With Abukai, the process can be quick and seamless -- conducted during brief down times.
"After a meeting, I jump into a taxi, and what do you do in the taxi?" he said. "You check your email, you call your spouse or girlfriend, and then you take a quick picture of your receipt. Or you do in the waiting line to check-in at the hotel. And you take a quick picture and it's super accurate." This process, especially when multiplied out across a company, can help a business take better control over cash-flow over travel expenses.
My Own Foray
Enthused by Blum's endorsement, I decided to take Abukai out for a spin. I got hungry while writing this article and decided to pop out of the office to Silver Spoon, a local eatery in Manhattan. I got the receipt, and instead of shoving it in an obscure pocket of my wallet, I opened the Abukai app on my Droid and snapped a photo.
Because the app was already linked to my work email account, I automatically received a PDF of the picture -- which, taken while walking, was a bit out of focus -- and a fully documented expense report for the lunch (annotated with a little note from me about taking myself out for a meal). Perhaps because of the fuzzy shot, Abukai noted my eel and avocado sushi rolls cost $7.07, when I actually paid $7.57. In the future, I'd be sure to slow down a tick and take a clear picture before letting Abukai work its magic.
With my Abukai account linked to AOL's Concur expense system, I didn't have to jump through the annoying hoops of logging into the interface and documenting the categories. And if there had been a currency exchange involved, Abukai would have handled it automatically.
Some employees have to file weekly reports; others who travel less frequently may file them once a month. Assuming 50 workweeks a year, and 40-hour workweeks, employees who regularly deal with them waste between 0.6% to 5% of their work time on expense reports. That's a significant loss.
It also wastes the time of company finance teams, which often need to intervene to ask about incomplete reports, inaccurate numbers or lost receipts.
Abukai offers a free annual plan which allows for 12 reports and up to 10 receipts per report, or a $99 unlimited annual plan. Considering the time savings and the money it could recoup for you, that could be a trifle.