At first glance, René Lacerte, the founder and CEO of Bill.com, one of the nation’s leading business payments networks, seems like many other successful serial entrepreneurs. He’s from a family of entrepreneurs (he’s the 4th generation) and has more than 20 years of experience in the finance, software, and payments industries, making him one of the most experienced players in the fintech space.
With all that experience, René realized business owners needed a way to simplify the payments process, so they could better focus on growing their businesses. So, he set out to redefine how business payments are made and launched Bill.com in 2006. And for seven consecutive years, René has been named one of the 100 most influential people in the accounting industry by Accounting Today.
But dig deeper, and you’ll find more than a successful entrepreneur. You’ll find that René Lacerte is driven by passion. He wants to—he needs to—help small and midsize business owners be more productive. René is determined to help SMBs get through the COVID-10 pandemic—and beyond.
Recent research shows that 90% of the U.S. businesses surveyed still rely on paper checks and other manual processes. Issues like long approval cycles and missing information on invoices are the leading cause of payment delays and missed discounts. It’s a time-consuming, inefficient, and costly way to work.
I recently talked to René about how Bill.com not only helps small business owners get paid faster and pay their bills on time but how it frees them up to focus on the revenue-generating aspects of their businesses.
You’ve served the small business space for a long time. How do you think businesses are going to do this year?
René Lacerte: SMBs are resilient. They do everything they can to make their businesses last. And from what we’ve seen, more survived than people thought. There has been attrition, of course, that we can see on Main Streets [across the country] where there are buildings for rent that weren’t before. Some won’t make it, but as a whole, SMBs are quite persistent.
Resilience and persistence—I learned that from my parents and grandparents. They had many businesses, and I saw them push through hard times, push through with their clients, and extend them extra credit when they needed it.
COVID-19 has been hard on so many small businesses, pushing them to places they weren’t ready to go yet.
René: One of the things we’ve seen is the pandemic, in some ways, is an inflection point highlighting the need for digital tools. If you’re going to persist, you need tools to help you do it better and more efficiently, while working remotely. Streamlining your business processes will help these go hand-in-hand.
And that’s something we at Bill.com do well—we help our customers by making it possible to run your business from anywhere. We put the back office in your back pocket. And all of it is right on your phone.
For example, I can look at every invoice, every payment I’ve ever made for Bill.com on my phone. And even though I’ve changed my phone four times since I started the company, everything’s here. I couldn’t have that 10 years or 15 years ago.
In addition to being able to do business anywhere, I can be very efficient about it. When I’m deciding whether to make a payment or collect from a customer, I have all the information I need. I’m not wasting time walking around the office, looking for files, looking for employees, looking for historical data that may help me make a decision. All that time gets saved. And that’s why our customers tell us they save 50% to 75% of the time it takes to manage that back office.
Using a program like Bill.com allows business owners to run leaner—and smarter businesses. You don’t need to have as many people in your accounting department, for instance.
René: And you’re also being more strategic. The thing I heard from my parents and grandparents was “Cash is King.” And, what I heard from them was stretch out the payables, pull in the receivables. Intuitively, we all pay our biggest bills at the latest possible date. And we all ask the people who owe us to pay us.
But, if you have a tool that does that, then you can be more strategic about your billing cycle, your customers, your suppliers, how you’re paying them, and managing that cash flow. So, it’s not just doing it with fewer people; it’s also doing it better. Our technology enables collaboration and allows business owners to be more strategic.
Tell us about the process.
René: Look at the typical pay cycle if your payment process isn’t digitized. Documents come in, and they have to get filed and entered into the accounting system.
Then you have to find out, should you pay this bill or not? Did you get what you asked for? Were you happy with the service? Do you want to work more with that supplier? Is this customer using more of your product? [To get answers] you have to walk around the office, looking for people, leaving sticky notes, asking people what they think. You leave a message on somebody’s desk, and then it can get lost. Or you want to see what the actual terms of the contract are and have to search for it in the filing cabinet, where it may—or may not be.
This is what I experienced. And so now let’s fast forward to Bill.com’s process. When you receive a paper document, you take a picture with your phone or scan it with the scanner digitizing it. If you have 10 documents that came in via paper, you can throw all 10 in the scanner and scan them all at once. If you get an electronic document that comes in via email or PDF, you just send it to your bill.com account email address. And now you have one place for all your files. And now we do the data entry around it, using AI machine learning to say what vendor the document is for, how much, and when it’s due.
We’ve taken care of all that walking around and eliminated all the many steps a business traditionally had. When it’s approved and ready to be paid, we’ve now eliminated printing and signing the check, stuffing it in an envelope, mailing it, and then receiving the reconciliation later. All that goes away for small business owners because we’ve taken care of the payment.
Plus, because we manage all the payments, the risk of check fraud goes away. Nobody knows your bank account numbers. We can help businesses have a more secure process.
When you eliminate filing, data entry, workflow, printing checks, and reconciling payments—that’s how you save customers 50% of their time or more.
We have more than 100,000 businesses that use us to automate their payables and receivables, but they interact with 2.5 million network members electronically. That’s another example of how we’ve eliminated steps. That’s my focus—I like efficiency and eliminating unnecessary steps. And that’s what we do.
Bill.com is regulated by the states as a licensed money transmitter.
What do you see going forward?
René: What I see in our customer base is that the hybrid model is now part of the DNA. Before, business owners thought about how technology let them go anywhere, but it wasn’t part of our DNA. And, and now it is. I can speak personally—it does not matter where I am; I can still lead and manage the company from anywhere. I used to think I had to be in the office. We have employees that have started and never met the employees they’re managing. And so, our ability to embrace the digitization and transformation of business and have this hybrid experience of being in person and online is something interesting.
The online world is now part of our DNA, too—not just for millennials but throughout society. According to our latest Bill.com Small Business Owners Survey, during the pandemic nearly 80% of SMBs have already or plan to start digitally transforming their businesses.
Ultimately that will lead to increased productivity. Flexibility means more productivity, more time to work out, more time to spend with your kids, more time to do work.
One bright spot was the pandemic led to communities rising up to support local businesses.
René: At the beginning of the pandemic, we, as an organization and me personally, gave money to charities and to help businesses get through. We’re the lead funder of the African Diaspora Network’s (ADN) new pilot program designed to expand economic pathways and advance the entrepreneurial efforts of African diasporans and Black business leaders in the U.S. The inaugural enterprise accelerator, Builders of America’s Future, provides online and in-person training and mentorship.
All this makes a difference. Companies needed a lifeline to help them stay around and adapt. The ones that adapted still are in business. When things open up this summer, they’ll hire employees, and people will get back to work. The businesses didn’t go away because the business owners were able to make that shift. And technology made it easier to make that happen.
That’s another example of persistence and resilience. A business is a community. You work with your friends, and your customers become your friends. All you care about these people. So, you work hard to make sure that community is going to last. And that persistence becomes fuel. That’s why SMBs are so important. They are the passion of our economy.