Buy vs. build: Top 5 factors to consider before implementing time tracking software for accountants

To remain competitive and keep up with growing client expectations, it’s essential for accounting firms to implement advanced time tracking software for accountants. Not only will accurate time-capture technology help your timekeepers (and, subsequentially, your billing team) work and track effort more efficiently and precisely; it will bring more transparency to all key stakeholders — including, most importantly, your clients. This client transparency will increase client satisfaction and strengthen your client relationships.

Although most firm leaders recognize the benefits of implementing modern time sheet software for accountants, there is one major question that often stands in the way of execution: Is it more efficient to buy a prebuilt timekeeping solution, or to build one from scratch?

Before making any decisions, you must have a clear understanding of what you’re looking for in a timekeeping platform. How will you measure success? What requirements should you prioritize? What pain points does the software solution need to address?

Secondly, you need to consider the feasibility of buying versus building a solution. Do you have the capacity and skillset to build a tool from scratch? Can you maintain a custom-built solution and continually invest in the tool? What is your time-to-market goal, and is it achievable?

In this piece, we’ll explore the top five factors accounting firms should consider before implementing time tracking software for accountants. We’ll also go over the pros and cons of buying a prebuilt solution versus building one in-house.

1. Features and functionalities

Your accounting firm must first ensure that the tool it selects addresses and supports the fundamental business requirements. Because use cases are unique and vary from firm to firm, it can sometimes be nearly impossible to find off-the-shelf products that offer the exact functionalities your firm needs.

If they’re unable to find a suitable off-the-shelf product, some firms will choose to build their own software and tailor it to meet their specific requirements — even though this costs a great deal of time, effort, and resources. It’s also likely to be less effective than buying a prebuilt product, as firms won’t achieve the efficiencies that a software vendor with specialized expertise would.

However, because timekeeping is a fairly standard industry activity, most firms find that an off-the-shelf solution — especially one that is purpose-built for the professional services industry — can meet most if not all their time tracking requirements. Purpose-built time sheet software for accountants is designed for the unique ways these professionals work and is therefore more likely to deliver a streamlined and intuitive user experience.

Take, for example, a busy knowledge worker at an accounting firm who serves multiple clients a day and must track billable time down to the minutes. The worker will have an easier time fulfilling their timekeeping requirements if they use a prebuilt solution that’s purpose-built with these tasks in mind, rather than a standard time and attendance tool that’s simply meant for shift workers to clock in and out.

In fact, if you implement a timekeeping tool that’s specifically designed for accounting, it will likely have built-in workflows based on industry best practices. Software makers often collaborate with leading organizations in the industry to better address new and prevalent issues within the industry.

Even if a prebuilt product doesn’t meet every one of your requirements out of the box, it doesn’t necessarily mean your firm will need to build its own time tracking software for accountants. A good prebuilt solution is often configurable, so you can tweak the software to fit the specific use cases of your business. Search for a feature-rich solution that can be adapted to handle all the complexities of your firm.

2. Resources and expertise

Before you ask whether your firm should build a timekeeping solution, determine whether your firm can build a new solution.

Building a custom solution is a complex process that requires expertise in software development — especially if you want your timekeeping solution to offer sophisticated features. For example, if you want the software to offer automated time capture, you’ll need software professionals who know all about AI, desktop extensions, and application programming interface (API). You’ll also need professionals who know how to provide the best security features possible to protect your firm’s and your clients’ data.

Moreover, it’s not enough to create an in-house solution with advanced features: You also need to ensure the software is well documented. Without clear documentation, developers will struggle to maintain and update your solution. Your in-house tool could quickly become so outdated that it becomes unusable, and all that time, money, and effort will have been for nothing.

We at Intapp have also worked with firms that, despite building strong solutions and properly documenting them, were unable to ensure their technology could evolve and keep up with current industry requirements and other emerging solutions. New technologies and innovations are constantly forming (as seen recently with generative AI), and unless your organization can properly invest in and maintain its tools, it will struggle to stay current or ahead in the industry. So, as to not fall behind their competitors, these firms had to fade out the usage of the tools their teams worked so hard to build, and had look for new solutions.

Even if your firm has in-house experts with the skills to build and maintain a timekeeping solution, you must consider the opportunity cost of their time. Chances are they’re busy with other work and don’t have the time to take on such a large project. Third-party providers, on the other hand, have the experience and the time and resources required to create an efficient product.

The best prebuilt solutions have advanced features — like automation and AI — as well as standardized system and organization controls (SOC) reports and security considerations already built in. Your software provider will take care of all software maintenance and support and can help with change management and training, thereby speeding up the adoption process.

3. Total cost of ownership

Comparing the costs of buying versus building a timekeeping solution can be a difficult and misleading process. The initial cost for implementing an off-the-shelf solution is typically high, as is the licensing cost, so many firms believe it will be less expensive to build a homegrown solution from scratch.

However, the expense of building your own timekeeping tool quickly adds up over time: You’ll need to acquire the appropriate hardware, incorporate all the extra features you want, and hire any necessary outside support to help you design, develop, and test the product. You’ll also need to pay for any third-party data sources your tool leverages.

There are also costs associated with maintaining your timekeeping solution. Firms that buy prebuilt products face high licensing costs and ongoing costs related to software support. However, these firms can rest assured that the software companies will continually maintain and update the solution for them.

Alternatively, firms that build their solutions from scratch don’t have to worry about ongoing licensing costs, but they do have to worry about maintaining their own product. If a firm doesn’t have enough staff to provide ongoing support, it may need to hire more resources. And even if a firm does have enough staff, firms should consider the opportunity cost: What value could those resources bring to the firm if they didn’t have to spend a large amount of time updating the timekeeping tool?

Another important factor to consider is the risk you run if your homegrown product is not well secured. Although the likelihood is low, the magnitude for losses is high. You could lose important, confidential data — and consequently lose the trust and business of your clients.

On the other hand, prebuilt, cloud-based technology often has built-in advantages for safeguarding itself, making it safer than on-premises systems. Cloud systems rely on a vast network of redundant servers to help with disaster recovery or during times of high stress. Cloud users can also have complete control over the encryption of their data and can choose the geographical location of their data centers.

Rather than confronting security risks and project delays, your firm may decide it’s ultimately more beneficial to purchase a prebuilt, cloud-based timekeeping solution from a trustworthy third-party provider. Although your firm will face software support costs and licensing fees, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that your data is secure.

4. Time to market

How urgently do you need to alleviate your firm’s challenges? If you want to launch your time tracking software for accountants as soon as possible, keep in mind that internal software development projects tend to get delayed and go over budget.

Delayed development projects are extremely problematic for firms: The longer your firm waits to build a new timekeeping solution, the longer your teams will need to rely on their inefficient and outdated tools and processes. This can lead to inaccurate or noncompliant time sheets and bills, resulting in write-offs, write-downs, and time lost trying to fix these errors.

Conversely, pre-built timekeeping solutions can typically be adopted much more quickly since the software has already been developed with firms like yours in mind. Most general timekeeping solutions offer the features and built-in workflows that professional firms need, so you shouldn’t need to spend much time (if any) configuring the software.

Most industry solutions also have APIs or prebuilt integrations to connect the software with your firm’s other systems. This will help speed up the implementation and adoption process and ensure that your firm’s data is better connected.

5. Ability to innovate and create value

Building a software solution in-house can bring a lot of value to a firm: You’ll be able to engage more with your stakeholders during the creation of the software, and you can foster an environment of innovation to help turn your vision into a reality.

But being a strategic partner with a large software company has advantages, too. Many software companies host in-person events and online webinars so your timekeepers can learn more about the product. And with the networking opportunities that naturally ensue from those events, your firm and the software company will form a strong relationship.

Additionally, it can be quite taxing for a single firm to continually innovate its products and create value, as this requires significant time, effort, technical skill, and knowledge of evolving industry requirements and expectations. Partnering with a large software company takes that pressure off your firm: The software company focuses on providing, updating, and innovating the technology your firm uses, while your staff focuses on serving your clients.

To ensure its technology always meets the needs of your firm and the industry at large, large software companies should regularly confer with the firms they serve. Software companies like Intapp collect feedback from a wide variety of clients, allowing us to consistently fix, upgrade, and improve upon our existing technology. By combining our deep industry knowledge with client feedback, the Intapp team can successfully maintain our cutting-edge technology to ensure it’s always up to date with industry trends.

Maximize efficiency with Intapp Time

If your firm is leaning toward purchasing prebuilt time tracking software for accountants, then you’ll need to make sure that the software provider you choose can meet your requirements. With more than 20 years of experience serving both professional and financial services firms, Intapp understands your unique needs, and has created a timekeeping solution that goes above and beyond industry standards.

Intapp Time is purpose-built for accounting firms and can be easily tailored to meet your firm’s specific requirements. The cloud-based software offers a host of complex and innovative features — including both passive and active time capture and the ability to enforce client terms at the time of entry — to improve and support your timekeeping and billing process. It even offers a mobile solution, so your timekeepers can track their hours anytime, anywhere.

Intapp Time also offers enterprise-grade security and scalability, providing you with the highest level of data protection and control, even as your firm experiences changes in data volume, traffic, complexity, and usage patterns. Our Intapp Integration Service also analyzes data from multiple sources and applications, providing your firm with the insights it needs to make the best decisions.

Schedule a demo to see Intapp Time in action and learn more about how Intapp can support your accounting firm.

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