Sam Stuart, founder of Red Roots Capital, is a relative newcomer to the real estate industry, but sees a wealth of opportunities for innovative growth, particularly in targeting the specific needs of small- to medium-sized investors. His company focuses on single-family-home purchase and renovation projects, as well as mobile home parks: a worthwhile investment for those with a smaller investment budget, but still looking to get their first steps on the ladder.
These investors can simply pass the baton to Sam and his team, and they’ll take care of the rest - managing the renovation project as well as managing the rental property once occupied.
This leaves Red Roots with a significant accounting labyrinth, where each property is its own LLC, and the accounting must be completed individually, as well as for their umbrella company. With this accounting structure, tracking expenses through inappropriate SaaS apps, and processing them effectively was proving to be a real hassle, and it was all-too-easy for receipts to be lost in the company layers (or in the trash, for that matter).
In this study, we’ll look at how Red Roots Capital experimented with (clunky) SaaS software, before landing on a custom solution in Retool - built by Bold Tech - where they can not only track and file receipts for their accounting team, but they can do this on the go from a custom-made mobile app.
SaaS products: a strained relationship
As a small, non-technical team, the search was on for a product to help them complete their accounting properly. Several critical factors determined what kind of app they needed for their expense tracking. It had to:
- work with their specific accounting structure,
- be easy to onboard new, non-technical users,
- be fully accessible for the accountant
- and finally, as a start-up, they needed it to be relatively inexpensive.
Sam started by trialing out-of-the-box receipt trackers and uploaders, but many of them only properly catered to the single company or businessperson and didn’t offer the functionality for splitting across LLCs, whilst also recording it to the umbrella company too. The ones that did were overladen with unnecessary, often costly, extra features, and required too much work to refine into an MVP that suited Red Roots’ needs.
They found solutions to some of their problems with Quickbooks, which had the added benefit of a web and mobile app, and offered the kind of data enrichment they were looking for. Once they onboarded some of their contractors, however, they found that the UX required these users to have detailed knowledge of Red Roots’ accounting system in order to input those receipts correctly. This made the margin for error too large for an app that would have many non-technical users, who were unfamiliar with the company’s complex expenses system.
This time they were wasting adjusting an already expensive product - or even training non-technical construction contractors in their accounting structure - was much better spent working from scratch to build their own.
“Premade receipt trackers just weren’t cutting it, they were either crazy expensive, overloaded with unnecessary features, or would require way too much time to adjust to our needs” - Sam Stewart, Red Roots
Retool: a custom infrastructure at SaaS prices
At this point, tired of trying to make SaaS products fit their needs, Sam began looking at custom coding in React. It quickly became evident however that the initial development and maintenance were outside of their own technical capabilities, and would require expensive developers to build and maintain it for them, a costly development for a price-sensitive start-up.
This is when they came to us at Bold Tech and thus discovered Retool, as a platform that allowed them to work from scratch, but with the added benefit of pre-built component libraries and preloaded code to expedite development time.
“Building our own app meant the ability to design and streamline the user experience from end to end, avoiding any unnecessary features that slow usability, as well as keeping the margin for user error as low as possible, with custom data validation and more. Building on Retool meant we didn’t need to worry about expensive, slow development and could have an MVP ready in days rather than months.”
In just a few days, David, one of the Bold Tech developers, put together a fully operational application in production for their end-users.
The final cherry on the cake emerged in March 2022 when Retool launched their Retool Mobile early access. Now, not only did they have a web app built specifically for their needs, they could build a mobile version for their staff to use on the go too, and this has since become their principal accounting tool in place of the web app.
Let’s take a closer look at how the mobile app works and how we built it.
The Build: Retool Mobile Receipt Tracking App
The final mobile app is streamlined and simple to use: a single screen with text inputs, several dropdowns, and an image uploader. The app contains only the specific fields needed for Red Roots accounting system, with appropriate data validation to reduce margins for error.
When the user opens the app (which can be saved to the phone home screen), they are guided through various data input steps. Retool allowed them to create an app optimized for user experience as well as accounting organization:
- Cascading logic helps to organize the receipts and their corresponding data. Each selection determines the dropdown options for the next: meaning that users no longer need to understand the inner workings of Red Roots’ accounting to process the receipt correctly.
- These form options are generated from their main property database, so the app options will dynamically change based on database schema changes.
- Once the form is filled, the user is invited to upload an image or take the photo directly from the camera. The upload process is seamless and has no superfluous or unnecessary features.
- The components’ preconfigured data validation options, such as currencies, dates and more, are used to ensure accurate data is filled.
- Finally, default values also make form filling as streamlined and user-friendly as possible: the ‘User entering receipt’ field is populated by default with the Retool global current_user.fullName, the date defaults to the present day using the built-in ‘Moment’ library, and placeholder texts guide the user with expected data types. These were all simple to program in Retool in the right-hand inspector column.
On the backend, the attributes filed in the form are sent to Airtable, but since storing images in AirTable can quickly become expensive and difficult, the receipt is sent to a folder in an S3 bucket instead, segmented by the LLC name. The data collected defines the S3 file name, which allows the receipt to be easily found again when needed.
The receipt information is then filed and time stamped with an association to the employee in AirTable. The accountant can now easily retrieve receipts via S3 when tax season comes, and the stakeholder now has organized expense data stored in AirTable.
Internal apps with growth and flexibility potential
Sam was chuffed to find that Retool allowed extra flexibility with storage and subsequent platform costs, since it can integrate natively with a number of resources, APIs and databases. A real perk for Sam is that, should they decide to switch to another storage option, their receipt tracker app could migrate with them, and would just require reconnecting the queries to the new database.
“A key part of our decision to use Retool was the knowledge that any time and money invested in their internal infrastructure didn’t create any lock-in to a specific backend, and could adjust to our scaling needs.”
Once the databases for their mobile app were set up and connected in Retool, it was quick and easy to develop a second read-only, web-based app that retrieved this data from both AirTable and the S3 bucket and presented it clearly, useful for business intelligence on expenses for the stakeholders. Here, the manager can drill down into expenses by category, and see exactly how a rental property is performing. With Sam, the Bold Tech team are currently developing a further tool to present this information with charts and analytics, to create a long-term, business intelligence infrastructure.
Cross-platform apps and an internal tool ecosystem
So, was it worth the work to build an app from scratch? According to Red Roots, by far the largest benefit of using Retool was the ability to create a custom application, without the cost of a custom developer in less than a quarter of the time, and also to benefit from Retool’s new cross-platform capabilities. Migrating their app from web to Retool Mobile was a game-changer in allowing their team to efficiently upload receipts on the go.
A final perk? Retool was not just an app where they could track receipts, like the pre-packaged SaaS options they considered. They could also benefit from the entirety of the Retool internal tool ecosystem: expanding their internal infrastructure to include other mobile and web apps too, giving them additional flexibility and scalability with further internal tools without having to scour the internet for another pricey SaaS product, nor worry about scaling software systems with costly additional add-ons.