Building a CRM App for Financial Advisors with Stephen Handley, Fin365

Building a CRM App for Financial Advisors with Stephen Handley, Fin365

#90. Join me with Stephen Handley,founder, CEO and chief architect at Fin365, an application development business serving financial services professionals in Australia. Fin365 was born out of need for better data management practice management platform that Stephen identified in his own financial planning business.

Our discussion covers:

  • How Stephen's background of being a software developer and a financial adviser could be the perfect blend of expertise for his application development business.  
  • What led to the choice of Microsoft Dynamics over Salesforce or Zoho or others?
  • How a product from the heavily regulated Australian financial services industry can be adapted for other international markets and their regulations.
  • What it is like selling a product to the financial industry which is under so much transformation.
  • Advice to startups thinking about or who already started developing on the Microsoft Power Platform.


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Neil Benson: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Amazing Applications podcast, for Microsoft business apps creators who are building amazing applications that everyone will love. 

Welcome to the show. I'm your host, Microsoft business applications, MVP Neil Benson. Our goal on this show is to help you slash your project budgets, reduce your delivery timelines, mitigate technical risks and create amazing, agile Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Power Platform applications. 

This weekend, Amey Holden and I were presenting at the Power Platform starter days event. This event was designed for people interested in exploring a career, working with the Power Platform. There were students entering the workforce for the first time, parents returning to work, or people switching careers. Amey and I got to pimp a couple of LinkedIn profiles from members of our community and provided top 10 tips for maximizing your LinkedIn profile for a career in Microsoft business applications. It's not my usual agile style content, but if you want to check it out, I'll add a link in the show notes to our YouTube video. 

My guest in this episode is a software developer, turned financial advisor, turned software developer again. He's Stephen Handley, who is the managing director and a practicing financial planner at MiPlan Advisory in Melbourne, Australia. And at the same time, he's the CEO of Fin365, leading a team, building a client engagement app for financial advisors. 

We discuss Stephen's rationale for choosing Dynamics 365 as a development platform for his ISV business. What it's like selling to small and medium-sized financial services companies, especially given the structural changes occurring within the financial advice industry that's emphasizing the need for a modern CRM application. It's a great conversation. It also covers AppSource and licensing and integrating with Azure release management, visualizing CRM data with Power BI. And the investments that Stephen hopes Microsoft will make in the platform to support his customers and his ISV business. 

You'll find show notes for this episode at

Here's Stephen Handley, Founder and CEO of Fin365.

Welcome to the Amazing Applications show. It's great to have you on.

Stephen Handley: [00:02:28] Thanks, Neil, thank you for the invitation. Good to be here. 

 Neil Benson: [00:02:31] The reason I wanted to invite you onto the show, I've seen a lots of content coming out from Fin365, which is your application development business, serving financial advisors here in Australia. Is that right?

Stephen Handley: [00:02:44] Financial services professionals in Australia, but also now we're starting to see quite a bit of activity elsewhere, New Zealand, South Africa, even some coming from the US. 

Neil Benson: [00:02:54] So just before we get too far into that, and I'd love to give you a chance to introduce yourself, just starting with a couple of simple, quick questions we like to ask all of our guests here. What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Stephen Handley: [00:03:04] So I'm on  , uh, a routine of start with my glass of water. Uh, and then the green shake that my wife Claudia makes for me. And then straight onto a nice strong coffee , uh, just for the healthy part of the breakfast. So that's that's it.

Neil Benson: [00:03:18] That's similar to mine. I have a kale and cashew nuts smoothie in  the, in the mornings. Thanks to my wonderful wife as well.

Stephen Handley: [00:03:24] Yes, nothing like a combination of green and then caffeine. 

Neil Benson: [00:03:28] And what was your first role coming out of school or college?

Stephen Handley: [00:03:31] Uh, First role I've had a few , um, I'll say the first one of meaningful impact , uh, was programming the first MP3 players. I was an embedded software engineer for Texas Instruments after finishing up a master's degree in music engineering. 

Neil Benson: [00:03:48] Oh, wow. Cool. So what do you think now of developments like  I was gonna say the iPod, but we're kind of post iPod now. 

Stephen Handley: [00:03:56] Well, Post iPod. So it was, it's very interesting to think back , uh, and, and seeing a lot of what is now. In every household , uh, when we were developing it, even things as simple as network network televisions that now everyone's got , uh, having worked on, on some of the first of those it's , um, yeah. To know the history of it and how long it actually takes to become mainstream and we  started this in the early two thousands. And , uh, and now, Yeah, 20 years later, it's everyone's got it. 

Neil Benson: [00:04:22] Amazing. So I've got a couple of smart devices in the house. I've got a , well, we just switched back to Google from Alexa on our smart speakers, um, the kids love it. It's just, you know, they put on this rubbish music. I can't stand, but they're able to change it at the drop of a hat.  

 Stephen Handley: [00:04:35] I drop the kids off at school every day. Uh, and they each get a turn at playing DJ. And I tell you some of the music I'm learning from various computer games or various anime series is well keeping me young, I suppose.  

Neil Benson: [00:04:47] And tell us about your current role at Fin365.

Stephen Handley: [00:04:51] So I I'm the founder and current CEO at Fin365. The company was born out of my own financial planning business. Uh,  I identified  a need in my business for a better data management practice management platform uh, and the, the industry solutions that were available off the shelf , uh, were really not designed in my opinion to meet those needs.

So I looked around and looked at all of the, the usual suspects, Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, Sugar, Zoho. I played around with all of them and, and settled on Microsoft Dynamics uh, for my own business. Started developing that eight nine years ago , uh, when it first was in the cloud in the US so whenever that was , uh, eventually that led to a, a solution that was interesting to other financial advisors.

So about four years ago , uh, we productized it set up into what is now Fin365 uh, and, and  I've been back in software and technology since then. So now we are uh, as I said, financial advisors , uh, but also accountants, mortgage brokers , um, general insurance, Australia, and other geographies now starting to emerge.

So it's, it's getting busy uh,  , uh, and the, all of the things that the world's been going through over the last 18 months and the, the shift talking about accelerating shift to certain technologies uh, to the cloud, to this sort of having conversations , um, through this medium has just made us busier. Everyone's very interested in, in how they get more value out of technology and the Microsoft stack, as I'm sure you appreciate is, is very popular at the moment and so that's also helping us , uh, attract a lot of attention. 

Neil Benson: [00:06:22] I'm always interested. Whenever I hear a tagline like built by financial advisors for financial advisors. I'm like, oh, what do financial advisors knew about building software, but it's becoming a lot clearer and all that. You had a background in software development, then you became , uh, involved in the financial services industry and now you're back in software development. So maybe that's the perfect blend of expertise.

Stephen Handley: [00:06:43] Yeah, I came into financial advice in 2008 so I had had 12 years in the US in software and also had a stint at Microsoft, working in a partner facing role in program management, nothing to do with CRM, but , uh, definitely had the ability to define what I wanted to get out of technology, , uh, work with developers to get it built and so that has absolutely made it possible for me to do, to do what I've done. , uh, Coming into financial services with more of a project management engineering mindset , uh, perhaps cause me to look at, at a, at a business in a bit more of an objective operational way, rather than just the financial aspect of it, and, and so when I looked at my technology needs, therefore , uh, I think that background has helped me identify the gaps that I needed to fill in and that's, that's, what's led to the journey.

Neil Benson: [00:07:32] And thinking back to when you selected Microsoft Dynamics as your platform for your own business, do you think that was because you had worked there and you had a soft spot for Microsoft or were there key components of that platform at the time that that made it stand out above Zoho and Salesforce and others?

Stephen Handley: [00:07:50] uh, Having worked at Microsoft gave me good insights into how they tended to approach technology. And perhaps gave me confidence in the roadmap. When I first looked at Dynamics, so I chose it because the integration with Outlook there was at the time email was the primary form of communications. And the idea that an email wouldn't arrive in my inbox and automatically get attached to the client in the CRM.

Just if that fundamental use case couldn't be met then to me, it wasn't a step in the right direction. So that was literally the reason I chose Dynamics, I started with Sugar, it was open source. It was cheaper. Uh, spent 12 months looking at that, got to the Outlook integration and went, no Dynamics was horrible at the time, it was very clunky, um, it was first version in the cloud, , uh, so it wasn't the current platform, uh, but my background with Microsoft uh, helped me persevere because I could see, I could see their vision, uh, and what they had in mind with Office 365 and Dynamics, and then it coming together.

It was probably a bit of a lucky guess, um, perhaps if Satya, hadn't originally run the Dynamics organization, maybe they wouldn't have invested quite as much uh, but it's been a good lucky guess because really now at this point while there's still some work for them to do, I can't think of another, another organization that has the breadth of assets that they do , uh, and  with the level of integration that they do. Um, So it really, we are starting to see significant benefit, for example, Power BI and what we can do , um, exposing , uh, the data that our customers have in their business and really highlighting some areas for opportunity and concern through that particular integration. 

Neil Benson: [00:09:27] Yeah , I, I look back at Satya Nadella's appointment. I bought some shares in Microsoft the  day Steve Ballmer announced  he was stepping down. I didn't know who was going to be stepping into his shoes, but we've come a long way in whatever that is, five or six years since Satya Nadella has been appointed. I never twigged but his background is a leader within Microsoft business solutions and the impact that's had on the organization at James Phillips has now got and whether that growth would have been there, if Satya Nadella hadn't had that history with this organization. So yeah, a great series of coincidences there.

Stephen Handley: [00:09:58] Yeah, I think there was a realization at some point that trying to compete in the consumer space against Apple, for example, which, who was the big competitor when I was there. Uh, That it perhaps was going to be of limited value and they really figured out the combination of, of Azure and their business applications and the underlying what's now called Dataverse today, I think is still called that , um, is, is really a set of assets in a, in a, in a foundation that  no one else has. So  , uh, whether , um, it was a collective wisdom or whether Satya  was, was instrumental in that probably never really know. He'll get a lot of the credit um, but it was a very good decision. 

Neil Benson: [00:10:34] And so thinking back, you have adopted Dynamics CRM at the time internally in your own financial advice business, were you the one tinkering with it and customizing it yourself? Or did you have a developer or an in-house IT team or a consultant outside helping you do that?

Stephen Handley: [00:10:50] I know enough to be dangerous uh, so it was me to begin with, in fact,  to begin with, I took the , um, Microsoft had this insurance USA based insurance managed solution that I grabbed. And it used that to begin very quickly realized that starting with a managed solution was a bad idea because I was going to be restricted over the longterm, but it was a good way to learn.

I got to the point where I needed to start writing code , uh, to do what I wanted to extend the capabilities. I hadn't touched code for many years. So at that point I looked around and it was a Elance at the time. It's now called Upwork and I typed in Dynamics CRM consulting, and I found a guy in Argentina who had been working on Microsoft Dynamics for four or five years, uh, knew a lot more than me, probably sold me on more, more than he knew that he did at the time um, but still was , um, impressed me enough that he was my first hire and he's still working with the business today. So, um, That's how it started.

We now have a team of four in Argentina, four in Vietnam, a couple of part-time employees in Australia. So we're very much taking the approach of uh, working with a consulting group in Portugal. Who's is doing some great stuff. Uh, We'll go and find the experts wherever they live uh, and again, the DevOps , the, , we use Microsoft , uh, to do everything.

Their acquisition of GitHubs have been great for us. So all of those things have made it possible combined with perhaps my project management background to structure the team that way. 

Neil Benson: [00:12:22] How have you find it running not just a remote team, an offshore team, but that's multiple different time zones here in Australia, Argentina, Vietnam, , um, Portugal. That's That's a big spread of 24 hour operation. 

Stephen Handley: [00:12:35] It is. And I think the most challenging piece time zone. Absolutely. But engineers I've always found software engineers work strange hours anyway um, so you know, the Argentinians eat dinner at 10 o'clock at night, and then, you know, so there we, we tend to, at the time zones don't tend to be too challenging.

I think the hardest part is the thick English accents that everyone uses. I'm often translating between multiple because , um, teams subtitles aren't working perfectly yet, but hopefully one day they'll they'll fix that problem. 

Neil Benson: [00:13:07] Well, They had a terrible time with my Irish Scottish accent as well. A bit of time in America. Some time here in Australia. My accent is pretty crazy. I, I don't , um, I don't blame teams for failing to translate myself most of the time. 

Stephen Handley: [00:13:19] Uh, But overall it works really well. So Um, it's a great team and they've been with us for quite a while now. 

Neil Benson: [00:13:25] So you targeted what I would consider to be kind small medium businesses. Most of the financial advisors here in Australia are either solo practitioners or small practices with maybe five or six, or are you also targetting kind of the bigger, medium size and some of the national practices and networks that exist as well?

Stephen Handley: [00:13:44] It's It's a mix. So, our sweet spot is still the SMEs. Uh, I think primarily because one, they make decisions faster, uh, two, they don't have the, the pockets to be able to engage a system integrator and build something from scratch. Uh, And, And that's where our, our solution was born uh, so our , um, spread at the moment, we've got one man bands, I think our biggest customers around 60 or 70 seats uh, but what we are starting to see more and more of is , uh, system integrators, who are engaging some of the larger organizations. So in Australia it might be a, an industry super fund. It might be an investment wealth management investment house that has internal advisors. And they may already be using Microsoft Dynamics to manage some of their other customer engagement, but the financial advice piece or the mortgage broking piece or the they're in a different system.

And , uh, they want to consolidate the activity, the business data into a central CRM. And so off the shelf in 365 helps reduce the time and cost required to extend their capabilities to the, the users, the staff in the business that we, that our solution can already provide benefit for. Uh, We've got system integrators I've talked to in, in Ireland, I've talked to South Africa, I've talked to Canada, similar things , uh, large life insurance companies coming to them saying, we need a better CRM. They could start with Dynamics from scratch, but we've got the industry expertise and knowledge that helps , um, them perhaps go after deals that otherwise wouldn't be that interesting or maybe they don't have , uh, their own expertise  , um, to try.

Neil Benson: [00:15:17] So, Is there a lot of , uh, regulation? Cause I know that financial services is heavily regulated here. Is there a lot of those regulations baked into your product? Does that hamper your ability then to expand outside of Australia?

Stephen Handley: [00:15:30] There are, but also fundamentally financial services is assets, debts, incomes, expenses, um, and so then some of the fields, when did you last see the client, uh, when was the last piece of formal advice, uh, did you deliver in Australia, the financial services guide, but there's similarities everywhere in the world.

So we might have to rename fields , um, labels on forms, you know, adjust the XML. So some localization, but I'd say 80% of the system is is suited to any geography um, and you know, we're seeing that because we're winning customers, uh, and then when we look to the compliance needs , um, it may be, and I expect over time, there'll be certain processes that we might build in for certain geographies, et cetera, which will require us to perhaps have multiple solutions versus the one that we have today.

But it won't be  technically challenging. We've architected the system to make it fairly modularized. 

Neil Benson: [00:16:24] What's it been like selling into an industry that's under so much transformation. I know that the requirements to provide financial advice in terms of your education and personal certification are going up and up every year and financial advisors are getting out of the business because, you know, if you've had a business for 20 or 30 years, maybe you don't wanna go through all of that recertification. There's extra cost and meeting the regulations. And at the same time, the bottom end of the market's being eaten away by robo advisors. And uh, general advice and Facebook advice, and also it's other channels. Are you finding that financial advisors and service providers are fearful about making technology decisions?

Or is this a great time because of that disruption and your platform is a perfect way to support them? How are you finding it?

Stephen Handley: [00:17:06] It's a great time because the ones that are staying. So there's two things every business is trying to do, regardless of what the devil in the detail, they're trying to improve the customer experience and trying to do it with more operational efficiency um, and they they're trying to do that because historically where an advisor or an accountant or a financial services professional, might've had the capacity to see 150 clients every year.

Uh, Now  with the, the compression  on revenue, , uh, the more demanding expectations of the customers in general , uh, the increased costs to do with compliance and all the additional paperwork and education as you put it. , uh, You have to be able to see more clients. You're either going to do one of two things, you're going to move to that high net worth sort of upper quartile of clients and continue to see a hundred, 200 and charge them a lot and keep doing things the old way uh, but there's only so many of those clients to go around or you're going to evolve the business to allow you to still deliver a great customer experience, but to do so, um, more efficiently so you can see more clients. Um, Maybe charge them a little bit more reasonably, but still be profitable. The only way you do that is through data automation. So all of the information management that we've done over the, that has been paper-based in the past, collecting the client's information, doing a statement of advice, filling out application forms that has to be automated through better management of data.

Fundamentally, that means a CRM at the core um, and so whereas in the past advisors would come to me and say, I just don't like my current software I'm looking for something better or I'm spending too much on my current software. Over the last 18 months I'd say there's been a shift to realize I actually need to manage data better. And so that shift in mindset has been very good for us. The other thing I'll say is  the robo advisor , um, Um,  competition to me is, is a bit of a misnomer because advisors really, what we're talking about is some clients want to do some things themselves, and some clients want to be guided or advised. The underlying technology that we're building into our system could just as easily be used to offer a DIY option to clients. And what that will then allow is for advisors to structure their business in a way that they, they provide clients, the option, the choice that the complexity funnel, so to speak. So jump on our website and do some things yourself. Um, When you're ready to come and see a person, because you want that human reinforcement or guidance, the experience will be seamless uh, and so that also allows advisors, the shrinking number of advisors to offer advice to more Australians um, and, and the survey is showing the demand for advice is increasing. So it's an interesting time to be an advisor. There's going to be less of them, but more demand. So if you build your business correctly, the opportunities will be fairly significant. 

Neil Benson: [00:20:02] Yeah, so is Fin365 as well as providing client management functionality. Is it also taking in all those, let's say I'm a mortgage broker. Is it also taking those hundreds of mortgage products that are available in the market and helping me sift through those for our particular client's requirements and recommend two or three providers, or is the advice part still done in another platform?

Stephen Handley: [00:20:26] So we take a, a bit of both approach there, um, so we don't have that particular functionality, um, but there are, so I sort of differentiate between the data layer and the function layer or the application layer. So things like product research, whether it's life insurance or superannuation platforms or mortgage brokers , I, I say sits up in that functional layer, things like a client portal, things like an online fact find to collect information, document templating is all, all application function.

Uh, In that particular part of the system, we build some of our own applications um, but , uh, we would prefer , or, or our , uh, we will always look to integrate with others , um, because in that layer of the system advisers want choice so what might be a great product research tool tomorrow, maybe a better one comes along.

Uh, What might be a great client portal today. Tomorrow, there may be a better option. I want to be able to adjust the boxes in that layer the various features and applications I use without having to migrate my data and fundamentally restump the house or shift everything. So. Um, One of the problems with industry technology in the past or industry solutions is they were tightly coupled you couldn't have different applications without moving your data to a new system um, so we've taken a very different approach where you can just use us for the CRM and pick and choose applications from other providers , uh, that we will integrate with more and more so that you don't lose the efficiency of data flow between the two.

Neil Benson: [00:21:48] I'm, I'm working with some ISVs in the property industry and other parts of financial services. And there are some legacy application providers who don't give you those APIs very readily, if at all, and they want to lock in their clients. They don't want people to have the choice or to shift or to change.

Are you facing that with some of the providers in your industry as well?

Stephen Handley: [00:22:10] They're still there. I'd say today. It's probably more. I just don't have them yet um, so I'll give you a good answer for that one X plan now has an API. They have 70%, 65- 70% market share. Uh, They have developed an API that, and we are integrated with X plan today. So the fact that they have gone down that path , uh, to their credit means, I think there's a realization that technology is always an ecosystem of of systems from multiple providers, uh, and if you try to uh, lock-in and be a silo, uh, eventually you will become redundant and irrelevant. Uh, So it's more now there are systems and sometimes it's the newer systems that come along. Building an API often tends to be an afterthought when you're first setting up an application, um, and you've got to do it well?

It's , um, you know, just, you know, an API doesn't just appear. So me, sometimes it's just. A matter of time, we build our functionality. We start to get some customers. The customers now want us to integrate with this other system. We better build an API? Um,  That's what I'm seeing in financial planning. There are other industries like general insurance , uh, where that's absolutely still the case. There are systems out there , um, that have a monopoly. They're not interested in building an API um, and eventually they, they will have to go the, they will either go the way of the Dodo or they will, will change and become more cooperative. 

Neil Benson: [00:23:29] Thinking about your route to market. Microsoft recently announced that AppSource now has a licensing capability. So as an ISV, I can promote my products through Microsoft 365 admin portal so that they're there and a customer's administrator can add licenses from my product onto their users. And finally, Microsoft helping me to license that.

Is that something that's attractive to you? And are you selling through AppSource today because I imagine a lot of advisors they're not going to go on to AppSource looking for a solution for dynamics. They're looking for a, a total solution for financial advice or financial services.

Stephen Handley: [00:24:09] Yeah , so, so AppSource hasn't been other than a lead generation tool. It is not  an ex sales execution tool for us. Uh, there's There's an onboarding and migration, a training , uh,  um, a period of time that is required for us to engage a customer before they are really successful um, and I'm not sure AppSource , uh, will ever be a full sales , um, tool for us.

Given the complexity of our system and the fact that we have multiple parts, it's not just the CRM. We have other web services that connect in. The licensing one's interesting. We did bill. I saw the survey that came out yesterday, or was on LinkedIn yesterday. We built our own licensing engine , um, so that we could turn on and off.

Uh, I wished Microsoft had a solution for that one. It would have saved me some, some costs. Uh, I haven't looked into the details. It looks like it's just licensing solution access, , um, or app access and, and not, not table access yet. Um, The way we've structured our licensing is that , um, a customer can have the core dynamics and use it, and, and so they might be paying, they might be using other functionality, other solutions. Um, Our licensing will only turn off access to our tables. And so it's, if they, if they stop paying our license, they don't lose access to their contacts and their companies and their tasks and emails. Um, So we would need Microsoft solution to get to that point , um, before it was interesting um, but , um, I have no doubt they will. Actually I think they said it in their announcement that they will get to the Dataverse tables eventually. Um, So that's something we will, we will monitor , um, Um, but then there's, there's also, is it going to connect to a payment gateway so that if I don't have to manually invoice every month and if my customers stop paying and the payment gateway talks back to the licensing engine, it's more than just flicking a switch on the license is still a lot of manual stuff that potentially has to happen in the background.


Neil Benson: [00:25:53] Steady on Stephen. It's taken them 10 years to get to this stage. Now you want a payment gateway.

Stephen Handley: [00:25:58] Yeah. Yep. So we'll see. I will watch, I hope.

Neil Benson: [00:26:03] Yeah. How are you managing to service so many customers today? Are you deploying updates to all your customers Dynamics 365 environments that around the same time with you versions of your application.

Stephen Handley: [00:26:15] Good question. One of the differences between us and many of our competitors is we do install into the Office 365. So everyone's got their own individual. We're not hosting a central CRM um, and so we've had to build the infrastructure for that. It's all done through the web API , uh, and, and a lot of Azure magic on the backend.

And at this point, at least , uh, our customers numbers allow us to do an entire update over a weekend. Um, I imagine, eventually we'll get to a phased rollout, uh, but yes, tends to be on a quarterly cadence that we have updates um, and, and sometimes that's split between this one's just CRM and not. On the Azure side of things and, and sometimes it's a bit of both because there's dependencies between the two systems. Uh, So we've got another rollout coming up in probably two to three weeks, and that will be both CRM and, and all of the Azure infrastructure. Uh, That'll go out all at once in, in the space of a couple of days. 

Neil Benson: [00:27:08] That's interesting. I'm finding more and more ISV is relying on Azure for certain components as well. And it allows us some flexibility in terms of provisioning. Cause I can have one Azure tenant that I own, that I managed for all my IP lives. And it talks to all of my customers Dynamics 365 environments.

That's great for intellectual property protection or in some cases, bigger customers might already have an Azure tenant and want you to deploy your components into their tenant, but you can still do some good stuff with IP protection. So that's, it's great to see you're taking that approach. It does make deployments more complicated because there's more infrastructure to update and they all use different mechanisms.

So some engineering challenges, it sounds like you've overcome already.

Stephen Handley: [00:27:53] Yeah, the other big one's automation. So in the early stages, we tried to add, let's say recurring workflows, a birthday email that goes out every day, we built some of that capability into Dynamics um, but every time you change that, then you've got to deploy to every one of your customers. Uh, So a lot of that sort of recurring automation, we have market data flowing into the CRM for all of the unit prices and asset allocations of everything on the Australian stock exchange. That's much easier to manage  those automations in, in Azure and just push it out to the individual CRMs. So,  It has been some really fun architectural things. Can't say that I'm the one that's figured it all out, but , um, you know, we've learned a lot along the way.

I'm sure there's lots more we will learn too. 

Neil Benson: [00:28:39] What's the feedback from your customers been like around that quarterly release cadence and educating them and training them in the new features. Whenever Microsoft made that shift. A couple of years ago, now it's doing twice a year updates. There was a lot of pushback from Microsoft customers. They loved being able to choose when to install their own updates.

Salesforce never give you that choice, for example, and now Microsoft customers seem to have got on board with it. Have you find your customers the same?

Stephen Handley: [00:29:03] Our customers are , it's, it's more given the size. Uh, you know, We're in startup mode still. Uh, I don't have a full time technical document writer on my staff to make sure that my release notes are detailed enough um, and, and delivered in  a variety of different forms so that my customers always know what's coming so often we'll get customers saying, oh, it'd be great if you could do this. And we say, we've had it for six months and they go , well, you didn't tell me about it and say , well, yeah, we posted that PDF on the update link, but you just didn't read it. That's actually more of the challenge versus. Uh, them being concerned that we're updating the system. Um, And from a support perspective, having our customers on the exact same solution in every instance is critical.

If we had varied versions it , um, especially again, given startup mode, , um, it'd become very quickly a, a problem, I think , to, to provide the level of support that we, we need to.

Neil Benson: [00:29:51] So, what, What , uh, challenges are you currently facing? I think you've done more than most. I can see among the ISV that I've spoken to about integrating Power BI into Dynamics. That was never easy. You've done a great job of it, at least visually. Um, Has that been a challenge and on what other technical challenges have you managed to overcome recently?

Stephen Handley: [00:30:08] Uh, No, the Power BI, I mean, it's been something we've looked, we've looked at from day one. We still haven't got to the point of being Power BI embedded um, so at the moment, you know, each of my customers has their own instance of Power BI and we're pushing the reports out in quite a manual way, um, but the benefit is significant because it really does encourage usage of the CRM , uh, and the more data, the more the cleaner, the data , the, the more coverage they have across their customer base, the more value they get out of the system. So, um, I've really enjoyed the integration there. The new end point, the realtime end point is one that we've started now to use.

Um, I haven't yet hit issues with, with bandwidth or consumption of data. We'll see some of the reports we put out, have a lot of underlying data. So that's a concern, I just haven't hit it. So hopefully fingers crossed. We won't , um, yeah, that won't become one. , uh, Architectural challenges. There hasn't been anything significant of late

um, We have , uh, probably the dot net. There was a recent one that's still affecting our customers where there was a cookie issue in, in Chrome and Edge , um, because of the version of dot net that we're on. And we're still working through that one and that's required to change. We've you've always got the legacy API's versus the new APIs and a migration period um, so I think we're almost at the point where every part of our Azure environments speaking through the web API , um, again, not technically challenging just takes time. Uh, No, I can't think of anything significant. If they mess up the virtual entities, I won't be happy um,  because we're relying fairly heavily on them at the moment for the market data. So hopefully there's a commitment there. That's always the risk with any third-party platform you build upon is if they end of life something significant. And that was one thing I did learn at Microsoft was what is significant to partners sometimes is a bit of an afterthought within Microsoft, um, and they can make random decisions , uh, to not do things anymore , um, that have a significant impact. And as a, as a program manager in Microsoft, you wouldn't realize, you know, for you, it was a fairly minor decision until then you heard the, the uproar that came back from the partner community , um, so I'm constantly aware of that risk and we're cautious with taking on new things until they've at least gone through three name changes in three versions. Um, We're also constantly keeping an eye on, on things. Um, you know, like dialogues and task flows, I think in the space of six months, they end of life dialogues  end of life tasks flows.

And we're still , um,  sort of cleaning up after that, those changes um, but they're minor in the, in the grand scheme of things at this point. 

Neil Benson: [00:32:37] What are you hoping for? You mentioned virtual entities. Um, I think there's renewed investment in virtual entities after a little hiatus for awhile, which is good. And we've now got the ability to, to , um, create and read, sorry, uh, create and update through the virtual entity API, which is fantastic. What other investments would you love to see Microsoft make to make your life easier?

Stephen Handley: [00:33:01] I haven't played around enough yet. So one of the ongoing challenges with dynamics is the interface. It's busy, it's a CRM , uh, we're starting to play with, with PCF and, and some of the things that make it more possible for us to take control , get, get things out of the ribbon, just clean it up, have specific apps for specific , uh, employees in a particular customer business that are focused more on their, their function.

Um, I think training people on Dynamics at this point is still, it's a pretty long curve because of how busy and we've we've spent a fair bit of time trying to clean it up, but that's going to be an increased area of focus for us. Now that the product, the underlying product capabilities are very mature.

How do we just make it so that it's easy from day one for people to do what they need to do. Without getting overwhelmed with all the other possibilities, um, so taking the Apple approach, hiding the stuff that people use 5% of the time and only exposing the stuff that they use, 75, 80, 90% of the time. Um, It would be nice if Microsoft perhaps made that a bit easier to do, uh, but , uh, yeah, again, I haven't explored some of the new areas enough um, to know what's possible with, with the PCS with the, the , um, Power Apps themselves, et cetera. Um, so, 

Neil Benson: [00:34:15] I was, I got a phone call from a friend of mine in California. She's a new user Dynamics 365 for sales, never used it before at a very simple HubSpot CRM system. Previous they , her, her company in Denmark has just rolled this out globally. I don't know what to do. I don't know how to use this thing.

Can you help me through it? So we got on a team's call this morning. And she's had a user training session and she still was completely lost by this thing. Why are the leads there? They told us not to use leads, but why are they still showing up in the system? Why are there two save icons? There's one at the top of one of the bottom. Do they do the same thing?

Stephen Handley: [00:34:48] There is one at the top now. 

Neil Benson: [00:34:51] That's right. So you take it for granted. I've been using it for 15 years and it's evolved, but I know my way around it, but to a brand new user it can still feel quite intimidating. And I don't think there is an easy enough way for a customizer to hide all the ribbon features and all the navigation features that I don't want my users to see. It's still quite a fiddle.

Stephen Handley: [00:35:12] Kanban. There you go. That's the one they have to invest in the number of people that are still using that I talked to that are using a CRM and they're still using um, Slack or Planner or Monday or some of those other ones to manage their process flows, uh, it reduces the time spent in the CRM, which is where you want all your activity connected to a customer.

So if they made managing process flows more drag and drop for the bulk of users, and only require you to drill down into the details if you need to. Uh, I think that would be a significant investment and I haven't heard much on the radar about them even making it so I can use Kanban on custom entities or cases or change what shows up on the Kanban tiles, um, so Microsoft, if you're listening that one.

Neil Benson: [00:36:05] Yeah. So they have Kanban for sales opportunities today. I think it's quite, like you said, it's quite a simple first version. And sometimes you never know whether Microsoft's actually going to make a second version, is that if you're going to see any enhancement, we're always a little nervous before we invest too much of our, our , uh, blood, sweat, and tears into learning it.

And yeah, I haven't heard anything yet about a commitment to expanding it to custom entities or making it more configurable. There are some good third-party products on the market for that, but those aren't always suitable. If you're building your own ISV application.

Stephen Handley: [00:36:36] Well, Even tying Planner to process flows mean, they've got Kanban they've got a tool that is actually quite easy and nice to use. If somehow I could put those two over the top and tie the Planner interface to the underlying CRM process entities. Sound simple to me. 

Neil Benson: [00:36:54] I use Planner for scheduling all my podcast guests and it's really difficult because I can't add custom fields to it uh, but it's nice and simple. And if I don't go overboard, I can, I can get, I can handle it pretty well. Um, Steven, any final words of advice you'd give to startups, ISVs thinking about or already started developing on the Microsoft Power Platform?

What are they one or two landmines they should avoid? And what are the one or two critical success factors they should focus on?

Stephen Handley: [00:37:23] That's a big question. Uh, I've had the benefit of, of knowing exactly what the customer needed because I was the customer, um, so at a high level , uh, I think I would boil it down to two, two things. They usability from day one. Anything you can do to improve the usability of your solution. It's going to improve adoption and make it improve the sales process.

The day that we put in custom icons for each of our custom entities , uh, you know, I still see a lot of people who build Dynamics solutions and you've got that generic entity icon showing up everywhere. And it just, it just diminishes the enthusiasm of the customer, um, you know, it's a psychological thing, but I think it's important.

The second one would be figure out deployment. Um, you know, I see a lot of environments I go into and there's solutions everywhere , um, you know, three, four or five different, six different solutions. Uh, Now that might be, that might be valid um, but think about how you're going to deploy when you, when you have updates and your customer base grows.

And if you can architect your your solution in such a way, that's going to make that easier, um, so for example, in, as we have, we have two. A managed and an unmanaged. We know our customers are going to make changes. We don't want  any collisions to occur. So we give them the unmanaged solution that allows them to do it.

We know about it. So when we do updates, we do an export and import and it all stays nice and clean, um, and that's all can be done through the web APIs so. You got to think that through some of that came from learning with us, we didn't just know all that upfront. So they'd probably be the two areas, usability , and, and that ongoing service support updates you need to , um, to scale.

Neil Benson: [00:39:00] I'm fascinated by your journey you've come from advice business. Now you're in the software business, providing software to the advisors as time goes on you're knowledge of the advice business probably diminish a little. How are you gathering feedback from your customers? Do you have an ongoing user group? I know you posted a lot on Twitter and you get a lot of people will respond.

Sorry. On LinkedIn. You're very active. You're getting a lot of community and industry feedback there. What other channels, maybe more formally are you using to gather the future needs of your, of your customer base?

Stephen Handley: [00:39:33] At this point, it's very much the customers. So we do try and develop a bit of a community , uh, within the customer base. Um, My own advice business, that I'm still a partner in, although I'm not actively advising these days,  my business partner sitting about six feet from me. , um, One of the good ways to get feedback is I release to my own business first.

And if anyone yells and screams, I know that perhaps I shouldn't roll this out to anyone else, um, but it, it very much is feedback, so, uh, probably the most current example is the regulatory change coming in July one that requires all advisers to do these new annual service agreements. And it's going to add significant amount of overhead and needs to be managed in a very tight way to be efficient, but also be able to demonstrate you've met your obligations.

Uh, So that was one that was very obvious. We had to provide something in the system very quickly, uh, so we collected lots of feedback from our customers. Uh, How do you plan on doing it? There's There's uncertainty , uh, around exactly the best way to manage it. Uh, But the beauty of Dynamics is we can push things out really quickly , um, and get it out there.

Something that will work, meet some needs, collect feedback, what worked, what didn't, and then build that into the process. Uh, um, Close, still close enough, and, and many of our other team members are still close enough in the industry that , uh, we , uh, pretty aware of the customer needs as the business grows, as the geographies diversify and those sorts of things. Yeah. The community groups is probably the way we're going to do it. I did look at Yammer. I thought Microsoft uses Yammer is that beneficial. Can't use it. Don't seem to be able to use it outside the US with external guests. So at the moment we're using teams, we have community groups within our teams environment um, but yeah, as much as possible, that's the approach we'll take.

 Neil Benson: [00:41:10] It's a fascinating story. I didn't realize you still had a partnership or you're still an ownership in a advice business. So that gives you a great playground to try all your new features. 

Stephen Handley: [00:41:21] It does, playground's a good word.

Neil Benson: [00:41:23] It's high stakes stuff. It's your business. So you don't want to mess it up. Very good.

Well, Steven, thanks so much for joining us on the Amazing Applications podcast. It's been great to hear your story and find out lots more about it. Some really interesting takeaways around usability, deployment, , um, introducing Power BI and giving business owners great visuals into what's happening in their business because that will drive adoption and people want to see meaningful data and those Power BI tiles.

So, Really interesting story. Thanks so much for coming on and sharing it with us. 

Stephen Handley: [00:41:51] My pleasure. Neil was great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Neil Benson: [00:41:55] Thanks, Stephen. I really appreciate you sharing your story of how you're building Fin365 on the Power Platform. If you'd like to find out more about Fin365, visit their website: 

I loved Stephen's advice for ISVs to focus on the usability of your app from your customer's perspective. From the onboarding experience for new users to immediately make them productive to the tiny details, like adding icons for custom tables in your model driven apps. And designing your application for ongoing serviceability and deployments was another critical success factor . CJ Brooks Mission CRM said the same thing when I chatted with him in episode 027. 

Remember, you can grab the show notes with links to Stephen, Fin365, and the resources mentioned in this episode at 

Next time we've got a Power BI MVP joining me in the show for all you data nerds, building data warehouses and data visualizations. Remember to follow Amazing Applications on your podcast player so you don't miss it. 

Thanks for listening. I appreciate you and the feedback I get through Linkedin. Keep it up, and keep sprinting.