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The challenges with financial modeling tools [Podcast]

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Alok Ajmera is President of Prophix, a Sage Partner, and is responsible for ensuring that every customer, prospective customer, partner, employee, and shareholder around the globe has a memorable and positive experience with the company and its products. He spent his life working in the various roles within the software space from engineering to sales to marketing.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Alok for the Sage Advice podcast. You can listen here or read an edited version of the interview below.

Tell us a little bit more about yourself and Prophix

Prophix is a software company based out of Toronto in Canada. We partnered with Sage a couple of months ago, working with the corporate finance groups, streamlining a lot of their processes. Myself, I’ve actually been with Prophix for almost 15 years and like you mentioned in your intro, I’ve done a little bit of everything, working in engineering, working on product and code; all the way to the other end of the extreme, in sales and marketing and now spending a lot of time kind of bringing all of those pieces together really, as you mentioned, to drive a memorable experience for our stakeholders in the Prophix ecosystem.

Why do you do what you do?

This is something that I reflect a lot on. I always laugh with my team that being in technology is really challenging. Everything’s always changing, which can be fun, but it’s also, you know, it’s a lot of pressure on you. One day something’s going on and someone could start up in their basement and disrupt your entire business the next day. Normally people would say they do what they do because they love the challenge. For me, I do what I do because it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s different. The people that we’re surrounded by in the technology space, both in Prophix and Sage, they’re intelligent, they’re sharp, they’re ambitious, and so I get to wake up every day incredibly motivated just based on the people that are around me and the environment that we get to be in.

Before we started talking, you mentioned challenges that you see with folks who use Excel in their company as their primary financial modeling tool. Could you explore that with us a little bit?

In the office of finance, in particular, Excel is a native tool that people are very comfortable with. It’s easy to use. People grew up doing a lot of financial analysis in Excel and when you put that into a corporate kind of environment, you start getting into all sorts of Excel-related challenges. We have problems with the version of the truth. A lot of our customers will have dozens of different Excel models and different versions. Version one, version two, they’re emailing back and forth, which kind of ties to a collaboration challenge. Excel is not necessarily a good collaboration tool and ultimately that creates lots of problems and ultimately errors, you know, you’d be surprised how many times I can talk to a group of CFOs and I’ll ask them how many times have you been in a board meeting when you’re presenting your budget as an example and one of the board members catches a mistake on your, on your budgeted financials and that’s a huge problem and it really ties to the difficulty that people have actually used Excel as a corporate performance management tool.

It’s easy to use, but it’s really difficult to manage on a broader scale, and it’s very error-prone. So what ends up happening is a lot of finance teams, a lot of accounting teams, where they spend most of their time kind of disseminating these spreadsheets, collecting these spreadsheets, trying to review and pour over these spreadsheets, make sure there are no errors and then in the 25th hour get it all together and you know, get their reports or their budgets or their appliance out, but they don’t have a lot of time then to do anything with this information, for the intelligence into the information, the insights into the information and that’s really one of the core problems that we’re trying to solve. Streamline the process, make it more automated, you know, reduce the errors, but most importantly, is free your team’s time to really do something with the information that they’re collecting.

Do you have an example of an organization where they have made this transition from using Excel to your product and they’ve been able to get some additional insight out of it?

Absolutely. We have thousands of customers around the world. A quintessential use case for us would be a customer where they’re spending, if I take an example of their budget process or forecasting process, they’re spending two or three months a year putting together an annual budget. And by leveraging Prophix they’re able to one, reduce the cycle time. Taking your two or three months of really just number crunching and pushing it down to two or three weeks and then they’re able to use that extra time now to drive insight. So instead of just spending time collecting, cleaning, making sure the information is right, actually working with their business partners, the various people in the actual business, collaborating on how they should be building clients for the future. But what’s actually happening? Providing insight on some of the information that their collecting, finding trends, finding anomalies, surfacing them, providing recommendations so that they can collaborate with their business and actually makes an impact.

It’s a very specific example. We have a customer of ours that runs one of the largest ski resorts in North America and in helping them reduce all this kind of data collection, cycling time and shifting them more to analysis. They were actually able to find all sorts of interesting anomalies in the data. One of the most interesting ones from my perspective was they actually started realizing that there were correlations in some of the food that they have at their cafes and whatnot and weather patterns and they realized that on extremely cold days, in fact, they were able to sell more premium hot chocolate. Go figure, and in understanding that correlation, they actually worked with their food operations team to actually accentuate their offerings and actually they stopped selling the low premium hot chocolate and it sounds crazy, you know it’s hot chocolate, but you’d be surprised how much hot chocolate a ski resort can actually sell in the season and that specific insight actually drove, I think it was a couple hundred thousand dollars of extra margin, which in the grand scheme of things, not a big deal, but I just love the story because it’s so specific.

If they hadn’t spent the time doing the analysis, they never would have stumbled upon this type of correlation and the business would never have actually done anything about it. So it’s a very small story, but it’s one that’s always resonated with me because this is a key, right? Don’t spend your time crunching numbers and just pushing data back and forth. Spend your time looking at the data, driving insights and then doing something with the data, right. Taking action, making your business better.

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