We spoke with CEO and founder of ProSpend Sharon Nouh on challenging the status quo, the importance of innovation and inspiring women in tech.
You founded the business spend management platform ProSpend (formerly expensemanager) in 2011. Can you tell me a bit about your background and what inspired you to launch this company?
In ‘another life’ I had corporate travel agencies in Adelaide and Sydney and I saw first hand the pain that my clients had with the manual and paper reconciliation of travel and entertainment expenses.
After the merger of my travel agencies with a travel technology company, I knew this was my opportunity to use technology to solve this manual process. I designed and led the development of Australia’s first expense management tool that was successfully launched.
You first began by bootstrapping your vision. How has ProSpend grown over the years and what has the response been like from businesses?
Yes, I was working over the kitchen table at night and had a stint as Head of Operations at a SaaS travel technology company to help fund the new venture. After a couple of years of development, expensemanager, now ProSpend, was launched with customer #1 – Kentucky Fried Chicken.
KFC, a global brand, took a leap of faith in me and my MVP and they are still our customers today!
I didn’t want to stop at just automating expenses, I knew businesses would want to automate all of their business spend processes in one platform. So we have continued to develop the product and added more modules over the years. The platform now digitises and automates business expenses, invoices, purchase orders, budgets and most recently we have launched a treasury module that includes virtual debit cards and payments.
Today, more than 550 customers in Australia and New Zealand subscribe to our platform.
In an industry typically dominated by men, what does it mean to you to challenge the status quo and be a leader for women in tech?
It’s certainly true that the tech industry is predominantly male led, so the fact that I have been successful proves that gender doesn’t determine one’s ability to be successful in the software industry.
I hope my success will inspire other women and girls to pursue careers in technology and to challenge the perception of VC’s that backing women led technology companies is worthwhile.
Why is innovation in business so important?
Innovation is important for businesses for many reasons. It helps them remain competitive, meet customer needs, drive growth, attract talent and solve real business problems.
But in particular, finance is one area of businesses that can benefit immensely from innovation because of the many manual and repetitive processes like accounts payable, reconciliations and data entry that can be improved or replaced entirely. The finance teams can then focus on more rewarding and value-added tasks.
Improved reporting is also a great benefit of utilising innovation to gather data from multiple sources and make better informed financial decisions. Innovation also improves and helps with managing risk and fraud control with the use of AI in the accounts payable processes.
You also have a background in the travel industry. What skills did you gain that helped you with founding your own business?
My love for technology started during my early days in travel when the industry went from paper airline schedule books to the first ‘internet’ which was the Global Distribution System (GDS) that the airlines formed to replace the paper airline schedules. I can remember when I first logged into the GDS, it was miraculous! I could see and book flights in real-time. So I guess you could say that the most important skill I learnt was that technology could transform the way people worked and bring in far more efficiency!
What have been some of the most unexpected challenges you’ve faced?
Like any bootstrapped entrepreneur there have probably been too many challenges to remember! Like all businesses, COVID changed the way we worked ad a company, there were positives for us – increased demand for our solution – but with that came in the challenge of having to employ and onboard new people remotely. Keeping the company culture and the feeling of being a part of a team was also more challenging during COVID so we had to implement a range of initiatives to deal with this.
What has been one of your proudest accomplishments?
Well, I could say seeing my customer’s success is always a proud moment, and it is, but to be honest displacing global competition who have way more resources, reach and awareness has to be the true proudest accomplishment. We compete and win against some of the biggest global names in our space and that is always a big win for not just me but my whole team!
The use of Artificial Intelligence in finance and tech is a hot topic at the moment. How do you see AI impacting business and tech in the future?
AI is already a huge part of businesses in the form of automation. While most people see AI as futuristic, I think most people don’t even realise how dependent on AI they already are! As businesses, especially the finance and tech teams have so many routine processes and they work with so much data that can easily be streamlined with the use of AI. From the simplest to the most complex tasks, paper-based and manual processes, time consuming tasks, mundane tasks, compliance, error-free data reconciliation, fraud detection – AI will take over so many of these critical loopholes and tasks that are a big pain point today. What’s more? We have been using AI and machine learning in our hyper-automated platform for a long time now, and our customers have appreciated the efficiency it brings in for them.
You’ve had an incredible business journey so far. What’s next for you and ProSpend?
We will continue to build innovative solutions that further enhance our platform. We have always believed in listening to our customers, their needs, their business problems and used that to solve for them and be a partner to their long term success. We have a lot more products and solutions on our roadmap that will continue to solve real business problems for existing and potential customers. Tech has always been exciting for me and with AI taking over, it’s exciting times for us and our customers.