How Staffology‘s creator shifted the software landscape

MicrosoftTeams image 127 | How Staffology‘s creator shifted the software landscape
By Conrad Emmett | 30th March 2023 | 8 min read

If you walk through any IRIS office, you soon spot those taking their first step on the career ladder, complemented by a host of entrepreneurs, innovators and creatives.

The latter bring decades of market-tested innovation and industry insight – some were even personalities in their own right before becoming part of IRIS.

Duane Jackson is one of these people.

He was a Twitter “blue tick” long before you could buy one.

The serial entrepreneur first became a major name in financial software after making KashFlow, the first Software as a Service (SaaS) accounting solution in the UK, which he later sold to IRIS.

In the years that followed, a combination of creative restlessness and urging from industry peers led Duane to create Staffology Payroll.

If KashFlow was the disruptive rockstar that brought SaaS to accounting, Staffology Payroll is the arena band that knows how to deliver a big hit – in this case, an API-first solution.

An unlikely jump into payroll software development

“After selling KashFlow to IRIS, I was advising the boards of several companies. Two were asking me if I could recommend a web-based payroll solution with a comprehensive API, but there wasn’t one on the market,” said Duane.  

Their attention shifted to Duane, his programming know-how and his ability to disrupt the market.

“Of course, I then got asked if I wanted to make that software. At first, I treated it as a running joke because I knew how hard it would be,” Duane added.

But the project’s complexity didn’t stop Duane: “I considered three pieces of received wisdom about making payroll software.

“The first is that it takes a lot of effort to update it every year. But with payroll, it’s not an option: if you don’t update the app to meet legislation, it doesn’t work anymore.

“The second is you can’t make a minimum viable product for payroll and then improve it later. You can’t go to market with a halfway-there product because it needs to cover every eventuality from day one.

“The third thing is you can’t charge too much for payroll software – it’s a very commoditised solution.”

The price needed to include API functionality, Duane concluded. The temptation is always to charge for these extras (they do, of course, take serious time and effort), but Duane was determined that the API should be a seamless part of the package, available for everyone.

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Software development and hill climbing

“There were numerous hills to climb, and if I had known exactly what lay ahead at the beginning of the journey, I wouldn’t have started,” Duane jokingly explained.

Staffology’s later story, with IRIS, would involve whole teams of engineers; but, in the beginning, it was just Duane, his monitor and his keyboard.

There was no army of developers behind him, no marketers to hand and no technical support.

Moral support came, however, from his wife, who checked in on him, making sure he remembered to stop, eat and drink. She did this with good reason, considering how Duane’s focus narrows.

Duane explained: “As a software developer, I can get obsessed. I focus on something and pull 16-hour days. I put a lot of time into creating Staffology Payroll, but I enjoyed it.”

Duane powered his way through a massive list of functions that the software needed. When he wasn’t thinking about things like Attachment of Earnings Orders, he was looking at the likes of Making Tax Digital (MTD) and real-time calculations.

He did have some other company on his journey: a wealth of fintech industry colleagues he had been in touch with since developing KashFlow.

Duane said: “We needed to make sure it catered for a five-person company, a 2,000-strong corporation and everything in between. So we brought businesses of all sizes aboard to test the functionality.”

How APIs change things

An application programming interface (API) lets programs “talk” to one another.

A lot of apps use APIs – the weather reports in the corner of most websites use an API to talk to a separate service, for instance. Here, an app might want to retrieve temperature, precipitation and more from a meteorological service rather than trying to do the job itself.

API retrieval means you can integrate several pieces of software, moving data from one application to another – in Staffology, this would include payroll facts, figures and reports.

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An API-first approach

One pitfall in developing software with an API is that added functionality often gets ignored in updates – the extra work is postponed to a later date that never arrives.

“I realised the API must not become a second-class citizen. Anything that I added that’s new had to be integrated into it,” Duane said.

The way around this was deceptively simple: make Staffology rely on the API. “The user interface uses the API, so to update the software, it all has to be done at once.”

The end result could process payroll for a 2,000-person business in just a few seconds.

In fact, because it was updating figures live, it had done most of the work before you even considered requesting a report.

Not bad for software that was built on grit, determination and long hours.

A new home with IRIS

When Duane sold Staffology to IRIS, he stepped aboard too.

But why does an independent innovator decide to join IRIS?

One analogy I use is a train set,” Duane said.

“I'm good at doing start-ups. I can build these little locomotives, steam engines that have a life of their own.

“IRIS, meanwhile, has this massive train set that I can come and play with. There's a whole bunch of different products, and we can see how they can all connect to each other. We can look ahead and think: what else can we do?”

Now, Duane heads up one of the teams working on Staffology, all of which are overseen by Fran Williams, Senior Director of Product at IRIS.

Coming soon: what happened to Staffology next? In part two, we explore the progress that was made after Duane and the software joined the IRIS family and the big ambitions the team has for its future.

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