November 29, 2023

You’re the Boss: When the Bottom Line Is Buried in Paper

Tech Support

The notion of the paperless office has been tantalizing us since the 1970s. Why, in just 10 years, we were told, we would all work in glittering offices uncluttered by desk piles, file cabinets or closets full of cardboard boxes. Every document we’d need would be summoned easily on our computer screens. Unfortunately, the paperless office has remained 10 years away all these decades, and oddly enough, according to my careful calculations, it is still exactly 10 years away.

How much paper do businesses still generate? Well, estimates from experts vary — understandably, since they’re basically making the numbers up — but no one seems to think it’s less than several trillion pages a year in the United States alone. And if you’re anything like me, half of those pages are sitting on your desk right now.

Of course, you’ve probably got better things to worry about than decluttering your desk — unless, that is, buried in that clutter are invoices that need to be sent out, checks and orders from customers, bills from suppliers that are accruing interest and bad will, or expense receipts that the I.R.S. has suddenly developed a burning interest in seeing. Oh, now the paperless office has your attention, doesn’t it?

It got Willie Toney Sellers’ attention. Mr. Sellers operates Unique Cleaning Service, a janitorial and maintenance firm based in Marietta, Ga. With about 50 employees servicing nearly 200 commercial and government client sites spread across 13 southern states and Puerto Rico, one of the company’s largest non-salary costs is travel, especially for the firm’s four constantly on-the-road quality-control inspectors. “We were having a lot of trouble tracking and finding receipts,” said Mr. Sellers. “If the I.R.S. challenged us, we’d be spending a lot of time digging through papers.”

The company first looked into buying scanners and special software designed to make it easy to organize scanned receipts, like the NeatReceipts offerings you may have seen at airports. But while that sort of solution seems appealing for a modest flow of paper receipts, Mr. Sellers feared it would be insufficient for the torrent his employees were generating. He pictured employees sitting around for hours feeding receipts into scanners and leaving the company with a mess of online documents.

Turns out, though, you can outsource your paper problems. A company called OfficeDrop lets you ship your boxes of paper receipts and other documents to them, and they’ll scan the mess and make it all available online as organized, searchable documents. Unique Cleaners now uses OfficeDrop for all of its receipts, as well as for all of its customer and vendor paperwork. “We try to get everyone to deal with us by e-mail, but not everyone is set up that way,” Mr. Sellers said. In fact, even when orders, invoices and other transactions do come via e-mail, the company forwards them to OfficeDrop, so it can add them to the scanned documents to provide a single, integrated, organized view of all documents. Mr. Sellers doesn’t even want the papers back for archival storage — he just has OfficeDrop shred them.

Unique Cleaning pays OfficeDrop about $100 a month, and Mr. Sellers figures he’s freed up his office’s administrative assistant from having to spend a chunk of her day dealing with paper, making it a good deal in his eyes for that reason alone. The bigger payoff might actually come from avoiding potential audit, order and invoice problems related to misplaced paper, but it can be hard to judge what cost to assign to that risk. Perhaps it’s enough to say that if you’re concerned about it, you probably should do something about it.

You can also move toward paperless nirvana by focusing on paperwork impediments to getting paid more quickly. These days, most online and software-based accounting services can generate and e-mail online invoices. But some invoice-oriented services, including Freshbooks (free for a very limited version) and (not free), also make it easy to invite your customers to pay electronically via bank transfer or credit card, cutting out the delays and hassles of paper checks. “Small businesses are the last frontier for online payment,” said René Lacerte,’s founder and chief executive. “They still write 6.6 billion paper checks worth $23 trillion a year.”

Mr.. Lacerte, a fourth-generation entrepreneur who fondly recounts childhood memories of his father and grandfather swapping cash-management tricks at the dinner table, insists his service goes well beyond online payment in cutting out paper-related obstacles to healthy cash flow. For one thing, allows the linking of any type of scanned or electronic document or report to billing and invoicing information, so that you can see on-screen if, for example, there are any production delays or service problems or contract glitches that may be holding up a customer’s payment. And of course you can use these same sorts of issues as a reason to hold off on paying one of your vendors. “Your accounting system can tell you owe someone $1,000,” Mr. Lacerte said, “but it doesn’t tell you anything about the work flow behind that bill.”

Frustrated by his inability to better manage cash flow while on the road, in elevators, or at kids’ sports, Mr. Lacerte got the idea for while working at his previous company, an online payroll service called PayCycle that he sold to Intuit in 2009 for $170 million. Meanwhile, I’ve noted in a previous post that online invoicing service Wave Accounting can reduce the need to hang onto paper receipts by linking to your credit-card and bank accounts and automatically categorizing your expenditures. The expense-reporting service Expensify can do the same — and Expensify also lets you scan paper receipts via your mobile phone so you can immediately toss the paper.

Wow, I’ll bet 10 years from now the only paper we’ll have sitting around will be that stack of last week’s newspapers! Oh, wait a minute. …

What are your biggest paper-related hassles, and what have you done to ease them? Are there reasons you’re not in a big hurry to get rid of paper?

You can follow David H. Freedman on Twitter and on Facebook.

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