Workiva builds innovative financial reporting tool, saves nearly $1 million annually with Google App Engine

The technology behind Workiva’s big idea was conceived by a small group of developers led by Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Jeff Trom. After several conversations with colleagues (among them two experienced CFOs), Trom and his small team of developers brought to life a cloud-based application that would redefine their industry. Their big idea: Dramatically improve how companies collect, manage, analyze and report business data.

Very early, Workiva anchored its business to Google App Engine. The company was drawn to Google App Engine because of Google’s strong reputation for security. Working with Google App Engine, Workiva created a highly innovative, collaborative, secure, and reliable cloud-based productivity platform called Wdesk. Today, Workiva has a growing team of 950+ employees and is revolutionizing the compliance-reporting industry with its unique software. Offices in 15 cities serve more than 2,200 of the world’s leading companies, including AES Corporation, Chevron, Delta Airlines, eBay, and WalMart.

Challenge

The Workiva founders knew there had to be a better way to handle SEC reporting than relying on simple desktop tools. Before building their product, they talked to dozens of companies to learn the pain points with SEC reporting. In every case, it was clear that word processors, spreadsheets, and email were insufficient for the task.

“Google App Engine has the breadth and the depth to grow with you. Every 6 months, it gets better. The Google App Engine team knows what you need to make a competitive application.”

Brett Harper director of product development, Workiva

Companies struggled with using spreadsheets to collaborate and exchange different types of data. Common issues included lack of integration between spreadsheets and word-processing programs, version-control problems, document change-management, late-breaking changes to data and text, and tight timelines. The process was painful. The process was painful. Filing teams at such companies as Whirlpool Corporation worked long hours, away from their families, to complete reports on time.

Business reporting is a mission-critical process for companies. Workiva founders knew that to support it, they would have to store large amounts of granular data, create rich collaboration capabilities, and provide state-of-the-art information security.

Solution

As the development team worked to create the software they envisioned, Workiva sought a platform that could help launch the product in 12 months without scale or server-reliability issues. A small team looked for the most efficient, cost-effective way to launch an application designed for rapid, mass scale-up. It needed a solution that would reduce overhead and provide a secure system to store client data. Google App Engine’s pricing and reputation for security covered both.

“Choosing to use Google App Engine for Workiva for their back end was obvious,” Murray notes. “Google App Engine provides many benefits to a business building a large-scale, data-intensive product on a short timeline.

Within a year, the team had built a product using Google App Engine’s python runtime environment. The combination of python and Google App Engine’s datastore feature enabled an iterative and incremental approach to building the back end. Even more important, it let the team focus on innovation and creating the right features for the market by eliminating considerable IT overhead.

Instead of spending time managing servers and service systems, the Workiva developers put their energy into building a cloud-based, totally collaborative tool. Filing teams could work on the same document online, thus resolving the complex data-editing and merging problem that so many companies faced with reporting. The developers also built a feature called “live-linking,” which let users update key financial numbers in one place and have them updated simultaneously everywhere.

Early beta tests yielded great results and rave reviews. One of the first companies to use the product was Winnebago Industries, Inc. Testers there loved the ease of access and version control. CFO Sarah Nielsen especially appreciated the software’s flexibility and accessibility. “First and foremost, I liked to be in the document whenever – and wherever – I wanted,” she says.

Results

After beta testing with several companies, Workiva officially launched the software on St. Patrick’s Day, 2010. It has experienced tremendous growth ever since, and now works with thousands of companies in nearly every industry. Large companies are saving time and even submitting reports early. eBay, for example, submitted its 10-K annual report 20 days earlier by using Wdesk. Many other Workiva customers say they save hundreds of hours on a wide variety of data collection processes and business reports. Customers have stated improved work/life balance and higher employee morale, thanks to Wdesk.

Workiva attributes much of this success to Google App Engine. “Workiva would not be here today without Google App Engine,” Murray notes. “Without it we would not have been able to put the money we needed into product development and distribution.”

Using Google App Engine has saved Workiva three to five full-time positions in system administration and operations. With optimized headcount and improved server efficiency, savings are estimated at close to $1 million a year. Team members are also excited by Google App Engine’s new pricing model. They see it as an indication of Google’s continuing commitment to developing Google App Engine.

Workiva developers also love that the Google App Engine Team is producing innovations rapidly. Team members are fond of the AppStats and TaskQueues features. AppStats has helped identify problems and fine-tune performance. TaskQueues has provided good solutions for processing large amounts of data and reducing request latency.

Perhaps one of Google App Engine’s biggest benefits is how it supports Workiva’s rapid software delivery model. This infrastructure allows Workiva’s progressive implementation of a reliable, automated patterned approach to building higher quality software without concerning customers with regular service interruption.

This is a huge competitive advantage because it allows Workiva to deliver updates nearly continuously and respond to its customers’ needs with over 4,100 new features and improvements through an average of 63 releases every quarter.

As it grows, Workiva will continue to expand its product and the web services that support it. "When we find opportunities to build new applications there is no doubt that Google App Engine will be at the core," Murray adds.