When ERP is too expensive to be a solution

by Andrea de Fraga - Business Analyst

Okay, here I come again with a blog post inspired by Problemista. I make no promises that it will be my last. 

Watching the movie and seeing Claris FileMaker references made me think about how I got introduced to the platform in the first place. I used to work for a production company that made documentary films. And we needed a tool to manage our budgets. 

When was the last time you saw a documentary? Can’t think of a time? Well, that is why documentary budgets are so small! 

Introducing Claris FileMaker as the Solution

There are enterprise-level software packages for production budgets… just kidding, really there is only one. Unironically, it’s called Movie Magic – like the accounting is where the magic happens. But it is expensive. Its price point is for people making Marvel movies, not for people making little documentaries that are lucky if 25 people see them! 

Just because we couldn’t afford Movie Magic didn’t change the fact that we needed it. I had seen FileMaker used at a film festival and thought I would give it a whirl for tracking our budgets. 

YouTube wasn’t a thing when I was doing this, I did have to go to the library (the original coworking space!) to find a few books about using FileMaker Pro.  With that information, I was able to build a basic budget application. Like so many businesses before us, the real need was to get the projected spending information from our teams before they actually spent the money. In theory, that would put us in front of any bad decisions before the money had been committed. 

I connected my budgeting tool to our existing Purchase Order system. This allowed our producers the flexibility to enter PO place holders, the details of which could change all the way up to receiving the actual bill from the vendor. So, if a producer thought they were going to spend $1000 with a camera person (I told you our budgets were small), they entered that PO as soon as that thought occurred to them. In our budget tool, this money was “earmarked.” Once they got the bill from the camera person, they attached the bill to the PO, and adjusted the PO amount to the actual bill amount. Only then was the money considered “committed.” 

Our accounting department would search the budgets database and pull all the committed POs into the accounting system (of course, this was after we checked to make sure all the information was correct, and the vendor’s name was correctly spelled). After the bill was paid, the PO was marked “paid” in the production budget. 

This system allowed us to see earmarked, committed, and paid funds for each line in the budget. Being able to view a report of all earmarked spending for a project allowed us to zoom out and view it in the context of the available budget. It helped us understand the impact our creative decisions would make before they were executed by the crew. This made it easier to make changes to the production plan without going over budget. 

My bright and shiny budgeting tool worked beautifully when we were managing a few budgets at a time. However, as we started entering more productions and users to the database, things started to slow down. At the time, my coding ability was at a 3rd grade level, and I knew I was in over my head trying to speed up the performance of my budgeting database. I had created a tool which allowed our team a flexible way to enter and maintain expected costs for our projects. Now I needed to make sure that this tool performed fast enough and was intuitive enough so that people would continue using it moving forward, regardless of how many new projects and users were added. The lasting power of this tool depended on its scalability, and to scale up the budget tool, I needed the mind of a more experienced FileMaker developer. This is how I was introduced to the world of FileMaker consulting.  

Optimizing Performance with Claris FileMaker Consulting

The budget database did what we needed it to do, but it would take forever to load layouts with multiple unstored (please note in developer speak there is a big difference between stored and unstored) calculation fields. The user interface needed to be more intuitive so that when we added people to our team, they would be able to jump right in. The worst part was that our accounting team was finding more and more mistakes in vendor names and billing codes. I did not know how to make it better, but the FileMaker consulting folks sure did. 

Using the framework I built, a consultant was able to come in and optimize the architecture of the database. This made the whole thing move faster—searches, edits, generating reports. They redid the layouts, so they looked professional and clean. Instead of having a layout where you saw every available piece of data, they used intuitive navigation to show users what they needed to see when they needed to see it. They also introduced me to the concept of data integrity. Those vendors names, previously misspelled or entered more than once by the producers, were now available to select from a list. A brilliant yet utterly simple way to make sure the names were spelled right every time!  

In the end, the budget system ended up giving us more value for our buck than Movie Magic because we built it specifically for our work needs! And while Movie Magic looks really cool, our system was customized to be as unique as our workflow. It became an integral part of how we ran our business. 

Leveraging Claris FileMaker for Business Efficiency

If you are looking at an ERP system to help run your business, FileMaker can often be the better choice. Even with outside help from a developer, you’ll often spend less time and money building a custom FileMaker solution than buying and implementing ready-made one-size-fits-most ERP software, and you’ll have something that will handle your specific operational needs. 

While I would have loved to use the tool that gets Marvel movies done, the reality was that I could not afford it. But our business couldn’t afford for our producers to make bad budget decisions while making important documentary films for 25 of their closest friends and family members to see. FileMaker was the solution that was affordable and, in the end, gave us everything we needed, and more. 


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