Laura Venables – Flipping the Australian Accounting conference model on its head

My name’s Laura Venables, I’m the event director of AccounTech.Live and Accounting Business Expo. What does that really mean? A whole heap of things really. We are the facilitators of these two great exhibitions and conferences. As you know, they’re both a pretty new style of event to the market in the last recent years.  We’re a small team here so we really concept, develop, and execute these events, and they’re designed entirely for the accountancy professional.

Heather Smith:                  What’s the size of your team?

Laura Venables:                There’s five people that work on this event.

Heather Smith:                  That’s awesome and I do know, you talking about the concept of it. I do know from reading your profile that there is a … You’ve actually pulled together an advisory board to perhaps assist you with what you’re doing there.

Laura Venables:                Yes, that’s what we did in our very first year of Accounting Business Expo. I don’t have a background in accounting, and nor does any of my team. Now that’s … I would say that’s a blessing in disguise because there’s no preconceptions, there’s no natural bias or anything like that. One of the reasons that we put together the advisory board was really as a sounding board to make sure that we’re on the right track.

Laura Venables:                And to make sure we don’t miss anything that’s really crucial. And I guess fundamentally make sure that the events are driven from an audience first perspective. And with respect, not just by what the vendors want to push out as well. This has got to really be from what they need and what they want. That was the purpose of the advisory board.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, absolutely, and as a conference attendee for many, many years, they were very, very vendor driven and you would be like, “I’m attending please deliver me some content on this” and it would get very frustrating, but anyway …

Laura Venables:                Yeah, just on that I think that’s natural, and I think that’s … If you’re as a business and you’re putting on an event it’s going to naturally be about you and your partnership, and what you’re doing, what’s new and next. That’s a natural thing so I think the events that we showcase are a real benefit to the vendor community as well. Because now all of a sudden there’s an impartial platform that can stand side by side with competitors and give accountants and bookkeepers more choice. It is a win, win.

Heather Smith:                  Absolutely, absolutely. Let’s pull back to talk a little bit about your story. I know from your background, what inspired you to emigrate from your beach side town of Brighton in the UK to the beaches of the Gold Coast in Australia back in 2015?

Laura Venables:                Well, I think the answer is already in your question. I don’t know who’s been to the Brighton, UK. I mean it’s a fabulous small city in England, a pebble beach. But, look I had an amazing opportunity to travel, I think I hit 30 and was like, “If, I don’t go now I’m not going to be able to get a visa to go in and work and travel”. I just decided to quit everything in the UK and thought, YOLO let’s just go for it.  I knew I decided to take a good year to really explore the country and take some time out from a really hectic career in London. That was the primary driver and it wasn’t until I arrived and I met some people that were from the Gold Coast. That’s what brought me back here to then live and work and launch the accounting portfolio.

Heather Smith:                  And so you spend a year touring Australia and you discovered the Gold Coast was the best?

Laura Venables:                I did yes c’mon Heather Team Queensland.

Heather Smith:                  Team Gold Coast, in fact what you don’t know is my father emigrated from Brighton to the Gold Coast in 1968. Yeah, on 10 pound boat fare so he paid a lot less than you did probably.

Laura Venables:                Oh, considerably, considerably less.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, yeah.

Laura Venables:                Oh, that’s amazing.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, and of course in those days he had no test or trial you just got on a boat and you ended up there. And you were forced to stay there for two years unlike the rules now but, that was the rules back then anyway.

Laura Venables:                Oh wow.

Heather Smith:                  I digress. You’ve organised now two conferences here in Australia, the Accounting and Business Expo both in Melbourne and Sydney. What did you learn from that experience?

Laura Venables:                So much, so much I probably don’t have time to talk through everything. But, I think one of the interesting things is … I guess two things personally and professionally. Professionally when I look at the accounting space and I say … use that term broadly. We came to market with this whole new concept, obviously we thought it was amazing and a game changer.

Laura Venables:                But, we still needed time to learn about the behaviours of accountant and bookkeepers when going to events, is what I mean. We quickly realised that here in Australia there is a big conference market. The market is really quite saturated with many different events, big and small and they all have their place and they are all very valuable in their own way. But, fundamentally, they are all conference driven. I talk a lot about this because I think it is an education process, you pay for a ticket and you go to a conference and you get a whole heap of great content, you get to meet vendors, you get catered for … It’s a full day or two days out or maybe it’s a night over in a hotel, so then we come and we’ve got this whole model that you flip on its head and it’s free and we don’t offer catering, and we don’t offer free coffee because you know, well it’s free to get in. Here’s all this great free content, but people were still like, “But where’s the food? Where’s the coffee?”, because it was a mindset.

Laura Venables:                That was something that we learned and then we started

to improve over the last year or so as well. Little things like that, I think I mentioned it because it can make such a big difference. So really it’s just understanding and working really closely with the audience that you serve to give them a better experience.

Heather Smith:                  So what I’m hearing is accountants need free coffee.

Laura Venables:                Basically.

Heather Smith:                  Accountants and bookkeepers are driven by coffee. So during the launch of the first exhibition you welcomed a delightful baby girl into the world. How have you juggled the busy work load and parenthood?

Laura Venables:                I’m not going to lie, it has been really difficult. I’ve been very lucky in that I have a very supportive partner, so he actually stayed at home for Olivia’s first seven months before she went to nursery and I was back at work after eight weeks, full-time. We had a second year show to deliver and deliver a bigger and better show than year one. So there was really no slowing down and I think there’s always a danger, and I think it did happen to me, I burned out. There’s always that danger but you think you can do it all, especially as women … many of us have got these demanding careers that we choose and we don’t want to sacrifice these things, thank you very much, because we enjoy what we do. That was really tough, but I’ve got a really supportive team here and you get through it, you got to work on your priorities and you got to be able to take a break and that’s one thing I think I’ve learned. I didn’t really take a break in that second year.

Heather Smith:                  I think when you’re heading towards burn out you’re not even aware you’re heading towards it until you start doing silly things like going into a room six times, but by the time you’ve got into the room you can’t remember why you went into the room in the first place.

Laura Venables:                Absolutely.

Heather Smith:                  Backward and forward up a hallway.

Laura Venables:                Exactly and I think for me it was just having … it got to a certain point, because here, unlike many businesses, you’re juggling many different things simultaneously and what I realised, and it took me a number of months to realise this, is that I just wasn’t having those moments to get real clarity and get clear thinking. Because you’d leave work from a busy day and then your second job starts and then it all goes round.

Laura Venables:                So, really, really important to be able to take breaks before you get to that burn out stage.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, absolutely, completely agree. You really need to … and this is something that the accountants are … pun on words there. Thinking about in that they actually need thinking time and thinking time doesn’t necessarily generate money during that thinking time et cetera, but you do need time off to actually just think through things and work out how you’re brain thinks. I know that in my writing I have to focus on that really hard, in doing that.

Laura Venables:                Absolutely. It’s not just taking time out to do nothing, because I think many of us would struggle with that, but it’s doing something that you love doing so whether that is a walk on the beach, I’ve got some of the world’s greatest beaches on my doorstep, that for a number of months I just wasn’t taking advantage of. Whether that’s going to do some exercise, you know I play netball outside of this and getting back into netball was a big thing and that just re-energises the mind and gets you out of your everyday mindset at work as well. It’s really important that everyone does that.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, fully agree with that. Xero recently launched a small business insights report and I’m going to read out a quote from this report that I pulled out. “Overall in the 2017/18 financial year, firms on Xero …” So talking about an online accounting solution there, “… using apps …” so that’s the key thing there, using apps, “… grew revenue by 5.5%, that compares with revenue growth of just 3.6% for firms on Xero with no connected apps.” So the next conference you’re organising is called AccounTech.Live which will be in Melbourne 13th to 14th of November and the tagline for the conference is “Transforming the world of accounting.” The curation of content and exhibitors offered at AccountTech.Live is an incredible opportunity for Accountants and Bookkeepers to access and learn about available apps which, in respect to the data I just previously mentioned, indicates that apps could have a positive impact on client’s revenue growth. So what should people expect from AccounTech.Live?

Laura Venables:                Great question and I also read that report as well and I thought it was really, really insightful, particularly that bit about apps relating to increase in revenue. You just cannot argue with that, you just can’t argue with that when it comes back to productivity. I guess just to take a step back, one of the drivers behind … given that we run Accounting Business Expo so why AccounTech.Live, that’s probably part of that, the Accounting Business Expo is really a broad business and technology event and that does cover all disciplines and all areas of business, which is still really, really important. AccounTech.Live is a pure play technology event, like you mentioned, we are really drilling down into the cutting edge and it’s not harping on about the future and what to expect in the future, I think we’re all sick of hearing that, we’re in this is now.

Laura Venables:                It is about what’s happening now and what’s next. It’s designed for accountants at every stage of their cloud journey, to be honest. It’s for everyone that does have an open mind for a positive, digital future. The programme is divided into dedicated tracks, unlike ABE (Accounting Business Expo where we have a broad content programme and you can pick and choose everything that you want to go to. We’ve narrowed it down to a track called AppsLive, automating tax, automating bookkeeping, advisory and analytics and a marketing live. There’s lots great different topics within those, which you can see on the website by selecting those tags, but fundamentally, they’re all driven by technology, they all then link back to what’s happening on the Expo floor and we compliment those with a dedicated open theatre called Tech Talks which are a series of 15 minute demos so you can actually go and test drive these apps and see them in action and … there is so much choice out there so the whole idea of this event is to simplify those options for you and to help you make more informed decisions for your clients as well.

Laura Venables:                That’s really the fundamental driver behind it.

Heather Smith:                  We should stress for listeners there is that clear distinction between the accounting and business expos, so if you did go to that this conference is different, this is very technology focused and very app focused, that’s my understanding of it.

Laura Venables:                Yeah, that’s correct. That’s correct.

Heather Smith:                  For everyone who listens to this podcast, that’s exactly what we’ve been talking about for years, so this is the conference that we …

Laura Venables:                We’ve been listening, we’ve been listening, you’re welcome.

Heather Smith:                  It is being held in Melbourne and so for our oversees listeners, you can fly into the conference and enjoy fabulous coffee, fabulous shopping and have a, I’m not giving you tax advice, but a tax deductible vacation.

Heather Smith:                  How would you recommend attendees effectively use their time at the conference?

Laura Venables:                Yeah, good question. I think it’s very easy for me to sit here and say, “you should plan your day, get out the content programme and plan who you’re going to see,” the reality is not many people really have time to do that until the day arrives. So when we think about the expo, because that is the largest element of this event and it can be quite overwhelming, you walk into a show and there’s just a sea of expo stands, it can be overwhelming. My tip is to always walk in, grab an event magazine. I like to, when I go to other industry events, I like to just do a lap of the room and get comfortable with the environment, familiarise myself with where’s the café, where’s the Tech talk area and just get familiar with the area, grab a coffee and then look through the event guide and then plan your day that way. That’s how I would always recommend it. If you are super organised, then get planning in advance, the day before.

Laura Venables:                Use the matchmaking facility that will be online where you can connect with other visitors or connect with exhibitors and line up a time to go and test drive some of their software, that’s the best thing that you can do to utilise your time.

Heather Smith:                  So, for the people who haven’t attended a conference in the past, can you elaborate on what the matchmaker facility feature is?

Laura Venables:                Yeah, for sure, for sure. We realise that it’s all good and well saying, “here’s over a 100 apps, here’s over …”, but that’s still a lot to get through over a couple of days so we thought we need to go that one step further and go facilitate better connections with people in the room, that’s really what it’s all about. You can jump online when it goes live and we’ve created a list of around 25 different categories, now I appreciate the category could go longer than that so we’ve tried to make it simple, select the categories that you’re most interested, intrigued or you know you need to know about and then the companies most relevant to that category will pop up, all those that have said that they’re interested in those categories as well and you can then connect with people from those companies or other accountants and bookkeepers and arrange a time to meet.

Laura Venables:                The other thing is for some people it can be quite daunting meeting with people that you don’t know from an online forum perspective …

Heather Smith:                  That is the accountant and bookkeeper personality.

Laura Venables:                Exactly right, exactly right. But there is so much value in being able to learn from each other. We have a dedicated lounge for match making, so you can feel that you can arrive at a safe place and you’ll be met by someone on a little reception desk and you give your name and I’m here to meet so and so, accountant, bookkeeper, whatever and then there’s a dedicated lounge for you to do that, or you can go off to the bar or wherever else that you want to do that. I think it was really popular at the last event we ran and really helpful to really … even if you’ve got a couple of hours you might only have a couple of hours to come down so …

Heather Smith:                  I would agree, I use the feature myself and what I found was a number of people contacted me and they said, “Heather, we’ve looked at your profile, we think this solution would be suited to your clients for this reasons, can we have a talk with you?” And you kind of agree or disagree whether you think it will be suitable and then you have the meeting. I probably had sort of eight conversations, 30 minute, 15 minute, 30 minute conversations with people I probably wouldn’t have spoken to and they were very beneficial. So yeah that feature was really good to actually get in front. And not only from me scanning and seeing what I should see, it was actually people scanning me, which sounds a bit weird, and going, “yeah, this is suited to her.” So I would encourage people who are using it to actually take 30 seconds to look at the profile and see if that person is suited to someone you should …

Laura Venables:                Absolutely, absolutely.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah.

Laura Venables:                Sorry, Heather.

Heather Smith:                  It’s alright. I always think that you should be looking at attending a conference so you can generate income, that’s kind of my … without trying to be sort of a horrible greed is good type of person, that’s one of the big benefits in that and meeting those people, if you can generate income for your clients et cetera, that is very good.

Laura Venables:                Absolutely.

Heather Smith:                  What other unique things do you think that you’ll be offering at AccounTech.Live that attendees should be looking out for?

Laura Venables:                One of the new features that we got this year are the hosted round tables, the open round table discussions which we haven’t done before, but I’ve attended them myself in the past and they are such a brilliant way, again, for accountants and bookkeepers to meet and share their problems, share their challenges or share successes that they think their peers should know about. So it’s less of a sit and listen in a seminar situation, it’s facilitated by somebody on a topic that we schedule and then you have about ten people round each table and you get 30 to 45 minutes just to have an open conversation and you know as well as I do some of the best opportunities can come out of those types of forums.

Heather Smith:                  Absolutely.

Laura Venables:                We’re excited to offer that.

Heather Smith:                  I am very excited for those sessions, I’m very excited that it’s interactive sessions like that

Laura Venables:                Yeah.

Heather Smith:                  Really, really looking forward to those open round tables sessions. How would you recommend … Sorry, from your vast experience of working in the events industry across the UK and Australia, how can an exhibitor optimise their involvement in a conference event such as the one you run?

Laura Venables:                I’m glad you’ve asked this question actually because it gets overlooked I think broadly speaking. One of the challenges or frustrations that I see is that a lot of companies, not all, but a lot of companies expect that they just going to rock up on the day and do a tonne of business. It actually doesn’t work in that way so I would advise, in short, that when you decide that this is the right audience for you and this is the people that you need to meet and you’ve made the decision to come on board as a sponsor, from that point on you’re partnering with us and you’re all in and you’re going to make it your business to really promote the fact that you’re going to this event, you’re going to invite your clients and prospective clients ’cause there’s a tonne of stuff for them to see and benefit from as well, and really make sure that you’re doing your bit to advocate not just the event, I don’t just mean the event but advocate what you’re doing because you’re contributing to making change in the industry.

Laura Venables:                You’re showing confidence to the industry about your solutions and your products, so really starting that journey from the moment you book right up until the show is what I would advise.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah and also having the follow on.

Laura Venables:                Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. I’m sure that you’ve been on the flip side.

Heather Smith:                  Receiving end.

Laura Venables:                Yeah, exactly, exactly. That is always a balancing act and that’s where I think … I think you’ve touched on this before when we previously spoke but you can still decide who scans your badge and who doesn’t, you’re personally giving permission to be contacted by doing so. Sorry, as a visitor, plan your day and make informed decisions and from the exhibitor perspective, you know, you’ve got to qualify people to make sure that they’re the right type of client for you as well.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah.

Laura Venables:                And make sure you come up straight away.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, what’s interesting, I actually again … at the last Xerocon ’cause I typically just go round and say, “Scan my badge and then I’ve got time to read your newsletters,” and I actually did go up to one guy and he goes, “I don’t put out a newsletter and I’ll ask you questions of whether I want to put you on my list or not,” and he asked me questions and he didn’t want me on his list. I was like, “Fair enough, fair enough, you’ve got a niche targeted market and I didn’t meet that market.” But yeah, really understand that … a lot of the people attending I would imagine in that focused area should be going on a mailing list of some sort.

Heather Smith:                  And have something ready for them.

Laura Venables:                Absolutely. Look, fair play to that company because they had goals to meet as well and they’d obviously invested in the event. I guess it’s a two way thing, isn’t it?

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I didn’t mind the fact that he actually explained it to me that if he took me on the list and then didn’t get a lead out of me his KPI’s would look bad.

Heather Smith:                  What are the key challenges you face organising an event like AccounTech.Live?

Laura Venables:                First of all, AccounTech.Live … this is the inaugural event first and foremost.

Heather Smith:                  So it’s pioneering, it’s pioneering. It’s like everything you’re doing is, no-one’s done this before.

Laura Venables:                Exactly, so there’s always … we can have as much structure and process and all those good things in place beforehand but really what happens on the day and what unfolds on the day … there’s so many unknowns with any launch, whether you’re launching a new business or show, so yeah, it’s the unknowns and how you manage that and how you quickly, how quick you can adapt I think is a big thing in this phase.

Heather Smith:                  Do you personally enjoy the day on the day? Are you able to relax on the day or is it heightened, freaky stress?

Laura Venables:                It’s an interesting question because yes I do because I love seeing what you work all year on coming together, so yes I love that element. I don’t get to enjoy it like the average person gets to enjoy it, that’s for sure, but yeah it’s a really good buzz when you can see that people are enjoying themselves and you know, when people come up to you at the show like, “This was great” or “I loved this session” or “I’ve met this person and we didn’t even realise it but we’re going to go off and do this together now and make loads of money,” that’s a great feeling.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, no that’s fantastic.

Laura Venables:                I love attending other events in this space because I am then … have a different hat on and I can then really have conversations. I make all these plans to catch up with people. I think even yourself, I think we grab like two minutes. I always have these ideas, “Let’s meet for coffee and catch up,” it never happens.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, no I know what you’re thinking. I know I’ve organised like little mini events all the time and I remember when I was about 22 I was given about … it was over in Cheltenham in the UK, I was given like 20- $30, 000 to organise a gala.

Laura Venables:                Yeah.

Heather Smith:                  It all went off beautifully but I remember on the day they put out blue serviettes instead of lavender serviettes and it just ruined the whole thing for me and I was like, “Everyone’s going to go away going why did she have blue serviettes?”

Laura Venables:                You’ve raised another very good point Heather because that means you’re a perfectionist, which I am as well and that can be a great thing, but it can be to your detriment as well. So you have to learn … And one thing actually, I’ve spoken … myself and the team have spoken about this, in everything that we do is … it’s even with sending emails, send a good email, don’t sit around tweaking it, making it perfect, get it done.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And now, maybe I’m older, but I just really enjoy the events and I go along, I’m going to enjoy this, I’m organised, I know what I’m doing. So I’m glad to hear that it does sound like you enjoy the event.

Laura Venables:                Yes, oh, for sure, absolutely. Building it from nothing to that end product is what I really enjoy and it’s why I’m still doing it 12 years later and who knows what the future holds but yeah. It’s a great space to be in.

Heather Smith:                  Absolutely. You’re immersed in the accounting and the apps world. What are some of your favourite apps that you use either personally or within your business?

Laura Venables:                Good question. I’m not going to say any here in our space ’cause obviously I’m neutral, but I think here in the business we’ve always got so much happening that we don’t have time to stop and chat, that doesn’t mean we’re unsociable but you know what it’s like, so Slack, I don’t know how we’d function without Slack.

Heather Smith:                  Oh, isn’t that funny? There’s only five of you in the office and you’re still using Slack, isn’t that ….

Laura Venables:                The team is bigger in other areas but on the accounting team, there’s five of us. With operations and marketing and sales, it can be easy to get distracted. Slack is awesome. I’ve got it on my phone so wherever I am, and that’s helping with all that. We can always be connected.

Heather Smith:                  Yeah, absolutely.

Laura Venables:                It makes you communicate. Emails can be very drawn out, which I don’t enjoy, so Slack is good, it’s just quick.

Heather Smith:                  Being a writer, I always do emails, that’s my preference and I was at a conference and I sent Nick Sinclair from The Outsourced Accountants on the Gold Coast a two page email and he stood up and walked across the room and he goes, “Okay, summarise it for me.”

Laura Venables:                Yeah, dot points please.

Heather Smith:                  I had another question there.

Laura Venables:                Well, just on that actually, we have a station at AccounTech we’ve called Killer tips on how to kill email with chat. If I was an accountant I’d be going to that.

Heather Smith:                  Absolutely. What project management tool do you use?

Laura Venables:                Asana.

Heather Smith:                  Okay, that was my question, ’cause obviously you’re really heavy into project management in what you do. Accountants actually do seem to be using Asana and talking about Asana.

Laura Venables:                Yeah, that’s awesome.

Heather Smith:                  Is there anything else you’d like to share, of interest that you’d like to share with our listeners today before we finish up?

Laura Venables:                I think we’ve covered all the main things, but we’ve got some great sessions happening that are actually world exclusives, so I would say, jump online, register today for your free ticket and you’ll be kept up to date as we make those announcements. If you’re not registered, you’re not going to hear about it first.

Heather Smith:                  Absolutely, absolutely. So how can our listeners connect with you? We have said the website a couple of times but it is AccounTech.Live, how can they connect with you and find out anymore? Is it basically just through that registration?

Laura Venables:                I love to hear from people, so you can tweet me at @TheLauraVee, you can find me on LinkedIn or if you really have something specific you want to talk about, call me. My telephone number is on the website, open door policy, ask me anything.

Heather Smith:                  Fantastic, fantastic. Thank you so much for spending time with us here today, I’m sure everyone in the community will have learned lots from the session and really looking forward to the next AccounTech.Live down in Melbourne at the end of … towards the end of the year.

Laura Venables:                Thank you so much, Heather. We will see you there. It’s next month.

Heather Smith:                  I know it’s towards the end of the year.

Laura Venables:                I know, I know. It’s coming up so fast, so yeah, I look forward to welcome everybody there and see you in Melbourne.

2018-10-22T09:34:57+00:00October 22nd, 2018|0 Comments

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