Why an Accountant Started a Bookkeeping Business | Meryl Johnston
Why an Accountant Started a Bookkeeping Business | Meryl Johnston
“One of my beliefs is about setting an example. I am always reading, listening to podcasts, learning, thinking about things…I also try and convey that to the team to build that environment of learning. We also have three core values in my team and one is to be always growing, which is about always wanting to learn and improve.”
– Meryl Johnston, Bean Ninjas.
Today I’m speaking with Meryl Johnston, Founder and CEO of Bean Ninjas.
In this episode, we talk about . . .
Meryl’s goal of wanting to start and run a business
We explore why Chartered Accountants launch bookkeeping practices and the importance of clean data
The impact of public-facing accountability, working in public and sharing what you are doing, the highs and the lows in real-time.
The Bean Ninja tech stack, which included a few new tools I’d not heard of!
How they nurture continuous learning in the work environment, through a structured Emerging Leaders program, and lunch and learn opportunities.
And Meryl mentioned the book Deep Work by Cal Newport
How was the surf this morning, Meryl?
Meryl: It’s funny. I often start my day with a surf. I actually just got back from a weekend away last night. So this morning it was grabbing a coffee, straight into the office at 6:00 AM and try and get set up for the day. But I’m planning to either duck out for a surf this afternoon, or I’ve got my swimming training stuff in my bag. So it’s an afternoon exercise session today, but you are right. Normally I love to start the day with a surf.
Heather: Very good, very good. What an enviable lifestyle is that you do have access. For people listening in, Meryl, hopefully, doesn’t mind me sharing. She lives at Burleigh Heads, which is one of the most beautiful spots in Australia and very amazing surf beaches there.
Could you share with our listeners a bit about your background?
Meryl: Sure. I started out studying accounting, but I always actually wanted to run a business. And the first business that I started was coaching tennis while I was at university, but I saw the path to building an accounting skillset as a great way to build a business skillset. And so I became a chartered accountant and I worked in audit at BDO, and then eventually moved into commercial accounting management, financial accounting, but the goal was always to go and start my own business, but I was never quite sure what that would be.
Meryl: And probably six or seven years ago now I decided to leave my last role and go travelling. And when I came back, I didn’t have a job and started a consulting business and my background was audit rather than tax. And so the type of consulting I was doing was around things like accounting systems implementations. And from there, I found that business difficult to scale. I had ambition around wanting to build a global business, and that was where Bean Ninjas was born just over five years ago.
Could you explain if that consulting business that you’re just talking about is Bean Ninjas?
Meryl: No, that was actually prior to Bean Ninjas I was doing, it was me selling my time as a professional consultant going into different businesses. Whereas, Bean Ninjas is a systemised bookkeeping business with a team. So I have two different businesses.
Heather: Two different. Sorry about that confusion.
Can you describe Bean Ninjas?
Meryl: We started as a bookkeeping business based in Australia and we were 100% Xero, and we were also cloud-based from day one. That was forced upon us. My co-founder lived in Sydney, I lived on the Gold Coast and we wanted to collaborate and work well together. So from the beginning, all about tech stack was in the cloud. And our other goal was to build a business that was scalable and where it wasn’t us delivering the work. We wanted to build a team. And that was why we picked bookkeeping rather than picking tax. He was also a tax agent. And we saw the opportunity to create systems, build a team, and we wanted to scale internationally. And that was one of the reasons we actually picked the name Bean Ninjas. We were looking for a dot com domain in case we ended up going overseas.
Heather: Absolutely. So big vision around the business that you launched there. So you are a chartered accountant, with Australia and New Zealand. And that does seem to be that the community doesn’t expect chartered accountants to actually start and run, and proudly run bookkeeping businesses. So I really am interested in exploring that.
What makes a chartered accountant start a bookkeeping business?
Meryl: I was just looking at the business opportunity. I had a set of criteria around the business that I wanted to run and the lifestyle that I wanted. And I feel like there was more opportunity for me in building a bookkeeping business and using my skills in systems. As an auditor part of the work we do is going out and drawing process maps. So finance systems and understanding how accounts payable and payroll works and how all of that fits into an accounting system.
Meryl: And I was also strong on the technology side, and I felt like bookkeeping actually played to my strengths more than a traditional accounting firm. And I also thought maybe it would be easier to stand out coming in with a different skillset. And I actually found it interesting. In the early days when I was doing everything in the business, including working with our client’s accountants, their tax accountants, I would often be on the phone. And I wouldn’t always say that I was a chartered accountant.
Meryl: And so the reaction that I got as a bookkeeping business owner was interesting sometimes, to say the least. Sometimes that we had great relationships. Sometimes I felt there was a lack of respect for the term bookkeeper and the interactions that we had with some tax accountants, which was interesting.
Heather: And from my background, I would completely agree with what you’re going and what you’ve explained or shared there. And from my experience, I found that the word bookkeeper was a word that the businesses knew and all businesses were looking for someone, a bookkeeper to help them. And bookkeeping was like, even a converse way to actually get into the business to then say, hey, we can help you with your systems. Hey, we can help you with your technology, because they didn’t know they needed help with their systems. They didn’t know there were benefits in getting help with their technology and they didn’t even know who to ask or that there was a problem.
Have you also experienced some the problems related to being a bookkeeper such as your services being overlooked?
Meryl: I agree with that. And I think something similar can happen with tax compliance where there’s the buzzword of advisory, but often the end is all I have to get this done. I have to lodge my tax return, or I need to get my bookkeeping up to date. But from there you can build a relationship and then start to talk about some of the other services that you offer, or that I like to reframe it as what problem you can solve for clients.
Meryl: And for us, that was definitely the case and bookkeeping was where we started out. And now we’re actually looking at how do we reframe? And maybe we won’t be using the term bookkeeper in a couple of years. I’ve noticed that if we pitch work, the term bookkeeping has a lower value than some other terms. And so that’s something that we’re thinking about. But from a search engine optimisation perspective, there’s a lot of people looking for bookkeeping related terms.
Meryl: And that’s something that I am thinking about, and I haven’t found the right answer yet, but definitely as we move into the e-commerce niche and specialise in that, we’re trying to think about, well, what is the right term to describe ourselves, and I haven’t quite landed on it yet.
Heather: It is an absolutely interesting conversation because there are so many different areas there and the SEO terminology is so important. And I know another bookkeeping practice, but bookkeeping, accounting, technology and management accounting practice took the word bookkeeping off their website and the number of leads dropped significantly and they felt that they had to put it on. And maybe it’s educating the community, but it’s also educating the accountants of what you can actually do. So my understanding is, look, I’m really keen for the chartered accountants and the accountants out there who are listening in to actually hear that, both of us, essentially started as BAS agent, if I assume correctly…
Are you a BAS agent as well?
Meryl: I am. So I did actually work in a tax firm for a little while, but I had to go and do some extra study to become a BAS agent.
Heather: So both of us came in through the BAS agent route because I sometimes think that, the CA and the accounting, the professional accounting bodies perceive that all accountants or tax agents, which is not something I personally ever wanted to be, and went in through the BAS agent route, because you need certain things to actually get to certain levels. And that’s why I did it.
Why are you considering exploring the opportunity of adding tax to the business?
Meryl: It’s funny, I never wanted to become a tax agent and I didn’t want to run a traditional accounting firm either. But I look at a lot of business I look at from the customer perspective or the client perspective around what do they want, what problem are we solving, what’s going to provide the best experience for them. And through conversations with clients, I was starting to get the feeling that they would prefer to be, rather than having a separate bookkeeper, a separate accountant providing tax services, and then a separate CFO, virtual CFO advisor, they would prefer to have all of that in one roof and all of that collaboration happening together.
Meryl: So that was one aspect, which was, I think it provides a better experience for the client. The other was that I was thinking about what’s happening in the industry. And I think that if you, I believe that management accounting is really important and there’s a lot of extra value you can provide in digging into the numbers and looking at the profitability of different products and services, for example, but also looking at the future and building projections and financial models.
Meryl: And I was looking at the data that you need to do that, and that this is a service that we offer for our clients. And in order to do that at scale, you need really accurate clean data, and you don’t want to be working with multiple different bookkeepers doing things differently, to then have to clean up that data, to then get out these numbers quickly. Because if you’re doing management accounting, the numbers need to happen quickly, not three months after the fact.
Meryl: And if that’s the industry trend, then I see that firms will need to add bookkeeping in order to be able to do that, which means that our bookkeeping services they’ll be in competition with all of the other accounting firms. And so that was the other reason I decided we needed to add tax so that we could service the core needs of all of our clients, all in one place, rather than them working with a tax firm who then wanted to take the bookkeeping and the advisory work as well.
Heather: That’s such a great vision and analysis of what you are doing there. And it’s very exciting that it’s all about driving that clean data of the small business owners. And it’s very exciting that, because you made the reference, I can’t have data that’s three months old, and it’s like 10 years ago I was lucky if the data was 18 months old and accurate, and it’s like now, these young guns coming up wanting their data to be 24 hours old. But that’s exactly what business owners should be expecting of themselves and of the Bean Ninjas, the people that they are working with is accessing clean data so they can make that accurate, that information and do the data modelling, et cetera, that you’re offering them, which is very, very exciting.
Heather: So it’s interesting. You frequently use the term management accountant, which is a term I use, and it is interesting on the landscape because it’s, people are using that term advisory. They’re using that term bookkeeping. They’re using that term management accounting. And again, I don’t know if the business owner doesn’t actually even know necessarily what they’re looking for or what they need out of it. So it is interesting to explore.
Meryl: That’s funny. And I would use the term management accounting on this podcast because I think the audience is accountants, but I don’t actually use that term if I’m talking with business owners. But I think that actually describe it. If you’re talking with accountants and they know what management accountants do, then it sums up the work that we do, but it’s not a term that I see commonly understood in the business community. And that’s why I’m still working around well, what language will we be using in a couple of years to describe the work that we’re offering at Bean Ninjas and I think many other firms.
Do you find that your clients come to you and know what they’re going to get from you? Or do you find it’s a process of they coming to you, you onboarding them, and then you keep educating them about the additional complimentary services that you can offer them?
Meryl: There are a few clients that come to us and know that they want help with things like forecasting and that they want weekly reports from us with data and numbers that are not just from the financial system. And so that’s something that we’re able to do now that we’re in an industry niche. So some clients I have come from corporate backgrounds, they’re very good with their numbers, and they already know what they want. And they’re looking for someone that can deliver on that.
Meryl: But I wouldn’t say that’s the majority. Many actually need education around, well, this is a set of financial reports, help understanding that, and then help with the extra services that we could often. And that’s a gradual education process and having over a period of time having conversations to talk through that.
Heather: Absolutely. So, Meryl, you’ve always been quite vulnerable and transparent about how you run your business. And you share IP, you share unexpected challenges like launching an online course that coincided with COVID-19.
What has been the impact for you on this public-facing accountability?
Meryl: I really like it and believe in it. And there’s a term in other industries called working in public, where you share what you’re working on almost in real-time and give away that IP. And I think you learn something personally by sharing that and being accountable, and you also help other people and build relationships. I’ve built great relationships by sharing transparently the ups and downs.
Meryl: In the early days of Bean Ninjas, I used direct income reports and I’d share what our revenue was, the number of customers, the challenges we were having, churn rates are related to clients leaving, and that has brought amazing opportunities. My business partner actually read one of those articles and thought, I want to work with Meryl and Bean Ninjas. And it wasn’t necessarily clients. It was more partnerships and relationships, I think that that really helped.
Heather: That’s interesting. The funny thing was the first few times I heard you reference working in public, I was like, “Is she talking about public practice?” And I actually went down the whole pathway of public practice, and then eventually the penny dropped and I was like, “Ah, she’s sharing. She public-facing accountability.” And it is interesting what you said about the partnerships and the actual people wanting to work with you and join your team because finding brilliant staff is hard. It’s really hard. And sometimes, you do see firms actually, or practices actually doing this, publicly doing something a bit different and in turn attracting staff or team members to them because of that, which is an excellent way to attract that brilliance.
Meryl: That’s actually a part of our content strategy. It’s not just to attract clients. Part of our content strategy is around who do we want? Who are we and how do we represent that in the market? And we want to attract great people who align with what we’re about. And I also believe in taking a stand, and some people are not going to resonate with what we’re about, but some people will. And I think not everyone’s going to like you, and that’s fine. If you stand for something, then you’ll attract like-minded people.
Heather: It’s very much about building a public culture that people know. And it’s funny because there’s a lot of people going, “We’re all working from home. Our business culture is going to die. We’re not going to be able to build our culture,” and I’m like going, “But you can still have a culture, even if you aren’t physically sitting next to one another.” Which very much, you’ve got quite a team spread across, I think it’s three continents now, if not more. And I imagine you’ve got a really strong culture.
Meryl: It is definitely harder to do with a remote team, but I think it’s possible. We’ve worked hard at how do we build culture? What does culture even mean when someone joins the business? And I really value in-person meetings and we do try and meet when we can, but there’s a lot that we can do remotely to get to know each other and have a great new employee onboarding 30 days. There’s a lot of different things. I mean, we can get into that if you like, but I do have a lot of thoughts and things that we’ve tried and things that do work and don’t work.
Heather: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So one of the things that you appear to be very passionate about is education. And it’s really important for accountants, as well as many other professionals, to continually keep up today, just this continual keep up to date scenario or ethos in a world that’s and remaining fluid, remaining agile.
How do you nurture continuous learning in your work environment?
Meryl: One of my beliefs is about setting an example, and I am always reading, listening to podcasts, learning, thinking about things. And I do that, but I also try and convey that to the team about if I’ve read a book or listened to a podcast and build that environment of learning, and one about values, we have three core values and one is always growing, which is about always wanting to learn and improve.
Heather: And it’s right behind you, as you say that. On the wall.
Meryl: It’s on the wall.
Heather: And that little plant one day will grow up tall so you won’t be able to see it anymore.
Meryl: I think having that belief as one of our core values helps. We’re often talking about our values and try and give examples when we’re doing team presentations or updates. So it’s something that we’re regularly talking about. And I think it just happens in lots of little components of our business. We have one of our team members runs a book club and there we take turns at selecting a book and then we’ll discuss it.
Meryl: We’ve built out our own emerging leaders training programme. And there we have videos from everyone in the leadership team talking about how they perceive leadership and what that means to them. So we took a lot of best practice leadership training, but then we wanted to put our own Bean Ninjas spin on it. So what does this actually mean in the context of our business?
Meryl: Everyone has their own development plan. So we have conversations with each team member around, where would they like to be in a few years holistically, not just business-wise and then have a plan to help them to get to that point in little things like monthly lunch and learns where we try and have everyone take a turn at presenting whether they’re the new accountant or one of the senior leadership team. So we have lots of little things that are all about having everyone develop that mindset, that growth mindset.
Heather: I really like the sound of your emerging leaders’ programme. And it’s so important to actually build that mindset within the company itself. We’re all leaders in some way and moving ahead.
Can you share a bit more about the emerging leaders’ programme?
Meryl: Sure. There’s a component of self-study. So I’ll describe how we started it. We have someone in our team who’s putting together the content and running the programme, and he met with the six emerging leaders that are going through at the moment. So he met with each of them to understand their goals. And then the idea is that they would have tailored training programmes, as well as the group, will go through as a cohort and watch the videos together and have group discussions.
Meryl: So there’s a component of self-study. The other component I think is really important is mentoring. So it’s not just about reading or watching a video and then taking notes. It’s about implementing it back into the business. So each of the emerging leaders has a project that they’ve selected that aligns with their goals. So it might be improving the way we do accounts payable, researching the tools, and then rewriting our process, and then bringing that back to the business and training everyone on how to follow our new technique. That’s an example of one of the projects.
Meryl: So each of the team members has a project, then they’re learning how they run, how we do project management, the Bean Ninjas way. And then they have a mentor who is working with them one-on-one to do the planning phase, to execute on the project and then to make sure it gets brought back into the business. And they do that as a cohort. So they might be spending three weeks on the planning phase and they’ll have group calls and then also they’ll meet with their mentor as well. So I say, it’s a component of online learning plus group programme plus one-on-one.
Heather: Wow. That sounds amazing that you’re offering that within the company and able to grow people and your staff and your team like that. Thank you for sharing that. On a recent podcast episode, Meryl, you talked about how you were reviewing your own cash flow forecast for your business. You dropped some really important insights, so I don’t put you on the spot. I’ll read out this slide so I don’t make you share them. It was, “Don’t burn cash during uncertain times, or during times of uncertainty,” that was I think the way you phrased it. “Protect your cash reserves and double down on what’s working.” So I’m interested… Does that sound familiar?
Meryl: I remember that.
Heather: I’m interested to know more about how you do your own cashflow forecasting.
What tools are you using to do your own cash flow forecasting? How often are you doing them and how are you talking to your clients about doing their own cash flow forecasting?
Meryl: So the example you were talking through there was from our own cashflow and internally we do payroll and accounts payable fortnightly, and then our cashflow forecast gets updated on the same day. So every two weeks we’re projecting our cashflow. And we’re in a fairly comfortable position. So it’s not something that I’m thinking about every two weeks, but I just like to see how everything’s tracking.
Meryl: And also we measure how accurate are we with our forecasting. And then we can see where we need to make adjustments. But during COVID, that was when I felt like this is a period of uncertainty, and that was where we were looking at scenarios. And so we built out, this is a best-case scenario, a mid-range scenario and a worst-case scenario, and I wanted to be prepared, what would the business look like in a worst-case scenario?
Meryl: And that was where I was making difficult changes. Like we had a cash burn rate for the education part of our business, where it costs us more to do marketing and try and grow a new business unit. And I didn’t feel like it was the right time to use cash reserves for that. And so we stopped it, which is not… it was a hard decision to do that, but I probably don’t need to explain to accountants, but the benefit of doing scenario analysis really helped us and me feel confident in making a difficult decision really quickly. And I think it’s important that if you’re offering forecasting or financial modelling services to your clients, you probably should be doing it yourself too. You’re running a business too.
Meryl: The way we do it with clients, we’re still experimenting with different tools for a while we used Futrli. We found that better actually from a visual representation perspective. We’re back using Google Sheets for forecasting at the moment, and we’re doing another full analysis around what apps we would like to use for forecasting. So that’s where we are right now, just because it’s more flexible, but I do know that there are risks of error and there needs to be a lot of checks and balances in place if you’re building things in Excel or Google sheets. So let me get back to you in another three or four months, and then I’ll have a better answer.
Heather: Everything you shared was really valuable. And as we touched on earlier, everything is moving so rapidly that, we’re in this constant flux of learning. And I think I really like the fact that you said, “Even though we’re not worried about…” because I think this was a comment prior to COVID. “Even though we’re not worried about our cash, we’re still doing it, we’re updating it every fortnight so we can check on how well the forecast is actually running and if we’d need to refine that,” because I do think that sometimes you feel that you don’t need to worry about it, but it’s that understanding and reviewing of everything as you go through, so you’re really close to those numbers.
Why did you at Bean Ninjas decide to focus on an industry niche?
Meryl: So we started out back five years ago with no niche at all. And it took me about a year to start to realise the benefits. It wasn’t in the accounting industry that I think I’ve learned… I can’t remember where I heard about it, but I think it was, might’ve been marketing businesses and they were focusing on a particular industry. And I was hearing about some of the benefits. And then I was also seeing being in the bookkeeping space that we had to learn so many different apps and it was just a nightmare to try and get to XBert level at all of these different programmes. An XBert level was what our clients expected. So we decided to narrow into online businesses and partly it was driven by learning all of the different apps, partly it was driven by analysis of our customers.
Meryl: So we went back and looked at profitability and also who we liked working with. We gave some ratings around that. And we looked at where there was growth potential. So which businesses were doing well. We had a whole matrix. And then we realised actually our point of differences in online businesses, often they’re selling in multiple countries and currencies. We’ve got unique knowledge around that. And we stayed with the niche of online businesses for about three years.
Meryl: And over that time, an element of that was e-commerce. They were one of the businesses we worked with, and we had more and more of those customers. And then at the beginning of 2020, we said, “Right, we’re actually going to change our messaging and change our tagline from online businesses to be e-commerce and digital agency. So digital marketing agency focused.” And soon we will be watching or relaunching the Bean Ninjas website. That’s another project I’m working on that it will be e-commerce front and centre.
Meryl: So it has been an evolution. It’s taken almost five years to get to that point. But now I see a lot of benefits, not just that there’s the backend processing that becomes far more efficient when we’ve got a defined way of every aspect of how we handle e-commerce accounting. This is the Bean Ninjas’ way of Amazon accounting. This is the Bean Ninjas’ way of handling Etsy. We have a defined… it takes time to do that and I don’t think you can do that with a whole bunch of industries.
Meryl: The other is marketing. All of a sudden our marketing decisions are easy. We know exactly who our ideal client is, and we look at where they hang out. And then if we’re looking at sponsoring an event, it becomes very easy. Well, it needs to be e-commerce of it, or we’re looking at what podcasts we should try and get interviews on. Well, they need to have an audience of e-commerce business owners.
Meryl: What content should we write? Well, not general accounting content. We should be writing about e-commerce accounting and not always accounting, just issues that relate or problems that our e-commerce customers will have. And I could go on, but I see from a marketing perspective, from a processing perspective, and then lastly, from a pricing perspective. I think when you are positioned as an XBert in an area, you can also charge higher prices.
Heather: Absolutely. I agree to everything you said there and thank you for sharing that. Making a decision simplifies the decision process in the area.
Meryl: Even if it is very painful making that decision. And I think it feels hard if you have clients that they aren’t in that industry niche. So are you going to upset your clients? In my case, if we have e-commerce at the header of the home page, how will our clients in other industries feel? And I haven’t really experienced much backlash from that. I think our clients aren’t necessarily checking our website all of the time.
Meryl: And they’re happy with the service that they’re getting and may not worry. Maybe some would worry. But I don’t think I’ve experienced a lot of trouble there. But I think that is a major pain point in, if you’re going to pick a niche, what about everyone that you’re currently working with who doesn’t fit that? And you’re going to lose all of that revenue. And that feels like too big a risk for many accountants. Do you just naturally have kept them on?
Meryl: Our goal is to have only clients in e-commerce, but it’s a transition. And we don’t want to make a huge change and then, for example, lose team members because our revenue dropped significantly. So for us, it’s more of an evolution and we’ve gradually shifted our marketing messaging. We’ve gradually shifted our prices. And we still work with clients that aren’t in e-commerce, but most of our new clients, they are all in the e-commerce space.
Heather: Absolutely. And I think it’s interesting for people listening in to hear that evolution that you went through, but also to hear that you niched, and then you niched, and then you niched a bit tighter. And that is what I do hear out there in the industry, is that you can actually niche an inch wide and a mile deep, I think is, Tim Reid from the Small Business Big Marketing show, always used to say.
Heather: So you’re focused on supporting e-commerce clients. And there are many reports that the reaction to COVID-19 was, many businesses have adopted digital technology and have launched an e-commerce side to their mainstream business.
Have mainstream business correctly and efficiently integrated their tech stack? Or could money be flying all over the place into unreconciled clearing accounts? Do you think this is a possible issue?
Meryl: Most of our clients haven’t come from a physical store to an online store. I’m not sure why that is, but our typical client profile has always been online only. But you’re right. There is a huge trend in physical stores, bricks and mortar who are moving online and also just new businesses cropping up that are using e-commerce platforms like Shopify to sell. And particularly when they’re using multiple different payment processes.
Meryl: So if they’re selling on Shopify, but then they’ve got after pay and they’ve got all of these different payment processes, there can be a different way of accounting for all of those different payment processes. And you’re right. A lot of that can end up in very messy clearing accounts. And a challenge with e-commerce, especially if it’s low price, high volume, is that there can be thousands of transactions. So it could be hard to go and try and figure that out.
Heather: That’s something that always concerns me in that, the money’s coming in but the accounts aren’t necessarily. And I’ve seen them. Sometimes it’s like 15 different payment processes involved and there’s money going everywhere and it’s all tiny amounts of money. And it’s like, God, is this even worth doing, but we absolutely need to do it. But it’s very difficult. Very challenging. So I’m wondering if you would share with us maybe just a brief overview of the app stack that you’re using to run your practice or your business.
Meryl: Sure. We use G Suite and that’s for file storage and for our email addresses. Each of our staff members has an email address, but that is used more as their profile. Our staff aren’t using Gmail apart from our founders. We use a tool called Help Scout which is a help desk platform. We have an email address that is a central one, central email address for different departments in the business. And then we use our help desk system.
Meryl: So, if a client sends in a query, that goes into a central portal and then that can be… We have rules. So it gets allocated to the right bookkeeper and then their supervisor can really quickly keep an eye on all of the correspondence there. And for internal communication, we use Slack, which is a chat app. I think a lot of people are probably using that too.
Heather: Absolutely. Help Scout sounds really interesting.
What volume of Help Scout do you have? What numbers of staff or people do you have interacting on Help Scout?
Meryl: Everyone has all of the accounting… So we have different mailboxes. So, we’ll have a mailbox which is for our accounting team, client-facing. And so every bookkeeper will have access to that. But if they’re a junior bookkeeper, then they would draught emails, but their supervisor would review it and send it, but they can still see all of the correspondence.
Heather: Okay. So this stops the issue of, and not that it’s a bad issue, but the junior person in the firm directly dealing with clients with that the relevant person getting to review what they’re doing.
Meryl: Yeah. And as someone progresses in our organisation, we want to have our team in the Philippines communicating directly with clients. We believe that they can build those relationships as well, but we want to protect that client’s time. They’re working with us so we can save them time. So if they’re going to be asked the same question twice or if we should have thought through, how else could we get this information other than asking the client, then we don’t want any correspondence like that.
Meryl: So it’s when someone’s built a level of trust and they’re been trained in it and the emails have been reviewed, that’s when they would get to the point of communicating with clients. But we definitely do want our team in the Philippines communicating with clients when they’ve been fully trained.
Heather: Excellent. Thank you for that.
Are there any other tools that you’d like to share?
Meryl: We use a platform called Wrike, W-R-I-K-E, we call it Trello on steroids. We started on Trello and then we moved to Wrike. It’s a really powerful project management system. We were probably a little early to move to it. Companies of much larger organisations than us use it, but very powerful from a reporting and automation perspective. So I’d say that plus G suite, plus Help Scout and Slack are probably the core of what we use. But if I look at our subscriptions account, our software subscriptions account in our own Xero file, then there’s a lot of other tools like Zoom. There’s a lot of marketing tools that we’re using. There’s a very long list.
Heather: I’m glad that you say that because I know that you’re a very modern practice and I know I speak to other modern practices. So I know that sometimes when people ask me the question, they’re expecting me to give an answer of five tools and I’m like, “Well, I think I’m at 236 tools.” And they’re like, “Are you a bit obsessed?” And I’m like, “Well no, because they all have their own little place and little purpose.”
Heather: And whether you’re paying for them or not. So some of them, depending on the size, is so light you don’t actually even pay for them. So it’s really interesting hearing those because there are a few different tools and I guess it’d be really interesting to hear it at some stage. I’ll have to wait for that podcast, the full app stack. You can go out with everything listed under the Xero subscription.
Meryl: There’s one other I have to mention Loom. And I think lots of accountants already use that. I’m a big fan of asynchronous communication which means, instead of getting on a call together, I’ll do a Loom for you and then you can watch that in your own time. And then you can do a Loom back for me and I… So I’m not a fan of meetings. I try and avoid meetings if I can. And this is a team culture relationship reason to do it.
Meryl: So I found, you could have a meeting to get a 30-minute update or instead you could ask for a Loom and get a five-minute update. Watch it at two times speed and watch it when you want to be in the headspace to think about that topic and not have to switch modes in your head between, I’m thinking about marketing or I’m thinking about sales. So I’m a huge fan of that kind of communication, which is forced upon us because Bean Ninjas has team members in different time zones. I actually think it’s a much more efficient way of communicating.
Heather: Absolutely. And I’m a very big fan of Loom and the efficiencies of it.
Do you use Loom for creating training videos as well?
Meryl: We do. When we were building the emerging leaders’ programme, there’s Loom videos in there. I think when we were building our online course, I wasn’t using it then just because sometimes the quality of the video was not… I think they cut it down to make it faster. So our paid client trading we do use Loom, but all of our internal training, Loom.
Heather: That’s a good point to make. I know, I do throw out Looms but for my proper quality videos on YouTube, for me personally, I use Camtasia. I’m not sure what solution you use but it’s… While you touched on the technology, the absolute efficiency of not expecting people to have to go to a meeting and disrupt their workflow, their change, their focus, what they’re actually focused on, and reducing that down is massive.
Heather: And I do find, it’s interesting because some people have the, “I’m going to spend all day in meetings.” And I don’t see that as an achievement at all. I’m very grateful to be invited to a meeting but I’ve got places to be and things to do. So thank you for sharing that with us. So why do you like, you’ve mentioned to me that you like the book, Deep Work by Cal Newport.
Why do you like ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport and why do you think our listeners should pick it up?
Meryl: I’m a massive personal productivity fan. I love thinking about it. I love thinking about how to optimise my own performance. And some of that is how I approach meetings. I put a lot of thought into how I structure my day with my energy levels and when I’m working on what tasks and how to protect my time. And I love the book Deep Work.
Meryl: It was talking about the value of uninterrupted, hard thinking, hard production time where you’re creating something, and how that is becoming rare as we have constant interruptions or social media. It’s difficult to get into that zone where you’re doing that hard thinking and hard creating. And the author, Cal Newport in the book is talking about the value of that. That, it’s becoming rare, less people are able to do that kind of work and it’s becoming more valuable.
Meryl: And I love the concept of that. I also enjoy getting into that. He talks about getting into flow, where you’re really enjoying what you’re doing. You’re not aware of anything else, you’re engrossed in the work that you’re doing. And I’d ask all of your listeners to think about that for a moment and think about well, when was the last time you were in that flow state? And how long before you were interrupted and you lost it? And it’s not like you can just get it back in two minutes.
Meryl: I think it’s quite hard to get into that state. And the work that I want to be doing is that hard creative work, whether it’s writing about blog posts, really trying to think about hard topics, think about business strategy. And it’s not that, you can’t do that if you’re being interrupted. So I’ve learned a lot from that book and I go back and reread it and I’ll listen to it regularly.
Heather: I just love that. I completely agree with that philosophy. You just spent like an hour just telling me all these things I really agree with, which has been fabulous. And it’s interesting because, I put out this long-form podcast and I put out, it’s accompanied by a long-form blog post and some people come and say, “But people’s attention span is only like three minutes.” And I’m like “Some people’s attention span is three minutes and other people’s attention span is longer. And we don’t necessarily always need to focus on the people with the three-minute attention span. We should be trying for this long-form.” And one of the other interesting things, especially during this unusual, quiet, challenging time is to try and focus on taking your focus to longer lengths.
Heather: And one of the things that they would do at school was to learn long poetry, which was to try and actually extend your mind. And I completely agree with that. And one of the difficulties I have from working from home, which I’m going to whisper, is that I can’t get my family to turn their alerts off their phones. So I’ve got three other people in the house and it’s like, “I don’t need to hear a beep every time you get a message through.” So I don’t know how people work in office spaces.
Heather: I know that I don’t want to dismiss office places, but it’s so disruptive office places. And I think that maybe people working from home can really lean into this. So definitely, I’ll download it because I only ever listen to audiobooks. I don’t read books anymore. But thank you for sharing that with us.
Meryl, what is next for you?
Meryl: Well, at the moment, my focus is on building out the tax part of the business in Australia. And we’re thinking about this as a test, and we actually run a lot of tests at Bean Ninjas and we try and be very data-driven. So, we’ll run a test, we’ll learn from that. Then we’ll iterate and then continue to experiment rather than making huge changes. So we’ll build out tax in Australia. And if that works, then my next project will be well, how do we replicate this in the different markets that we’re in?
Meryl: And our biggest market is actually the US market, but that’s where we have the most customers and the highest revenue. But I see Australia as the testing ground because things happen. They seem to be happening a little bit earlier in Australia, in the accounting industry from what I see. So our testing ground is the Australian market and this is where we do a lot of learning.
Meryl: And then we’ll build that in the US where I have a business partner who runs that part of the business. And I also have a business partner in the UK. And again, we’ll do the same kind of thing. We will have to adapt it because each region is a little bit different. How do we adapt this full, I don’t want to call it a full-service firm, but it’s bookkeeping advisory and tax for the e-commerce market, for seven-figure e-commerce businesses. How do we build that in the UK? So that’s what’s next for me, as well as really refining the way that we do branding and marketing to talk to these e-commerce businesses.
Heather: That sounds amazing. And I’m sure you will have much success doing that. And I’m sure the e-commerce businesses will be so grateful to have someone who can speak tax in various different languages that they are actually selling into. So thank you so much for joining me today on the Cloud Stories podcasts, Meryl.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our listeners and can you please let them know how can they contact you? How can they follow your philosophies and ethos? Where should they look? Where should they start liking and following and signing up to?
Meryl: It’s hard to think of one final comment because I’ve got so many areas I’m interested in. I love talking about the accounting industry. I love personal productivity. I love systems, building remote teams. But I think if I have to pick one thing it’s about, being true to yourself and understanding what your own personal goals are and then building a business around that. I think it’s easy to feel pressured by the guy down the road, he’s doing so well, or someone else she’s doing really well. They’ve built this huge firm.
Meryl: But you might not need to do that depending on what your goals are. And I’m talking about lifestyle goals as well as financial goals. And I think that’s really important with any business owner, to get really clear about what you want your life to look like. I have a list of very specific things around work hours, holidays per year, health, family, friends. I think if you can start with all of that, you can build a business that’s going to work for you and not worry about how other people are doing things that might be right for them, not always right for you.
Meryl: In terms of the best way to contact me, I’m most active on LinkedIn and that’s my name, Meryl Johnston. I’m on Twitter a little bit that’s meryl_johnston, but I’m not on there so much. But otherwise, the Bean Ninjas blog, which is bean, B-E-A-N, ninjas.com
Heather: And you have a podcast.
Meryl: Yes. So the podcast is actually, we paused it during COVID and we’re coming back next year. We’re doing series rather than the weekly production. So we have over 100 previous episodes. You’re welcome to go back and listen to those and new episodes will be coming out in 2021.
Heather: Thank you so much. I should end with by asking, what’s your favourite bean?
Meryl: It’s funny. I’m in my Bean Ninjas shirt right now, and when I go into cafes they think that I work in the coffee industry. I have to say coffee bean. I do love starting my day with a lovely coffee.
Heather: Excellent. As do many, many accountants. So that’s very, very, appropriate. Thank you so much, Meryl. You’ve shared so many insights with us. We really appreciate it. And hopefully, our listeners will benefit from this, but also connect with you over on LinkedIn.
Meryl: Thanks, Heather. It’s been really fun chatting with you.
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About Heather Smith
USA Accounting Today listed Heather as one of 21 people helping shape (and reshape) the accounting industry in 2020.
A technology and lifestyle accountant with a deep understanding of automated integrated cloud business tools and how business apps can be implemented and utilised effectively to improve workflow and surface information useful for data-informed decisions. She extensively shares her methodologies, business strategies and work-life balance practices through the ‘Cloud Stories’ podcast, multiple Cloud Accounting books, the Accounting Apps newsletter, blogs and social media platforms.
A FCA, FCCA, FICB, commerce graduate, and accredited trainer.