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Future Accountant profile: Ben Walker

Why I started my accounting practice

My name is Ben Walker. I founded Inspire Life Changing Accountants back in 2013, in Brisbane.

I chose to do that because I was unhappy with how the accounting industry was working at the time. I’d joined a Big Four firm straight out of school but the slow pace of technology, lack of client focus and timesheet obsession drove me to start Inspire.

It’s crazy to think that only as far back as 2013 we were still using desktop based software instead of working in the cloud and had a huge server room that the firm would be investing tens of thousands of dollars into. Not to mention it taking us close to half an hour each morning to log in. 

At that time, it felt as though everything was designed for the accounting firm and not the client – and there was a breakdown in relationships as a result. These bigger firms are catching up now but I saw the opportunity for that switch early on.

We had a blank canvas and could build our firm around our clients. We started using cloud-based apps from day one and vowed never to keep timesheets. We had pricing conversations with clients upfront. We obviously still have things to work out but we don’t have any headaches from that old school of thought, such as huge debtor balances or massive amounts of work in progress building up.

To really focus on the client, our internal KPIs align with what matters most to them. The two big ones being turnaround times for jobs completed for a client and our response time to emails. Putting technology at the centre of this helps us move from being a ‘once a year’ accountant and provide more day to day value to our clients.

How we moved away from being a ‘once a year’ accountant

Right from the start, we wanted to get away from being a ‘once a year’ accounting firm. For context, we work with small business owners who are usually young and have a family – so they’ve got more challenges than just running their business.

They need our support more often, so we moved away from that reactive style of just doing their taxes each year and wishing them well to a proactive approach driven by our clients’ needs. We set meetings throughout the year to regularly catch up with the client. We have dozens of touch points depending on what we’re doing with them, whether it’s a quarterly BAS or VAT return – depending where you are reading this from.

We also choose not to charge for those quick phone calls. We want clients to feel that they can reach out to us if they’ve got a quick question or problem without the fear of racking up a bill. If we put that cost barrier there, they might choose not to speak with us and end up in a worse situation than if they’d just reached out to us in the first place.

Obviously, if we’re on the phone helping them solve a crisis or planning out their next business, that’s a bit more than a 5-10 minute phone call and we would have a more official strategy session with them, and price it up front – whatever it is. 

What our approach has done for client relationships

I think focusing on the client relationship has had a massive impact on our accounting team’s fulfilment. We get to know the client, they get to know us and we share in some of their biggest life moments.

It also helps with client retention. We rarely lose clients and they usually only move on because they’ve outgrown our niche. We’re a smaller practice so we’re not going to list a client on the stock exchange for example, but we will get them to a place where they’re ready to move to the next stage of the business.

How our firm has evolved since launching in 2013

The benefit of starting my own firm meant that I got to cherry pick the technology we use from the start. I stayed away from the old school, desktop based software providers and moved to those which allow us to work from the cloud. There were only a few other early adopters at the time and getting in quickly was really good for us as it meant we could be nimble at a time when we needed to be.

We’ve now even looked beyond just the accounting software in our tech stack. The previous firms I worked for usually had one or two bits of software that did most functions in the firm – such as their communication systems and marketing efforts.

Embracing technology has helped us to improve our productivity. We previously used Zendesk for our email systems and have integrated our email responses and our workflows with Karbon. This gives us insight into those KPIs of response times and work completed which are important to our clients.

Now we’ve adopted HubSpot to ensure our marketing techniques are just as up to date as our accounting practices. I like to keep an eye out on what’s available to us in all areas. What’s the best in class? What are really great marketers using for their platforms? A lot of them are using HubSpot so I saw the opportunity to do the same.

Why modern marketing techniques have been vital to our growth

We see that a lot of our clients come from all over Australia. Previously, you’d let local businesses know you’re an accountant and take your business from that pool – but there are thousands more businesses that look for our services.

Early on, we focussed on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) which was a quick win back in the day because not a lot of accountants even knew what it was. It meant that when any business in Australia was looking for accounting services on the internet, our practice would appear as one of the first suggestions. And doing this along with other social media and video marketing, has ended up bringing in six to eight potential clients a week on average.

How we’ve been forward-thinking with our services

We started as being a proactive, tech-driven tax and accounting service for our clients. I’ve got to say that while you hear a lot of firms getting into financial planning or advisory work, we only occasionally dipped our toes in throughout the years. It’s only in the last six months that we’ve really started getting into that side of things.

I think if we launched those additional services when we only had a very small number of tax clients, then we would have needed a lot of resources. Our approach was to grow our tax client base in our niche of small business owners to a sustainable level. We would then launch a new service such as estate planning when we have the resources to do so and we can provide that service to our clients with our full attention.

Why you need to plan for capacity as your firm grows

One of the lessons that I’ve learned through the growth of the business is you’ve really got to plan for capacity. We’ve had a number of times where we’d bring on a few clients, we’d quickly see ourselves reach capacity, things would take longer and our response time really suffered. 

Capacity is a dance that only in the last four months we’ve been getting right. We’ve learned those lessons and know now that you have to plan for capacity growth – whether that’s bring on new systems or recognising that you need to hire people in advance.

For an accountant, it’s a hard decision to make because adding more admin hours could mean potentially not getting 100% ROI or recoverability. You have to look beyond that, though. We’ve spent so much time thinking about how we improve capacity and hiring people when we need them. Failing to do that would mean charging clients for the extra work but we wouldn’t be delivering at our expected quality.

How we ensure we hire the right people as we grow

As I talk about improving capacity through hiring, I can’t stress the importance of hiring the right people for your practice. When you first start, you might be desperate about who you bring on because you need a problem solved. This goes hand in hand with planning for capacity.

For example, if we don’t see that we’ll need more people to work on a new client, we might drop our hiring standards because we know we just need someone through the door. When you do that, bringing someone on who maybe doesn’t have the right experience or might not be a great cultural fit could turn out to be more of a problem than they’re worth.

We’ve become really picky about who we hire. In my previous role at that Big Four firm, I used to think it was over the top having three levels of panel interviews and various tasks during the interview process. Now, I see it as absolutely necessary. 

Before a candidate gets through to meet our team to be assessed, they go through a screening phone call, a first interview and a technical test. We want to know how they handle themselves, what’s their reaction if they’re asked a technical question or how they write an email to a client.

What this does is shows us their personalities and that’s huge for us. Culture has been one of our most challenging things to get right and we want to really protect that. We consider ourselves family. In fact, some people here don’t have family here in Australia with them and those working relationships become strong friendships. It’s important that we all look out for each other.

Where we see accountancy going for our firm in the next few years

This industry has had a shock with Covid – as have many others. Over the next few years, I think the firms who don’t allow people to work from home or work remotely will have big problems.

When lockdown hit, we took our laptops home, turned our homes into offices and waited it out. It didn’t take long to get plugged into our networks and carry on producing the high standards of work we did in the office. I think continuing to offer that flexibility is absolutely necessary.

Beyond our own internal workings as a practice, I see becoming trusted advisors to small business owners being a big trend. Especially at a time when businesses need greater help, support and advice on their finances.

If you’re not doing advisory in some form or at least helping business owners understand their finances, you might find selling services challenging when you’re competing with other accountants who can help them with those additional things.

Why we want to help clients with both work and personal life

When it comes to working with clients, we want to be that central advisor throughout the different stages of their life. Right from the people starting a business to growing it alongside their personal life. We’ll of course look at things from a financial perspective such as business growth and exit plans, but we’ll also look at wills and estate planning.

We want to make things as easy as possible for the client. If they’ve got the personal side of their business affairs sorted then it’s one less thing for them to worry about should they receive bad news. 

How our firm and clients benefit from accounting automation

Accounting automation benefits everyone in my opinion. It means we can focus as an internal team on work that excites us, rather scanning documents or typing in numbers all day. It gets us closer to helping clients through the key milestones in their journey. That’s much more fun.

What excites me is quantifying our success such as how much tax we saved a client, how much profit we helped them generate or how we assisted in improving their business value. When we can show them exactly how we’ve done that, it’s powerful. And you don’t have time for that, when you’re stuck in those repetitive tasks.

About Ben Walker

Ben Walker runs Inspire, a Brisbane based accounting firm. They help young families grow their small business to achieve financial independence by focussing on three core services. First is a tax and accounting subscription, the second is an advisory service which aims to help a business owner double their profit and quadruple their business value, the third is a wealth service which focuses on helping business owners grow their family’s wealth while halving the number of hours they work in their business.