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Australian Bookkeepers Network hears from member and author Debra Anderson. This is the second installment in a four part series as Debra shares her journey in the industry.
I have to be honest. Taking a job as a bookkeeper when I was an accountant was originally a little bit of hit to my ego. After all I was qualified, albeit I didn’t have a university undergraduate degree, but I was now was the proud owner of a Masters degree in Business. But hey, I was pregnant with no prospects of getting a ‘real job’ for a while so here I was – now a bookkeeper working for a bookkeeping company. The ladies I worked with were all amazing. They were quite inspirational really. There were a couple of single mothers, some were qualified, most weren’t but they all really loved it. They loved their clients, their clients loved them and the work was surprisingly interesting. I was soon not just a bookkeeper but a passionate, proud bookkeeper.
A couple of years down the track I was now working about 3-4 days a week as a bookkeeper. I was married with two very young children and wasn’t coping. It was late 2005 when I had a major breakdown. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t go out of the house, I couldn’t cope, I just couldn’t do anything….I was diagnosed with post-traumatic anxiety disorder. I couldn’t believe it. Almost 14 years after suffering from domestic violence and thinking I was ok, I discovered just how far-reaching the effects of DV really are. You see I’d had several operations and although it was many years later I still had constant physical issues from the abuse but I thought that mentally I was fine. How wrong I was. I was almost hospitalised but thankfully with intense therapy and medication I was able to get through the critical breakdown stage without hospitalisation. After a couple of months off work, lots of rest, lots of therapy and literally just taking things moment-by-moment holding it all together I was over the worst of it and could see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Within a few months I was feeling much brighter and decided it was time to leave the safe nest working for another bookkeeping company and go out on my own. In April 2006 Legally BAS was born.
When I started Legally BAS my vision was to work about 2-3 days a week around my 2 young children, work from home but also do some onsite client work as well. I signed up to the MYOB bookkeeper program and joined a BNI group. I had a clear philosophy that was to only work for and with nice people (which I still live by today) but I was determined to never hire anyone and just do it all myself because I didn’t want the stress, complexity or hassle of staff.
The beginning was interesting to say the least. Firstly, I had a non-compete clause which meant that I had to learn about marketing to get new clients. With absolutely no marketing or sales experience this was a big challenge….after all I’m a numbers girl so these skills didn’t come naturally to me. I joined a BNI networking chapter in my local area which was probably the best thing I ever did. Not only did I get a few new clients but I also got a bit of support network too.
I was very fortunate that in my street there was another bookkeeper called Liz who was a Quickbooks consultant. She was actually an accountant too but had moved into the bookkeeping space a few years back. She was extremely generous with her knowledge and sharing her experiences of how she built up her business and the challenges she had encountered. I listened and soaked up everything she said but mostly I was so grateful to her for taking the time to share all her learnings with me. I was blown away that this woman I hardly knew, who was effectively going to be my competitor, who worked in the same suburb was so forthcoming, honest and helpful. This type of camaraderie was something I hadn’t experienced before.
It was during this conversation that I made the conscious decision to only work with MYOB. Because Liz had been so amazing to me I couldn’t possibly go head-to-head with her for work and since she only worked with Quickbooks I decided I’d only do MYOB and that way we wouldn’t be competing for work. At the time it was really only a two product market so that worked quite well for both of us. I signed up as a MYOB Professional Partner and started focussing on MYOB’s products.
One of the things I completely underestimated was how hard working for yourself can be.
When I was working from home I had to juggle the kids, husband, housework and people who thought that because I was working from home it wasn’t real work so they’d just pop in whenever. I was working very long hours particularly at BAS time. It was completely different when I couldn’t just say no to work or have someone to delegate it too. The ATO has a deadline and often clients just completely disregarded the fact that I can’t just press ‘lodge’ – I actually had to do all the work first AND they weren’t my only client.
It was confrontational. I found the conversations chasing clients to pay me when I knew they had no money very difficult. It was so out of my comfort zone and I found that very stressful. I also found myself having to make hard decisions such as how and when to get rid of clients…making sure I was paid up to date and getting out without ruining my personal reputation was always challenging especially when the reason I was leaving the clients was because of lack of payment or simply because they were dodgy as hell.
I was lonely too. As a bookkeeper I found that when I was onsite with clients I was often shoved in the back room with all the paperwork and a computer with no-one to talk too. When I was working from home I needed peace and quiet to think and because I was working long hours – not just bookkeeping but also doing my own admin, advertising, website, etc – I ended up spending less time with my friends and family and a lot of time alone.
In October 2006, six months after starting Legally BAS my husband asked for a divorce. I can honestly say I didn’t see that coming. I knew things had been tough, I knew I’d been hard to live with especially during my breakdown but I didn’t expect he’d actually leave me.
Luckily for me my ex-husband had insisted he wanted 50% custody of the kids. I say luckily because honestly I don’t think I could have built Legally BAS up to a point where I could support children, my mortgage and myself emotionally or financially otherwise.
Had I been thinking straight I would have gone and gotten a full time job again so that I had regular income, set hours, sick days, annual leave and the list goes on but I couldn’t see the forest through the trees because I was neck deep in Legally BAS. I had clients who were depending on me so the thought never crossed my mind…plus I had a 2 and 3 year old to look after and although I was on medication to manage my anxiety it was still very much part of my day to day life.
One thing no-one tells you when you become a Mum is just how exhausting it is. And whilst I love my kids more than life itself I secretly enjoyed having 50/50 custody because it meant that one week I could be Mummy and the next week I was back in grown-up land where I could work long hours without feeling guilty, I could listen to real music, drink coffee while it was still hot – but I really enjoyed the little things like the luxury of going to the bathroom all on my own and sleeping in again. My social life changed dramatically too as most of my friends were married or mummy friends and now that I was single I had less in common with many of them so I had to put myself out there and meet new people. The biggest shock to the system was that the world of dating had changed considerably….there was this new thing called online dating…argh!!!! I remember one of my clients giving me lessons on what the dating scene was like now and I was horrified….how was I going to navigate this new world? I look back and laugh at it now but at the time it was quite daunting.
I was loving my work and because I have always enjoyed learning. I would go to any conference, seminar or workshop I possibly could to help me better understand what I was doing and do it better.
It was at a MYOB bookkeeper’s seminar that I had a pivotal life moment. Someone was presenting a new feature on stage and I couldn’t get my head around what they were saying. It didn’t make sense to me. I’d used many computer systems over the years and I had a strong inventory background and so I raised my hand and questioned the feature. I was fobbed off (nicely). I raised my hand again and apologised for not understanding their answer but I still couldn’t understand how the feature worked. The presenter told me to come see him in the break and he would explain it to me.
In the break I hunted this guy down. He was smiling which surprised me, given that I’d been a bit of pain during his session. He told me that he had been going around the country presenting the new features to bookkeepers, accountants and consultants for the past couple of weeks and no-one else had picked up on what I had. I was right the feature wasn’t going to work in its current state but they were working on a solution. We discussed how it should and could work given the constraints in the system. At the end of this conversation he told me that I had to apply to be an MYOB Certified Consultant because they really needed consultants like me.
At first I hesitated. I was just a bookkeeper who just happened to know a lot about inventory from my previous corporate life. I didn’t think I had the skills or experience to become an MYOB Certified Consultant. I thought about it all night and the next day I put in my application. I had to sit an exam, get references and then I was finally an MYOB Certified Consultant.
A couple of months later I hired my first employee. She was another mother of young children, who was a qualified CPA looking to do a few hours a week work from home. This gave me some breathing space to delegate some of the offsite work I was doing and focus on onsite clients – which quite frankly were more fun because now I wasn’t just doing bookkeeping I was also offering MYOB setups and clean-ups which I just loved doing. The best part was that I realised I could also charge slightly more for these one-off, higher end type services so I could make more money.