After many years in the accounting world working for someone else, Karen Stevens decided she wanted to take matters into her own hands and start her own practice that reflects her values – EqualBiz. Life as a sole practitioner hasn’t always been easy, but that didn’t stop Karen from reaching Gold partner status within a couple of years.
With International Women’s Day having just passed, we thought it would be fitting to see how Karen got to where she is now, and the challenges she faced along the way.
Tell me a bit about your story
I started my practice in 2016 – I was contracting the year before for an accounting firm when I decided I wanted to work for myself. However I wanted to do it differently to the norm, and that began with finding out what my values were.
I knew that the relationships I had with my clients were what was most important. I wanted to make sure they had only one person they dealt with the whole time they were with my practice, instead of being passed around for various reasons which sometimes can’t be helped in larger firms. I also knew that I wanted the practice to grow to a certain level, because I wanted to make sure I had capacity to develop my relationships.
The values I chose for my business were simple, affordable and tax compliant. I was going to create an environment where my clients felt that they were part of the conversation. It’s really valuable for the client to come along in person, without tension or pressure, and learn about the accounting side of their business. In this digital age it’s easy to lose those interpersonal experiences, so that’s what I focus on making time for.
I usually start with a meeting to see how our values align. If we have the same values we will work well together, but I might not be the right fit for everyone. Some people don’t need that face to face time – and that’s totally fine. For me it’s about surrounding myself with clients who have the same values and want to be in this environment, so that we can help one another in our successes.
How did you grow your firm?
I knew a lot about accounting but nothing about advertising. So I surrounded myself with people who were in business and of various professions that created an extension for my business and my clients. Once again their business values were aligned with mine, so the relationships were supported. These people have been a core support and drive in my firms growth.
Facebook and word of mouth really helped to grow my firm, and now I’d say my clients are my best advocates. Being a sole practitioner doesn’t mean that you have to be alone, and to be honest I’ve never felt isolated in the years I’ve been doing it. Although I’m not part of any formal communities, I do lean towards people around me, and those who you trust will always help support you grow.
Reaching Gold status was actually easier than I thought. I wasn’t even looking at Gold initially – I thought that I would reach Silver and that would be it, and it wasn’t until I looked into Xero HQ that I thought “oh gosh I am close!” I think it all comes down to the what I could offer in the relationships with my clients, and this spreading through word of mouth with others wanting to come on board.
What steps do you take to ensure you have a good work-life balance?
My office is separate to the house which is really important – the fact that you can shut the door on the work day. The really cool thing about working for yourself is that if you’re a bit tired or not focusing as well, you can step outside and clear your head, or call a friend and reset. Then you can go back to your job and finish a bit later if you need to – which isn’t always an option in other offices. This flexibility also means that if my granddaughter has a school trip, I can manage my work around it to attend. Those moments are really important.
There’s definitely been times where I’ve stayed in the office longer than I should have. However my practice has reached a point where I’ve structured my year to be super busy between April and December. Then I have more of a relaxing time between December and March. So that’s my key focus. But regardless of managing my time like this, I do make sure that on my weekends I leave the house – you will find me at one of Auckland’s cafés or in my garden – which removes me entirely from my work environment, giving me that balance.
How have you found Xero helpful in your journey?
I started using Xero at the practice I was at before, and so it was a natural step for me to continue using it when I started my own firm – I loved it. You could see that accounting had to change because we needed the whole openness of being able to work from anywhere at any time. I’d even go down to my bach with my laptop and be able to log in and work from there if I wanted. I remember thinking that accountants will be able to work from home one day – with no idea in mind that it would be me doing it!
Xero built a really good product with solid foundations first, and now we are getting the icing on the cake. They invest in improving their products. Xero gives me a really good foundation platform that allows my clients to grow as much as they want to now matter how big or small they are. I don’t believe that Xero is built ‘for the big guys’; I have really really small clients and really really big clients and we make it work for everyone. It’s all about scalability.
Accounting is now two thirds advisory and one third compliance. It’s becoming more automated, so we need to learn to step back a little bit and move more into advisory. Xero helps us open up the accounting world to the client by letting them understand more about their business through visuals and reports. They get value when they have an understanding of the market and how their business is tracking, and as accountants we need to make the shift in teaching them how to use these tools. We need to be prepared to give our clients more of a seat on the table.
If you had one sentence to convince someone to switch to Xero, what would you say?
Xero isn’t stagnant. It is this way today but its not going to stay like this tomorrow. Now we’re getting the icing on the cake because the timing was right and the platform is solid – and in my opinion Xero will continue to evolve.