Rural accounting from a farmhouse
Accountant & Bookkeeper Stories
6 min read
Jessica Pillow’s accounting firm is unique. She operates from a farm house, excels in rural accounting, and her staff are all mums. Read her story.
Jessica Pillow’s accounting firm is unlike any other. Her business, Pillow May, operates out of a farmhouse in the south of England – five miles from any main road. Her staff are all mums, and they proudly showcase this by always wearing pink.
Jessica and her staff specialise in rural accounting, but they also work extensively with IT pros, contractors and creative industries. Jessica says her upbringing inspired her to run her own firm. “Running my own business is definitely in my blood,” she says.
Jessica has a personal connection to rural businesses. She grew up on a large farm in Hampshire, England with her three siblings. Her father managed the family farm, like his father and grandfather before him. Jessica’s mother was a doctor, and ran her own practice while looking after the kids. Jessica has always been inspired by her parents’ ability to balance work and family life – and it echoes in her own business.
Work life balance is an important part of the culture at Pillow May. Jessica and her staff make a point to never work late nights, opting to instead spend dedicated time with their families. This new spin on running a business is getting attention – Pillow May was named one of the world’s most inspiring accounting practices of 2016.
Studying French and physics instead of accounting
By the time Jessica started her studies at Exeter University, she had already decided to become an accountant. Despite this, she chose not to study accounting. “An accountant I knew told me not to study it. He told me I’d get bored if I did,” she recalls.
Jessica instead decided to study French, to improve her communication skills, and theoretical physics to hone her maths. “I also thought it would sound impressive on a degree,” she laughs. Her grandmother is French, so Jessica was determined to be speak with her in her native language.
Hands on agriculture to understand rural accounting
When she graduated, Jessica planned to move into rural accounting. “I knew I wanted to work with small rural business. But I also grappled with the idea of going to France to study business,” she says. “But I realised a farm owner in England wouldn’t really care about experience from a French business school.”
She instead started a Masters degree in agricultural management at Reading University. However after only one term of study, she wanted something a little more hands on. So she put her masters on hold and started a practical agriculture course. Jessica traded in classrooms and textbooks for cow milking and farm machinery. She knew that a practical understanding of agriculture would help her connect with rural business owners more than any qualification.
Founder of Pillow May
Chippenham, Wiltshire, England
rural businesses, IT pros, contractors
Before Pillow May
various accounting roles in agriculture and medicine
golf, cycling with her children
Culture clash with large accounting firms
Over the next few years Jessica tried her hand working for large accounting firms. She worked as a specialist agricultural accountant at Deloitte, and later in their medical department. When Deloitte sold their medical department Jessica moved to PKF, a specialist medical accounting firm, to finish her chartered accounting training.
She soon found she didn’t enjoy the culture of large firms, and started subcontracting to smaller practices in 2003. Even then, Jessica struggled to find fulfilment as an accountant.
Disappointed with her previous roles, Jessica turned to her childhood aspiration of teaching. She even landed an interview as a math teacher. But that same afternoon she met Rod Bowen.
Rod had just set up his own practice doing small business accounting, and he was struggling with capacity. He offered Jessica a job on the spot, doing contract work part time. Deciding to give accounting one last try, Jessica accepted the job.
Becoming a partner and introducing accounting software
Rod’s firm was very traditional – they were using pen and paper when Jessica joined. Although she was only working part time, within a year Jessica had introduced a fully integrated accounting software suite. She’d also built a variety of new systems, and had started hiring staff. Within two years, she was made a partner.
At the end of 2008 Jessica welcomed her first child, Beatrice. When Jessica returned to work after a short maternity leave, Rod invited her to start working full time. But Jessica had other plans.
“I realised a farm owner in England wouldn’t really care about experience from a French business school.”
Having children and re-evaluating goals
After having her first child, Jessica wanted to spend more time with her family. A nine-to-five work schedule clashed with that goal. She refused to be restricted by the work hours of traditional accounting firms. “I just got so fed up trying to work for other people. It just didn’t work for me.”
She left Rod’s practice in 2009 and started her own cloud accounting practice, Pillow May. Jessica initially specialised in rural accounting, an industry close to her heart. Running her own business let Jessica spend more time with her family – which grew in July 2010, with the birth of her son, Theo.
The challenge of finding staff that fit the culture
Pillow May started growing rapidly and, in 2011, Jessica hired her first staff member. Finding the right people has been Jessica’s biggest challenge. “It’s taken a lot of false starts. We’ve had some real disasters,” she laughs.
Jessica always aims to hire people who embrace the vision and culture of the business – but with rapid growth, that’s not easy. “When people approach me because they’re attracted to the brand, it works really well. When they really want to work for Pillow May, it’s absolute bliss.” Jessica says. “But when I’ve had to actively hunt out new staff, it’s hard. They often find our way of doing things a little weird.”
The accountants at Pillow May are just as qualified as their peers, but intentionally stand out. “We never wear suits – but we always wear pink!” Jessica laughs. “Some other accountants might see it as unprofessional. But we treat our clients like friends. We don’t want to be seen as stuffy and traditional.”
Commitment to work-life balance
As well as running Pillow May, Jessica is also the director of the family farm, Kingsclere Estates. She’s also the vice-president of a local welfare charity, and on the committee of various other non-profit organisations. Carving out enough time to spend with her family is becoming increasingly difficult, she says.
“I don’t miss changing nappies to be honest. But now that the kids are in school, they’re really interesting,” Jessica says. “The challenge is having enough time left for the children – I don’t want to miss them. Otherwise what was the point of Pillow May? It’s always been to allow me more time with my family.”
In order to spend more time together, Jessica and her kids are moving to France for a year. She’ll continue to run the business remotely – because Pillow May operates on the cloud, Jessica says it won’t impact her business much.
A mother's advice for other accountants
Jessica says anyone thinking of starting their own practice should just go for it. With the recent developments in cloud technology, it’s easier than ever to set up your own business. She says it can be demanding working with small businesses, but the rewards are worth the hard work.
She says the most important part about being a successful accountant is learning the value of honest and transparent communication. “To be honest, I don’t think accountancy is really about numbers. There's so much more to it,” Jessica says. “As more IT and clever tools are coming in, communication is becoming so much more important. And it’s where we often fall down in this industry, I think.”