Date posted: 01/08/2022 10 min read

CAs who run startups

An increasing number of CAs are using their financial skills to go out on their own and build successful startups. Here are six CAs who’ve made the switch from accountant to founder.

In Brief

  • Financial skills give entrepreneurs the upper hand when launching a business.
  • Find out how being a CA has helped six startup founders build successful ventures.
  • According to Mastercard’s latest "Recovery Insights: Small Business Reset" survey the entire Oceania startup ecosystem is worth US$30 billion, 90% of which is concentrated across startups in Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand.

The recent worldwide boom in professionals launching startups is a trend accelerated by the wave of COVID-19 lockdowns that hit in 2020. Amid the pandemic, workers globally responded by setting up their own ventures, with the number of startups surging by more than 30%, according to Mastercard’s latest Recovery Insights: Small Business Reset survey, which looked at 19 markets around the world.

While the UK has had the biggest lift in startup creation, followed by the US, Australia was not far behind in third place, according to the research. And while Sydney and Melbourne are known as startup hubs, a report by Startup Genome 2021 shows New Zealand comfortably sits in third place – ahead of Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. That report also shows that the entire Oceania startup ecosystem is worth US$30 billion, 90% of which is concentrated across startups in Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand.

Guy Pearson CA, co-founder, Ignition

Guy Pearson CAPictured: Guy Pearson CA. Image credit: Graham Jepson

How you’ve heard of him:

Ignition is a platform that makes it easier for accountants to engage clients and get paid and is used by more than 5000 accounting firms around the world.

Why he matters:

In 2021 pearson banked US$50 million in growth capital to fund ignition’s expansion into North America and the growing trend towards automation in accounting.

Where you’ll find him:

On Sydney’s northern beaches, or in Bega where most of his family calls home.

Guy Pearson CA, the co-founder and chief executive officer of accounting software startup Ignition, formerly Practice Ignition, is one entrepreneur whose firm has managed to thrive, despite COVID.

It all started when Pearson saw the struggles accountants face being paid on time and came up with a solution. From scribbling the idea for what would become his multimillion dollar venture on a coaster, the firm is now trusted by more than 5000 accounting firms worldwide.

Often described as a client engagement and commerce platform for professional services businesses, Ignition transforms the way accountants engage clients and get paid.

It’s little wonder Pearson is feted in the profession. In 2021, he banked A$65 million in Series C funding led by US-based JMI Equity to fund Ignition’s expansion into North America, cashing in on the growing trend towards accounting automation.

Pearson tells Acuity that shifting into the startup scene came naturally given his drive, but he does concede the leap into the unknown came with risk.

“I took a line of credit that I had from a bank to buy another client base for the accounting firm I set up and then I decided I would take the risk and spend that loan on building a minimum viable product, the first version of Practice Ignition,” he explains.

That got him to the point where he could show the product to potential customers.

Then came a breakthrough. “We got a fair bit of interest at one of Xero’s annual conferences in Melbourne and my accounting firm also won an award that year which was helpful,” he says.

“It went on from there. You start to get interest and you keep going, and learning and iterating.”

The next big step was in 2013 when the company, which initially targeted accountants who were manually managing billing and invoices, raised around A$110,000 from friends and family, enabling Pearson to hire his first team members and turn his attention to gaining more customers.

He admits getting the business off the ground was tough, especially while running his existing accounting firm, but says he was determined to succeed and confident in the basic hypothesis that he was “not crazy and there was a problem to solve”. Pearson believed from the get-go that accountants and bookkeepers would “go down this path” given rising labour costs, especially for admin staff and improving technology.

“It has more or less played out,” he says. “It probably took a little longer than I thought it would, but that was the hypothesis I was looking to prove.”

Joyce Ong CA, co-founder, Tax Nuggets Academy

Joyce Ong CAPictured: Joyce Ong CA. Image credit: Julian Kingma

How you’ve heard of her:

Ong has a big presence on social media, offering her followers videos and posts about the growth of her business. She’s radically transparent about her business, posting her monthly recurring revenue, subscriber numbers and churn, as well as failures to secure funding. She invites feedback and brings her authentic self to work, engaging many people in the process.

Why she matters:

Tax Nuggets Academy, which offers subscription model tax training for SME accountants and advisers, started because of extreme lockdown boredom but Ong’s big personality and entrepreneurial spirit has seen it grow and prosper in a short space of time.

Where you’ll find her:

At home in Melbourne with her husband and three-year-old “boss” – her daughter, who often photobombs her education videos.

Joyce Ong CA was 15 years into a successful accounting career when she came to a “fork in the road”. She could stay at the Australian Tax Office (ATO), or pursue her idea for a startup delivering accountants “non-sucky” professional education.

The CA took the second option and hasn’t looked back since. Twelve months after quitting the ATO, Ong’s brainchild, Tax Nuggets Academy, is logging hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue and has already received almost A$200,000 in funding from Singapore-based early-stage venture capital firm Antler.

“Part of me wants to build an empire, leave a legacy and save the world from sucky training and the other part is that I never want to fly coach again,” Ong says, adding “50% is for the money and 50% is just doing something I love.”

She credits many years of “personal experience” – sitting through boring training videos and lectures – with sparking her vision for a better way to do learning for accountants. A big factor was her senior role at the ATO where she not only had to participate in training, but was required to host and present. “I decided to start making videos and posting on LinkedIn and I fell in love with it.”

Ong likens Tax Nuggets to Nasdaq-listed online learning giant Udemy but says unlike most other learning providers her firm’s approach is geared to the social media age, delivering its offerings in engaging and brief snippets, mostly via video.

“We collaborate with leading practitioners,” she explains. “We take content, we enhance it, we make it searchable, discoverable, engaging. So we’re kind of like Udemy but engaging like TikTok. We’re all about micro-learning.”

Ong met co-founder Ross Lin, a full stack software developer, through Antler’s accelerator program: “Tinder for founders,” she calls it. With Lin onboard, the company is going to the next level, which Ong admits comes with challenges, among them shifting her mindset from a “highly unscalable” professional services environment to “a highly scalable, repeatable, sustainable business which sells digital products and not services”.

“This required me to slow down, execute less and focus on big picture things like finding and nurturing talent and creating systems,” she admits.

“It’s like taking two steps back in order to take an exponential leap forward, rather than growing one linear step at a time.”

Greg Sheehan FCA, founder, RightWay, PlayBooks and startup number three

Greg Sheehan FCAPictured: Greg Sheehan FCA. Image credit: Paul Howell

How you’ve heard of him:

Sheehan has had big roles at big companies – Nike and Air New Zealand – and he’s also led two not-for-profits (he was general manager of the New Zealand National Party and Parents Inc).

Why he matters:

His first startup RightWay was Xero’s largest accounting partner worldwide from 2011–2017.

Where you’ll find him:

Decompressing in his vineyard in Martinborough or having a few laughs with friends over a good pinot noir.

Greg Sheehan FCA is a serial entrepreneur, initially co-founding accounting leader RightWay in 2011 after holding senior corporate roles in the first half of his career. One of his chief claims to fame is leading RightWay to become Xero’s largest worldwide accounting partner from 2011–2017.

On shifting into the startup space, Sheehan says after years working for other people he gave into “an entrepreneurial itch that just needed to be scratched”.

“That’s my nature,” he says. “I’m one of those people – when I was a kid I was building LEGO, tree houses; I was always trying to create things.

“As a teenager I wanted to find better ways of doing things,” he adds. “I would come up with ideas and send them to companies for their feedback ... and generally never hear back,” he says with a laugh.

Looking back at RightWay (while no longer at the helm he remains a shareholder) Sheehan says the success of the company, which came fast, represented a “ridiculously hard” learning curve about the pitfalls of being an entrepreneur.

One of the biggest challenges, he says, was that the company was scaling so rapidly it felt like he and his co-founders were always “running to keep up”.

“You were always outgrowing everything. We were either outgrowing cash because we were growing so quickly or we were outgrowing the capability of some of our people,” he says.

“For example, if you’re looking after a team of three or four people then suddenly you have to look after a team of 30 or 40 people – sometimes that can outgrow your skill set.”

Startup number two, PlayBooks, which he founded in 2019, is a B2B ecommerce platform to enhance meetings through collaborative tools and Sheehan reveals startup number three is being worked on quietly in the background. For Sheehan, who is based in Martinborough, being a founder is largely about getting up every day happy to be solving a fresh set of puzzles.

“There’s no question you have to become more resilient,” he says. “You learn a lot about yourself and you learn your limits, but it’s also really fun and intoxicating.”

With all of the hard lessons learned along the way and the benefit of hindsight, he’s quietly confident his latest idea is headed towards great things.

Watch this space.

Lyndon Galvin CA, co-founder of Cookaborough

Cookaborough startup co-founder Lyndon Galvin CA photographed at Al Dente restaurant with chef Andrea  VignaliPictured: Cookaborough startup co-founder Lyndon Galvin CA (right) photographed at Al Dente restaurant with chef Davide Bonadiman. Image credit: Julian Kingma

How you’ve heard of him:

The 50 cooks and food businesses using this platform have turned over more than A$10 million and Galvin wants to prove this is a movement in how households consume their food.

Why he matters:

Cookaborough enables local cooks and food businesses to also service the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and aged-care markets, which was previously restricted to large production businesses.

Where you’ll find him:

Eating at Al Dente, Andrea Vignali’s pasta delivery service turned restaurant in Melbourne, founded in April 2020.

Lyndon Galvin CA, the co-founder of fast-growing food tech startup Cookaborough, became an entrepreneur after 22 years working as a chartered accountant, with experience in public practice, consulting, and strategy and advisory.

Melbourne-based Galvin, whose company operates a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform, has quickly found success since launching in 2019.

It has already raised A$2 million in pre-seed funding from several sophisticated investors as well as early-stage venture capital firms Flying Fox Ventures and Possible Ventures, and has a substantial capital raise in the works to back its domestic growth.

Galvin credits his CA background with giving him the skills to run Cookaborough. “From a commercial point of view, it’s such a strong foundation,” he tells Acuity. “When you take on an entrepreneurial journey it requires such a diverse skill set that you can’t have had experience over everything, but the commercial, strategic and financial pillars of that understanding I think are the most required, and fundamental.”

Even so, Galvin worked hard to “de-risk” the venture before jumping into it full-time. Due to Cookaborough being a high-risk global technology solution, he says he approached it in stages, with the first phase being explanation and validation.

During this period he would do 50% advisory work outside the business and spend the rest of his time on “exploration and due diligence” at Cookaborough.

“Then as I got more confident in the concept I was able to reduce my roles to the point where we did a capital raise and that’s when I was able to take a leap of faith and back myself in a full-time capacity,” Galvin says.

Fast forward a couple of years and there are around 50 businesses on the platform that have turned over A$10 million with the aim of having 300 by the end of the year. Cookaborough’s early success has come with its hurdles. “The process of translating early-stage concepts that are in your head and on whiteboards into a functioning piece of technology is a very complex process. It requires a great deal of collaboration and input from a range of skill sets to ensure it works as intended,” he says. “Building a cohesive and capable team has been critical for us in developing a world-class product.”

Julie Francis FCA and Richard Francis FCA, co-founders, Spotlight Reporting

Julie Francis FCA and Richard Francis FCAPictured: Julie Francis FCA and Richard Francis FCA. Image credit: Paul Howell

How you’ve heard of them:

Spotlight Reporting gained some big backers in the early days including MYOB founder and Xero’s now nonexecutive director Craig Winkler, former Xero chairman Sam Knowles and former Xero director Graham Shaw.

Why they matter:

The platform enables accountants and business owners to easily create performance reports, dashboards and cash flow forecasts.

Where you’ll find them:

Hanging out with their two children in Wellington, New Zealand.

Spotlight Reporting has grown rapidly since its 2010 inception, with husband-and-wife team Julie Francis FCA and Richard Francis FCA at the helm.

The co-founders ran a successful business advisory firm before launching Spotlight Reporting, a platform that enables accountants and business owners to create performance reports, dashboards and cash flow forecasts with ease. It now services 3000 firms globally and has been adopted by the professional services industry as well as not-for-profits, real estate and ecommerce sectors.

Richard Francis says the pair have now been working together for more than 20 years, which he describes as “quite an achievement – and we’re still married!” he jokes. “We are therapy for each other, we are support for each other and we each have our different skill sets.”

Another factor Richard credits in his favour is age. He didn’t establish the company with Julie until after he was 40. As Ali Tamaseb’s 2021 book Super Founders points out, contrary to popular  belief that startups are founded by people in their 20s, the median age is actually 34.

Working with a 30-person team at company HQ buoys performance and morale. “It really helps to have an HQ and that culture … lots of people collaborating and being together,” says Richard, though he adds he embraced flexible work “before it became trendy”.

“We have lots of mums and people doing other things with their lives who might want to work three or four days a week – they’re some of our best employees,” he says.

Richard believes setting up your own business can be thrilling. “We’ve known entrepreneurs who’ve come from either the corporate world or the CA world, but also people who’ve decided not to do that and stick to their day job,” he says. “Much respect to those people who are doing great work within bigger firms, but I think it’s quite liberating to get out there and do your own thing.”

For CAs keen to get into the startup world, Richard’s advice is simple: be courageous. Accountants who’ve made the switch from employee to founder have “understood the power of networking, the power of partnerships, the power of getting the right people around them,” he says.

“In this day and age, although there’s a lot you can do online, it’s still the connections between people that matter most.”

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