- Bean Ninjas embraces niche compliance work and uses modern technology to build a contemporary model for traditional accounting work.
Johnston founded Bean Ninjas after becoming disillusioned with her consulting business and wanting more life and less work.
- Bean Ninjas employs a fixed price model, which means Johnston and McAdam can be selective about who they work with.
There is a lot of talk about the future of accounting being in business advisory services.
But a public practice in Queensland is firmly embracing compliance work – one small niche of compliance – and using modern technology to build a contemporary model for traditional accounting work.
Bean Ninjas works only with online businesses, such as e-commerce sites, software providers or digital agencies. It organises the books for its clients for a set fee for service, rather than invoicing based on hours worked – or based on how much a client might be able to pay. Clients choose a plan that includes various levels of support with reconciliations, sales tax and management reports. And it’s all done in the cloud.
This business model gives clients cost certainty, helps the firm refine its offering to a well-defined market and allows its owners to achieve a better work-life balance than many of their accounting colleagues, says co-founder Meryl Johnston CA.
"I felt like I was on call – clients would call in the evenings, on the weekends, and I had to be available. It’s hard to switch off.”
Johnston founded Bean Ninjas with fellow accountant Ben McAdam after becoming disillusioned with her consulting business. She wanted a business that tipped her work-life balance towards more life, less work.
“With the consulting business I felt like I was on call – clients would call in the evenings, on the weekends, and I had to be available. It’s hard to switch off,” Johnston recalls.
“I felt like I was on a mouse wheel trying to bring in enough work and also deliver projects at the same time – plus marketing, networking – and it was difficult to build a team as those projects were quite varied and required different skillsets.”
In order to find out what type of work she really wanted to do, Johnston established some goals. She wanted a business that was scalable. She wanted to work with a team. And she wanted flexibility.
The solution to this conundrum turned out to be a less-is-more approach. She cut 90% of the services she offered as a consultant to focus on a niche service offering.
A key part of her model is fixed pricing.
“Fixed pricing is what we offer on our site – three plans and three different prices. If someone doesn’t fit into those categories they might not be the right fit for our business,” Johnston says.
“Before someone contacts us they know what we offer and what it will cost. Our scoping process is short.”
This contrasts markedly with consulting, where the scoping process could take a long time, she says.
“You didn’t get paid for it and you might not have won the contract. That’s something I wanted to get away from.”
Another consideration was to establish a reasonably homogenous client base.
Accountants traditionally have marketed themselves to a geographical area, she says, which brings with it the challenge of delivering varied services to a varied client base. But the Bean Ninjas approach is different. The firm presents itself as expert in online businesses and takes on clients that all have similar needs.
“We have specialised and marketed ourselves as experts in a particular area. Our approach was to be very niche and to create systems around everything we do and to deliver at scale.”
Scalability is important for profitability and much easier to achieve if you offer a limited range of services, she says.
”You can deliver compliance, but you need to do it at scale. It needs to be product-ised so you deliver a compliance product at a set price and customers have an outcome.
“The other option is to go down the advisory path and provide custom high-end solutions. People have a choice to do one or the other, but it is hard to do high-end advisory at scale, from my perspective as a start-up.”
Bean Ninjas offers its services in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand and is targeting Hong Kong and Singapore next. This requires the company to understand local variations in the relevant tax law.
“We do have staff based in the US and the UK but my business partner has a background in international tax. He can learn it.”
And the niche approach serves them well here, too.
“Because we are just doing sales tax, it is straightforward compared with if we had to learn all the rules related to income tax, FBT and everything else.”
Once Johnston and her co-founder had refined the concept, they leapt in.
“We launched the business in a week and had our first paying customer in a week. We take a lot from lean start-up methodology. We try something, get feedback from customers or an audience. And we learn.”
“Our target market is online entrepreneurs. To market to them we are active in online communities where they hang out. We try to place ourselves into the network of the market that we are trying to work with.”
Bean Ninjas has an online marketing strategy, which includes blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts. The firm has also experimented with podcasts that might be of interest to potential clients.
“I research an audience that is related to our target audience and that is a way we put ourselves out in front of a new audience.”
As an online business servicing online clients, Bean Ninjas doesn’t need premises. The team works remotely and uses technology to communicate and manage workflow between different countries and timezones.
“We do calls via Skype, we use the Help Scout ticketing system to communicate with clients. We use Trello as a project management tool – and I use that for things like content marketing.”
Bean Ninjas doesn’t need premises. The team works remotely and uses technology to communicate and manage workflow.
The firm also uses Xero software, Google Docs for worksheets and documents, and Gmail.
“I think Google services are perfect for a start-up or a small business. We don’t need to have an IT person because all our services run on the cloud. We pay a subscription and all of our software is updated as it needs to be. It is secure.”
Johnston chuckles at the suggestion that starting a new business is not necessarily the best way to find work-life balance, but says that the target is within reach. “The goal with hours was having the option. Ben and I like working. It’s fun running a business. But we didn’t want to be in the position to have to work 40 hours a week in tasks we didn’t want to do.”
That balance is becoming a reality for Johnston, who moved to the Gold Coast from Melbourne for the surf. Now she is finally getting the opportunity to enjoy it when she wants to. Not that she regrets the earlier part of her career.
“There were a lot of lessons from that business, where I didn’t have work-life balance, that I applied to Bean Ninjas to solve those issues.”This article was first published in the Feb/Mar 2017 issue of Acuity magazine.
Tips for running a remote office
1 Hire the right people
Hire the right people. You need to find people who are self-motivated. And they have to be good communicators.
2 Sort out your software
Make sure you have the right software. Have a paperless office and run cloud systems.
3 Consider time zones
Consider time zone differences and expectations about working hours. It becomes difficult to schedule meetings if everyone has flexible hours.
Your need to feel like a team – as a manager or owner you need to put effort into relationships