The Savvy Story Part 1: High-school dropout to business leader

How did a high-school dropout like Amy become a business mentor who helps bookkeepers with business management, planning, pricing and marketing? 

This is Amy's story (warts and all!) The real message of this story is “If I can do it, anyone can.”

Podcast info

Episode: #001:

Series: 1 of 3 The Savvy Story. 

Host: Amy Hooke

Guest speaker: None

Topic: If I can do it, anyone can.

Read transcript

Hi it's Amy Hooke here. And if you're wondering “who is this Amy chick anyway, and why should I listen to her business advice?”

Well, that's actually a great question. Why should you listen to me?

I'm going to share a little bit of my story with you and it has quite a few twists and turns in it and some important life lessons, so grab yourself a cup of tea and let's jump into this story.

Life wasn't really handed to me on a silver spoon. I grew up in a lower class family in an area that doesn't quite have a very good reputation. Well, it's still got the same reputation that it had back then even though it's changed quite a lot.

The family that I grew up in, I had a mom who was on the disability pension and my dad ran a business for some periods of time during my life. He did okay in that business from time to time but, in a net sense we always ended up on a low, barely livable wage.

So with the combination of the stress that dad was under from work and losing a lot of money, and getting ripped off, and all sort of different things happened. With the stress from dad and the combination of that and mum's mental illness, I grew up in a very unstable family.

There was lots of fighting and arguing, and my only outlet for the stress that I had, was at school. So when I was at high school, I got in trouble a lot, and by the end of year 10 I actually got expelled from school. I had been suspended too many times and so they brought my parents into the office and had a conversation, and they asked me to leave. Thankfully, after negotiation with my parents they allowed me to finish year 10, which was almost done anyway and I left school.

At the time I was 15 years old and because of the difficulties at home as well, I also left home. FNow that I have my own children, I can't even imagine a 15 year old living out of home, but to me that was completely normal.  I never even thought twice about the fact that I financially supported myself from a very young age, paying rent, and going through jobs.

Really trying to navigate life as a young person without any support network. For me, I was very driven out of necessity to put myself out there and to make a life for myself. And as an adult reflecting on that, I can now see that, I've always had this inner desire in me to break the cycle and pattern of poverty and mental illness that's been my family history.

My first work experience outside of my dad's business, where I used to do a little bit of bookkeeping, back on MYOB version two or three, right back in the day! Helping out dad's accountant to do bank reconciliations and that kind of thing.

But my first real job outside of school was as a boot-scooting waitress at the Lonestar Steak House. I don't know if you remember that restaurant but that's the one where you used to be allowed to throw peanuts on the floor. Until a waitress tripped over and hurt herself, and then they got rid of the peanuts.  I was there at the time they still had the peanuts!

This was a rather nerve wracking job for me because I didn't know how to boot scoot, I wasn't a particularly good dancer and so I used to hide around the corner every time the music would start, [singing] “my boot-scooting baby is driving me crazy”, and that sort of stuff.

The music would kick in and then I'd go, “oh no!” and I'd hide. And one day my boss said to me, “How come you're not dancing?” And I said, “Well, I don't know the dance moves,” and he said, “Well, you've been here for a couple of weeks now, so it's time to learn.” And he just kind of threw me in the deep end and I had such a lot of fun that it wasn't funny.  I just thought, wow, I can't believe I judged boot-scooting – it was actually quite fun. And it turns out I'm actually pretty good at boot scooting. So there you go.

But anyway, at that time I actually lived across the road from the restaurant and I was living with an abusive partner at the time. He was very controlling and just from some difficulties in that relationship, I ended up losing my job.

That was actually the second time that I had to go on Centrelink which was not something that I wanted to do. But I’d had the living help from away from home allowance at a young age because of the living situation at home, so I returned to Centrelink.

They'd started running a job seeking workshops, I can't remember if it was “work for the dole”, or something like that, but it was around that time. I attended a job seeking workshop where I had to work on my resume and apply for jobs. And it was there that I discovered a role for a trainee bookkeeper for a manufacturing company.

I thought “okay, well, I used to like doing the accounts for my dad's business”, and despite the fact that I had a couple of piercings and a shaved head, I thought I'll just go in for that job interview.

And they saw something in me, I'm so grateful because, not that there's anything wrong with piercings and a shaved head, but I know in a corporate business environment perhaps they might be expecting something a little bit different. So as a young person, my boss at the time, his name was Phil, he obviously saw something in me. He saw that I had something to bring to that business and something I definitely didn't see in myself.

I got the job and in this job, and by this stage I was now 17 years old, almost 18, and I got my foundation and early education in bookkeeping.

During that job I learned how to reconcile supplier statements which was really a great skill. I used to have to get the statements and make sure that the invoices in the account were all there on the statement, request the missing ones. That was my first type of reconciliation work that I'd done apart from a bank recs, so I ways understood that there was more than one kind or reconciliation and that it wasn't just the bank that needed to be reconciled, it was also other accounts. I really liked that.

I like problem solving and that kind of thing and learning how to cross check my own work as well. I've taken over a lot of work from various bookkeepers in the past and I have seen a lot of poor quality work. I think really what it comes down to, is the lack of understanding of how to reconcile the balance sheet. Not just the bank statements but all the other accounts as well.

If that's something you can master, reconciling the GST, and the suppliers and all those other accounts, loan accounts, clearing accounts, then you'll be a great bookkeeper.

On a side note actually, so throughout all my jobs, I have been on a mission to reconcile things. As I said before, I was really wanting to break the cycle of poverty and mental illness. And for me growing up in a home where things just didn't make sense and there wasn't that emotional support, the bookkeeping was something that made me feel in control.

It was something that helped me to feel that I was reconciling my past, or reconciling myself to a world that didn't make sense to me. A world where I just couldn't find answers.

And you know that feeling, when the reconciliation finally balances, it's like a feeling of success, it's like “I did it! I found the missing piece of the puzzle”.

So for me, it was a very rewarding experience and as I progressed through this journey I felt that some doors just kept opening at the right time. I don't know if you ever get that feeling but just being at the right place at the right time.

You might even say somebody was looking after me.

So, a year or so later, after I finished the traineeship, I was offered a permanent job in that company where I stayed for a little while, but I wanted to move to the city. I was 19 at the time and I got offered a job in a chartered accounting firm, which I wasn't even qualified for. I was so surprised when the job agency told me to apply for the job, I thought, “are you serious? I'm not an accountant, I'm only an accounts payable clerk”.

It was amazing that I got hired for the job and I ended up working on and off for this company for 12 years. And I even helped to kick off a bookkeeping practice that they started within the accounting firm now. Looking back on some of the things I know now, I’m not exactly proud of running an “in house bookkeeping practice” in an accounting firm.  

 

You know, I have definitely seen the downside of running in-house bookkeeping practice in an accounting firm. I don't necessarily agree that accounting firms should have in-house bookkeeping practices for a number of reasons, which perhaps I'll talk about on another day, just to keep it clean.

I started bookkeeping for the first time within that bookkeeping practice. I’d been preparing tax returns and financial statements for companies and trusts, and auditing super funds as well. It was exciting because when the graduates finished uni I used to train them how to do their job. Which was pretty cool, you know, because I was a high school dropout so I was quite proud of myself.

My boss actually offered to me to do a bit of bookkeeping while I decided to go to uni and start my Bachelor of Business. At that point, I was 21. I’d waited til I was a mature aged student, and I applied to go to Monash. I very soon realized that bookkeeping was way more fun than accounting. It was more flexible and don't tell anyone… it was better money.

So, I thought well “why on earth would I want to be an accountant?”

It's so strict and you've got to go to work 9:00 to 5:00, and you get paid $25-$30 an hour or whatever it was that I was getting paid. Probably less than that actually. Back in the day I think I started on $13 an hour, something like that, and then just progressed each year my pay increased and increased, and it was great to see that journey as well.

But anyway, I thought, “wow, bookkeeping is great. I don't think I need to finish my degree.” So I actually left after the first year. I thought, “I don't really need this”.

t the accounting firm over the years I really wanted to grow things. I really wanted to change the culture there, and to provide a better customer service. I've always been customer service oriented and I always wanted to do the best for the clients, but I really felt held back in that role. I got offended by some of the bottlenecks, and they were quite behind on the technology and that kind of thing, and I really wanted to move things forward.

It ended badly. I walked away from bookkeeping completely by the end of it, and I swore that I would never come back. I was offended with my boss and I felt that after all those years he would have trusted me, and I had a difficulty reconciling that he wouldn’t give me any freedom. So I quit and I went traveling overseas.

At the time when I was working at that bookkeeping firm, I used to think about starting my own business, but I never really kind of took it seriously. I had just had a nagging feeling like I need to get out of here, so I went overseas.  

I did some mission work for a number of years, and I worked in a HIV clinic, I worked with women in prostitution. I worked with kids, I did music, I did all sorts of things over there, even wrote a couple of songs and that was fun.

I went to so many places. I went to Israel and India and I went to Perth and I went to the UK. I went to China as well.

I'd always dreamed of starting my own bookkeeping business, but it seemed very out of reach until I got home from traveling.

I tried out Xero. When I'd been in the accounting firm, Xero was around but not that many people were using it. I tried it before, and I thought, “okay, whatever”. This new technology made me see that I could actually run a business from home, and finally it seemed possible.

I thought “wow, I can work from home now”. I was engaged to my husband, I'd just got married, so we were thinking of having babies, and I thought this could be the freedom that I need and the flexibility to be able to work from home. Also, I haven't mentioned too much about this, but I have also had my own struggles with my own mental health and that kind of thing, and also some traumatic events happening to me.

I was a victim of crime in 2002 and I was hit by a car in 2007 and broke my neck. Aside from post traumatic stress and anxiety and depression, ADHD and a number of other compounding issues from my past,even though I worked for this accounting firm on and off for 12 years, I had been very unstable and inconsistent in the way that I was doing my work.

The feedback that I would get was “Amy, you only have two gears – full speed or completely stopped.” That's the ADHD that I later discovered that I had been suffering with, and finally everything made sense. ‘

But let’s rewind back to me trying out Xero. By this stage I was 33 years old, and I had plenty of supervised hours up, and I had a bachelor of business as well. After I got hit by a car in 2007 I ended up losing my job, so I decided “well I can't work, why don't I go back to university?”.

So, I went to Swinburne University which is in Melbourne, and I finished my second two years.

It was a huge struggle. I had assistance from disability services at uni, because I had chronic pain and some compounding issues that happened after I was hit by a car. I was cycling –  riding my bike to work and I was hit by a car. Recovering from that, I thought “well, I've got to do something”.

I struggled my way through uni. I don't really know how I did it except maybe you might say “somebody was looking after me”, because I don't know how I did it. I just don't know.

And I wouldn't go back there, to be honest, it was not a happy time. But I did it, and I was so proud of myself because nobody in my family has been to university, so it was a rewarding experience to get that graduation.

So, I was ready when I inquired about coming a BAS Agent – I could just get registered straight away. I know that probably some of you listening are going through trying to get up your points to become a BAS Agent, get up your supervised hours.

I know how hard that can be, but not from personal experience, just from seeing others go through it. And you know, thankfully I didn't have to do that because I'd already done the work by the time I was ready.

Just a side note here, I have had lots of conversations about this, but I really encourage anyone, before you go out there and start your own bookkeeping business, to get some experience working as an employee for someone else. It doesn't have to be in a bookkeeping practice. It can be in an accounting firm. It can be any kind of business that has an accounting function, you will get the experience that you need. I highly recommend that you do that.

Working in the accounting firms is a good way because you can get up your BAS Agent hours and you get your supervision done. You would have launched a lot more BAS Statements.

Anyway, I opened my bookkeeping business Off The Hook Bookkeeping. I was 33 years old. That was nearly five years ago, so you can guess how old I am.

Basically, it was a huge reality check. The real world of running my own business hit me hard and I realised how sheltered I'd been in my job and how difficult I had been for my boss. I used to tell people back then that I had my own business when I was contracting, but contracting and running a business are two totally different kettles of fish, and I had no idea.

So coming up with the ideas and confidence to do marketing. Gow to find clients, managing the workflow and dealing with difficult clients that weren't paying my bill and didn't appreciate my work. Some were even downright abusive.

I was too scared to do marketing. For me, I know people are scared doing marketing. Most of us think it's a lack of confidence or fear of rejection, but I realized pretty quickly that I was actually scared of getting clients. I didn't want to get more clients because they might be abusive like these other ones, so once again I started thinking “is this bookkeeping thing really for me?”.

This has been one of my big battles to overcome. I don't know why I got so many abusive clients because a lot of bookkeepers do have abusive clients. But a lot of bookkeepers don't. I thought “why am I getting these abusive clients?”

I really had to learn to stand up for myself. I had to learn values. I believe that as we go through life we're going through these tests and these lessons in life where we're learning to stand up for ourselves or set boundaries.

Because of my history, being abused was normal. It was normal to be in an abusive relationship at work, in business. I think about how much I put up with –  had to start to learn a healthy way to communicate. What I would do is just bottle it up, and then all of a sudden I would just sack the client. I'd be like, “Get out of here,”

For me, that was one of my big journeys. I think if I hadn't started my bookkeeping business, I may still be stuck; allowing people to treat me that way.

I don't know if you've ever been in a similar situation, working with lots of difficult clients, but it can really challenge you. I just encourage you to ask yourself, “what might I be needing to learn here? Why is this a repeating thing?”

Anyway, I had to remind myself that there were good clients out there. I thought back to my days of the old bookkeeping practice, and it worked. I made a list of clients that I loved working with, the good ones. Actually, this is really helpful.

Do this. I made a spreadsheet, because I love spreadsheets. I made a list in a spreadsheet of all of the bad clients that I'd had, and I listed all of their characteristics. Then in the next column, I put the opposite, whatever the opposite characteristic was to those ones that I didn't like. Then I knew straight away who I wanted to work with.

One of the big things for me;I like working with people who wanna grow, people who are teachable, people that are willing to tell the truth about themself in a difficult situation, and to grow past where they're stuck. I love that. I like to work with people who wanna look at the big picture, and they care about where their business is going, and they're willing to do the hard work.

This exercise helped me identify the people I wanted to work with, and how to identify red flags in the future, and much earlier on than I had been. Not having to wait till their bills were in the debt collectors. From this point, I started working with clients who I love working with, and quickly moving on from those who don't.

At this stage, I was doing all the bookkeeping myself, and, to be honest, I was just flying by the seat of my pants all the time.

I felt like I was always learning on the go, and there was so many things to learn, all these different software programs, and clients' demands, and trying to be everything to everyone.

Eventually I needed to get some help. I needed to hire a bookkeeper. The first day I woke up one morning, knowing that my bookkeeper was doing my payrolls, it was a great moment in history. I was thinking, “This is amazing. I can sleep in this morning,” And I did – knowing that the work was getting done. That was a turning point for me.

I'm really tech-savvy. I can learn a software program in, like, five minutes. I don't know why, but I know how to just do a lot of technological things. I really enjoy it as well, and I'm super quick. I'm very good at bookkeeping.

I've done a bookkeeping test kind of recently. I scored 103%, with bonus points. I say I'm a very quick, highly skilled bookkeeper. I've just got this eye and this ability to problem solve, and also I could connect with clients who would let me do their stuff without having to go into the office.

I was providing a remote, virtual bookkeeping service for Australian businesses, and researching all the latest programs for my clients and for my own business, and I was loving it. I was living the dream.

And then I made my own website for my bookkeeping business, and I started to get quite a lot of leads from that. You can actually have a look at it. It's still there. Even though I'm not running my bookkeeping business anymore.. It's offthehookbookkeeping.com.au. I left it there because I still get leads from it, and I refer the leads on to the bookkeepers in my community.

This website was also another turning point for me. A fellow bookkeeper – I'm gonna name names here – Terry Wilson, saw my website. She said, “I hope you don't mind. I peeked on your website, and I'm wondering if you'd make me one, too,” and I thought, “What a great idea. I loved making that website,”

That was when I rediscovered my creativity. I thought, “Wow, I can blend creativity and bookkeeping together.” No one wants a “creative accountant”, but you can be a creative website designer for bookkeepers. So I found a love for web design, and I never imagined myself doing that, but because of the new technology these days, I can actually learn it without having to learn how to code.

So I started Savvy Websites, which used to be called Off the Hook Websites. Now it's called Savvy Websites. It's website designs by a bookkeeper for bookkeepers. And we're still the only website design company in the whole of Australia, probably even the world, that specialises in web design, copywriting, and SEO for bookkeepers.

You might be thinking, “No, I've seen others out there who advertise that they do websites for bookkeepers.” Yeah, okay, there's a few wannabes out there, but these companies – they actually do websites for accountants, and they just add “and bookkeepers” on the end so they can open up their market. What they don't understand is a bookkeeping business is very different to accounting

Bookkeepers have a very different business model, and when it comes to websites, their needs are different. Especially when it comes to SEO – their needs are different. If someone's telling you they do “accountants and bookkeepers”, or if they're just a general website designer for other businesses, you've got a chance that they're just not gonna do the design, the copywriting, and the SEO (ie helping you get found on Google). They won’t have that deep knowledge that we have, because we 100% dedicate ourselves to that one field of bookkeeping.

Not only that but how many web designers out there do you know that have been a bookkeeper for over 20 years? There's pretty much no one in the world who can replicate what we're doing. I think there are a couple of bookkeepers who have done web design, but we are really deep into the understanding the SEO, keywords and helping you to find clients online.

Anyway, I started to become known as the go-to person in the bookkeeping industry for making websites. It was perfect because a few years earlier, most bookkeepers had very outdated, pretty ugly websites to be honest. Their sites were full of bookkeeping jargon, very self-focused on the bookkeeper, rather than client-focused.

My original vision was “a website facelift for the bookkeeping industry, for every bookkeeper in the industry to have a gorgeous, savvy website”.

We're not quite there, but we are getting closer every day, with more and more bookkeepers getting up-to-date with the tech.

But just like I was “more than just a bookkeeper”, I “was more than just a web designer”.

Every time I was putting together a client's site, I'd have to ask the bookkeeper, “Who's your target market?  Who are we targeting online? Who are we setting the SEO up for? Who are we writing for on the site?”

That's part of the reason why bookkeepers love us, too, because we do all the writing for them. They don't have to provide any content. I became a mentor for the bookkeepers

They were struggling to get through my design brief, which was an online form. I'd ask them these really curly questions about their business vision, and mission, and what are the kind of clients they wanna work with.

The funniest thing I found was when I said, “Oh, what kind of clients do you wanna work with?”

They're all multiple choice questions so I thought it probably would have been easy. But what the bookkeepers used to respond was “Any size business with a turnover from 50,000 up to $3 million, male or female, married or not married, any level of education”, and I thought, “That's not a target market. This is a problem here,”. And so I started teaching a lot about niching, and that kind of thing. I even teach about how to create or find a niche, and still have that variety, because we're looking at the type of people that you work with.  I spend a lot of time mentoring bookkeepers to help them to get their content for their website.

What I did was got rid of that design brief, and I just started doing business planning sessions together instead. It was a mentoring session, a business planning session focused on the website, developing the value proposition for the website. This process sparked something new in me. I've always loved mentoring and coaching people, helping people to see good things in themselves and in their business that they've never noticed before. Not just that, but actually training in the skills as well, showing people “this is how I did it.”

I decided to get some formal qualifications in business coaching, although I like mentoring a little bit better. I really enjoy showing people the steps, but out of those conversations comes the coaching conversation, which is pointing out things that the person hasn't noticed, and helping them to explore things for themself. I help them come up with the business that they're really wanting to design and build. I created a mentoring program just for bookkeepers