During my time running my business, Off The Hook Bookkeeping, I made so many mistakes it wasn’t funny.
The stress levels I felt at the time were intense, and it affected both me and my family. Thankfully, I can look back and laugh at myself (and my nightmare clients who robbed me of my peace of mind), but it’s hard knowing I’ll never get back the precious time I lost with my kids and husband.
I’ve put together a list of all my mistakes, plus the experiences of many of the bookkeepers I’ve mentored over the years. Hopefully this list will help you avoid making the same mistakes we did, or if it’s too late, at least know you’re not alone!
1. Marketing before you know who you’re marketing to
Don’t say it! Don’t say it! Yep, I’m talking about niching. Argh, she said it!!! The dreaded “n” word. A lot of bookkeepers I meet avoid niching because they don’t want to limit their potential audience. But here’s the thing… the alternative sucks. I should know – I’ve tried it! I used to offer my services to everyone! I ended up working with people who weren’t a good fit, and it was stressful. And then I felt stuck because I needed the money.
Fortunately, I managed to get back on track, but it took a few rounds of sacking all my clients and starting again to figure out what I really wanted. My advice here is to niche… but take your time figuring out what that looks like. I kept rushing through it and trying to get income in the door quickly, which stopped me from planning for the long term.
2. Working outside of your level of ability
I found it so tempting to say “yes” to jobs that needed me to use new software programs, and too often I said yes to clients who wanted work done that was outside of my expertise. And while I’m all for learning-on-the-job, there has to be a line somewhere. Saying yes all the time, trying to learn the next thing, and also get client work done at the same time can be extra stress you just don’t need.
If you’re feeling stressed all the time, it’s a good idea to stick to what you know until things are more stable. I understand that you want to learn new things, but be wise and don’t bite off more than you can chew. It will bit you in the butt and can cost you professionally and personally.
3. Taking on clients who are in the startup phase
Okay, so this little lesson might annoy you, but it’s extremely important so I’m going to give it to you anyway. If you’re a start-up bookkeeping business DON’T TAKE ON STARTUPS AS CLIENTS! Wondering why I’m shouting at you? It’s because I learned this lesson the hard way and want to drill it into you so you don’t make the same mistake.
You’re probably a startup yourself, so you know how little money startups have, how inexperienced they are, and how unrealistic their expectations can be. They make terrible bookkeeping clients!
A smarter strategy is to sign up a few stable, established businesses before you branch out and offer support to new businesses. Trust me.
4. Hanging onto clients who aren’t a good fit
I’ve learned that once you realise that a client isn’t a good fit, the best time to move them on is NOW! You know it, I know it, everyone knows it.
But it’s hard to DO it. Why?
Because we need the money?
Because we like a little bit of drama in our lives?
Because we secretly love being tormented by sleepless nights?
t’s time to let these people go. It’s not worth it. And after you move on, you won’t look back. This has been 100% true for me and so many other bookkeepers I’ve spoken to.
5. Not recognising the difference between tasks and projects
This is a big one. Allow me to explain… I’d had an admin person working for me for six months and I was frustrated because she wasn’t keeping the office tidy. So, I hired an Airtasker to come in and do it. She spent almost 8 hours tidying and did an amazing job.
That’s when I realised the difference between tasks and projects, and that my expectations of how long things take is often different to reality.
The problem is, we underestimate how long projects will take, say yes to them, and then have to pull out because we are overwhelmed. And on the flip side, we overestimate how long some tasks will take, which means we procrastinate, avoid them, and just give up. When in actual fact, they were quick, simple, and easy!
So… get clear on the difference between projects and tasks, and try to think logically about the steps involved in each. It’ll help you manage your workload and be more productive.
6. Thinking “when I get full then I’ll recruit”
Thankfully, I didn’t fall for this one because my mentor, showed me a different business model about common mistakes people make with recruiting. The reality is, when you recruit, you need to train your employee in your systems and processes, spend time planning and allocating work to them, and learn to extract yourself from the business.
But when you have a full workload, you don’t have time to recruit. The recruiting process itself takes time. You have to screen candidates, interviewing them, and test their skills. And this relates to my previous point: recruiting bookkeepers is a PROJECT, not a TASK.
The best strategy, if you’re planning to recruit one day, is to plan for the project before you’re too overwhelmed.
7. Thinking that being a great bookkeeper is enough
I’m a flippin’ great bookkeeper, and you might be too, but is that enough to succeed?
A few years back, I sat the Bookkeepers Skills Test. To be honest, I was so scared to find out if I was good or not that I avoided it. Finally, I plucked up my courage and took the test.
Phew! I scored 103% with bonus points. I’m a highly skilled bookkeeper. A+++. Go me!
But being a highly skilled bookkeeper only means one thing… that you’re a highly skilled bookkeeper. It doesn’t mean you’re good at business. You still need to learn, manage, or outsource your marketing, HR, IT, management, leadership, and vision. So, don’t jump into your own bookkeeping business without getting an education or help in these areas.
8. Trying to do everything yourself
Ahhh that old chestnut! I bet you’ve heard the saying: “If you want something done well then do it yourself”. But that just doesn’t work if you want to be a real business owner.
If you look at any successful business people, nearly all of them have teams of people supporting them behind the scenes. When I first started outsourcing tasks to other staff, as a perfectionist, I found it really hard to let go of doing it all myself. I only really started to change my approach when I realised that I would never make the transition from being “just a bookkeeper” to being an actual business owner until I trusted other people to be part of my team.
So my advice is to stop trying to do it all yourself, build your team, train them, and empower them to step up and do the work.
9. Not practicing what you preach
This is a biggie. A bit embarrassing to talk about… but I when I first started my bookkeeping business, even though I really wanted to help empower business owners in their finances, my own business wasn’t doing well. I’d be busy telling business owners that they shouldn’t do their own bookkeeping, all the while I was doing my own bookkeeping and being slack with my tax invoices.
And while I was earning a lot of money from bookkeeping fees, I had a spending addiction. Not on new shoes, but on software subscriptions. It was expensive and made things complicated for my staff. When I finally focused on my business plan, I cut out the distractions and started practicing what I preached as a bookkeeper… and it was a lot healthier for my finances!
10. Hiring inexperienced bookkeepers
Because I’m a really nice person and I wanted to give everyone a chance, I hired a Japanese TAFE student to come and work for me. I wanted to help him learn bookkeeping, and not have to work for $10 cash-in-hand at a noodle shop. What a philanthropist. Not!
The kid had no idea what he was doing and I spent a lot of time and money trying to train him and fix his mistakes.
That’s when I realised I’m not such a nice person that I want to carry people who can’t actually contribute to my business. I’m a professional business person and I hire people who can do a good job. And if I want to do “charity work” by giving someone a job, it needs to have its limits, just like when I donate money.
For example, every year, I donate 10% of my business income to missionaries. I wouldn’t donate 100% of my income or even 50%, because I need resources to live and run my business. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a business! If you want to be nice and offer a position to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, then make sure their training takes up no more than 10% of your time.
11. Not having good boundaries
Ever made friends with a client? I have. Bad idea.
One of my biggest clients happened to live nearby. She started asking me to come for walks with her. During the walks, she would pick my brain about things. It felt frustrating, and so we agreed to avoid talking about work stuff. But since that was what we had in common, it was too hard to maintain and so it sort of fell apart. So, be careful if you find the lines between your business and personal life blurring.
Setting boundaries is also especially important if you work from home, like I do. It takes a lot of discipline. You need to create routines to help separate work time from home time. For me, this involves:
- Putting on makeup and professional work clothes
- Having scheduled breaks away from the computer
- Having start and finish times and regular work days
- Turning off the computer at the end of the day and not going back
- Deleting work-related apps off mobile phone and don’t work/email from phone
- If friends want to visit, tell them “I’m working today”
Boundaries and routines set you up for success and peace of mind. Setting out the rules is good for you, your clients, and your family.
12. Relying on people with less experience for guidance
How many times have I gone to my poor husband to discuss my business issues? Too many to count. And he’s not a business person. He understands some things about people and business dynamics. But most of it he learned from listening to me going on and on about my business.
I remember a moment where it dawned on me that going to my husband for business advice was the equivalent of “the blind leading the blind” and both of us falling into a ditch. Yikes. But once I started to talk to people who were smarter and more experienced than me at business, I was able to get more strategic advice from them.
Unfortunately, it took me awhile to ask for help and advice, because I thought I knew what I was doing. Only after I’d experienced enough failures/problems, I finally realised it was time to ask for help. And then things in my business finally started to change for the better.
Over to you…
Okay, fess up! Have you made any of these mistakes? Or perhaps some mistakes that aren’t listed here? I’d love to know. Let’s continue the conversation in the comments.
None of us are perfect. But if you continue to learn, ask for help and get the encouragement you need, *hopefully* you’ll enjoy fewer failures and more wins in your business.
P.S. I’ve put together a few resources to help you. A “stress test” you can take to see how stressed you are and how that could be affecting your work performance or putting you at risk of serious health issues. A business plan template to help you to do things in the right order. If you have any questions join The Savvy Bookkeeper Facebook Group.
P.P.S. Speaking of mistakes, have you been making these mistakes with your pricing? Join me for 5 Pricing Mistakes Bookkeepers Make (a free email series) and uncover the common mistakes you’re making and what to do instead.