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Partner Pages 2020: The outside-in approach


Feb 11, 2020

By Anne-Marie Swinburne, Founder, The Outsourced Office, Victoria

Welcome to Partner Pages: a magazine made up of stories from the Xero Partner community, for the Xero partner community and shared as part of Roadshow Australia each year.

Many small business owners have no choice but to act as manager, receptionist and admin person, often all at the same time. Bookkeeper Anne-Marie Swinburne knew that if she could  outsource the bookkeeping and administrative tasks, they could get back to focusing on the all-important job of growing their business. 

So she founded The Outsourced Office. From reinventing the traditional practice model to managing rapid growth and discovering that bookkeepers and accountants are better together, this is how she did it.

People don’t go into business to take care of the bookkeeping – except for bookkeepers, that is. But budget and time constraints mean they’re often left juggling everything from balancing the books to answering the phone. Whether they’re tradies, lawyers or astronauts, they all have one thing in common: they don’t have time to do the admin. That’s where The Outsourced Office comes in.

There’s an unrelenting pile of paperwork associated with running your own business. And for many, the never-ending to-do list can become overwhelming. Working off-site, we offer a bookkeeping and administrative solution that allows people to get out from behind their desk and do more of what they love. Consider us the office manager, accounts department and administrative team, all in one.  

Of course, as bookkeepers, we have more to offer than just counting the numbers. As the ultimate small business support people, we’re here to do everything from keeping clients’ BAS payments in line to streamlining their systems and offering guidance on their staffing concerns. It’s in our nature. And it’s these very qualities that my business is built on.

Finding the right fit

As is so often the way, I fell into bookkeeping. Almost 20 years ago, my uncle, who was a plumber back home in New Zealand, came to me asking for support with his books and administration. His business was based entirely on paper – I don’t think he even owned a computer – but within 12 months, the growth was amazing. Watching his confidence soar as he was suddenly able to take on larger contracts was an incredibly rewarding experience. I was hooked.

Later, when I moved cities with my family, my uncle said, “I don’t see why you can’t still work for me.” I had a background in law, but didn’t find the industry to be sympathetic to new mums. So, I set myself up with a computer, phone and laptop, and every week he’d courier me his paperwork. I didn’t know it at the time, but my outsourcing business had just begun. 

Then, my husband got a job in Australia. Once everyone was settled, I said, “Right. What am I going to do next?” Living in a new country with three young children and no family around, I needed something that would work for me as a mum. Luckily, bookkeeping is flexible. I went to night school to learn about Australian tax law. Next I opened up The Outsourced Office, take 2, and hired a local who knew exactly what she was doing. Then, Xero came onto the scene.

Outsourcing the solution

When Xero arrived, it was a natural fit for my business model and quickly became our core tool. At first, the bulk of our referrals came from accountants. But once we discovered it, the Xero advisor directory has been a complete game changer. 

Since then, things have grown exponentially. By offering clients what is essentially an outsourced office, we’ve been able to tap into an increasing need. Most small businesses don’t have the floor space or an extra computer to accommodate a bookkeeper, so we’re there for them in those initial stages. Nowadays, we have clients with up to 100 employees on board, and we run their entire accounts.

When you outsource, you have somebody on call Monday to Friday without the cost of a full-time employee, or having to wait until the one day of the week when your bookkeeper comes in. We tell our clients, “We’re here for you as a team. So you can go on holiday without worrying about payroll.”

Managing growing pains

About four years ago, the business hit its first stumbling block: we grew too big. At one point, we had eight staff servicing 160 clients. I was working 60- to 70-hour weeks and on weekends. It was all too much, and the quality was slipping. The turning point came late one evening at about 9pm, when my youngest son phoned me and said, “Mum, are we having dinner tonight?” That call changed my career. The next day, I contacted my account manager at Xero and said, “I need to outsource some work to other bookkeepers.” 

So, we downsized, and I found people to hand over roughly half of my clients to. Not one of them complained. As small business owners, they knew firsthand what it was like to run a company and have a family. My advice is not to be afraid of talking to your clients about your own work-life balance – you might be surprised how they respond.

Building a flexible workplace

My outsourcing model is based entirely on mums. For my family, especially living away from our home country, flexibility was a non-negotiable. At The Outsourced Office, you can come in after you’ve dropped the kids off at school, and leave in time to pick them up. If you’ve got a sick child, you can work from home. In school holidays, on sports days and for special assemblies, we cover each other. Whatever happens, being there for your kids comes first.

In 2018, we sold a share of the business to an accounting firm who are now part owners. Bookkeepers and accountants each come to the table with different skills, and it’s to everyone’s advantage if we collaborate. Since we’ve banded together, we’ve found opportunities to provide more for clients such as advisory services, HR administration, and mortgage and insurance broking. 

It all comes back to the business’s original goal: giving people the ability and freedom to achieve the lifestyle they’ve been dreaming about.

My tips on rethinking the traditional bookkeeping business model

  1. Talk, talk, talk: Effective collaboration means being clear about client needs and who is responsible for what tasks. It always pays to pick up the phone.
  2. Harness the power of cloud software: As well as providing storage and backup of your data, cloud software will enable you to embrace data transparency and improve information flow.
  3. Stay open to change: Traditional roles are merging due to things like data transparency and the introduction of the BAS agent license. My advice? Never stop learning.
  4. Embrace the right apps: We use Trello to keep on top of compliance tasks and WorkflowMax for timesheets. For our customers, we use Deputy, Vend and Shopify to look after everything from rostering to inventory.
  5. Use the Xero advisor directory to your advantage: Do the work to ensure that your listing is engaging and communicates the benefits of your business and it will become one of your most valuable resources. 

We know that many small businesses are created by people seeking the flexibility they haven’t been able to find elsewhere. We also know that offering flexible working arrangements allows businesses – both big and small – to tap into the pool of talented people looking to work outside of the traditional full-time model. In our experience, flexible working is highly valued by employees, and also drives engagement, productivity and loyalty. Jane Nosworthy and Bindy Edelman, joint Heads of Diversity and Inclusion, Xero

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