Larissa Feeney, CEO and founder of Accountant Online, shares her life and business lessons.
Established in 2015, Accountant Online helps ambitious start-ups to launch, grow and thrive by putting financial expertise at their fingertips, and surveyed 595 people as they set out to discover barriers to success for Irish business owners.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
I completed my degree in hospitality and tourism management at the University of Ulster in Magee, Derry. Following on from that, I did my professional exams with a firm in Derry and qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 2005. I worked in industry for several years before setting up my own practice in 2008. That practice has grown into what is now Accountant Online. We have over 2,500 clients and 62 staff.
“There is a cliché that your network is your net worth and I think that that is very true”
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
Our focus at Accountant Online is on serving the needs of the start-up, small and micro businesses in Ireland. Essentially, we help ensure that these businesses remain compliant with Revenue and the Companies Registration Office (CRO) in the most efficient way possible. Besides these functional aspects, our USP is the level of support and service we offer our clients. We invite feedback daily from our clients to fuel our improvement plans and we aim for the highest NPS in the industry. Most business owners are non – financial managers and when you are starting out in business, accounting and admin can be really distracting, albeit essential. In response to this need we offer online training sessions and workshops which help to demystify these aspects and provide live answers and professional direction to business owners.
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
In the initial years, I used bootstrapping to fund the business. We received some seed funding in 2017 which allowed us to invest in technology, marketing and to bring on new skills to expand. We have been on a growth path for the past several years and have achieved an average growth rate of 50% a year in this time. Our goal is to achieve Revenues of €10m by 2026.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I don’t feel that I have any skills or qualities that set me apart from anyone else. My business partner tells me that I have a great mix of commercial awareness and professional training and that has certainly helped us with those dual aspects of running a business that serves other business owners’ needs. My background in hospitality certainly makes me very conscious of the importance of a great client experience – and our clients definitely appreciate that service is a priority. As a young, female accountant with a small family, living in a rural area, I found a way to start my business out of necessity. This is why I tell our clients that anyone can start a business, provided they’re willing to put in the work.
“If a business owner has resilience, they know that no matter what issues they have or what the circumstances, they can work through it. Ultimately, I think that’s the difference between success and failure”
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I have received so much support on my business journey. In the early days, the Local Enterprise Office and Enterprise Ireland were a massive help, and they continue to support us to this day. I have taken part in various programmes to help me grow my business and continue to do so even now. The first of these programmes was the Going for Growth programme for female entrepreneurs, which I did in 2016. This programme is a joint initiative between KPMG and Enterprise Ireland, and it really helped me focus on growth. Likewise, there have been several programmes since then that have helped me build on that knowledge along the way.
In terms of mentorship, I get my inspiration from other business owners who have grown great businesses. These include businesses that have managed to grow over time even as they faced challenges and roadblocks. Those business owners who managed to keep on going during tough times are a huge inspiration for me.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
While I was doing the Going for Growth programme in 2016, my mentor spoke about the importance of resilience in business. She said that the first time you encounter an issue in business, it can really knock you down and have a big impact on you personally. However, the next time you face the same or a similar issue, it’s a lot easier for you to deal with it because you have learned and developed the tools you need, and you have strengthened your resilience. In a way, it’s like strengthening a muscle; it’s not that the issues get easier to deal with, it’s just that over time you get stronger and better at dealing with them.
“Without a doubt, the most challenging aspect of starting and growing a business is cash flow”
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
Resilience. If a business owner has resilience, they know that no matter what issues they have or what the circumstances, they can work through it. Ultimately, I think that’s the difference between success and failure. Successful people are those who keep on going through whatever challenges they meet. The only way to fail is to give up – if you keep going, you’re much more likely to find success in the long run.
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
Without a doubt, the most challenging aspect of starting and growing a business is cash flow. Growing a business is very expensive and the hardest part is making sure you have sufficient cash flow to fund that growth and invest in whatever it is you need to allow your business to grow. I think making sure you have enough cash to do this is one of the biggest challenges faced by SMEs.
“We have undertaken several digital transformation projects throughout the course of the business and continue to do so. Digital transformation has allowed us to scale our business”
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
In the case of Accountant Online we were very lucky in that our team was set up as a primarily remote team prior to the pandemic so the transition to fully remote working was very easy. The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation for our clients. Before the pandemic we were aware that some people were hesitant to deal with online professional service providers, like accountants. Since the pandemic, people no longer have this resistance, and this has helped us to reach and serve more clients. The learning has been that being digital and being flexible is essential for business continuity.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
We have undertaken several digital transformation projects throughout the course of the business and continue to do so. Digital transformation has allowed us to scale our business. For example, using software that allows us to automate manual processes has meant we don’t need to hire as many employees as we would otherwise have to. It’s very difficult to hire in today’s environment so this has been really helpful in allowing us to scale despite the tightening of the labour market.
I don’t believe Irish firms utilise digital technologies sufficiently. I think it can be difficult, especially in the last few years of the pandemic, to find the time and the people to look at what is possible in terms of digital transformation. However, the Local Enterprise Offices and Enterprise Ireland have supports around LEAN processes that can help SMEs in their digital transformation journeys.
“Any business owner who has managed to keep going and growing their business, who gets up every day and works tirelessly for their business, their employees, and their customers is a huge inspiration to me.”
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I don’t know what I would do differently. I think starting and growing the business has been a journey and continues to be a journey and I’m not sure regrets or looking back is useful. Essentially the challenges and situations we have come across along the way have shaped us into what we are now so looking at it that way, I don’t think I would do anything differently.
Who inspires you in business today?
Any business owner who has managed to keep going and growing their business, who gets up every day and works tirelessly for their business, their employees, and their customers is a huge inspiration to me. I have come across many of these kinds of entrepreneurs in my network, and in my work with ACORNS, which supports female entrepreneurs in rural areas. These women are just starting their businesses and going through challenges that I myself went through and their dedication and determination inspires me to this day.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
We have done a lot of work on people development over the last 12 months. We have recently launched a career development programme and are currently trialling an internal mentoring plan so that we can spot potential talent within the business. Our challenge is that, as a remote team, it isn’t as easy as it would have been in the past when we were all in one office to spot that talent and potential and nurture it. This means we have to work harder on communication with the team, and make sure we’re getting feedback and implementing career development plans to allow us to spot that potential and make the most of it.
My advice for new hires in the business is to make an impact, develop great communication skills and speak up about their ambitions. Sometimes employees who start with us and realise that where they have started isn’t where they would like to stay and that they would like to move into a different role. We have had several employees who have started with us and then moved to a different department and some who have been in a few different departments. That type of flexibility helps to serve their career ambition and our growth plans.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
My favourite business books are autobiographies that are written by people who have run businesses. My favourites are “Believe it” by Jamie Curran, “Shoe Dog” by the founder of Nike, “Pour your heart into it” by the founder of Starbucks, and “The ride of a lifetime” by Robert Iger, past CEO of the Walt Disney Company. Another book I love, which isn’t a biography, is “Good to great” by James Collins which is a great read.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
The Microsoft “To-do” app is the one that keeps me on track. I use it to keep notes of everything I need to do in my personal life. For business, I love Trello and I use it a lot for various different projects across different teams.
“In my case, I hope that, over time, technology within the accountancy industry will remove the need for anything that doesn’t have to be done by a human. Everything that can be automated will be”
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
In my personal life, I love to use Instagram as a means of escapism and to keep up with my interests in fashion and food. For business, I like using LinkedIn and Twitter to keep up with the latest news.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
In my case, I hope that, over time, technology within the accountancy industry will remove the need for anything that doesn’t have to be done by a human. Everything that can be automated will be. This will let accountants use our time to add value to our clients by looking at their numbers and picking out trends or issues within the data, rather than manually inputting data. At Accountant Online, we are spending a lot of time focusing on automating our processes and making them more efficient so we can focus our time on giving more value back to our clients.
For businesses in general, I think the same applies. If you think of the challenges which arose because of the pandemic and those that are emerging now in this environment of high inflation, there are a lot of issues around rising costs and the lack of talent in the labour market, and the cost of this talent. Using technology to automate and remove any inefficiencies within processes means that businesses can streamline and keep costs down. This doesn’t mean that we should replace people with robots, but I think automation can help us put people and their talents to better use in adding value for customers and clients.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
My advice would be to network, to get out there and get to know people and build your network as early as you can. There is a cliché that your network is your net worth and I think that that is very true. I have received tremendous support from my network over the last number of years so I can only imagine how much more valuable that network would be to me now if I had started building it in my early 20s.