woman wearing face mask

Our Pandemic Story

This morning, I went to my first local Chamber of Commerce breakfast in over 18 months. The general attitude was as though we’d all just woken up from a collective coma: we were thrilled to see each other, but in a blur as to whatever had just passed over the last year. It was agreed that 2020 felt like a fever dream; it was interminable while we were going through it but now, is almost hard to remember.

I’m a big believer in studying the past to learn from it, and, though 2020 was hard, I don’t want to forget how it felt, nor the lessons from it. As we move through the summer of 2021, I feel like it’s time to share The Bookkeeper’s pandemic story.

Act I: Winter 2019 to Spring 2020

From the onset, we were blessed by a bit of prescience from Craig, our founder and my co-owner. We both knew that the economic bubble the country had been experiencing was due to burst and had taken precautions accordingly. However, as early as December of 2019, he was nervously following news about what was then termed the coronavirus. Not only was he convinced that it would prove to have more devastating effects than were being predicted at that time, but he called, accurately, that it had already spread from the Wuhan region prior to the instituted lockdowns. Many, myself included, thought he was probably overreacting or being a little paranoid, but he was proven right when it was identified in Europe and then later confirmed to have spread to the United States. Once we received confirmation in February of 2020 that it had spread to North Carolina, we made the decision to move all of our staff to full-time work-from-home in the beginning of March.

Though we were sure that remote work was the right decision, as everyone’s safety trumped any benefits to working in the office, it was a move that came with anxiety. We weren’t certain how people would do working from home, whether efficiency would be lost, or whether we’d lose the connection we enjoy with our staff. To our pleasant surprise, efficiency improved, and our people proved themselves as dedicated as we’d always hoped and liked to believe they were. It was an odd position to be in, to continue to thrive when we saw so many friends and clients struggling. Then, the CARES Act was passed, and things really blew open.

Act II: Summer 2020 to Spring 2021

gavelI am the sort of person who addresses anxiety through research. I’ve had my share of health struggles, and am probably a nightmare patient for my tendency to do things like watch video of surgeries I’m scheduled for. However, this proved useful when the CARES Act was passed. It was rushed through (understandably so), and I knew that it would be chaos to maneuver. I decided that the only way to make sense of the thing was to read every line of it, and I did. I quickly realized that disseminating information to clients on a case-by-case basis wouldn’t be the most efficient use of my time (particularly while I was slammed), so I started a Facebook group where I would put out videos summarizing portions of the act as I read them, helpful links for grant programs, or anything else people might find useful. This grew quickly, as business owners really seemed to be craving guidance and information during this time.

At the same time, there was endless work to be done in helping clients with all of these new programs. I filled out EIDL applications for months, going from the initial form, which was a technological nightmare and took about 13 hours, to the newest and most-streamlined version (with a PDF drag-and-drop version that lasted roughly 2 days in-between). I lost count of how many PPP applications I assisted clients with, and every bank had a different format. (I did over a dozen with BB&T alone.) Then there were other local programs, the short-lived Main Street Lending Program through the US Treasury and, later, PPP forgiveness and Employee Retention Credits.

video meetingAll the while, we turned away new business clients who were calling only for help with the various CARES Act programs, as I was working 70+ hours per week and barely had enough time to help established clients. I hated to say no to people, but we had to prioritize those who were already with us, as there just wasn’t enough time to help everyone. Eventually, we got through the worst of the rush, but had to hire additional staff, which added a level of complication as we attempted to train new bookkeepers partly remote and partly in-person. In order to avoid working in a cramped office environment, we worked from Craig’s house, where we could spread out but still be physically present in one space. We all became very adept with Zoom and Google Hangouts and, to help our new folks integrate with our veterans, did many virtual teambuilding events, like screenshared party games and a virtual Christmas party, where we sent the staff GrubHub gift cards and worked through a murder mystery dinner over Zoom. It didn’t replace the real thing, but it kept us sane and cohesive.

Though this time was chaotic and stressful, it was also an inspiring time to be in small business. There was a true feeling of us all being in this together, and connections felt more genuine (even if they couldn’t be face-to-face). When someone asked how you were doing they really meant it. And if you asked someone how they were doing, you got an honest answer. That’s something I hope we don’t lose.

Act III: Summer 2021

group putting hands in togetherAs I mentioned in the beginning, we’re now adjusting to coming out of the COVID-dominated era and embracing the “new normal." We grew all throughout 2020 and continue to grow. (2020 was our highest revenue year, and 2021 is somehow up 20% over that.) In addition to the bookkeeping staff who came on, we’ve added a practice manager.

More than that, we’re meeting people in-person again. We’re doing live networking and catching up with friends for long overdue lunch dates. Though our staff is welcome to continue working from home, our office is reopened for when anyone needs to meet with clients or just get away for a bit to focus.

There is a bit of survivor’s guilt that comes with being a business that thrived during the pandemic. So many people were so negatively affected that it’s hard to celebrate personal success. But, when people have come through something like this together, celebration is necessary.

This Friday, we’re having our first in-person team event in over 18 months. We’re having a pool party, and many of our staff will be meeting each other face-to-face for the first time. COVID still exists, and the world may never be exactly the same, but we’re looking forward to the steps we’re taking to leave this era behind us.

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Networking: What's Worked for Us

I know this will probably get lost in the sea of thousands of articles telling you how to be a better networker. But if you're reading this, it's likely that you are at least passingly familiar with The Bookkeeper. We get asked frequently how we grew our business so fast, and networking is certainly a component of that.

When it comes to networking, here is what has worked for us over the last three years.


Know your message.

women presentingA friend in marketing once told me, "Don't tell people how you're better. Tell people how you're different." We expended a lot of energy, early on, in trying to present the image we thought a serious bookkeeping company should have. (I, in particular, in an effort to look older, adopted a uniform of all-black, conservative clothing with my hair in a perpetual bun.) People didn't respond to the image we were putting forth because a) it wasn't genuine and b) they had seen it a thousand times.

Success came when we nailed down who we are, specifically. We're the company who does high-standards bookkeeping, but then also uses the information the books provide to do so much more for our clients. Once people found out that we did things like pricing strategy, forecasting, or even just filing 1099s, they got a lot more excited about our business.

Knowing exactly who we are has also helped us pinpoint who our ideal client is. In networking, it's easy to say, "My ideal referral is anyone!" But that really does not help the people who are trying to send you referrals. Yes, we would love to work with just about any small to mid-sized business. However, our ideal referral is really a potential client who is willing to listen and follow guidance; otherwise, they wouldn't be taking full advantage of our services.

Narrowing the scope of your business, as opposed to using a "shotgun" approach, helps your message penetrate deeper in your audience's mind and leave a lasting impression.


Mix it up.

Every company officer at The Bookkeeper has membership in a seat-specific networking group (i.e. a group where we're the only bookkeeper represented). Some of us are in more than one. And we demonstrate reliability to those groups by honoring the attendance requirements, but we also try to keep our routine fresh. Changing up our 60-second "elevator pitch" (a short spoken commercial about the company) week-to-week helps, as does bringing visitors or sending substitutes when we're absent. If we were to come and make the same speech week after week, the members of our groups would learn nothing new about us. Sometimes, just wording our pitch a little bit differently can spark something in another member's mind to make them realize, "Ah, I have a referral for them."

We've also found it helpful to break outside of our own groups. Visiting other groups, even if they have a member who might be considered "competition", is valuable. Not all bookkeepers work with all types of clients, and we frequently receive referrals from other bookkeeping companies who don't do exactly what we do. Night networking, which is typically more casual, can be beneficial as well. This is particularly good for those who are nervous about public speaking, as there's never a moment when you have to stand up and be the center of attention. And, since many small business owners are still working day jobs while they grow their own business, you get to meet a different set of people.


Follow up!

phone callYes, every bit of networking advice includes this, but only because it is so important. If someone meets 100 new people in an evening, how can you expect them to remember you long-term unless you remind them?

In a networking situation, you're not getting to spend much time with each person. The real work comes after that initial meeting, when you follow up with a 1-to-1. The one-on-one follow-up meeting is where you get to really show the person why you're interested in their business and what you have to offer, to them or referrals.

However, 1-to-1s don't have to be strictly business. It's always good to take a more professional tone with someone you're just getting to know, but it's also great to "touch base" with close referral partners. That can be an office meeting, but it can also be meeting for drinks or going to watch a game.


Come to serve, not to sell.

"Show, don't tell," works as well for networking as it does for storytelling. Someone who spends their entire time networking telling everyone how great their services are is off-putting, and has not yet earned enough trust to make those claims believable. Someone who shows that they are a competent and honest individual, by helping others within the group, commands respect.

One of my favorite things in networking is when I identify someone who would be either a good vendor or customer for one of my clients. Without a word of self-promotion, I'm empowered to benefit two businesses within my networking circle. Though it doesn't result in immediate business for my company, I still consider it a win-win, because it benefits my client, and it helps me to make a good connection with someone who could be a future client or referral partner. By referring them to each other, I am demonstrating my value to both.

Serving others also gives them a great opportunity to return the favor. No one enjoys 1-way relationships; you have to show a willingness to put others' needs before your own, and the right people will honor that by sending business back your way. However, that does not mean you help others only with the intention of getting something in return. Which leads to our final point...


Be real.

handshakeThere is this tendency in new networkers to act like they have everything together, all the time. And while you do need to be professional and not falling apart during a networking meeting, it is also okay to be honest about business challenges you're facing. Keeping a perfect veneer can be very unsettling to the people you meet, and you will find that you form better bonds when you allow people to help you.

No one has it all together, and people recognize that. You will never lose business just because you're human. If you do, it's not business you really want to have.

How You Use ROI Every Day

For those who don't know, ROI stands for "return on investment". Colloquially, you might think of it as "bang for your buck". Though it's frequently used to describe investment decisions, ROI is something you use in your daily life. You go to the gym because the payoff of improved health has greater value than the time you put into it. You're getting a good return on that time invested.

You might even use ROI to compare two options. Let's say your goal is to lose fat, and there are two classes open when you go to the gym. You could go to an hour-long spin class, or an hour-long yoga class. Doing your research, you find that spin class burns 50% more calories, so you choose to go to that one, as it offers a better ROI.

Looking at it from a financial perspective, there's a very simple formula to calculate ROI.

Return on Investment = (Gain from Investment - Cost of Investment) / Cost of Investment

Now, when it comes to ROI in small business, people tend to think of it primarily in terms of sales and marketing. Before you run an ad or hire a marketing firm, you should be looking at whether the income you're likely to gain outweighs the amount you're about to spend. (For a more in-depth look at mistakes owners make in their marketing budget, see our prior article, Living a Lie: The mistakes that make entrepreneurs go broke.) If you are paying a marketing firm $10,000 a year and your sales only increase by $3,000, you're not making a good return on your investment. Likewise, if you hire a salesperson at base $45K + commission, and he only makes $15,000 in sales, he's probably not in the right position at your company. These are the sorts of obvious examples people think of when it comes to ROI in their business.

However, any business decision really comes down to a matter of ROI, and that is true for hiring an accountant, as well. We're constantly fighting the stereotype of accounting as a necessary evil, and one way to do that is to look at all the benefits that come with good bookkeeping and CFO.

First, of course, are the tax savings. Accurate books not only help you avoid an audit and costly penalties, but also aid you in tracking and recording every deduction for which you're eligible.

Second is saving on expenses. A good CFO service should be locating areas of overspending and helping you restructure to lower or even eliminate certain costs. (Actually, we tend to recommend you eliminate those expenses which don't produce a good ROI. See? It really does all come back to that.)

Third, we like investigate means of increasing revenue. This could be by introducing a new product or service line, acquiring another business, re-examining current pricing strategies, or even by locating and collecting on aged receivables.

To look at how The Bookkeeper does this from an ROI perspective, we save or earn our average client enough in our first year with them to pay our fees for 23 months. That's an almost 100% return on investment.

Finally, there are the benefits which are harder to quantify, primarily opportunity costs. What do you save in energy and stress by hiring someone to take over certain tasks for you?

This week, I challenge you to take a close look at your business, find what's paying off, find what's not, and do something about it.