[As published in September/October BayBuzz magazine.]
You won’t find Sue de Bievre sitting in a glass-walled office suite atop a city skyrise. This entrepreneur has built a $30 million global accounting business — Beany — from her suburban living room.
Sue de Bievre is chatting via Zoom from London, where she’s spent the last month with her small, but growing, UK team. She has accountants in New Zealand, accountants in Australia, and her sights set on establishing a team of accountants in Canada.
All of them service small and medium businesses (SMEs) and like her, they all work from home. There are no glitzy offices or sterile boardrooms, and the accountants Beany employs to advise, assist (and simplify the tax obligations of) more than 6,000 business owners across the world are allowed – encouraged, even – to put family commitments ahead of work.
Arguably the best line on its website, in the section aimed at those looking to join the Beany team, is this one. “Some of our best people started life as children. So take the time to be with your kids. You don’t have to explain it to us.”
Sue’s a chartered accountant herself, who had dipped in and out of roles within big and small practices for over three decades when in 2013, increasingly disenchanted at the state of the sector, she started imagining a fresh approach.
“I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, in 30 years my profession hasn’t really changed at all’,” Sue begins. “My feeling was that accounting fees for small businesses were too high, when measured against the value that clients were receiving. There wasn’t a lot of feedback, or love, or respect, or mutuality in the relationship between an SME and their accountant. I thought about technology, and how we serviced customers, and the fact that we could all really be doing a lot better.”
Living in Taupō at the time, one of Sue’s best mates was Havelock North-raised John Curtis – a digital technologist and Weta Digital alumnus who was ready to sink his teeth into something new. “We’d first met in the 1990s at the Holy Cow nightclub and had always stayed in touch. One day I asked him, ‘Do you think we could break the current model, and build a completely online platform for accountants to use to interact with their clients?’ And he said ‘of course we can.’ So we spent six months in a room coding.”
With a Beany prototype complete, Sue recalls going to her former accountancy practice and offering to showcase her new product. “I felt I had this wonderful, new shiny thing, and I was confident that it was just what accountancy needed to perform better. But they said, ‘Sorry Sue – we’re actually doing it perfectly right now.’”
Luckily for Sue and John, there were plenty of businesses who were more evolved than those Sue had previously worked with. “We had precisely no security, no capital, and no backing,” Sue remembers. “But John and I both have quite a high tolerance for trying things and seeing what happens and we were both curious to see how our product would do in testing.
“So we invited 20 local business people to come and sit in front of a computer over two consecutive nights with our Beany test platform loaded up. And we said, ‘Use it, try and break it, let’s see what happens.’”
Of those 20 businesses, 17 put their hand up to purchase a Beany package. “That’s when we knew we had something, and that there was an appetite for it.”
For SMEs across the country, Beany provided a service nobody had previously thought of – a relationship with an accountant, enabled and enhanced by technology, and at an affordable price.
Before she and John had even formally registered the company in 2014, Sue was out generating revenue, selling to businesses hungry for a better way. When asked what word describes that first year in business, Sue laughs. “Unpaid!”
She recalls being buoyed by energy and enthusiasm, employing accountants to service customers and grow the business, but being unable to take a salary herself. “My husband supported me and our children for the first two years – and I think I drew my first pay check in September 2015.”
Sue and husband Louis moved to Havelock North in 2017, looking for a change of scenery and having already proven that they didn’t need to be in a metropolitan area to manage a thriving business. Things were progressing well, but with growth at the top of the agenda, they needed cash.
Beany’s first capital raise took place in 2015. A second in 2019 netted $1.5 million, attracting big-name investors such as K1W1 (Sir Stephen Tindle’s fund) and Ice Angels, the angel investment division of business incubator Icehouse.
Other capital raises have followed, which Sue says add up to a healthy $5 million, and it’s that security that has helped enable her and John to take the platform offshore. “We’ve extended into Australia and the UK, and put country managers in to oversee those territories,” she explains.
The benefit of the Beany software, she says, is how easily it can be replicated, for just about any market. “Outside of New Zealand, it really is just 90% carbon copy, along with about 10% nuance – things like the connection between the platform and the Australian Tax Office or the HM Revenue and Customs in the UK.”
She smiles. “I remember one sweaty moment when we turned Australia on. It’s all run off the same base platform so in theory, when we flipped the switch, the only thing that changed would be that Australia would be open for business. But we did have this horror creeping into the back of our minds that it might inadvertently collapse the New Zealand site. I remember John and I, that weekend, being really stressed about pushing the button. Like ‘should we do it now, John? Maybe later…’ But, much to our relief, it worked.”
Beany customers across the world have warmed quickly to being ‘matched’ with an accountant that can best service their individual needs – there are agriculture, hospitality, and media specialists, as examples – and transact entirely online and via video.
They grow a relationship with their assigned accountant over time, plan their year, ask questions and interrogate their accounts, all within the Beany platform and using Xero as the software partner.
And Sue’s not stopping with Beany. Her latest project, newly launched, is for the bigger boys (and girls) in practice as accountants. For them, there’s a platform called Plugin Accountant, which onboards new clients efficiently and effectively (including simplifying the verification of paperwork to meet laborious anti-money laundering obligations) through the click of a mouse.
This second B2B focused business came about when Sue was discussing the potential of her and John’s proprietary software with the then-CEO of Xero, Steve Vamos. “He told me that what we had developed was amazing, had huge commercial value, and that we needed to monetise it.”
Plugin Accountant has proven so popular since its launch in January that in April, Sue had to temporarily close the books to new clients. “We just needed to slow the pipeline down a little while we onboarded the customers we have – it won’t be long until we’re raring to go again.”
Happily ensconced in Havelock North (John remains based in Taupō, where he’s also founded a co-working space called Kloud), Sue says she thanks her lucky stars that the two met and became friends all those years ago. Although the commonly held belief is that you should never go into business with a mate, Sue believes it’s been “effortless”.
“Some people refer to John as my second husband!” she laughs. “I definitely do love John, and the partnership has been ideal. He’s an incredible talent – a genius – and although we sometimes get shirty with each other, I honestly don’t recall any major tension between us, ever. He respects my ability to resource the company and run teams, and I respect his to generate amazing, innovative technology.”
For Sue, the intersection of customer service and tech has been a winning formula – and an ever evolving one at that. Thousands of iterations later (Sue says the Beany platform is updated and improved an average of 2.6 times each week), she says she still marvels at what is able to be achieved with what she likes to call “non-binary thinking.”
“What drives me is this constant sense of wonder around the technology, and a deep appreciation of my customers for believing in us, and my amazing team who I just love,” says Sue. As well a healthy dose of competition. “We’re miles in advance of our competitors and my strategic goal is to maintain that lead.”
Fiona Fraser is the director of Contentment PR & Communications.