The secret
to her success
Industry thought leader and AAT Australia member Lielette Calleja tells Caroline Morrison about the evolution of her bookkeeping business and why she loves working in the cloud.

Lielette Calleja is the very model of a modern-day accounting technician and businesswoman. She’s a finalist in the Bookkeeping Executive of the Year and Thought Leader of the Year categories of this year’s Australian Accounting Awards. Her Sydney-based firm All That Counts was named the 2017Australian Intuit Firm of the Future, and she’s an AAT Australia advisory board member.
She recently took time out of her busy schedule to tell me about some of the secrets to her success.

Caroline: You’ve long been an advocate of accounting technicians shifting to advisory services to stay relevant and agile. How have you done that within your own firm?

Lielette: In my business, advisory is more around the tech. My team and I love helping clients become more automated, work more seamlessly, more collaboratively, not just with their accountant and bookkeeper but with their own team internally. That’s what we enjoy doing and that’s where we think the real value is.
Then there’s advisory that comes down to numbers, which we’ve always done. I come from a corporate background [having worked] as a management accountant and financial controller, so I have very strong financial and analytical skills. I couldn’t hand over a set of accounts without some commentary behind it.
I always knew I was more than “just a bookkeeper” and I think that’s why I’ve been successful. If you want to be the bookkeeper of tomorrow, you have to further your studies and do more than just a Cert IV. You have to provide value to your clients and offer more than just the basics. The hourly rate for bookkeeping is declining, so you’ve got to look at value as opposed to charging by the hour and what value you’re bringing to the client. It’s not just allocating some bank feeds and doing the BAS; that’s not value.

Caroline: You were a very early adopter of cloud technology, having used it now for almost 10 years. How has it shaped your business over that time?

Lielette: I read somewhere the other day that to be an accountant or a bookkeeper, technology is the new debit and credit. Knowing tech is like knowing debits and credits. I was always interested in the technology, and my bookkeeping business probably suffered as a result of that while I was trying out new systems and new add-ons, because I used my time to do that. You’ve got to make sacrifices. You can’t serve your clients and better yourself at the same time – something has to give. It’s either your personal time or the client suffers. I wasn’t prepared to let the client suffer, so I sacrificed my personal time to learn about technology.
It scares me when I hear bookkeepers say, “I don’t trust the cloud”. It’s like saying “I don’t trust internet banking”. I cringe when I hear that because there’s no logic behind why someone would not use the cloud. With clients, I don’t even bother having that conversation. If I have to convince them, then they’re not the client for us.
All of our clients are on the cloud. We sometimes get potential clients who say, “We’re MYOB Desktop and we don’t want to move to the cloud”, and we say, “Well, that’s great but we’re not for you”. I don’t run my business that way anymore.
We’ve just acknowledged with one of our biggest clients that we’re not the right advisor for them; they actually do need someone in house because of their culture and the way they operate. You’ve really got to look at it and make a tough call and say, “I’m setting myself up for failure here if I keep working remotely with this client”. So we’ve agreed with this client that we will part ways but that we will train their new in-house person.

Caroline: That’s a brave move, letting one of your biggest clients go.

Lielette: I’ve got to the point where bigger is not better. I know that because I’ve been bigger, and I know all the headaches that come with that. At one point I had eight staff but I wasn’t making all that much more money and I wasn’t enjoying it. I now have three staff, who are all senior: a practice manager, a key account bookkeeper and a small-client bookkeeper. I’ve strategically reduced my staff numbers because I’ve also reduced my clients.

Caroline: While your practice works with clients in range of different cloud accounting solutions, you’re an avowed QuickBooks Online fan. Why is that?

Lielette: QuickBooks are great because they understand that Australian bookkeepers need to be agnostic. We don’t have a choice. I can’t afford to have all my clients on one product. Yes, I’m QuickBooks-centric, but why wouldn’t I be? QuickBooks have done so much for me personally and as a business. They’ve helped me develop.
While they may not have all the answers, they’re still striving for excellence and they’re still there to help and support us. They have the best support out of all the software companies. They are also the most approachable. [Intuit Australia managing director] Nicolette Maury will stop and have a half-hour conversation with you even if you’re a single operator and you’ve only got one client on QuickBooks. That’s the kind of person she is. When a company is run by someone like that, it trickles down.
And they’re a lot of fun. They’re real people. I guess that’s why I aligned with them – I wanted business to be fun, I wanted to be associated with a company that was growing and was backed by Intuit. You can’t get bigger than that.

Caroline: How do you use QuickBooks Online in your business?

Lielette: Most of our clients are on it and we manage most of our clients’ files on it. For practice management we use Karbon, which is integrated with QBO, as are T-Sheets Practice Ignition, Receipt Bank and GovReports. I don’t use the QBO Practice Management tool, as my business is too big, but if you’re a sole-trader bookkeeper with, say, 15 to 20 clients and you don’t have to spread responsibility out to other people, use the Practice Management tool – it’s amazing.
I really like the Accountant Toolbox in the QuickBooks Advisor portal. It allows me to have a bird’s eye view of where the bookkeepers are up to when they reconcile any balance sheet accounts. That’s a valuable tool for me when I’m signing off on BAS. The first thing I do is to make sure things have been reconciled. And if they haven’t, I don’t sign off. That’s an efficient way for me to manage my team and my clients.

Caroline: Is it hard to convince clients to use QuickBooks Online if they’re already using another product?

Lielette: It usually comes down to two things: can QuickBooks do everything they need, and what’s the price? If they have complex payroll needs, then it’s a no-brainer – QuickBooks has the best payroll system because it’s backed by KeyPay.
Price-wise, with QuickBooks clients get up to 10 employees for $17.50 a month, depending on what my wholesale price is at the time. Although I build it all into the price, I’m only charging clients $17.50 for software rather than $80 or $130 which is what some of the other software providers’ products can cost.

Caroline: Can you tell me about a client whose business has been improved by moving to QuickBooks Online?

Lielette: I have a client that holds events all over Australia for the pet industry. They were using a traditional desktop accounting system and had an in-house bookkeeper who took days to get the management reports done. They needed everything broken down by all the different events and there were lots of accruals and pre-payments happening, but the size of the chart of accounts was about six pages long the way the bookkeeper had set it up. All the data was stored on one laptop, so if something happened to it they couldn’t retrieve it.
We quoted them on QuickBooks. We showed them what that would look like and what using Receipt Bank would look like, because we were going to work for them remotely. And they loved it. They realised that they needed to be in the twenty-first century, away from this desktop stuff.
We were able to produce their management reports in a day by running different P&Ls consolidated by class so they can see how each event is performing, what the profit is and how much they’ve spent on them. They now have control. We’re working collaboratively with them and they can ask us questions. QuickBooks has created a sense of engagement and cohesion between us and the client.

Caroline: Some bookkeepers worry that the accounting software packages are now so easy to use, many small businesses are doing their own books but without proper reconciliation or knowing what their reporting obligations are. What are your thoughts on that?

Lielette: I’m all for empowering small businesses to do what they can do themselves because God knows it’s tough out there! Why pay fees to someone if you can do it yourself, if you’re a bit tech savvy and you can do the integration? But small businesses are made to think it’s so easy – you just plug and play. Nothing is just plug and play! Numbers have to come from somewhere. Businesses don’t get that. Why doesn’t their bank account balance? Why do they have all these sales still outstanding?
As far as the day-to-day grunt stuff, I think we need to accept the fact that our jobs are on the line. Where we as bookkeepers can add value is in training small business owners to master their own financials. That’s the only way they are going to be successful. They can’t afford to have a full-time bookkeeper at their beck and call, so they need to know how to run their software in order to pull out data that they need.
Having said that, some small business owners don’t want to get involved in the day-to-day bookkeeping, and they outsource that. You’ll always have a percentage of those clients who really see the value and don’t look at it as a cost. It comes down to the mindset of how people value things.