Beany Accounting CEO and founder Sue de Bievre believes it’s okay to make mistakes, so long as you don’t let them stop you from moving forward. Here, the startup entrepreneur shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
When it came down to it, Sue de Bievre had no choice but to start her own business. It was 1992, there was a recession, and de Bievre was unexpectedly pregnant and jobless.
The Beany Accountant CEO was then in her mid-20s and had just returned to the United Kingdom after backpacking around New Zealand and working for a bungy jumping company. As a chartered accountant, she’d anticipated returning to her former employer, but with the downturn, things were tight, and they had nothing to offer.
So, with the support of her then-partner, she launched a bungy jumping venture in the UK. “Many female entrepreneurs start businesses because they don’t know what else to do to support themselves and their families,” de Bievre says. “While they’re gestating babies, they’re often gestating businesses.” She was also driven by a childhood experience, having witnessed the devastation of her father almost going bankrupt.
Before long, de Bievre found herself in pub car parks with a giant crane and a custom-made cage, hoisting pub-goers 30 metres into the air before they dived off the side. There was nothing like it in the UK and her unique pursuit was a hit. After 18 months, de Bievre sold the business and returned to New Zealand, permanently, with her son Alex in tow and enough money to buy her first house.
The bungy jumping business was the first in a series of startups de Bievre subsequently pursued. Today, she is the founder and CEO of two successful accounting-led companies, Beany Accounting and Plugin Accountant. They are the culmination of her experience as a chartered accountant and entrepreneur.
But, the road to success has been paved with potholes. De Bievre has battled ill health, hostile boards and unsupportive investors. Like many business owners, she has lain awake at 3 am, wondering how to resolve her latest cashflow problem. For this reason, de Bievre fell into the habit of returning to accounting roles every few years to recover from the highs and lows of entrepreneurship.
When de Bievre returned to New Zealand in 1995, she was fortunate to find one such role in Taupo, on New Zealand’s North Island, while caring for baby Alex. A year later, she met her husband, Louis de Bievre, an entrepreneur in the hospitality space.
It was a partnership made in heaven. Louis was (and remains) her greatest champion, supporting her ambitions to start new ventures. He was also a hands-on father to their three children, Alex, Florence and Sophie. Over several years, they started numerous businesses together, including a nightclub, an award-winning restaurant and an import-export company. De Bievre also started her own accounting business, Powerhouse Accounting.
Asked how she juggled all the businesses with family life, de Bievre responds, “by never in any way assuming I was Super Woman”. She hired a nanny who worked for them for several years while the kids were young.
Avoid doing excessive overtime, regardless of your business role.
“Do your work productively during working hours, then stop and do something else,” de Bievre recommends, otherwise, you risk quickly burning out. It also means you have quality time with your family and friends.
Battle for survival
Five years into running Powerhouse Accounting, de Bievre arrived at work one morning, and nothing felt right. She walked out of the building, called her husband and told him she couldn’t do it anymore. A week later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“At some point, my body knew what was happening, and my mind said, no, you have to go away,” she says. So began a battle for survival that encompassed her health and financial security.
Over the coming months, she underwent two surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and then subsequent drug treatments. De Bievre stumbled into remission six months later, feeling completely debilitated. She estimates it took her five years to recover from the treatment.
To make matters worse, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had descended, and nobody was spending money in bars and restaurants, drastically impacting their businesses. De Bievre and her husband went from the thrill of high-income businesses to “basically zero by 2010”.
“It was stressful,” de Bievre says. “I still remember people saying, oh, you had breast cancer, you shouldn’t be working’, and I was thinking, ‘Yet, I still need to feed my children.” So, once again, de Bievre returned to chartered accountancy, working in a reputable firm in Taupo.
Finding a new opportunity
Over the coming months, de Bievre was surprised to realise how much paperwork accounting firms still handled. Clients would hand over boxes of receipts to be manually entered into software by accountants. Surely, in the digital age, there was a better way?
With her entrepreneurial antennae raised, de Beivre approached the firm’s management team. She offered to develop an end-to-end program that included clients digitally submitting receipts, reducing errors and costs, which they could pass on to small business owners.
They weren’t interested.
Undeterred and confident she was onto something, de Bievre resigned and set to work with software developer John Curtis. Some months later, she demonstrated the software to her former bosses, sure they’d recognise its benefits once they saw it in action. The answer was still ‘no’.
So, de Bievre and Curtis invited 20 small businesses to test the program they playfully called ‘Beany’ (as in ‘bean counter’). She packaged it up with an offer of unlimited accounting support, annual tax returns, and other benefits for a fixed yearly fee.
As they walked around the room, watching the participants try to ‘break’ the software, the feedback was universally positive. They loved it. Of the 20 businesses, 17 bought the package. It was a Eureka moment and Beany Accounting was born.
Shaking things up
In addition to launching a unique, industry-disrupting model, de Bievre set up Beany as an entirely tech-driven, remote business with no offices. Doing so kept costs down for the company and, in turn, for her small business customers, who she was passionate about supporting after seeing what her father went through. She also insisted on flexible working conditions for employees and equal pay for women.
“If you walk into any accounting practice in New Zealand, there is still a preponderance of old male partners with female accountants doing all the work,” she says. “The pay gap is 27% in Australia and 34% in New Zealand.”
De Bievre believes working mothers are experts at juggling their jobs and family and make excellent employees. The first accountant she hired was a woman with five children, the youngest then two years old. The next had four children, the youngest only 12 weeks old.
“These amazing women can organise their s**t, look after their clients and their children and be relatively calm in the middle of what would be chaos for many people. I love that!” she exclaims.
By 2018, Beany needed a $2 million capital injection to grow the business to its full potential. De Bievre turned to a consulting firm for help, paying them a hefty fee to identify potential female investors. They returned with a list of 20 men, one of whom met with her but did not invest; the remainder would not even meet with her.
De Bievre was experienced at raising capital, but this time, she could get no traction no matter where she turned. Exhausted, she sank into depression. “It was tough to have your baby continually rejected,” she says. It didn’t help that the board was aggressive and deeply unsupportive, hired by investor groups to keep an eye on their money rather than help her grow the business.
If you have a challenging board, seek the support of people who understand your situation, starting with other female entrepreneurs.
“There’s quite a community of women who will help,” de Bievre says.
In the end, it was other women who came to her rescue. De Bievre had been contacting female entrepreneurs to ask for advice and encountered Icehouse Ventures board member Kirsty Reynolds. Reynolds encouraged her to enter a capital funds competition being run by an all-female investor group, SheEO (now Coralus).
Up against around 70 other applicants, de Bievre didn’t hold out much hope, but, to her delight, made it through round after round until reaching the final five. “The money you get isn’t huge, but it allowed me to leverage that network. I then went on four months later to raise the $2 million,” de Bievre says.
Five years on, Beany’s unique model has expanded rapidly from New Zealand to Australia and the United Kingdom. The software de Bievre offered to develop for her former bosses is now popular among other accounting firms, sold as a separate business, Plugin Accountant. But her proudest achievement is her team. “I love them to bits,” she says. de Bievre also pays forward the help she received from female investors by becoming a Coralus member and mentoring other female entrepreneurs.
Asked if she would do anything in her career differently if she had the opportunity, de Bievre laughs. “I would have done everything differently if I knew then what I know now!”
She says it’s okay to fall over so long as you get back up and keep going. “I make every mistake on the planet while learning. I just don’t let that stop me.”
Sue de Bievre’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
© Laini Bennett, MBA