When I picture an accountant, I think of someone in a smokey office wearing a green visor surrounded by indomitable stacks of paperwork, clacking away on an adding machine. My idea might be a little out of date, so let's take a look at a more contemporary example.
To learn a little about the daily work of accountants, we spoke with Evan Birch (pictured above) of Bench, a service that provides professional bookkeeping service online.
First of all, tell us a little about your current position and how long you've been at it.
I'm Evan Birch and I've worked for Bench, the online bookkeeping service, for around a year and a half. I'm an accountant here, but I'm often nowhere near the people that I account for. We provide services for small business owners throughout the United States but because of our simple software and in-app services, we can look after all your bookkeeping needs without forcing you to hang out with us in person.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I think I have always been enamoured with the idea of entrepreneurship and building something successful. Being close to the heart of a business really interested me so accounting was a good fit. It wasn't spreadsheets and tax forms that attracted me to this career, it was the opportunity to understand what makes a business tick.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
In university, I studied both philosophy and accounting — one slightly more practical than the other — and after graduating I started pursuing ,y CPA [certified public accountant] qualification and found Bench. When I first interviewed, it was completely different than any other job I had applied for and I was hooked. They were looking for curious people, those who wanted to help build something great — it wasn't all about years of experience or connections, it was about finding good people.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
Talking to people. More than anything else. I need to have a careful understanding of the nuances of a business, for example payroll is always different. Keeping up with the flow of someone else's business is definitely interesting.
Another big part of my day is analysis — just looking at the bigger picture. Often, when a business owner looks at their financials, they only see the surface. They made money, the have money, etc. They don't see what professionals do. There could be an increase in costs or maybe some irregularities in their cash flow they haven't noticed. It's my job to see deep inside the machine of their business and figure out what is really happening. I wouldn't expect this of a business owner, they outsource foresight to us so that they can focus on running the business.
And once you understand how a client's money is flowing around, what happens next?
Then starts the best part of working with an accountant, making the machine even better. Maybe costs are going up and you don't know why — we can walk through the trends in your expenses and pinpoint areas for you to work on reducing. If filing deadlines are coming up, we gather information about employees and contractors and make sure you get the right things in on time to avoid penalties. Our focus becomes making sure we have solid financials for the business and empowering the users of those financials to make the right decisions to maintain a health company.
Who is the typical customer? Not necessarily of Bench per se, but what sort of people typically need to seek out an accountant?
I think everyone could use an accountant at some point, for business and personal needs — how often you need them is the real question. Whenever you start a business, I'd advise that you at least check in with an accountant to get things set up correctly. Getting registered for taxes or learning what receipts you need to keep, that's all important stuff to get right from the start.
Aside from that, freelancers may get away with an annual visit for taxes, but more complicated businesses might need to have a monthly chat with their accountant about the health of their business.
Do you also get individuals who don't necessarily have a business but just need a hand?
Yes, we do get personal finance requests and when we do, we usually suggest some great resources for personal financials so that they can get started on the right path. We generally focus on business owners, but some of the time people just have a few questions that they need answered and they can do the rest — we're very candid, if we aren't going to provide value for someone, we're not going to suggest our services.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
That we drink pints to get through the day. Oh wait, you said misconceptions.
Seriously though, I think people assume that bookkeepers spend long days in front of spreadsheets. In reality, we spend much more time establishing and maintaining relationships. We're speaking with clients whenever they need us. We are always working together to solve problems within our teams, discussing options and researching alternatives — it's not all data entry.
Having an analytical mind and seeing the forest for the trees is more important than your typing speed.
I have the presumably misguided mental image of an accountant having giant piles of paper on their desk. Is it all digital these days?
For our record keeping, long gone are the days of the ledger book. Our software is top-notch nowadays and continuing to improve. There's been a massive drive towards user-friendly financial software in the last couple of years and I think it's great. Good design leads to improved interaction and involvement with the information.
That said, you'll still receive paper invoices or receipts from some people, but I think with a little help from a scanner, it's entirely possible to have everything stored digitally in the long term.
What are your average work hours?
There are no average work hours for Bench accountants. Our philosophy places the importance on getting the work that you need to get done, done. It's not about putting people in seats during certain hours.
We think that as long as our teams are communicating with their colleagues, keeping clients apprised of what they need to know then they can work the hours that are right for them.
Personally, I like to get up early, get my work done for the day by the afternoon so I can fit in a nap.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Here's a tip — in accounting, if a robot can do it better than you, let it.
An extension of that is that it's imperative that you're always sharing knowledge. We have 133 bookkeepers so in order to keep our teams organised and plugged in, we use 15Five. It gives us the platform to share weekly reports with our bookkeeping teams to communicate the struggles and successes of our week.
If you want the best communications tool for businesses, use Slack. I've used plenty of other communication. Just... use Slack.
I'm curious about what sort of macros you might write to help your work — what's an example where someone might create a scripted process to assist?
We deal with a lot of data as accountants, so we might automate how we process that information before entering it into the system. Cleaning up vendor names or date formats, assigning expense categories based on keyword lookups, or formatting financial statements in print-ready documents are great use cases for macros.
Financial information is also prime for visualisation — trend analysis or expense breakdowns are great to see graphically. D3.js and Processing.js are really useful libraries for those wanting to get into data visualisation.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
I'd say we are the first organisation to successfully provide businesses with a complete bookkeeping solution.
Traditional bookkeepers base their business off in-person interaction. They are stereotypically driven by routine and not known to be quick to change or improve.
We pride ourselves on innovation. We are client-focused and lean on management. We empower our bookkeepers, telling them that if they can do it a better way, then do it - and share how
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Sometimes my ability to get work completed is reliant on other people getting me information. It's frustrating to be at a standstill. I have realised that if I reduce the friction for how people can get information to me, it works in my favour.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
The sheer number of businesses that are out there. We get to talk to so many awesome people each day — our clients are anything from an Etsy seller to some awesome guys selling beard oil.
Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?
You need to understand that you can probably look after simple bookkeeping yourself but at a certain point, it is more advantageous for your business to get a professional to do it.
Professionals are much more thorough than you'll ever have the time or resources to be. We will be the people who can see your financials and understand the health of your business. You should be candid about your business and what's going on. Be upfront. If you're not sure if you have enough money to pay people — be frank with your concerns. A solid bookkeeper will respond to your concerns with the information you need to make the right choice.
How do you "move up" in your field?
- Get your CPA designation
- Get management experience
- Develop a strong sense of professional judgement. Your career advancement is absolutely tied to the value you can add to a business.
What do your clients under/over value?
I would say our clients can sometimes undervalue the amount of work that's involved to make sure their financials are compliant with the numerous regulations — federal and state taxes, payroll legislation, accounting guidelines, etc.
In the same vein, clients may not necessarily over-value, but overestimate the cost required to get a good set of tax-ready financials. And when you consider potential penalties and fines, it's a bargain.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Well the stereotype might suggest you need to get your green visor, buy an adding machine,and say goodbye to your family.
More practically, get involved when you're in school with accounting clubs and associations. They always have events so you can meet people in the industry. Get experience while you're in school if you can — volunteer or just get yourself out there. You don't have to be the loudest person, many accountants are introverts, but that doesn't mean you can't make connections and be curious. If you put in the effort to build relationships and learn the skills you need, then you'll find something that works for you. Be passionate, be thoughtful, become an expert — joining the profession is all about honing your skills and developing your professional judgement.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.