Scaling with an Organizational “Pod” Structure

August 1, 2019

Beany is changing the accounting industry by offering flat-fee, online accounting services to small businesses. And it’s not just what they do that’s innovative, but how they do it. CEO Sue De Bievre built a self-managed “pod” structure, that offers employees flexible, autonomous working arrangements that also allows the business to scale.

“I’ve worked in a lot of accounting practices and they always look the same. They always have a bunch of offices on the sunny side of the building, nice big prestigious offices. And then on the dark side of the building, there’s cubicles filled with women and it doesn’t matter how good those women are, to transition to the sunny side of the building is hard.”

In this episode:

  • Sue’s entrepreneurial journey from bungee jumping to online accounting
  • How Beany uses a self-managed pod structure to organize teams and scale quickly
  • Using numbers to create a “shape” for your business

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Show Notes

Transcript

Sue: Hi. So my name is Suzanna De Bievre and I’m the founder of Beany.

Vicki: Thank you so much for being with us today. I’m really excited to have you share your story with the community.

Sue: Yeah, no, it’s great to be here. It’s always had, always feels fantastic when you can tell your company story. It’s a kind of a great pleasure for founders, I think.

Vicki: First of all, tell us. Where are we catching you today? Where are you in the world?

Sue: So I am in the sunny hooks bay, which is on the east coast of the North Island. It’s quite a small community in which I live, but we operate a national business in that across the whole of New Zealand.

Vicki: Awesome. Beany isn’t the first business that you started, correct? That’s correct. So tell us what was the first business you started? What’s the story behind you becoming an entrepreneur?
Sue: So I think I’ve always been an opportunistic entrepreneur as opposed to a very disciplined or planned type. So when I was 27 I was traveling through New Zealand and I saw a bungee jumping for the first time ever. And I just thought this is such a cool thing to do. I went back to the UK, which is where I’m from. And when I was 20 I discovered I had inadvertently picked up a small passenger in New Zealand. I was pregnant. And so I was a chartered accountant, but I couldn’t do that anymore. So I looked around and thought, why don’t I start a bungee jumping company in, in England, in the north of England. So I’m, so that’s what I did. Yeah.

Vicki: How in the world, I mean bungee jumping, why did you pick bungee jumping?

Sue: Really just because, um, I could see that it would make me some money. I had a particular expertise because I had worked through three, three months in New Zealand on a bungee jumping sites. So I’d learned some technical skills. I was a chartered accountant, so I had some business skills and I just saw an opportunity really, which I dove in and took.

Vicki: So you were a chartered accountant and then you went to New Zealand on a trip? Yeah, three month project of bungee jumping crazy. I don’t get how that happened, but, okay. And then why, why did you leave accounting to do that?

Sue: Um, I was burnt out, so I went straight from university into one of the, the big four accounting practices. I worked, you know, you worked like insane hours. I don’t even know how long the days were. And then you got home and you studied. And by after four years I was fully qualified, uh, you know, had amazing experience, great professional development, but I was completely knackered. So I went traveling for six or seven months and that was where I did the stint, bungee jumping in New Zealand.

Vicki: Okay. So it’s really hard to get a new idea off the ground. So did you have savings or how did you start that?

Sue: I was, by the time I started that company, I was seven months pregnant, solo mother. And I had precisely nothing apart from a credit card. So I actually went to the bank and asked them to lend me $10,000 completely unsecured. And I think I told you this story of the key. So I went in with my, uh, you know, the, the charts and the cashflow full casts and that the full story and effectively pitched to a bank manager whilst quite heavily pregnant and he decided to lend me the $10,000 unsecured. And as I got up to walk to the door after he said that he’d lend me the money, he said what is bungee jumping? So I definitely had the ability to sell a story and get money.

Vicki: Okay, so this is completely unbelievable because most women entrepreneurs and I know myself included, are not strong at like creating the financial picture. I mean it’s amazing that he said yes to fund you without even really knowing what bungee jumping is. Is that your magic with spreadsheets or…?

Sue: If you have any professional qualification, I was recently just discussing this with the, the female CEO of the FC to directors here in New Zealand Kirsten Patterson. She’s an amazing woman and she’s a lawyer and I’m an accountant. I’m for some reason it’s like a sort of a little professional halo sits on your head if you have one of these qualifications, which almost makes you like a kind of a pseudo bloke in the minds of people with money. Don’t ask me how it works, but I think there’s something in that about the professional qualification and the ability to sound confident because you are confident with numbers.

Vicki: With numbers and being able to actually speak the language of numbers. Right. Which is a language essentially

Sue: Completely a language. Yeah.

Vicki: Okay. What happened after the bunch of jumping? Yes.

Sue: So I started at that company. I run it only for 18 months and I sold it. It was one of those things in the UK was really a fad. It was just a trend. So I made enough money from that company to come back to New Zealand and I bought my first home in New Zealand with the profit from that company. So that was cool. Then for the next 10 15 years, I would start a company. I’d run, it really hard, I’d burn out, I’d crash. I’d go back into my profession, work three or four years in my profession to kind of get my, uh, energy back and then go and do another company. So Beany is, I think, my 12th startup.

Vicki: Oh my God. First of all, it’s completely crazy to do 12 startups. Congratulations. That’s like a wild thing. But why, why Beany as you go through your journey, you notice things along the way about yourself and about market conditions. So what’s Beany about?

Sue: Beany as a brand, new way of providing accounting services to small businesses. We do everything that a traditional accountant does, you know, the whole boring stuff, financial statements, tax returns, cashflows. We do all that normal stuff, but we do it completely 100% online because we’re 100% online, we do it for half the price of the traditional accountant. So that’s kind of a compelling argument when you’re talking to small businesses. Um, but the other, the other kind of unusual piece about Beany is that we have primarily very highly qualified, experienced female professionals working all over New Zealand and we let them work in a way that really suits them. So we don’t have any offices, we don’t have an a file rooms, we don’t have any receptionists. And that’s part of the cost equation. But we do have incredibly experienced professional women looking after our clients. And I can’t stress that strongly enough. The whole thing is about the level of care that is delivered.

Vicki: My experience anyway with a lot of small business owners is that we all kind of struggle like financial literacy is not the greatest strength. Around this. And so how do you cope with that?

Sue: So we have just unlimited advice and support built into every package. So what we really wanted was for small business owners to almost this almost like a membrane between the small business owner and the accountant. That was a sort of a some kind of knowledge differential and I wanted to bring that so it was level and to do that I needed small business owners to feel completely relaxed about asking any question at any time without feeling it was dumb question without thinking, oh my God, this is going to be a bill. If I asked them a question from a payment plan effectively so that they can ask as many questions as they want, when they want about anything. And they do. We have up to a hundred requests a day for information across our client base currently. And they just ask us absolutely any question you could possibly think about that business, which is great and what we wanted.

Vicki: Wow. Okay. So highly relational based accounting services at half the price, that pretty rocks. So let’s talk a little bit about the flexible work cause that’s amazing. I mean one of the things that we noticed at SheEO is pretty much all of the Ventures that we’ve selected tend to have flexible work. We’re all women, we have busy lives, we have a lot of stuff going on. So how do you make that work in a team setting?

Sue: When we first started, because it was a very tight small team, we sort of develop this kind of working ethos that I got out of everybody’s way and my job really was only to clear the path for everybody else to do their job. So we had office accountant. My role was just to make sure that there was nothing obstructing her kind of clear working process and I didn’t interfere. She’s an incredibly experienced professional woman. She didn’t need me leaning over his shoulder, telling her how to do her job. That really set early on I guess the kind of the how the company works. So now we have, um, we have exactly the same thing as we had these amazing women and they form into small pods between three and five people and it will predominantly women but not exclusively in these a small social pods and all the work goes into the pod. They decide basically the allocation and the workflow and the speed within their own autonomous pod. Effectively one of the women in those pods is what we call the pod lead. But we liked that to rotate through the pod to kind of avoid hierarchy forming. So one of them basically connects in with the central pod once a week to say we’re overloaded. So the turned the tap down or um, no, we good. Fill us up again. We’ve got this problem, we’ve got a training issue, we’re great. We’ve come up with this great new idea, whatever it is. So the pod lead does that communication piece. But otherwise they’re run autonomously. And what I do every Monday morning is look at the numbers. So because I’m a numbers, the numbers tell me the story. I see how many jobs are going through the system, at what speed. And I can see blockages. So if we’ve got a problem in a pod, I can see every Monday morning, okay, this pod needs some help. It’s struggling or not.

Vicki: Wow, that’s an amazing, so where did you, did you create this process or…

Sue: Hell no, I’m not smart enough for that. It kind of evolved. As I said, it kind of evolved from the start point, which was I’ve always really, um, I like to have people whose, who are better than I am, who’s expertise I can obviously respect and trust, which is where it started. But then there’s a company in the Netherlands called Buurtzorg.

Vicki: Oh, I love Buurtzorg. So you’re using their pod structure.

Sue: Yeah, completely.

Vicki: And how did you hear about it?

Sue: I was asking, I’m actually an organizational specialist in Auckland and I’m saying, you know, we’re growing really rapidly. And what really worked well in the beginning when we were a tight team is starting to just fragmented a little bit. And he said, look at this structure and my husband is Dutch, so I thought, you know, I’d sort of particularly like that one.

Vicki: Oh my God, this is crazy. The crosspollination is cool because one of our ventures, The Alinker, Barbara Alink who founded it is very good friends with Jos de Blok who started this and we’ve been watching that structure. I think it’s really fascinating because all of the models that we have for work are made up from another time. Right. And a lot of them don’t work for everybody, but particularly for women.

Sue: And I think this is one of the, the sort of the founder pieces for me as well. So I came through a very traditional training and I’ve worked in a lot of accounting practices and they always look the same. They always have a bunch of offices on the sunny side of the building, a nice big prestigious offices. And then on the dark side of the building, this cubicles filled with women and men, the cubicles are filled with women and it doesn’t matter how good those women are, it’s to transition to the sunny side of the building is hard

Vicki: Wow. Okay. So that’s such a wicked graphic. I can see that very clearly in my mind. So that kind of, and that kind of structure can be changed. Did you work with a traditional structure when you started Beany and switch over to pods? Or did you start at the beginning?

Sue: Because we were just a small, rapidly growing company. Where it was like, Oh Amy, you’re amazing at customer support. Okay. You completely own customer support. Go in and do that. Jenny, you’re amazing at accounting. You go do that. I’m going to go raise money and do the marketing. And so we sort of started like that and then we started to build teams around, but then we formalized into pod structure about two years ago, two and a half years ago.

Vicki: Wow. Okay. So just to go over that again, there’s three to five people in a pod. Yeah. And they report in weekly.

Sue: Because we’re all working in a distributed workforce, we’re all over New Zealand, we’re not often together. What we do do is have quite formal weekly meetings so that you know, we, we don’t lose track of where everybody’s kind of at. Each pod has a meeting every Monday morning and then Monday afternoon we have what we call the pod lead meeting, which is where all the pod leads come in and talk about how that pod is doing.

Vicki: Amazing. And do people love this more than traditional work environments?

Sue: We have a very stable team so I yeah, I think they do.

Vicki: That’s great. Okay, cool.

Sue: I’ll give you an example. Um, so we have a lot of working mothers and our lead accountant has five children. Her youngest was two when she started with us, you know, I will sometimes say, oh Jenny, can I just catch up with you on Tuesday afternoon? And she’ll say, no, I’m just at my kid’s cross country. And I’m like, that’s fine. I’ll catch it with you Wednesday morning. It is absolutely in the DNA of the company that that is not questioned. If somebody needs to duck off, somebody wants to just duck off. They just do that and we reschedule.

Vicki: Well, and part of the thing that’s amazing about that is you then have sort of a dashboard into how things are going from the work perspective. Right. You can just see what’s getting done and what’s not. That’s amazing. Yeah. Yeah. Cool. Okay, so is this going to help you scale faster do you think?

Sue: Yeah, because we have a system where new people come into a pod and then the rest of the team sort of come around them or they explain how we work and do some training and it’s more of a cultural training. The actual technical and professional training is provided in the induction week, but we sort of can absorb people quite quickly into a structure. It means that we can quickly bulk up and then we just have like breakaway pods every time a pod is getting too full. Then we just break away and and form a new pod from and take a few people from different places.

Vicki: Oh, this is so cool. I mean, one of the things it’s like how do you hire like and run teams, like a SheEO. This is a whole different way of doing it. I love it. So accounting profession, the word everyone uses these days is disruption, disrupting whatever. What is your goal with what you’re doing with Beany? There’s, can you talk a little bit about how does existing model of accounting work? What, what are you doing about it and why is that better?

Sue: Well, the existing model, I sort of touched on it, it’s a very hierarchical based and it traditionally has been all about what works best for the accountants. So the accountants being accountants love processes. So over the years they’ve accumulated all these processes, which work extremely well for the accountants. For me, they’ve never actually worked particularly well for the clients, but the kind of had no choice because every accountant did it the same way. Every account was basically that every six minutes a unit is allocated into the work in progress and then the client gets billed for that six minutes. Right. What that does, it creates inefficiency in the system because the longer it takes to produce a job in the traditional model, the more money the accountant made. So it actually created by its nature an inefficient system. So we flipped that on its head and said, okay, so if we’re going to charge one fixed fee, then we have to be super efficient and we have to be super fast and we have to be basically the the best kid on the block in terms of efficiency because otherwise we can’t offer that fixed model. So it’s completely the other way round.

Vicki: That’s amazing. And how did you come up with that?

Sue: Because I decided I didn’t want to see small business clients that I really liked, that my heart was with, be ripped off anymore by the accounting profession. I was in it and I just was horrified by the mindset of Accountants. I would literally looking at clients as A and B clients to be milked, C and d clients to be treated badly. And I wanted to take all those lovely c and d clients, which are the small business owners globally, and show them some love and show them an efficient product, how it could be done.

Vicki: Amazing. I love it. So what’s the biggest struggle that you’ve had in, in scaling this up to date?

Sue: Probably me being in charge of marketing.

Vicki: Okay. All right. So let’s talk about that. You’re obviously brilliant with numbers, know how to do all of that. And so what do you do when you’re not great at marketing? How do you, how do you solve for that?

Sue: Um, yeah, I’m gonna I’d love to get back to you and I have solved it. It’s for me, I’ve lent twotoo heavily into my area of strength, which is numbers. So I’ve got very heavily into adwords because you know, you place a dollar here and you get a return here. And so it’s very linear and very linked. I think what I failed to do well is to articulate really the core of the business, which is really quite a passionate held belief for me. But I’ve talked about all, you’ll save time and money and ultimately that’s not an emotional argument that really wins you people. The clients, we have love us, I was just reading the reviews this morning and they love us, but we’re not telling the story consistently enough and loud enough and kind of out there in the market enough yet.

Vicki: Yeah. And one of the ways that we see at that, I mean if you love your customers they will tell other people. Yeah. And if you treat your staff really well, they, everyone will thrive. And I mean we hope to help you with that with SheEO. As the word gets out amongst all of the ventures that are applying, starting to use Beany to save a lot of money in doing their accounting and sort of spin it from there. And have you bootstrapped all of this or have you raised money?

Sue: We’ve done two small capsule rises through enterprise angels, which are, yeah, an angel investor group in New Zealand and to be fed, they’ve been a really good partner for Beany. They’ve been actually very supportive and gone through two rounds with us. And back to as equally both times, which is great, but they only take you so far. And then we’ve just, we’ve just crossed into another level of funding requirements really. So we’re just going through that right now.

Vicki: And who, who do you think you’re in competition with? Like who are your competitors? Is it just the big accounting firms or,

Sue: I get asked this question all the time and part of me wants to say there’s nobody doing what we’re doing because there is nobody who’s developed proprietary software, which halves the cost to serve. There’s nobody else offering only purely online accountancy services. So we’re kind of out on our own. Or the other answer is every other accountant on the planet is all competitive. Realistically, our main competition’s not from the big four because we really service those small or medium sized businesses and that they tend to be serviced by small accounting practices out in the regions or you know, like one or two man bands. I’m so not the big four.

Vicki: So can we go back a second to the pods because I just, I really think this is fascinating. I mean, as we’re selecting ventures around the world and looking at how they’re running businesses, these new models are starting to emerge in different places. You know, new models of funding and new models of social hiring, et cetera. But this org, the way that you’re organizing, can you tell me a little bit about when you first started to implement that? Did people find it confusing because they’ve been trained to work in other ways? Was it a natural thing?

Sue: I was toying with ways of working and I found the Buurtzog model and that very much appealed to me. And then I talked about it with the other four sort of founders. And to be fair, I think what they thought was, well, we kind of trust Sue, so we’ll give it a go. They were very generous to let me do this kind of experiment really. And then we got the whole team together, which we only do once or twice a year. We’ve got everybody in a room and I said, okay, people, this is how we’re going to organize ourselves. Because the original founders said, yeah, let’s give this a go. Everybody else kind of bought into it and it seemed, it seemed fairly straight forward. And again, because we are, we’re all quite highly trained people and the KPIs were very clear. I think this is an important point. You can’t just cast people off without some metrics for success. So they knew that for example, for us, they have to complete a job on average in three hours. They know that we need to turn the jobs a maximum of 30 days and they know they need to call clients back within eight hours. So the very few metrics, which we measure very precisely and the feedback goes out across all the pods every single week. So everybody sees how everybody is doing every week. And I think that that sort of holds it in shape somehow.

Vicki: So having really strong metrics that are clear that everyone agrees with and it’s all self reported.

Sue: No. So we have, we have like a central reporting system. So we do a big reporting piece every, every weekend effectively. And that goes out to everybody every Monday morning. I think that’s super important to do it that you know, to have people clear about what the task is.

Vicki: Yeah. And so if you don’t have something that is easily measurable that way, it may not be the model for you, but maybe everything is,

Sue: everything has and of course I would say this with not being an accountant, but everything has kind of a numeric value I think, doesn’t it?

Vicki: Yeah. Well, so let’s talk about that. So numbers have like taken over everything. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t get done. And then also you, I heard you say previously that you can use numbers to tell almost any story. So.

Sue: For me that’s true. Yeah. And it’s funny, yesterday I met with one of the other venture finalists from Hello Cup Robin. And so she does all the marketing for Hello Cup. And she just literally, I started to talk about cashflow forecasting and I was almost like, we just see the little shutters coming down across her eyes. And I said, Oh, you’ll numberphobic aren’t you. And she said, yes I am. I said, well then don’t think about those numbers. Think about them as shapes. Let’s talk about the shape of your business. And so because numbers are only a representation.

Vicki: Sure. Oh, that’s amazing. Well, and so she is a genius at marketing. So did you ask her about marketing for what you’re doing?

Sue: That’s why I was meeting with her!

Vicki: Their marketing is unbelievable. The Hello Cup. Oh yeah. So beautiful.

Sue: So, so I, I basically, I’m swapping my cashflow forecasting talents for her marketing talent. So we’re doing a trade.

Vicki: Very good, yeah, I think this is one of the things that we often see is that the narrative that exists out in the world is you have to know how to do all of these things. And so I think it’s absolutely genius that you found someone who’s amazing at marketing and then you can share your cashflow thing. The shutters go down both ways, right? So I think if you can actually find the person who’s like glazing over, oh good. I’ll help you with that. Yeah.

Sue: As much as I believe in a numbers, create a shape and a shape that can be easily understood, the or the other. I think the other really key part about any business is language. Strange enough to have an English literature degree as well as a numeric background. And so for me the language that a company uses is fundamental. And the language obviously shapes culture or maybe culture, shapes, language. I don’t know which way round it is, but I’m always, we’re always very much on the listen out for what our people are saying in the business to each other and to our clients.

Vicki: Yeah, listening for those words. It’s something we do all the time too. I mean I actually think language shapes the culture. Like if you want to create a different behavior, you change the language. And so you know, we could have created words at SheEO, you know, like Activator, nobody knows what that means. And so it allows you to be different or radical generosity. I mean what does it actually mean? And so I think that’s really very true. And I wonder the language of money and how we talk about money is so pervasive and so central to every part of our economy. And how do we actually shift that? Is one of the things I wonder about a lot.

Sue: So yeah. So, so I did this really interesting thing. Just at the time we were switching to the pod structure. I asked everybody in Beany to tell me what made them happy. And I said, tell me what makes you happy. You sit down at your computer to do some work to do, you know, prepare a tax return. What actually makes you happy about that? What creates joy? What creates energy for you in that task, which apparently is quite mundane. And then I got all this feedback in and then I ran, um, just run word counts over the, over the language that people had used to try to really unpack what actually made people happy and, and the number one word, the highest used words if you take out the and, and, and those words. But the highest sort of would have meaning was love. The second highest was care. The third one was around, Oh, there’s a little bundle around understanding, teaching, helping. So that was what made them happy, was to show that love for that clients through helping them understand and teach and instruct and help. And to me that was quite a profound moment for this company. And that’s what we talk about all the time. How do we help? How do we show love?

Vicki: It’s so amazing. We had a podcast last week and that was one of the things that Yas says from world’s biggest garage sale, which is love as the next disruptor in business, right? If you come from this place of love, you can just achieve outsize results and a much happier workforce and better society. I think all around.

Sue: It’s fundamental that that, and I think, you know, in particularly the Kiwis, I have to say, we’re not big on, uh, expression, you know, being emotional and I’m English even worse. So even say I love what you doing to, to a client, you know that that’s a different thing, isn’t it? To your financial statements show that you’re making a healthy profit this year.

Vicki: Yeah, that’s a very different statement.

Sue: I think that we all know that the client would probably prefer me to say I love what you’re doing.

Vicki: Right. Of course. Yeah. And you have very healthy profit this year. You can put them both together. Oh, this is great. Well, thank you very much for your time. I really wish you had great luck with Beany.com. Do you have an ask for the audience? Is there anything that you need?

Sue: Um, marketing help.

Vicki: Spread the word everyone

Sue: you know, me. Oh, Vicki, thank you so much for letting me talk about my favorite topic, Beany, and thank you so much for your help and support to Beany and to me personally.

Vicki: Oh, you’re very welcome.

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