“We are keen to lead and adopt innovative digital tools to help improve how we service our clients,” — CEO Q&A with Larissa Feeney of Accountant Online

By Business & Finance
13 July 2022
Pictured: Larissa Feeney, CEO, Accountant Online

Accountant Online helps start-ups launch and succeed, providing them accounting and book-keeping services. Larissa Feeney, Founder and CEO, was awarded ‘Accountant of the Year’ in 2018 by the Irish Accountancy Awards, and Accountant Online was named ‘Partner of the Year 2022’ at the UK & EMEA Xero Awards in London.

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

My main goal is to grow a great company focused on helping businesses to succeed. We are currently focused on developing our team here at Accountant Online by creating quality remote roles and great opportunities for current and future employees. We compete on service, and so internally, I want to help our team to develop to be the best they can be and to reach their own individual goals so that they provide a great service to our clients.

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

The current economic environment is very uncertain, especially with very high inflation rates. One of our biggest target audiences is people setting up their own businesses for the first time in Ireland. In this climate, it’s very possible that new entrepreneurs may be hesitant to open their own businesses right now.

One of our biggest challenges is trying to navigate our way through this time and continue to provide support and advice to new business owners to help them on their business journey, as well as doing everything we can to support our current clients through this time.

We are a people business, so the fight for talent is another real challenge now. Our people are one of our best assets, and attracting and retaining great talent is something we’re very focused on. As a fully remote team, building relationships can be a challenge, but it’s one we’re determined to overcome going forward.

How do you keep your team/ staff motivated?

Accountant Online is a fully remote business, so we have to work hard to make sure our team understands how important they are to company success.

I am delighted to be a remote company because it lets me offer flexibility to employees, and it means that we can attract the best possible skills for our team. However, I recognise the importance of face-to-face collaboration. To keep our team motivated and to promote teamwork and collaboration, we bring the entire team together once a year and individual teams together at various points throughout the year. Our most recent company-wide event was in May this year, and it was the first time we had all met in person in 2 years because of the pandemic. It was a great day to see everyone, to hear feedback, and to problem-solve together.

We work hard to communicate with the team about our goals, our strategy, and our progress and challenges throughout the year so that we can work together as a team to shape our future plans. It’s really important to me that everyone on the team understands the contribution they make and how important they are to the overall company performance.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

The job market is very competitive now. We see fewer applications for positions than we would have seen 12 months ago, so finding the skills we need will certainly be challenging as we grow.

The current economic climate will also be a big challenge for businesses going forward. As inflation rises, businesses will face a rise in costs and will need to stay in control of their cash flow situation and may need to reconsider their outgoings. Regulatory compliance like tax returns will still need to be filed, so it’s important that our clients and prospective clients are keeping on top of their statutory deadlines.

Traditionally, the accounting industry in Ireland has been slow to adapt to the digital transformation. We are keen to lead this change and adopt innovative digital tools to help improve how we service our clients.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

One of my main inspirations for setting up Accountant Online was seeing the move towards digitalisation in the accounting industry. At the time, there were no companies offering an online solution for accountancy services in Ireland, and I wanted to fix that.

This move towards automation of processes has been happening for a few years now, and this will continue.

Covid-19 showed many people that they can work from anywhere, and professional services like accountancy will have to cater to that.

For business owners, there is increasing demand for transparency around fees and services, and we aim to meet that demand. We are fully transparent about our fees and help our clients to understand what their fee structure is for a particular service before delivering that service.

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

Professional services have been slow to adapt to the digital transformation, which can be to the client’s detriment. Digital tools can help us provide services more efficiently, giving our accountants time to focus on new ways they can help our clients.

I would like to see the accounting industry adapt to a client-first approach, where we consider what the client needs and let that guide the type of services we provide.

From there, the focus should be on making these services as cost-effective for the client as possible.

As an employer, are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

It has always been difficult to attract and retain great people, and I think we have been very lucky. I’m incredibly proud of the team we have built up until this point. We have a goal to increase our team to 150 employees by early 2026 – currently, we have just over 60 employees.

In our case, we are an accounting firm performing compliance services such as payroll, bookkeeping, accounting, and tax filings, but we also have a big focus on the entire customer journey. We have a marketing team who focuses on the pre-purchase journey, a client services team who focuses on understanding prospective clients’ needs, ensuring they have the correct services to meet those needs, and making sure that new clients can transition to using our services as easily as possible, and a client experience team who take care of client retention. This means that we can recruit from a very broad skill set which can be challenging but also exciting, as it means we have a varied team with lots of different personalities.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

During the crisis, our business was in its infancy, so it didn’t really impact us in that regard. However, I think the lessons learned during that time are relevant for any period of economic downturn. For example, we’re currently facing a period of huge inflation which influences budgets for individuals and businesses. During this time, we need to stress more than ever the value having an accountant can have and also stress the other ways we can help our clients grow their business.

How has Brexit affected you?

Many of our clients were affected by Brexit and relied on us to keep them informed of their obligations and what they had to do to continue to trade in the UK. We also have clients based in Northern Ireland and the UK who faced the challenges of a new trading landscape.

During this period, we shifted our content offerings to include webinars and articles on how Brexit would impact businesses in Ireland and how their obligations might change. Of course, our accountants were always on hand to answer any queries our clients had about their personal circumstances.

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business/sector?

As our team was working remotely before the pandemic, we were at an advantage when restrictions on working in-office came into place. However, it did mean we had to postpone any in-person events that we had organised, which was a challenge as these are a great way for employees to collaborate and build stronger working relationships.

A lot of our clients were hugely impacted by Covid-19, and our team was determined to find out what their concerns were so we could support them. Again, we shifted our content offerings to cover the range of support systems that were available to businesses and individuals, both with articles and webinars.

On a positive note, many people took Covid-19 as an opportunity to set up their own businesses. We were delighted to support these new entrepreneurs at the start of their business journeys and are keen to continue to help them grow as things slowly get back to normal.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

Success to me is progress and growth. This encompasses many things – from growing the company to seeing the team develop and advance, and ultimately, building something that provides value to our team and clients.

What drives me to succeed has always been my family. It is important to me that my children see the importance of hard work and building great relationships and that they know this is a critical part of success.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

One of the very first mentors I had explained to me how important resilience is in business, and I have found this advice really helpful in my journey.

She talked to me about how difficult it is the first time you encounter an unfamiliar issue. She taught me that although you may struggle with a solution, you may worry about the outcome, you may lose a lot of sleep, and the next time you encounter the same or similar issue, you will have learned from the experience and developed the tools to deal with it.

The lesson this taught me is that resilience is like a muscle – experience builds it up over time.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

My biggest highlight this year has been our Annual Practice Day. We have run this every year for the last 8 years, but 2022 was the first time in 2 years that we have been able to have it in person because of the pandemic. It was a great day of collaboration from the team and allowed us to shape our goals going forward. It also gave everyone a chance to meet in person and get to know each other, especially those who work in different departments who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to interact.

What’s next for your company?

We have been very lucky in our growth journey so far and want to continue to work towards our strategic goals. Our goals are ambitious, but I am optimistic that we will reach where we want to be. For example, we want to continue to grow our team and aim to have 150 employees by early 2026, and we’re on track to meeting this goal. We also want to retain and develop the staff we have and are putting actions in place for career development and to create collaborative working relationships in a remote work environment. More than anything, we want to continue delighting our clients and maintain a high rate of client satisfaction.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

We are working hard on driving an excellent client experience through the development of a new client portal that will deliver even greater transparency, automation, and efficiencies for our clients, so I am excited to see that come to life.

One of our measures for success is the Net Promoter Score, which measures our clients’ likelihood to recommend us to a friend or colleague, and our goal is to double the industry norm by next year.

I also hope to see a lot of new faces on our team by this time next year, as well as keep the current team we have. I strongly believe the talented team we have can ensure we meet our goals for this year and all the years going forward.

Read as well about other remarkable CEOs and their trajectories:

Jack Williams of Selazar

John Mitchell of All Human

Michael Hanratty of BERWOW