You’ll need some training and certification to become a professional bookkeeper. It’s also a good idea to check out local government requirements for setting up a bookkeeping business as they require you to be a registered BAS agent if you’re providing BAS and GST services.
What qualifications do you need to become a bookkeeper?
Some people get their first bookkeeping role with a high school qualification, then learn everything else on the job. But it certainly helps to get further education. A degree isn’t required. Most bookkeeping qualifications are at the diploma or certificate level.
What training can you get?
Courses are available through TAFEs. There are online courses where you can learn the basics of bookkeeping.
Certification and training through institutes
In Australia, the ICB offers a certificate in bookkeeping and accounting that is the minimum qualification needed if you want to be a registered business activity statement (BAS) agent. This can be done through accredited providers, either online or in a classroom.
Learning the technology side
The software will improve your efficiency and reporting capabilities, so many clients will expect you to use it. If you plan to learn a particular software package, find one that provides good learning resources and certification.
As an extra tip, look for software commonly used by the types of clients you want to work with. Some types of software are more suited to specific industries.
Essential skills to become a top bookkeeper.
Beyond your bookkeeping training, there are some other crucial skills you’ll need:
- numerical accuracy and attention to detail – you’re being employed to keep things tidier than the business owner can
- an analytical mind – you enjoy solving problems and persist in getting an answer
- strong communication skills – you need to be able to explain things simply to the business owner and gain their trust and confidence
- good organisation and multitasking skills – if you have your own business, you’ll have more than one client on the go, and you’ll need to juggle regular tasks with unexpected requests
- strong computer skills and a willingness to keep learning – software and apps keep improving, and you need to stay on top of things to understand what can best help your employer’s or client’s business
What do you need to set up your own bookkeeping business?
To get yourself to the stage where you’re ready to start your own business, a combination of education, certification, and mastery of the work tools are a good foundation. Most clients will want to see that you have some experience, including an endorsement from business owners like themselves. On top of that, a desire to help others run their business well is a sound driver for starting a bookkeeping business.
You don’t need accounting qualifications, but some knowledge level can’t hurt, especially when you’re often the messenger between the business owner and their accountant.
Bookkeeping from home is an option.
With a firm foundation of knowledge, skills and experience, you’re ready to take the following steps in setting up your own bookkeeping business. And for many, those steps might not even take you past your front door.
Pros and cons of home-based bookkeeping
Whether it’s for convenience, family, or financial reasons, setting up your business at home can be a great option. But it’s not all roses. Here are some of the upsides and downsides.
What you need to do it
Like any other profession, it’s the internet that makes it possible for bookkeepers to work from home. You can serve clients using just a few online tools.
- Video conferencing – so you can have face-to-face meetings even if you’re miles apart.
- Mobile – because not all clients are online all of the time.
- Laptop – it’s nice to have a computer that you can easily take to a client meeting.
- A second screen – it helps productivity when you’re in the office.
- Online bookkeeping software – which allows you to work on the accounts from anywhere.
How an online ledger works
An online ledger allows you to look at and work on a client’s accounts over the internet. The business books live online, and you login from wherever you happen to be. You can both log in at the same time if you like.
It means there’s one source of truth that’s instantly accessible to anyone who’s been granted permission.
Getting the data onto the ledger
Of course, an online ledger is only part of the solution. You need to get the data into it without constant visits to or from the client. There are software solutions for that too. You can link accounting software to other business systems, so it automatically retrieves sales and expense data.
Taking advantage of home-based bookkeeping
Not only do online systems give you the power to work from home, but they also cut back on a ton of costs. You skip the expense of commercial office space, and you knock out hours of data entry. That means you can deliver services at a fraction of what your competitors do. You could hand some of those savings onto your client and still grow your margin.
What services will you offer?
When planning a bookkeeping business, you need to nail down what services you’ll offer, who to, and how. It’s best to start small and not promise more than you’re able to deliver.
Will you be a generalist or a specialist?
You can set yourself up as a generalist, offering the full spectrum of services to everybody. Or you might decide to specialise. Specialists may target a specific type of client with a narrower selection of relevant services. You can read more in the chapter on finding a niche.
As a general rule, however, you’ll be offering a relatively standard set of services.
Bookkeeping services you could offer
Many traditional and non-traditional bookkeeping tasks can add tremendous value to a business. You will probably need to offer some combination to give yourself a shot at consistent work.
The first job in bookkeeping is to maintain the ledger. This often involves setting up accounting software and linking it with the client’s bank to pull through transaction data. You might do the bank reconciliation yourself or have your client do it and double-check their work. Plus, you’ll regularly check the ledger to make sure everything is flowing through correctly and fix it if it isn’t.
Business owners and their staff may not understand their role in bookkeeping. You can teach them what to do and when. The same goes for things like invoicing, stocktaking and creating expense reports. If they’re using software, they can set things up, generate cheat sheets or checklists for various tasks.
Set up regular health checks for the business by producing a balance sheet, profit and loss statement, aged payables report, aged receivables report, and a cash flow forecast. Don’t just throw numbers at your client. Break it down for them. Explain things, and draw their attention to the things that need attention. You can find specialist reporting software that converts data into beautiful, easy-to-understand graphs and charts. You can extend reporting to non-financial numbers, too, such as website data from Google Analytics.
You can advise on payment terms, monitor ageing receivables, and chase overdue accounts. It can help to have someone from outside of the business making awkward phone calls about late payments. You may also help decide how to deal with late serial payers.
Deciding when and how to pay bills is essential, but many business owners can’t do it well. They’ll either pay everything straight away or wait till they get overdue letters. You can take charge of the process, watching what’s due and when, and reconciling that against the cash flow forecast to decide when payments are made.
Keep tabs on GST collected and paid, file reports with the tax office, and make payments. A bookkeeper will also help ensure the business is in a position to pay income tax when required. You can significantly improve tax time for your clients by tracking their tax liability and making sure they put aside the cash needed to pay.
Payroll scares a lot of business owners. You can take the worry away by:
- maintaining employee records
- making sure their deductions are applied at the correct rates
- ensuring leave entitlements are accurate and administered at the right rate of pay
- calculating pay and beliefs on payday
- creating payslips and making payments
- filing reports with ATO
Setting up business systems
Because bookkeepers understand admin and finances well, they often end up as tech consultants to small businesses. You might be asked to set up point-of-sale systems, payment gateways, staff scheduling and time-keeping systems, job-costing software, project management systems, and so on. You can make the most of these opportunities by becoming an expert on:
As the one with your finger on the pulse of the business, you’ll be the first to see challenges emerging. You can help troubleshoot them. You might recommend changes to payment terms to fix cash flow issues or suggest your client refinance an expensive overdraft. You may identify product lines (or services) that are losing money or spot growth opportunities that aren’t being explored. Bookkeepers are in a great position to see patterns in the finances of a business. You can share these insights with your clients.
With a bit of training, you can help business owners identify the things that drive profitability. These key performance indicators (KPIs) are often the same across whole industries, so it’s not like you need to learn a big secret. You can highlight the relevant KPIs for your clients, help them set benchmarks and monitor progress, and even brainstorm ideas for improving performance. Your accounting software may also provide invaluable small business insights to share with your clients.
Niche and virtual bookkeeping businesses
Designing your bookkeeping business around the needs of a specific type of client – or your particular strengths – can be a very successful way to go. Here’s how niche can work for you.
What does a niche bookkeeper do?
A niche bookkeeper usually focuses on a particular industry. Becoming an expert in a sector can let you stand out from the crowd. You can develop services that address their specific needs. Each industry has its financial challenges to focus on.
Capturing a niche isn’t all about offering the right bookkeeping services. It might be about relating to where they are in their business journey and striking the right tone.
Five reasons to find a niche
A niche provider can focus their energy on perfecting a few essential services. As a result, they simultaneously get better and faster at doing what they do. Put another way; their value goes up while their costs come down.
Here are five ways that a narrower focus can make you stronger.
Specialising by industry, service, or technology
Your bookkeeping practice could specialise by:
- industry – becoming the go-to bookkeeper for farmers, lawyers, or restaurateurs
- service – making the most of your particular strengths
- technology – developing expertise on certain types of software
These things are often intertwined. If you like a particular industry, you’ll probably set the skills they value most, and you’ll learn the technologies that work best for them.
Go national (or global) as a virtual bookkeeper.
As momentum builds, you can push outside your local market as a virtual bookkeeper.
Virtual bookkeepers work remotely for their clients using online accounting software to provide services and video calls for meetings.
You get to serve more clients than you’d typically find in your town, while clients generally get outstanding value because your costs of doing business are lower. For example, a virtual bookkeeper:
- has fewer overheads (no high-street office space rent to pay)
- spends less time commuting to meetings
- develops efficient workflows through frequent repetition of niche services
Creating your business plan
If you’ve decided to start a bookkeeping business, it’s time to get things down on paper. Your business plan is vital to reality-checking all those ideas you have and making them a reality.
What to do on day zero
If you already know what you want to be called, lock down the name and register the URL. Now take some time to see what’s working for other bookkeepers. Find the ones in your area and check out their websites – plus their LinkedIn and Facebook profiles – to see what makes them tick. How do they speak to the market? What services do they offer? How much do they charge? Use this research to help start the plan for your bookkeeping business.
But what if I already know the plan?
It’s great if you already know how you’re going to get started, but it’s still important to write everything down. For one thing, you’ll want to record all your golden ideas before they’re forgotten. Plus, the writing process will help you interrogate those ideas.
Putting them on a timeline, costing them out, and fitting them around each other might reveal a thing or two. Perhaps some assumptions will need to be rethought, or some ideas will have to be skipped in favour of others. It’s a great way to organise your thinking.
Start with a working one-pager
The key to a business plan is to start simple and build on it as you go. Begin with a few headings and bullet points that map out your vision, goals, milestones and predictions.
Don’t let it get out of hand or bog you down. That’s not what a business plan is for. It’s supposed to help you get started. So set yourself a target of producing a one-page plan to start.
Choose your words carefully.
Decide how you’re going to talk about your business and which words you’ll use. It’ll help settle on a value proposition and relate to clients. You can use your chosen terms in your elevator pitch, on your website, in blurbs about your business – and your business plan.
Sections for a one-page business plan
You may eventually draw up a more extended business plan, or you may stick with a short one. It depends on your working style and the level of risk you’re taking on. Your project will probably be more detailed if you’re taking on a lot of debt.
Once you’ve got your plan nailed down, remember you don’t. You should treat your plan as a living document and keep tweaking it as things evolve. That’s another reason why it’s good to have a short plan, which you’re much more likely to update as you go. Try to be agile and open to change.
The discipline of maintaining your business plan will help you:
- Discover and solve problems
Putting things in black and white will show up holes in your thinking.
- Get feedback from others.
You can share your plan to get feedback from trusted advisors.
- Go for more finance
An up-to-date business plan (and budget) means you’re always ready to apply for loans.
- Guide growth
Regular focus on the big picture will help you make strategic decisions rather than automatic ones.
Have a succession plan
You will also need a succession plan. What will happen when you step away from the business? Will you sell it? Who to? A family member, a staff member, or someone on the open market?
A good succession plan will ensure the business can survive and thrive without you that it will perform for its clients and its new owners. And it should give you the flexibility to step away from the business at short notice if required or desired.