Having worked in the accounting industry for just a few years, Ben Walker quickly found himself brainstorming new concepts, determined to make his industry of choice less dry.
“I wanted to create an accounting firm that was far from the typical and stereotypical,” says Walker, who dubs himself “chief inspiration officer”.
The result is an accounting firm that’s as non-typical as you’re going to get.
It’s central hub is an interlinked coffee hub, Inspire Cafe, which not only serves as a connection between Walker’s customers and his business, but has become a landmark in its own right.
“We have businesses from around Brisbane and even flying in from places such as Melbourne and Singapore to run their own workshops and events here,” Walker says.
The 25-year-old developed the idea after outgrowing his first office space, where he launched Inspire CA as the “non-accountants’ accountant”, aimed at helping creative agencies understand the numbers that drive their business.
Despite the success of the business, growing from one to four staff in four months, bringing the cafe from concept to reality would be an expensive process.
So, in addition to the traditional methods, Walker sought out crowd-funding, which essentially means financing a project through contributions of various size from a large group, typically via the internet.
“The crowd funding was an ambitious idea,” he says.
“We used crowd funding site Indiegogo and had available perks like ‘Coffee for Life’ where the funder received coffee for the rest of their life.”
With the cafe installed and ready for service, Walker went about positioning it as a networking venue for local business people and like-minded thinkers – a place that was linked and unlinked to the accounting firm.
“We ran an email campaign of video updates for the cafe. Every week or two, I’d shoot a short video of the build and fitout and upload it on to YouTube and send this out to our audience,” he says.
Citing innovation as paramount to success, even in the seemingly mundane industry of accounting, Walker says his aim is to lead the profession through cutting edge innovations such as online signing and cloud accounting.
And so far, it’s paying off.
“We’ve received plenty of commendations and encouragements from business owners, entrepreneurs and other accounting firms globally of what we’ve created here.
While it wasn’t easy, it was definitely worth it and I really look forward to developing the community even more.”
Benjamin Walker CA rejoices in the title of Chief Inspiration Officer at his fast-growing accounting practice, Inspire CA, near Brisbane’s CBD.
And inspiration was needed as Walker rode the steepest of learning curves to reshape his workspace, placing a café as its centrepiece, and enlisting crowd funding to make it happen. While plenty of commercial office premises have a café downstairs and professional offices above, the two operations run by Walker are not independent of each other. He’s set it up so each one makes the other business more valuable.
“It’s been a massive disruptor, especially in an industry like accounting,” Walker says.
“It’s become a hub for small business owners to network. Other firms are now asking if they can run sessions in our meeting rooms, too.”
The evolution from idea to execution was rapid. Walker left a big four firm to start up a one-man accounting business in February 2013. Others joined him, and the new firm rapidly outgrew its serviced offices, leading Walker to search six months later for a more permanent base with space to grow.
It was a throwaway line from his mentor Paul Dunn, an ex-Hewlett Packard engineer turned global marketing guru, which first planted the idea.
“You know, I’ve always thought an accountant’s office is boring, too dry. Why don’t you set up a café as the centrepiece of the office?” Dunn suggested.
“From the tone of his voice, I figured he wasn’t joking,” says Walker.
But then, rather than the small café Dunn most likely had in mind, Walker came across an empty shell, a warehouse that had once been a furniture store, where adding a few walls would create large meeting rooms and open spaces as well as a café on the ground floor, with an open plan office above for his accounting business.
Walker needed what he said was “a crash course on commercial leasing” before he signed in October last year.
The brick walls weren’t the biggest obstacle to Walker’s ambitions to launch the café business on 6 December. There was the small matter of funding, and other sticking points, such as getting a liquor licence and finding the right staff.
“It’s learning on-the-fly,” he says.“It’s been an interesting journey and it’s made me feel more resourceful.”
The building owner offered a lease incentive towards the fit-out, but more was needed.
“Given that we were a growing accounting firm, we couldn’t just lash out for the full cost of the fit-out. But we had to find a way to make it work, we had a launch date and we didn’t want to have to put back the opening night. That’s why I turned to crowd funding, through a website called Indiegogo,” says Walker.
The site tapped a large community, although it was mainly clients, former colleagues and mentors who pitched in with funding. To sweeten the deal, Walker offered incentives such as prepaid credit at the café.
“We matched contributions dollar for dollar with credit for food and coffee once we were up and running, and had other options such as a ticket to the launch party as incentives.”
This netted Inspire CA “just shy of” $5000 which Walker says did go quickly, but took the edge off the expenses and added to an already growing client base.
Walker, who has never worked in hospitality, also had to find key staff – and hiring a great barista was top of his list.
“One thing my mentor, Paul Dunn, taught me was the power of language,” says Walker. “Our ad called for an EXCEPTIONAL BARISTA. On the page, it just stood out.”
The person who met the brief also had the drive to be more than just a barista. He has become the café manager, now known as the firm’s Chief Espresso Officer.
The idea is catching on says Walker. One of his accounting colleagues in New Zealand has been inspired to clear space in the shopfront of his own office to make room for a café machine and a barista.
“There’s also another accountant I know in Jersey who is looking to do the same thing. We’ve also launched some co-working space upstairs, to let other businesses lease a hot desk or some permanent working space.”
Put yourself in a place where there’s no going back, no plan b. Think of Alexander the Great: when he landed on the foreign shore he burned his boats.
Be quick to adopt new ways. I don’t see firms who aren’t embracing the newest technology and software being around in a few years.
In a connected economy, it’s all about nurturing relationships. Your biggest and most effective source of new business is via recommendations from existing customers and clients.
Think how you can genuinely stand out in ways that appeal to customers and staff, such as an accounting firm that has no timesheets, no hourly rates, no jargon, no office politics, and a café that accepts American Express and doesn’t make people pay extra for their allergies.
Create a community of business owners and entrepreneurs that allows cross-pollination of ideas between like-minded people who can support each other and create synergies.
Do what you do with a positive impact. We’re a part of the global giving initiative, B1G1: Business for Good. For every planning session we run with a business client, 75 women in India are trained to run micro-businesses. For every coffee sold in the café, a child receives access to life-saving water.
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