Welcome to the first issue of our brand new podcast “The Business of Bookkeeping” where we meet some of the amazing bookkeepers behind First Class Accounts.
In this episode, we meet Don Doolan, our 2017 Franchisee of the Year. Don tells us why he started with First Class Accounts and what it is that has made him so successful.
You can listen to the podcast in the player below or by visiting iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/the-business-of-bookkeeping/id1359498875?mt=2.
ROBERT GERRISH: [00:30] Now my guest today is Don Doolan. Don joined First Class Accounts in 2012 and has risen to become Franchisee of the Year not once, but twice in 2015 and again in 2017. So let’s find out why he’s so damned good.
Hello Don. Thanks so much for joining us.
DON DOOLAN: [00:51] Hi, Robert. Great to be here.
ROBERT GERRISH: [00:53] Oh, good. It’s good to have you here. So I know you’ve dragged yourself away from your busy business and you’ve got all your doors closed off and your phones, you know, kind of disengaged. So it’s great to have this time with you. But we’ll get back to the whole sort of notion or the whole action of you being Franchisee of the Year in a little while and I’d love to know how that’s changed your life, but I thought we’d start off by just getting a bit of a sneak peek under the hood of your business. So, you’re based in Asquith. Now where exactly is Asquith?
DON DOOLAN: [01:29] So Asquith’s on the North Shore near the top end of Sydney.
ROBERT GERRISH: [01:32] Okay. So about 20km-25k out or something like that?
DON DOOLAN: [01:36] Yeah. It would be about 25km’s out. Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: [01:38] Okay. And is that where your home is? Is that where you’ve lived for a long time? What’s the kind of background?
DON DOOLAN: [01:44] Yeah. So I’ve been back in Sydney about the same time that I’ve been doing this business. I’ve lived in America. I’ve lived in country, New South Wales, but now we reside just north of Hornsby, which is in a place called Berowra, which is a little country town in its’ own right sitting in the bush right on the very edge of Sydney.
ROBERT GERRISH: [02:04] Very nice. I know it well. And so let’s have a look at… but before we actually go right into a business, you’ve mentioned there that you’ve moved around a bit. So, you know, I know you’re not a man that was on the run. So tell me why… you know, what were you doing in the US? What’s your kind of background? How did you get to where you are now?
DON DOOLAN: [02:25] Okay. So I ended up in the US when I was a computer programmer/project manager for general insurance. So up in Australia I worked for GIO at the time and at GIO we created some General Motor insurance policies and I was writing the accounting systems for those packages and that package got bought out by an American company. So then they… I got sort of asked to go over to the US and help to implement it over there. So I did that for about five years from 1997. About 4½ years that was.
ROBERT GERRISH: [03:04] Okay. And so did you take the family with you? Was it a whole… was it a complete move?
DON DOOLAN: [03:09] Yeah. So Joanne, my wife, we actually got engaged in the Bahamas when we were over there in ’98 and our first son was brought to life over there as well and if I could say it that way. He was physically born in Australia though, Robert.
ROBERT GERRISH: [03:25] Okay. Okay. Alright. Good. So you mentioned there then that the work that you were doing in Australia… so you were in a role that had some, clearly had a large accounting component. So you’ve come into your own business very much I suppose sounds a bit… as a numbers man.
DON DOOLAN: [03:46] Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: [03:47] When did you make that decision and why did you make that decision to do your own thing, you know, to start your own business? What was the motivation for you?
DON DOOLAN: [03:56] So Robert I always wanted to own a coffee shop. I don’t know why, but I did. So…
ROBERT GERRISH: [04:02] Well you failed at that one, didn’t you?
DON DOOLAN: [04:04] No. No. I passed.
ROBERT GERRISH: [04:05] Oh. Oh. Oh.
DON DOOLAN: [04:06] My first business was a Michel’s Patisserie.
ROBERT GERRISH: [04:08] Oh, there you go. Alright.
DON DOOLAN: [04:09] There you go. So when I came back from the US, just after… it was like 2001. So and I ended up getting my first business venture. It was a Michel’s Patisserie. I ended up having two of them, two cake and coffee shops. So that was my first business venture. They were both in Sydney. So we were back in Sydney at that time.
ROBERT GERRISH: [04:31] Yeah.
DON DOOLAN: [04:32] Then after that, about 2005, we ended up buying a motel in country, New South Wales.
ROBERT GERRISH: [04:40] Gosh. Right.
DON DOOLAN: [04:41] And that had a 100-seat steak house restaurant in it and we had a… it’s claim to fame was I created a two-kilo steak and it was called The Big D. I don’t know where we got that name from.
ROBERT GERRISH: [04:52] I can’t imagine Don Doolan.
DON DOOLAN: [04:55] So that was a bit of a challenge for people. I believe every business needs a gimmick or something to market.
ROBERT GERRISH: [05:00] Okay. We’ll come back to that.
DON DOOLAN: [05:01] And in the motel and the restaurant game I figured something like that was awesome. So as the police academy was there and the police just loved the challenge (of a big steak). So that was fantastic. Then after that I went into a freight forwarding business, which is another franchise called Pack & Send.
ROBERT GERRISH: [05:20] Okay.
DON DOOLAN: [05:22] So I did that kind of after the motel and into a little bit… I still had it actually when I first started First Class Accounts, but I no longer have that business now. Yeah. So a bit of a coffee shop, a motel, a restaurant and a freight forwarding business. So the reason I got into First Class Accounts was throughout those businesses… if I had had someone who could just help me implement financial systems and take care of that for me then I could have gone about running my own business and not worrying about when the bills need to be paid, who needs to be paid on payroll, all that sort of stuff, I reckon I could have been even more successful than I was with those businesses. Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: [05:58] Okay. So that’s interesting. There are so many things there that I want to just sort of dive into a little bit deeper. So you’re saying then that the motivation for you to actually move into your own bookkeeping business was the fact that as a small business owner yourself, you saw that so much of your time was not being spent doing the things you wanted to do but was being spent, as you say, payroll, accounts, all of that kind of stuff. So that’s quite a unique experience, isn’t it? That you come into this knowing exactly kind of what the appeal of your bookkeeping business can be and the benefits of having a bookkeeping business. So that’s quite unique and quite unusual, I think.
DON DOOLAN: [06:43] Yeah it’s very important that end, because when you first go into business you’re just guessing, so when I actually chose First Class Accounts I did look at other franchises and other businesses and I didn’t kind of know whether I wanted to go in for a business coaching point of view or a bookkeeping point of view because I knew that my experience could help people understand how to start the business and what was important. Like the financial system in your business is the number one system that’s got to be implemented. It’s got to be right from day one. It can’t be wrong. So you know, I decided that I actually wanted to operationally help people get that financial system right and operate it for them rather than just telling them how to do it. I actually wanted to help them do it. So that’s why I went with bookkeeping instead of business coaching.
ROBERT GERRISH: [07:27] Yeah. Okay. Interesting. So also the fact… the choice that you made… so if you don’t mind me asking, what age were you when you decided to come and step out of your corporate role and start your own business? Where were you age wise?
DON DOOLAN: [07:41] Okay. So I was 30 when I left my computer programming gig.
ROBERT GERRISH: [07:44] Okay.
DON DOOLAN: [07:45] Yeah. So a young guy. Yeah. Still am young probably. Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: [07:49] Of course you are. I’m sorry. It’s me that’s old. So but interestingly, so there you are. You’ve come out of, you know, this role within GIO. You’ve decided to start your own business and you’ve gone through, whether it’s through Michel’s Patisserie, through Pack & Send and now with First Class. You know, the motel I don’t think fits into what I’m about to say, but each of those was a franchise business. Now can you remember way back when, when you were at… not that far ago, but when you were in your 30’s and you made that step. What was the process that you kind of went through to go, “Okay, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to buy a franchise business.”
DON DOOLAN: [08:34] Yeah. So the motel does fit right in because it was a Golden Chain Motel.
ROBERT GERRISH: [08:38] Okay.
DON DOOLAN: [08:39] So again the brand awareness was there although there was no franchise business. It was like a membership fee.
ROBERT GERRISH: [08:44] Yeah. Okay.
DON DOOLAN: [08:45] Yeah. So why the franchise model? Probably just exactly what I said. It’s probably the number one about brand awareness.
ROBERT GERRISH: [08:53] Yeah. Okay.
DON DOOLAN: [08:54] The hardest thing in business and I guess with small businesses that start today, if you start from scratch you’ve got no brand awareness. People don’t know what you do. They don’t know who you are. You’re forever trying to explain to people what you do. Whereas if you pick a known brand, especially one that’s up and going like First Class Accounts, it’s just heading into an era of remarkable growth in bookkeeping and business. Helping all that sort of stuff is a growing industry. And to be a leader in that industry, which is what First Class Accounts is, is just… the brand is there. You go out to a job and you talk to a prospective client, you go, “First Class Accounts, the biggest bookkeepers in the southern hemisphere…” and that’s how they agree.
ROBERT GERRISH: [09:37] To work with you?
DON DOOLAN: [09:38] Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: [09:39] But it’s so interesting because you know, with my sort of Flying Solo hat on, you know, the small business community that was where I started in this whole area of small business, we researched them every couple of years, our community and we’ve had between a thousand to two thousand people answering our research every couple of years and we say, “What are the things that are really challenging for you?” Number one, every single time we’ve asked them is marketing. You know, it’s finding clients. Now we’ve come on to that with you because I know you’re a master at this, but as you say one of the key things is the fact that you can walk through the door with a brand that people have heard of. I mean there’s so much kind of in built trust and awareness and recognition. But look, I don’t want to turn this into a total, you know, kind of 30-minute sales pitch because what I want to do is I want to look at you because you’re not just any old person. You’ve franchised for years twice. So clearly you’re doing a number of things really well. Now one of the pieces that I know that you’re well-known for are your skills in networking.
DON DOOLAN: [10:51] Yes.
ROBERT GERRISH: [10:52] So I’d like to have a look at that. So firstly, from the point of view of your business, where do you… what sort of… what procedures, what steps do you follow in the networking, in the growth of your business? What do you do?
DON DOOLAN: [11:09] I guess at the beginning of the business it was… it’s a little bit different to what it is today, so I’ll probably give a little bit of a clue to as to what I did at the start versus what I did now.
ROBERT GERRISH: [11:17] Sure.
DON DOOLAN: [11:18] If you’d like.
ROBERT GERRISH: [11:19] Please.
DON DOOLAN: [11:20] So at the start it was always about finding a network to get referrals and that’s what the goal is. I want clients so I’ve got to find a network because bookkeeping is a referral business. So what I did, I actually found, in our instance, accountants are good referral partners, so are business coaches and they’re just probably the two strongest in my network. So I found an accounting group that I wanted to network with. So then I went and found out where they networked and it happened to be with a group called BNI, Business Networking International.
ROBERT GERRISH: [11:53] Yes, I know them
DON DOOLAN: [11:54] Yeah. And just by a sheer fluke, the bookkeeping spot was open in that chapter.
ROBERT GERRISH: [11:59] Let me… I’m just going to pause you there for a second. Let me just… I’m just mindful that we may well have some people listening who’ve… where we’re already going into some detail of a topic that not necessarily everybody gets.
DON DOOLAN: [12:13] Okay.
ROBERT GERRISH: [12:13] So I’ll just backtrack for a second. So firstly you said, “Bookkeeping is a referral business.” Now clearly I agree with you and basically what we’re saying there, for anybody who doesn’t get all this, is that, what that means is that you get business by other people referring you, talking about you to other people. What often happens, again we know this from some research that we ran, is that people when they’re looking for someone in their business like a bookkeeper or an accountant, very personal, very key player in a small business… you know, they’re not going to do it really just by sitting there on Google and finding someone they’ve never heard of. What they’re going to tend to do is talk to people in there and say, “Hey, do you know somebody?” And that’s where you’re saying that by plugging into a group of accountants. Well of course surprise, surprise this is where people… these are the people that small businesses will ask. They’ll ask their accountant or their accountant will say, “Hey, you know what you need in your business? You need a decent bookkeeper and I’ve got one.” And so just talking about BNI as well, you know, another very well-established networking group that meets in places all over Australia and the way that they work is they allow a certain number of people to come and sit around the table at their regular meetings and they have people from different industries and what you’re saying is you were lucky. When you approached your local group, the industry bookkeeping wasn’t being covered and you jumped straight in there. So brilliant. Sorry Don. I interrupted you. Let’s get back to where you were.
DON DOOLAN: [13:44] That’s good.
ROBERT GERRISH: [13:45] So how did you sort of work that system as it were?
DON DOOLAN: [13:48] Yeah. So I quickly worked out that Robert, that I wasn’t in the bookkeeping business. I was in the relationship business. So the way I got work is I had to build relationships and I had to build relationships initially with the networking as referral groups to be able to get the clients to build the relationships with.
ROBERT GERRISH: [14:06] Of course.
DON DOOLAN: [14:07] So I figured if we’re ever… and it’s probably the same in many businesses that a lot of businesses, it’s the relationship that’s key. If you lose the relationships, sometimes the client loses your value as well. So with the networking it’s all about being front of mind when someone in your network has the opportunity to refer a bookkeeper, they think of you.
ROBERT GERRISH: [14:32] Yeah.
DON DOOLAN: [14:33] That’s what it’s about. So like when you get into a referral group, it could take six months before people can refer you. They’ve got to be aware that here you are. They’ve got to know you. They’ve got to like you. They’ve got to trust you. Then they’ve got to have you at front of mind when someone asks that question, “Do you know a bookkeeper?” Or “I’ve got this problem in my business,” and they go, “You need a bookkeeper. Talk to Don.”
ROBERT GERRISH: [14:55] Yeah. Again let me just ask you there because so many people that are moving into their own business do have a concern, a fear around this whole notion of networking. You know, of actually being in a situation where they have to, as they see it, kind of promote themselves. Now you’re clearly an outgoing person. You’re a confident person and again not everybody sits in that sort of same kind of space. What would you say to somebody who maybe is concerned about, “Have I got what it takes. You know, have I got the confidence?” What do you say… and you must come across people like that. What do you say to them?
DON DOOLAN: [15:43] Believe it or not, Robert, I was one of those people.
ROBERT GERRISH: [15:45] Oh.
DON DOOLAN: [15:46] So when you think about computer programmers, you think about passing notes under the door. We never have to talk to people. We never have to do anything. We just sit there and wait for instructions.
ROBERT GERRISH: [15:55] Right.
DON DOOLAN: [15:56] But think of the other businesses I’ve owned like cafés, motels, freight forwarding. It was all people coming to me. I never had to go and find people.
ROBERT GERRISH: [16:04] Good point.
DON DOOLAN: [16:05] So… and I was… I remember I said in training, I remember that day I said it. I said, “I’m not going to network. I don’t need to do that. I’m just going to advertise and people are going to come to me.”
ROBERT GERRISH: [16:13] Okay. So just again to clarify there, you started training. That means the training that you do with First Class?
DON DOOLAN: [16:19] Yeah. My initial training.
ROBERT GERRISH: [16:21] Okay.
DON DOOLAN: [16:21] The initial training where they teach us how to be a franchisee.
ROBERT GERRISH: [16:24] And you being you, you said, “No. I’m not doing that. I’m not doing that. I’m doing it my way.”
DON DOOLAN: [16:28] Yeah. That’s right and I was never going to network. I didn’t like getting into rooms with people and talking about myself, but look, it’s when you learn that you’ve got two ears and one mouth and you should listen twice as much as you talk, then networking becomes easy because all you’ve got to do is get other people talking about them and their business and they’re there just to solve a problem. So you’re just there helping them solve a problem. The power of just that sort of interaction, that’s where the trust comes from.
ROBERT GERRISH: [17:00] Yeah. So you know what, that’s so good to hear. I generally did not know that that was your, you know, way you kind of started out. When I look at you now I think, you know, gosh that doesn’t seem feasible. But, you know, the point you made there… I love that little saying about you know, two ears and one mouth. That’s the point, I think, that I see with so many small businesses is to let go of any kind of anxiety and fear because what we’re doing when we’re networking is we’re just building a relationship with people and if you can go to a school pick up or a barbeque or anywhere and start a conversation with somebody, then frankly, you can network.
DON DOOLAN: [17:48] Yes.
ROBERT GERRISH: [17:48] You know, that’s what you said. You’re listening to people. You’re understanding people. Sorry you were about to say something else.
DON DOOLAN: [17:54] I’m butting in because I’m talking twice as much. So I’m listening again, but… No. No, because networking is all about… everyone there in small business, their favorite subject is their own business. Quite frankly, everyone just loves talking about their own business… about how good it is, what they’re doing, what they need to do, where they need to go. So whenever you get in a room where you’re networking, you just get people to talk about themselves and then later on if they’re a synergy for how you can help someone, then that’s when you start just informing them about what you do. So it’s easy to get people talking and you listening and then they take… once you realize you don’t have to be the conversation creator, the nerves go away. Have you ever been in that situation when someone you know… or you know, all you’ve got to do is get someone else to start talking and they’ll talk forever about themselves. And that’s how you find out what their problems are and if you’re actually doing what I said about the listening side, then you can start suggesting things that they might try or introducing them to other people who can help them. I guess the power of networking I actually see, it isn’t actually getting the clients, okay? Probably the main reason… that’s the second reason I do networking. The main reason I do networking is, when you’re in the bookkeeping business, you are now the key person of influence in that business, so there you’re first level advisor I guess is probably the best way to say it. So all my business owners, when they need an insurance guy, they need a new car, they want to get a home loan, they want a new accountant, they want a business… I’m the first person they ask for nearly every service in their business. They don’t go and Google it. They don’t go and research it.
ROBERT GERRISH: [19:33] They ring Don.
DON DOOLAN: [19:33] They come to me.
ROBERT GERRISH: [19:34] Yeah. Isn’t the wonderful.
DON DOOLAN: [19:35] And that’s why I need to network.
ROBERT GERRISH: [19:36] Yeah.
DON DOOLAN: [19:37] if I don’t have a network of suppliers that I trust to take care of them, my network’s… I’ve got a problem. So there’s two sides to networking. It’s being able to refer and rely on people for your clients as well as getting new clients.
ROBERT GERRISH: [19:54] That’s fantastic and so clearly put, Don. Thank you and you know, as you say having that group of people around you that you can refer to… you know, and again for anyone listening who has not made this step into their own business, this as you said, takes time. You know, you mentioned that with BNI, the group that you joined that it took maybe six months before things started to happen because people want to get to know you. So I think it’s like, you know, little sort of tick boxes in people’s minds… this, you know, is this guy reliable? Is this guy trustworthy? Is this guy knowledgeable? You know, you tick these little things in your mind and as each of them get sort of ticked off, you feel a little bit more comfortable about talking about him to somebody else and that does take time. So I love that… the story there of how you do it. Now let’s have a look at… if I can just take us back to your business again then.
DON DOOLAN: [20:51] Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: [20:52] Who are your sort of ideal clients? What kind of businesses do you look after?
DON DOOLAN: [21:02] Okay. So just like any bookkeeper, we’re generalists. We can help bookkeeping in any industry. Probably if I was to pick industry sectors, we have chosen to be experts in three different areas and the number one is building and construction. The second one is vending machines, the independent vending machine operators and the other one is online retail. So we’ve made all their sort of sales systems and all the other software around the bookkeeping software to help them input in a full technical solution. So they’re our specialist industries.
ROBERT GERRISH: [21:42] Let me stop you there again. How did you determine those were going to be them. Did you sit down one day with your colleagues, with Joanne your wife and think, “Right, we’re going after these,” or were they already coming into your business? How did you get those as your kind of target market?
DON DOOLAN: [22:02] Okay. Well we kind of fell into the vending machine one.
ROBERT GERRISH: [22:05] Okay.
DON DOOLAN: [22:06] And we worked out that we got a good solution there for that and same with online retail. We fell into that one. The building and construction one was a deliberate one. I had an accountant and a business coach that was very strong in that industry and something I’m very proud of, Robert. My wife is the first qualified lady builder in New South Wales, so…
ROBERT GERRISH: [22:28] Get out.
DON DOOLAN: [22:30] Yeah. So once I worked out that, “Hang on, I’ve a business coach an accountant and a builder… holy doley and I know systems and bookkeeping. Here we go.”
ROBERT GERRISH: [22:39] Fantastic.
DON DOOLAN: [22:40] So yeah. So that probably is the bulk of my… not the bulk of my turnover. As industry groups go, it’s the biggest one within my franchise. Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: [22:50] So again, you know, a great example that often in our businesses when we start our own businesses that the opportunities tend to start generally in things… surprise, surprise… that we already know something about. You know, where we already have some connection. So clearly, you did have within the sort of building and construction industry and then as you say, you know, you just… you kept clearly very alert with both the vending business and the online retail business that you thought, “Hang on a minute. We can really do this.” And presumably you’ve looked at both of those and thought, “Well, you know, with online retail that’s a nice little growing industry. Vending, very specialist, so strong word of mouth opportunities I guess within that sort of industry.” I mean that’s fabulous. So and how many people, Don, in your business? How many people do you employ in your business?
DON DOOLAN: [23:44] So there’s Joanne and I and five others.
ROBERT GERRISH: [23:47] Okay. And five others in what sort of role?
DON DOOLAN: [23:51] So there’s two full timers and three sort of school hours.
ROBERT GERRISH: [23:57] Okay. So full time is working as bookkeepers or data entry or what sort of role?
DON DOOLAN: [24:03] Everyone’s a bookkeeper.
ROBERT GERRISH: [24:05] Okay.
DON DOOLAN: [24:05] We do… we quarantine. That’s probably the best way to put it, payroll and setting up the payments for people. So we’ve got a payroll and payments officer.
ROBERT GERRISH: [24:16] Right.
DON DOOLAN: [24:17] But everybody else is yeah, just general bookkeeping that is sort of data entry jobs because I guess we’re data managers now, not data enterers.
ROBERT GERRISH: [24:26] Yes. Of course. Yes.
DON DOOLAN: [24:27] With all the technology around. Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: [24:30] Okay. I mentioned at the outset, you know, you started your business in 2012. You’ve been Franchisee of the Year not once but twice. Tell me about that. How does… look at the latest one, 2017. What does that do for you apart from give you a great sense of achievement? How does it help your business?
DON DOOLAN: [24:56] Yeah. I mean I never thought I’d win it once let alone twice, but the second one is probably, it’s probably more inner confidence than external. Look I won the… maybe if I can get the first one first, Robert…
ROBERT GERRISH: [25:13] Sure.
DON DOOLAN: [25:14] When I won in 2015, it was just awesome. It was a goal of mine to do that. I wanted to be a leader within First Class Accounts as well as be successful in my own business. I mean if I’m a leader in a, as I mentioned before, a really big bookkeeping group then there’s credibility in that for my business as well. So I like to help people in general, so I like to help new franchisees and that sort of thing. So I get a bit of a buzz out of helping others. That’s why I’m in the bookkeeping business, but I also like helping out the franchise. So recognition from the franchise or that I was actually helping them was very important to me. I was actually being of value to them and then for my own business with my clients, it just made them realize that, “Hang on. I have got one of the best here.” And that was what 2015 was all about. Now 2017, which we started with, it really gave me self confidence that, “Look, it’s good to be great once, but if you can back it up and do it…” If you implement systems, you can actually repeat it year on year on year on year. You don’t have to just have one good year and I guess it comes back to that whole small business philosophy that if you keep going and you keep sort of re-innovating and things like that, then there’s no reason why you can’t have a good year. I mean there will be ups and downs. I get that.
ROBERT GERRISH: [26:42] Sure.
DON DOOLAN: [26:42] But you can always have the best year possible. That’s probably the best way to say it.
ROBERT GERRISH: [26:47] That’s a beautiful way to think about that and you know, I love the comment you made as well about giving back and helping other franchisees and I mean I must say from everything that I’ve observed with my interactions with First Class is there’s so much of that goes on. It’s like you know, I think of it as a family, a couple of steps away from it being a cult.
DON DOOLAN: [27:13] Yes.
ROBERT GERRISH: [27:14] Yeah. It is not that, but you know, I just think really the level of sharing between people is just incredible.
Look Don, it’s been so good having you with us. Thank you so much for sharing your time and we must get you back again if that work for you?
DON DOOLAN: [27:31] Okay. Yeah for sure, Robert. It’s been great.
ROBERT GERRISH: [27:33] Okay. It’s been great having you here. Thank you.
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