Now a licensed accountant, Sylvia Bourhill FMAAT and business owner, took a typical and atypical route into bookkeeping and accountancy.
Working as part of a mission in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan for more than 10 years, she honed her administrative skills as a bilingual company secretary, where she was responsible for preparing administration budgets and other finance-reporting tasks.
In the 1990s she returned to the UK, working first in a fundraising role for the same mission and later, after getting married, she took on various administrative work for different clients. “I realised I was bored with the filing but quite liked the numbers,” she says.
The bookkeeping appeal
Initially learning her trade through QuickBooks, Bourhill then took a bookkeeping qualification. Though she says she “fell into it”, bookkeeping also appealed as a career that offered flexibility and allowed you to work while raising young children.
“When I first started out I looked for ads in newspapers – 10 or so hours of work a week – and then when I registered on the QuickBooks find an accountant directory, I started getting people coming to me,” explains Bourhill.
“Gradually that built up and I had a study in the house with far too many files which were spreading out onto the dining room table. I decided I wanted my dining room table back. By then I’d been going about 10 years and my son had gone to secondary school so I didn’t need to be at home all the time.”
Finding ways to grow as a bookkeeper
Bourhill moved into an office and her business Another Answer, began employing staff to help her manage bookkeeping work and her clients.
By this stage, Bourhill wanted to develop her skills, and be able to offer a broader range of services having tried her hand worked purely as a bookkeeper for some time.
She completed her Level 4 AAT diploma through a local college, and distance learning so was therefore, spending more of her time on accountancy work.
Appreciating the bookkeeper
Bookkeepers play a crucial role for businesses of all sizes, says Bourhill: “People tend to start their own business and do bookkeeping themselves or they haven’t really thought about it. They then realise that in order to get a really good handle on what they’re doing and on where their business is they need it and bookkeeping is not just about putting numbers into a system.
A good bookkeeper is going to be able to get those numbers out again and produce good management reports and real-time information to enable a client to make decisions about how they are going to run and develop their business.”
What can you offer your clients?
Providing real-time insight means you can offer real value to the businesses you work for, says Bourhill, and it’s interesting: “You get to know your clients really well and you get to know a lot more about them than the numbers in their books. I also really like sorting out the mess – which is what most people have when they come to us – and bringing order out of chaos.”
“The chaos”, whether that’s an erratic filing system or poorly kept accounts, is also a downside and a good bookkeeper needs to be tenacious and sometimes thick-skinned in order to keep going back to clients to make sure they get all the information they need to do their job for that business, she says. When it comes to recruitment, in addition to technical ability, she prizes “soft skills” that can deal with the vast amount of people management involved in bookkeeping.
There’s still a role for bookkeepers in a business even with leaps forward in technology
Getting to really know your clients and their needs
Another Answer works with a range of different businesses, from one-person bands turning over £20-25k to larger companies with 10 or more employees with turnovers in the millions.
Bourhill says she loves finding out what her clients do, the details of their business and their needs: “We have a lot of design clients and construction clients. They are people who need reporting along project lines not just on their business as a whole so that’s another side of getting information to clients in a sensible fashion.”
Making yourself adaptable
This is just one example of why it’s essential for bookkeepers to be adaptable, she adds: “I’ve had people who have worked in industry come to me and they can’t always cope with clients doing things in different ways or wanting reports at different times.”
Bourhill’s team primarily works remotely when bookkeeping for clients, bucking the traditional model of a bookkeeper that goes into someone’s office to do filing and data entry on site.
She has made this a USP of her practice and is keen to take advantage of technology that can enable working in this way, such as QuickBooks online linked to receipt scanners and GoCardless for direct debits.
Using the right technology makes bookkeeping less “people-heavy” and even more valuable for clients, she says, “so you are not spending all your time processing data and have got time to bring out information for your clients.”
How to get into the profession
For those breaking into the profession, Bourhill recommends using all the free advertising that is available, such as online listings, to start building a portfolio of work and clients.
Being paperless – especially if you don’t want files taking over your living space – is important too “otherwise it will explode”, but make sure you’ve got the right online security in place and regularly backup your files, she says.
Recognise your limitations
Despite her successful adoption of technology to aid her and her clients, she advises those new to and working within bookkeeping not to “go for every app at once” but rather to pick the technology that is really going to help you with the particular work you do.
There’s still a role for bookkeepers in a business even with leaps forward in technology, Bourhill says: “Bookkeepers aren’t dead because an automated system is only as good as the person managing it. You need to be on top of it and make sure that the data going in is being read correctly.”
Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.