Interview with Zenbooks
At IC 360, we are focused on leveraging the latest technologies to enable people to do their best work. While we are all enthusiastic about technology of any kind, at work, it’s all about being practical and directly contributing to organizational objectives.
Zenbooks, our Cloud Accounting Firm, lives by this as well. Also based in Ottawa, one of our founders, Jeremy, met owners Eric and Colin through a mutual connection. IC 360 had reached a point, and it didn’t take long, to recognize that we needed a professional firm to take on our accounting and bookkeeping. Given their focus on modern accounting technology, it made perfect sense to partner with Zenbooks to keep our books tight, and to address any questions and issues that might arise as we grow.
I recently sat down with founders Eric Saumure and Colin Robinson to discuss their business, and more broadly, their approach to starting and operating a small and growing business. This is written as an editorial narrative, with many of my own comments integrated throughout, aimed at capturing the broad themes from our conversation.
How and why did you start Zenbooks?
Both Eric and Colin were working for competing members of the “Big 4” accounting firms. They have known each other since high school and kept in touch. When connecting, they would have an opportunity for friendly competition, but also lamenting being cogs in very large machines.
Having previously worked in IT, Colin entered the accounting world with a strong understanding of how technology could be applied to improve operations. More so than the typical accountant. He could see the opportunity to leverage “more online and collaborative solutions”, and was surprised by how little the industry was using technology.
Eric, a Chartered Professional Account (CPA), was on the usual track in a big firm, but wasn’t entirely happy in that role. Colin was working directly with some clients, pulling Eric in for help, and struggling to keep up. There was something to the idea, as there was obviously traction in this new approach. Then, at a cottage with Colin, beside the fire, the plan for Zenbooks was hatched. A literal Fireside Chat officially got the ball rolling! As any founder knows, it’s easy to have the idea, and hard to execute.
To kickstart the business, they found a small accounting practice that was entirely old school. Picture visiting homes and shaking hands on people’s couches. They planned to take that client-base and convert them to modern practices. A risky endeavour, and they pulled it off with the business owners who were interested! Shortly after that, COVID hit and suddenly their model made much more sense.
What are some tips to someone starting a business?
Without hesitation, Eric jokingly says “Hire an Accountant!”
This is actually good advice. Money fuels business (and non-profits, for that matter). You better have a strategy for managing this, especially cash flow.
Colin speaks to the need of having a clearly defined problem to solve. Until you are extremely clear on the problem, you will struggle to develop the solution. I would agree with this in that the problem definition helps to focus and prioritize your work. At every decision point, if you ask yourself, which of these options will have the greatest impact on the problem we’re trying to address, and if you have the right people working on it, progress will emerge.
Given the importance of technology to your model, how did you decide on your tech stack?
Eric explained it as lots of trial and error. You can expect to go through a lot of trials and demos before you eventually narrow down the options. You have to be careful to cut through the marketing materials to get to what the solution can really do in practice, and finally you need to be thinking about integration capacity among the applications.
Colin jokingly comments that when you’re new, and you have very little actual work to do, you have much more time to play with toys and experiment. He also raised a very important Maslow quote that “Everything looks like a nail, if you have a hammer”. As in, if you have a narrow focus on only using the tools you know, you’ll miss out on potential capabilities you didn’t even know were available to you.
Colin goes on to explain that what he’s really saying is that change gets harder as you grow. So, as much as it’s fun to experiment in the early days, you have to be very careful in your selection so that you’re future-proofing your tech stack.
Eric concluded this discussion on the very important point that you cannot just select tools. You need to establish standards, policies and procedures. Those are not just for how selected tools are used, be even extending to how any new tools would be selected. Standards must leave room for experimentation though. Trial and error should always be part of your workflow so that you’re continually learning and evolving.
What risks have you had to take, and how do you mitigate those risks?
Pretty quickly, both identified that hiring is consistently a big risk. There is a large upfront cost, and loss, if it doesn’t work out. That being said, if you are a service-based business, hiring is critical and necessary.
They go on to say that they’ve mitigated this through establishing procedures around hiring. This means a more structured hiring process that asks the right questions, includes work samples, and ensures there will be a cultural fit. These changes increased the success rate and therefore concretely lowered the risk. They recognize that hiring is a selling process in the same way that gaining new clients is. People need to want to work with you.
What is a core value that shouldn’t change over time?
Colin: Curiosity, which is something that is relatively low in the accounting field. Zenbooks endeavours to find people that are by nature, curious. That is something to preserve.
Eric: A candid perspective. Zenbooks doesn’t want to just be exchanging money for service, which is very transactional. Instead, they aim to be your problem solver, and will raise difficult truths. Yes, they’ll process the transactions, but they’re paying attention along the way, so they can be effective at addressing the issues when appropriate.
Business Partnerships are a “marriage” of sorts. How do you maintain the relationship?
Going back to the clear problem definition described above, Colin explains that you have to be able to trust that you can each work independently, yet still be “walking together toward a shared goal.” Eric goes on to explain that by handling very different parts of the business, it enables a good working relationship, as each partner has a clear delineation point, and that you can work independently for long periods of time. As with a spouse, when you haven’t seen each other for a while and you reconnect, there is plenty to talk about.
So, having distinct skills and responsibilities helps to drive a productive working relationship among partners.
Like Zenbooks, we at IC 360 see the practical advantages of using modern technology. This is why we work well together. If you want to modernize your IT systems to enable a secure and functional hybrid or fully remote work environment based on Teams and Microsoft 365, let us know. A key component of that is a modern accounting platform and remote-first team of professionals, which you’ll find with Zenbooks.