The Pandemic & Me: BluSky
In this edition of The Pandemic & Me Series, we’re talking to Jon Dudgeon, Co-Founder and CFO of BluSky, an accountancy firm providing startups and scale-ups with the service and people needed to support their accountancy needs. BluSky employs nearly 20 people and is headquartered in the North East.
Footprints Consulting: How did you have to adapt to Covid-19?
Jon Dudgeon: We were probably in a stronger position than other accountancy practices because all of our toolkit is online anyway so in March last year, we were able to be up and running from home within 24 hours of going into national lockdown.
Our challenges were less on that technical side and more on the action and responsibility side. Particularly in 3 ways:-
Firstly, our customers were relying on us to help them make decisions quickly at the beginning of lockdown. There was a huge degree of uncertainty at the beginning and we were reacting to the government announcements as they were making them, distilling the message and putting together webinars to guide our customers as they happened.
At the same time, our staff were going through their own challenges with the crossover of their business and personal lives and we had to work out ways, pretty quickly, of keeping them all motivated, happy and healthy. We already did daily huddles but we had to really switch up to make sure the team, as well as our clients, we're doing okay.
And finally, as a business owner, my co-founder and I were going through the same experience as our clients. We had to make decisions based on our own business, whilst also trying to help equally stressed clients and staff. That could be lonely at times. It’s one of those times when it really brings home the question of who motivates the motivator?
The team was absolutely crucial to getting through it all but there were some tough times, particularly mentally, at the beginning.
FC: How are you dealing with communication remotely both internally with staff and externally to clients?
JD: On day one, we all tried to jump on Zoom, like everyone did, and then quickly abandoned it to switch to Teams, as we used the Microsoft 365 suite anyway so it facilitated proceedings.
From a technical and processes point of view, we already had a lot of great working practices in place but what we had to contend with was bringing everything online and encouraging those not comfortable on video calls to embrace this way of working.
We’ve put in a timing rule for meetings to combat meeting fatigue so meetings need to be shorter than you intend so they can be focused; i.e. a 1 hour meeting in person is now 45 mins online. It also helps that everyone is much more punctual now that we don’t have to contend with traffic, public transport or parking!
Our comms are more efficient but a lot more transactional and less personal. We’ve lost the little chats and the ease of a quick conversation so we definitely still have work to do to make comms optimal.
FC: Do you think it’ll change the way you do business in the future?
JD: I hope so! Personally, I don’t want to go back to how it was before. We’ll still have a physical office but what we’re thinking is that it will act as a meeting place and a learning hub rather than a place to go 9-5.
It’ll be interesting to see how the team feels about that and deals with it. Some really miss the office so we’ll be learning with them to find the best way forward.
We’ll want to keep the informality that has been garnered by lockdown. Clients just grab us for 10 minutes now, which is much more efficient but from a business point of view we need to work out how we can organise that time. Fine if it’s a one off but if all clients are grabbing 10 minutes, it’s difficult to manage the time effectively.
Process wise, we’re looking at making them better from a virtual point of view. We have adopted a digital first approach to all processes. Anything paper based is out. We were already 80% but we’re now going for 100%.
I would expect that we won’t travel as much but I wouldn’t want that to go away completely. Clients are appreciative when we make the effort to seem, especially if it's a long way, from Newcastle to London for instance. I also find there is so much to learn from other places. If we don’t travel as much, we risk not bringing those practices back here and potentially get stuck on our own little island. Travel is needed to push the business forward.
The pandemic has also broken down boundaries with clients and staff, I’ve found. Everyone is much more relaxed in their own environment and it’s nice to see the other side, it normalises everyone. I hope that continues.
FC: Has your attitude towards how you work changed in any way?
JD: For me personally, I now don’t feel as much guilt about being seen to work all the time. I thought that I needed to provide a good working ethic example to my team but it wasn't a good work life balance. The pandemic brought to the forefront what it means to be a good leader and now I’m showing them that it’s okay to be a normal, relaxed human being!
I think this is especially important for us in accountancy practices, which usually have quite a traditional working life so it’s been good to break that down. To all be adults rather than act like parents and children.
FC: How are you coping with the cross over of business and personal life?
JD: My work life balance is much better. It was out of sync before. I have 2 kids and I was missing school runs because of the pressure I was putting on myself to be in the office. Now, I can do that and work.
FC: What have you surprisingly missed about “the old ways”?
JD: I mostly miss the travel and the opportunities of serendipitous meetings while out and about.
FC: How do you stay motivated when working from home all the time?
JD: You’ve got to be disciplined and put some structure to your working day but you also need to give yourself little wins and pats on the back when you’ve achieved or completed something. It’s also important to give yourself some personal time throughout the day and not to feel bad about it.
FC: Is there anything about running a business that you just don’t think can be done online?
JD: Yes. For us personally, we pride ourselves on being a people business, so having face to face meetings with clients, especially when meeting them for the first time is so important. It’s much more difficult to develop a rapport with someone online.
The social side of business is also very difficult to replicate online. Does anyone actually want to meet up en masse virtually? I know a lot of businesses managed to put on a good party show for their staff at Christmas but we felt we couldn’t replicate it how we would’ve liked to, so we chose to give the money we would’ve spent to a children’s charity and then, my Co-founder and I put together some hampers and hand delivered them to staff to treat them and have a catch up.
“Having fun” is one of our core values as a business and it’s really been tested this year as it’s difficult to replicate the office atmosphere online.
FC: Do you think you’ll go back to the office? What are your plans for returning if so? And how do staff feel about it?
JD: We have plans to go back in March. We need to look at how to do it safely, sensibly and how we can take the business forward.
Personally, I’d like to shut it for 4 days and only open it on Friday for team bonding and a social but it’s not about me, it’s about the staff and what they think! So we’ll see.
FC: Has the pandemic brought any unexpected opportunities for BluSky?
JD: It has given us a great time to stand back and reflect on what is good about the business and it has enabled us to focus on what is important.
All our clients are SMEs, similar to BluSky, so we have a real understanding of what our clients are going through and the support we’ve been able to give our clients during challenging times has generated a huge amount of trust, goodwill and has strengthened our relationship with them.
From an external perspective, it’s nice to see the business bravado being dropped. Pre-covid everyone claimed everything was fine and their businesses were doing great, but now we’re all a lot more honest with each other and it means we can help each other.
FC: What advice can you give other businesses right now?
JD: From an accounting point of view, embrace digital and technology to make sure the processes are facilitated.
Cash is king. Look at cash flow and forecasting as a priority.
And finally, look back every quarter to consider your targets and how you’re performing against them. We wrote a blog called, You Don’t Become a Good Sailor in Calm Waters, it was initially a reaction to the pandemic but on reflection, is actually good business practice.
FC: With still so much uncertainty on the way we’re going to come out of Lockdowns and Tiered systems, do you think we have to find the “new normal” and if so, what does that look like for BluSky?
JD: Yes, we definitely need to learn from this once in a generation situation and move forwards not backwards.
There are plenty of positives and many changes have been accelerated for the better.
Physically for us, remote working is here to stay, so the office will become a social hub and place to learn and come together.
Strategically, we’ll continue with our pioneering spirit, we love change and embracing it. We will continue to be professional, push the boundaries to do great things and have fun. Accountants can have fun too!
FC: Are you feeling optimistic about the future or are you weary of the pitfalls?
JD: A bit of both. I’d say realistically optimistic. You have to have a plan to move forward, as well as accepting that said plan will not be perfect and probably won’t happen in the exact way you wanted but you will advance. Making those difficult, intelligent decisions when things are not going right has always been a key strength of successful businesses. That will remain the same.
FC: The company has been running for 12 years now - what advice can you give those who are just starting out?
JD: To be as succinct as possible, I’d say:-
Read the eMyth it is a great book and makes reading 'The Messy Middle' less painful when you get to year 10.
Surround yourself with people who know more and are better than you from day one.
Never stop learning and remind yourself regularly why you started this journey.
Don’t get carried away with the highs or too down with the lows.
FC: What’s next for BluSky?
JD: We’ll continue to provide a helpful, supportive and innovative service to our clients throughout 2021. We want to be pioneers and work with ambitious business owners who also share our values.
Thanks Jon. Refreshing to hear such honesty on the struggles of a business owner juggling the wellbeing and success of clients, staff and family all at once. We also love the "You don’t Become a Good Sailor in Calm Waters" mantra, certainly a good reminder for us all.
There are two more businesses still to come in this series, they'll be landing in March. Both investment and funding firms bringing perspectives from different sides of the entrepreneurial journey. Keep an eye out for the next edition of The Pandemic & Me.
How have you navigated the choppy waters of challenging times? If you've got some top tips, we'd love to hear them. Share in the comments.