Here we are in December of 2021, and I'm excited to bring back another entrepreneur who's been on the show before: Meryl Johnston, the founder and CEO of Bean Ninjas. Yes, “bean” like a bean counter, because Bean Ninjas is an accounting service for ecommerce businesses.
Meryl was on episode 1113 a couple of years ago, when she was thinking of adding some new services and even creating an all-new brand. Not surprisingly, a lot has changed for Meryl since then. Her business has made some pivots, and she shares some big announcements that I'm excited to share with you because it really shows us the progression that an entrepreneur can make over time. She's also started a family, which obviously affects her business, in terms of work-life balance and time management.
Oh, and I also have a big announcement to share at the end of this episode. So make sure you stick around for that!
Speaker 1: AskPat.
Speaker 4: AskPat.com.
Pat Flynn : What's up, everybody? Pat Flynn here, and welcome to episode 1200, big milestone episode. I have a big announcement to make at the end of this episode. So make sure you stick around for that. But what's really cool is we are in December of 2021 right now, which means we are in our where are they now sort of stretch within AskPat here. And I love these episodes. We bring back people who have been on the show before. And today we're bringing back Meryl Johnston. Meryl is the founder and CEO of Bean Ninjas. Yes, bean like a bean counter, but BeanNinjas.com. It's an accounting service.
Pat Flynn : And she was on episode 1,113 a long time ago, a couple years ago. And a lot has changed since, a lot of big announcements that I didn't even know about that she mentions in this episode. And I'm excited because it really shows us the progression that an entrepreneur can make over time and really something to shoot for.
Pat Flynn : She's starting a family or has started a family. And so of course, this now reflects, well, what does she do in her business, and how does she do her work and time management and balance and that sort of stuff. The business has since made some pivots. And we're going to talk about all that today. So let's not wait any further. Here she is. Meryl Johnson from BeanNinjas.com. Meryl, welcome back to AskPat. It's really great to chat with you again.
Meryl Johnston: It's great to be here.
Pat Flynn : I think it was episode 1,113, and that was quite a while ago. It was a couple years ago I think. And a lot has happened. I know you have some new additions to the family and some other fun things have been happening, but overall, since the last time we've chatted, how have things been?
Meryl Johnston: Things have been great. So when we last chatted, I came to you with a problem. We were trying to figure out, I run in a bookkeeping business and we weren't sure, should we go really niche or not niche, as you Americans say.
Pat Flynn : Yes, that's how we say it.
Meryl Johnston: We were feeling a bit overwhelmed with the direction of the business. And I came to you with a problem around, should we specialize or should we build a separate brand in eCommerce? And after our episode, you said, don't build another brand. And I'm so glad we didn't. What a ridiculous idea to put all that effort into building another brand. And so the business has evolved. We've grown to a team of 25. I moved to a four day work week, which I'm super excited about to spend more time with my family, surfing a little bit more. We went through some ups and downs with the pandemic and had to make some tough business decisions through that, but we've come out the other side of that. So I'd say, some of it's been a rough road over the last two years, but generally, we've come out the other side and things are good.
Pat Flynn : Well, I'm so happy to hear that. And I'm so grateful that you didn't start something new because that could have been tough. But how did you adjust to the problem that you came with and the idea of, well, we're going to go into eCommerce and that sounds like separate to what we're doing now. How did you integrate those things? What does the business Bean Ninjas look like right now?
Meryl Johnston: Back when we spoke, we had, our ideal client was an eCommerce brand that needed help with their bookkeeping. That was our ideal client, but we worked with all kinds of businesses. When we first started, we worked with everyone. We had plumbers, sign writers, agencies, lawyers, we did bookkeeping for everyone and we moved into focusing on online businesses, but that's still very broad. There's people selling online courses. That's still quite a broad category. So we knew our ideal client, but I think we were too scared to pull the trigger and on our homepage say we do bookkeeping for eCommerce, and that felt like a risk.
Meryl Johnston: And because of that risk, I was thinking, should we just build a separate brand so we can pay that to everyone, but then we can also work and attract these eCommerce businesses. So the way we approached it was just over time, we worked with more and more eCommerce brands, and we gradually changed the positioning of our core brand vintages to be more eCommerce focused, but it was just a very gradual transition. So over a period of two years, if anyone was looking at our website, the header got more and more specific around, we work just with digital agencies and eCommerce, and now the tagline is eCommerce growth accountants. We help eCommerce businesses scale from seven to eight figures, but we were comfortable ripping the bandaid off initially and saying that we were just eCommerce specialists. So it took us two years of gradual iterations to feel comfortable. I think we were worried about upsetting our existing clients who weren't eCommerce brands.
Pat Flynn : That makes sense. And I think in many cases, a lot of us feel like we either have to go all in, right up front or not at all, but you're sharing that. Well, you can take a gradual approach, now does this mean that you now only focus on eCommerce and the others, the agencies and whatnot are no longer a part of the picture for Bean Ninjas?
Meryl Johnston: That's correct. But again, that was an iterative approach where it started with, we just don't accept new clients that aren't in the eCommerce space, where we still look after all of our existing clients. And then gradually we started to find new accountants for the non eCommerce businesses. And we still do have some of our favorite clients who are in eCommerce. We still do look after them. So it's not a hundred percent. But I would say that something like 70% of our client base is now in the eCommerce space and definitely any new client is eCommerce.
Pat Flynn : That's great. What do you think the best thing about moving into this direction has been for your business as opposed to if you had just stayed with where you were?
Meryl Johnston: Two things. So from a positioning perspective, it's really clear. So originally we were competing with thousands of accounting and bookkeeping firms. Whereas now in Australia, there's only five other firms that specialize in commerce and there's a few more in the US. So we really narrowed down our positioning, and now, if a brand comes to us, then they feel like they're in the right place because all of the language we use, the accounting issues that they have around inventory and cost of sales and landed costs, all of that speaks right to them.
Meryl Johnston: So from a marketing perspective, our lead, the number of leads, but the quality of the leads that we're attracting our ideal clients. And then on the flip side, on the operation side, our team can specialize instead of needing to learn all of the different tools to support a plumbing business, or to support another business, we learn Shopify, Amazon, WooCommerce, we learn the inventory systems and we can go really deep on that. And the benefit of that deep knowledge is we were actually able to build our first app this year based on deep expertise in solving an eCommerce accounting problem. A few years ago, we would never have been in a position to do that.
Pat Flynn : I mean, you'd have to create a universal app for all types of businesses, which would number one, just be a mess. And number two, probably wouldn't be as optimized for any of your clients versus here it is, an app, is this the app that I'm seeing on the homepage at Bean Ninjas? It's like right there on like an iPad or a surface or something like that?
Meryl Johnston: It's not. So it is a bit hidden. It's only applicable to a certain segment of our customers.
Pat Flynn : I see.
Meryl Johnston: Shopify competitor that comes out Australia called Mariposa Commerce. We build an integration between that and the accounting software. Solving our own pain point because there was a whole lot of manual work required to do that. And so we built it and then other accountants and other businesses who are doing their own accounting also are willing to, it helps save them time. So they pay for it too.
Pat Flynn : This is really great. You had mentioned 25 employees or 25 people working with you now. Do you remember how many were working with you before and what were some of the growing pains perhaps that you experienced when trying to hire because that's definitely a common occurrence.
Meryl Johnston: I can't remember exactly, but I'd say it was probably about 15 and some of our growth has been through a merge acquisition process. So we had another firm join us with eight people.
Pat Flynn : Exciting.
Meryl Johnston: So some of it's been organic growth and some of it has been through that process, but I've found growth is not linear. So for us, we go through a growth phase and then we get too busy and then systems break and we need to hire people. And then it's almost like we plateau while we focus on rebuilding everything for that next phase or that growth phase. And then we focus on growing again and get the marketing engine going. So for us, it's been trying to balance that of, oh, we'll grow really quickly, but then that causes all of this operational pain. And so can we start to hire ahead?
Meryl Johnston: And we are better at that, but I still wouldn't say we're fantastic. In the early days we were terrible. It was only when we were really feeling the pain of, oh, we desperately need a person in this role. We should have hired for that six months ago, let's scramble and get someone. So we are better on the organizational chart of planning out who the next role should be. When can we afford to hire them based on the cashflow forecast, and try to get someone into that seat before we desperately need them.
Pat Flynn : I love it. So it's more of a proactive approach now versus a reactive approach to business and operations, with is the way it should be. And I'm curious with relation to that, how do you plan for the future in your business? Are you together with a leadership team and do you meet? Tell us a little bit about the inside of Bean Ninjas and how you have the sort of forward thinkingness and more specifically, when are you meeting to plan and how long are you planning forward?
Meryl Johnston: We do have a leadership team. So there's a, we're in three different countries, America, United Kingdom and Australia. So we've got a country leader in each of those countries and we used to do an annual meet up. Well, we actually only did one in 2019 where we bring the team together and in person do strategic planning, team building, all of that sort of stuff, that hasn't been possible for the last two years. So we're trying to do, we're doing it remotely. So we're actually in the middle of our 2022 planning process, we use a framework from the book Traction, the entrepreneurs operating system. We've adapted it a little bit for ourselves. They recommend 10 year planning, which is too far ahead for us. So we do more like, we've got a north star of where we want to be in 10 years, but it's very broad brush strokes.
Meryl Johnston: And then when you think about three years, what each of these business units want their revenue to be, what kind of profit margin are they picturing? And what's the rough organizational chart going to look like? So who do they need to hire to get there? And they build that out for one to three years. And then we also plan quarterly, in Traction, they call it rocks, it's just like goals. So what are the projects that your team wants to work on and deliver? And how does that align to achieving the north star? How's that going to help the business achieve its goals?
Meryl Johnston: So we use that framework. We've been using that framework for a couple of years now. The biggest mistake we've made with that is trying to do too many projects. It's hard when you've got an operational role to also execute on lots of projects. So it's a great framework, but my recommendation is if you're getting started with it, just pick one or two projects for each key person in your team, and help them to build confidence that they can execute on that. And then you can increase it. Whereas we had five projects for this person and four for that, and then we didn't hit any of them and that's not really helping to build confidence in our ability to execute on projects.
Pat Flynn : That's amazing advice. Traction, how any startup can achieve explosive customer growth by Gabriel Weinberg, obviously on Amazon or anywhere else, is that the book?
Meryl Johnston: There's two Tractions. It's quite confusing. So there's another one by Gino Wickman. And so the one I'm talking about is by Gino Wickman.
Pat Flynn : Gino. Okay, that's what I was thinking. Because we've interacted with him before and then this is the first one to pop up and I was like, oh, maybe it's this one. So let me just make sure, Traction, Gino Wickman. Sorry Gino, that's my bad. Get a Grip on Your Business. There we go. Thank you for that. Speaking of getting a grip on our businesses, we also have a lot of things that happen in our lives that we have to work around. I know you have a new addition to the family. How's that been now adding a little one to the mix on top of the business, how's that changed your sort of work ethic and how you approach the business?
Meryl Johnston: The good thing about having a baby is you have nine months to prepare everything before they arrive. And so for me, it was a great forcing mechanism to remove myself from the business when my daughter was born a couple of years ago now. My goal with starting Bean Ninjas was always that I would, actually, I say, I want to build a seven figure business and work 20 hours a week. And three years in, we were working towards those revenue goals, but my hours weren't really reducing. I was putting in the hours and wasn't really making any progress towards the lifestyle part of business. So I was already aware of that and try to cut back my hours, remove, delegate and hire the right people. But it really fast tracked things, knowing that we were about to have a family and that I want to be a hands on mom and involved, it meant that I had nine months to, I had an organizational chart knocked out on a bit of paper and there were lots of gaps.
Meryl Johnston: My name was still in lots of boxes and I had to get that all sorted so that I could take time off. I didn't want to be checking emails in the hospital. I didn't want to be two weeks in to enjoying time with a newborn and worrying about business. So it really forced me for nine months to work super hard to get all the right leaders in place to run the business. And when I came back, I came back to work part-time and enjoyed that, but then the pandemic hit. So then the back upended the business and I needed to come back more than I was expecting just to, we had to reposition the business, make tough changes. So that was not expected.
Meryl Johnston: And then I found myself going down the cycle of more things coming back to me and not being disciplined enough to say no to what I had previously delegated. But this year in 2021, I've been focused on that again and down to, I went to a four day work week in July and I'm back on a three day work week. Was supposed to be the beginning of Q4, but it was actually this week that I am back on the three day work week.
Pat Flynn : Very nice. I mean, this sort of roller coaster of life definitely, and business is not all uncommon. It's like seasons, right? And the pandemic threw everybody off and myself and my family included, but it seems like you are now on a great path this four day slash three day work week is that a schedule that you've put for you or is that like an entire team sort of situation? Tell me about that and what was the origin of that.
Meryl Johnston: At the moment, it's just for me, and I've been experimenting with that, but we would love to have that for the whole team. I'm not sure if you can see behind me, but we've got three core values and one is freedom and another is always growing, which is about continuous improvement. But the freedom one is about everyone in the team having flexible hours, we've done this for six years, choose your own work hours, fit that in around your family, lots of our team members have young families and really do great work, but don't sacrifice in other parts of your life.
Meryl Johnston: Many of our team do work part-time, but our full-timers aren't on a four day work week. But in my experience, I feel like I'm getting as much done, almost as much done because I'm concentrating on the right things. It's that forcing mechanism of you need to say no. Did you really need to do that meeting? Or did you really need to attend that event and really think about what's important personally as well as for the business.
Pat Flynn : It's true. It's sort of like when you have a house, right. And the bigger the house is, like you're going to find ways to fill in those spaces. And then you're going to just collect dust on a lot of things, right? Versus if you have a small home, then you're forced to make decisions on, well, what do we really actually need? And what do we maybe are okay not having in this space. So I love that. And I'm thankful that more and more people are talking about the four day work week inside of their workforce. We are actually implementing a four day work week in 2022 as well, which the team is excited about. And we're going to experiment with that too. And there's a lot of studies and other things that have shown that it does increase productivity. So we're excited to experience that for sure. As far as the business itself, Bean Ninjas, I'd love to know how you are growing. What are the things that you're doing to get more leads and get out there and get more people coming in the door?
Meryl Johnston: Our main driver has always been word of mouth and a lot of people will say, that's not a marketing strategy.
Pat Flynn : Totally is.
Meryl Johnston: But that's how of people buy accounting products. They talk to their friends, say, who did you have a great experience with? And they'll ask around and get recommendations. So that's still our biggest driver and for that to work, we need to do great work and provide a customer experience. So we really think about customer experience from how someone interacts with us on our website. What's the experience like when they have their first discovery call, the onboarding experience. So some of our marketing is actually more product related of how can we make that great. And then encourage people to share stories about working with Bean Ninjas actively ask for recommendations, if they might have a friend that need eCommerce accounting help as well. That's part of it.
Meryl Johnston: We've also been working on content marketing for six years. So I started a blog the day we started Bean Ninjas, I'm an accountant. So I'm not a writer. I was trained to write in a corporate professional way that is not engaging. That is not what you do with a blog post. So I think we really did not really get any results from the blog for the two or three years, but we kept on writing content and eventually that's built a flywheel. So now we rank for a lot of accounting related keywords.
Meryl Johnston: And so we have leads come through every week where it says, they found us on a Google search and what kind of keyword that they were searching when they found, not everyone fills that out. But we try and figure that out and relate who our ideal clients that come through, what were they actually searching when they found us, if they found us like that. Content marketing and SEO is a core piece of our marketing strategy. And then the other is around community and live events. We're part of different online eCommerce communities. And then we'll try and participate in those events. We're not accountants, we're not really salesy. It's more about building relationships and seeing where we can help and add value. And then that's a slow strategy. But over time, we build those relationships and we get known in these eCommerce communities.
Pat Flynn : I mean, that's foundational. And I think that every business should be focusing on relationships. And I love how you even said yourself, we're not salesy, we're just here to show up and provide value and you let the product almost speak for itself. And the customers will speak for you on your behalf. And that's what I've talked about for years, it's what I do. It's what I practice, it's super fun, right? The book I wrote. And I think that that's great, because this is a, you're like, oh accounting, that's kind of dry sounding on the surface, but you can really make it a special experience. And that's exactly what it seems like you're doing. What else do you do other than, like a really amazing onboarding experience and accounting stuff that works to delight your customers and keep them around?
Meryl Johnston: There's little things. So we have, NPS probably doesn't delight them, but that's our way of at scale checking in every quarter to make sure that we're doing a good job and to get feedback. We also have what we call a gap analysis call. So every quarter, well, it's almost like a little mini feedback survey as well as NPS to say, hey, is there anything we can improve? Do you want to jump on a call with one of the relationship managers, if there is something that you're not happy about or that you'd like us to be doing differently. And that way we're trying to encourage feedback. And for our customers to know that we care, we want to improve. If there's something you don't like, please let us know, we want to make things great. So we often have someone take us up on that call or sometimes they just want to connect and ask about opinion on should we acquire this other brand or something like that.
Meryl Johnston: So sometimes the call goes in that direction, but we want to at least create that environment that we're open to feedback. We want to improve and let us know how we can do that. And I suppose the other part of that is we have a process map of all of the touch points. So thinking about that onboarding experience and really thinking through what would someone be feeling. Accounting can cause a lot of stress, people seem to worry about it. We know that if a one of our customers is feeling like that, how can we make them feel less stressed with that interaction? So do we need to provide them more information? Do we need to have a warm tone in the email so that they feel like we're taking care of them? That we've got it covered. They don't need to worry about this anymore. So we try to think about the emotions as well as just the process of, you go through onboarding, you talk to this person, you have a kickoff call. So that's mapped out in our email flow and the call flow as well.
Pat Flynn : Love that. Wow, that's super smart. And it's all about empathy, right? Especially when it comes to customer service, but when you do that, people will love you for that. And I think this is why you have people sticking around and sharing the product with other people who are around them. Final question, Meryl, and thank you again for this conversation. It's always amazing to catch up and I loved everything you're saying. What's the future of Bean Ninjas? What's your, I know you've been planning with the leadership team for 2022, but even longer term, what are you thinking for the brand and where to go from here and with relation to family and all these other things going on, have you given any thought to five years from now, what the business looks like?
Meryl Johnston: We have our north star, which is we want to be a world class international eCommerce accounting firm. So we are competing, there's Ernst & Young, PWC. There's the big four accounting firms that are very expensive, but then there's suburban firms, but there's not many international firms and eCommerce businesses sell internationally. They might start in Australia, but then they want to sell into the US. So they want to into the EU. And there's not many accountants that have teams in those countries that can cater to that. So we want to be world class and in that area. So that's the direction that the business is going. And then personally, I'm actually about to, at the end of this year, I'm stepping down as CEO and into an advisor capacity.
Pat Flynn : Congrats.
Meryl Johnston: Thank you. So part of that is reducing my hours. So I'll be going to two days and then ultimately to one or half a day a week, I don't think I can, the business isn't big enough for me to fully leave, but I mean, I love it, anyway. They say your business shouldn't be your baby, but it kind of is when you start from scratch, that's all, I think I'll always be around a little bit, but I'm definitely stepping back to allow other leaders in the business to come forward and take things to a next level. So that's what's next for me, is next year I won't be in the CEO role anymore. I'll be spending more time with family, working less, taking a sabbatical and also there to mentor the other leaders in our team and help them take the business to the next level.
Pat Flynn : That's incredible. Well, you've earned it. I mean, you've built this thing and now you can hand it off, hand off the Baton, if you will. And you can, whew, to finally do what's important to you right now and hang out with family or maybe start another venture, we'll see. I know a lot of entrepreneurs when we walk away from something, it could be feeling like something's missing sometimes. Right. And we still need to scratch that itch sometimes, but I love the direction. I resonate with it very much. And Meryl, thank you again for coming on today, besides Bean Ninjas that's plural, Beanninjas.com. Where can people go to find out more?
Meryl Johnston: I'm quite active on LinkedIn, which is Meryl Johnston, and I'm just getting started on Twitter. So I'm happy to connect there as well. And that's the same Meryl Johnston.
Pat Flynn : Awesome. Well, this has been excellent. Thank you Meryl. I appreciate you and good luck and congrats.
Meryl Johnston: Thanks so much, Pat.
Pat Flynn : All right. I hope you enjoyed that catchup with Meryl. Again, you can find her and her business at Beanninjas.com. You can also find her on LinkedIn and on Twitter. Meryl, thank you so much for that update. Just amazingly inspirational, especially to know where you're going and what's happening and what you've done and what you've created for somebody else to now take the baton from and take it to the next space while you can focus on the things that are important to you. That just resonates with me so, so much and a great message here to listen to while we come into the end of the year here. Speaking of the end, this is the beginning. What I mean by that is this is episode 1200 and don't worry, the next few episodes are going to remain exactly the same.
Pat Flynn : We have a couple more where are they now episodes coming to finish off and cap off the year. Some really exciting updates to share with you. But moving into 2022, not right away, but perhaps in February, we are still working on it. As we speak at the time of this recording, it's November right now, but we are going to be introducing an AskPat 3.0. And we're actually going to be changing the name of the podcast. It's going to be called The Smart Bar. And The Smart Bar, some of you might recognize that because The Smart Bar was actually a section at FlynnCon in 2019; it was an area where you could come up and get access to all of our partners and friends who were there to serve you. So almost like the Genius Bar to Apple Store, but The Smart Bar.
Pat Flynn : And it was cool. Because people at this event were bringing their computers to ConvertKit and saying, "hey, ConvertKit, can you help me with this campaign or to Teachable?" And we had so many other people there. We want to bring that concept onto this podcast. And what that means is when you have a question or you need some help, not only will I be available, don't worry. I'm not going anywhere, but we're going to tap into our network to be able to help you and provide the best information and education for you with relation to whatever problem or concern you might have, because it is not just the Pat Flynn show here, it is actually SPI, but not just SPI, it's SPI and all of our amazing partners and our community members who might be able to step up and help serve as well.
Pat Flynn : So what this is going to do is going to allow for more voices to be heard. It's going to allow for a little bit of time and space for me as a focus on some other things, but don't worry. Like I said, I'm not going anywhere. And most of all, it's going to provide better help and value to you. So I'm going to share more information about what this means, how you might ask questions, how you might still be able to get some help. Again, not just from me, but from several people, including team members here in team SPI, including some of our partners and affiliates, including some of the companies that I advise, including maybe some of you. So that's The Smart Bar and it's coming in 2022.
Pat Flynn : So I hope you enjoy that. If you heard this message, first of all, thank you. Happy holidays to you and your family. And let me know that you heard it and let me know what you think about The Smart Bar and that's going to be coming in 2022. Hit me up on Twitter or Instagram at Pat Flynn is where you can find me. We'd love to hear your thoughts. It's new year. We're trying some new stuff that'll be a lot of fun. Thank you so much. I appreciate you. Make sure you stick around for the next couple where are they now episodes, we got some good stuff coming your way. Anyway, take care, thanks so much team Flynn for the win.
Pat Flynn : Thanks for listening to AskPat at askpat.com. I'm your host, Pat Flynn. Our senior producer is Sara Jane Hess. Our series producer is David Grabowski and our executive producer is Matt Gartland. Sound editing by Duncan Brown. AskPat is a production of SPI Media. We'll catch you in the next session.