Not Your Parents’ Accountant

    Joe Collins and Avalon Accounting combine tech and a bit of whimsy to serve the small business owner.

    Not Your Parents’ Accountant - Douglas Feb/March 2024
    “My parents’ generation wants their accountant as dull as dull can be.” Joe Collins and Avalon Accounting is anything but. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

    There’s a mock Star Wars poster in Joe Collins’s office featuring him as, I presume, Luke Skywalker. Next to that is a guitar, which suggests you’re in the office of an accountant your parents would probably not have hired.

    Indeed, Avalon Accounting is not the sort of enterprise that even existed when you were a kid. The nine-year-old Victoria firm is one of a new breed — a virtual, online, full-service operation, geared specifically to help small business owners.

    The founder is a 43-year-old family man, a kidsʼ soccer coach, a guy who’s taking singing lessons. Avalon’s website casually mentions there’s a little buffoonery allowed with that precise attention to financial details. 

    I bring up the old Monty Python sketch about the nebbish accountant who really wants to be a lion tamer. Collins explains Avalon is likely more approachable for a new generation. 

    “My parents’ generation probably wouldn’t have gone for it. They want their accountant as dull as dull can be because that means stability for them. But I think now people want accessibility. They want to know that the people they’re dealing with care about the human side of what they’re trying to accomplish.”

    Avalon, which started out with two clients and now boasts 287, works only with small businesses. Its modest office (home to just six of its 26 employees across Canada) is at the co-working space KWENCH, of which Collins was an original member.

    Why do small businesses need Avalon?

    The disconnect for a lot of small business owners is they have their accountant and their bookkeeper and they don’t understand, really, what either does; both are billing them by the hour and then they get into arguments about who’s responsible for what and the business owner is caught in the middle.

    So what’s your solution for them?

    My idea was to bring everyone together in one place, use the latest cloud accounting technology and make it a seamless customer experience for the small business owner. They don’t have to worry about who’s doing what, just that it’s all getting done and here’s your reports and you have somebody with whom the buck stops.

    How did the idea for virtual accounting come about?

    I did a short stint with another accounting firm here in town and I converted their whole accounting system to [cloud-based accounting software] Xero. I realized the power of having live information that your clients can see and you can see. It felt very collaborative. And if they say, “It doesn’t look quite right,” I can make a few changes on the fly. It removed our need to have an office and paper and all that stuff as well.

    Do you run the risk of it eliminating the “human touch”?

    My thing with technology is: Does it enhance the human experience? This cloud technology allows for that. Rather than paying your accountant to do a bunch of data entry, scan a bunch of documents, we can now pay our accountants to analyze our information, help us understand more about our business. The ultimate advantage is levelling up the information that we have so we can have a greater impact in the world and more human connection, not less.

    Are small businesses where the money is?

    [Laughing.] It’s definitely not where the money is. I feel like it’s an underserved area. The bigger accounting firms are always looking for the big whale. We want to serve that client base and that client base only and get to know it really well.

    What is it about small businesses that’s so vital?

    What we see in our communities is who employs people. Who’s a buffer to our whole economy. Those business owners know their employees, every one of them. They’re not going to just lay off those people willy-nilly. They’re going to make it work with those employees. It becomes a shock absorber for the economy as a whole. If we can support that group it just makes our community stronger, our economy stronger and I see a lot of value in that.

    For small business owners, is there a most vital thing to have an accountant for?

    It’s general hygiene. It’s like brushing your teeth. For business owners, the core of taking care of their business is having financial support. The ones that struggle are the ones that kind of think of it as an afterthought.

    What advice do you have for small businesses in working with an accountant? 

    What’s the laundry list of compliance work and all that stuff that needs to be done? And then whose responsibility is it? I think it becomes a little nebulous. There’s no checklist here for a lot of business owners for all the things that need to happen on the financial side. And then understand what are you off-loading to your accountant, or bookkeeper, or payroll specialist, or financial planner. This is your business. It is your responsibility. You’re hiring these people to help you and they should tell you exactly what needs to be done and whose responsibility it’s going to be.

    That’s the compliance side, but there’s another side, isn’t there?

    What’s the ultimate goal for the business? You see so many business owners just spinning their wheels and not working towards something that is a better life for themselves. They’re like Atlas, holding the world on their shoulders, and it just gets heavier and heavier. You add more employees, you add more clients and you just get squeezed.

    Give us an idea of Avalon’s range of services.

    It varies everywhere from foundational compliance work, which is doing the stuff the government makes you do, to personal counselling sometimes because we get to see behind the curtain, so there’s an intimacy there that not a lot of other professionals get to see.

    Are you a tech company more than an accounting firm?

    I would say we’re more tech integrators or tech curators than a tech company itself. I get probably seven or eight emails a week touting new software that people are trying to push, but they’re not all worth anything. We keep the gates on that and try things out if it sounds compelling for our clients.

    Tell me about the online courses Avalon provides.

    That’s our next big thing. We know a lot of small business owners can’t afford our services. We want to make our resources more accessible. We do make a lot of our resources free. I used to feel guilty that I couldn’t help all the business owners that would reach out. I don’t feel guilty any more because we have produced so much content over the last six years that if there’s been a question asked we have an article on it or a YouTube video. 

    Did you have the three partners you have now when you started Avalon?

    No, it was all me to start and that was a dangerous thing. I’m good at certain things and I can get by at other things, but definitely there was a lot to be done. Accounting, bookkeeping, keeping clients on track, following up, doing all the things that need to be done is a tall order.

    Is there a preferred part of this for you personally?

    My favourite, favourite, favourite part of this position that I’m in is being able to sort of life-design help clients because I see these things in my own life and how I’ve developed my business. So having a business that supports them, rather than the other way around, which is the trap we all seem to fall into as business owners. Financial security, whatever that means for people. Time, freedom, so you can do the things you want to do. 

    Avalon won a Douglas magazine 10 To Watch award in 2018. 

    It was nice to be recognized. It connected us with the business community in Victoria in a way that we hadn’t had before. It adds credibility. In this Internet age I think the more credibility you can get, the better.

    What’s next for Avalon?

    We want to be THE small business accounting firm in Canada. We want to be synonymous with that. But we’re also risk averse so we want to do it in a measured, appropriate way.