EP147: Cora Lee Dunbar - Startup Tips For Your Bookkeeping Business

Starting a business isn’t easy.

But, there are things you can do to make it less challenging and more profitable.Our guest, Cora Lee Dunbar, knows about this.

She is a consultant and coach who has 24 years of professional business experience which includes starting a business and selling one herself.

Building your business the right way with solid foundations, systems and processes can help you speed up your success.

It's going to take a lot of time, energy and you will encounter some hiccups, but the hard work will likely payoff in the end.

During this interview, you'll discover...

  • The importance of shared leadership

  • The benefits of having strategic planners

  • Tips on how to attract clients

To learn more about PEI Connectors, visit here.

For the PEI Connectors’ Facebook page, go here.

To follow PEI Connectors on Twitter, click this link.

For Cora Lee’s LinkedIn page, discover here.


Michael Palmer: 01:40 Welcome back to The Successful Bookkeeper podcast. I'm your host, Michael Palmer, and today's show is going to be a fantastic one. Our guest is from the great Canadian province of Prince Edward Island. She is a business consultant and coach who has 24 years of professional business experience in accounting, bookkeeping, income tax, and business development. Cora Lee Dunbar, welcome to the show.

Cora Lee Dunbar: 02:05 Wow, thanks, Mike. It's, uh, it's such a pleasure to be here today from Beautiful Pei. The Sun is shining. What's the weather like in Toronto?

MP: 02:13 You know what, it's, it seems we just keep going through cold weather as I'm sure the rest of the eastern seaboard can, uh, can attest to. It's been rainy and it just feels like winter keeps ongoing.

CLD: 02:25 Yes, I know. And it's been like that here too. So we're really appreciating the, the nice weather today. Absolutely.

MP: 02:31 Well, we've had a few glimmers but it's still pretty cold. But, uh, you know, I'm a, I'm from a West, uh, from western Canada and we were, we always had distinct, very distinct seasons. So this has kind of been like a little bit of home because it's like you've got the winter and then a very cool spring and nice hot summer and then back to fall. So this is been more of that.

CLD: 02:56 So yeah, he is of your baseline joyous.

MP: 03:00 Well, listen, Cora Lee, I'm excited about having a conversation with you, uh, today because you've done some really cool things with your, your business, your bookkeeping business, and now where you're at. Uh, and I'd love to, to, to get into all of that, but before we do, please let the, let the listener know a little bit about yourself, uh, and your career path leading up until now.

CLD: 03:21 Oh, sure. No, that sounds great. Well, where to begin. I mean I'm currently a single mom. What raised a two children. But to go back, maybe I'll take your right from the beginning. Um, I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family. My father, he, he liked to tinker in a bunch of different businesses. We had a campground, he's a farmer as well and we had honeybees and I think I inherited a little bit of that. I didn't get into the honeybees and the farming, but I was very entrepreneurial and uh, did a variety of things as a child. And I actually kept my own ledger from age 12 on. So I think there was a calling right from the beginning to get into this field. I did go to university, went to Mount Wilson over New Brunswick. I received my commerce degree and uh, yes. And then I got a call back here in Pei to come back for, to, um, I guess I got a call to do taxes here in Pei, which was going to be just for one season and well, 24 years later.

CLD: 04:19 And you know, it's interesting, Mike, because after I graduated from mat eight, I decided to do a road trip out west, probably I guess to your neck of the woods. And that's when I received the call from a gentleman that had just opened his doors, just started as his accounting bookkeeping business. And again, I thought, well, I ran out of money while I was out west. I'll come back for tax season and I'll head back out. But, uh, well I guess I fell back in love with the island and truly enjoyed doing the accounting, bookkeeping, a side of things. So that's, I guess a bit of an Intro of me and, uh, yeah, I, I've lived here all my life except for I do love to travel.

MP: 05:01 Wonderful. Now you and I met about four years ago and, and you mentioned you built your business from the ground up and then sold it. I'd love to know the style. I'd love to hear that story again and share it with the listener.

CLD: 05:13 Oh, sure. Yes. Well as mentioned, when I get back to Prince Edward Island, I uh, worked with Wally and he had just opened his doors. I came in pretty much right away as a shareholder. I help create the business with him. And then he retired six years later and I took over and I had hired two staff members at the time. They worked with me. We built the business. I hired another seven, eight staff, I guess there's about 10 staff members and I incorporated moved to a new location because I outgrew the old and continue to, to build the business. And I, I really enjoyed it. Our focus was mostly on professional bookkeeping, income tax and accounting. But I did temporary office help as well. And I had quite a few associates and colleagues that I worked with. I'm not a designate, I didn't go further to get my, my seat at the Thai or CPA.

CLD: 06:09 Uh, the gentleman I worked with, he did have his and I did start the process, but I thought, no, I'm more of an entrepreneur and I kept with the bookkeeping business. But the neat thing about me is that I formed quite a few alliances with the professional accountants in the area. So whether it be grant Thornton video, I had a great working relationship with them. They would even send their bookkeeping clients to me and I would uh, send any reviews, audits back to them themselves. It was a great, great relationship. And yeah, I really enjoyed working with my team, my original staff that started with me, the first two that are hired. They with me writes whenever. Well, and as I was chatting with you, I guess four years ago when I was looking to merge my business with another firm here in town.

MP: 07:03 And with, with selling your business, talk a little bit about the, what you learned along that journey. I mean, the valuation, what, what it was worth in terms of the percentage on, on revenues, that sort of thing. I'm, I know many of our listeners either, uh, are working towards selling their business or aspire someday to be in a position to be able to sell their business. We'd love to share that journey with them.

CLD: 07:27 Oh yeah, sure. Well, you know what, right from the get-go, I don't know if you've heard, I'm sure you have a e-Myth. Michael Jibber, a Haley's lily. We love Michael Gerber and yes, so he, I mean, I, I read his book even before I got into business and I thought, well, if I'm going to get into this business, I'm going to systemize it. And so right from the beginning I created systems. I had that mindset, uh, as if it was going to be a franchise. I never did franchise it, but we certainly, I took a due care and attention in terms of creating the business. And actually, that's what I really enjoyed creating a business. And when you build from ground level up, it's pretty exciting. But you do need to start with a strong foundation. So I did. And it means you need to spend money, you need to take time to do a proper build.

CLD: 08:19 And during that process, sometimes some things crumble. You got to do another rebuild. Uh, I mean, when I think of my journey, I believe in, I guess I followed the path of hard knocks because even when it came to hiring, I've hired people that I thought, wow, they've got the qualifications, I think they're going to be great stuff member. But then I realized, Oh, you know, they don't have the same values as me. So that's when we went back. I actually hired a strategic plan or along the way, because it's very hard sometimes to see, to see your own business, to see what it is that you're not seeing, I guess is the best way to say it. And with a strategic planner, they're able to help me see what I wasn't seeing. And you know, I know with clients that are just starting out, whether they're doing business plans or whatever assistance they need, I tend to refer them to some funding programs.

CLD: 09:13 And I thought, why aren't I using those and why aren't I getting strategic planners in? So I did that and that really helped. That helped me grow the business. And I also became part of an entrepreneur's form. And that was very helpful to do a round table discussion. And it's sometimes hard as an entrepreneur to just talk about, you know, what problems you're having in your business, but it's very important to form a support group and a network that you can, whether it's with different business owners, but uh, just to be able to have that conversation and say, Hey, I've run into this problem and uh, to bounce ideas. So, so yeah. And I worked very well with my staff building the business. I, I believed in shared leadership. So we met, we had regular meetings, individual meetings, group meetings to see what it is that they needed, what the client's status.

CLD: 10:10 And yeah, so it was working really well for us. You'd mentioned about, you asked what the valuing of the business, I guess Mike, even though I started with franchising or the with idea and I continued with that, I really did not see myself selling the business right away. I did get many offers more than one. And I had said no, wasn't even going to consider it, that they came in with the idea of doing emerge and so that did interest me. I was always thinking that someday I would like to partner with someone and this was a bit different. It was a merge where there was five other owners and I did decide to join with them. They did offer me a top dollar, which really made us and easy I both an easy and a difficult decision, Mike, because I really enjoyed my business the way it was. Sometimes growth. I mean I kept growing the business but I kept getting to that glass ceiling and I never was trying to get positive. What's the next step? And over a course of the year with this particular business interested in, in purchasing or doing the merge, we've played with the numbers and I wasn't shy. I asked for I guess above the going rate and they, they, they paid me dash.

MP: 11:26 It's remarkable. There's so much information that you've, and knowledge that you've given us already. And I think when you, when you build the business to in the right way, which is having solid systems and process and an EMF for our listener, if you haven't read EMF, you absolutely must read him. The EMF. Uh, Michael Gerber wrote EMF 30 or 40 years ago. Now, I think it's closer to 40 years. And his first book is, is by no means or it is the best book of all of his books is his first book. So it's a must-read. But then as well, of course, you can buy e-myth bookkeeper, which, uh, which is which, which is, is written by, um, both my business partners, Peter Cook and uh, Debbie Roberts. And both of them have been on the podcast several times. And, and as well for our listener, what you may not know is if you go into our Successful Bookkeeper community, you can actually get free shipping on the EMF.

MP: 12:28 And there's a few other programs that include e-Myth bookkeeper in that space. So go and have a look at that. As you can see from what Coralie is saying, it's, it's the book to read. I mean it's it, that was probably one of the key things that changed your, your, your destiny really around business was a sort of giving you a bit of the roadmap on how to do it. Now. You had to do a lot of work and you invested a ton into your business. I'd like to talk about the, the size of investment you think you made in time and money into building your business of, of what was it? 12 bookkeepers? 10 1210 I think you said 10. Yeah. What's the investment look like?

CLD: 13:07 That's a good question. Well, I'll tell you what got when starting out. And I must admit I was very blessed with the fact that this gentleman, that's, that uh, I was working with who I started with, he, he invested, now I know the, his initial investment, it took us three years to get the business off the ground. And you know, within an investment of, I know I put in a hundred thousand for sure, but now we're going back 25, 24 25 years ago. And he certainly put in that amount from a monetary perspective. And I know he did not get paid for the first few years at all. And I know when I took over the business, it was six years later and it was starting to grow. But again, when you do a whole revamp, I rebranded it, I gave it a new name, ABA business services, which is, which is an acronym, it's accounting, bookkeeping, income tax.

CLD: 14:01 And back then being the first in the yellow pages was very, it was a good idea. It was a good name for that. And it really worked by very first year of business. I just remember making the stuff made. Of course, I paid them, but I made maybe $8,000 so when I first took it over, it was a year later, I think my son was 10 months old when I actually just took the reigns over myself. So yeah, it took that long to really just to build the business. Even whenever he was involved, he was gradually doing his exit. And I was, and it was a time to, I hit my first baby and then when I was at with my second baby, the business was only four years old. Uh, not even, it was, uh, it was three years old and my personal relationship broke up.

CLD: 14:54 So I was raising two kids running a business. It was quite a while time in my life, but it worked out really good. You know what? My stuff became family to me. They really did. And you know, we helped each other. It was a, and we worked together and we did take the time. So we were not making fortunes. I'll tell you that. It took a bet, you know, I think when it was truly my business, whenever I took it over in 2000 I for the next 14 years, it was growing. And I mean for a while there was only taken out 30,000 and then 40,000. But I kept doing increments as I went. And you know, even when I was getting ready to do the sell, the merge, there was a lot of, um, as you're growing a business, there's a lot of change in technology as you hire more staff. But to know, Mike, I'm going to go dap back and tell you how much money I really invested into this business. But a lot, yeah.

MP: 15:52 Cause you can hear it right? And you, you hired strategic planners. All of these things add up. And, and I, the, the point that I want to make is that when you're growing a business, it's not like the business grows itself. There's, there's work, there's work to be done, there's pitfalls to be fallen into. And then there's definitely the winds and the, the highest side of the business. And so, you know, you're somebody that's gone, right. Uh, all along that journey. But when you do those investments, when you make the right investments, when you do the work and you build a system-dependent businesses, Michael talks about in his book, Michael Gerber talks about an EMF. If you build a system-dependent business, it will pay you back in the future because your business will run more smoothly. You'll have the business actually have the capability to earn you, uh, income from not your blood, sweat, and tears all the time.

MP: 16:48 And then it's also the, on the valuation, it's now were something, there's a great book called built to sell and, and I working, I mean I've worked with thousands of bookkeepers now all over the world and I always try to get that message across is if you just give that thinking, build it to sell it, not that. And some people get upset about that because they're building or their business is almost like their child, right? It's the, they have an emotion, emotional connection to it. And it's not to say that you don't want to have that connection and be passionate and love your business, but when you do your service to your business of giving it everything, it needs to be the very best that it can be in the world, right? That's what you do with your children, right? You want for your children is the business will be so much better in your life will be so much better when you do that. It's a big investment. It's a lot of time and energy. There's definitely some shortcuts that you can take for sure, but when you do it, it's now done in a way that you'll get that investment back versus spending. If you had, if you had read EMF like you, they probably would have spent 25 years and you may not have had as big as a payback as you did in the long run.

CLD: 17:58 Yes, that's right. You know what, and I really believed in the business and my stuff did too and was, I was strategic with the hire. We had a policy book and you're right, I mean any myth was huge for me because I did systemize and I did create and I kept building and oh my heart was involved too. Our punchline or a tagline was helping you achieve your goals and it wasn't about the dollars and cents. It was about building a community and building it together. And we did get to a place before I did the sell was that it was running pretty much on its own because we had the checks and balances, we always had a checklist of everything. It was all documented. We to got into a nice database as well, tracking system and we just kept growing and you just kept adding on and you cannot stop. You really can say, wow, I built it to this, now I'm just going to relax. Nope, you take it to the next level. But it's exciting to take it to the next level and it does pay back at the end. So what you put in, you get out, you really do. Beautiful. And I really put the business community to Mike. You know, I did make a presence. I enjoyed, you know, going to chamber mixers and to events and that really brought in the clients as well.

CLD: 19:21 the businesses, the businesses out there. It's not inside your office and you know, your Home Office or your, your office, anywhere you have your office, the business is out there in the world. Now there's a lot of people talk about virtual and wanting to attract people from all over the world, all over North America to work with them, which is great and it really is possible in this day and age we can attract clients. I mean, this podcast has listeners literally in every country in the planet. I mean, that's crazy to me. I sometimes can't believe it, right? You know, we've got people in the far, far corners of the world listening to this episode alongside everybody else, the majority obviously being North America and Australia. But you know, the thing is is that if I walk out the door, there is like 2030 listeners, potential listeners of this podcast right outside my door.

MP: 20:12 And that's the same for us in the, in the bookkeeping space. Your, the, the listener, your clients are small business owners, your so rounded by them and they're right out your door. And so if you don't get out there and, and be involved in and be local, you will never meet all of those people. And the, and, and the truth of the matter is that there's not that many bookkeepers out there that are actively doing this, right. These, these business owners out there, they far outweigh, uh, the, uh, the book, the amount of bookkeepers that service these, these potential clients. And they need the help desperately to help. Now you get, you went out and got involved. You met people, whether it was a cat, other accounting firms, but it was, uh, uh, getting involved with the chamber. You're now involved with the Rotarians. That's the way to find and build a really strong lead source into your business, isn't it?

CLD: 21:12 Absolutely. You know, it's all about forming relationships and, uh, you know, it's, it w and as you mentioned with business communities and, uh, with the business community, with the individuals, cause we do taxes as well, personal and business. To me it's the best business to have because you're so well rounded. You get to meet so many people from so many different walks of life. And it's, I find it's not about the numbers, the numbers are, they are, and that's what we do. But, uh, it's about the relationships. Um, yeah, even I play, my kids all play hockey and I play hockey so I have a few people from my hockey team that, uh, I would be doing their books or doing the hockey books. So, you know, it's uh, it's pretty neat. Yes.

MP: 21:59 That's really, really cool and great. Very inspiring. I think for the listener and I would say, you know, there are listeners I've met lots of listeners that it is, they feel somewhat held back from going out and, and, and meeting people just because of the nature of the work. You know, your, you spend a lot of time, it could be easy to spend all the time at the desk doing the work. Right. Sorry. How did you deal with that and, and get and get yourself out there. Did you ever feel any resistance to actually going out there and, and marketing actively marketing and basically blowing your own horn about your business? Did you feel resistance there?

CLD: 22:38 No, actually not for me. I actually enjoyed that part. And actually when I took, I have a commerce degree, major marketing, and then I got into the accounting side. I think I got the best of both worlds because accounting keeps me grounded. And, uh, the marketing side, going out to talk to clients, you know, I believe in what we offer. I truly know that we can help people and you know, they come in with a mess or they, or are they, they're looking to grow their business and they're trying to figure out what the next step is. And I know myself, I love to be organized, but I'm not the great at all or greatest person to organize. So I hire and I hire my weaknesses and you know, focus on everyone's strengths. And it's Kinda neat because when I did my hiring, I hired staff, they're all different and they all, you know, I have my backroom staff members, I had my front office, I had management as well.

CLD: 23:31 And, um, you know, again, I just, I and I took the time, both in, in the office and out of the office and I, and I call myself the Alpha and the Omega. I would meet with the clients when they come in the door. I would pass the work off to my staff members and then I would meet with them again at the end of the year. And of course, idea they're going to the different functions and, and giving back to the community as well. We certainly did a lot of that at my end. It made my staff very happy too, because we would give to, with whether it was the school or, or, or worthy organization, we would try to give back and raise money at Christmas time for charity. And, uh, yeah, so don't comes around if you create this, this dynamic and this, this atmosphere and people that came into our office, we're always very happy. They felt welcome and I made sure that my staff gave twines at the time because again, it's the human side, right? It's the relationship side. Yeah. It really made us made the business successful.

MP: 24:41 I love that there's a, one of my favorite authors, Seth Gulden, if you haven't heard of Seth Gordon, he is a Gordon Goden, however, you want to pronounce it. I'm probably then it gets gout and Seth Goden and I'm butchering it yet for Seth. He's awesome. Fantastic. This is, this is a man who's written blog. There's a blog post every single day. They're short, they're sweet, and he's been doing it for like 20 years. Every single day you'll get a post from him. And one of my favorite messages that he, it's a big piece of his, his work is as marketers, as business owners, what does the change we're wanting to make in the world? And so you talked a lot about helping small business owners. That's the change you want to make in the world and you're confident about it and you are passionate about it and you want to get out there and make that, see that change happen in the world.

CLD: 25:33 So I think that's probably one of your, your strengths and what's had you be so successful is that that was top of mind when you're going out there and any resistance was just completely pushed aside because you're just focusing on that change that you want to make in the world. And Seth often talks about how it's just forget about all the rest of things. If you focus on that change that you want to make, lead with that, go out there, have, find those people, those small business owners that are needing your help and boldly go and help them because they need that help.

MP: 26:09 It's the greatest feeling, isn't it?

CLD: 26:11 Yeah, it really is. Yep.

MP: 26:13 Yeah, it's beautiful. Now, now let's talk a little bit about you. You, you sold your business, you took a bit of time, and now tell us about where you're headed in your, the next leg of your journey.

CLD: 26:26 Yeah, sure. So when I did the merge, so let's start it as a marriage and then I eventually sold and that took over a four year period. So, and that's when I reached out to you, Mike, because again, it was, it was, I mean, I grew this, this business, it was my baby and the whole idea of selling it or edge I guess merge and then eventually sell was, it was, it was a big under, it was a big decision. And, um, so I, I did struggle with the actual merging of the business because what I didn't consider was the emotional side of it. Um, monetary brace, you know, the money was, but I was never about the money. I always felt that it would come when I was growing the business too. I always thought if you do the right things, that the systems in place create a great foundation, hire the right people, you know, it'll all come back to you.

CLD: 27:17 And it certainly did. And then when I did do the selling of the business, um, I felt that I needed to do my reach out again. And I reached out to a coach, transformational coach, and I thought, I, I do need some help because I'm doing this, transforming the business and also myself as well. And during that time I thought, you know what, why not become a coach, a coach? So I did, I went to the next level and I became a certified transformational coach for both business and personal, more the business side. I still am very much a businesswoman. And so I do that now. I sold the rest of my shares two years ago and I do coaching. I also do consulting. One of my recent contracts, actually I've headed for over a year now. It's with Pei connectors. I work with newcomers. I work with immigrant entrepreneurs who have arrived here in the island from India, I, Iran, China, and Vietnam.

CLD: 28:19 And they're looking to set up businesses. So, oh, it's a great way to give back. I really enjoy it. So that's one of my contracts. I still do some consulting work and I have done some for some of the accounting firms in town. And I'm looking at other business ideas. I really enjoy being a business owner. And, uh, so I hope to keep you posted on where this all leads to. I'm on, I'm on a great journey right now and uh, I'm loving what I'm doing, but I'm in the process of rebranding myself because the, the PDI connector role, they came to me and actually that's what my life has been. Business opportunities just tend to show up or fall in my lap and a way. So I'm actually putting together a bus tour next week, so I'm working on that right now because I do event planning as well. So I've got lots of interesting things going on and I still, yeah, I still do tax. I can't get away from tax. I, it's, it's a nice end because people, everybody needs to get their taxes done and uh, it's, it tends to lead to bigger things too, so. Yeah, I enjoy it.

MP: 29:26 Wonderful. Well, it, you're the, you're definitely a person we love to hear about and hear from. You're out there helping a small businesses. It's inspirational and a, and it does r it does our countries well, we have thriving small businesses. So I'm excited to hear where this neck next leg takes you. And I just want to thank you on behalf of our, our listener for sharing your journey. I mean this is many, many will hear this and, and have learnt or seen something that they could do differently or, or be inspired to take new actions and that is such a gift to us. So thank you for that. It's a pleasure having you on. And I would love for you to share, if people are interested in reaching out to you, what's the best way that they can do that?

CLD: 30:16 Well, you know, I don't have my website set up yet. I'm on Linkedin under quarterly Dunbar and my email Cora lee, c o r a l e e@cldpei.com and I'll give you another p I connectors is another way of getting through to me. And uh, the website is www.peiconnectors.ca. You know, and I would love to help and if anyone was interested in reaching out to me, I would certainly love to help them along the way. I do have a lady that is looking to set up a bookkeeping business right now and she actually has one, but she's looking to take it to the next level. So I'm working with her and uh, certainly love to help along the way. If there's anyone has any interest at all, that would be my pleasure.

MP: 31:08 Wonderful. Well, Cora Lee, this has been great. Thank you so much for, for joining us on the podcast.

CLD: 31:15 Well thank you. I really enjoyed this today. Yes, you take care. Yeah, thank you.

MP: 31:20 Thank you. And with that, we wrap another episode of The Successful Bookkeeper podcast to learn more about today's wonderful guests and to get access to all sorts of valuable free business-building resources. You can go to Thesuccessfulbookkeeper.com and I will say if you're listening to this and you've got value from this podcast, please let us know wherever you listen to your podcast, just click there on that review somewhere. I know some of the user interfaces are difficult on android and iPhones, but if you can find a way to leave us a review and let us know and let others know about the podcast, it sure does. Help us get the word out. Until next time,

MP: 31:57 goodbye.