Bringing New (and Positive) Meaning to ‘Creative Accounting’ With Twyla Verhelst

Seeing the words “creative” and “accounting” next to each other in a sentence used to mean someone’s going to court. Today, however, it can actually be a positive thing.

Twyla Verhelst is a CPA and head of the FreshBooks accountant channel. She also leads the company’s Accounting Partner Program, and has launched a mentorship program for women in accounting.

In this episode of Spend Culture Stories, Twyla discusses how introverts can connect with the human side of accounting, why she treats social media as an experiment, and how to introduce big organizational changes gently.

Twyla Verhelst of FreshBooks

Twyla Verhelst of FreshBooks

💵 What she does: CPA, head of the FreshBooks accountant channel and the FreshBooks Accounting Partner Program, and curator of the Women in Accounting Mentorship program.

💡 Key quote: “Saying no is really hard, especially as a business owner when you’re just getting started and you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to pay the bills, I’ve got to start making some money.’ I get that, but I encourage you to refine what it is that your business is doing, and get really good at that one thing sooner rather than later.”

👋 Where to find her: LinkedIn | Twitter | Instagram

Listen to the episode

Episode summary

As much as Twyla enjoys digging into deep accounting work, she also tries to keep her approach fresh. That means embracing new technology and ideas within the industry. She calls this “progressive accounting.”

“A progressive accountant is somebody who is creative in their thinking, who is open to  something different, or doing something unique,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a complete pivot — but it’s something that’s not the traditional way that things have been done.”

One thing progressive accountants love more than others in their profession is getting to grips with new technology.

“But it’s not just about embracing the tech and flipping that over to your clients or your staff. It’s about embracing that technology to create a better human experience, and to wrap in something that’s a bit creative, and a bit unique to your offering,” she says.

Twyla’s forward-thinking approach has led her to challenge her own assumptions about accounting and how she thinks about her work, from client relationships to employee psychology.


Top takeaways from this week’s conversation

Empower your technology cheerleaders and empathize with the holdouts 👏 

When Twyla was running her own accounting firm, she and her partner forced the shift to new software over a single weekend. “Our staff came back on Monday and we had uprooted everything they knew,” she says. She adds that they only got away with it because it was a small firm.

Rather than replicate this plan, she recommends looking for fellow technology cheerleaders who are already working alongside you. Cultivate that enthusiasm, and together you can convince the naysayers.

At the same time, try to understand where the holdouts are coming from; it’s usually understandable. They might be afraid that their job is being automated, or that they won’t be able to use the software. Once you understand their concerns, “see if there’s something personalized and strategic you can do to help them through this transition,” Twyla says.

Introverts make great accountants, but don’t hide in the numbers 🤝

Introverts tend to be undervalued in a world built on networking, but self-described introvert Twyla points out that they often make great accountants. 

“As introverts, we like to get into what it is that we’re good at, which is often looking at numbers and solving problems,” she says. “We can sit behind our desks and get deep into our work.”

However, Twyla has also realized that in order to offer her clients the best possible service, she has to push against her introverted tendencies and make the effort to connect with other people.

“I’m not saying change your personality — I’m saying that you, as a human, are valued and needed,” she says. “Technology is doing a lot of the mundane, heads-down work that we used to do manually. I believe that what will never be replaced is the human component to our work: the interactions and relationships we have with clients and team members.”

Treat social media as an experiment 🧪 

Joining the loud and messy world of social media is a unique kind of challenge, so make it as simple as possible. Twyla recommends using it for one of two things: marketing — looking for new clients — or networking — looking for other people within your industry.

Once you’ve identified which one you’re going to prioritize, treat your ventures into social media land as an experiment. Beginner’s luck doesn’t exist on social media: you have to work at it consistently to see results, and the truth is that some platforms just don’t resonate with certain types of content.

“Be open to the opportunity that it presents — maybe it will be certain platforms, certain types of connections,” Twyla says. “You have to explore, and make the journey your own. See what comes back for you: is this filling a need, or resolving a pain point, or expanding my knowledge?”


Spend Culture highlights

Have your cheerleaders shout the ‘Y’ 💡 

[12:16 ] “A better way to embrace change management is to get team members who are cheerleaders. Do some initial consultations with your team to figure out where their heads are at in terms of the spectrum of change, technology, cloud accounting, all of these things. 

Get those cheerleaders inside your group and use them to help support the change, because no matter how small your team is, you can’t do it alone. You’ll always be pushing a huge boulder up a really steep hill, and it’ll be uncomfortable and potentially unsuccessful. Figure out who the key people in your team are who are already excited about it, and make them part of that process.”

Remember that change can be scary and threatening 💡 

[13:26] “Before I became an accountant, I minored in psychology in university. I frequently use that to think about what’s motivating people who are resistant to change. What can you say to them or give to them that would impact their decision? What is it that they care about? Human nature is to think, ‘How is this going to impact me? What does this mean for me?’ 

So figure out what this means for them. They could feel threatened. Maybe they look at automation and think, ‘I’m the person who does the data entry, I’m going to lose my job.’ It’ll be something emotional or something fearful that’s preventing them from getting involved with the change, and really embracing it and getting excited.”

Should you be the one doing this right now? 💡 

[17:04] “Leaders should only do things that only they should do, whether that means you should use more automation or technology, or whether that means you should lean on another team member, or an outsourced solution. It’s thinking about what it is that you’re doing inside of your organization that isn’t what you, as a leader, should be doing. 

Probably everything that you and your team is doing needs to get done: it’s how you streamline it in a way that’s embracing the technology, but still having the human element. Workflows, technology, team members, and skill sets all play into this.”

Don’t succumb to ‘Squirrel Syndrome’ 💡 

[20:01] “With technology, you have to be careful not to go too far, and start chasing squirrels. In the accounting industry, tech is changing so much, and the tech companies are throwing content at us — especially if you’re somebody who lives online and uses the different social media platforms. 

You see, ‘Oh, a new workflow tool, a new tool to take my webinars and convert them into social media assets.’ You get inundated with all these different types of technology and different apps, and you have to be mindful of not overdoing it. That’s when you get ‘Squirrel Syndrome,’ and you don’t settle into the technology and leverage it to its finest, because you’re constantly chasing the next tool that’s shiny and new, and that the fintech companies just marketed to you really well.”

Start with just one — this applies to social media and more 💡 

[35:43] “On social media and in other aspects of life, I’m a big fan of starting with one. Figure out what you want to explore with social media, and hone in on which platform best serves that need. Spend time on that platform. It’s not an overnight thing: you’ve got to make connections, engage with people, and put yourself out there for a while before you get returns. That means an investment in time, and recognizing what you want to get from it before you start. And maybe you won’t get that, maybe you’ll get something completely different, but at least start with an intention. 

Is it marketing? Or networking? Or is it recruiting? Is it trying to learn more about other industries? Starting with an ambition of where you’re trying to go will help kick off which platform, what to share, who to connect with, etc.”

Know when to say no thanks 💡 

[40:13] “I can think of times when we’d get a referral from an existing client: it’s hard to say no to those types of leads. But they would come in and they would be in an industry we’d never worked in, or we’d never dealt with that sort of complexity, or that software, or that workflow, or those payroll needs. And sometimes you can take that as a really great learning opportunity, and the time to get into something different. 

But that’s not always the right answer, even though you have this desire to help somebody. Because of that, there were times in client relationships when my team and I didn’t give our best work.”

Top quotes

[9:14] “I love being connected with people in our industry from all over the globe, and learning about what they’re up to, and going, ‘Huh, I never thought about it that way,’ or, ‘Huh, that’s really different.’”

[25:29] “Something I’ve done over the past few years is recognize where my uniqueness is, and what I can do to make sure that when I communicate with somebody, I’m giving them that unique human experience that only I can give — that technology can never replace.”

[47:16] “I don’t think I’ve had my biggest success yet. I’ve had successes along the way, but I’m not done. I feel confident that I have more things that I’m going to pursue, and I’m going to have other successes.”

[28:22] “Build a resilient company over the long term. You don’t want a company that just lives off short-term goals and short-term results. You want to build something sustainable in the long term.”

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