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Remote working: Thriving in the regions

Rather than leading to their demise, tech like the Cloud is letting New Zealand's regions survive and even thrive, says Beany's John Curtis.

Ah - the naivety of youth. As a 25-year-old, did I know I was carving a track to a future of remote working? Doubtful. I was just foolish enough to believe I could do no wrong and the world would simply bend to my will.

My friend since primary school and I set up a tech company in Taupo, in 1994 “because we could”. We wouldn’t look for local clients, our clients could be anywhere. We would author CD-ROMs and some of NZs first websites. If you look at the history books, 1994 could be deemed quite early in the history of the World Wide Web. We had to explain the technology to all our clients, and how it was going to revolutionise their business. Back then most people didn’t even know what “the internet” was... but they soon would. We saw our future, and that was one where working remotely, enabled by the internet, would be the norm.

Auckland was, and still is to a large extent, where the work was. Neither of us wanted to move to Auckland but we knew we could go foraging there and bring the spoils back to where we wanted to live and work. Taupo.

We had a phone line dedicated to bringing the internet into the office. Because it was prohibitively expensive to do this normally, we befriended the guy behind the local ISP and helped him run the ISP in return for “unlimited” 28.8kbps internet.  We were the envy of our friends, with the coolest internet connection in town. We got so popular we had to remove all the lettering on our keyboards to filter out casual users while still allowing us touch-typists to work.

All this proved our point - we don’t need to be in the same town as you to work effectively. The internet was going to transform the way work was done, and where it was done from. A few years later, and it’s fair to say we failed to extract a steady income due to our own inexperience in running a business. We had somehow managed to dodge the fairy tale dot-com multi-million-dollar exit, so I headed off to the UK to do a software contract and shovel £’s back to NZ to fill the financial hole we had dug for ourselves. I still had to travel to do that one!

It is interesting to compare the tech landscape then and now. While working at Weta Digital as a developer for the motion capture department (2004-2014), I experienced the benefits of having effectively unlimited server capacity for processing and storage. But this tech, and the army of support staff required to run it, came at a cost that only a huge movie studio could afford. Yet on the small side, local businesses had to contend with running one or more servers on-site that managed their email and files. This was a large, regular capital expense, and support required experienced staff. The risk to your business was considerable if an update failed, if a piece of mission critical software broke, if a virus got in, if intruders gained ingress via remote access, if your backups failed or became too complicated to manage effectively. Business technology had painted itself into a corner with ever increasing complexity. 

Around that time, in 2006, Google Docs was born. It’s easy to miss how revolutionary this was, because what you saw was a very simple word processor. The genius was that it ran in a web browser, and there was nothing more you needed to install. You could open a document on any device, anywhere you liked. You could collaborate with another author in real time. There was no save button! Behind the scenes you were using someone else’s computing resources. They focused on the keeping the tech running, while you focused on doing your job.

I loved this idea - Software as a Service - it really did solve so many problems. At the time I made a mental note that when I left Weta digital I would re-style myself as a “Cloud Evangelist” and spread the good word.

So here I am, living in Taupo, again, having returned here from Wellington 6 years ago with a young family. I love it here. The people, the lake, the six minute drive or 10 minute cycle to work, and a manageable mortgage!

After moving here I scraped by doing consultancy work and cloud migrations, but always on the lookout for software development opportunities based in the cloud. One of these opportunities has grown into Beany.com and started as an idea hatched by long-time friend Sue de Bievre (Beany CEO). Having worked in accounting for 20+ years she knew there was a better way to do it, and I totally agreed. Being frustrated with the fees and pedantic data collection I did annually for my accountant, I could see that streamlining accounting would be doing the world a favour. Nearly four years ago we put up the first web application for Beany for an eager group of test users, and now we’re well established in the market and one of the few Xero Platinum partners in the world.

Beany set out to do things differently - reshape the traditional business model entirely, not just be “an accountant with email”. We are a true online business. We have no offices, own no servers, and have no IT department yet we manage thousands of accounts from all over the country. It might sound odd, but despite leveraging technology in every aspect of our business, we don’t consider ourselves a “tech company”. We’re clearly an accounting firm. But we’re a product of the efficiencies and benefits that cloud services make available. Costs of operation are a 10th of a traditional accounting firm, our staff work from wherever they wish, our customers don’t have to travel to interact with us. It’s a win on all fronts.

Beany’s admin team are based in Taupo, and they use my co-working space, Kloud Collective as a hub, but largely work from home. And we have accountants based everywhere from Dunedin to Tauranga who have clients who are allocated on expertise requirements, not geography.

Working in a distributed team is not for everyone. But those who embrace it will soon view the alternatives as bizarre and arbitrary. I find the lifestyle a perfect fit for me. Today it’s a Sunday. I’m writing this article with the kids around me, half watching the movie they have on, keeping an eye on the time before heading off to a band practice. There’s time for life to expand when you remove a commute to a big corporate office from the diary and don’t ring fence people into a 9-5, Monday to Friday routine. 

John Curtis is co-founder and CTO of Beany, an online accountancy based entirely in the cloud that looks after over half a billion dollars for SMEs across NZ.