A revelation in Piccadilly Circus made Lisa Curteis dedicate her life to Rosemary Bookkeeping and enabling people to get fulfilment out of their work
It’s not often TfL is credited with inspiring a major epiphany but seeing a London bus in heavy Piccadilly Circus traffic brought on perhaps one of the most pivotal realisations of Lisa Curteis’s life. “I was outside the tube station having a bit of a heated conversation with one of my then directors,” she says. “I thought: ‘if I got hit by that bus, have I done my best?’” Realising there was still a great deal she wanted to achieve with her life, she quit her job and this set her on a path that would eventually see her become director of Rosemary Bookkeeping, an outsourced bookkeeping franchise with 21 franchisees across the UK.
Curteis grew up in Bushey and attended the local comprehensive but doesn’t feel she was a natural academic. “I’ll never forget playing Scrabble with my dad and my older sister,” she says. “I scored about 20 points.” Despite this, she was incredibly determined and hard working, something evidenced by the fact that not long after leaving school she was snapped up for a role as PA to the personnel director of the Bank of England. However, after a few years, she began to feel that the City was not for her. “I was looking at people who had been there for 30 years and thinking ‘I don’t want that to be me’,” she says.
Part of this lack of enthusiasm was down to the fact that Curteis had always dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur. “From my late teens, I’d wanted to run my own business,” she says. “I used to chat to a friend and ask: ‘what can we do to start our own company?’”
After leaving the Bank of England and spending several weeks travelling round the US, Curteis found a new role working for the Index Group, the consulting arm of CSC, a provider of next-generation technology solutions and services. But whilst this gave her experience of skills in disciplines such as marketing, finance, HR and operations, Curteis was still on the lookout for something that would allow her to flex her entrepreneurial muscles.
Fortunately this opportunity came when she was offered a position at the new venture Corven. Founded by three former colleagues at CSC, Corven provided management consultancy to FTSE 100 companies and gave Curteis her first real taste of the startup life. “It was very entrepreneurial,” she says. “I really got involved at the grassroots.”
Having been brought in at the ground floor, Curteis became a jack of all trades, heading up all of the fledgling company’s back office functions from recruitment to marketing. And over the course of the next decade, she saw it grow from a core team of four to a thriving business in the capital with over 50 employees. “From an initial $45,000 investment made by the partners, it developed into a £10m concern,” she says.
However, by this time, Curteis was beginning to get itchy feet. “Working with Corven was supposed to be part of my five-year plan and, by this point, ten years had passed,” she says. And after having her realisation in Piccadilly Circus, she knew that the time was right to make good her ambitions of owning her own business. “I started chatting to some friends of my sister who ran a local bookkeeping business,” she says. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Having been founded in 2002 by Claire Watson-Bardot, the company that would become Rosemary Bookkeeping had reached a crossroads. It had a proven model but Watson-Bardot was still trying to find the right strategy to help her scale the business. Fortunately, when she was at CSC, Curteis had studied for her higher national certificate and this had brought her into contact with the perfect model to grow the business further. “I’d learned about textbook franchising from my college days,” she says. “It quickly became clear that was the answer.”
Before kickstarting its franchising drive, the business’s branding needed a refresh, something that was inevitably influenced by its target market of micro- and small businesses. “When startups take on a bookkeeper for the first time, you could be the first person that they’re allowing into their business,” says Curteis. “They’re sharing a lot with you so they’ve got to trust you.”
Because of this, rather than plumping for a name that appealed to corporate sensibilities, the team settled for the softer and more small-business friendly Rosemary Bookkeeping – although Curteis admits they may have also had an ulterior motive for their choice of name. “At the time, the main software we used was Sage – it was Sage and Rosemary,” she laughs. “It seems a bit cheesy now.”
But it wasn’t just the company’s branding that needed a breath of fresh air: it became clear it could use some extra help in the boardroom. This came in the form of Curteis’s now business partner and fellow director Joanna Dennis, with whom she had worked at CSC. “We’ve known each other for a long time and always worked really well together,” she says.
Having been part of a gym business, served as chief operating officer of a company making gin and vodka and worked in locations across Europe, Asia and Australasia, there were few better placed than Dennis to inject some startup spirt into the business. “Jo’s not your stereotypical accountant,” Curteis says. “She’s a very entrepreneurial person.”
And this wasn’t the only assistance the fledgling franchise had: helping it iron out the kinks in its model and gear up for franchising was Peter Williams, an experienced franchise consultant. “Peter set us on our way and guided us in the early days,” Curteis says. Not only did he give the new franchise input on considerations like putting together an ops manual and joining the bfa but he also advised them on launching a pilot to test the model. After conducting a six-month trial in Woking, Rosemary Bookkeeping’s team knew it was ready to roll things out to the public. “We launched at The National Franchise Exhibition in 2009 and, off the back of that, signed our first franchisee in early 2010,” she says.
Unwilling to rest on its laurels,Rosemary Bookkeeping quickly began to sign more franchisees to its network. But making a name for your franchise when you have only limited funds at your disposal can be a slow and arduous process. “Back then, it was very much about getting in magazines and going to exhibitions,” says Curteis.
Fortunately, as time passed, another channel has come into its own for Rosemary Bookkeeping: social media. “Nowadays, people find us through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn,” she says. “That’s much easier: you can control your costs and you can dip in and out depending on where and who you want to target.”
To do this, however, a franchise must properly identify the kinds of people it wants to focus on. Whilst Rosemary Bookkeeping does look for things like basic numeracy, character is as important as skill set. “They’ve got to be Positive Peters rather than Negative Nancies,” Curteis explains.
Running a business full-time requires a significant amount of determination and, because of this, Rosemary Bookkeeping has found that its best performing franchisees are those able to steer into a headwind. “The way I see it is when life comes at you, how do you handle it?” says Curteis. “We’ve had franchisees whose spouses have been close to death, who’ve had major disabilities themselves and they’re still firing forward.”
This becomes especially important when juggling the demands of work and family. “As a working mum, you’re your own worst critic,” says Curteis. “You’re always thinking: ‘How am I balancing things? Am I doing this right?’”
Certainly in the early days of the franchise, Curteis admits she didn’t have the balance quite right; even when she went into labour with her son, she struggled to switch off for long. “My friends were coming in to meet me after he was born and I was already on my iPad sending messages,” she says. With time, not only has Curteis achieved a much better work-life balance for herself but has also helped create an environment where franchisees can fit full-time employment around their home lives. “Really it’s about getting that harmony and not having to apologise for it,” she says.
Once Rosemary Bookkeeping has found a candidate with the right stuff, they are given comprehensive training to get them up to speed. After kicking off with a week of getting-to-market training – which educates franchisees on reaching their customer base and the ins and outs of sales and marketing – candidates then move on to a 12-week launch programme that blends technical and practical elements. “It’s based on open learning but there are dedicated mentoring, coaching and weekly onboarding calls,” says Curteis.
When this has been completed, franchisees still aren’t simply left to fend for themselves: Rosemary Bookkeeping provides a whole host of ongoing support, including a buddy system, a help desk and knowledge banks. Ever since Rosemary Bookkeeping launched as a franchise, it has recognised the importance of backing up this support with a strong head-office team. “At one stage, we had four directors, all with experience in different business disciplines,” Curteis says. “Claire was the bookkeeper, Sarah [Carlile] headed up the marketing, I did the franchise recruitment and Jo was the technical accountant.”
While there have been some changes at the board level over the years and Dennis and Curteis’s roles have become more strategic and less hands-on, the franchise recognises a strong support function is still as important as ever. “The success of the business relies on the franchisees and the head-office team coming together,” says Curteis. “It’s about growing as a partnership.”
Curteis hasn’t only focused her attention on forming closer ties within the network however. In 2013, she was approached by Pip Wilkins, now CEO of the bfa, who asked her to join the organisation’s associate board. “It represents the smaller brands: there are 901 franchisors in the UK, two-thirds of which have 20 or less units,” says Curteis. The needs of an international franchisor will differ significantly from those just starting out and, whilst Curteis’s term ended in 2015, she relished the opportunity to speak for her franchise and those like it. “I’m quite vocal: I’m not able to just sit back and nod,” she says. “To be able to have a voice about how you’re represented is a fabulous opportunity.”
It does seem this concerted effort has paid off. Not only has Rosemary Bookkeeping reached 21 territories but it has been nominated for a string of awards, something Curteis feels can prove invaluable in acknowledging employees’ and franchisees’ hard work. “It’s about the recognition it gives them when we put them forward,” she says. “People like receiving accolades for their efforts.” One example she gives is that of Steve Brown, the Rosemary Bookkeeping franchisee for Newbury, who recently received a nomination for Olderpreneur Franchisee of the Year at the bfa HSBC Franchisee of the Year Awards 2016. “They’ve had lots of challenges in their franchise and he’s worked very hard, so having that is huge for them,” she says.
In terms of Rosemary Bookkeeping’s plans for the future, Curteis shies away from putting a number on things. “When we started out, we had these great aspirations: ‘we’re going to have 50 by this stage’,” she says. “But with time you learn it’s not about the quantity of franchisees you sign: it’s about the quality.” With this in mind, Rosemary Bookkeeping is focusing its attention on securing the right candidates rather than just churning through as many as possible. “That’s my target: fewer leads with a better conversion rate,” she says.
But this isn’t Curteis’s only ambition for the future: she has personal goals she’s looking to fulfil too. “Entrepreneurship isn’t all about making money,” she says. “Giving back, in whatever form, helps you feel more fulfilled.” After Curteis’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, she began raising money for Cancer Research UK and a slew of other local and national charities, something that continues to this day.
On top of this, having acted as a mentor for the government’s Start Up Loans scheme, which helps young people between 18 and 30 to get a business idea off the ground, in 2014, Curteis is eager to continue helping the younger generation follow in her footsteps. “Those are my personal goals,” she concludes. “Supporting, sharing and moving forward.”