Impact first: Building a business with purposeful growth

Anja O'Connor

Accountant, Small Business Systems Coach

Originally from Germany, Anja O’Connor spent her first 15 years in New Zealand building her life—but got to a point where she knew there was a better way to live. Anja walked away from the old way she was doing business as a co-owner at a standard accounting firm. Rather than following the dollar signs, she sold her share of the business, spent more time with her son, moved into a tiny house, and researched a new way to do business.

“I didn’t want to work my ass off just for money. I decided to start again with accounting, but do it differently.”

Anja works with small and medium businesses to ‘grow good, reduce bad.’ She introduces them to environmental sustainability by way of impact accounting, training to build capability and address overshooting of planetary boundaries, and financial mentoring and money literacy coaching.

Business growth is an option, not a certainty

Often businesses keep growing because that’s what’s expected, rather than because it’s the right thing for them to do. In doing this they’re also continuing to use limited resources.

In some cases, it’s about asking the harder questions, such as how can your business operate in a more considered way, or are you even doing what you want to do as a business owner, says Anja.

“Growing your business is fed into all of the narratives—there’s a strong focus on how to scale your business. But there are a lot of people who just want to put food on the table, pay the mortgage and expenses, save a bit, and chill.”

The reality is that to survive in your own business, there does need to be some degree of growth, says Anja. “You need to use resources to set yourself up. It’s all interconnected, so that’s why I focus on growing the good and de-growing the bad.”

Anja’s approach is from the bottom up, building relationships with her clients and showing them a different way to consume resources. “People still need to grow to survive. But once they have that survival, they’re in a steady state. For the economy to reach a steady state, it needs to de-grow.”

For this to occur, there needs to be a mindset shift from consumption on a larger scale, to the creation of local relationships, a low footprint, and the minimal use of resources.

Generate value-based work

Anja has a careful approach to managing the growth of her business. “I don’t want to feed into the growth machine. And I don’t want to use any growth-obsessed businesses either.”

“Building relationships is what every freelancer needs to do,” says Anja. As well as local, in-person connections, the online community feeds leads through virtual word-of-mouth. “People will see me online, say they need to talk to me, and we set up a Zoom.”

Her connections often come from others observing the work she does. As a coordinator for a social enterprise network, Anja spends ten hours a week online, so the network sees her ethos in action. One example was when she declined a flight to Wellington for a meeting, as she chooses to Zoom rather than fly. “One of the people in the meeting said I want you to do my accounts because you’re walking the talk. She was really impressed.”

Anja finds alternatives to jumping on a plane by looking at ways to limit resource use and be more efficient. This can include driving and making a trip more comprehensive by visiting social enterprise hubs, staying with friends, and catching up with people in person.

“It’s about being aware of your own footprint.”

Replace competition with collaboration and impact

Collaboration in business brings support and solutions, which is why thinking further afield than your immediate environment is essential. Anja questions if there’s a common vision for New Zealand, or for the planet. Often, she says, people tend to think about themselves and their own business.

“Businesses start to collaborate when they stop thinking about growth and they stop thinking about competition.”

An example Anja gives is a couple of local cafes that service a retirement home, a kindergarten, and offices. Instead of having delivery trucks from each running multiple times a day, the owners could organise to have one staff member do a single delivery run for both cafes.

“All of a sudden it makes sense to people.”

For freelancers and contractors wanting to build solid relationships, Anja encourages talking about their ‘why’, thinking about their impact, and to also ask others about the impact they observe your business making. 

“That’s how you start a conversation. Boom. When you get those conversations going there is so much gold in there. People are hurting, people are confused, people do not know where to start. Find a fellow confused wonderer, and you build a relationship pretty quick.”

In asking why you do what you do, Anja says to try expanding past the ‘means to an end’ conversation. “Talk about the impact your business is making. Aren’t we all trying to make changes together, just by a lot of little changes? And don’t ever be afraid to have a good debate about things too—and question everything.”

The introduction of AI to the world of work also brings up a bunch of questions and gives new importance to personal relationships, says Anja. “Personal relationships are going to survive all the AI stuff—there’s a lot of mistrust with it. Humans are great at jumping on one thing and making it the ‘next big thing’.”

Anja uses AI as a tool to generate ideas and basic writing. “But then I go ‘eh’, you’re not that intelligent, but thanks for the framework, and then I edit it.”

Where AI could be amazing is with research and modelling admits Anja. “Why don’t we use it for our climate change predictions and find out how to rein everything back? That’s where AI needs to be deployed, big time. Bring it on.”

Practical tips to look after your business and yourself

For more traditional tools, Anja uses several software solutions and also recommends them to her clients as options to be more efficient and resourceful, both in time and budget.

As a contractor or freelancer, managing your books is an unavoidable task. Anja recommends Karmly—it’s free, and keeps track of billing and clients in the same platform, without having to use spreadsheets.

“If people work from a spreadsheet, it’s so hard to pick it up at the end of the year—it can end up a real mess. So I always suggest an invoicing programme. And start a new bank account, particularly if you’re not GST registered, and put all income and expenses in it so it’s simple to add up at the end of the year.”

Customer management is vital, says Anja, and she says that’s where Karmly is invaluable as you can put all details in a single place. Another essential part of her systems and processes are templates for the Client Services Agreement and a Confidentiality Agreement.

Timesheets are another valuable asset. “You have to monitor what you’re doing for transparency,” says Anja. For her work, she uses Xero, setting up work as a project, assigning a fixed price, and logging time against it. 

With clients who face overwhelm, Anja offers the additional skillset of life coaching. This means she’s able to take them through challenging discussions, reframe certain things and offer options for additional support if required.

Find your community

Working on your own can be isolating, so relationships have a new significance, Anja notes. “It can be lonely. It takes a while to build relationships, but then you can sit in what you’ve created and realise that it’s good. You can reach out to clients and ask how it’s going. There’s a lot of value in a quick check-in with people.”

It also helps to find other ways to gain interaction, and for Anja being a yoga teacher enables this. “They think I’m doing something for them, but actually they’re doing something for me.”

Anja doesn’t subscribe to the notion that business is ‘just business’, and not personal—but rather that business has to be personal. “You have to bring your personality into the business. Because otherwise, why would people want to work with you? Yes, you do good work, but it’s because they like you. I won’t do business with someone I don’t like.”

“When you start out in business or freelancing you take everybody and everything. But now I can actually say ‘no’. I feel so lucky and grateful that I can be more selective now.”

Find your people, the ones who support you, and who support your why, recommends Anja.

“If you have a bigger ‘why’ and you can’t find it in a PAYE or salaried job, get out and do what you want to do. Find the people that support you. Then it all becomes clear. Giving up something known, safe, and trusted sometimes makes room for something so much bigger and better.”

You can find Anja at Ready Zero Go.

Karmly is a better, smarter and faster way to manage your freelance business. And it’s absolutely free.