Few people love their first job. Ian Crosby, co-founder and CEO of Bench accounting, was no different.
As an 18-year-old aiming to get into the videogaming industry, he called the CEO of a Vancouver company to tell him what was wrong with his organization, and how he could improve it. Crosby’s go-getter attitude caught the attention of the business, and he was hired to fill the only open role—bookkeeping. He quickly found, however, that it wasn’t a particularly fun job.
“I wanted to beta-test the videogames, because that’s what everyone wants to do,” he tells the Georgia Straight with a laugh, sat across the table at Bench’s downtown office. “I taught myself Visual Basic for Excel so I could automate as much as the bookkeeping job as I could, so I wouldn’t have to spend so much time on it. But the bigger question was, ‘Why was hiring me your best option’? It seemed crazy that there wasn’t a thing where you could go online and get a standard financial package. A small business has to hire people, evaluate them, and wait for them to build a process. It seemed insane to me that everyone was trying to build their own bespoke accounting process. Everyone needs these things.”
The idea became the foundation of what would become Bench. Rallying his best friend from UBC, Jordan Menashy, and childhood pal Adam Saint, the trio aimed to create a standardized product that would do all the bookkeeping and accounting for small businesses or freelancers. After signing on a small team of developers in Siberia, Russia, including then-CTO Pavel Rodionov, the project was accepted to the prestigious U.S. startup accelerator TechStars NYC, and awarded $100,000 to get off the ground. By 2013, they had raised a further $2 million in funding, and officially opened Bench's doors.
“Bench does the simple, sensible basics in terms of accounting for small businesses,” Crosby says. “So you don’t have to know anything, you don’t have to think about it—you just come to us and know that you’re going to get taken care of, and not have to worry about the IRS [or CRA] breathing down your neck.
“A lot of small businesses or freelancers view finance with anxiety,” he continues. “There’s this not knowing aspect. You can go and teach yourself on the Internet, but then you’re wondering if that article was even right. There’s no one who tells you, ‘Hey, you’re good.’ You can hire someone, but typically it’s really expensive. A small business can’t spend $10,000 on accounting, and accountants won’t work for that kind of money. So we really fill that gap.”
Bench differentiates itself from other accounting software by automating the laborious parts of the process, and relying on humans to handle the more individual elements of a business’s finances. The company uses machine learning to better organize its customers’ debits and credits, and become more efficient over time.
“A lot of people talk about efficiency and automation, but it’s like an engineer’s rendition of efficiency,” Crosby says. “They don’t really understand the problem, but they’ve connected two systems together, and it’s now automated. The way we look at automation is by looking at a person, and working out that they spend eight hours doing a job. How can we turn that into six hours? That’s automation. It’s reducing labour hours, because you have to pass those labour hours as costs onto the customer. That’s how we’ve managed to create the cheapest offering, but with high quality.”
Shortly after Bench launched, the company made the choice to move back to Vancouver—a decision which afforded it more financial leeway than headquartering in New York. Returning to the city, however, had its own challenges. The lower mainland’s tech industry is rapidly expanding, boasting a startup ecosystem ranked among the top 15 in the world. As a result, local businesses have to compete with an increasing talent shortage. Now America’s largest bookkeeping service for small businesses and a growing player in the Canadian market, Bench has set an ambitious target to hire 100 people by Christmas. Defying the city’s labour shortage, it’s well on the way to hitting that number, through initiatives such as the upcoming Startup Open House event.
“In the last month, we’ve made 30 offers,” Crosby says. “We’ve got another 70 to go. We’re hiring across the board, so sales, marketing, engineering, design, and a lot of bookkeepers.
“Bench has this unique program where you can come in no matter what your background is, and learn the skills—so for bookkeepers, you can learn how to do bookkeeping. We’ve found there’s no correlation between things that society traditionally rewards, and who’s actually going to do a good job—even more so in this bookkeeping world, because there’s almost no relation between an outside bookkeeping job, and bookkeeping at Bench. All the tools are different, the process is different, the philosophy is different. Other than the theory of debits and credits, which his foundational, everything from there is a departure.
“We’re not looking for people who look a certain way or talk a certain way, or have a particular background,” he continues. “We’ve had philosophy diploma grads that are way more successful than top institution accounting grads. There’s just no correlation. What we look for a lot more is just attitude, and people who are just excited to go build something together.”
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