My entrepreneurial journey began as Aurora International Services (AIS) in the spare bedroom of my semi-detached house in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in the year 2000.
The name arose because I thought it made me sound bigger, and at the time, if your name was included in your business name, you didn’t have to spend the $60 to formally register the name, so I was also being cheap. (That’s frugal in business owner speak! 🙂 )
I had no grand aspirations of a business at the time. I just didn’t like how much time my daughter was spending in daycare, and I honestly felt like I was missing out on so much. I had a corporate job and so I started AIS really small. I dipped my toe in the water to see what happened, but did not really commit to anything or really put anything on the line.
Fast forward just over one year, when fate intervened and sent some signals my way. I went through a messy divorce and became a single mom. The company I was working for at the time was purchased by an international conglomerate and was being relocated to the US. It was still too close to 9/11 and the colour of my skin was not conducive to living in the US. So it was do or die.
Either I throw myself into this venture and give myself the freedom to spend time with my daughter, or I pound the pavement and find another job. Don’t ask me why I chose the former. I certainly didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. I didn’t view myself as a leader of any sort, or a visionary. I simply was trying to have a little control of my life and my time and be able to play with my daughter and read her stories whenever she wanted. I gave myself six months. That was about what I had in funds that I could survive on if I didn’t have a single client or make a dime. If after the six months I couldn’t support myself and my daughter, I told myself that I would go back into the corporate world.
That was 2002.
My first client ended up being my former employer. My second client was in Barbados, as a spin-off from my first client. My third client was my real
estate agent. My fourth client was her friend. And then it just morphed from there. My clients grew from word of mouth, and I pretty much performed any service that was related to finance: taxes, accounting department support, year-end assistance, bookkeeping, accounting, and accounting system conversions.
If there was a job that was related to numbers in any way, shape or form, I took it.
I worked in the morning before my daughter woke up, played with her in the mornings, dropped her off for a couple of hours at daycare, and then worked again after she went to bed. There were long days and nights, but I was energized. I had control of my life and had clients who allowed me to pay my bills, keep a roof over my head, and put food on the table.
My business ran as just me until about 2006, when I hired my first subcontractor. By then, I had met Steve and relocated my business 60km (37 mi) west of Toronto to Burlington, Ontario, so that he and I could be together. That story is probably a book all on its own, as there was a great deal of discussion as to whether I was moving to Burlington or he was moving to Toronto. Steve says we compromised but I am not sure how since I moved to Burlington. ?
From 2006 to 2010, the business ran from my home with staff meetings around my dining table. As we moved along I was very frustrated with the disparity in what was passing as bookkeeping for small business, I started offering Bookkeeping and CFO Services as a package. My subcontractors provided the bookkeeping and I contributed the CFO skill-set.
My business continued this way for many years with me working all the time. Having an office in my home. Getting up in the morning and heading to the office. Going to the office before going to bed at night. Work/life balance was a myth. It didn’t exist, and there was no separation for me. I didn’t have the personality or the discipline to ever turn it off.
In 2010, I took what I believe was my first big leap into the business world by moving the business out of my home. It was also the birth of AIS Solutions. Aurora International Services disappeared, and we created this exciting new business. Steve had always been my silent partner with Aurora International Services. He was my sounding board, my voice of reason, my biggest ally and support system, all while still running his own retail and e-commerce business at the time. But in 2010, we formalized that participation and he joined AIS Solutions part-time to help build this conglomerate that would shake up the bookkeeping world. Or at least that was our goal.
My journey began a few years before Juliet’s, back in 1983 – well maybe more than a few. ?
I learned in my early twenties that my best option for a successful career was probably going to be working for myself.
Within the first three years of graduating college with a degree in electronics, I found myself starting and ending five different jobs with five different companies. With the first couple of jobs, I was convinced that I had just not found the right situation for me. But, after jobs four and five, even I had to admit the problem was not with the five companies. I didn’t like to admit it, but I appeared to be the common thread throughout this scenario.
It became obvious that I had a problem following instructions I didn’t believe in and having others tell me what to do.
My mom called it an independent attitude; I called it strong-willed and decisive and my dad had a completely different name for it. ?
My last job in the corporate world was very brief but in this case also very important. I say important because it led to an offer that would start me on my entrepreneurial journey. At 27, one of my retail clients was looking to expand and needed a manager to look after their newest retail location. At this point, I had zero experience working in retail and even less experience managing people. ?
Although the offer was very appealing, I almost didn’t take it because the truth was I didn’t need it. I already had a pretty good job, nice salary with bonuses, car, expense account, travel. But, they were persistent and finally, they asked that all important question…what would it take for me to join them?
I believe the best time to negotiate is when you really don’t care about the outcome and so I said. “I am interested, but am not willing to give up this job for another job…if you want me it must include the opportunity for ownership – I want to be master of my own ship…I want the chance to own a piece of the business I am going to help build.
We went back and forth and concluded an agreement that was fair to everyone. I would have complete autonomy to run the business and if it reached certain goals I would be given the opportunity to buy a piece of the business. It was during my retail journey that I also learned that full autonomy also meant full responsibility for success and failure. And so, it began.
Up until then, I had not experienced much self-doubt, but it hit me then when I thought about what I had done…I had a young family and I had just given up a great salary and benefits for the opportunity to run a brand new retail business with zero experience. What did I know about retail? I had never actually worked a day in a retail showroom. Had I completely lost my mind? Perhaps.
Things began well enough. We had a great first year and were profitable. The second year was even better as I reached the necessary goals and so I became a co-owner in the business. The problem was that the early success had made me blind to the things I didn’t know about retail and in year four reality set in. Our top line was $2M plus but we were losing money. My partners were not impressed (remember, I had autonomy) and I was very angry and frustrated with myself. How could we possibly be losing money when we are selling more products than ever?
This brought me to another important event in my entrepreneurial journey. I was determined to understand the numbers and learn what was going on financially. So, I called my Accountant and told him that I wanted to understand every number, every line and every note in our financial statements. Fortunately for me, he was the type of Accountant every small business owner should have and he was eager to help. He was patient and gave me a crash course in financial statements and taught me why I shouldn’t only be looking at my Income statement and bank balance. He also taught me about profit margins, discounting and inventory-turn, things critical to the success of a retail business.
Fast forward a few years and I bought my partners out of the company completely and grew my retail business from one location to two to three to four storefronts and an e-commerce platform. I should explain at this point that one thing my journey has taught me is to not believe in success and failure…only success and “learnings”. And, I can tell you I experienced plenty of both during those years.
During this time I became fascinated with computers and technology, but most of all with the web and the opportunities it presented for small businesses like mine. This was 1997, long before Social Media, Email Marketing or even Google existed. For a number of reasons, I knew that in order for my business to continue to grow and prosper we needed a website so we could take advantage of this thing called the World Wide Web. And, so over the next year or so I learned how to build websites and created one for my own business. Throughout this time I became an avid student of online marketing and how it could help our business to grow – social media, online advertising, email marketing, Search Engine Optimization – I immersed myself into all of it.
By now, Juliet and I had met and decided we wanted to be partners in life and business.
I love building businesses and since I now had a great manager running the retail business, it allowed me to start another business that focused on helping other small businesses with their online marketing and websites. As the online marketing and web company grew, it didn’t take long before I decided it was time to close the “bricks and mortar” retail business and focus my energy on the online marketing business as well as continuing to help Juliet with AIS Solutions.
And this leads us to 2015. I had now closed the retail business, sold the e-commerce business and was continuing with the online marketing.
However, as I worked part-time with Juliet at AIS Solutions I could see the potential and I truly believed if we both were focused on only one business – AIS Solutions – that we could build it into something special.
So, I wound down the online marketing and consulting firm and in 2015 I joined AIS Solutions on an official full-time basis where I would be responsible for the Business Development (Marketing and Sales) so Juliet could focus her talents and energy on Operations, Team Building and Training.
The past ten years have been unbelievable for us. We’re not going to tell you that it has all run smoothly from 2010 to now because that would be untrue. There were days that we seriously thought about closing the doors, and that perhaps it wasn’t worth putting everything on the line. But, we persisted.
Overall the good has far outweighed the bad and since 2015, we are very proud and honoured to have been recognized both in and outside of our industry with several awards.
First, we were selected from over 85 local companies as the winner in the small business category for the local Chamber of Commerce “Business Excellence Awards”.
That was followed up by being named the Canadian Bookkeeping Firm of the Year by the Institute of Professional Bookkeepers of Canada.
And, when we didn’t think it could get any better we were incredibly humbled to learn we had been selected from almost 1000 firms globally as the Intuit Global Firm of the Future – the first Canadian firm to ever achieve this honour.
Although we personally receive the awards we know that without the support of our awesome team and great clients there would be no awards at all.
So, thank you to everyone that has helped us along our entrepreneurial journey. Thank you to everyone that has made it possible.
We are never ones to sit on our laurels so in the fall of 2016 we launched our second business – Kninja. (The “k” is silent)
Kninja is an online education academy dedicated to helping Accounting Professional firms build great teams and stay ahead of the cloud technology curve. We do this by helping them with their Hiring, Onboarding, and Team training.
And, in 2018, we also published our book, The Kninja Way – Our Journey to the Firm of the Future. A great read (yes, we are a little biased) about our journey that will provide helpful insights for any entrepreneur.
The launch of this podcast – Smart man Smarter woman – a podcast for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs. We hope through this medium we can share insights, tips, ideas and gold nuggets that might help other entrepreneurs on their journey.
We are also working on the launch of the Kninja Foundation. The Kninja Foundation will provide a safe haven for women and at risk female youths who are struggling with domestic violence or homelessness. A place to turn to for Safety, Comfort, Support, Mentorship and Resources.
Empowering girls and women to take back control of their path. It will not be easy. But together, we know we can make a difference.
The future looks bright. We hope to see you there.
Juliet and Steve