Small business survey findings: Making a real difference

by Xero / 11 August, 2016
With Xero, the Listener is exploring what success looks like for small businesses in New Zealand.
Alison Richards.
Alison Richards.


As the busy owner of a fast-growing business, Alison Richards still calls herself “a true nurse”.

The Auckland mother-of-two takes special satisfaction from making a difference to people’s long-term health through her company Working Health. “As a nurse that’s really important to me,” she says.

Richards was an emergency nurse in a hospital when she first got the chance to do some health checks for a corporate client. “I had never done any corporate or occupational health and I really enjoyed it.”

The contrast with the injuries, trauma and chronic disease seen in an emergency department was stark. “After doing these on-site health checks I realised it is a lot more rewarding to try to prevent disease,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is something I really want to do.”

With two young children on her hands, she was keen to find work that could fit around them, and companies seemed to have a need for the services she could provide. “I realised that there is a huge opportunity out there for more people to be providing these services.”

She launched her business on a part-time basis five years ago, offering workplace health checks and flu vaccinations while continuing shift work as an emergency nurse. Since then, she has developed a wide range of occupational health services, including: lung-function, hearing and vision testing; workstation assessments; alcohol and drug testing and pre-employment and exit medicals. “

Richards has been working full-time on her business since late last year and recently took on another part-time nurse. “I just can’t keep up with the demand,” she says. Long-term, she hopes to have a team of nurses working for the company.

The rapid growth of her business has meant some long days, with admin to be done at night after spending all day providing services to clients. “The ideal was I would do school hours, but that was absolutely not the case.”

Her previous job hadn’t prepared her for looking after the books of her new enterprise. “I’ve never had a business before so I didn’t realise how much goes on behind the scenes,” she says. “I’m a nurse. I’m certainly no accountant. I found it all quite complicated.”

Deciding to use Xero cloud-based accounting software has made running the company much easier, she says. “All my GST returns, all that kind of stuff is just done at the click of a button now.”

The software is easy to understand and provides a clear picture of the firm’s finances. “It’s just really obvious.”

These days, the business is fitting in successfully with family life and the needs of her daughters, now aged 8 and 9. “It does work well,” she says. “Most days, I can pick them up from school, hang out with them, do the dinners and whatnot, and then get back into the office afterwards.”

Richards had always liked the idea of having her own business but hadn’t been sure which field would work for her. At one point she did an importing and exporting course, but came to appreciate that nursing was her real love. “When I realised there was this opportunity out there I just took it with both hands and went for it.”

And... action!

Feeling inspired to make some improvements to your small business? Here are some action points to get you started:

  • An effective website is usually a must-have. People expect to be able to find you easily online. Keep your site up-to-date and use Google Analytics to understand how well different pages are performing. Ask a web developer to help you if necessary. If you want to sell online look at service providers such as Paypal and Shopify to get you up and running.

  • Keep your data safe. Use cloud-based applications to store data and ensure your information is always available and automatically backed up. Relying on your hard drive leaves you vulnerable in the face of burglary, fire or natural disasters.

  • Make the most of your advisors. Schedule regular meetings with your accountant or bookkeeper, board of directors and investors. Meet them at the office or a cafe for a half-hour chat over coffee. Review business performance for the last 30 days and last quarter to check you're on track.

  • “Cash is king” might be a trite expression, but it really is vital for small businesses. To manage your cash flow you’ll need good, regularly updated accounts so you can see the financial side of your business at a glance and a clever but polite invoicing strategy to encourage your customers to pay on time. Keep a clear separation between your business and personal finances and build up a cash reserve to cushion your business from unexpected events – and to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

  • Don’t over-promise. This is a particular risk for small businesses working with larger companies. Many small firms are tempted to go beyond their core competencies to win a big contract. Focus on delivering only the things you do really well.

More in this series:

If you’re thinking about what success for your business looks like, visit for more information on how your business can thrive with Xero.

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