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Practice Talk: Dan Heelan from Heelan Associates

Dan Heelan joins Practice Talk to discuss the benefits of working in 15-minute bursts, auditing time and approaching accountancy as a former business owner.

7th Oct 2019
Practice Editor AccountingWEB
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Dan Heelan
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When Dan Heelan was younger, he wrote accountancy off as boring. Growing up with an accountant mum, Heelan couldn’t shake off the memories of analysis pads or the smell of Tippex. “Why would anyone want to do this?” he asked himself as he went off and tried starting a number of ‘side hustles’.

Heelan tried his hand at an array of businesses, from working as a driving instructor to running a podcast and eBaying. Over time, the 'practical tax’ aspects of these ventures made Heelan rethink his attitude towards the family profession and from that point on, he was hooked.

So Heelan broke the news to his mum that he wanted to retrain in accountancy, and asked if he could work with her. Back then, 12 years ago, his mum worked from a spare room in her house and had a small client base of hairdressers, taxi drivers and sole traders. But today, the mother-son duo are taking on employees 16 and 17. 

For Heelan, the time spent on the other side of the business fence has come in handy when it comes to knowing what clients want.

“As a business person, it's about providing the information I would like to know as the year goes on. We speak to most of our limited companies quarterly rather than annually,” he said. “Accountancy used to be historic. You would just do the tax return and deliver it in a big box to the taxman near the deadline and that was it. It didn't seem very useful to me.”

Heelan talked AccountingWEB through his typical working day and how his 15-minute working methodology has helped him keep focused. 

“Because I enjoy what I do I start really early. I get up at 4.30am and I am at my home office desk at 5am. I start the day with 15 minutes of reading something inspiring. I then spend 15 minutes catching up with accountancy news. Rather than doing CPD one day a month, I do a minimum of 15 minutes a day to keep up with it.

It’s nice to chill out in the morning before coming in. I like that time in the morning when no one is around without the pressure of emails. From 6.15am until 8am I do the school run and spend time with the family.

Every morning at 9.15am we get everyone in the office to share client success stories. These stand-up meetings remind everyone why we do what we do. If we're not careful, these meetings could degenerate into a half-hour chat on what everyone got up to on the weekend, so we try to keep it them short.

I track my time in 15-minute intervals. I prefer to consume in bite-sized chunks. When staff or clients say to me 'I haven't got enough time' I say 'have you audited your time?' It is always interesting to see what people do with the time they've got.

As you would expect from an accountant, I've got a spreadsheet to track my time. I spend 26% of my week meeting new prospects, networking and marketing. For me personally, I only spend around 15% on actual client work but then another 15%-20% is spent meeting clients. The rest of my time all relates to staff and management. 

I use the Informant Pro app to manage my to-do list. I used to walk around with a little notebook that I draw a grid in every day that I write what I am doing in 15 minute bursts. It keeps me accountable. Then as the day happens I write things on there. I have a master list on the app so I can put in reminders. Then I have a checklist for things like CPD or digital marketing. 

Email to me is like cleaning, it is never done. If you have your email open all day, you could spend your whole day being busy because you're answering emails as they come in. But checking it twice or three times a day is a much more efficient way of doing it.

If you're auditing your time, you can see that you are spending three hours on correspondence. I check emails first thing in the morning and bit during lunch and then it takes me an hour in the afternoon to reply fully because often in accountancy, it's never the easiest email.

I still have a work-life balance but where most people would finish work and go to the gym in the evening, three times a week I would go to the gym for an hour in the day. Then, three nights a week I'll work until 8.30pm but I'd stop at 5pm and watch Match of the Day in the downstairs meeting space where we have a couple of sofas and a big TV.

In an ideal world, I'd love to say we are on 24/7 but it is not healthy for anybody. I had a client years ago who I responded to on the weekend so he'd then think nothing of phoning on a Sunday afternoon or Sunday morning. If it's really urgent I say to clients to ring or text, don't email me as you'll be in the inbox with everyone else. It’s about training clients to know if it is urgent how to get a hold of me. 

It's about setting boundaries with clients and managing expectations. We bought all our accountants mobiles because a lot of our clients want to contact via social media or WhatsApp. There is no expectation for anyone to have to deal with client emails at, say, 8pm or 9pm at night. The team can turn their mobiles off. I know one of the girls speaks to clients at night, but it is entirely up to the team. I would respond if I can, but generally, I try to train myself to respond more in business hours.”