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The Story Engine Podcast: Where we teach you how to make marketing easier, more powerful and fun through storytelling. Each week we learn from top entrepreneurs, influencers and world-changers on how to share your story through content, copywriting, speaking and how to make your story your most powerful marketing tool.

Nov 27, 2018

Today on the show, we have Meryl Johnston from Bean Ninjas. Now, what's great about Meryl is she's got a business that you might not automatically think of as a sexy business for content marketing. Accounting is something that many of us don't really want to think about or talk about that much. What Meryl's done really well is she's not only created helpful content to help people do better at accounting and bookkeeping, but she's created content that tells her story around her values and her unique perspectives on how to create a business that works for her.

Now, this is translated into content that really resonates with the clients she wants, it's helped her attract ideal team members and now it's helping her grow a podcast and even get speaking gigs from the stage. She's got a lot of great tips this year on how she grew Bean Ninjas and how her content marketing and storytelling has evolved over the three years of that company. There are lots of good insights to take it away. 


Key Takeaways

[2:33] Changing your professional life for a better lifestyle

[3:56] How Meryl started Bean Ninjas

[9:50] Creating useful SOPs for your team

[11:05] How to create engaging content no matter your business

[14:28] Why creating a podcast is good for your business

[16:51] Managing a successful remote global team

[20:14] How to break into speaking at events

[23:36] How sponsoring an event can help you build your business



Kyle Gray:

Hello everyone and welcome to the Story Engine Podcast. Meryl Johnston, my friend. Thank you so much for joining me on the Story Engine Podcast today. How are you doing?

Meryl Johnston:

I'm doing great Kyle. It's great to be here.

Kyle Gray:

Yes, it is so exciting because, you were one of my very, very first clients and it's been so much fun to keep in touch with you over the years and see how you've been sharing your story and the story of Bean Ninjas. Before we go into any of that, I want to start this off by just kind of getting a moment that kind of, a defining moment for you in your life, that relates to entrepreneurship or maybe how you teach and how you market. What was a key moment that really kind of encapsulates how you do what you do these days?

Meryl Johnston:

I think for me it was probably the turning point or the decision that I made to go from being a full-time employee, and being an accountant, and looking at what I valued in life, and what I wanted my life to look like and realizing that I'd been working hard for almost 10 years for someone else with the goal of creating a lifestyle. Actually, moved locations, moved to the Gold Coast, to surf and live a lifestyle and I wasn't doing that. I was just working really long hours and not really with a team that I enjoyed, and not really with work that I was enjoying.

So it was when I really thought about what I wanted out of life, that was when I realized well I need to make some changes and part of that was quitting that job, going traveling and then realizing that it was time to start a business. I considered that a defining moment even though that was only the beginning of the journey because I've kept that in mind with all of the decisions that I've made over the years that I've been running my first business and now Bean Ninjas, that the end goal is always that I wanted to have a lifestyle as well, and to be able to surf, and to travel, and to enjoy time with friends and family.

Kyle Gray:

And have you done that now? How has Bean- Or before we do that, tell me about Bean Ninjas now and what you've created and tell me if you've been able to do that. I already know the answer, but I'm sure everybody else will be happy to hear it.

Meryl Johnston:

So Bean Ninjas is a little bit over three years old now and it's a bookkeeping and financial reporting business and we specialize in Xero. I started the business with a co-founder called Ben and we grew it really from nothing. We each put $500 into the business and launched in seven days and have scaled it from there. So now a little bit over three years on, we've got a team of 12 spread out across six different countries in the world and there definitely have been moments throughout the business where I have really had to put my head down and work hard. But while I have sometimes had to work long hours, I've always been able to balance that and still being able to prioritize spending time with the people that I care about and keeping fit and healthy.

The long-term goal has been able to create a work environment, not just for me, but for our team as well where we can have that flexibility. So we don't have office hours and anyone can work from anywhere so that we can, I think balance might not be the right word, but we can have that integration between our work lives and our home lives so that we're fit and healthy, and happy as well.

Kyle Gray:

I think that's amazing. Yeah, I've seen lots of different pictures on social media that you've gone on different surf trips, ski trips and you're traveling the world now, sharing the story of Bean Ninjas, speaking at lots of different places. But one of the main ways that you've grown your company builds up attention is through content marketing. You've got a great blog and you've also had a podcast recently and I'd love to learn a little bit about how you decided to do this and some of the big things that you've learned kind of on this journey of sharing your story through content.

Meryl Johnston:

When I first started writing content, I actually found it really hard and I wasn't sure whether it was the right thing for me because I'm an accountant and we're trained to write a specific way, which is not really about telling stories or creating any kind of engaging content. It's about conveying business information in a concise way and protecting our risks by using specific language.

I actually met a guy called Dan Norris at a coworking space when I was just starting out and started reading some of his content and saw the success that he had had by creating great, engaging and really helpful content. So that's when I decided that I wanted to start creating content, but if I look back now at some of those first blog posts, the day that we launched Bean Ninjas, that was the first blog post that I had published about the financial business. If I look back at some of that content, it's embarrassing. I can see so many flaws had with it and so it really was a journey.

I had to really learn how to write for an audience and how to tell stories and it's something that I'm still working on to this day, to really improve that skill and it's something that I invested time in and coaches. I worked with you, Kyle and I've had editors. I think it's a really valuable skill whether it comes to writing or speaking and even the way that you communicate with team members and clients, by being able to tell stories and engage people.

Kyle Gray:

Yeah. So one of the things that I think you've done pretty well, is you've built a remote team, not just with the core skill and fulfillment in your business of accounting and bookkeeping, but you have brought on coaches and editors and different people. What hire or what investment in your content marketing really, do you feel, has moved the needle for you? What's something that you were like, "This really made things a lot easier," because I love hearing about how we scale and how to make these different processes much easier for people and I think you've got some good nuggets of wisdom to share.

Meryl Johnston:

I'd say a number of things, but at the beginning, we didn't invest in anything. It was all just our own time, so it was me and my co-founder that was creating the content, trying to work out our own SOPs about how we did it, we were uploading the content to WordPress, we were creating images and it really took a lot of time.

The next stage and that was working with a coach, and so we worked ... well, it was actually me that worked directly with you Kyle, and that was about really framing what is the strategy behind this. I think it was helpful actually having created a batch of content before that because then I had a little bit more of an idea of what was involved and that gave me some context to then work with an expert around what is the strategy behind this. Why are we creating the content, who are we creating it for and how can we make something that's useful and educational for them?

So I think that helped come up with the strategy and then the framework to create content more at scale so that it's a repeatable process. Then probably the next step with then outsourcing some of the writing. So we still came up with the ideas but then had someone else creating the bones of the content with our ideas and actually producing it and taking care of a lot of the back end. Then the next step for me was having someone in-house to manage that process. So someone internally that really understood our business, our customers and our message to then come up or work with me to come up with the ideas and also oversee everything and check it before we published.

So there's probably a couple of different things, a couple of different stages of our content creation process there in terms of creating blog posts and then it will be different again with the podcast.

Kyle Gray:

Oh, I think that that's really powerful and I know you mentioned a lot about maintaining SOPs, and was this something that was kind of crucial in the transition from you doing a lot of the work yourself to bringing on kind of contractors and finally bringing in somebody. Can you share a couple of the really crucial SOPs that you think have made a big difference for growing your team in this?

Meryl Johnston:

One would be the style guide because we wanted every blog post to be consistent and if it was someone different who was actually creating the content and it didn't look like Bean Ninjas content, then we wouldn't have achieved our objective. So that was one.

We also had a guest writers guide and we've had a number of guest bloggers and so having a framework for them to set expectations around what type of content we wanted to create, that it's not going to be promotional for them, but it needs to be educational for our audience, I think having all of that documented really saves a lot of time, but helps with the consistency and the quality too. So that would be the top two that I can think. 

Kyle Gray:

So another thing that I really enjoy and you do this on your social media like I've seen, but your beliefs around building a business that works for you, and we've already outlined some of this and kind of your culture, do you share that story elsewhere? Is that something that the people that you work with as far as your clients go really identify with and resonate with? How do you share that, kind of, not necessarily this is how we do bookkeeping, but you're like, "This is what I believe in. This is the life I want to create." How do you share that part of you?

Meryl Johnston:

Initially, it was me trying to create content that I'd like to write and I thought might be engaging, and accounting can be a bit dry. So yes, we can create educational content around that, but that's not really the story behind who I am or why we're doing what we're doing. And so initially I just liked writing that kind of content about what I believe in and why I think it's important to have balance and to think about what's important to you in life and build a business around that.

So I did start creating some content like that and I've found that it was actually that content that attracted team members to Bean Ninja as well. So other accountants who had similar values and wanted to have that flexibility and I think we do have clients that align with that too.

The next stage of that was actually drilling down and documenting our values ... our vision, our mission and our values and we didn't do that until a couple of years into the business. It was probably implicit, but we hadn't actually documented it and that was a really valuable exercise to bring the whole team together and workshop at what are our values, and then really trying to leave that out as a team. So it's not just me that are sharing these kinds of posts on social media now.

Other team members, so we've got Michael who's working in Bali at the moment and so he will have photographs of him working and surfing in a great location and experiencing life. So now it's not just about me, but it's about our whole team, and some of our clients as well that are trying to live that lifestyle. I think that's helped people to connect with us not just as a bookkeeping business but as the people behind the business.

Kyle Gray:

I love that. That was actually something I just learned a lot about that really rang true with me at an event I was at this weekend, where there's kind of two different kinds of content. There's the SEO content which is writing things that are really helpful and kind of step by step guides that get keywords and that's all well and good and that's definitely part of the strategy, but then there's the social content, which is your beliefs. What do you stand for? What do you stand against?

And I've found that building that into your strategy really helps you stand apart and create these human connections because, in your case, there are probably dozens of places that people can learn about bookkeeping or not dozens, but hundreds and hundreds of places that people can learn about it. In my case, there are hundreds of places people can learn about content marketing or storytelling and in the end, what's going to cut through the noise for people is your beliefs, and your ideas, and your virtues and how you show up in the world. So I think that that's really cool.

I also think it's cool that it's not only helped you attract customers, but you've attracted team members with that. I think that that's one of the hidden values of content that a lot of people don't ever expect to find or expect to experience when they first start crafting their content. So yeah, I'm amazed at what you've done and it brings a big smile to my face knowing that.

Tell me a little bit about your podcast because this is the next step in the evolution of your content marketing. How does this fit in with your larger strategy and your written content?

Meryl Johnston:

So the podcast ... a few people have asked me, "Why does Bean Ninjas even have a podcast?" It's not common for an accounting firm or a bookkeeping business to have a podcast, but for me, it was the natural extension. I actually prefer speaking to writing, but I really have worked on my writing skills for the last three or four years.

I felt like with a podcast you can connect with an audience because you're talking and they can hear your voice. I also thought it would be interesting for us to bring on guests ... to meet the rest of the Bean Ninjas team. They've all got interesting stories and lessons that they can share. We've got really interesting clients and other experts in the accounting and finance space who can come on and help to educate. I think it's just a different kind of content ... or compared to our blog and again we can create educational content. But partly it was just fun.

I've wanted to have a podcast for years and it just wasn't the right time for us and I thought it would be a cool thing to try. I just wanted to give it a go and test whether it would work, whether it would add value and here we are. We're up to our 14th episode ... is just about to be released. So it's still early days and probably too early to see whether it is ... whether there is the return on investment from it but I think even if we only have a small audience but we're helping some people, it's quite a different thing to do in the accounting industry. So it also helps out industry position, not just attract clients.

We talked earlier about trying to attract team members to Bean Ninjas too and I think industry position as well as just creating content and marketing material to attract clients actually helps longer term with a business. As we talked about, some of the content that I've created or been asked to be involved in is what has actually brought team members into the team.

Kyle Gray:

So another thing that I think you do really well in that you bring on a unique value for your team, and tell me if I'm wrong. Maybe a lot of other firms do this, but being all remote and serving clients around the world gives you a unique advantage both with your content, you can serve a much broader audience and content is great if you have a global reach with your products and services. But how have you set up your team, in a way? What are some of the systems that you use that you can have a fully remote team and still be productive and successful as a business?

Meryl Johnston:

Number one I think you need to operate in a cloud because as soon as you're working in different locations ... If you're using any kind of desktop software it becomes difficult to collaborate.

So we use Slack or Kings Chat. We originally started with Trello as our project management software and we've moved Wrike which is just a bigger version of Trello with more reporting and as our team grew, that was the right for us. We also use Xero as our accounting software which is also software that we specialize in.

Help Scout has been quite helpful for us as a way of managing the inflow of emails with the team and is facing in different locations can collaborate and see what's happening with the particular client and the last one there. I mean there's a whole stack of different tools that we use but Google apps for work, so again, using shared Google sheets and docs rather than things on our desktop, enable us to collaborate in different time zones and locations.

That was a decision that we made from day one. We're kind of forced into it because my business partner lives in a different city to me and so from day one we kind of had to work in that cloud environment.

Kyle Gray:

Do you have any kind of unique management strategies to make sure everybody's communicating and everybody's kind of on the same page? Do you have group calls or do you manage it all through Slack? How does ... how does your management of your team and communication work?

Meryl Johnston:

It is quite hard to have a group call with everyone on the call because of the horrible time zones Because we've got Australia, Europe, and America as well as the Asian countries; so the time zones are terrible.

We do have something we call a lunch and learn once a month where we try and get everyone on the call. It's not lunch for everyone, but it's basically a whole team training session and those that can't come and will tune in and the recording later. I do a team update once a month, but again that's a video, but that's about what's happening with the business strategy.

And then we do a lot of zoom calls, one on one, a lot of one on one calls, so everyone has a call with a manager regularly and then some scheduled. We have a management meeting once a week and depending on what projects we're working on, we have a lot of zoom calls. So we try and connect. We're actually seeing other team members rather than just audio to try and build those relationships.

We do actually try and meet in person where we can. It's pretty ... We've never had a whole team retreat. That is on the list of goals. We have had smaller versions of that where we'd fly a couple of team members somewhere and I would work together and work on some projects and spend time together. They build relationships and get to know each other.

Kyle Gray:

I think that's incredible and I love that yeah ... the business model, it's flexible and it's really ... it's really created a very unique position in the market for you.

So I want to turn it back to content and storytelling a little bit. So another thing that you've broken into recently is speaking and live events. You've been attending lots of different live events and in Southeast Asia and the United States and in Australia. Can you tell me a little bit about how that first came up for you and what you're doing right now in kind of the live event space and how that's working for your business?

Meryl Johnston:

I have always wanted to get into speaking. I think it's a great way to communicate with a number of people at one time. I think the step prior to that with trying to get onto a lot of podcasts interviews and that was where I practiced the Ninja story and communicating.

And so I think it goes back to how did I get the first podcast interview, which is very hard because I was an accountant. Not many people wanted accounting content on their podcasts ... wasn't particularly ... wasn't relevant or interesting for that audience.

I didn't have a profile so it was really hard to get the first couple of podcasts interviews and I did a lot of outreach and researched ... who had had similar kind of guests to me and tried to pitch ideas. And so it took a long time to get the first couple of podcasts interviews and from there I was able to leverage those and say that I'd been on this other podcast and build it from there. And once I had been on 20, 25 podcasts, I think then I had more of a base to try and get opportunities to speak at events and again I started small so I would take any opportunity to ... usually it was presenting accounting content, sometimes it was talking about startups and growing the business quickly and I just said yes to everything or would put myself forward if there was an event that was asking for speakers. And again, that just gradually created more opportunities.

So, I suppose people saw that I was speaking at events. The first major event that I spoke at was earlier this year at an accounting conference which had about two and a half thousand people and I was speaking to about 300 people. So that was the most that I had ever spoken to before and I was talking about creating processes for a bookkeeping firm. I've really put a lot of effort into how I could communicate that, who my audience was and what was useful for them. And again trying to tell some stories about why you would even want to create our procedures. And later this year I had my first paid speaking event.

Which, I found a little bit nerve-wracking because it was just me and a whole bunch of professional speakers, but again I had nice feedback afterward that I was definitely not as polished as them, but I had an authentic story.

And raised some questions that people then went away and thought about. So I feel like speaking, similar to content, is a journey where you're continually trying to improve your skills and it's about connecting with your audience.

Speaking, similar to content, is a journey where you’re continually trying to improve your skills to better connect with your audience

And I think, for me, it worked where you gradually build. So start small and improve your skills and more opportunities will come from that. But I think your final question was around how do these opportunities come up?

And now I'm starting to get people to approach me to speak, but it definitely wasn't that way in the beginning.

Kyle Gray:

Yeah. And another strategy you've done, you mentioned to me that you've been sponsoring an event. It's an event that we've both been to and really love, DCBKK, the Dynamite Circle Conference.

And that's not getting paid to speak, that's almost the opposite, where a lot of people, a lot of companies can see that as a really big risk. But you've decided to sponsor a conference.

How has the sponsorship of an event impacted your business? Did you get at least a small opportunity to speak from that and what's kind of your strategy sponsoring events?

Meryl Johnston:

I think before you can sponsor an event, you need to know who your target market is. Because if you want to sponsor an event that has those kinds of people that are attending the event. And so for us, we do bookkeeping for online businesses.

And the event that we sponsor Dynamite Circle DCBKK is an event for location independent entrepreneurs, a lot of who run the kinds of businesses that we support. So it is people with e-Commerce stores, people selling on Amazon, coaches, bloggers, software startups, service businesses. But normal digital kind of service business and they're our perfect, ideal client. So it was for that reason that we initially decided to sponsor the event for the first time. This is our third year of sponsoring the event. For that first year, it was actually a major financial commitment for a small business like ours because we were just in the very early stages of being in business.

But we had already identified that this is an event that's got a whole lot of people who are our target audience. Let's save up the money and let's give it a crack. It was a fantastic opportunity for us not only for the function itself, where we get mentions from the stage and have a booth but also for the people that we connected with. Because all of a sudden, we're invited to the speakers at the conference whereas, we were pretty junior entrepreneurs that would not be interacting or engaging with the speakers at an event and the other sponsors. So that was actually a side benefit that we weren't aware of.

Then we sponsored for the second and the third year now. So, yes, it has been a return on investment in terms of us being able to engage our team, engage with our ideal clients. I think also is the relationships ... it kind of fast-tracked the relationship building in the very first year of that conference.

To generate industry clout as well as networking opportunities, sponsor an event that your target audience attends

Kyle Gray:

Oh wow. Well, that's really powerful. Yeah, it was a good investment that paid off. But of course, and this goes down to really, this is the core of all business success I think, but it's knowing your target audience. You've got to know them when you're creating content when you're doing a podcast when you're setting up your messaging and who is this even going to go to all the way up to how am I going to sponsor events. And the more clarity that you can have on that, the more success that will come in all different aspects of what you're doing. This has been a lot of fun chatting with you. Do you have any ... I'd love for you if you've got any kind of final ideas on storytelling that you can leave us with. Then let us know how we can dig deeper, where we can check out the podcast and the blog for being ninjas and exactly who your target audience is.

So if anybody listening resonates with you and your story, they can come check you out.

Meryl Johnston:

Sure. I had another comment around return on investment too because as an accountant, you probably have heard me mention that more than maybe others. I think it can be quite hard to calculate that for things like events, podcasts, and content. So while I think it is important to have a sense of whether you're getting some kind of return on something, I think it's also important to think about content and building relationships as something that's long-term and that you're creating value for others. It might not be a calculation that you can do one month after you sponsor an event or create content. So I wanted to leave that as something that I always think about, but it is important to think about return on investment, but also I think playing the long-term game. And I think creating content is about a long-term strategy, not just term results.

In terms of storytelling, I think there it's important to be authentic because you can look at other people and learn from them, but I don't think you want to replicate the stories or the persona that someone else is telling when they're creating their content. I know that in the early days when I was creating my content, I was learning from a lot of different people and it took me a while to find my voice. But it was the content that I created that was really from my heart and about me and my journey, I think in the early days that was the content where I had the most engagement and had people interacting back with me.

So that's what I would recommend for others is to be authentic and don't try to copy the strategy or the persona of someone else. Just do what's true to you. In terms of our target audience, I can talk a little bit more about that. Again, it took us a while to figure that out. We knew that we liked working with online businesses and location independent entrepreneurs because that's what we were trying to do with our business so we connected with those other business owners. Then it took some more time of doing accounting for a range of different business owners for us to figure out that within that pedigree of online businesses, that we really added value in working with business coaches and health coaches as well as bloggers. So those businesses, freelancers and marketing visual agencies, and e-Commerce business.

So for those businesses, we provide bookkeeping using Xero and then financial reporting. We also really believe in education, so it's not just about providing a set of reports to someone before tax time that they throw in a bottom drawer was all along. But the gist of it, it's about using those numbers to help create financial freedom through making good decisions. So education is really a big part of what we do too. We really want our clients to understand their numbers and understand this cash flow and proper, and understand the reports that they are receiving so that they feel in control, yeah, and do make those good decisions.

Kyle Gray:

Oh, well that's amazing. Yeah. Just to be sure, and that's where we can find the podcast, the blog and everything else.

Meryl Johnston:

Exactly right. and then we have links to all the blog posts and that's where you can find the podcasts as well. I'm on Twitter a little bit, but I'm more active on LinkedIn. So if anyone wants to connect with me there, it's just my name, Merrill Johnston. I can give you a link to that as well.

Kyle Gray:

Perfect. Meryl, thank you so much for joining us. It's been great seeing this journey unfold for you over the years and I'm so happy that we had the opportunity for you to share your story with us on the podcast today.

Meryl Johnston:

It's been great. Thanks for having me on, Kyle.

Kyle Gray:

Thanks for listening to the story engine podcast. Be sure to check out the show notes and resources mentioned in this episode and every episode in If you want to tell better stories and grow your business with content marketing and copywriting, be sure to download the content strategy template at This template is an essential part of any business that wants to boost their traffic, leads and sales with content marketing. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.