Alex Bulmer still remembers how he felt when he opened his first Subway franchise at age 20.
Having previously managed a McDonald’s for seven years, he knew he loved the operations side of running a business and enjoyed the connections he made with his coworkers and his customers. In fact, the experience solidified his desire to have a restaurant of his own someday.
But despite the hands-on training he’d gotten at McDonald’s and the business degree he’d earned, there was one thing Bulmer wasn’t fully prepared for when his Subway opened in 2004: the financial aspects associated with owning a restaurant.
“The franchises can tell you what your food and labor costs should be and they do a little training with you, but you don’t really get the accounting background that will help you understand what the numbers should be,” Bulmer said. “You don’t learn the purpose of the different financial reports and that’s what I found to be missing most from the franchise and from other CPAs. They don’t tell you much.”
Over the years, as Bulmer opened more Subway franchises and branched out into other restaurant-related ventures, he developed a strong understanding of what it takes to make a business successful from a financial standpoint. He started doing some consulting work in addition to running his restaurants and then was approached by a group of other consultants who suggested he turn his side gig into a full-time job.
And in 2020 – just before the pandemic hit – Bulmer did just that. Now, Forest Lake-based Three Pillars Bookkeeping provides a full array of accounting and bookkeeping services for businesses in industries ranging from medical to restaurants to retail.
“You name it, we’re probably in it,” Bulmer said.
Whether a company is looking for help with small tasks like reconciling bills and tracking expenses or large ones like full-service payroll and fractional CFO work, Bulmer and his team are there to provide guidance, support and encouragement to business owners in all stages of their entrepreneurial journeys.
“Among the clients I have right now, there’s a handful that understand the financial piece really well but don’t like it,” Bulmer said. “And there’s another handful that doesn’t enjoy it and doesn’t understand any of it. They’re just trying to run their business and make it profitable.”
But no matter what their level of comfort is, Bulmer enjoys being a resource and helping each client develop a true understanding of the financial side of running a business. It’s something he wishes he had when he was just starting out.
“I started this company to help other entrepreneurs navigate the numbers game,” he said. “Unfortunately, not a lot of accountants and bookkeepers want to help business owners out. They kind of shove them into the world and said ‘good luck – you should know all this.’ And they don’t, which is very similar to how I felt as a new business owner.”
Considering striking out on your own but not sure where to begin? Here are some of Bulmer’s tips and suggestions for getting off to a strong start:
- Ask for help when you need it: A lot of new business owners feel like they should know everything on day one but know deep down that they don’t. Or worse – they assume that they do and view asking for help as a sign of vulnerability. That’s not the case at all, Bulmer said, and by failing to seek guidance on things you don’t understand, you can end up with major problems before you even get out of the gate. “It’s OK to lean on other people around you,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to take their advice, but it never hurts to get a second opinion.”
- Plan ahead financially: Everyone likes to think that their new business will be an immediate cash cow, but unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Rather than waiting around until you actually need money, Bulmer recommends going to your bank, telling them what your anticipated financial needs are, showing them your numbers and then asking for a loan, a line of credit or whatever else makes sense in your situation. “If you hold off until you’re in trouble, it’s probably going to be too late,” he said. “That’s why planning ahead is critical.”
- Create multiple lead sources: Getting your name out there is key to growing your business and the more ways you can do that, the better. In addition to advertising yourself through traditional channels and on social media, joining a networking group can be an incredibly rich source of new connections.
- Don’t try to do everything on your own: Many business owners have a small budget when they’re first starting out and therefore feel like they have to do everything themselves. While it is important to keep your expenses low early on, it’s worth investing a little bit of money up front to get your processes set up correctly, especially when they’re related to finances. “I’ve seen companies that didn’t get their accounting systems in order run into trouble with different revenue agencies,” Bulmer said. “By spending the money to get set up and have some basic training, you’ll be able to get things going on the right foot and then when you grow, you can start to delegate these tasks out.”
- Surround yourself with positive people: Whether it’s family members, coaches or other business owners, having a circle of encouraging people around you can make all the difference in the world. “Owning or running a business can be scary,” Bulmer said. “Knowing you can do it is half the battle but having people who can help support you can also be hugely beneficial.” And once you’ve found “your tribe,” don’t forget tip number one – it’s OK to ask for help. “Most people in the business community want to help one another,” he said. “If they’ve had success, they want other people to have success and they’re usually more than willing to share their experiences with you.”
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