‘I’ve always been aware of the transformative impact of tech in accountancy’

1 Dec 2022

Sinead Doherty, Fenero CEO. Image: Roger Kenny

Sinead Doherty discusses Fenero’s digital shift, taking risks to grow the business, and how she has benefitted from programmes for women founders.

Sinead Doherty is founder and CEO of Fenero, a Dublin-headquartered tax and financial management company specialising in services for contractors and freelancers. The business was established in 2009, but has been changing in recent years with a greater focus on technology

Fenero began the in-house development of its own cloud-based software infrastructure in 2016. Earlier this year, it acquired Indian IT and financial company Eolas Technologies, boosting its capabilities and bringing its headcount to around 70 staff.

‘I’m not afraid to make the big decisions when they’re needed for the longer-term success of the business. You have to be willing to make the big calls and not sit on the fence’

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The pace of change in our sector represents a challenge – but also an opportunity. I’ve always been acutely aware of the transformative impact of technology in the accountancy sector and how it has been revolutionising many aspects of traditional services.

Therefore, as a business we have been particularly focused on building out new technology-related capabilities to enhance and innovate both the customer and employee experience. The acquisition of IT and financial company Eolas Technologies, a company with which we’d previously worked, has helped drive our digital transformation and increased our headcount.

Our in-house team of developers and UX designers now make up almost 10pc of our team, which is a significant shift arising from our strategic commitment to the development of our proprietary technology platforms. We’re excited and energised by the direction of our business strategy for this next stage of our growth.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Globally, we’re witnessing a massive shift from traditional work and permanent employment to freelancing and independent contracting of different kinds. Whether you call it the freelance economy, the project economy, the gig economy or another label – this is a fast growing, cross-section of independent contractors, consultants, freelancers, sole proprietors, as well as those in permanent employment roles who earn an additional side income through something other than a wage-paying job.

Our solutions exist to help support this growing appetite that more people have for working outside of traditional, permanent employment.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I’d always had a fire in me that wanted to be self-employed. In moving beyond my first year as a team of one, to growing to the 70-strong team of today, one of the biggest influences that gradually led to more ambitious business growth plans has been involvement in multiple programmes over the years that support growth ambition and leadership development for female founders.

I’ve had opportunities on the AIB Growth Academy, I’ve participated in three cycles of the Going for Growth programme between 2015 and 2021, and most recently I’ve been accepted onto the 2022 EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women EMEIA programme. As anyone who knows me already knows, I really can’t recommend these types of programmes enough for the knowledge, networks and inspiration they bring.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

I’ve taken a few risks but perhaps still one of the most notable for me is a few years after I first started Fenero. I took what was then a bold step in making the decision to discontinue a service line in 2015, which at that time accounted for 50pc of the business. This was so we could focus exclusively on the other areas of the business which I felt had greater growth potential.

This particular risk paid off and resulted in substantial growth rewards in the years after. I’m not afraid to make the big decisions when they’re needed for the longer-term success of the business. You have to be willing to make the big calls and not sit on the fence.

What one work skill do you wish you had?

Our business has been going through a substantial shift in terms of technology solutions. Since 2016, we’ve undertaken significant and ongoing investment in the development of our own proprietary cloud-based platforms called Mentis and MyFenero. These are our integrated platforms for customers and back-end operations for Fenero employees.

As a result of our recent scaling of investment in these platforms, I now work extremely closely with our UX strategist. It’s a hugely interesting area and in another life it’s probably something I would love to dive deeper into. I’ve always been focused on experiences for both customers and employees. I love getting fully absorbed into thinking through the lens of different people and considering different approaches to problem solving and solution design. I find UX work to be a hugely creative process.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Communication is so critical. For each of us to work to our best capabilities individually and as a team and company, it requires a constant dialogue to ensure clarity, understanding and also diversity of thinking.

Alignment throughout the whole organisation is essential, but it can be so easily lost. It’s definitely something that becomes more complex as a business grows, and also in a remote-first environment, which we have adopted. I think the amount of internal communication needed within a business can often be substantially underestimated or underprioritised, so that’s something we try to stay conscious of and focused on.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

There’s certainly a need for increased focus and action on a variety of diversity issues in almost every sector. Through our most recent customer survey last month, which received 1,200 responses, we gained interesting current insights into barriers that female contractors feel they have in the different sectors where contracting is popular such as tech and pharma.

The importance of diversity is so well documented, and I hope that the success shown by companies who embrace and drive diversity will serve as a more general accelerator of action elsewhere.

What’s the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

Without a doubt it would be to stay curious and focus on lifelong learning. I am always learning and putting myself in situations where I have the opportunity to learn – whether that be a bit of formal study, participating in coaching or taking on new opportunities outside of my comfort zone.

A key trait I look for in new Fenero team members is evidence of that appetite for learning and growth. Further developing our capabilities as a learning organisation is one the key pillar priorities for Fenero.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Teaming by Amy Edmondson is an excellent read, focused on how organisations learn and innovate. She describes how we need highly effective collaboration through accelerated teaming to rise to demands of today’s complex environment. We’ve invested in team coaching programmes in Fenero over the last two years to support our teaming and it’s been hugely impactful.

Atomic Habits by James Clear was another very impactful read. This line from it has always stayed with me: “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” You can have all the optimism and aspiration in the world, but usually it’s your discipline and focus that will get you success.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Spotify – I’m an avid podcast listener. I start most mornings with the FT News Briefing, which is a great 10 minutes of key daily financial and political global news to throw on while getting ready in the morning or on the way back from the school run.

But I listen to longer podcasts covering a wide range of topics on a near daily basis too. It’s an easy way to help feed my curiosity and keep me tapped into creativity and the bigger picture throughout the week.

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