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Fear & Greed, Fear and Greed

Small businesses in Australia are pretty resilient, having faced some challenging conditions in recent years.

Sean Aylmer talks to Joseph LyonsXero’s Managing Director Asia Pacific, and Louise Southall, Xero’s economist, about the pressures SMEs are facing, and the clever ways Australian businesses are improving their productivity.

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Sean Aylmer: Welcome to the Fear and Greed Business Interview. I’m Sean Aylmer.

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Sean Aylmer: Small businesses in Australia are pretty resilient. They’ve had no

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Sean Aylmer: choice really, the last few years, they’ve thrown pretty much

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Sean Aylmer: everything at them. Today I want to get an idea

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Sean Aylmer: of the pressure SMEs in this country are facing, but

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Sean Aylmer: also what lies ahead and where the opportunities are. Joseph

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Sean Aylmer: Lyons is Xero’s Managing Director Asia Pacific and Louise Southall

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Sean Aylmer: is Xero’s Economist. They’ve both been appearing at Xerocon in

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Sean Aylmer: Sydney this week, which is a great supporter of this podcast. Joe, Louise,

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Sean Aylmer: welcome to Fear and Greed.

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Joseph Lyons: Good morning.

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Louise Southall: Great to be here.

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Sean Aylmer: Louise, let’s start with you. You have access to the Xero

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Sean Aylmer: Small Business Index, which tracks changes in the performance of

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Sean Aylmer: small businesses from month to month. What’s the current state

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Sean Aylmer: of play?

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Louise Southall: Yeah. You used the word resilience in your introduction there,

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Louise Southall: and I think that’s a really good summary of how small businesses

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Louise Southall: in Australia are going. I mean, they’re facing a lot

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Louise Southall: of headwinds at the moment. High inflation, and as a

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Louise Southall: result, higher interest rates. They’re also still finding it difficult

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Louise Southall: to find staff and growth is coming off unsurprisingly, as

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Louise Southall: households deal with those cost of living pressures. So they’re

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Louise Southall: dealing with a lot, but actually Xero Small Business Insights

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Louise Southall: data shows that overall small businesses are performing just a

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Louise Southall: little bit above the long- term average we have for

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Louise Southall: that index. So in particular, sales growth is holding around

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Louise Southall: the long- term average and we’re seeing certainly in those

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Louise Southall: industries that don’t depend on household spending, like construction, for

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Louise Southall: example, are holding out pretty well. Which is great to see.

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Sean Aylmer: Is that a bit of a surprise? Because we’ve been

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Sean Aylmer: predicting a recession now for about 12 months, certainly in

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Sean Aylmer: the US and Europe and probably in Australia, and we

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Sean Aylmer: just don’t seem to be getting there. And small business is a

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Sean Aylmer: great barometer of how the economy’s going. It just doesn’t

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Sean Aylmer: seem quite as tough as we thought it might be.

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Louise Southall: Yeah. I think it’s always worth remembering that our data

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Louise Southall: is an aggregation, so it is the average of what’s

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Louise Southall: happening. And there will definitely be businesses out there that

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Louise Southall: are finding it really difficult, particularly those businesses that depend

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Louise Southall: on household spending. So I’m thinking hospitality, retail, those sorts

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Louise Southall: of businesses. But I think what’s helping the situation is

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Louise Southall: that our unemployment rate is staying low. And so if

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Louise Southall: people have a job that really does help protect small

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Louise Southall: businesses from some of the buffers. And I think that’s

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Louise Southall: certainly one of the main reasons why the economy is

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Louise Southall: performing probably better than, like you say, a lot of

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Louise Southall: people expected.

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Sean Aylmer: Is there any specific factor or a couple of factors,

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Sean Aylmer: be it supply chain, rising interest rates, inflation, tight labour market,

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Sean Aylmer: those sorts of things, that are particularly tough for small

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Sean Aylmer: businesses or affecting them disproportionately at the moment?

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Louise Southall: Yeah, all those factors are impacting them. One of the

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Louise Southall: things that I think people sometimes don’t appreciate about that

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Louise Southall: combination of low growth and high inflation, it really does

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Louise Southall: make it difficult for small businesses because they’re in a

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Louise Southall: situation where their own costs are going up, so they

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Louise Southall: need to cover those costs in order to stay profitable.

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Louise Southall: But at the same time, if you’re in a low

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Louise Southall: growth environment and you’ve got some nervous customers out there,

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Louise Southall: then it’s very difficult to raise your prices by too

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Louise Southall: much because you risk damaging your customer base. So I

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Louise Southall: think sometimes we do obviously have a lot of focus

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Louise Southall: on how inflation is impacting households, but it’s really important

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Louise Southall: that people also remember how it impacts small businesses and

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Louise Southall: it can be really tricky for them.

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Sean Aylmer: Joe, from your perspective, how do these sorts of pressures

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Sean Aylmer: that Louise is talking about play out in small businesses?

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Sean Aylmer: Is it still mostly about cashflow?

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Joseph Lyons: Yeah, cashflow is certainly a really important factor, and as

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Joseph Lyons: Louise said, obviously the increasing cost of living pressures that

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Joseph Lyons: we’re all experiencing also is having an impact, particularly as

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Joseph Lyons: it relates to wage and price pressures for small business.

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Joseph Lyons: But on cashflow through our Access BI report, obviously we

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Joseph Lyons: do track payment times, and what we do know is

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Joseph Lyons: that small businesses are being paid up to a week

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Joseph Lyons: late and that obviously has a really significant impact on

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Joseph Lyons: cashflow. There was also a recent report that we released

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Joseph Lyons: called the Money Matters Report, which specifically focused on cashflow.

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Joseph Lyons: And there are a couple of pretty important stats that

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Joseph Lyons: came out of that that I thought I would perhaps share with

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Joseph Lyons: you. So 60% of small businesses have reported that they have had

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Joseph Lyons: cashflow issues over the past 12 months. And two really

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Joseph Lyons: telling ones are that 48% of small businesses are really concerned

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Joseph Lyons: about their financial future. And even worse, that 34% of

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Joseph Lyons: respondents have said that they can’t afford to pay themselves.

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Joseph Lyons: So that cashflow impact has a knock on effect all

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Joseph Lyons: the way to the small business owner.

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Sean Aylmer: Joe, how do small businesses manage that? I mean, I’ve

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Sean Aylmer: always worked in corporates where I got paid every fortnight

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Sean Aylmer: or every month. I didn’t even think about it to

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Sean Aylmer: be perfectly honest. But 34% of respondents saying they can’t

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Sean Aylmer: afford to pay themselves. I mean, that’s clearly not sustainable.

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Joseph Lyons: No. So I think resilience through this next phase is

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Joseph Lyons: really important. And as Louise mentioned, I think the way

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Joseph Lyons: really out of the current climate is really going to

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Joseph Lyons: be a focus on productivity. And for small businesses, obviously

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Joseph Lyons: that means looking at all of their processes and how

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Joseph Lyons: technology can really play a role in that to streamline

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Joseph Lyons: their business, but also to give themselves more capacity and

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Joseph Lyons: time back so that they can focus on their customers as well.

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Joseph Lyons: So there’s a couple of examples that we’ve got within

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Joseph Lyons: our own product and our platform and certainly the ability

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Joseph Lyons: to be able to attach different payment options to their

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Joseph Lyons: invoice so that they can actually get paid faster. We

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Joseph Lyons: do know that when there’s a payment solution attached to invoice,

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Joseph Lyons: our small business customers do get paid twice as fast,

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Joseph Lyons: which really bridges the gap on the late payment time

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Joseph Lyons: that I mentioned a bit earlier.

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Sean Aylmer: Louise, I’ll come to you in a moment about productivity,

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Sean Aylmer: but just in a very pragmatic sense, Joe, is productivity

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Sean Aylmer: mostly about technology?

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Joseph Lyons: I mean, technology is a part of the process and certainly

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Joseph Lyons: obviously the tools that we have with Xero help enable

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Joseph Lyons: that. But equally I think how small business owners lead

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Joseph Lyons: their team and their workforce as well and ensuring that

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Joseph Lyons: their team are aligned and focus on what their goals

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Joseph Lyons: of the business are.

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Sean Aylmer: Stay with me. We’ll be back in a minute.

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Sean Aylmer: I’m talking to Xero’s Managing Director Asia Pacific, Joseph Lyons and

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Sean Aylmer: Xero Economist, Louise Southall. Louise, productivity, we hear lots about

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Sean Aylmer: it in a macro sense, what about in a small

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Sean Aylmer: business sense? How does it fit into the economy?

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Louise Southall: Yeah, you’re right. It’s almost like we need to think

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Louise Southall: about productivity on two levels. So yeah, at a macro sense,

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Louise Southall: and we’re going to be talking about productivity a lot

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Louise Southall: as we move away from the high inflation environment and start to

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Louise Southall: focus on something else. And I think at the macro level,

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Louise Southall: it is making sure that as much friction is taken

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Louise Southall: out of the economic system as possible. And things like education,

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Louise Southall: skill development, making sure transport systems, logistics systems are working,

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Louise Southall: all those things are really important at the macro level.

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Louise Southall: But then it’s also really important for small businesses and

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Louise Southall: for small businesses there are things that they can do,

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Louise Southall: and certainly technology is a massive part of that solution

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Louise Southall: for small businesses. It’s where there’s a lot of opportunity.

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Louise Southall: And I think one of the things that happens with

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Louise Southall: small businesses is they might adopt a technology solution and think, ” Oh, well,

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Louise Southall: I’ve got that now. That’s it. I’m a tech enabled

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Louise Southall: small business.” But really technology adoption is a continuing journey.

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Louise Southall: So it’s about making sure that as a small business,

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Louise Southall: you’re staying up to date around what’s available. So for example,

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Louise Southall: at Xero, we have loads, over 1,000 productivity enhancing apps

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Louise Southall: that can be attached to the account. So it’s not

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Louise Southall: just about adopting one thing and set and forget. You

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Louise Southall: really need to be making sure that you are staying

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Louise Southall: ahead of what’s happening, staying up to date, and making

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Louise Southall: sure that you are using every kind of tool that’s available

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Louise Southall: in order to run your business. So it’s not just

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Louise Southall: about accounting software, it’s also about customer engagement, doing your invoicing,

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Louise Southall: as Joe said, getting paid quicker, doing your quoting. All

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Louise Southall: those sorts of things are available and small businesses really

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Louise Southall: need to do as much as they can because then

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Louise Southall: that frees up their time to do other high value

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Louise Southall: things in their business and think a bit more strategically about the business.

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Joseph Lyons: And Sean, I’ll just build on what Louise has said.

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Joseph Lyons: Obviously we are here at Xerocon this week and the

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Joseph Lyons: importance placed in the relationship between small business owners and

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Joseph Lyons: their accountants and bookkeepers and the majority of small businesses

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Joseph Lyons: in Australia do work alongside accountants or bookkeepers. And what they

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Joseph Lyons: do is obviously give them the right guidance and support

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Joseph Lyons: from a financial planning and strategy standpoint as well, but

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Joseph Lyons: also making sure that they are using the right tools

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Joseph Lyons: to support them through this next phase.

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Sean Aylmer: Joe, just going forward on that, if I’m running a

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Sean Aylmer: small business though, I’m very busy, I’m relying, as you

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Sean Aylmer: said, on my accountants and bookkeepers and things like that,

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Sean Aylmer: how do I as a business owner know what’s available?

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Sean Aylmer: How do I forward plan? How do I make sure

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Sean Aylmer: that I’m ready for anything that’s proactive in being ready

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Sean Aylmer: for what’s coming at me rather than reactive?

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Louise Southall: I mean, I think that is the role that the accountant

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Louise Southall: and bookkeeper fundamentally plays in working with a small business

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Louise Southall: owner. I mean, they are across tax policy and legislation,

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Louise Southall: but equally they are well and truly across the tools

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Louise Southall: and technology that are coming out that can benefit a

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Louise Southall: small business, not just through the Xero platform, but also

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Louise Southall: through, to Louise’s point, the ecosystem of applications that we

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Louise Southall: have that do plug into Xero as well. So the

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Louise Southall: role of the relationship with a small business owner and accountant

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Louise Southall: and bookkeeper is incredibly important.

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Sean Aylmer: Joe, just before we go, tell me about the Xero

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Sean Aylmer: Beautiful Business Fund, which you launched this week at Xerocon?

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Joseph Lyons: Yeah. We’re really excited about this initiative and it really

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Joseph Lyons: aligns closely to our purpose, which is to make life

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Joseph Lyons: better for small businesses and advisors and communities around the world.

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Joseph Lyons: So what we’ve announced is that we have a $750,000 fund where we’re

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Joseph Lyons: supporting small businesses around the world, across seven different regions

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Joseph Lyons: that we operate in. So there are going to be 28

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Joseph Lyons: different awards across the four different categories. So the categories

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Joseph Lyons: that we do have, first one being innovating for sustainability,

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Joseph Lyons: the second one being trailblazing with technology, the third being

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Joseph Lyons: strengthening community connection, and the final one being upskilling for

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Joseph Lyons: the future. So each of the winners will receive a $

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Joseph Lyons: 20,000 fund and award for winning their category as well.

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Joseph Lyons: And then on top of that, we are going to have four

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Joseph Lyons: global winners that will have the opportunity to go into

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Joseph Lyons: the pool to win an additional $ 50,000. So we’re super

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Joseph Lyons: excited to be able to support our small business customers

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Joseph Lyons: with this Beautiful Business Fund and we think it’s going

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Joseph Lyons: to give us an opportunity to showcase some of the

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Joseph Lyons: incredible work that happens across our community.

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Sean Aylmer: So Joe, just give us those four categories again, because

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Sean Aylmer: obviously that reflects what matters to Xero.

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Louise Southall: Yeah, the four categories, innovating for sustainability, trailblazing with technology,

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Louise Southall: strengthening community connection, and the final one being upskilling for

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Louise Southall: the future.

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Sean Aylmer: Fantastic. Joe, thank you for talking to Fear and Greed.

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Joseph Lyons: Thank you. Thanks for your time this morning. It’s been

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Joseph Lyons: great having a conversation with you.

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Sean Aylmer: And Louise. Thank you for talking to us here at

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Sean Aylmer: Fear and Greed.

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Louise Southall: Thank you. Thanks so much.

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Sean Aylmer: That was Joseph Lyons, Xero’s Managing Director, Asia Pacific and

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Sean Aylmer: Louise Southall, Economist at Xero, which is a great supporter

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Sean Aylmer: of this podcast. This is the Fear and Greed Daily Interview.

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Sean Aylmer: Join us every morning for the full episode of Fear

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Sean Aylmer: and Greed, Australia’s most popular business podcast. I’m Sean Aylmer.

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Sean Aylmer: Have a great day.