At a glance
It was 2012, and Sharon MacDonald CPA was working as finance manager with an Indigenous health service in Queensland. She liked the social purpose of the organisation, but had become increasingly frustrated with what she felt were limitations to what she could accomplish as an accountant.
MacDonald wasn’t having the impact on the ground of which she knew she was capable, and so, with her sights set on improving her operational understanding, MacDonald embarked on a master of business administration degree (MBA) at the University of Queensland.
Making a break
It was in the MBA program that MacDonald met her future business partner – and eventually also life partner – David. His background was in professional services with Big Four companies, and he too was looking for more job satisfaction. He wanted to break away from the strict framework and methodologies, believing he could bring a more personalised service to his clients.
He had been feeling hampered by growing risk aversion within his organisation and wanted the freedom to be more open about the problems he saw in his clients’ businesses and to offer customised solutions to their performance, productivity and profitability issues.
The pair would meet up for dinner, talking about their studies, the job dissatisfaction they were experiencing in their own workplaces, and the gaps they could see in the marketplace. They concluded that, with the right insights and innovation, they could disrupt the existing model of professional services and create improvements for their clientele.
It was over one such dinner that consulting services business i3 Australia was born, combining MacDonald’s strong finance and analytics skills with David’s strengths in operations, growth, business resilience and strategy.
As soon as they felt ready, the couple finished up their corporate jobs, diving into the business head first. They invested very little money in the beginning, growing organically through their existing professional networks and word of mouth referrals.
MacDonald says that, while they were pleased with the success of the business over the first few years, its growth – expanding to a team of 10 – created some challenges.
For a start, the business developed faster than they could plan, so i3 took on a life of its own with not enough time for the founders to refine their vision.
In November 2019, i3 Australia began the journey of transitioning its structure from a partnership to a company. Four months later, the pandemic had sent the nation into its first lockdown and everything ground to a halt.
i3 Australia hadn’t been trading long enough to qualify for any government support packages, such as JobKeeper, and, like many other small businesses, was forced to let go of employees.
However, MacDonald says that the downtime forced on i3 by the pandemic also offered the business some breathing space to do some introspective reflection and realign strategy and goals.
The couple used this time to invest time and money to put in place systems and processes to help the business handle change. Importantly, they were able to implement technologies to digitalise and automate a lot of administrative duties. This allowed them to do away with timesheets and focus on the client-facing tasks, leaving the backend to look after itself.
The business now offers the full raft of professional services, including financial management, governance, strategy, business improvement, analytical insights, digitisation, project management and workplace engagement.
The client lists ranges from small and medium-sized businesses to national airport corporations, superannuation companies, power generators, mining companies and the judiciary in Papua New Guinea.
“Insight, innovate and improve are the three ‘Is’ of i3,” says MacDonald. “Creating change that matters is what we are aiming for. This is how we project ourselves out to the market.”
MacDonald has a raft of qualifications to her name in addition to her MBA, including a bachelor of business degree and graduate diplomas in advanced accounting and applied corporate governance.
Despite her array of qualifications, it is real-life business experience that has proven to be among the most valuable to her, MacDonald says.
“I had a lot of learning to do,” she says of her foray into professional services and running her own business. “I found out I had been too specialised. My experience in just finance and accounting was just too narrow – you absolutely have to be a lot more broad if you want the ability to provide other services.”
While the road through COVID-19 has been a bumpy one for i3, its lesson has been that there is no time for inaction. For MacDonald, if things aren’t going well, it is time to correct, but if they are, it’s time to capitalise.
In the past, the small size of the business required a team of senior specialists. Now, with so many skilled professionals having lost their jobs due to the pandemic, i3 Australia sees an opportunity to build the capabilities of its team by offering a fast-tracked mentorship development opportunity for junior employees looking to diversify from their Big Four experience.
“With more automation and digitisation happening in the finance space, we’d also like to explore digital workers and how we can achieve efficiencies for organisations in that space,” says MacDonald.
“In some ways, COVID-19 provided opportunities for us because it gave us a chance to realign the structure of the firm and get it embedded, so we could open up offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. We’ve learnt to be adaptable and to make the best use of technology to improve our efficiencies both for us and our clients.”
One piece of advice
“There is no place for inaction. If you start up and are successful, you need to capitalise on that success and adopt solutions to help you grow even more. If you start up and things are not going as well as you thought, you are at risk and need to take immediate steps to improve the situation. You need to do this throughout your entire business life cycle, because there are always going to be problems to solve and continuous improvements to implement.