Unlike most people, CAs(SA) Richard and Yvonne Starkey decided to work hard on creating the lifestyle they both craved rather than fancy titles and big salaries.
‘We live in a random little country in Eastern Europe. We are a bit different, in fact, most people think we’re a bit odd,’ laughs Richard. ‘In fact, there are no other accountants in our social circle!’
The couple met while working in Johannesburg – Richard was a contracting lecturer at a private education institute, Forbes Lever Baker (FLB), where Yvonne worked as an accounting lecturer and later became vice-principal. ‘So technically she was my boss for a little while, and still is, in some ways,’ he laughs.
‘If you told me as a young girl what my life would look like today, I would have laughed and thought you were talking about someone else!’ says Yvonne.
While Yvonne knew she wanted to be a CA(SA) from the tender age of seven, Richard left school early to ride horses (show jumping and dressage). He quickly realised he would need a substantial amount of money or more talent to be able to make a living doing what he loved. ‘I changed my degree a number of times, from Theology and Greek Literature to BCom Informatics with a few more in between until settling on BCompt Accounting Science at Unisa.
‘I found accounting boring and wanted to get out there and make my fortune!’ he admits. This led him down and interesting career path that resulted in him realising that the CA(SA) qualification was more than just learning the rules of accounting and led to him completing CTA in 2008 through Unisa part-time.
Yvonne explains that the fact that they are both CAs is a bonus in their relationship, even though their personalities are worlds apart. Richard describes Yvonne as more of a creative artist and teacher, whereas he is more entrepreneurial. ‘But both of us would be very unorthodox accountants! In a different world, neither of us would be a chartered accountant, but the qualification just opens up so many doors,’ he says.
‘But because we understand the journey – both of our qualification journeys were fairly long and slightly winding [both of them studied part time while working] so we both understand the challenges and what the profession requires, so we are able to use each other as soundboards and as support. I think if I was married to someone who wasn’t a CA, I wouldn’t get the value of someone who understands and can challenge, motivate, and inspire me with discussions and debate. Not that we spend a lot of time talking about accounting, but there is just so much more that we can share.’
Neither Yvonne nor Richard has worked in accounting for years but both have embarked on an entrepreneurial journey.
When the couple got married, they founded a small education business that eventually became a listed group, employing almost 300 people. ‘We ran that business together, with the board. We didn’t enjoy the big corporate space, but we learnt a lot. But then Yvonne became very ill. She got diagnosed with breast cancer and was in hospital for almost a year.’
The couple decided to re-prioritise their lives. ‘That was actually the best thing that ever happened to us, something good that came out of such a tough year. We realised we wanted freedom to have the lives we chose, to work less and enjoy live more. Money became super unimportant.’
The Starkeys sold their business and decided to pack up and move to a foreign country. They took almost two years off to recover from the stresses of the business, but even more so from the breast cancer, and to decide where they wanted to live.
‘Richard is great with spreadsheets, so we sat down and said, “what do we need, what do we want”. There was a whole lot of criteria, including the ocean, beautiful mountains, preferably close to Italy and easy for South Africans to move to and not too expensive in terms of living costs,’ explains Yvonne.
Montenegro, being one of the few countries where you can open your own business and employ yourself and get residency that way, ticked all the couple’s boxes and they moved there in 2019.
‘It’s very special here, absolutely beautiful. It’s not very English, so I’m taking Montenegrin language lessons, which is very close to Serbian. The culture is also very different, an incredible community. The town we live in is very old, so it’s very much like unplugging from consumerism and the chaos of the corporate world. We work from home, we work from coffee shops, beach bars and restaurants and we love it!’ exclaims Yvonne.
‘To qualify as a CA takes a lot of years. Both of us did it part-time. So, working full-time, studying part-time – there was no life. My 20s was just work. So, by the time I was done with that, I was fairly burnt out. And just because you’re qualified doesn’t mean the stress suddenly stops − you are just working hard at the next phase of your career, and the next … After the whole experience I really started resonating with the philosophy of build a lifestyle that you don’t need a holiday from,’ she continues.
Yvonne is a teacher by nature and accountant by profession. She always thought she would be a partner at an audit firm, but after the first time she stood up in front of a class and gave a lecture, she was in love with teaching. And these days, she can focus on what she loves without the office politics and stress that comes with a big corporate and have a sense of purpose in knowing that she is making a difference in the lives of countless students.
She started Accounting Study Advice – an online education service that helps students improve accounting studies – without actual accounting lessons. Her website currently has over 10 000 views per month. She provides courses and coaches for students who are struggling with their studies and mainly focuses on study habits and mindset. ‘This has been an amazing journey for myself and my students, because all the challenges that I help them face, I’ve faced myself, and still do! My goal is to help students with their study habits and mindset to improve the effectiveness of their studies and exam performance. I created an online study coaching course (independent of subjects and academic content) to help students all over to understand their challenges and improve their studies. By helping you understand your mindset, and how it impacts your study habits, your beliefs about studying and your everyday life, I can help you improve your studies, and improve your anxiety and stress … without more accounting lectures!’
Richard runs an e-commerce accounting practice, CronosNow, for e-sellers. ‘I specifically focus on eCommerce and start-up clients with the goal of being the leading eCommerce and start-up accounting and virtual CFO service provider in the USA and UK markets, and I think we are on track to becoming one of the Top 10. It’s a simple business, with the purpose of sustaining our lifestyle and allowing us the time to enjoy life.’
For Richard, client trust is an important factor, especially because his work happens online. ‘It is a challenge, but you have to figure out ways to reverse the risk. For example, we don’t charge upfront set-up fees or require a long-term contract – you stay with us if you are happy. That way, the trust comes pretty easily as the relationship builds. The trick is to add value first without expecting anything back. And if you really add value, there is a level of trust for when they need you, and that is important,’ he explains.
Yvonne feels technology has actually made it easier to build a relationship of trust. ‘There are so many ways that people can find out who you are, so that by the time you are actually talking to them, they already feel like they know you. The generation that is coming up now is comfortable with technology, so they don’t feel like they have to see you face to face in order to trust you.’
One of the most important lessons that Richard have learnt during their journey is that listening is more important than talking. ‘Still learning that lesson,’ he says with a smile. ‘Number two is to add value first. The third one is to make sure you understand the correct roles of people. Don’t try to force people into a role that is not right for them.’
Yvonne learnt the importance of a growth mindset (the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others). ‘Developing a growth mindset decreases so much in terms of levels of anxiety. I made my own journey so much more difficult than it needed to be with my own mindset and the anxieties and stresses. As a perfectionist you add so much unnecessary stress to your life without even realising it. It doesn’t have to be that way.’ For her it was also important to realise that not having the ‘ideal journey’ is actually an advantage not only to her life but also to her students’ lives.
Although their lives are completely different to what they would have imagined even ten years ago, the couple is loving life off the beaten track, doing what they love and loving what they do. Wandering off and having a life outside of work, prioritising time and experiences over money, status, and possessions, is something they would change for nothing.