What’s driving Xero?

How Tech Companies are Leading on Purpose…an interview with Anneliese Urquhart, Director of Small Business, Xero

We’re now living in the purpose economy. Meaning is the new money. There’s a growing body of evidence proving that purpose-led companies will be the ones to thrive in the new frontiers of capitalism.

I believe it will be this century’s purpose-led tech companies that will lead the way in the ‘purpose’ stakes. The leaders of these companies understand inherently that the biggest disruption in the world is not going to come from their own advancements in technology, but from their advancements towards purpose, where technology is merely the great enabler of purpose.

This interview with Anneliese Urquhart of the cloud-accounting company Xero, is the first in a series of interviews with leaders in these purpose-led tech companies.


Anneliese grew up in the small town of Ceduna located on the shores of Murat Bay on the West Coast of Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. Her father was the local dentist and her mother owned the local garden centre. “Small business was in my blood. I experienced firsthand, the trials and tribulations of running a business and how much time it consumes. It’s what drives me in my work – to remove the barriers for people to get into business, to help them grow and ultimately give them back precious time with their families.”

As a mother to a two-year old, Anneliese is also driven to play a part in creating the future world she wants her daughter to grow up in, which includes spending quality time with her. “Time is the one thing we can never get back. I’ve been able to structure my work around that. For example, I work from 7.30am to 4pm so I can spend the late afternoon and evenings with her.”

Small business is most definitely, big business. It’s estimated that more than 90% of the world’s enterprises are small to medium sized businesses and that they employ well over a third of the labour force. “That number is only set to grow,” says Anneliese. “Machination, automation and artificial intelligence are making big companies more efficient and less dependent on humans. As big businesses become leaner, helping small business grow will become increasingly important”.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics however, it’s estimated that more than 60% of small businesses fail within three years of opening. So how do we prevent this from happening?

“Our research shows that the biggest challenges small businesses face, are cashflow, access to capital and operating their businesses efficiently. The good news is that there are technology solutions that can help with all of those challenges,” says Anneliese.

“We’re driven to remove these barriers to success and growth. We want our customers’ businesses to thrive, to employ people and become a success story – just like we have at Xero. We’ve grown from a small to a medium and now a large business ourselves in just 10 years, so we know intimately the stresses and pressures they’re dealing with.”

Xero was founded in 2006 by New Zealander, Rod Drury with his accountant, when they felt that traditional desktop accounting software was outdated. The company has grown to 1700 employees serving over 1 million customers in more than 180 countries across the world. The company was floated on the NZ stock exchange in 2007 and the ASX in 2008 and in 2016 their turnover was $302 million.

Research shows that most people start their small business for altruistic, worthy reasons; they have a talent and a passion for something whether that’s cooking, technology or plumbing; they have a deep desire to be their own boss and prove they can be successful; they want flexibility and autonomy; and they want to make a contribution – to their community, to be of service, to make a difference. “Most don’t go into business just for the money,” says Anneliese. “Once they start though, for many small businesses, they’re just trying to survive. It’s the owner who’s opening, closing, cleaning, doing the payroll and the books. It’s not uncommon to hear that people are doing their business admin, finances and planning at night on the couch, and that they can feel isolated.”

And that’s what drives Xero. It seems, that they’re much more than a cloud-accounting software company. “We’re here to drive growth in the small business economy, and the best way to do that is to remove the barriers preventing growth.”  

Small businesses are increasingly looking for simple and easy ways to connect their accounting software to apps that help them run their business more efficiently. More than a quarter of Xero’s 1 million customers now use one or more of the 500 apps available in Xero’s ecosystem.

The new App Marketplace is a clear example of the value of Xero’s network effect with  the likes of world-leading apps Crunchboards, Receipt Bank, Vend, Shopify, Paypal  and TSheets, the global number one employee rated and time tracking software, connecting to Xero. 

“We’re constantly innovating to build services that will help our customers thrive,” says Anneliese.

Simon Sinek once said, “customers will never love a company until employees love it first”. If that’s true, what’s life really like on the inside of Xero? Why do their people keep turning up to work each day? “I’ve only been at Xero in this role for 10 months, but I can tell you, hands-down, it’s the best job I’ve ever had. Our leaders value people above all else. We hire really smart people, give them big problems to fix, provide them with the support they need and then we set them free to do the best work of their lives. There’s not many companies in the world where one can work at the intersection of their passion and purpose in such autonomy.”

I can’t help but believe that Xero’s number one value – Human: Real people with passion and purpose, who make a difference – is actually true.  It seems that Xero truly is a purpose-led organisation. “The tech world is the best-placed to drive societal change and solve the world’s most wicked problems,” she says. “Elon Musk, Bill Gates and the like are showing us how it’s done. We’re also now seeing amazing initiatives like Singularity University popping up. We want to be one of those companies that can say we’ve empowered millions of small businesses to play a big part in this brave new world we’re entering.”

So, what’s Anneliese’s vision for the world? “I’d love for people to feel empowered that they can solve the problems in the world they want to solve. No one has all the answers now but that’s not important. We just have to take the first step and have faith that we’re heading in the right direction. I think that’s how small business people should think about their business too. They should care that their business has a higher purpose to do good and have faith that they’ll be prosperous and profitable as a result.”

Anneliese and I could have talked for hours and hours about purpose and why purpose-led tech companies are going to lead the new frontiers of capitalism. Bring it on, I say!

Who’s your favourite purpose-led tech company? If you’d like to nominate a leader in a large-scale purpose-led tech company to be interviewed for this series, contact me at carolyn@carolyntate.co

Find out what it takes to become a purpose-led organisation and how to bring meaning to life at work with The Purpose Project. A sample of this practical ‘how-to’ handbook can be read by subscribing @ carolyntate.co or you can BUY NOW!

You’re also invited to join me at The Purpose Project book launch in Melbourne on Thursday 6 July. You’ll receive a signed copy of the book and hear my talk on purpose and how it’s the key to transforming the workplace. REGISTER HERE

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