From hospitality to accounting: Amaka’s Martin Chee discusses how success transcends industry

A Venn diagram. The left circle is pale pink with the words 'Martin Chee, Amaka', and the right circle is Martin's headshot. He has short black hair and is wearing a gray collared shirt.
  • Martin Chee, Co-Founder of Amaka, is working to make transactional data integrate seamlessly with accounting software. Amaka also provides customers with key insights for forecasting. 

  • In addition to his recent experience growing Amaka, Martin has 15 years’ experience as a public accountant. 

  • Martin takes advantage of the global talent market, hiring his team from a variety of countries outside of his Australian home base. 

What do building an accounting software company and serving at a Chinese restaurant have in common? According to Martin Chee, a whole lot.

As the son of a first-generation Lithuanian Australian and a Chinese immigrant, Martin’s first job was working in his dad’s Chinese restaurant—an experience that he feels prepared him for the white-collar world.

“I'm a big advocate for everyone [doing] a stint in hospitality, just to be on the other side of the fence and understand what goes on behind the scenes, the pressure that you're subjected to,” Martin says. “Experience in the service setting really puts you in good stead, regardless of what kind of professional environment you're in after that.”

One particularly rough night of serving tested his grit. Martin remembers dropping a tray of drinks onto a woman’s lap—and it just so happened that she was the first customer of his shift.

Thinking back to that moment, he reflects, “You have to wash it off and get on with the job. That’s something really valuable that I took from it—it doesn't matter if you're having a bad day or a good day. You’ve got to put on the smile and the veneer for the customer and make sure they're having a really good experience.”

Martin has carried that steely determination with him while building the accounting firm Elliott Chee Sun & Khoe and pursuing his most recent endeavor, a software integration platform called Amaka. In an interview with Karbon CEO and Co-Founder Stuart McLeod on episode 36 of the Accounting Leaders Podcast, he shares his thoughts on managing a global team, growing a software company, and staying true to your main value proposition. 

From the restaurant table to the conference table

Martin got into accounting in an unexpected way—through a regular at his dad’s restaurant who happened to be an accountant. Noticing Martin’s work ethic, the customer offered him a job. Martin took on a part-time role while attending Sydney’s Macquarie University, and started with ledgers and bookkeeping before moving up to tax returns. 

It was this experience that showed Martin how tech could transform accounting. While his early work was with a pencil and paper, he soon saw the industry change as a result of new technology. 

“The accounting industry has been massively disrupted by tech,” Martin says. “It’s probably one of the industries that has been most disrupted in terms of the way that technology has invaded so many different aspects of running an accounting practice, but also the way that your clients might otherwise manage the accounting and finance functions of their businesses.” 

Martin would eventually use the skills from his first accounting experience and finished bachelor’s degree to launch his full-time accounting career. Now, with 15 years of public accounting experience under his belt, he’s ready for a new phase of his CPA career. 

“I’m at a stage now where I'm kind of like ‘been there and done that,’” Martin tells Stuart on the podcast. “I much prefer dealing with the team and optimizing the processes, and dealing with more creative client issues. I'm still involved relatively heavily, but more in a managerial role.”

Making Amaka

Getting out of the grinding portion of accounting freed up space for Martin to work on his passion project, Amaka. Accounting technology changes rapidly, but he noticed a gap in the lag time between when transactions occurred and when they made it into the accounting software. 

Amaka serves as an integration platform, seamlessly importing and streamlining transaction data into accounting software. The company’s first project was with San Francisco-based point-of-sale (POS) system, Revel, integrating its transaction data with Xero. 

“​​Within a short space of time, we had a couple hundred customers using that integration,” Martin explains of the company’s growth. “At the same time, we were getting opportunities to do other projects for Revel customers, whether it was packaging up POS information and sending it off to a server for someone else to consume, looking at hooking it up to an online ordering system, or consuming information and putting it into a template for a finance function to consume.”

Today, Amaka works with a variety of systems, each one with its own data nuances. Some of the company’s greatest challenges are in those nuances. For example, Amaka isn’t always in the loop when a point-of-sale or e-commerce system updates, so developers must scramble to patch the data. Not only that, but the terminology used behind the scenes varies greatly across software companies. 

Still, Martin credits his team with always finding a solution.

“That complexity has been incredibly challenging to accommodate within the architecture. The development team has done a really amazing job with that process. It’s this constant, iterative improvement,” he says. 

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Hiring globally

With both Elliott Chee Sun & Khoe and Amaka, Martin has embraced the global hiring market. The accounting firm has around 27 people, 11 of whom are in the Philippines while another two are in Indonesia and Singapore. Similarly, a good portion of Amaka’s 30 employees are based in the Philippines. 

Martin explains to Stuart why he likes looking outside of Australia for candidates:

“There's always a strong disincentive to scale the team locally here. You start getting into that payroll tax threshold. In the Philippines, the quality of the candidates that are coming out of university now is really impressive. It's hard to avoid that reality when there's such a strong disparity in wages.”

Martin’s willingness to hire outside of Australia has mostly gone well, with only a few hiccups. These are usually cultural differences rather than language barriers. 

“You can say to someone, ‘If you have any issues, raise them with me.’ Even though you might say that, and repeat that every week, there's still this apprehension culturally,” Martin says. “Not just cultural in terms of the general personality traits that they might have, but in terms of the corporate culture, and the professional culture over there. They didn’t work that way.”

Having developed a greater understanding of how to manage cultural differences, Martin plans to continue searching globally for his next hires.

Bringing home the value

In addition to providing software integrations, Amaka strives to be a one-stop shop for business analytics. In fact, this is its key value proposition: reducing app overload, eliminating the learning curve with digesting information, and making the most out of customer data. 

“Take all of this amazing data that people are generating, whether it's from the point-of-sale system, an e-commerce system, or even a scheduling system. Give that to the user and give them all of the insights and the value that they can take out of it in an easy-to-digest way,” Martin says. 

All of the different apps can take a toll on company budgets—sometimes more than expected.

“Not every app is super cheap to run. Before you know it, you've got an app that's managing your payroll, one that's managing your forecasting, a POS system that's helping you process payments… and you add it all up, and you're like, ‘Wow, I didn't realize I'm spending, you know, a grand just on software each month before I even do anything.’” 

By processing information across different software and making it easy to understand, Amaka gives back to its customers valuable time and money. And one of the biggest differentiators, according to Martin, is the company’s support team.

“At the heart of these really amazing products that save time for everyone involved, we always have a really strong emphasis that there is a service attached to that product,” Martin says. “It’s a need born out of the complexity of the product and the problems that we're solving.”

Whether it is making the most of customer data or finding the best talent by casting a global net, Martin is dedicated to delivering top-notch service to Amaka’s customers—not a far cry from his roots at his dad’s restaurant.