Accountancy’s young disruptors on success in 2022
New digital ways of working and the legacy of the coronavirus pandemic are just two of the hugely disruptive influences to have changed the accountancy sector in recent years. With so much change having happened and still ongoing, are the industry’s newer and forward-looking operators best placed for success? Phil Burnell, Managing Director of Spark, and Steve Tanner, Director of Leap, give their insight into how they are disrupting accounting industry norms.
IAB: How long have your firms been in business and what made you strike out on your own?
Phil Burnell: I started Spark eight years ago, having previously worked for a big regional firm in the Midlands, UK. It was there I saw clients were receptive to using Xero accounting software – even if the staff weren’t. So, I jumped ship and took a few clients with me to my own business.
Steve Tanner: I was working as a finance manager when I realised that cloud-based accounting software was so much more beneficial for working and for clients. I also found that the accountants I dealt with were charging a lot but were slow to respond. That gave me the idea of starting up in the accountancy sector to offer a much better service to clients than I had experienced, and we’ve now been going for five years.
PB: We’re now up to nine employees, with around 150 clients, mainly company managing directors who are in their 30s and 40s. We’ve basically grown and adapted our service using online platforms like Xero and other software like Spotlight, DEXT, which are now obviously industry norms. But being at the forefront of all those new bits of tech that have come along make sure we’re recognised as I wanted to be, as fresh and different.
ST: We’re currently four full-time employees as well as subcontractors, working with anything from one-person to 30-people companies, a lot of whom work in tech and software development, and are of a younger generation like myself. Appealing to that demographic is an important part of our business, so we’ve made full use of digital marketing advice so that we look and sound like a practice that can best serve that audience.
IAB: How important is being digital-first to your practice?
ST: We’re entirely cloud-based and very rarely do anything on paper at all. We intentionally set the business up that way, rather than the old school way of working. And we’ve found ever since that we keep getting clients who are ditching their old accountant, because they themselves want to get onto using cloud-based software.
PB: It’s the be-all-and-end-all for us. We don’t have anyone who’s not on digital software now. Working digitally and doing everything through Xero was so revolutionary for three or four years that we could win a client by advertising that. But now, that’s what accountants do, isn’t it? You wouldn’t expect anything different, and so it’s not a selling point. The selling point has to be the value we can add by using that platform.
IAB: Now that so many practices are using the same software, what do you offer clients that sets you apart?
PB: Anyone can produce reports and feed information to clients quickly because of the technology we all have. And so, building more personal relationships with your clients comes into the real value you can provide.
ST: We offer the full range of traditional services, therefore accounting, bookkeeping, payroll etc. But the wide range of advisory services we offer, like R&D claims, forecasting and budgeting, means there’s a slightly wider scope which makes us different to more traditional firms. We do more, so we offer more value.
IAB: We’re all used to using our smartphones for work now, should practices take advantage of less formal communication with clients?
ST: There are definitely benefits, but there’s also the downside that you could be contacted at any time of the day. Our staff absolutely aren’t expected to respond out-of-hours because it’s important to set limitations on work. We can be responsive, but also separate our professional and personal time.
PB: We use business messaging app Slack for communication with partners like PR agencies and digital marketing companies like PracticeWeb – that stops emails getting clogged up, which lends itself to less stress with admin. We do use WhatsApp from time to time, but work life can all too easily be pushed into personal life, and I think it’s healthy to have that separation as much as possible.
IAB: Work-life balance is being talked about so much more following the pandemic. What sort of things do you do that help support your employees in this way?
ST: When Covid hit, we got out of our office lease in Bishopsgate, London, as soon as we could, like a lot of businesses did. We talked to our employees as things settled down and all just found we worked better remotely, and we paid for things like desks and chairs to work from. If we see a client demand for going back into an office, we’ll do that. But if our people are happy from home, then we’ll keep seeing the benefit of happy employees who are managing that work-life balance.
PB: We were onboard from the off with introducing flexible working as an option. Employees with responsibilities at home really do benefit from cutting out commuting. But we also think it’s important to keep our office in Birmingham. We find that having that office space helps support that balance because, especially for our younger employees, they might not be set up to work from home. They might not have desk space or a room to work from.
IAB: Looking after your employees is obviously important for staff retention, but what are you doing to make yourself appealing to new workers amid what some are calling a recruitment crisis?
PB: I think it’s about making your whole business look and feel nice and attractive. We hired digital marketing agency PracticeWeb to redesign our website, who made sure to understand and communicate what we stand for as a practice. Getting that across to prospective employees, as well as clients, is so important if you want to stand out. That aesthetic and feel is important. Probably 20 to 25 years ago that wasn’t the case, but now I think there’s a clear difference between progressive and traditional practices.
ST: We’re not currently recruiting, but if we decide to expand further then I think that would push us to moving into an office and promoting that as a benefit. I think more junior employees would want a taste of that professional environment that us senior members have had, and it’s just a fact that training someone up properly means they need to be around other people to learn from.
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