How to find clients for a new sole practice?

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Hi everyone,

I have started a sole practice (focus on personal tax, coporation tax for small entities, and book keeping) and I operate remotely. I find it difficult to find clients.

I had used Bark as a starting point but so far have found it to be a waste of time and money.

I have had two people contacting over email with a request for help. I had responded to both within an hour with a carefully worded email but then got no reply back.

Could you please share what has helped you the most with finding your first clients or what would you say works best for finding online clients nowadays?

Many thanks in advance.

Replies (28)

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By Cylhia66
24th Feb 2024 06:32

I started where you are, from scratch. Back then, I kept my full time PAYE job to begin with which meant it gave me time to build up my client base without worrying about finances. I started helping friends around me pretty much for free and from there the word of mouth started doing its magic.

I can't advise on marketing strategy. I have never done any. I've solely relied on the word of mouth all these years.

Good luck to you whatever approach you chose to use.

Thanks (2)
By adam.arca
24th Feb 2024 08:38

SImilar to Cylhia66. Started from scratch and it was a really hard slog to begin with. Had to take some temp jobs to keep the wolf from the door.

Eventually, though, the power of word of mouth kicks in and you start heading towards critical mass.

Have tried some marketing strategies but they were all bobbins. This was, though, all in the pre internet era (says Fred to Barney).

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By bernard michael
24th Feb 2024 09:26

Have you tried joining local business organisations to spread your message ??

Thanks (1)
By Matrix
24th Feb 2024 11:08

For online only you would be competing with the pile it high, sell it cheap firms and would have to build a great website with everything automated to make any money.

Businesses tend to look for a local recommended accountant. I have local clients I have never met.

Per above, growth is through word of mouth and, sadly, luck. Let everyone know what you do and do a great job. Most of my clients are through friends/family, bookkeepers and existing clients.

In the meantime, join networking groups and create social media profiles. In my area people tend to post on local Facebook groups when looking for an accountant.

Read everything on here including previous posts on this.

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By OldParkAcct
24th Feb 2024 11:20

From personal experience the only worthwhile clients come from recommendation, which makes starting from scratch a slow process and one that is difficult to achieve remotely.
The market is saturated with online remote accountants and I would imagine competing against the larger operators in the market is an expensive and unrewarding path to take for a sole practitioner. If you are determined to operate remotely then one solution is to concentrate on a niche market, so you are focusing your efforts and giving the client a reason to choose you over their current accountant.
But perhaps the best advice would be to save the idea of remote working until you have created the client base. Unless you can find a fee block to purchase the alternative is to network in your local community and give people a reason to use you as their accountant, just avoid BNI and similar groups.

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By Lucy N
24th Feb 2024 13:02

Was this not something you thought about before you started? I got my initial clients from networking and advertising locally. These were then followed by recommendations from current clients. If you're trying to do online only, you will struggle against cheap competition who outsource to India.

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By FactChecker
24th Feb 2024 13:08

Although I'm another 'dinosaur', I agree with everyone's two primary points:
- word of mouth/recommendations are the only organic way to grow;
- generic marketing campaigns only make money for the marketeer.

There may come a time when you can consider purchasing a block of clients, but frankly you need to be of a size before doing this that enables you to absorb the extra effort of taking them on (and not losing too many).
Hence the various comments about making sure you have some other income stream in the early days (unless you have the capital to make that irrelevant).

But the key IMHO is to simultaneously have a 'point of difference' to the competition and to ensure that is promoted/understood by the specific 'prospects' you'd like to take on board.
That means:
a) NOT joining the race to the bottom (with ever greater reliance on automation to achieve the lowest costs in the market) where much bigger fish will swallow you;
b) identifying a 'niche sector' (or two) in which word of mouth will spread quicker and be more believed by the recipients ('they speak our language' is powerful).

If you already have extra knowledge (not necessarily accounting based) of a specific niche then go and talk to a few of them ... maybe offering a special rate if they agree to help you find others. [This doesn't have to be just direct introductions; people like attending a freebie breakfast or evening seminar if one or more speakers is from their line of work - and by hosting the event you've become 'one of their group'.]

Good luck - there are no simple answers, but perseverance and focus can take you far.

Thanks (8)
By mumpin
24th Feb 2024 13:48

You need to really emphasize your preofessional qualifications in any marketing that you do.
That gives prospective clients confidence in your abilities.
Also make you stand out from all of the uncommitted chancers who are nooby accountants one day and tik tok influencers the next.

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By Mr Hankey
24th Feb 2024 14:46

I first started from scratch, but had the added complication of needing to keep myself off the internet so my employer wouldn't find me!

I spent a whole Sunday driving around all the villages in the area, going into the church (more likely to be unlocked on a Sunday) and picking up a copy of the local parish magazine. Not all churches were unlocked, and not all parishes had a magazine, but after a day's work I think I ended up with about 10.

I placed adverts in these magazines, most were cheap as chips, say £40 for a half page advert that went out to a few hundred homes 12 times per year. These are the sort of village newsetters that residents liked to read (rather than junk mail that's put straight in the bin) and I was the only accountant advertising in them.

The response rate was surprisingly good, plenty of local tradesman & retired folk with rental income. I went out to meet them face-to-face as it was all local, and found they really valued that personal touch as opposed to being a number from a website. I don't advertise anymore as I'm as full as I want to be, but I've still a fair few of those original clients to this day.

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Replying to Mr Hankey:
By AdamJones82
24th Feb 2024 18:45

That's almost a carbon copy of how I started, I too was suprised how much response I got from the local magazines!
My employer did find out before I intended to leave but hey ho!

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Replying to Mr Hankey:
By bettybobbymeggie
25th Feb 2024 15:59

+1 Exactly what I did more or less.

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By I'msorryIhaven'taclue
24th Feb 2024 15:29

It's really hard to start from scratch - and unless you're a particularly good actor your prospects can easily interpret your eagerness as a sign of desperation.

You must find a gap in the market: a specialist niche* perhaps, where you can become the go-to person; or a demand for a particular service** that outstrips supply.

*for example:
Xero trainer;
Furnished holiday lets accountant;
EU VAT consultant.

**for example:
Xero bookkeeper;
Crypto-currency accountant;
Financial Modeller

Working online should allow you to cast your net wider.

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By I'msorryIhaven'taclue
24th Feb 2024 16:39

Alternatively, go read What You See is What You Get, Alan Sugar's autobiography. It'll teach you how to spot gaps in the market, pitch to prospective customers, and be ruthless about it.

Seriously... go do it. Love him or hate him, Lord Grumpy will give it to you straight and, hopefully, alter your mindset. You're in it to win it! Go on, off you go... the bookshop's open for another hour!

Thanks (1)
paddle steamer
25th Feb 2024 16:25

I got mine from:

1. Referrals from existing clients

2. The odd one or two from previous employers, being ultra careful that I was above board with them, discussed before and never fell out with them. Some previous employer retained (sweet talked) others came to me with their blessing, but I insisted I would never poach- they always came to me, I did not seek out and I always discussed.

3. Subcontract work for previous employer, less lucrative but decent work- they knew me and my work standards and they sometimes got ploughed and an extra pair of hands was welcome.

Of course except for 1994-1995 I was part time and had an employment that kept wolf from door, but I did need to negotiate with employer post 1999 (property business) that I would not take work with other property business groups that might cause conflict of interest, and would encourage my clients not to contact me during office hours.

Part time is hard work, you lose evenings and weekends, not always welcomed by other half if she was landed with the kids more of the time, but always gave an extra income that HMRC could devour if I took excess dividends.

On plus side I retained one role as Company Secretary so still have a small second paid employment even though ceased practice in 2019 and come 2026 ,when I will give up three day week day job, my current employer seems to want to retain me in a non exec position post proper retirement, so contacts made may long term help the transition into retirement.

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By I'msorryIhaven'taclue
25th Feb 2024 17:09

How about attending the upcoming Festival of Accounting and Bookkeeping, where "the buzz of like-minded people with a shared ambition for developing the accounting profession" might just give you some ideas.

In short, you could "feel the energy and engage in free-flowing conversations at FAB."

And you can get your free ticket in just 1 minute!

F-A-B Virgil!

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By Maslins
26th Feb 2024 09:18

Two choices:
1) do lots of in person networking. Over time you'll get weird and wonderful enquiries from people who know and trust you. High variety of work.
2) decide on a niche. Focus your marketing on that. Tailor your website, decide where to comment etc. Be the expert in that. Low variety of work.

If you're a good people person and want high variety of work to keep it interesting/you on your toes, go for option 1.

If you're more business focused, happy with less variety so you can streamline/rarely be outside comfort zone technically, go for option 2.

Thanks (3)
Replying to Maslins:
By FactChecker
26th Feb 2024 14:14

Interesting ... never thought of it in those terms explicitly.

But of course you can (or at least I did) combine the two ... developing a niche (and later another niche) with the intent of ensuring a regular workload that covers all the costs of the business + whilst slowly building a diverse network of oddballs who like to be different and appreciate you treating each 'problem' as a challenge to be enjoyed.
The advantage of this was that it's relatively easy to take unadventurous but highly competent people and train them in the specialisms of the niche, but next to impossible to find adventurers (who typically want to work for themselves) ... which is great if that's what you enjoy for yourself.

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By ant1
27th Feb 2024 01:09

Thank you everyone for the responses and positive vibes. You have definitely given me quite a lot of food for thought in areas I had not considered before.

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By Yorkshireblue
27th Feb 2024 09:54

It's a tough one to crack and marketing strategies will differ in every area. Social media exposure will get you some results but it's a grind and takes time. Why not try particular sectors such as Uber/taxi drivers or the contruction / CIS workers? They speak with each other and have the potential to spread your services. Be prepared for a very low response rate to adverts/mailshots.
The best and cheapest marketing comes from word of mouth - good luck.

Thanks (1)
Replying to Yorkshireblue:
paddle steamer
27th Feb 2024 10:22

Not taxi drivers!!!!!!!

We had a partner who travelled a lot by taxi and flung his business cards about, helped that he had been a decent professional footballer, result was we ended up with a lot of black cab drivers

Whilst on paper relatively easy to do if they kept decent records most did not and were enquiry magnets where it was impossible to recover the true cost of dealing with their enquiry by fee issued.

Maybe okay these days as HMRC now virtually never conduct enquiries, but could still have me wake up in the middle of the night screaming

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By elliesch
27th Feb 2024 14:30

I started from scratch which was alarming for the first few months but I had savings.
1 Identify a niche -I opted for hi tech startups
2 Go where they are - the local technology centre had a new business incubator & rental offices for small tech companies.
I attended events & networking there & chummed up with lawyers, investors and (non accounting) advisors I met.
I did some stuff for nothing but got introduced to high quality clients & specialised in issues relating to the niche eg R&D tax credits.

Good luck

Thanks (1)
By indomitable
27th Feb 2024 15:51

It's difficult at the beginning, takes time to get traction

Make sure your website is set up to convert clients (doesn't have to be expensive - can use FIVERR or people per hour can find great resources there)
Read alot about marketing
Have a google my business account (useful for people searching in you area for an accountant)
Make sure you ask for reviews
Tell all your friends and family and get them to ask their friends
Google ads - works for us but not something I would do immediately

It will take a couple of years to get traction

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Mark Lee headshot 2023
By Mark Lee
27th Feb 2024 18:30

There's some great advice here already. Can I add a dose of realism?

Having a website, networking (less easy if you're remote) and being capable, keen, easy to deal with and reliable are great starting points. But that’s all.

Being able to Prepare accounts and tax returns is only part of the role when you run an accounting business.

You also need 3 other CRUCIAL P skills:

To be able to PROMOTE your business so as to ATTRACT the type of clients you want (who need the services you have the skills to provide).

There are some good tips here already but none work like magic or overnight.

You will also need to become good at PITCHING your services 1-2-1 so as to satisfy prospective clients that you can provide the services and advice they need.

And to be able to PRICE your services quickly and fairly so that prospective clients are willing to pay you what you want for doing the work they want.

I have seen many people who can PROVIDE accountancy services struggle to build a business as they never seem to develop those other 3 P skills. And they assumed that they would magically attract clients simply by opening their doors. Sorry, but that rarely happens as fast as anyone hoped it would.

This blog post may also be helpful:

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By djokhoo
27th Feb 2024 18:37

Good day,
Online may seem to be the new wave of things to be, but it is overated. i.e. no one can see you. It may be worth your while to get to your local bank or credit union and chat with them, leave your business card, there is a world of business people who do banking, I am sure you may find many clients there.
As online goes, this will be restricted business opportunities, however, I myself put a google location and it has drawn a number of clients.
Some people used social media, but you have to use key words to attract the potential clients, words such as: accounting, accountant, accountancy, bookkeeper, bookkeeping, auditor, auditing. This will make it easier for clients to find you.
You can use online advertising in the local newspaper etc. or just put up a sign (with permission- don't break the law).
Good luck to you.

Thanks (1)
By CardiffAccountant
27th Feb 2024 19:47

When I started, I had no clients, nor any obvious means of gaining some.

I went out and literally ‘knocked doors’ of small businesses. I even walked the length of taxi ranks - anywhere that had self employed people.

No doubt, you will get some rubbish, but that’s a learning experience (besides, during the early days, can you afford to be choosy?).

Eventually, one or two said they were unhappy with their existing set-up and were happy to give me a try. I can think of at least three who are still clients.

Keep persevering and eventually you’ll start picking up work.

Good luck, I wish you well.

PS. It helped that I came from a sales environment, so rejection wasn’t an issue.

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By allan613
28th Feb 2024 10:38

If a client needed insurance I would recommend them to one of the number of insurance agents I knew, with the condition the agent never paid me a commission but recommended me to any disgruntled client he had, and again I never paid him.
By going on a straight recommendation there was no need to declare anything to the client, as he would want a 'cut' of the commission received.
A win-win situation.

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By Homeworker
28th Feb 2024 12:56

Along with most of the other respondents, I got the majority of my clients from recommendations, which does take time so I also took on subcontract work in the early years. Advertising in newspapers is costly and rarely works - people prefer a recommendation before handing over personal information to a stranger. I've had my business for 28 years and some clients have been with me since the start, so I must have got it right!

You do need to consider pricing carefully. I started out too cheap and it is much harder to increase fees to a reasonable price later. I also found a few clients would use my services for a year or two then decide to take over the returns themselves as I have always believed in the client understanding how the figures in the accounts and on the return have been put together. Whilst that was annoying, how can you ask someone to declare that a return is correct if they don't understand the contents?

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