Qualified CA wanting to be self employed?

I have recently qualified as a CA (ICAS) and want to begin offering my services on the side.

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Hi all, 

I have recently qualified as a chartered accountant through ICAS, and I currently work at a large accounting practise in the international tax team. One of my aspirations is to start my own accountancy practice on the side whilst I work full time at my current workplace or another workplace. However, in the last three years, despite obtaining my CA qualification and having three years of experience at one of the Big 4, I am unsure whether I have the right skills required to start my own practise as it stands. 

For a bit of background, I have been working in an international tax team for the last three years and the majority of my technical experience has been centred around providing international tax advice to large multinational companies. I have never been asked to complete any accounts or do much pure accounting, and I am worried that this lack of experience will hold me back when I do start my own accountancy practice. 

There is quite a large difference between providing accounting, bookkeeping, or payroll services to small local businesses, and providing international tax advice to large multinational corporations. I have previously studied accounting at college and university, and have been required to complete some financial accounting modules on the ICAS syallabus as part of my CA qualification - therefore I understand all the basic accounting concepts and what the accounts consist of, debits and credits etc. I have never used QuickBooks or Xero, and have never completed year end accounts in a professional (non-academic) envrionment however. 

To plug my gaps in experience/knowledge, I was thinking of volunteering at/shadowing a local self employed accountant to see what his/her day to day tasks involved, and perhaps I could take a course on Xero/QuickBooks to familairse myself with the software.

I was wondering if anyone had any advice for me given the above situation? Happy to answer any questions to paint a clearer picture of my experience, knowledge, or ambition. 

Replies (24)

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the sea otter
By memyself-eye
11th May 2024 17:40

Practice, not practise, makes perfect.
Offering your services in the world of taxation/accounts is a whole new ball game, but go for courses in tax software.
Not sure you will get an accountant to spare the time teaching you though.
What's wrong with your current job?

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Replying to memyself-eye:
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By KB2000
11th May 2024 18:19

Thanks for the response!

With my current role, it’s too much legislation and written work. Although I’m good at it, I would enjoy pure accounting more. Currently exploring a career move towards financial accounting, and wanted to eventually have something set up on the side as an additional stream of income.

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By FactChecker
11th May 2024 17:56

Key question: are you looking to "offer my services on the side" as *in addition to* retaining your current job, OR as the *first step away* from your current role?

The "work at a large accounting practise in the international tax team" couldn't be much further divorced from "providing accounting, bookkeeping, or payroll services to small local businesses" ... different knowledge, different service culture, different budgets, different client expectations, different (lack of) team support = for starters.

So, first things first ... work out *what* you are trying to achieve. Only once that is clear (to you) will it be worth expending effort on working out *how* to get there.

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Replying to FactChecker:
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By KB2000
11th May 2024 18:24

Thank you for your response!

So I would begin by setting up as a sole trader/company in addition to my current role. I anticipate the early stages of my self employed journey to be challenging in terms of finding clients so I wouldn’t leave my actual day job until I know I could support myself financially with my own venture.

Yeah agreed on the point that it’s a complete different ball game. Couldn’t be more different to what I currently do, but surely my qualification and educational background have equipped me with some sort of knowledge?

In terms of steps I plan to take:
1. Find a financial accounting role, and move away from tax advisory.

2. Complete bookkeeping/other courses to equip myself with the necessary knowledge.

3. Attempt to volunteer or shadow an accountant to see how knowledge is applied in real life scenarios. This step will be the trickiest.

4. Start my own practise as a sole trader/company once I feel comfortable and skilled enough.

It’s such an odd situation as it feels like I’d be a chartered accountant who doesn’t know anything and who would need to go and study AAT.

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Replying to KB2000:
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By David Ex
11th May 2024 18:57

KB2000 wrote:

So I would begin by setting up as a sole trader/company in addition to my current role.

Have a look at your employment contract as I doubt that your employer will allow that.

You also need a practising certificate:

https://www.icas.com/regulation/regulatory-authorisations/practising-cer...

KB2000 wrote:

... surely my qualification and educational background have equipped me with some sort of knowledge?

That's not that required standard if you are offering professional services to the public. Certainly make yourself familiar with the ICAS professional ethics requirements.

https://www.icas.com/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/616708/ICAS-Code-of-Eth...

KB2000 wrote:

1. Find a financial accounting role, and move away from tax advisory.

2. Complete bookkeeping/other courses to equip myself with the necessary knowledge.

The overwhelming majority of individuals seeking an accountant will want tax advice across a range of taxes.

You says "With my current role, it’s too much legislation and written work. Although I’m good at it, I would enjoy pure accounting more." A practising accountant has to advise on a range of topics. "Pure accounting", whatever you mean by that, is unlikely to make up a large proportion of the work of an accountant dealing with small and medium sized businesses.

KB2000 wrote:

3. Attempt to volunteer or shadow an accountant to see how knowledge is applied in real life scenarios. This step will be the trickiest.

I'd be amazed if that was an attractive proposition for any practicing accountant. You're effectively wanting them to train you for nothing so that you can/may become competition for them.

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Replying to KB2000:
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By FactChecker
11th May 2024 20:03

You're still describing the *how* (rather than the *what*) you want to achieve.

But if you want to start from that point, you presumably are aware of a large library of resources available to you from ICAS ... take a look at https://www.icas.com/members/newly-qualified/professional-resources/indu... and follow your nose / the links to expand your understanding.

It's very easy to throw away all that you've achieved so far if you don't get to grip with the options *before* you start planning.

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By JuliaSmith2009
11th May 2024 20:43

I was in a very similar position to you 10 years ago. I phoned the ICAEW for advice and they strongly recommended that I obtained experience in a small accountancy practice. I picked up some part time hours in the evenings and weekends with a small practice (remote working, flexible hours) which I did for a few years, I only intended to do that for a year but I enjoyed it and the arrangement worked well. To begin with it took me forever to do basic tasks like run a small payroll but it didn’t matter as I was working remotely and could spend time working things out. I finally took the plunge and now have small successful practice with two employees. I would see what support ICAS can give you (ICAEW were very helpful) and go for it, I have no regrets and it was definitely the right move for me (and not as difficult as I thought it would be but I learnt so much from the small practice). Good luck!

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Replying to JuliaSmith2009:
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By KB2000
12th May 2024 14:05

Hi Julia,

Thank you very much for sharing your experience. It was really useful to read how someone in a similar situation dealt with it.

I didn't actually consider doing some part time work at a small accountancy practice. I am now actively going to start reaching out to small practices to see if some sort of arrangement can be made. Were you being paid for your work at the small accountancy practice or were you doing it voluntarily? Given you said you were doing it for years, I assume it was not voluntary work.

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Replying to KB2000:
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By JuliaSmith2009
14th May 2024 14:23

I was paid for the work, it wasn't that local to me which didn't matter as it was remote working. The pay wasn't great for a qualified accountant but as I was using it partly for training, I didn't mind.

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By Matrix
12th May 2024 07:12

I did exactly this. I had only ever worked in international tax and had never done bookkeeping, accounts prep, payroll or even personal tax. I just set up my practice and taught myself. That was the easy part - marketing, dealing with clients and learning software were, and continue to be, the hardest.

International tax is far more interesting and lucrative. I would read all the posts on here from small practitioners and then decide if you really want to do it!

Have you considerer moving in-house instead?

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Replying to Matrix:
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By KB2000
12th May 2024 14:07

Hi, thank you for your response!

Whilst international tax can definitely be lucrative, I just don't enjoy it and can't see myself doing it for much longer. Really happy to hear that someone with a similar background was able to start their own practice however.

Can I ask - how did you teach yourself? What resources did you use and how did you feel comfortable enough to work on a client by yourself despite only having international tax experience?

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Replying to KB2000:
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By Matrix
12th May 2024 19:45

Well I didn’t find an online course, maybe there is one now. Borrowed books from the ICAEW library on accounts disclosures. Learnt by doing. Read everything on here. I have enough experience to know what I don’t know.

I would get your employer to at least pay for CTA before you leave and get a bit of post-qualification and client-facing experience.

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By paul.benny
12th May 2024 10:35

@OP - Why? Specifically, why do you want to have your own practice?

Do you hope that this will grow from a secondary income into your main job? Fine. But it's not lucrative being a generalist small practitioner. Your medium-term income prospects where you are (or in another big firm) exceed what most small general practitioners make.

Is it for additional income now? Again, fine. But you may find that, at least initially, your costs (PII, software, ICAS fees) exceed your income. Bar work probably pays a better effective hourly rate .

I'm guessing you're single and don't own your own home. As partner, mortgage, children come along, available time diminishes.

Is it 'grass is greener'? It isn't

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Replying to paul.benny:
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By KB2000
12th May 2024 14:12

Hi Paul, thank you. That was a really thought provoking response.

In terms of my why, I think I would have it as a second source of income for a while, until I can gradually scale it up whilst scaling my (office) working hours down. And eventually in the long term, if it is successful enough, it could be my primary source of income.

Perhaps being my own boss, and the flexibility that comes with it is attractive too. I am aware of all the downsides to this too however.

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Replying to KB2000:
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By paul.benny
12th May 2024 17:03

The answers are far important to you than to me but I don't really think you've properly answered why? And have you addressed my other points? The answers are unimportant here but you need to answer them for yourself - particularly about the time commitment and the level of income.

I'm a little sceptical that your current employer will countenance you working in practice elsewhere. You will inevitably end up doing your own work in their time and using their resources.

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Replying to KB2000:
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By paul.benny
12th May 2024 17:03

The answers are far important to you than to me but I don't really think you've properly answered why? And have you addressed my other points? The answers are unimportant here but you need to answer them for yourself - particularly about the time commitment and the level of income.

I'm a little sceptical that your current employer will countenance you working in practice elsewhere. You will inevitably end up doing your own work in their time and using their resources.

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Replying to paul.benny:
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By kim.shaw-and-co.com
12th May 2024 20:59

paul.benny wrote:

I'm a little sceptical that your current employer will countenance you working in practice elsewhere. You will inevitably end up doing your own work in their time and using their resources.

... it's something an experienced employer will spot a mile away especially when an employee starts to upscale private work. I can tell you with a pretty high degree of reliability when I work with a team of people which employee(s) are likely 'moonlighting', with key indicators including :

- finding ways to "time-dump" on jobs
- being inaccessible to team members
- blaming everyone but themselves if things go wrong
- being unable or unwilling to meet deadlines (often because they prioritize their own clients)
- deterioration in work quality and attention to detail

I've even seen behaviour of setting up scapegoats to deflect focus from foreseeable over-runs and other elaborate techniques with ultimately costly consequences for the employing firm.

It's all very well if the individual can manage both, but in the end more often than not they struggle to. The whole post-Covid 'working from home' culture has led to an explosion of 'working on the side' and at some point there is bound to be a tightening of attitudes.

If you breach your employment contract by taking on other jobs in the same industry it doesn't take that much to end up on the wrong side of a dismissal that could not reasonably amount to a constructive one.

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By Tax Dragon
13th May 2024 07:02

Heart surgeons might be among the worst GPs.

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By Paul Crowley
13th May 2024 23:48

Gertrude told me that.

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Routemaster image
By tom123
13th May 2024 08:06

Most of my friends on accountingweb are in practice on their own account, and they genuinely give the impression they enjoy it.

It doesn't mean I would. I've managed a fairly decent board level career without going anywhere near a plumbers invoice pad and bag of receipts.

I enjoy helping (for free) as a small charity trustee, and also helping my wife run her artistic business. So I do get to see Xero etc out of interest.

Be very careful what you wish for. Tax is not going away, international tax more so.
Surely there is no risk of you running out of work?

Maybe try something different outside of work - which could also in due course earn a few quid.

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Replying to tom123:
paddle steamer
By DJKL
13th May 2024 10:44

One other consideration the OP ought to consider, the past is certainly not the future.

Practice at the small part of SME likely faces a rush to the bottom with fees and a stack it high sell it cheap business model, what job satisfaction there is likely to be is possibly going to be somewhat limited in what has become, and willlikely further become, a compliance led industry.

I have been out of practice since September 2019 and do not miss it, the OP really does have to consider that the grass is not always greener and even if initially it is verdant after a few years the novelty can wane.

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Replying to DJKL:
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By kim.shaw-and-co.com
13th May 2024 14:36

DJKL wrote:

Practice at the small part of SME likely faces a rush to the bottom with fees and a stack it high sell it cheap business model, what job satisfaction there is likely to be is possibly going to be somewhat limited in what has become, and will likely further become, a compliance led industry.

.... with increasing reliance on AI and outsourcing to India etc. There is often little scope (or appetite to pay) for added value services by many owner-managers.

The first time you pick up that bag of chip fat-soaked till rolls from the local fish & chip van to help them with an allegation by the VAT office that they've been understating sales and buying their potatoes for cash, a stark reminder of why the intellectually challenging world of international tax carries some allure will come crashing home with a 'thud'.

A pungent couple of nights camped out counting takings to establish counter-evidence, along with a bottle of body wash, tub of Lenor unstoppables and a trip to the dry cleaners might bring the reality of what's involved in 'learning by doing' into sharp focus.

It's not all 'desktop' book-keeping out there ... if I had someone looking for extra hours for experience I know where I'd be sending them !

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Replying to kim.shaw-and-co.com:
paddle steamer
By DJKL
13th May 2024 14:46

But do remember to check the potato costs throughout the year and not just at one point in time, they vary with the seasons and make a marked difference re perceived GP% (I unstuck an Inspector re his analysis as he had failed to do more than price check at one month only)

I actually would be happy doing back duties or whatever they are now called, lot more interesting than accounts/tax compliance.

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Replying to DJKL:
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By kim.shaw-and-co.com
13th May 2024 22:14

DJKL wrote:

But do remember to check the potato costs throughout the year and not just at one point in time, they vary with the seasons and make a marked difference re perceived GP% (I unstuck an Inspector re his analysis as he had failed to do more than price check at one month only)

I actually would be happy doing back duties or whatever they are now called, lot more interesting than accounts/tax compliance.

Ahaha ... yes indeed, the post-count analysis is where some fun can be had. It's the on-site count itself I'd be happy to delegate to any willing trainee !!

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