There's a lot to be said for seeking out expertise in an area in which you are lacking knowledge. The problem comes when experts don't realise what others don't know; the baseline of knowledge they take for granted is often massively over estimated - I mean, everyone understands what a Balance Sheet is, right?
And there it is. The expert who has so much to teach us has lost us in the first moments of interaction. This is something that I'm all too aware of when helping my clients, many of whom are starting up a side project, doing something they love, in their spare time. It's not realistic and not fair of me to assume knowledge of any financial processes. So what's the answer? It's so important to remember who our customer is. What is life like in their shoes? What are their concerns? What is the question that's keeping them awake at night? Finances have a habit of doing that. Remember, we might be experts, but we aren't just dealing with numbers, we are dealing with people.
We can add value when we make ourselves approachable and what we do understandable. I encourage my clients to raise questions to help me understand what they don't know. Things get interesting when I start to identify the areas that they don't know they don't know, throwing light onto areas which need more attention, where I can save them money or improve efficiency. I like to think beyond the task in hand. Do they really just need me to get their spreadsheets working for them or would they benefit from a cloud based accounting system? Do they just need my helping coding their Paypal transactions or can this manual step be automated?
The helpful thing about working with startups is that they usually have what's called a growth mindset. That is, they aren't fixed to an idea of what they can and can't do, they're open to new knowledge and experience. They might start with "this is probably a stupid question, but..." and this is perfect because I know they're keen to find out the answer. Plus it gives me insight into how I can best help others as it shows me what my clients really need.
People with startup ideas often contact me because they want to know what they need to do about self assessment if they start a business. Others ask which financial records they need to keep, for how long and in which format. HMRC proide plenty of information about this online and I initially wondered why a client would pay for help with this when they could seek the information out for free. The truth is that whether the information is out there or not, people sometimes want to pay for an expert's assistance because firstly it gives them confidence that they're doing things properly, and secondly as busy founders of startups (often while they're also working a full time job), they want to spend their time growing their business not be wading through information on the internet.
This growth mindset has benefits for us experts too. By learning what my clients truly need, I find I can work on really honing the skills that are in demand. This month I'll run my first Bookkeeping for Startups workshop (yes, you can still buy a ticket). A short and painless guide through the essential bookkeeping things startups need to be thinking about. I'm very aware that experts can be the worst teachers, it seems like a terrible title for a blog post about expertise but us accountants have a particularly bad reputation. I challenge you to explain to a non-accountant why an asset is a debit but you're overdrawn if you see a debit on the ATM screen.
What I've learnt from working with startups is that I can share my expertise, and they'll give me opportunities to learn more about them by asking me questions. I'll be trying to make sure I explain things in a way which makes finance make sense... Wish me luck.
About Zoe Whitman
Zoe runs But the Books, a bookkeeping practice in Bristol helping small businesses owners who know how to do everything for their business... but the books to stay on top of their bookkeeping and to understand the story their numbers are trying to tell them.