Making the numbers count for small businessesby
To give real accounting value to our smallest clients, Kevin Phillips suggests that we should start by thinking about who the numbers are actually for.
Meet Pete the plumber. Pete’s business is one of the 5.5m small and medium businesses in the UK, which make up 99% of all UK businesses. These small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) also, according to the National Federation of Self-employed and Small Businesses, account for 60% of employment and just over half of total turnover among private businesses.
Given this, it’s no surprise that SMEs are considered the backbone of the economy in the UK and around the world. Globally SMEs make up 90% of businesses and 50% of employment, says the World Bank. It therefore has a significant impact if SMEs struggle to navigate and overcome challenging economic times. From creating jobs and wealth to driving innovation and boosting local economies, especially outside of major cities, SMEs undoubtedly punch above their weight.
Defining an SME
Of course, a perennial question is just how do you define an SME? Definitions differ from country to country and industry to industry, and typically involve the number of employees, operating revenue or assets. Additionally, some definitions include a micro category, with fewer than 10 employees.
Whatever definition you prefer, it is clear that the SME segment is far from homogenous. Pete is likely to be a micro business, with very different operations and accounting requirements to a medium business of 250 people. So, as accountants, do we recognise that Pete has specific needs from his accountancy service and are we accommodating that?
Who are the numbers for?
Let’s step back and ask who we prepare accounts for. Accounting standards such as International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) are designed to make large, listed companies comparable to investors. And for sure, there are diluted versions of these standards, such as the IFRS for SMEs accounting standards, that aim to reduce the accounting burden on smaller businesses. But these still have an external audience in mind, whether that is Companies House, HMRC or future strategic partners, investors or acquirers. This might make sense to larger SMEs who have more complex business operations, a specific strategic roadmap, and crucially, the accounting resources to produce these numbers (and translate them into something meaningful to support the day-to-day running of the business).
Numbers that count
Now let’s consider Pete the plumber again. Does any of this really matter to him and impact his business day to day? Almost definitely not, so is it any wonder that he probably considers accountancy services as a grudge purchase and a distraction from keeping his business going from month to month?
Can we, as accountants, do better in supporting our clients who are at the smaller, even micro, end of the SME spectrum? Should we be asking ourselves whether we are supplying them with the information they really need to succeed, instead of focusing solely on ticking the boxes that HMRC and Companies House set out?
A focus on producing numbers that only function to keep businesses compliant takes the small business owner out of their business, making them lose income while their time and attention are spent on red tape, whether real or perceived, every month. These red tape tasks are a source of frustration and anxiety for business owners who typically aren’t accountants. And then, to top it all off, all this effort doesn’t even result in data and insights that are meaningful or helpful to their business.
It’s all about the cashflow
For Pete and most other small business owners, useful data looks like an accurate, easily understandable representation of their cashflow every month. Many SMEs succeed or fail on their cashflow. Overspend and jobs and customer service are on the line. Underspend and opportunities for growth might be missed.
This type of practical, helpful and useful information is what matters to smaller SME owners, rather than abstract accounting concepts, which sometimes even deliver misleading insights. While there is never going to be a requirement to compare these businesses with big, listed companies there is a very pressing requirement to help them to succeed.
Being a true strategic partner
This doesn’t mean doing less, and in turn, earning less income ourselves. It means using our training, experience and common sense to steer our small business clients through only the very necessary red tape and then using the rest of our time with them working as real partners in their businesses. This could include providing better visibility of actual cashflow, support on managing debtors, reducing payment lead times, and insights into optimising cashflow – all the things we were trained to do. And all the things that will grow Pete’s business, making him a more profitable client in the long run.
Should we not be asking ourselves, at every turn, whether there might not be a better way to do things, and whether we are adding real value and being a true strategic partner to our SME clients? Asking how we can make Pete’s life easier and his business stronger, and, by so doing, future-proofing our revenue streams.
To me, that is real accounting excellence to strive for.
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Kevin is the founder and CEO of idu Software. He has degrees in Commerce and Accounting, and started idu with partners James Smith and Wayne Claassen in 1998. Kevin is fast becoming a thought leader in his field, and makes regular comment in the media about current affairs affecting business...