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Throw out your business plan and hit 'reset'

The impact of Covid-19 and lockdown has encouraged practice owner Lucy Cohen to rethink her decade-old business plan and consider: If I started over again today, how would I do it?

13th Jul 2020
Co-founder Mazuma
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As someone who has built a business from scratch, been in the game over 14 years and gone through the various stages of growth, I often get asked what advice I’d give my younger self, or what I’d do differently.

It’s no understatement to say that over the course of my time running my own business, I have very much ridden the roller coaster that goes with it. As highlighted in my AccountingWEB Live 'Practice Growth series, there have been moments of extreme joy and deep despair.

I’ve made mistakes and will quite happily share those with anyone who asks (or sometimes even if they don’t). The world that we live in now is a far cry from the world we lived in 14 years ago when I first set up Mazuma.

So, knowing all that I now know, and looking at the world as it stands today, what sort of practice might I set up now? Let’s indulge that fantasy a little...

Digital accountancy nomad

First of all, I’d pick a model that would fit with the life I want to lead. For me that’s one that allows me to be free in terms of locations and working hours. Back in 2006 I was absolutely desperate to get my first office and move out of the spare bedroom. I relished inviting people to meet me at my office!

In part, it was because running a business from your house 14 years ago involved a lot of actual physical filing cabinets, printer ink and clutter. Now, things are very different, both physically in terms of what you need in an office, and mentally in terms of what I enjoy doing.  

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of work-life balance and how relatively easy it is to achieve that with technology. I’d go heavily down the route of technology first and foremost. And I would define that very simply by measuring my ability to do my job from anywhere.

I’d become an accountancy digital nomad, working from wherever my laptop and an internet connection allowed me.

If any work needed to involve so much as printing a piece of paper or using a stamp, I wouldn’t take it on. In fact, I'd take it a step further and say that unless it was in the cloud, I wouldn’t touch it. That means that I could even borrow someone else’s laptop to do my work. Yes, that might cost me a few clients, but I’m clearly defining the boundaries of my model and from day one, I would not take on a poorly fitting client. Ever.

Working hours

Next, I’d unshackle myself from official working hours. Even now in the business I run, I have a hangover from my many years of following a traditional 9-5 model for working. I’d ditch that entirely along with official holiday allowance for myself. Yes - when I started my practice I allocated myself an official holiday allowance believing that it would make me take some holidays. Instead, it turned into a stick to beat myself with when I got to the end of the year and realised I hadn’t taken anywhere near it. So why burden myself with that expectation?

In my new model I would work as required, and if I felt like taking a couple of weeks off I’d tell my clients in advance and that would be that. Again, there is potential here for a client to dislike that model and not want to work with it - in which case they don’t become a client.

Exclusive client base

I’d go down the route of having a handful of exclusive, high fee paying clients. This is in stark contrast to the model that we currently run which is low fee and high volume. The grass is always greener, right? I’d also probably save a fortune on CRM software and database tools.

I would only take a client by personal recommendation, helping to build longevity in the relationship, and saving a considerable sum of money on marketing spend.

I would set my maximum number of clients and run a waiting list. Like a London night club in the noughties; it would be one in, one out. My client base would be exclusive and limited. 

As an accountancy digital nomad, I would not have an office or any premises. And so I would do absolutely no face to face meetings. Zoom, Teams, Skype; they are all perfect for talking to clients and providing “face time” if needed.

Finally, I’d do absolutely no compliance work. None at all. My role with businesses would be firmly in the advisory and coaching realm.

Be honest with yourself

Okay okay, this unicorn doesn’t really exist. It is, however, an interesting exercise to go through as a practice owner. Playing this little game with myself has made me look with fresh eyes at which parts of my role within my business I want to keep doing myself, and which parts are better placed with other people. 

I’ve found that even now after all these years, I’m doing things that other people are far better at than me, and the knock on effect of that means that I have less energy for the tasks I truly excel at. No matter how experienced we are, we can all fall into the trap of doing a task just because we’ve always done it.

Be brutally honest with yourself about what you’re good at and what you enjoy, and then only do those things. I’m keeping tabs on what I’m up to on the day to day and trying to eliminate the tasks I’m a bad fit for. Easier said than done, but it’s always going to be a work in progress as the business evolves.  

Become what you preach

The next change I’m making is to become much more of an accountancy digital nomad and not set my default work location as the office. Instead, I’ll work from home (or wherever I choose) unless otherwise indicated. That’s quite a leap for me who has commuted an hour to the office for many years. I had fallen victim to presenteeism in my own business, something that I always claimed to detest. 

Now that I’ve made the decision to do that, I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner. Should it have taken a pandemic for me to realise this? Probably not.  Honestly, I feel a little foolish!

So if you could build your own unicorn practice, with all the knowledge you have now and the tools and tech available to you, what would it look like? Answers on a (digital) postcard.

Join Lucy Cohen for episode two of her AccountingWEB Live show ‘Practice Growth’. This Friday she’ll help you overcome challenges like when clients begin to leave and your practice starts to plateau. Register to join the session here. 

Replies (5)

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By Justin Bryant
14th Jul 2020 08:55

Unless I am being a bit thick, if you say "It’s no understatement.." that suggests that what you are saying is an overstatement, which I assume is the opposite of what you mean there, so perhaps you instead mean there "It’s no overstatement.."?

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By flightdeck
14th Jul 2020 09:52

April 1st passed me by this year what with lockdown, is it today now?

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By Mgdaly
14th Jul 2020 10:10

Great article. From someone at an early stage with a new practice it would be great to be able to adhere to these values. However, given the necessity of getting work in the door the major challenge I think is being able to focus on what I excel at instead of working on all the many and varied tasks that need doing.

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By George the Greek
14th Jul 2020 10:13

Hi Lucy - this unicorn does exist is several different guises I suspect. I reformatted my own practice a few years ago, including moving out of and renting out my (thankfully owned) office building and working from home (or anywhere else I fancy). I started my own practice in 1993 straight after becoming eligible for my practicing certificate but as I turned 50 I tired of employing people, frankly, and I realised I enjoyed working with most of my own clients but was getting into cross subsiding other costs, so I changed things (it took about 18 months). Thankfully I'd put the practice data on the cloud with Hosteddesktopuk (excellent choice) first, and everything else started to follow. Because I have less clients in number (I sold a chunk of the smaller clients to fund staff redundancy costs, I didn't see a penny but it was worth it and the staff found other employment straight away) and even my practice software costs are a fraction of what they were due to the fall in client numbers, if fact all my overhead costs are a fraction of what they were and I've more time to do more work or more leisure as I choose. I enjoy working from home and none of my clients care that I've no separate office, even the big ones, and my garden and my waistline is in much better shape. I'm receiving a rent from an office I don't need to occupy, and I can pick and choose the new clients I work on because my costs are so low. I probably am a "digital nomad" (I'm even typing this on my dining table) but what's not to like?

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By Marlinman
14th Jul 2020 10:47

Your new business model is exactly how I've been doing things for the last 10 years. My laptop is my office and I'm only in the country for about half the year and do most of my work from Thailand. Occasionally I'm somewhere with no internet access for a week or 2, but this just requires a bit of advance planning and doing RTI submissions before I go.

HMRC still use snail mail so I have a virtual office at the local business centre and they scan and email any post to me. I can also use their meeting rooms if needed.

By keeping on top of things and getting things done at the earliest opportunity rather than waiting until statutory deadlines, I have the freedom to do what I like. I only have one client who leaves his tax return until January but can live with that.

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