Plan ahead to build your start-up client base

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Mark Lee
Mentor and Speaker for accountants
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In 2012 I highlighted some proven ideas to get your first clients and some preliminary tasks to ensure that you wouldn’t waste time money and energy, explains Mark Lee.

What follows adopts a different approach and focuses on how you might plan ahead to build up your client base BEFORE you start a new practice.

You did what?

I have the utmost admiration for those who choose to start their own practice. The bravest and most ambitious are those who make the decision but have no existing bank of clients on which to rely at the outset.

I have less positive thoughts about those who start out without a plan as to how they will build up their client base. ‘Hope’ alone, even if combined with hard work, will rarely be sufficient. If you are driving in the wrong direction it will take a long time to reach your destination.

They came with me

It is quite common to start out with some of the clients that you used to work on at the firm for whom you used to work. Ideally you would discuss this with your previous boss and secure their agreement to those clients whom you would like to take with you. The clients themselves need to be comfortable with this too.

It is rarely a good idea to ‘take’ clients surreptitiously or to pursue them after you have left. It’s not ethical and thus is in breach of the ethical principles that should govern the behaviour of all professionally qualified accountants.

At best such an approach may just create...

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23rd May 2014 07:56

clients who follow
I have dealt with this scenario. As a manager in previous firm many clients dealt with me only with no partner contact. Clients saw myself as the person sorting their affairs. When i went out on my own, many tracked me down.

Despite trying my utmost to smooth out this situation as best possible, my efforts were futile. Clients choose who they want to work with but my previous firm failed to understand this. I copped flack for several months despite doing what i considered the most ethical things, such as contacting my old firm every time a client contacted me and trying to arrange for them to meet the client and put a proposal in place so that they stay put! Problem was my old firm seemed to be quite arrogant and felt that it was only a panic attack by the client, they wouldnt actually leave.

end result was clients leaving on grounds that these meetings were never set up and they felt the old firm didnt want their custom anymore.

so despite my good actions and intentions and agreeing this process before i left, clients make their own choices and you cant control how the old firm reacts or feels towards or about you. But always do the right thing. And be careful which clients you accept in the process!!

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23rd May 2014 08:59

Well said @sparkey999

sparkey999 wrote:
despite my good actions and intentions and agreeing this process before i left, clients make their own choices and you cant control how the old firm reacts or feels towards or about you. But always do the right thing. And be careful which clients you accept in the process!!

Best to do the right thing and to be seen to be doing the right thing.

sparkey999 wrote:
 And be careful which clients you accept in the process!!

Another very good point. You may think that your old firm would be pleased to get shot of some low value troublesome clients. Before you agree to take them on do consider whether they will  really help you build your practice or just cause you grief.


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23rd May 2014 10:54


You obviously install confidence in your client relationship and no doubt your previous firm saw that quality.

By allowing you total contact with the client, your old firm was committing a cardinal sin, and that is to basically give their clients away.

Did you think/hope that they would follow when you set up?

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23rd May 2014 12:14


I think that allowing others to manage client affairs is OK and actually a good thing for growing and developing a practice, but the principal/partner should always see their clients even if it is only to sit in on their stuff once a year.

I didn't think many of the clients would follow. I did local advertising and networking straightway to try to generate new clients. A few agreed to move with me and these were clients I brought to that firm anyway, and I pushed for extra work and referrals from them as a starting point.

One client who moved was with the old firm about 25 years. Client was having cash flow issues and didn't want any more surprise bills. Asked old firm for a fixed price quotation on 3 occasions. Met the partner a few times but no fixed price was forthcoming. The last meeting basically involved the client asking why they were not willing to give the fixed price only to be told "well we think you're going to Sparkey999 which is why you want a fixed price to compare rates so why should we bother, you've made your mind up"

Client duly leaves, contacts me for a price, was provided with price, agreed to price and pays in advance by SO every month since. Sale of business is imminent and more fees to myself!

All I can say is that sour grapes should be spat out quickly and get back to focusing on your business/clients.

As Mark says, always do the right thing and be seen to do the right thing. Not everyone will see it that way, but if an independent reasonable person would see it that way, and you are confident in your own actions being ethical and more than fair in business, then you have little to worry about.

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23rd May 2014 14:54

johnjenkins raises an interesting point, but...

How do you build a sizeable firm without handing over management of client relationships to others?

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25th May 2014 14:46

Sharing rather than abrogating responsibility

zarathustra wrote:

How do you build a sizeable firm without handing over management of client relationships to others?

I would suggest it is a question of evidently sharing responsibility and contact without completely abrogating responsibility and ensuring that each client is aware of your ongoing involvement.

I am aware of one sole practitioner, sadly recently deceased, who built up a sizeable practice with over 100 employees over the last 30 years. So it evidently can be done. I suspect that one other factor here was the type of leadership that inspires loyalty among staff at all levels such that they prefer to stay rather than to leave and run their own practice.


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23rd May 2014 17:08


Mark Lee would expect me to say "If you need to ask that question you shouldn't be in business" and to a certain extent that is what I think.

However I made the point of "cardinal sin" and I will explain.

You should never lose sight on how you built up your business. You built it up on client relationship and you should never hand that over to anybody. Sometimes when a business gets big and you have a particularly good assistant then it may be split, but if you want to keep it all to yourself and it becomes too big for you to handle (say 300-500 varied client base) then you have to make a decision to let other people do the work and all you do is client contact, whether on the golfing range, pub or why.

I suspect that with 100 employees comes at least 2500 clients. So personal contact is of paramount importance.

There is, of course, another scenario, that the practitioner hand picked his staff so that he needed 100 of a particular personality. Don't forget not everyone wants to run their own business.

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