Practice Talk: Darren Fell from Crunch

Accounting Excellence Darren Fell Rachel Riley
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Joining Practice Talk this week is 2018 Accounting Excellence Pioneer of the year and founder of Crunch, Darren Fell.

Crunch has a trophy cabinet jammed full of accounting trophies. In 2016 Crunch won the practice growth award and then followed that up a year later with the innovative firm of the year gong. It’s not such a leap then to see why Fell won the Accounting Excellence pioneer of the year award in 2018.

Straight off the bat Fell admits that he’s not an accountant. Perhaps it’s this approach that explains how Brighton-based Crunch has earned the reputation of disrupting the accounting landscape – look no further than his adoption of online accounting back in 2009.

He says that if he had been trained as an accountant he would have certainly done things like many other practices out there. Instead, Fell has run Crunch as a business first and foremost and approached the business as the customer. It’s actually what inspired him to start the online firm. He wanted to fix the frustrations he had with his former accountant when he ran an email marketing company.

“I wanted that modern-day evolution to suit my needs. Up-to-date tax figures, the ability to snap receipts, to have expertise on hand for a fixed price without having to worry about the bill,” he said. “I wanted to take the profession to the next stage and that was the dream.”   

Having the small business consultant/micro business owner’s viewpoint in mind led to Crunch assigning a customer service representative to clients, freeing up their accountants to focus on the technical rather than administrative work.

Fell hasn’t stopped innovating since leading Crunch’s transition to an online accounting service and fixed pricing. Crunch’s customer-first approach now spans a full range of products that the self-employed need: mortgages, small business insurance, debt collections, and financial advice.

What's the first you do when you start your working day?

After a coffee to start the day I skim through my emails and then look at all the figures across all of our systems to check customer service reviews, numbers, traffic - everything.

You mention emails. These have become an issue with accountants checking well beyond those old fashioned 'traditional working hours'. Is this something you're guilty of?

Yeah, I stopped that after 11 years. It's dangerous because my brain is always coming up with new ideas. It is really annoying. A friend told me about transcendental meditation which a lot of the stars do just to calm my mind. I absolutely don’t look at my emails after 8pm. Otherwise, my brain will be racing, I will have come up with six ideas and then the team will be horrified as I present these ideas the next day solving the particular problems I've spotted.

I try not to look at the weekends and evenings, but my chairman is passionate about seeing Crunch go to the next level and we're working on its next evolution. Therefore I get lots of WhatsApp messages at lots of different times. That's fine because we talk about strategy and taking Crunch forward. I don't mind that but emails - no.

As we've often seen on Practice Talk, many people feel that constantly checking emails and not letting go of the office has contributed to the profession's destructive always-on culture.

This is my problem with the accountancy profession. Accountants are expected to do everything, the whole end-to-end scope of a customer's lifetime, from selling to onboarding, dealing with everything personally and doing the actual accounts or tax work. So of course they are always on.

This actually led to our decision to divide the roles here. Our customer service people respond quickly to emails so our accountants are not responding unless they get into a technical conversation with a customer. There's already been a phone or video call, or emails going back and forth to ascertain all the information before we make the final treatment on their accounts. This really, really alleviates that always-on problem accountants have out there.

What is Crunch doing to alleviate some of the always-on effects?

We’re doing everything that is out there. We've got breakfast here because people start early. In addition to your Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or Coco Pops, there are flexible shifts if you have the school run and there are endless health benefits. I don't like people working late. People are often out on the 5pm-5.30pm shift. Anybody working late on our extended email support or the advisers is working from the comfort of their home on the Crunch set-up.

You mentioned transcendental meditation earlier but what else do you do to escape the world of tax and accounts?

I'm doing the London to Brighton bike ride. I've been on the Zwift bike, which is plugged into my plasma screen and you cycle with people around the world - it's brilliant. So I am building up my cycling capability. I also march into work and back. The exercise is a beautiful escape and a nice way to get your head right as you walk to work and walk home again. The ultimate distraction from work is my family and being attacked by a four-year-old on entry to the home and putting Lego together - it's lovely. It makes you forget about work for a while.

Since you launch Crunch, what's been the biggest change you've seen?

The obvious thing for us is the acceptance of cloud accounting. When we first started at the beginning of 2009 it was not accepted. The fixed pricing model also seemed to be hated and is now commonplace. From my initial surveying of the marketplace, accountancy practices were very old-fashioned. We came up with a fresh brand. It's great to see practices up and down the country transform themselves, get stronger branding, have clear websites, be more contactable for their customers. From cloud accounting to having a strong brand, there's been a massive progression with all of those things.

We can’t let you go without asking: can you remember your first calculator?  

Yes, I can. Of course, being a gadget lover, the one I remember was a graphical Casio one that did little graphs and I loved that one. That was at college. It could do all your graph outputs on this tiny LCD screen. 

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About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.