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Zoe Whitman

Practice Talk: Zoe Whitman from But the Books

11th Feb 2019
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Joining Practice Talk this week is Zoe Whitman, the founder of the Bristol-based practice But the Books.

Zoe Whitman says she’s been an accountant forever. Even back at junior school, she spent free playtime with a Mr Wizard calculator. From there, Whitman has taken her 16 years' industry experience to the BBC, councils, and BT to name but a few.

So even when Whitman went on maternity leave, accountancy was still there. “I was thinking about something I could do to keep myself busy, and people kept coming to me, asking for help with their tax returns,” she said. “I decided to do everything properly and set up a bookkeeping practice so I could help with that kind of stuff and its grown from there.”

Her practice has expanded rapidly since then. Last year she swapped that wizard-like calculator for a new prized possession: the 2018 LUCA small practice of the year award. It's an amazing achievement for any practice, but even more so when you consider it's only been a couple of years since Whitman launched But the Books.

For more from Whitman, she recently stopped by the AccountingWEB towers and spoke more about her practice journey on the No Accounting for Taste podcast (click the play button below).

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

I look at my task list. We manage everything on Trello, we can see everything that is happening with our clients and see what we need to do next. Obviously, my diary is full of meetings as well, so it's juggling what I need to be doing and where I need to be.

Checking emails outside traditional office hours has sadly become the norm for many practitioners. Is this something that you're guilty of?

I am quite disciplined with emails. I've got an out of office on because I don't want people to think I am going to reply to them all the time. You're training your clients. If you do respond out of hours, your clients learn that you're going to respond out of hours. I try to be disciplined. I want to know what's going on. Like during tax return season, if there's something urgent of course I'll reply to it, but generally, I try and do it during working hours.

Always on culture is another issue hitting the profession. Is this something you're concerned about, especially when you started your own practice?

I've got a young family, so it's difficult for me to be working all the time anyway. Because I've got a little one, I need to do some of my work out of hours, but I've got to be disciplined - I don't want to be on the computer in front of her.

Zoe talked more about the pressures of starting a practice, as well as finding her first clients, and networking in her first appearance on the No Accounting for Taste podcast. Click play below to listen. 

So, what do you do to escape the world of tax and accounts?

Before I was a mum I had loads of great hobbies. The thing that I do now is I'm trying to learn German. I used to be quite good at German when I was at school and it was one of those hobbies I try to keep up, so I have German lessons on a Monday night. So that's a computer free night. You can't think about anything else because you have to make sure you understand.

Since you qualified what's been the biggest change in the profession?

I started back as an accountant when I was 19, I started training with the local government, and when I went for my first day I remember my line manager/mentor saying to me, you've got a job for life. And I couldn't believe it. There were people there who had a job for life. They'd worked there forever and had worked somewhere else in local government where people had been there forever. You don't hear that now and you don't expect to be told that.

What have you done to prepare your practice for MTD?

It's something we have to embrace. It's happening. We need to be ahead of the game. There is no point trying to make excuses as to why you're not going to achieve it. I've been very open with clients that this is happening. I do a weekly blog on the website and so I've talked regularly about MTD and I share information on social media. And when I am speaking to clients, I say, you need to do this. But there are still a lot of small businesses who aren't really aware of what it means for them. I try and play my part by educating people as much as I can. But ultimately, if a client comes to me and they're not ready, I need to get them on accounting software otherwise I'm not going to be able to work with them. I would draw a line and decide the client wasn't for me.

How cloud is your firm?

Completely cloud: we use Xero and QuickBooks and we have a couple of FreeAgent clients. Maybe if I had my time again, I might have chosen to focus on one software package, but actually, Xero and QuickBooks are out there, ahead of the game. I think they're neck and neck at the moment so if I only work with clients who just use QuickBooks or Xero, I'm going to make a rod for my own back. As long as they're on the cloud, that's good.

Can you remember your first calculator?

No, but I remember when I was at primary school before I even knew what numbers were there used to be this calculator that was like this Mr Wizard toy. It did little sums. That was the thing. If it was free playtime in junior school that was what I wanted to play with. So I don't know what that says about me. I had a pink calculator for quite a long time, it got me through my GCSEs. I might still have that.