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Writers tax at Accounting Excellence awards
Accounting-Excellence

Accounting Excellence: ‘Stop trying to grow your practice’

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The co-founder of double Accounting Excellence award winners Writers Tax explains how not chasing growth and being focused on a niche has spelled success. 

14th Mar 2023
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Jonathan and Louise Ford (above right, with Glenn Collins from ACCA on the left) always dreamed of one day setting up their own practice and specialising in writers. 

Having a bias towards that niche after heading up the finances at Mersey TV, the production company behind Brookside and Hollyoaks, Jonathan and Louise had the chance to branch out after the coronavirus struck in 2020 and they both had the opportunity to leave their previous firm. 

From the start, Writers Tax decided against scaling their practice and taking on staff; instead, they focused on the more sustainable option of working out how much just the two of them could do while working from home. 

With the capacity fixed from day one, the firm is run very leanly and they cannot only be picky on getting the best clients but also have the power to tell clients that they only work with Xero because they haven’t got time to invest in learning about any other software. 

Becoming ultra-focused on their niche and growing in a sustainable way impressed the judges at last year’s Accounting Excellence Awards, where Writers Tax picked up both the New Firm of the Year and Specialist firm awards. 

Summing up their growth approach, Jonathan said: “It’s okay to say, ‘This is what I want from my firm’. The best accountancy practice is the one that you genuinely want yours to be like.”

In this interview, Jonathan spills the secrets behind their Accounting Excellence award-winning firm and their lean approach. 

What is your strategy and how has it guided your firm? 

We said that we were only going to grow to a certain level, and then we’d stop. There are loads of firms out there that could just be happier if they stopped trying to grow. 

Because we’ve made ourselves a scarce resource, people really, really want to join us who are writers. We have a waiting list of up to about 100 clients. We don’t get all the problems you typically have of clients trying to batter you down on fees or clients wanting to do things their way and not your way because they almost feel lucky they’ve actually got in through the door. So they’re not going to try to chip us down on price when they’ve been on the waitlist for six months.

We also said we didn’t want any staff, we wanted to work from home and we’d only act for writers. We’d been down the road before saying, “I know they’re not a writer but it’s a really nice business…” So we said we were going to stay pure to the niche. 

How have you put client service at the heart of your firm?

Because we are charging a decent fee, we have the scope to make sure we have regular contact with clients. We’re therefore proactive in picking up the phone to clients. We know then if they’ve got a new book that they’re bringing out in six months, or if they’re getting married or having kids. 

Every client gets an email pending on the client between every three to six months, inviting them to book a call with us via Calendly. This is not a call that has a purpose other than just making sure that we’re up to speed with what’s going on. It’s not a totally blank sheet as we would be talking to them about increases in corporation tax rates or about Making Tax Digital but it’s a loose agenda. 

I think clients like dealing with the main people rather than staff, and the fact that we don’t have any staff, I think is valued by clients. So they like the fact it’s always us.

What steps have you taken to grow your practice? 

We’ve got a strategy for growth and the strategy is we’re quite happy with things as they are. But having a niche made a difference in getting started and growing our client base because what we were able to do was communicate to the sector that we knew what we were doing in their industry. 

We get about five to six queries a week now without spending anything on advertising. We started with a little bit of Google and Facebook ads but all our enquiries are generated from social media and word of mouth.  

We run a Facebook group with about 700 authors posting about business-type issues. The Facebook group costs nothing to join, and there’s no commitments. We get asked a lot of questions, and we hopefully give sensible, educated answers. So that gives us the opportunity for them to actually see, you know, that maybe they do want to come with us as clients. 

The mad thing about niche marketing is that we’ve written a chapter on tax for the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and it gives us a lot of visibility in the sector and proof that we know what we’re talking about, but we get paid to do it. We were also paid to write for the Society of Authors’  journal which goes out to many authors. So our marketing cost is actually a marketing profit.

You worry when you’re niching that you’ll be too specialist and therefore you won’t get any work because it’s so narrow. But we actually could make a living from being far more narrow than we currently are. For example, if we specialised in Kindle authors and nothing else, we would still be in demand. 

How have you improved efficiency in your firm?

Our capacity has been fixed from day one. So we’ve kept it very, very lean. We only use Xero because we haven’t got time to invest in learning about anything else. Everybody has to pay us by direct debit and everybody has to pay us alignment fees because we haven’t got time to chase. 

If it was up to me, I would just get every shiny new piece of technology but Louise keeps me in check. We put a lot of time into making Senta as functional for us as possible. Having a practice management system that you properly tailor makes life a lot easier. 

We’re always looking for opportunities to try to do things a little bit better and quicker, and if there’s a cost of software to do that then it can justify itself.

What does Accounting Excellence mean to you? 

I think it is always looking for ways to do things better. Having been shortlisted before but not winning, makes you want to look at the winning firms and see what they’re doing differently. Then you start looking at other firms and thinking, “Wow, they’re actually doing some really good stuff”, and that some of it is initiatives we can do too.

We are a better firm having entered. When most firms first look at what they are going to put into their entry, there are going to be areas where they’re lagging behind. We knew we were falling behind on client feedback. But we questioned if we really needed to ask clients for feedback because everybody seemed happy. We surveyed the clients so we’d have net promoter scores (NPS) for the award entry, but the feedback came back with areas of improvement that we would not have known about if we had not done the survey. 

Replies (4)

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By indomitable
14th Mar 2023 15:58

That's all very well if you just want a 'job' because that's basically what you've got, but if you want a business, then that's a different story

So yes if that's your aim then fine but it's not sustainable as it just depends on you

Wouldn't work for me as I want to grow the business so that eventually it can run without me - not there yet!

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Replying to indomitable:
JF
By Jonathan Ford
15th Mar 2023 08:29

I’m an advocate for creating the accountancy practice that’s perfect for you and the lifestyle you want. It’s great you have have a clear idea what you want from your own practice. For those accountants who are struggling to grow their firms and for those who have grown but created a business that just gives them grief and makes them unhappy I wanted to highlight that there is an alternative.

Choosing not to grow your practice isn’t a failure. Working from home with no staff is fine. Running a lifestyle business as a choice is acceptable (in fact, if you’re not running a practice to suit your lifestyle you’re getting something fundamental wrong.)

And if you focus all your energy, imagination, enthusiasm and skill into making the most of the limited number of hours you have you can get some amazing results.

You’re right. It is a job - but it’s the best job I could want.

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Replying to Jonathan Ford:
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By indomitable
15th Mar 2023 13:56

Accounting Excellence: ‘Stop trying to grow your practice’

I'm afraid your article didn't come across to me as an alternative, read the headline?

Nobody said not growing your practice was a failure, but you've got a job not a business that's all. Of course working from home with no staff is fine if you don't mind doing the work nobody said it wasn't

"For those accountants who are struggling to grow their firms and for those who have grown but created a business that just gives them grief and makes them unhappy I wanted to highlight that there is an alternative."

There are lots of alternatives not just one

-Get better at marketing
-Get rid of problem and unprofitable clients
-Outsourcing

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By banny
15th Mar 2023 13:34

Well done Jon and Lou.

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