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An accountant’s guide to going solo

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, more accountants are showing interest in striking out on their own. Mark Lee explores how to manage a successful start-up.

14th Jan 2021
Community Assistant AccountingWEB
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Working for yourself is becoming ever more appealing and accessible to accountants, especially with remote working becoming the norm. If and when larger firms cut back on staff, the option may expand to include redundant accountants looking for new jobs.

With the number of start-up practices likely to increase, it’s a good time to consider the opportunities of going solo. Small businesses often favour the economic benefits of using an independent accountant and prefer the personal touch. Whatever your reasons, however, it’s worth researching the steps you need to take to become a successful sole practitioner.

The four Ps

One AccountingWEB member recently asked about doing client work on the side while their firm’s office was closed due to the pandemic: “The financial situation is dire but the director doesn’t want to make redundancies because when the situation improves, work will be okay again.”

Responding to the theme, accountancy speaker, mentor and author Mark Lee FCA suggested focusing on the four Ps to succeed as a self-employed accountant: promotion, pitching, pricing, and providing.

Providing the service is just the tip of the iceberg in your own practice, Lee advised. You also have to become capable at dealing with the promotion side of your business, beyond making a website.

“You can’t just wave a magic wand… Clients don’t come by magic,” said Lee, alluding to his own side gig as treasurer of The Magic Circle. “You’ve got to be able to promote yourself through the right ways and the right people.”

Once you’ve established your promotional strategy, you can focus on pitching; this is where you get the chance to show the prospects your promotion has attracted why they should become your client.

Finally, the price of your service is of utmost importance in establishing yourself in your work: “You have to develop the skills to price the service for the people you’re pitching to, so you’ll get paid the fees you want to earn for doing the work you want to do for the type of people you want to work for,” commented Lee.

Gaining experience

Having the right practical experience and professional training is key to establishing yourself as a sole practitioner. As AccountingWEB member ireallyshouldknowthisbut put it: “To be a good accountant, exams AND practical experience go hand in hand.”

Lee also emphasised the value of gaining a range of experience before striking out on your own.

“If someone has 10 years’ experience, do they have 10 years of varied experience?” Lee asked.

“Or do they have one year’s experience 10 times? It’s not the length of time, it’s the range of experience you have.”

AccountingWEB member jcace prioritised looking beyond qualifications: “One of the most important things that will help you serve your potential clients the best will be experience gained alongside others with more experience than you,” they posted. “Don’t try and shortcut - take your time and you will find it all worthwhile.”

Proper qualifications

Members of the AccountingWEB community regularly debate the intricacies of qualifications needed when starting up in practice: “There seems to be a lot of qualified (and unqualified) persons offering bookkeeping, VAT and payroll,” said PerAnnum. “Where does the competitive advantage come from?”

As every accounting qualification is different, Lee urged the importance of finding the right ones for you. Legally you don’t need a qualification to call yourself an accountant, but a professional designation might give you the confidence you need to run your practice, as well as a certain degree of knowledge and skills.

“It ensures you appreciate the ethical side of the work, which reduces the prospect of you doing stuff that could land you in jail or on the wrong side of HMRC,” Lee explained.

Marketing strategies

When it comes to marketing your practice, you can either be reactive or proactive in your approach.

“A lot of clients complain that their accountant isn’t proactive,” explained Lee. “They just provide a service - but they don’t prompt the client to think about things.”

The same principle is relevant to your own work: a passive approach would be to build your own website or join LinkedIn, and then sit and wait for clients to come to you.

Becoming proactive means thinking about why clients should choose you and marketing yourself from there. 

“Accountants aren’t boring,” Lee said of the classic stereotype. “The challenge for accountants starting heir own firms is to embrace and share what makes them different from the accountant down the road.”

Embracing what makes you unique will help you stand out from the crowd. Your service, your background, your prior experience – all of these characteristics will be things about you that no other accountant shares.

“Highlighting what makes you different helps people get to know you,” said Lee, comparing business relationships to any other form of social relation. “Generating new clients in a startup comes from building these relationships.”

Mark Lee’s biggest tip for accountants wishing to pursue this route is to read Della Hudson’s book The Numbers Business, which provides a welcome shortcut to everything you need to know.

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blue sheep
14th Jan 2021 17:28

I will add another P that is more important than all the others in both the shorter term and longer term - Personality.

What you have to realise is that if you are offering services you offer those to a person, and people buy from people, they do not generally gives a rats rear end whether you are super qualified or not provided you can show that you know what you are talking about but the one reason they will choose you is because they like you.

I have seen so many accountants come and go, the ones that go are very often the ones that are unable to relate to people on their level, to find common interest and to be genuinely interested in them (and that extends to being interested in their families, pets, hobbies etc), success is all about being able to talk to people and a very small part about being able to crunch numbers

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