In the first of this four-part series we spoke to PaperRocket founder Sarah Solo to find out how she tackled the scale-up challenge and grew her firm from humble beginnings as a startup.
Solo spent time researching what was needed to start up her own firm. Often having to go outside her comfort zone, she networked to try and grow her business.
An open and honest people management style was and still is important to her as is a failsafe piece of accounting software.
What happened when you set up and then grew, in terms of the hidden practicalities?
The licences were one of the biggest costs for me. I did a lot of research to make sure I was as prepared as I could be. I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of data protection. You’re holding a lot of sensitive data about people and they have a level of trust with you.
What is the basic toolkit you need to run a 'proper' firm?
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I’d say brush up on all business skills, not just what you’re trained in. Sales & Marketing and IT for example. Some of them will be outside your comfort zone.
If I was giving someone advice about starting their own business, I’d say: “Just be prepared that things don’t always happen as you planned. Just carry on and try to roll with it.”
Tell us about the first time you hired a team member.
Why did you do it?
I didn’t want the level of client service to drop so I knew I had to hire someone to help.
Where did you look and what was their role?
I chose someone that I used to work with as it seemed a safer option for me. I wanted someone in an accounting role who could work with clients. However, while the level of work built up for them, they did help to fill the gaps with other tasks.
Any lessons learned in the hiring process?
When you run a growing business it’s best to be open and honest with people about the role. It will evolve when the business does. Set their expectations about the role they’ll be doing at first before they start.
What was the balance between skillset and mindset?
I think you need both.
Did you follow a vetting process?
No, I didn’t actually and I still don’t. I just go with my gut feel. Well if they’re qualified of course.
How have you found the shift to people management?
It’s definitely not something that comes naturally to me so I do find it a challenge. I’m working on it though. There isn’t anyone else to do it so you have to. I’ve learnt to be flexible with people where I can and listen to my staff. I think trust and respect is important for me and my employees.
What are the basics needed to start up?
Bookkeeping software was essential for me from the start. It was a failsafe.
Was there a point when you needed to make changes to grow?
To be honest we haven’t really changed too much yet. I know we really need to get a management system so we’re all working from the same place. Something that automates with the software we have too.
What technology do you use now (including mobile, computer hardware and software)?
We have laptops, mobiles, desk phones and then if we’re out visiting clients we’ll sometimes use an iPad. For software, we have IRIS and FreeAgent.
Have your priorities for technology changed? If so how?
Yes. You realise that clients want you to move with the times. Technology changes so quickly which is why FreeAgent is so great. They manage all of that for us. The clients love the cloud accounting capabilities.
Do clients have the opportunity to pay via your website?
Yes, they do.
Do you know what discounts are available to you as your client numbers grow?
Yes, they’re quite clear.
Do you think you’ve had the necessary advice to be tax efficient with hardware purchases?
How did you approach marketing when you first started out?
Initially, I’d share things on Facebook and use LinkedIn as I was conscious of cost. I did some networking but it was out of my comfort zone to be honest.
How has this approach changed over time?
I’ve done some paid advertising now, but referrals have really led the way for me.
What marketing strategies have you found most successful? Has this changed with the growth of your practice?
I’ve become more confident with marketing and I know you need to keep up with things as that’s what clients expect. We have a monthly newsletter for clients and a blog which we share on LinkedIn and Facebook.
How have you told existing clients about changes to services and how have they responded?
I’d use the newsletter, although I’m keen it doesn’t become too salesy. If it was something really specific I’d go to a client directly, via a call. Most of our clients are fairly responsive when we share new services. That’s why I don’t want to bombard people as it would dilute the effect I think.
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