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How the hell did I end up being an owner of an accountancy business?

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

How the hell did you end up being a business owner of an accountancy business?

You could have stayed in that cushy job in a larger accountancy firm.

You could have stayed in industry, not returned or moved into practice for the first time.

You could have…well, just not started that “thing” that then seemed to snowball.

And yet, whilst in fleeting moments you want to blow your brains out, you are glad you started.

Because just like it takes one cheeky smile from your kids, who despite being little sh*ts all day, makes you realise just how amazing life is…

…you also achieve those similar heart-warming and amazing moments every day in YOUR business, doing it your way, striving to do better and offering the type of value you’d want to receive as a client, either on your own or with a team you’ve built.

Every now and then though, when you have a chance to reflect, I bet you’ve asked yourself the question:

How the hell did I end up being an owner of an accountancy business?

If this is you, or an aspirational you, then you’ll probs enjoy reading the accounts of how the hell, some top 1% fully digital solopreneur or owner managed business innovator accountancy business owners ended up becoming their own bosses.

Intriguingly, there are eight common themes that run through all their tales.

  1. They didn’t start out with a desire to run their own businesses

Many of those we spoke to couldn’t ever have imagined owning their own accountancy businesses in their younger years.

Take Lorraine Ellison of Simply Additions Ltd, who actually wanted to be a teacher until she realised it meant dealing with groups of children and couldn’t bear the noise levels!

Starting off with “low aspirations”, somewhere along the way, accountancy sparked a crazy-level of motivation in her.

However, “Working as a management accountant or financial controller started to lose its appeal. The monthly and yearly routines, no personal growth, no chance to network externally. I started to dream about working in tax.” A passing comment led her to set up her own accountancy practice and hand in her three months’ notice.

Although she had never wanted to run her own business, “it turned out to be a really good decision… “It has been a steep learning curve but I discovered that I love networking, I love teaching clients how to understand accounts, tax and QuickBooks, and I love the flexibility of working for myself.”

“I do get some strange looks when I say those weird words of ‘I love tax’ but lately I have discovered it’s not just me. I find that Prosecco or gin goes well with tax – it’s all part of a balanced life.” Cheers to that Lorraine!

  1. They were often unhappy or unfulfilled in their former jobs

Another common theme running through these stories is the mega frustration these business owners felt while working for an employer. They may have entered a company with enthusiasm, but routine, sh*t culture, office politics, and a lack of greater purpose led them to realise their work kinda sucked. In setting up their own business they have flipped that feeling.

Nick Kay of Pavilion Accountancy told me that whilst working in industry was great fun, it was equally frustrating, with the same issues coming around every 12 months, internal politics and decisions being made to impress bosses rather than because they made sense.

As such Nick sought fulfilment and found an opportunity to serve small businesses with the growth of Xero software. It took some cajoling to get the story from Nick, he’s very modest, but he eventually told me about a conversation he had in the pub with a struggling business owner. The businessman was getting little help from his accountant – the typical “I’ll speak to you at year-end” service. This is when Nick “saw the opportunity to help smaller businesses run their finances more akin to how larger businesses do.”

Are you now replacing “that guy from down the pub” then, Nick?

  1. A light-bulb moment struck at the right time

In many of the stories we heard, a passing comment, or a well-timed conversation often served as the inspiration to start a business.

Take Jason Holden of Holden Associates, whose original ambitions were worlds away from accountancy. In fact, he flippantly told his lecturer he wanted to be a hitman. But as he realised, “getting the bullet in this role would mean getting the bullet, okay time to rethink!”

After accepting his “one and only job offer,” at a local accountancy firm, he started his climb “up the greasy ladder” of corporate accountancy. But soon it dawned on him that he didn’t want to partner with anyone around him. “In fact, it was a client who got me thinking with the comment, ‘I had no idea what it takes to run a business until I put my money where my mouth is and take the risk’.”

Fifteen years on from that comment, Jason is a proud business owner. Would he ever go back to working for someone else? “Well here is the thing, looking back I realise I was a terrible employee, the worst, and now I know why. I am unemployable, which means I have to work for myself!”

  1. They believe small businesses deserve better

Many business owners realised that by striking out on their own and doing things their own way, they could offer a client better service than traditional accountancy firms.

Mark Telford of Telfords Chartered Accountants is one such businessman. He started off as a self-described “ice cream man” in his student days before he started training as an accountant. He figured that if he failed his final exams, his fall-back career would be running a bar in Greece. Fortunately for his clients, he passed, keeping him right here in Blighty.

In his career as Group FD at a large Construction Business and then owning his own FD consultancy business, he “regularly came across small business owners who were getting a really poor service from their accountants – once a year compliance only service – no business support or advice at all.” This realisation and a chance meeting with Glen Foster from Xero Accounting Software led him to start his own business in 2012, something he had sworn he’d never do, but can now “honestly say it’s the best decision I ever made.”

  1. They have built a business that fits their dream lifestyle

Although business owners often have to work long hours, especially when getting their firm off the ground, they have more flexibility and control over their time and location of work.

After leaving a rat race style job in London, Lauren Harvey says that her business, Full Stop Accountants, was so central to helping her achieve the lifestyle business she wanted and now helps her clients achieve and more. Earlier, when she was busy running finance departments in London and the Home Counties, she had an acute case of Hiraeth, that’s Welsh for a “deep longing for home.” Beautiful word!

Since starting her own business back home in Wales, Lauren says that although there have been sacrifices, she’s got the lifestyle she set out for. She even gets to work closely with her husband, which despite the problems of leaving “shop talk” in the shop, says “I can’t imagine now not spending every day together and knowing that we’re in this together through thick and thin.”

Okay, I’ll admit it, I got a lump in my throat when I first read Lauren’s message. Proper softie.

  1. Grit, determination, and hard work are key to success

Getting a business off the ground is no walk in the park (there’s a shocker). The business owners we spoke to have worked their tails off and taken risks to get where they are, but the payoff is clearly worth it.

Marie Donaldson tells us of her disillusionment before she set up Fresh Clarity Ltd: “I remember one day looking out of a basement window onto a car park and thinking to myself, is this enough? My real passion is for helping people and I knew deep down I wanted to use that.”

“From day one I set up my own business to suit me, and even though I knew very little about running my own business, being very stubborn, I was never going to give up. Has it been easy no? Has it been worth it? Absolutely.”

Diana Stalioraitiene of Euro Contacts GB Ltd similarly “never felt happy or satisfied” working for a company, so she set up her own bookkeeping business. “It was challenging, and I was scared because I risked everything and didn’t have any support. But my kids were my engine to generate the energy and strength to keep going and believe that I can be independent.”

  1. Like a Lion, or Lioness, they have immense pride in what they have built

Do you ever have that little feeling of warmth in your belly? We’re not talking about that curry you had last night – we’re referring to the feeling of pride that accountants have felt in going it alone, building their own businesses, and serving their clients in a meaningful way.

Jonathan Reeves of Tax Matters Ltd loves “talking with those clients who really do not understand tax and how quickly it can trip you up. I love sharing nuggets of information, as clients and prospects really do appreciate this and it is great to see client’s businesses grow.”

Paul Barnes of MAP wanted to build his own business because he saw a better way of doing things and he “was excited to go and build this world-class business myself from scratch, exactly as I felt it needed to be.”

In the early days, Paul’s determination to scale his business led to an uncomfortable (but comical) workplace situation for his colleague Amanda: “I took my first two employees on in quick succession and upgraded to a coworking space. To save money we opted for two desks instead rather than three, as Amanda was only part-time. We thought Amanda could perch at the end of both desks, but we didn’t account for the big pole under the desk that couldn’t be removed. Poor Amanda spent several months working with her arms wrapped around this pole to simply use her laptop!”

Thankfully things have gone well enough at MAP for Amanda to get a desk of her own. Paul now runs an impressive business any business would admire.

  1. They have found purpose

It might sound sappy, but at the end of the day, running their own businesses has given many of these accountants a sense of satisfaction and deeper purpose.

Take Simon Kallu of GrowFactor, who found his first accountancy job wanting: “I longed for the days to be over, I felt empty inside and the work was not rewarding.”

After hearing his now-wife complaining about her accountant, he put in the work to set up his own business and “do things differently and do them better”. This clearly brings him satisfaction: “When you are doing what you are supposed to be doing it feels right, and every day is a bonus regardless of what you are getting paid. Money is great but the real payoff is meaning full, rewarding work where your clients are your friends and you feel a real sense of concern for their success and wellbeing.”

Steve Carey of Numbers (UK) Ltd has similarly discovered meaning beyond money: “I learnt (slowly) that what counts is not material things. Hence we now focus on ‘Making Lives Better,’ understanding this means different things for different people.”

Richard Sykes of Cloud CFO Ltd has also found his “why” in helping “small business owners, who have often made big personal sacrifices to pursue their passions.”

As he explains, “If their business were to fail, they’d have to go back to that day job they hated, or to have to sell their home, or not be able to support their families… And if that were to happen not because of any problems with their concept, or from lack of effort, but because of a lack of support with their finances, or having a skills-gap on the numbers side… That would be a tragedy. One that’s totally avoidable, and one that I could have helped to prevent.

“This hit home quite early on, when I walked into a crowded pub run by one of my clients. He shouts out to the assembled throng… ‘If anyone needs an accountant, talk to this guy! HE SAVED MY LIFE!’ I realised that this, for now, is my best shot at changing the world!”

Big up to these solopreneur and owner managed business innovator accountancy businesses owners for striking out on their own, doing things better, and changing the world.

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