In supporting an industry he’s passionate about, Craig Williams has grown three related niche practices into a remote-based lifestyle business of £550k. And all while chasing the surf and giving his time to the community.
Craig Williams of Zen Accountants once wanted to be a rock star, but when that didn’t pan out, decided to support musicians in their business affairs as an accountant specialising in the entertainment and media industry. During our last Amplify Your Growth event, Craig joined Heather for a virtual chat about how Craig has built a successful practice that gives him the freedom to spend time volunteering and enjoying the great outdoors.
In this Growth Story, you’ll discover:
- How Craig monetised his niche to grow his business
- How he keeps the plates of his various endeavours spinning with ease
- What steps Craig put in place to switch his team from all being in an office together to working remotely
About Craig: Plan A - Rockstar, Plan B - Accountant
He’s far too modest to say so, but he’s a bit of a renaissance man. Not only is Craig a volunteer responder for the Southwest Ambulance, as well as the Coast Guard in Cornwall, for which *ahem* he received two Jubilee medals from her late Majesty, The Queen; he is also a paranormal investigator, avid rock climber, daily surfer, and practices Jujitsu and meditation to keep his mind and body balanced. He’s also a family man, and… oh yes, he’s built a successful niche practice that supports the slightly complicated entertainment and media sectors with ease and expertise.
With this variety of interests in mind, it won’t surprise you that Craig loves music, and once upon a time wanted to be a rock star. He came quite close, but it turns out behind-the-scenes is where Craig was meant to shine. While managing tours for bands, Craig also ran a small record label in Bristol for some time — all in tandem with getting his accountancy qualification.
Setting up the business
In managing musicians, Craig got to know the day-to-day aspects of the music industry — so when he qualified as an accountant, he chose to specialise for the industry he loves. He set off to London, initially working at a firm that supported the likes of Led Zepplin and other rock legends. After a few more years in the Big Smoke, Craig headed back to Bristol to work in a practice with some former colleagues.
Shortly after, a few changes and a partner's retirement led Craig to take clients over to his own Bristol-based practice: Zen Accountants. The Zen niche would be not only musicians but cover across the entertainment and media sectors, which has proven a fruitful focus.
Several years years after starting Zen, a chance encounter at an event where Craig was a panel speaker led to the creation of Ton Media Cyf, a joint venture practice in Cardiff. This was serendipitous as Craig family is from South Wales and he knew opening a practice there would give exposure to a market that tends to remain local. From Cardiff, the Ton team supports the Welsh entertainment and media industry.
A third practice then came about from two keen observations:
- Bookkeeping, VAT and payroll work was plentiful
- An excellent Zen team member was handling it all and had great potential
Recognising an opportunity, Craig decided to separate these work categories into a new business: Kai Zen. Craig’s team member, Nurgul, became an equity shareholder and runs the practice. As an independent practice, Kai Zen benefited from the Zen clientele, but has now started to generate referrals back into the accounting practice.
Committing to growth
At the time of Craig’s Growth Story conversation with Heather, the three businesses were clocking in at a total £550k. What’s interesting is that Craig has grown the practice not so much for profit, but more as a lifestyle business. The catalyst for this was when one of his business partners in Bristol retired.
At that point, Craig was working long hours and a long commute. Additionally, no one had really run the practice so much as let it churn, though successfully enough that it made decent money, even without marketing. But when Craig decided to start Zen, he realised that he’d been working for 20 years and had at least that to go. He knew he didn’t want to spend the the next two decades the same way. He knew how not to run a business, but also knew he needed support.
Taking stock with a coach
When Craig first sat down with his coach at the time, it was a whole new world. He’d never really looked at what he did on a day-to-day basis, and to coach had him look at everything he was doing and classify what could be outsourced, delegated, systemised and put on cloud software.
This initially felt counterintuitive but has given Craig the all important space to not just look at the strategic side of the business but also explore his other passions and think about what he wanted outside of the business. It also eventually led to the Zen team becoming fully remote.
“It's interesting, because when you first get some help with things, [a coach will] ask you some kind of quite awkward questions like, ‘what's the end game’? And you're like, well, I don't really know, I just wanted to hang around musicians and go gigs. And then it starts to make you think about actually, where's this going?”
Business development also became a priority and Craig’s niche turned out to be full of opportunities to get in front of the right people, but also provide value to that community.
Monetising a niche through strong connections and giving back
Having worked in practices that specialised in the entertainment industry, Craig was already well-connected. A big selling point was that he’d worked in the music industry, which led to him chairing the ICAEW special interest group for entertainment and media for over a decade. He also wrote article and spoke at events for sector groups, giving much needed advisory to an industry where things need to be guided well.
An interesting set of clients on the Zen client roster is drum and bass artists. It started with one client, who became an amazing referral source. This proved the same with comedians, and also with heavy metal musicians (a style close to Craig’s heart). With potential referrals in mind, when a client’s changes agents, Craig makes a point of introducing himself to the agent.
Keeping the plates spinning
Given Craig’s varied interests and endeavours outside of work, he has some key systems in place to keep himself organised and accountable. His goal is always to be as efficient as possible, with three things that support this:
- Default diary - Craig’s default diary creates accountability and efficiency in his week. He is very specific with his scheduled tasks, meetings with team members and also includes his personal appointments like martial arts and time to catch a wave with his son.
- Accountability calls with his coach - A self-admitted meanderer, Craig has weekly accountability calls with his AGC coach keep him in line with his goals and what needs to be done.
- A good team - Craig’s team is now all remote, with team members in the Southwest and an outsourcing team that are supported by solid set of systems and processes that are reviewed on a regular basis.
Getting through the hard times
Back in 2019, a two hour daily commute from Somerset to Bristol and back wasn’t providing much joy, and it seemed only natural that Craig and his team eventually transitioned to a hybrid model. And though the pandemic was not on Craig’s SWOT analysis, his dedication to having strong cloud systems and processes in place has enabled Zen to be fully remote since 2020. With this flexibility, Craig and his family took a leap and moved to Cornwall 2021.
In hindsight, Craig credits another strategic decision with keeping Zen successfully operating through the pandemic, which was to focus on building a film and television client base. This sector makes up 80% of the Zen client portfolio, and was not as deeply affected by the pandemic as live entertainment.
Other challenges Craig has faced since starting his practices include staffing (a key staff member had left at the time of the interview) and outsourcing.
Finding the perfect outsourcing solution has also been a big challenge but Craig is one step closer to this after putting a pen to paper for what the ideal outsourcing model looks like for his practice has helped him be more specific when talking to suppliers.
He also names himself as a challenge. (Which we can all relate to, can’t we??) Finding himself good at change when he instigates it but a wheel-spinner when change presents itself unannounced, Craig appreciates a plan and having the accountability through coaching.
Lessons learned: key takeaways from the journey so far
Craig’s path to accountancy and entrepreneurship was not traditional but every experience led him to running a top entertainment industry practice. His lessons learned include:
- When one door closes, another opens
- Take control and get support
- Knowing what you want, not just for the business but for your life and future will pave a clear path
- Delegation, systems and processes are your friends and must be monitored
- Make a plan and execute it in bite-size portions
- Identifying what you want, making a plan and having contingencies are the best things you can do to instigate change.
As Zen and Craig’s two other practices continue to grow, he is looking to the future. And the surf. Stay tuned.
** Zen Accountants is a remote-based practice supporting the entertainment and media sectors clients scross the UK. If you want to get in touch with Craig to learn more about his journey and/or to pick her brain, you can contact him here. **
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