What happens when your firm grows?
Growing your small accountancy practice from £250k to £500k is a tough ask. It’s where you go from the practice being all about you to the practice being all about how well the team operates. Often, this challenge is why many small accountancy firms never get any bigger than £200-300k.
To help you with growing your accounting firm from £250-500k, this article explores what key shifts need to happen.
Your role and how you spend your time will change
One of the models we like to use with our AGC members is the Red/Black/Blue model. Where each of the colours represents what you spend your time on.
The Blue area is ‘blue sky thinking’ or what we often call 'working on the business'. It’s where you do strategic type activities or stuff which will help your business in the long term, such as:
- business planning
- rethinking your marketing strategy
- going on a course to build a new skill to allow you to offer more services to clients
- process mapping or optimising your processes and systems.
The Black area is front-office type activities. This is where you are earning money servicing your clients. Some of your short-term business development type activities will also come into this area.
Your Red area is back-office type activities. This is the cost of being in business and every business owner needs to do this. For example, bookkeeping, taking the time to renew your insurance, measuring and monitoring your KPIs.
What happens when your firm grows to around £250k is that your opportunities for personally doing more Black type activities are now limited. You will also find out that your team and clients will be necessitating that you spend more time working on the business, i.e. the Blue type activities. You are likely to have already minimised the amount of time you spend on Red activities - so something has to change! If the business is going to carry on growing, you are physically going to need more client-facing people in your business.
This means you have a choice to make. Will you either (a) aim to be as chargeable as possible and bring in someone to run your practice for you (b) be the person who runs your practice and reduce your chargeable time accordingly.
There is no right or wrong way. However, until you start to get to £500k, there may not be the cash or profit margin in the business to have someone else managing your business for you. This means you may need to reduce your chargeable time so that you have enough time to run the business.
If you have chosen to build an off-shored or outsourced team around you to do the compliance work for your clients, you will find that you can grow your revenue to about £300k with some admin/marketing assistance and an offshored operational team. At about £300k, you will find that you physically no longer have the time to:
- Review everything which comes back from the outsourcers.
- Be present for all your clients, either for pre-booked meetings or ad hoc clients.
- Take time off.
This means that you will need to take on a member of the team to work with you, typically to run part of your client portfolio. I.e. for you not to always be the first point of contact for clients.
Your identity will change
When you have a small accountancy firm that relies upon your level of chargeable time, it’s common to think about yourself as an accountant first. The key shift to get to £500k is to realise your identity will change. You need to shift to thinking that you are the owner of a small accountancy firm. After all, it’s not just about how you describe yourself to the wider world - you have a full business to run!
If you are like most small accountancy firm owners, you will have had it drilled into you to always be billing. Your self-worth may be intrinsically tied to how much you personally bill each month. Or you may feel guilty if you are not doing your fair share of personal tax returns in busy season. In fact, you may need to learn to say no and turn away work if it requires too much of your personal time to deliver. From personal experience, this is really hard to do, particularly if you get a large amount of satisfaction from the day-to-day client work.
Here are some mindset shifts you also may need to consider when growing your accounting firm:
- Just because you are the most qualified to do the work, doesn’t mean to say you should do the work.
- What got you here, i.e. you delivering a large amount of the firm’s revenue personally, is not going to get you to the next stage of your accounting firm’s growth
- Doing it yourself because it is quicker is not the answer
- Your firm doesn’t need to take on every piece of client work that is offered to you
- The long term health and scalability of your firm is now dictated by how well you can delegate to others
You will need to establish a leadership team (and who is on it)
When you are 3-4 people and everyone reports to you, there is no need to have a leadership team. Nearly everyone in your firm will come along to all your team meetings. Go beyond this number of people, however, and having everyone in every meeting will become very inefficient! (Particularly if a number of your team only work between 1-3 days a week).
To maintain efficiency and productivity in your firm, you will need to separate your staff into operational units and decide who is in or not in your leadership team. In addition to this, you will also need to designate what needs to be discussed in each of the various meetings across your business. It may sound irrational, but you may even feel guilty that the first few employees not on the leadership team don’t get invited to the leadership team meetings. (I know I did for a while.)
People management is now your day job (unless you bring in someone to run your practice for you)
When you only have a few members of staff it’s much easier to manage their output. After all, you are likely to spend a significant amount of time directly working with them on client matters. What happens when your firm grows, however, is that you will spend less time with them.
Your staff are not mindreaders. They don’t just know what is going on in your head. Neither can they tell by just listening to you what is expected of them. This means you need to get serious about performance management and all the trappings this brings when growing your accounting firm.
Here are examples of what you should be implementing:
- Regular 1:2:1s with your staff members
- Quarterly review and reset meetings where you review the last quarter and reset the KPIs and objectives for your team members going forward
- Setting a ONE BIG FOCUS for your business each quarter and helping team members translate what does this mean for them and their role
- Regular updates to your team on the state of the business and how they have contributed in their role to the success (or not) of the business
- Formal employment contracts
Resources to help you manage a team:
- Master leading a high performing virtual team with just 7 simple ingredients
- Why you should be setting KPI’s for your firm and your team (and how to do it!)
- 5 tips that will help you trust work gets done with a virtual team
- The 7-step guide for small accountancy firm owners to effectively monitor the performance of employees who work virtually
You will need to become mentally tougher
Your monthly practice’s wage bill is likely to be significantly higher than a good month’s billing when you were earlier into your practice’s growth. This can truly play with your head. After all, you now have a lot more to lose if it all went wrong with your firm. We have a number of members who have got their firm to £200-£300k who struggle with getting their head in the right place to maintain their practice’s growth.
This can be for many reasons, such as:
- Fear of loss, particularly now that the size of the practice means there is more chance for a mistake to jeopardise the practice’s health.
- Being responsible for employees’ livelihoods.
- The need to back yourself and invest ahead to fuel the growth of your firm.
- Having to become a good people leader/manager first and foremost rather than what you were good at (being a great accountant to your clients).
- Your changing identity from the person who billed the most to the person who runs a team who do the majority of the billing.
As well as the feeling of needing to provide for others, there is another reason you need to get mentally tougher. Very often in the early days, you have to invest ahead to get the resources you need to fund your growth.
For example, you are likely to hire your first expensive hire, i.e. a qualified accountant, rather than a trainee, bookkeeper or part-qualified accountant. And at the point you invest, you may not have the revenue to justify hiring another person.
If growing your accounting firm (and preserving your sanity) is something that you want to do, you need to be able to do this! From personal experience, this ‘investment’ isn't easy and it takes serious mental toughness. Particularly if you know your accountancy firm is going to be making a loss until they are able to pay for themselves.
Practice Efficiency is now your top priority
(And working the ‘right’ way is now key to the health of your firm)
Until you have got past the £300-400k mark, your profitability will be under pressure. This means part of your day job is to keep an eye on your costs and the productivity levels of your staff. It’s very easy to get beguiled into thinking everything is fine when you see your revenue rising. However, without a sharp focus on the bottom line, it is really easy at this stage of your business to become a busy fool. By that I mean, adding on top-line revenue without a corresponding increase in your net profit.
Get much beyond £250k and keeping track of everything which needs to be done is a mammoth task. Because of this, keeping everything up in your head is no longer an option! Unless you have thought this through carefully, you are likely to find that each of your team members has a slightly different way of keeping track of what they need to do. And unfortunately, this is unlikely to be on one unified system.
For example, this could be:
- The firm’s preferred practice management system or task management system
- A physical notepad
- Their own online to-do list app
- The firm’s planning documents, e.g. a spreadsheet of tax returns which need to be done
- Another practice management software that they are trialling on the side (we had this!)
- Their memory (which may be really flawed)
- Post-it notes stuck around their desk or a whiteboard
What happens when your firm grows and staff members record what needs to be done differently? It results in the following problems:
- Stuff slips through the cracks, which could mean clients’ deadlines get missed!
- Stress and anxiety for you as you don’t know what needs to be done
- No management information, e.g. dashboards, reporting to help you plan capacity and resources
- A potential backlog of work
- Staff prioritising the work of clients who shout the loudest rather than the real priority
This is why working the right way is so important. It’s also much wider than just all using the same practice management system in the same way.
Working the ‘right’ way means the following:
- Every member of the team needs to follow your firm’s workflows
- The team needs to look at ways to improve how you work
- The practice management system may need updating so you have a system that:
- Works the way your firm now does
- Everyone uses as their source of truth for what needs to be done
- Can cope with the extra number of employees
- Keeps notes on clients so that everyone is kept informed about what has been done for a client
- Stores a copy of emails to the client
- Uses automated workflows to reduce manual entry and help you keep track of who needs to do what
When it was just you and maybe a few other employees, it didn’t matter so much about formal procedures and checklists. After all, you were all likely to be located in the same office so you could always step in and help each other. As lovely as this was, however, what worked for 2-4 employees is now not going to work for your firm if you want to scale up to £500k.
One of the things your firm may need to ditch is the whiteboard on the wall to ensure that the right jobs get done each week. Your firm is going to need a more robust and scalable solution. - and the answer is not getting another whiteboard!
Getting your firm’s culture right is a top priority
When your practice was only you, it was easy compared to now. However, (as just previously stated) employing people means you are responsible for others.
Now that you have 5 or more team members, you can’t shirk this responsibility. It can weigh really heavily on your mind. Partly because now the team is so big, you can’t easily just put in some hard graft to raise the extra cash to pay their wages for a few months if you lost a number of your large clients. But this responsibility is much more than paying their wages. It extends to their livelihoods, happiness, development and the quality of their work.
When you are working directly with only a few staff members, it’s so much easier to be close to your team. This closeness means you can quickly see if they are delivering in their role and are fulfilled. When you get beyond 5 people, having them all report to you starts to make you inefficient. This means as you grow to £500k, you need to spend time creating a healthy working culture throughout the whole of your practice.
The culture of your practice is 'how things are normally done around here.' Each bit of bad behaviour you tolerate - such as the practice management system not being updated each day or client emails not be returned in a prompt manner - becomes how your firm normally operates. What you will find is that new employees will soon pick up on the way the firm normally operates and adjust their behaviour to match. I.e. even good employees will go bad if you don’t have a healthy working culture in your firm.
Your first team members may leave the business
When your first team members joined you, your firm was different. It was you and them against the rest of the world. You all laughed and cried together. You looked to them as a sounding board and confidante. They may have felt more like your friend rather than your employee. Back then, it was more important to get the work done rather than exactly how it was done.
Now there are more than 5 people, the atmosphere and culture of your business will have changed. Some of your first hires may no longer enjoy not being as close to you as they once were. Or they may find that you bring in more experienced or qualified people over them. Or the requirement to get everyone working together in a certain way just doesn’t work for them anymore. Maybe the promising apprentice who has now worked with you for a number of years is not turning out to be the awesome client manager you thought they would become.
With the need to tighten up on performance and standards as you grow, you may find that your first few team members resent being made to work in a certain way. Or you may find that the standards which were once acceptable are no longer acceptable. For example, one early member of our team decided to leave as they disliked the practice management system we chose for the business. (There were a few other reasons as well but that one was a biggie!)
What happens when your firm grows? You probably need more help and support...