Secrets of Success: John Hoskin

What is your turnover, employee numbers etc compared to previous years?

Clever Accounts is seeing some good growth at the moment – the number of clients we look after has more than doubled since the end of our last financial year (31 March 2013) and looks like it will be between three and four times that number by the end of this financial year (31 March 2014). Our turnover will increase broadly in line with this and this year’s should be three or four times last year’s – but I’m crossing everything, touching wood and not counting any chickens as I say that!

We’re reinvesting the funds from this growth in adding quality people to our team, improving our customer-facing technology and on marketing to continue to get our message out there. We’ll be employing at least three times as many people at the end of this year as we did last year.

What products or services do you provide?

Clever Accounts provides a fully comprehensive package of accounting and tax compliance and financial advisory services, to small businesses and self–employed professionals, using an online platform.

What is your USP?

There are several, when comparing Clever Accounts with traditional high street accountancy services, with the common theme being to offer a combination of both quality advice and modern technology to provide a far better level of service and value to small businesses than they generally are able to access. To list just a few:

  • No need for bookkeeping – our online platform means customers can easily raise invoices and record expenses, or even upload the information from their bank statement – no spreadsheets or paperwork and everything is stored securely in one place and accessible 24/7. It also means we can spot issues quickly.
  • Instant business information: because the system is online and integrated, customers can always get an up to date picture of their business’s financial position – including sales, costs, profits, taxes owed by them and amounts owed to them – instantly and wherever they are. This is invaluable for a small business and something traditional accountants charge a lot for and cannot provide quickly without taking the time to process their client’s records
  • Low, fixed, all-inclusive fees, with no commitment or exit costs: all of the above functionality, plus unlimited advice and support from dedicated accountants and all necessary accounts, company and tax returns completed and filed available for less than a reputable, traditional accountant would charges for half the services
  • Customer service – we’re available as and when our clients need us, by phone or email – no waiting, no trekking to the office, just a modern, focused service
  • We are small business and self-employed specialists and our processes are tailored to these businesses – we’re not distracted by bigger, higher-fee paying clients
  • Every client gets a named accountant, to offer clear advice, and with the technology taking the strain of making sure deadlines are never missed for example, they can concentrate on advising clients and keeping them as tax-efficient as possible

We are aiming to offer small businesses the service they need and deserve, at a price that they can afford and that enables them to run their business more easily and with more visibility and control. ‘Online’ might not be for everyone but the truth is that using a modern approach really does take away the time-consuming but important admin burden from small businesses.

What have you done to make sure you get the right people with the right skills in place?

Firstly, my business partner and I have complementary skills, covering technical accounting and tax knowledge, technology, finance, marketing and strategy. Secondly, Clever Accounts has an open recruitment process – we are growing, so we are constantly looking for the best quality people we can find, who combine extensive small business accountancy and tax knowledge with great customer service – and we snap them up when we find them, not only when we need them. Thirdly, we have a team of IT developers that we know well and that know our systems well. Finally, within reason, I am always open to taking a meeting over a coffee with someone who has an interest in the business and thinks they can add something or help us and I’m lucky to have a couple of experienced business people that I have worked for, or with, in the past that I can ask for advice from time to time.

Do you have any tips for managing suppliers and customers effectively?

It sounds obvious I expect but be honest, be open (unless you are negotiating!) and be respectful. In an age where it is ever easier to communicate, people appreciate this approach.

In terms of customers, it is simply essential to deliver on your promise and to give them the service you have sold, when you said you would, at the right quality and the price you agreed. It is easier than ever for people to shop around and shift their allegiance and good customer service is a given these days. Even if what you do is innovative, it still needs to be well-delivered and accessible – think quicker, better, easier.

In terms of suppliers, shop around for the best service and price and focus on those that are really crucial to the ongoing delivery of services. With some obvious exceptions, in today’s communications environment, I think it is better to look for a supplier that is a specialist in what you require and suits your exact needs, rather than one that is round the corner.

If you’re happy with a key supplier and they deliver a good service, work in partnership with them and keep them onside by being open and respectful and paying them on time. If the time comes when you need some flexibility, they will be far more likely to respond positively. However, don’t tolerate poor service and don’t be afraid to cut back on discretionary services that are not vital to your business model if finances get tight.

Finally, read a contract before you sign it and ask if you don’t understand something!

Any finance and cash-flow tips?

You can have the best idea and service in the world but if you run out of cash, there’s no business.

The secret really is in good, realistic forward planning. That doesn’t need to mean getting every pound of expenditure forecast years in advance, including what you spend on stationery and tea and coffee. It means having a cashflow plan for the next year, that includes a realistic assessment of what income you’ll receive, and when, and covers all the major expenses. These are things such as staff, raw materials, stock, premises and technology costs for example – and don’t forget tax payments, which tend to be substantial.

Being realistic is the key. Don’t necessarily plan for the worst, or you’ll never start a business in the first place! But do base your plan on the lower estimate of what sales you might achieve and then control and monitor your costs closely to make sure you keep them within your budget. Don’t include things like a contract that you just might win, when working out what you can afford to spend. Then make sure you revisit the plan regularly to update it for things that change and see how that affects things.

In terms of a few other tips:

  • If it’s a non-cash business, think about how you will ask your customers to pay. Can you offer a small discount for early payment, or even better ask them to pay by direct debit or standing order? The regular cashflow and the time saved in chasing payment will probably be more beneficial than a little extra revenue
  • Make sure you can deliver for your customers but generally keep your fixed overheads as low and lean as you can, in the early days
  • If times are tough, cut out discretionary spend, the things you don’t need to spend to keep the business going
  • Keep talking to your bank too – if you have a good track record and a credible story, there’s every chance they could help with a short term overdraft

And always pay the tax man on time… and if you really can’t – speak to him, you won’t be ignored!

Any advice for the Government?

Keep taxes for small business low and make it easy to employ people – it really does make a difference to how much they can spend and invest, how many people they take on and how confident they feel.

More advice and support on how to expand overseas would be useful too.

There’s an IT skills gap that needs filling through our education and training system and it will only get bigger if it isn’t and lead to the UK economy falling behind in key global growth industries.

What is your attitude towards your competitors?

Clever Accounts offers a fundamentally different service which we believe to be a better alternative for small businesses than the bulk of our competition – i.e. high street or local accountants that have clients below the statutory audit threshold. We are only serving a very small niche proportion of the market currently but we are growing, as we offer something very different. However, we clearly keep a watchful eye to see how the ‘traditional’ market responds.

We have one or two direct competitors in terms of online small business accounting and we have a healthy respect for them and what they are doing. In many ways, the market needs several of us trying to build momentum and make businesses aware of the options.

Any thoughts on the future of your company?

I’d like to see Clever Accounts become one of a handful of accountants of choice in the UK for small businesses, that offers them a first class service and a stress-free, hassle-free alternative to the current bureaucratic and old fashioned tax compliance regime.

Ultimately, I’d like to see us offer more services to small business, either ourselves or through a network of partners, acting as a one-stop specialist for what the really small business needs, which is often so different from what even a medium sized businesses require. We already offer access to insurance products and personal financial advice and there are also legal services to consider.

However, I want us to stay true to our principles of using a modern approach to offer a genuinely transparent service, that’s easy to access, clear and simple to use and understand, and is organised around our customers to save them time and money.