• Hugh Spurling

What Value can a good SME specialist FC bring?

Joe is a qualified accountant with over 15 years’ experience working in FTSE100s, PE backed businesses and start-ups. He now specialises in helping those businesses improve their reporting, systems, processes, and controls to provide better platforms for growth.

Tell me a bit the types of businesses you have worked with?

Every start up or SME is different, and we do not discriminate, no business is too small for us to help.

The current business environment is changing at a rate of knots and without access to skills and expertise at sensible pricing how can SMEs be expected to compete and evolve?

As examples, we have worked with a small manufacturing business turning over £250k, a builder turning over £1m and a tech businesses at £20m. The thing to focus on is that every business has things that cause it pain and if we can help and deliver a return on investment for the project then we will.

There are occasions when we are honest enough to walk away, asking for assistance in bookkeeping or month end on a regular basis is not value for money, but if you want as much of that process automated so you can save costs and run the business then we will absolutely help.

Businesses like Amazon have huge pockets to steal market share and utilise whatever tools and skills they want, but I have worked with a model shop that does not have the funds or skills to build a website, or a catering business that does not have the skills to setup and take online payments.

One issue is that many (not all!) consultants are still there to justify fees not performance. The days of being charged £2k for a word press site that is unmanageable without coding knowledge should be dead.

A website build, online shop and accounts integration should take no more than a couple of days. Making it look pretty and the content is very much down to the client but what is not essential is to charge SMEs more than is required for what they need.

While it is traditional that a Financial Controller would be brought on at a stage of the business when they need financial analysis or more detailed oversight of a finance function, todays FCs should be able to provide more. The knowledge of how price elasticity can drive performance, how changing a packaging design will result in lower margin, assisting with cross border VAT and duty issues; these used to be accessible at big price tags, but SMEs need this knowledge more than anyone else.

And what sort of challenges do they tend to have in finance…and across the broader business?

I would not limit the challenges to finance and the reason for that is because finance is not a dark art. It is a list of income and expenses (without putting myself out of a job!).

Where the challenges come in are the efficient utilisation of everyone’s time within the business.

What does this mean? Well, does it make sense for any individual to be manually processing invoices, irrelevant of their cost, if the owners/directors are working 16 hours a day and not having the opportunity to read a story to their children at night? No.

The opportunity cost of operational excellence and efficiency is the most important factor. As businesses grow, what was a small manual process develops into an industry and the original reason behind its creation is lost or has evolved.

Our aim is to figure out what, how and why then make it fit for purpose.

Without sounding too clichéd, if something is being done time and time again or you have a feeling there is a better way to do something, there probably is. The environment of apps and plug’n’play software is so vast that most problems can be solved and integrated into your business in no time at all.

Of course, we cannot forget about finance it is the backbone to any business. The main area we see immensely missing from most businesses is insight and foresight. It is a perfectly reasonable expectation for every decision maker to look at the bank balance, debtors and creditors and know if they have enough money for the next two to three months.

However, we endeavour to go a few steps further than that (without creating a load of complex stuff people do not understand). How many businesses have models that can help them really plan? A recent quote from a client was:

“If we have this level of foresight 6 months ago, we wouldn’t have made the decisions we did”

We are not here to say I told you so or that anything an individual did was wrong but to guide through what we have now and what we can see. Having a model to adjust sales, staff levels, margins, costs etc give comfort. No one can see into the future but knowing you may run tight on cash or not hit targets is better than not knowing. At least then plans can be made before it is too late.

What sort of solutions have you provided?

This is where we often find it tricky to sound like experts without being one. Our USP is that we can do 90% of most things and 100% of finance!

We are finance experts at heart, but SMEs deserve and need more: an accountant not being able to provide strategic advice, data driven intelligence or systems integrations isn’t useful in an SME. Business owners and founders are fantastic entrepreneurs and creators but in our opinion what they need is that extra 1% to compliment everything they have.

A few examples of recent solutions.

Supply and Demand planning

Our client was suffering from severe stock shortages but also fine cash levels. We looked at off the shelf S&D planning software that ranged from £400 per month to £20-50k per year, the top end was far too expensive, and the bottom end didn’t quite cut the mustard.

So, we built one, it did not need to be complicated, but it needed to do the job. Considering sales data, forecasts, inventory levels, multiple warehouse locations, lead items and MOQs, we built a model that does the job. It took 6 hours, far cheaper than the cost of any subscription-based software in the long run.

There will be a time when this business has too many items to make this efficient but for 2021 it is the perfect solution. As the business evolves, we help identify the right solution for the business at that point in time.

Systems transformation

One client wanted to move away from Sage, their reasons were that the other pieces of software they were using for subscription management, projects etc did not integrate with it and Sage was not capable of providing the efficiencies required.

We embarked on a full systems overhaul, the aim was to integrate B2B SaaS billing, project management and accounting with as much automation for AP and AR as possible.

Our solution involved the integration of three systems using openly available APIs, scanning software for AP, automated invoice raising for AR and a simplification of the accounts processes.

All in all, we saved 50 hours of manual work from the previous software and processes monthly.

Website, storefronts and e-commerce

First and foremost, we are not pure creatives, taking good food shots is not our thing but our knowledge of websites and e-commerce can save you a lot of time and money and also ensure that its completely configured for the best user experience and financial processes.

Creating a website is simple, understanding the back end is sometimes a little more complicated but we have done this time and time again and we are determined to make sure clients get the best solution for their requirements. We often do not need custom coded WordPress solutions, what clients need is a minimum viable product that gets them competitive in an online environment and encourages users to spend money having simple solutions like integrating Google and Apple pay rather than consistently entering card details.

And what sort of results or improvements have those businesses seen?

A few of those results have been highlighted above but, in our opinion, and probably that of owners and directors the biggest result is in security and time.

It is impossible for us to put a value on how individuals feel because they now have a view of the financial future of their business, or that they no longer need to worry if a business can survive losing a customer, having a good work life balance rather than spending extended time on invoices or VAT returns.

Most people started their own business to take control of their life and have a better balance, often that does not work out when we realise how much is really involved or the stresses that can arise as a business becomes successful.

Our aim is to deliver, it is that simple. If we cannot do it, we’ll be honest but if we can then we will.

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