Andy Sullivan FMAAT is the founder and director of technology-focused accounting firm, Complete HQ. He chatted to AAT student and finance officer Julia Hirst, about getting back into studying and standing out from the crowd.
After spending 14 years at the same accounting firm – moving up the career ladder from apprentice to manager to director and shareholder – Andy Sullivan FMAAT branched out and started his own practice, Complete HQ. His growing firm, currently a team of six, specialises in helping companies implement technology to increase business efficiencies.
Julia Hirst spent time completing a biology degree, working in temporary finance roles and also as a jobbing actor before taking time off for her family. She recently completed AAT Level 2 Foundation Certificate in Accounting and landed a role as a finance officer. She is currently studying AAT Level 3, with the long-term goal of achieving AATQB status and setting herself up as a self-employed bookkeeper.
Andy: Are you studying at the moment or have you completed your studies?
Julia: I am still studying. My history is a bit all over the place – I did a biology degree and then spent 10 years as a jobbing actor, with a few temping roles in junior finance positions. Then I took time out to have my family, which has been lovely. I’ve had about 7 years off. Last Christmas, I started thinking about getting back into work and I happened to see an AAT advert on TV. I thought, ‘yeah, I could do that and study at home’. So I’ve just finished my AAT Level 2 and I’ve also just got a job, which I’m quite pleased about. In the long run though, I’d rather work for myself.
Andy: Are you working in industry or in practice?
Julia: Industry. It’s just a really nice way to ease back in.
Andy: Working in industry is a great way to get that first experience of accounting. I train AAT apprentices now and I was an AAT apprentice myself when I first started – so I would suggest to people now to go into industry before you go into practice. Practice is great, I love working with business owners. But to get that actual understanding of how a business works, I think you get that more from working in industry. Practice gives you a great underlying technical knowledge of most things (especially if you work in a small practice), but in industry you get a better understanding of how a business operates.
Julia: I’ve got a little bit of practical experience, but I’ve had such a long break with having my son, that I knew I just needed to get back in somewhere. I’ve been really lucky, I’ve only been in the role a short time and the company has been really great so far.
Putting your learning into perspective
Andy: So you’ve completed your AAT Level 2, are you going to do Level 3 now?
Julia: As I’ve just started this job, studying has gone on pause. I fully intend to get back to it though, once I’ve got a handle on what I’m doing with work.
Andy: I think Level 3 really puts your Level 2 into perspective and you can see the final result of all the underlying numbers. Stuff really starts to click and the reason for doing things starts to make sense.
Julia: I’ve got a long-term plan to work for myself. But there are so many accountants and bookkeepers out there, how on earth do you find a way to stand out from everyone else?
Andy: What you’ll find is that there are a lot of people who say they can do it but there aren’t many people who actually can. I picked up a lot of work through helping businesses create efficiency in their business operations. What I maybe also did differently to traditional accounting businesses is from the get go, I spent a lot of time and effort on a marketing strategy. I spent a lot of time learning about Google Ads and marketing. Don’t get me wrong, word of mouth referrals are still a big part of business, but at the same time, if we want to grow, we need to have touch points with people we have never met before – and doing that digitally is the way to do that.
Building a business
Julia: So your company is relatively new – you’ve just got going and now the pandemic has come along. How are you finding everything?
Andy: When I left the old business, I left with some clients and after a period of time some other businesses that I used to work with wanted to work with me. That helped to give me more financial resources to bring in other people. We’re now a team of six. We were growing fairly quickly and then Covid-19 happened – but having said that, we were in a perfect position to handle the pandemic. I set the business up in a way that we could all fully work remotely. I thought as well, as the business is growing, that gives us access to good accountants across the country.
Julia: Of course, because you’re not limited by where they are.
Andy: Exactly – I’m based in Cornwall, I’ve got a bookkeeper based in Scotland, an administrator based in Oxfordshire, and another staff member that splits her time between Essex and Portugal. If I was to say that I wanted people in the Plymouth commute-to-work area, I would be limited to the skills I could access.
Julia: What were your reasons for starting a business on your own, did you just want to be autonomous, or was it about work/life balance?
Andy: I have a young family, so it was definitely about work/life balance for me. Also, in October 2018 I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I was off work for three months and when I went back to work I wasn’t the same, I didn’t have the same focus. I’m at the point where I still work a lot of hours now, but some days I’ll work 12 or 14 hours and the next day I’ll work 2 hours and then go and ride my bike for half of the day. The rest of the team have that control over their work as well. As long as we are still getting the results for our clients, I’m comfortable with the hours people work to suit their lifestyle.
Julia: I think after this pandemic as well, it’s the way that people are going to go – they know that working from home is actually possible.
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