What does working for a start-up look like for an accountant?

Twenty years ago, few had heard of Amazon and Google. They were start-up companies with few employees and innovative ideas. Today, they are part of our everyday lives.

Every company has to start somewhere: how exciting would it be to be in on the birth of a future giant?  And start-up companies need accountants and bookkeepers just like any other business. But what’s it like working for a start-up?

What makes a start-up?

Most start-ups tend to be funded by venture capital firms, investors or are funded by the founders. Start-ups can be precarious: 60% fail in the first three years and 20% within the first 12 months.

Given that the finances could be challenging, it means an accountant or bookkeeper will be invaluable for a start-up. You’ll have such an important role to play in the business, far more than you might have in a large company. Your ideas and skills could have a huge effect on how the company performs.

Fast moving

Because start-ups are small businesses looking for rapid growth, they make decisions and change pace and direction quickly. They can expand (and contract) quickly. This presents challenges to the accountant or bookkeeper as you will have to make sure that the figures add up.

You may have to temper the enthusiasm of others in the company. That means you will need to be a diplomat and also willing to stand up to opposition from others in possibly trying circumstances.

No two days are the same

If you can’t handle volatility and an ever-changing working day, then a start-up isn’t for you. In new, small businesses aiming for high growth things can change on a day to day basis: losing one client can have a huge effect, much more than it might in a large business.

Similarly, winning new business (and having to fulfil orders) can also have a dramatic effect on managing cash flow. You have to be willing to ride the risk – and even enjoy it – and accept that some things might fail to fly.

Autonomous

You might be the only person working on the accounts for your start-up. That autonomy might be empowering – but if you think that you really need to bounce ideas off others with accountancy or bookkeeping knowledge, then it might be too much to bear.

Remember too that the buck will stop with you: it’s a big responsibility to be the money-man or woman in a seed-corn business where cash flow can be an issue.

Do you thrive on excitement?

Here’s the great advantage: work for a start-up and you’re unlikely ever to be bored. You might have to work long hours. You could end up doing tasks which don’t fall within the role of a bookkeeper or accountant. If you yearn for variety, then working in a start-up can be exciting.

But if you thrive on regular hours and getting home on time – as well as being sure your employer will be around for years to come, paying your wages and contributing to your pension without fail – then perhaps a start-up isn’t for you.

What’s in a name?

Job titles and responsibilities can be more fluid in a start-up. Even where you work can change regularly: start-ups can move premises regularly depending on how the business is expanding or contracting. If this is outside your comfort zone then you might not want an accountancy role at a start-up.

No-one who works for a start-up ever says: ‘It’s not in my job description’. You have to be a team player and that can mean doing things you’ve never done before (and which you might find mundane – or exciting – depending on the task).

Grow with the company

The great thing about being in on a business at its birth is that you can grow with it. If you see accountancy or bookkeeping as a rung on your career ladder, then working at a start-up can help you diversify quicker than you might in a larger organisation. And even if you don’t plan to stay at your start-up for a long time, then it can boost your CV.

The diversity of your experience could appeal to future employers. So if you’ve only been working as an accountant or bookkeeper for a few years (and maybe you haven’t yet taken on a huge mortgage and/or have dependants) then it could be a great time to advance your career by working for a start-up.

Is it for you?

Only you can decide whether you’re happy trading the certainty of a big organisation for the risk and reward of a start-up. James Brent, director at recruitment specialists Hays Accountancy & Finance says:

‘Start-ups can offer great opportunities, particularly for those who identify as being innovative, flexible and passionate about the organisation. You can quite often get broader and more diverse experience at a start-up as you will be closer to the managing director and decision making. With a smaller workforce, you are also likely to get greater responsibility and influence change. The path to becoming a finance director can be shorter and faster in a start-up too’.

Salary vs flexibility

Working at a start-up might mean earning less. But there are compensations. You might get a stake in the business or, less remuneratively, there could be a great social life that comes with working for a new-born, 21st century type of business.

Brent adds: ‘Sometimes although smaller organisations don’t compete on salary, they do offer other benefits such as flexibility on hours and day-to-day variety’. But he cautions: ‘Not having the security of a corporate umbrella means that working in a start-up may not suit those more risk-averse candidates’.

Summary

If you want excitement, yearn to learn new skills and perhaps climb the corporate ladder quickly, then working as an accountant or bookkeeper at a start-up could be for you.

And even if you don’t think you want to work for a start-up for the long term, it’s worth considering going to one for a short period to add variety to your CV. However, if you really thrive on working just with figures and want the security of a large employer then you might be happier avoiding a start-up where life might be exciting but can also be precarious.

Further reading:

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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