An interview with fintech entrepreneur: Sam O’Connor

Fintech entrepreneur Sam O’Connor – founder and chief executive of Coconut, an accounting app for sole traders and small businesses – didn’t actually come from a technology background.

In fact, he started his working life at PwC. With two successful online businesses now under his belt, O’Connor believes training as an accountant is a great way to get the experience you need to become an entrepreneur.

Being an accountant shows expertise

“I started at PwC in 2008 after studying Business Management at Kingston University,” he said. “I eventually became a Senior Associate, auditing large companies such as DHL and Sony.

“But once I had qualified, I decided I wanted the challenge of starting a business myself. “What I found was that being an accountant gives you a lot of credibility, as well as useful expertise in a number of areas.”

The road to success

O’Connor’s first venture as an entrepreneur was ProConfirm, an auditing business he set up with his partner Adam Goodall, also a trained accountant.

“I met Adam at PwC,” O’Connor said. “We had noticed that when we were doing year-end cash balances, waiting for confirmation from the banks always made it a mad rush at the end.“So the idea behind ProConfirm was to allow auditors to get these confirmations electronically, thereby speeding up the process considerably.

“We started to build relationships with audit firms and banks and eventually sold ProConfirm in 2014 to a US company that did a similar thing and was looking to enter the UK market.“We then worked with them for about two years before leaving to set up Coconut.”

Solving a real life problem

Launched in 2017, Coconut combines a current account with accounting tools such as help with your tax return, and the option to link your account to your accountant.

Once again, the idea for the business came from O’Connor’s everyday frustrations as a member of the self-employed community. “I found the tools on offer to help people manage their expenses and invoicing were designed for much bigger companies,” he said.

“So I thought it would be a good idea to come up with something that took the pain out of being self employed.

“Generally speaking, I think finding a way to solve a problem you come across in your working life is a great way to find ideas that work.”

Coconut is now expanding fast, with close to 20,000 self-employed people using the app to manage their expenses, and about 1,000 accountants signed up too.

The 6 lessons he learned on the way

Launching and running two thriving start-ups has taught O’Connor a lot about small business and being a fintech entrepreneur. Here are the six most important lessons he has learned:

1. Find a partner with complementary skills

Starting a business is a really difficult journey, so it’s important to find the right person or people to join you on it.

Adam and I are well balanced because while I’m naturally optimistic and entrepreneurial, Adam is great at looking at all the details.

We are also lucky that we have a great team.

2. Be prepared to take a risk

When we first started ProConfirm, both Adam and I were working full time. I was a Commercial Finance Manager at Virgin Media, and he was Finance Director at a small marketing company.

However, I met someone at an accountancy event who told me our business would never succeed unless we quit our jobs and focused on it full time. It was the right advice.

3. Gain experience working at a small business

While it was true we both needed to focus on the business full time for it to work, the time Adam spent working for a small company proved really useful.

He had learned lots of useful skills such as payroll management and cash flow forecasting, and gathered insights into areas such as marketing. That’s why I would advise anyone keen to start a business to spend some time working at a small, growing company for a while first.

4.Think about financing

As a founder, you need to think about how you will get the capital to start the business. Can you self fund? Will it come from investors?

5. Talk about your idea

When people have a good idea, they have a tendency to hide it away because they are afraid someone else will steal it. But that can be very damaging.

It’s important to get people excited about your idea, and to listen to any feedback they give you. You should make as many connections as you possibly can.

6. Don’t be too rigid

Many of the biggest companies in the world started out as something else entirely. So be honest about what’s working and what’s not – and be prepared to adapt and modify your idea and business model as necessary.

In summary

Training as an accountant arms you with skills and experience that can prove very valuable if you set up a start-up.

Budding entrepreneurs should also accept help and advice whenever it is offered, and consider working for a small company where they can learn the basics of running a business.

Becoming self-employed with AAT

If you’re an AAT professional member, you can apply for an AAT licence to become self-employed. This entitles you to start taking on clients and offering professional services on a self-employed basis.

If you’re interested in becoming an AAT Licensed Bookkeeper or Accountant and starting up your own business, the first step is to check out the information online to ensure it’s right for you, then download the AAT licensed member application form, and follow the guidance on how to complete the form.

For more on setting up your own business

Jessica Bown is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor.

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