What skills do you need to work at a start up?

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In the middle of her AAT studies, Holly Pickerill took a job at start-up accountancy firm Tom Geraghty & Associates.

She joined the business as one of its first employees. “It’s a father-daughter business and they’re both chartered accountants themselves,” says Pickerill. “The father, Tom, puts alot of value in taking somebody on and training them up. He wants to support his staff and help them grow, rather than leaving them to get on with it.”

From a career-development perspective, Pickerill, who previously worked as a ledger clerk at food manufacturer Bakkavor, feels that working at a start-up has given her a great grounding in all sorts of accounting disciplines.

“A friend of mine is an apprentice in one of the Big Four. She only ever does audit, whereas I get to do bits of everything as we’re much smaller. I do tax, accounts, payroll – a far wider range of work than I potentially would have done in a bigger firm.”

High stakes

Whether you work in a fledgling accountancy firm or the finance team of a fast-growing tech company, working at a start-up can be an exhilarating – and challenging – experience. You will often be working directly with the owners of the business. And, as the business will be small, it will be able to adapt and change quickly, giving you a chance to try out new things. But you’ll also be working in a business whose survival won’t be guaranteed.

Gary Pickett has worked with many start-ups throughout his accounting career. One of the most successful was Shortlist Media, where he now works as finance director. He stresses that cash and cash flow will always be the biggest issues for a business in its early years.

“Of the 17 start-ups I’ve worked  with, in my opinion 15 were undercapitalised at the start,” he says. “This is quite often the case: they put together a plan and they don’t raise the money they want. What then happens is that the problems start quite early, and it puts pressure on them to be even more successful than they originally planned to be.”

So start-ups can be high-pressure environments, Pickett explains – you need to be prepared to think on your feet and get stuck in when serious issues arise: “You have to have a broad idea, at all times, of how much money is in that bank account. You get a feel for the regular incomings and outgoings and how that cash is working for you.”

It’s important that you’re really passionate about the business and what it does

The learning experience

Pickett has built finance teams for several start-ups, so he has good insight into the kind of skills and traits you need if you want to work in a start-up environment. First and foremost, you need to be prepared to work hard: the pace will be fast. As part of the scaling-up process, there’ll be very busy periods when the work seems to overtake staffing resources, but, if you can keep your head, it’ll be a great learning experience.

“Shortlist was a start-up, then they launched another magazine, then they launched a website, and then they launched an email service,” says Pickett. “They were constantly reinvesting their profits and looking for a bit of extra cash from their shareholders, which meant they constantly needed their hands held [from a finance perspective]. My time there increased from two days a week to three and a half very quickly. Now I’m there full-time.”

You also need to be smart, and flexible. “It’s hard to pin it down, but you need someone who’s prepared to put their pen down and listen to you, change the way they’re working, take on
something else and be flexible,” says Pickett.

Do you believe in what you’re building?

And it’s important that you’re really passionate about the business and what it does, Pickett explains. You need to have faith in the idea. A job at a start-up is not just about getting paid: you’re helping to build something, and there’s a real chance it could fail.

“I’ve changed entire accounts departments in the past as it just wasn’t working,” Pickett says. “It’s got to be right for the company.”

You should also expect the nature of the work to change as the company grows. If you prove yourself capable, you may find yourself leaping up several rungs of the ladder. Great communication skills are a must in a very small company too. You’ll have to work closely with the other teams in the business, and each one might consist of just one person. You, whether on your own or as part of a budding finance team, will be the financial expert in the business.

It’s unlikely that the founders will know much about bookkeeping, cash flow, profit and loss, or any other ways to monitor finances. While you need to be able to explain to them what they’re
looking at, “really you just need to make sure they can concentrate on what they’re good at”, says Pickett.

Ready for anything

If you can survive all of this, you’ll come out of the other side a well-oiled accounting machine, unfazed by anything the working world throws at you. “When you’ve done a start-up and it’s launched, been invested in, changed its shape, been sold or merged, and you’ve gone through all of that once, it sets you up for everything else that you might come across,” Pickett notes.

Find a job at a start-up

Securing a role at a start-up can take even more initiative than you’ll usually need when hunting for a job. It’s all about research, contacts and timing.

Attending entrepreneur and start-up networking events, which tend to be held in cities, is a good way to get your foot in the door. Some events you might want to consider attending include Business Networking London; Manchester Entrepreneurs’ ‘speed-dating’ events for start-ups, students and investors; and the Entrepreneurial Scotland Annual Conference.

You can also find budding businesses in accelerators and incubators across the country. These are shared office spaces for start-ups that provide extra advice and resources to help them grow quickly. Google Campus is a huge hub for start-ups in London – its café is a great place to network, and many of its events are free.

This article appeared in our summer 2018 issue of 20 magazine.

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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