Given the difficulties we’ve all faced over 2020 and into this year, it’s natural that a good portion of AAT professional members will be considering striking out on their own and setting up as AAT Licensed Accountants or Bookkeepers. It’s equally natural, given the pandemic, to be hesitant. So, is it a good time to start your own practice? The short answer is yes it is, but there are several important things to bear in mind.
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1 There’s a lot of demand
“Some businesses are struggling and need guidance to stay afloat until they can prosper on the other side of the pandemic,” explains Will Blower MAAT, an AAT Licensed Accountant who set up his practice, Realise Finance, last summer. “On top of that, there are a lot of new businesses. With furlough and working from home, people have had spare time on their hands and they’ve been finding new opportunities, which they need guidance with.”
AAT Fellow member Ihqlak Hussain FMAAT is the author of SUCCEED! An Inspirational Toolkit for the Serious Entrepreneur. He agrees the conditions are favourable.
“It’s as good a time as ever to set up your own practice. AAT professional members are resilient and have a qualification that’s highly rated. There are always businesses looking for a new accountant.
“It’s important to focus on what type of market you want to work in. It’s difficult to be a general practice and do anything and everything. These days, it’s more important to specialise. The most successful firms at the moment are those that are digitally savvy and adaptable.”
2 Low barriers to entry
Aside from reaching the required levels of qualification with AAT, there are very few barriers to entry for those considering setting up their own practice. In fact, you could be ready to start applying to become an AAT Licensed Bookkeeper as soon as you complete the AAT Advanced Diploma in Accounting.
“You have to apply for each service you want to provide and give evidence of prior work in those areas, plus gain the AAT qualification (and professional membership),” explains Blower. “But once you’ve done that and got your professional indemnity insurance, Basic Disclosure Certificate and AML supervision, you can become an AAT licensed member.
“You don’t need office space, you don’t have to invest in loads of staff. There aren’t too many barriers to entry. My initial set-up costs for licenses, subscriptions, my laptop and phone came to under £2,000. You could do it for under £1,000 if you don’t need to buy yourself a new laptop.”
While Blower, who gained his AAT qualifications from Anglia Professional Training, would encourage members to take advantage of the current conditions, he suggests doing so in stages.
“There isn’t much risk in terms of cost, but if you can do it at the same time as having another job, that does offer more protection,” he says.
The current conditions naturally mean greater competition, says Hussain, who is director at firm AMCI. He notes that while the current market is competitive, it is likely to go through changes that will favour new entrants.
“Many members are considering retiring early who probably wouldn’t have if the circumstances were different,” he explains. “So, for younger members, the opportunities are there.”
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3 Social media is your friend
Gaining clients is a crucial part of making any business work, and could arguably be the toughest part of setting up as a Licensed Member. After all, pandemic conditions are not in any way conducive to meeting potential clients. With that in mind, you’ll have to make use of alternative tools.
“I didn’t spend a penny on advertising until March – seven months in,” says Blower. “The best channel for me was Facebook. I’d join local groups and post there. It was just being proactive and not waiting for people to come to me. What I’ll do once I feel I’ve used them enough is join different towns’ groups. I’ve only done Peterborough and it’s got me this far.”
The success of his social media activity has been a boon for Blower, who notes that, without it, gaining clients could have proven a major hurdle.
“It can be harder to get your name out there and you have to think outside the box. I did an article with the local paper and that really helped.”
4 New ways of networking
“One of the biggest issues for me was not being able to go to networking events,” says Blower. “Meeting clients isn’t the same at the moment. I was able to meet a few at a coffee shop in September before the restrictions came back in, but since then it’s been restricted to video calls, which is a shame because I like to give that personal touch. I like to know all my clients, that’s a big thing for me. It’s really affected me because I wanted to build my business on meeting people.”
Hussain is an advocate of networking in all its forms to glean as much as possible from peers.
“Talk to other members through AAT societies in particular,” he says. “AAT has a strong branch network and a lot of societies that are very active, so use the branch network. Speak to as many people as possible, not just within AAT itself, but in wider networks as well.”
Despite the lack of the usual networking opportunities, Blower recommends taking advantage of support provided by AAT and using social media to supplement that to begin to build up a presence.
“There’s a lot of good advice and guidance out there, especially from AAT. There are also a lot of good Facebook groups for accountants. You can just post a question and nine or 10 other accountants will come back to you very quickly.”
Full information on becoming an AAT licensed member is available at aat.org.uk/beyourownboss
Calum Fuller Calum Fuller is editor of AT and 20 magazines. He's previously served as editor of Credit Strategy, assistant editor Accountancy and began his career at Accountancy Age..