By AAT Comment Run your business Setting up shop: this is how I did it 9 Oct 2014 Elaine Clark is Managing Director of CheapAccounting.co.uk, one of the very first accountancy firms to launch entirely online back in 2007. Here Elaine talks us through how it all began and gives five top tips to budding entrepreneurs out there looking to make the jump. The beginning When I started my online accountancy firm, cloud-based accounting didn’t really exist. Kashflow and FreeAgent launched in the same year and the rest of the accountancy software suppliers had yet to explore the cloud, with Sage certainly bringing up the rear. So I wrote my own: a system that lasted for a number of years and was only decommissioned last year. I’m often asked how I came up with the idea for CheapAccounting.co.uk, as online accountancy was new and virtually unheard of within the accountancy marketplace at that time. It’s a hard question to answer, but I guess the journey started way back at the tender age of just 16 when I was told by a teacher that I would amount to nothing and should leave school. Out in the world Armed with just 4 ‘O’ levels and a copy of the Yellow Pages provided by my father, on his advice I started to write off for jobs (we didn’t have computers in those days!). Luckily I started at A and not Z, otherwise I may have ended up a zookeeper – but having written off to a couple of local firms of accountants, I was offered a job as an office junior at Kitsons in Ipswich. They’re now known as Baker Tilley. From there I joined AAT, went to college and on to university, after which my career in accountancy was launched. I’d always had an interest in business process redesign, and I enjoyed taking advantage of technology to improve things for the customer. The words “we’ve always done it that way” are best never uttered in my presence! So when I chatted to a pal about how working in a small accountancy firm hadn’t changed much since I was 16, it occurred to me that the accountancy profession was being left behind the rest of the business world (a view I still hold today). A holiday spurred on my bright idea Armed with knowledge of internet business operations from a college course, and with a clear head from an extended holiday in New Zealand, the old grey matter gave birth to cloud-based CheapAccounting.co.uk. Love the name or hate it, you’ll remember it. Franchising the brand came later, when I realised that clients liked the concept. I gave myself two choices: opening an office and employing staff, or packaging a self-employment opportunity up via a franchise for others who, like me, wanted to offer a value quality service to small businesses. I opted for the latter, and the rest is history. We now have almost 30 franchisees and have just launched our innovative Dragon Franchise, which allows people to start their own franchise with no up-front investment. I urge AAT students and members to take a look. I am entirely convinced that operating online presents superb opportunities for accountancy firms, particularly sole and small practitioners. As accountants we are only just scratching the surface of the opportunities presented by Cloud Technology, social media and the progressive communication mechanisms we have available. For those with the imagination and tenacity to bring change in the accountancy profession, the rewards will be enormous. Finally, my five top tips for setting out on your own: 1. Work out what you are good at and get help with the rest; a personal SWOT analysis works really well to bring focus to your key skills and identification of knowledge gaps. 2. Review the competition but don’t plagiarise their ideas. You need to be a leader not a follower to be an entrepreneur. The challenge is to find your own unique style and selling point. 3. Embrace social media and work out what it can do for your practice. Developing a social media personality for your practice can achieve huge results in a much quicker time than traditional marketing methods. 4. Developing a specialism in a particular line of business or industry allows you to target your marketing efforts. Becoming known as an expert in a niche area makes marketing easier than being a “jack of all trades”, and these days your target market reach doesn’t have to be limited by your physical location. 5. Finally, remember that once you turn on the marketing tap to attract new client enquiries, it is hard to turn it off again without going backwards. Work out how you’ll cope with peaks and troughs before they happen. If you’d like to be your own boss at some point, why not find out a little bit more about the AAT’s members in practice scheme. AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.