Starting a practice – your questions answered

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Former AAT President Henry Cooper, is an experienced practice owner and helps run AAT’s Be Your Own Boss workshops. He sat down with us to answer members’ pressing questions about how to get started in practice.

What can you actually do in terms of starting your own business once you’re AAT qualified? – Dan The-Bhakti Man, via Facebook 

That is a good question. I think it’s better to turn that around and tell you what you can’t do. As an AAT accountant, as long as you’re qualified and competent and have some work experience, you can basically do anything that a chartered accountancy practice can do apart from an audit. There are a couple of other regulated activities, such as independent financial advice and insolvency, but otherwise it’s entirely up to you.

How do you appear confident when trying to win your first client when you’re really nervous and you’re unsure about yourself? Phillip Toomer, via Facebook

How do you find out what you need from a new client to get started?@wynpennant, via Twitter

Research the client as much as possible before you go to see them. It’s a bit like a job interview in that respect. The clients don’t always know what they want, so you often have to tease more information out of them to work out what would be of most value to them. If you are asking clear questions of the client, it puts the ball in their court, and will make you appear confident.

How do you put together a solid business plan, and that you have everything where it needs to be? How do you make sure you grow steadily? Victoria Harrington-Biddle, via Facebook

It’s important to differentiate here between the business plan, i.e. the facts and figures, and your strategy. It’s important to have both. The strategy needs to have some flexibility built into it when you’re first starting out, because things will often not work out as you expect them to. When I started out, I was expecting to do bookkeeping, but the way things ended up going, I now predominantly do compliance work. It’s all about planning for the long term but being agile as well, so if the situation does change slightly, you can change with it.

Is there a single guide available that talks you through starting a practice step-by-step? – Harry Simons, via Facebook

There are a few things I could suggest there. AAT regularly does Be Your Own Boss sessions, which are held at various locations throughout the year. That goes through everything you need to know, and you leave with a plan for your business. Once you’ve joined the scheme for Members in Practice, AAT provide you with a practice management toolkit, which gives you plenty of guidance as to what you need to do with things like continuity of practice etc. There are also all sorts of discussion forums, Accounting Technician magazine, where you can find more examples of best practice.

Apart from advertising, how do you find and get clients? – Steven Morris, via Facebook

How do you get contacts to help you start-up? – Rosalyn Carrington, via Facebook

Networking is important not just to get clients, but also to find extra support. Working for yourself can be very lonely, so if you’ve got a network of contacts that you can talk to and in some cases exchange business referrals; that can be very useful.

This isn’t an instant fix, however, you need to build up relationships with people, which does take time. Social media fits into this as well – you can find your ideal clients, follow them and build up an interaction there.

You can buy databases of local businesses and send out mail shots or emails, but make sure it’s a checked database, because you need to make sure you’re not breaking data protection laws. I also did a leaflet drop around local businesses, which got me some of my early clients. Things to avoid are things like newspaper advertising and the Yellow Pages, because they can be quite expensive.

Are there any networks of accountancy practices that you can join on which people can search for an accountant in their local area? – Stacey Law, via Facebook

One of the most obvious ones is the members in practice directory, which is on the AAT website and allows people to search by postcode or even type of service. It can be quite cheap to set up your own website these days, and I think it’s important that you do have a website. Make sure you’re on LinkedIn as well, because people can find your company on there.

I’m currently at Level 2 and trying to make the necessary steps to becoming a self-employed practitioner. What kind of experience do you recommend that you should get before starting your own practice? – Wayne Owens, via Facebook

If you’ve worked in some form of accountancy up until then, you’ll have some sort of accountancy knowledge that you can apply, but if you want a much wider range of experience, you could volunteer some time at a charity. Working for a small charity, you may end up doing a wide variety of tasks, which you may not do in a traditional accountancy job. You’ll get a lot of experience of different situations, so you’ll quickly build up a quite varied range of experience.

You could also do some work for friends who need accountancy services. I did that for some friends of mine when I started out, who worked as an electrician and a plumber respectively.

Henry Cooper FMAAT was AAT's 32nd President.

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