Firms in the spotlight
There are highs and lows in running any business and in each edition of the Digital Accountancy magazine we are going to deep dive into some of the tech-focused accountancy practices to learn a little more about the team and how they operate, the background on the business and their future goals and aspirations.
In this edition, we spoke to Mazuma and Tennick Accountants to learn some more about the founders behind the firm and how they juggle their work and family life.
Lucy Cohen is the co-founder of Mazuma, the UK's leading subscription-based accountancy firm based in Bridgend that specialises in providing monthly bookkeeping and accountancy services to micro and small businesses throughout the UK. Founded in 2006 with her co-founder Sophie Hughes, Mazuma has grown over the years and is now a fully digital, multi award winning practice. We caught up with Lucy to find out a little more about the firm they have created.
Lucy, can you tell me a bit about yourself and why you decided to set up your own accountancy firm. I’d spotted a gap in the market for low cost, easy to use accountancy services. I came from a family of creatives and saw that their size of business was poorly served by traditional accountancy firms, so I worked to create something to fix that! How big is the firm now with regards to the number of offices, staff and clients? We have around 2,000 clients across the UK and about 30 staff. Your firm is quite unusual in that your niche is small and micro businesses. Did you plan to focus on this area from the outset or has this arisen over time?
It’s always been an area that we wanted to focus on. I believe in picking a lane when it comes to a business model, so this was ours. It was important that we were experts in a specific area so this was the niche we selected.
You operate on a low cost, subscription based model which is quite unusual for accountancy firms. What have you found to be the hardest parts of implementing this approach? You have to maintain a razor sharp focus on who the correct client is and only ever work with them otherwise the numbers just don’t stack up. It is also essential that we have water-tight processes to make sure that the work is completed in line with our strict service level agreements. Processes must be key for this model to work. How are tasks managed within the office? We use a pretty heavy duty practice management solution to manage the workflows. We also automate where we can and we are currently building our own technology to further increase efficiencies internally and help deliver our customer service. What services do you provide for your clients? As part of the subscription clients get everything from bookkeeping all the way through to year end accounts and tax.
We focus on general compliance with added customer support. Our mantra has always been “put your paperwork in an envelope and we’ll do the rest”. And even today, with our app we have a virtual purple envelope for clients to use, so we’ve kept that core value at the heart of what we do. Do you provide additional services if a client requires a piece of work outside your core offering? Not usually. We work with trusted partners to deliver additional support where needed, but because of how honed our sales and marketing process is, we don’t often engage with clients that need things outside of what we offer. That’s all part of operating a successful subscription model! Your team must have to operate very efficiently for your business to run smoothly, how is it structured? Are they all “traditional” accountants? The team all hold the usual array of qualifications but no one who works for us is “traditional”! We challenge our staff to think outside the box and put themselves firmly into the clients shoes – all while adhering to pretty tight turnaround times! Clients are assigned to a “pod” of two or three people who look after them. The pods maintain the client relationship and report to management who oversee the overall delivery of the service. We have quite a flat structure which works well for what we deliver.
What role do you have within the firm? My role is to be the lead on business development, sales and marketing. Technology is the heart of your business so what are the core products that you use in your firm? We use the Thomson Reuters Digita suite as our main go-to for CRM and tax. We harness Receipt Bank for data extraction and then we have developed our own technology for the day to day! You must need to monitor your metrics very closely. What are the key productivity metrics you measure? We monitor transaction numbers (per client and team), email and phone response times, tax return progress against deadlines and the same for accounts and CT600. As well as a host of others! How often do you measure these and how do you use these? We use most of these for operations on an hourly basis, and then report on them at the end of the month for our meetings so we can see month by month progress and address any patterns that it throws up. What are your plans for the business over the next 3-5 years? Our plan is to hit 10,000 clients!
Graeme Tennick is the managing partner of Tennick Accountants based in Northumberland. They are a technology focused firm specialising in accounting and taxation services for both individuals and companies. We caught up with Graeme to find out a little bit about him and the firm that he has created.
Graeme can you tell me a bit about yourself and why you decided to set up your own firm. From a very early age I have always wanted my own business. This probably stems from my Dad who had his own engineering business and the way he helped and supported other businesses drove me. I knew I wanted to run my own business, but engineering was not the sector for me, and this is what led me to study accountancy. I completed a degree in accountancy and then undertook my ACCA qualification in a small practice before moving onto PwC and then I took a senior position in the Public Sector. The turning point for me came about through watching an episode of Gavin and Stacey one Christmas! I was admiring how Smithy had the freedom of his business over Christmas to dictate what he did and when and this led me to think about having my own business. So, I decided to set up my own firm and in autumn 2012 started my accountancy practice that I run today. How big is your firm with regards to the number of clients and the size of your team? Today we have over 300 clients and have a team totalling 15. We have however very recently seen rapid growth and we recruited four of these either just before or during lockdown.
We have seen a shift towards cash flow and strategic support so we recruited more senior and experienced staff to meet these needs; though the shift wasn’t quite as great as we would have liked. We also have taken on a data engineer and a software lead to help us provide the infrastructure to deliver both consistently and efficiently to a high standard. The work that has led us to recruit is a mix of both new clients and providing new additional services to existing clients. We have taken on around 30 new clients since lockdown and some of these are very large multi-million-pound businesses located anywhere from Aberdeen to Reading.
So you have grown significantly during the lockdown period - how did this arise? This was off the back of us rapidly and quite strategically focusing on marketing during lockdown to make a difference to struggling businesses and accountants. We have become more productive and efficient during lockdown too as we have really drilled into our figures and our processes as well as looking at our people and technology. This showed us where the issues were, and we have now fixed a lot of them with other aspects still being worked on. There are now, of course, new issues and other things that we must move on to but that is the fun and excitement within the profession as we continuously strive to be better. What services do you provide for your clients and do you just operate in particular sectors? We provide all of your typical accountancy service but broadly speaking categorize these into four:
- Finance Director
- Corporate Finance
Compliance work is basically as it says on the tin but the rest, we work through a typical business journey to then assist those that want to grow with cash flow and strategic guidance. We then take more of an active role with our finance director role then focus on corporate finance when it comes to the buying and selling of businesses. With regards to specific sectors, what we have actually done instead is create an internal ‘client persona’ so there are traits that we look for in people that we work with to see if they would be a good fit for us to work together. This has only been done over the past 12 months, but we find this works much better as experience has told us that no two builders or business consultants can always be considered to be exactly the same.
Technology is at the core of your business. What is your firm’s app stack? We have quite a list!
- Office 365
- Slack (for communication with some of the software guys and our mastermind group)
- WhatsApp (internal comms and general chat within the team)
- Webinar Ninja
- Response Suite
- Practice Ignition
- Receipt Bank
Don’t tell my staff this (or I hope they are not reading this) but we are always on the lookout for new and better apps to help drive our business forward! Why did you pick these apps - there are 100s to choose from! I blame Alice and Trent at Practice Ignition alongside Shaheen formerly of Xero for all of this! Quite a few years back I had a handful of Xero licenses and we pretty much supported all of the accountancy software guys in terms of having a handful of clients on a range of cloud-based software. There were also some on desktop software and some were manual. Shaheen helped get me hooked on Xero and then Alice at Practice Ignition introduced me to the ‘tech stack’. She suggested how I pick a mixture of apps to do what I knew they did best then have others
work around them without duplicating time and cost excessively. Naturally, I signed up with Practice Ignition and I then got to know Trent and he has kept me on the straight and narrow ever since! So how do you manage all of the apps within your firm? To start with I managed them very badly. The problem was I bought what I loved and not what clients needed. I used to buy blocks of licences but soon realised this had to stop. So today we have in house champions for each app. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of choosing apps wisely and choosing in the right order but alongside this you need the buy-in and commitment of your team. They might anticipate problems that the partner would easily miss as I missed plenty. How easy do you find it is to introduce apps to existing clients? Have you seen a rise in fees per client since you have started to use apps in the firm? Clients do not buy apps - they buy solutions. The introduction of the apps did not immediately bring with it an increase in fees as I expected. I discovered I had to pay for the app first and use it and become an expert in it before you can expect your clients to use it. I haven’t actually seen the take up of the apps that I hoped both before and during lockdown. I mistakenly thought that in lockdown clients would all want cash flow software. I think this goes back to educating and convincing people of the benefits of the software and overcoming their fears of change. As a profession we have done ourselves a disservice as we have for so long trained our clients to believe that compliance is enough so when we now suddenly say it isn’t we have to appreciate why some may be resistant to change; particularly change that comes at a cost in an already challenging climate. We must overcome this though and we as a firm have started to. During the lockdown, did you use new technology to keep in contact with your clients? What we found during lockdown was that while technology came to the forefront, without the human touch it was nowhere near as powerful. So, during lockdown we started by picking up the phone to clients and they loved it. Just to chat and share their thoughts out loud that made a massive difference. Naturally it was impossible to keep doing this indefinitely, so we then added technology alongside this.
For clients we introduced the following:
- regular bulletins through MailChimp
- an updated resources page on our website that was being updated almost daily at times with links, videos etc.
- we ran over 50 webinars through Webinar Ninja and alongside software providers using their platforms
- became part of the Futrli Peer platform which is a platform that gives clients access to other businesses and ourselves in terms of ongoing advice and support around so many areas including marketing, access to finance etc.
Do you plan to keep any of these groups running in the future? Do you think we will now be communicating with clients in different ways going forward? Yes, we do, and all of these have now been embedded into our processes. The frequency will change as not so many newsletters or webinars will be needed - maybe just up to two per month. We are also changing how we meet and support our clients in our effort to support the environment so more (but not all), meetings will be held remotely. You monitor metrics very closely in your firm - so how do you capture this data? We actually started with this some time ago but one of the most fundamental introductions was SMART goals for the team. They have 5 set goals with points for each, then their end of year points score will dictate their pay rise. In addition, if the company misses it’s number one goal, then there is a 25% reduction in their score. We capture this via Tsheets, an internal reporting dashboard and also use Karbon Insights too. We have got Microsoft BI on our roadmap too. This analysis and the ongoing monitoring is all undertaken by our data engineer. We recruited a data engineer to build, monitor and generally oversee this process and this is why we are getting better data than ever and starting to see this evolve further. What metrics do you focus on and what do you use this data for in your firm? Some of our key metrics include:
- Turnover to wages
- Scope creep in terms of the amount of free time given away each month
- Fee creep – translating the time and the specific services worked upon that have not been billed into monetary amounts
- Timescales in terms of turnaround time for e-mails, VAT jobs (all by month end), accounts jobs from year end and from date of receipt and so on.
- Internal measures such as minimum health check scores on Xavier, number of calls resolved at the first point of contact etc.
We then use this data for:
- Internal staff performance management
- Evaluation of pricing
- Training of clients
- Marketing – what does this tell us about where we are getting it right and wrong
Staff data is looked at weekly or even more frequently and that then builds into monthly heads of service and into individual meetings and quarterly appraisals. Pricing is looked at on an ad hoc basis but we are looking to change this so we look at wages and bookkeeping monthly, VAT quarterly and account annually. For marketing, it is early days - I’m thinking monthly but my marketing guru might tell me otherwise! That is an impressive list of metrics! What changes have you made as a result of monitoring them? Alongside the above I have to mention Myers Briggs which helped us identify personality traits of the team and helped us identify those in other people around us including clients. This plus the staffing data means that we assign the right sort of clients to the right sort of staff member. It also means that where there are internal staffing issues we can use the Myers Briggs data to adapt our approach accordingly and hopefully achieve better results. During lockdown alone we have seen some massive efficiencies and productivity changes from staff to the point that we are making some further changes permanent such as flexible working, unlimited holidays and dictating your own pay. We have also just changed our pricing for the second time in one year. We look forward to seeing what impact the next 12 months has though naturally in a very different climate but we must retain our ambitions whilst acknowledging and factoring in the more environment that we now face. Are there other metrics you would like to review in the future? How long have you got? We are always looking and yes there are a number of others, but we are going to focus on these first before we hit ‘analysis paralysis’. You are growing in size rapidly - what are your plans for the next 10 years? Next 10 years we are looking at staffing numbers of up to 100 and ten times growth in turnover and for net profit to grow about 30 times over. Not much really! We can not leave out the Golden Duck! Tell me a little about it and how it came about? Ah the famous Golden duck! We were at Xerocon last year and I was doing a live interview with the guys from Float and afterwards they gave me this golden duck. I was already working on ways to improve communication with the team internally, add to existing targets and the drive towards them, so I came up with the idea of a weekly awards session. The winner would then be the person that stood out the most for the week gone by and they are then awarded with the Golden Duck that week!