I’ve written in previous articles about my frustrations with how little the accounting industry has changed over the past few years, or decades, to be precise. It’s not working for accountants, who aren’t getting the variety or fulfilment that they crave; and it’s not working for businesses, who struggle to find the right support when they need it.
It won’t surprise you to learn that we feel the same way about accounting firms. That’s why, on starting Quantico, we went out of our way to be as little like a traditional accounting firm as possible. In this article, I’m going to explain why, and how.
I joined the accounting profession at an interesting time. Cloud accounting software was taking the market by storm, and finance was finally becoming digital.
The Big 4 firms, who had previously restricted themselves to large corporate clients, decided that this was their time to make a move. The shift to online software, the theory went, gave them a great opportunity to sweep up the market for startups and SMEs, which had always been extremely fragmented.
Both myself and my co-founder, Ju-Vern ,had a front row seat for the ensuing battle. I was in PwC’s startup team and she was in the equivalent division at KPMG.
The accounting giants brought some fresh ideas, but they also made some painful mistakes.
To tap into economies of scale they started by establishing remote ‘delivery centres’ to serve their new startup clients. Surprisingly though, these centres were completely lacking in process and structure. Eventually, when software and processes did arrive, they were all geared around what worked for the delivery centre, not the clients and their needs.
I have a huge amount of respect for the talented people in those firms, and many fond memories of my years at PwC in particular, so the last thing I want to do is tarnish their reputation. I don’t think anyone would disagree, however, that their foray into startup accounting ended in failure.
Eventually the Big 4 startup teams were shut down, leaving the market in the same position it was in before.
So, if not the Big 4, who will help startups and SMEs build their finance function?
In my first foray into entrepreneurship launched an ill-fated analytics platform. To reach my target clients, I worked with a number of so-called digital accounting firms. After my experiences with the Big 4 I was excited to see how smaller, more nimble firms made use of the new technology.
Unfortunately, aside from a few notable exceptions, I was to be mostly disappointed.
Today many accounting firms call themselves ‘digital’ and speak the language of innovation. But sadly that’s where the innovation starts and ends. When you strip away the rhetoric they are offering the same services that accountants have carried out for hundreds of years, and in much the same way.
Put it this way: in any other industry, would the word ‘digital’ be considered innovative? Do you get ‘digital SaaS businesses’ or ‘digital app designers’? Of course, you don’t. The fact that you work digitally goes without saying.
There’s something wrong somewhere.
The problem, as I see it, is that many accounting firms continue to view the world from their own perspective, and not that of their clients.
The Big 4, for example, tried to provide the same services to small startups that they deployed with large corporates with hundreds or thousands of staff. Smaller firms offer services centred around tax, statutory accounts and payroll - the services that have traditionally served them and the taxman. These compliance based activities are certainly important, but they are only a tiny part of what a modern business requires from its finance function.
Unfortunately, most founders’ first experience of finance is in bookkeeping and compliance, when they first launch their ventures. Therefore when it comes to getting help, they naturally look for solutions that can take these initial concerns off their plate. I’ve written previously about how this short term focus can unfortunately lead to more problems later on.
One change that many accountants have made in recent years, is a switch to fixed monthly fees. The theory is that this model grants predictable, controlled costs to clients, and recurring fees to firms.
For ambitious and rapidly growing businesses, however, I’m afraid it risks generating the worst possible outcomes. To maximise their profits accounting firms are incentivised to spend as little time as they possibly can with their clients, and to use their most junior staff. It goes without saying that these incentives are not aligned with those of a rapidly growing startup.
That’s why, at Quantico, we give our clients something new.
After experiencing this problem in practice, I moved to the other side of the fence with a Head of Finance role in a startup. Again frustrated by the finance services available to growing businesses, I resolved to make the change myself.
At Quantico we believe we’ve found the mix that provides startups and SMEs with the expertise they need to grow.
So what does that look like?
We believe the Quantico solution is the best way to give startups and SMEs the expertise, processes and services they need to grow. Everything our professionals do is bespoke to the client; it’s never a one-size-fits-all approach. It works for three reasons:
Firstly, we provide operational finance expertise to our clients. We appreciate that our clients are complex and rapidly-changing businesses; they need processes that fit with their unique structure and operational systems. We don’t use one process dictated by a delivery centre; your Finance Business Partner will set up processes that are relevant to you. We have compiled an extensive process library, enabling us to quickly select the right method from across our cumulative experience.
Next, we become part of your team. We know that accounting is an activity that requires a lot of information. You need to understand the business, its objectives, its people and its teams. You cannot do it remotely. You need to become part of the team. That’s why your Finance Business Partner spends a portion of their week on-site with you, building relationships and becoming part of the team. Finance Business Partners are individuals who know startups; they know how to deal with CMOs and developers, as well as founders.
Finally, you don’t just get the Finance Business Partner; you get access to the entire Quantico Finance Operations team. We’ve invested heavily in the systems behind our offering, so you’re not just relying on one individual. Our remote team can access all the information they need from the FBP, rather than having to guess. We provide the support network, the software and the career path for our professionals.
That’s why we’re not an accounting firm; we’re the finance function of the future.