Martin Brennan is the founder of Onside Accounting Limited and started his practice in July 2021
I've been in managerial roles and accounting firms for over 10 years now and it felt like it was the right time to start my own practice. In the last four years before setting up a practice, I was with a really good firm in London, where I felt that I really ticked the last few boxes that I needed to in order to gain the confidence to go ahead and do my own thing so I set up my practice in July 2021.
We have a target market of technology startups and in those early periods, you're scratching around for clients where possible and lots of other opportunities come your way that perhaps don't fit in within that target market. I think the best advice I could give anybody in practice for the first time is to just stick to your guns and be patient and wait for the right clients to come along. The reason I had that mindset from the start is that I know from personal experience what it feels like to be tasked with something that you're not comfortable with. And although that might be something that I might be comfortable with, I didn't want to create an atmosphere where employees have that feeling.
Don't get me wrong - we all like to be challenged to some extent and that's how we learn, but I think taking on work completely outside of your skill sets and your experiences is likely to be unprofitable for the practice, demotivating for your team, and probably more importantly, is going to be a really poor experience from a client's point of view. It's one of the hardest things to do but probably the thing that I was most proud of - in that first six or seven months we turned down more business than we took on, and I think we're now seeing the results of that decision.
We'd been operating for about seven months, and we had some good clients join but I was by no means stretched and had a very relaxing Christmas period for the first time in a while. But in January and February we had 16 new clients come on board in a matter of weeks and it became very difficult to keep on top of things. Like any founder, you find yourself in situations where you're sometimes working evenings and weekends to keep on top of things and that's what I did whilst trying to find that key first hire. Even as that first hire came, we kept getting great opportunities that we wanted so we kept growing and by late spring, we got to a point where we were a team of four.
I started looking at areas that were taking up a lot of my time and the two biggest areas of my focus were high value tax advisory work and managing large client relationships. I decided that we would go out and find hires in both those areas which we’ve now secured, and the business is in an even better place. I'm having more time to work on strategy and meeting clients and things like that to expand the business.
I think that the difficulty is that when I made the call on those two hires, we probably didn't have enough revenue to support the hires. What we did have was a good track record of new clients over a period of around six months where I felt confident enough that we would get enough business coming in to pay for them by the time they started.
With any senior hire, generally you're looking at a three-month notice period, and at least three or four weeks of back and forth with interviews. That period while you're waiting for the person to join can be really difficult. If you wait right up until the point where you're desperate to then make the hire, and then you've got another three months to wait when you're already really stretched, it can be really damaging to the business. I think as long as you you're confident that you're giving a really good service, and you have momentum in terms of new business, my advice would be to think about those hires as far in advance as you possibly can.
As a business we have three broad categories – we look at which of those three areas has the most or the least resource and we try to hire into those teams now, on the basis that the opportunities will come. What I am relying on probably more than forecasting is just making sure that we continue to give a high level of service. I'm confident that as long as we do that, the clients we have that are already being so good to us in terms of referrals, will continue to do that as long as we give the same level of service. So I'm putting more focus into maintaining service levels than I am forecasting – if we make sure that we keep the service levels high then we know that the opportunities will come.