Financial Business: Andy Williamson of Active Accounts
Zayyar: Hey Andy, can you give our readers a quick intro into what you do and where you are based?
Andy: Hey Zayyar, firstly thank you for reaching out. I’ve been following Newspread for a little while now – I love the content and what you’re building and I’m flattered to be asked to contribute.
As for myself, I’m the Founder of Active Accounts, an accounting and business advisory practice based in the UK.
Zayyar: Can you expand on what Active Accounts is, why you started this and what services you provide?
Andy: At first glance an accounting and business advisory practice might sound fairly dull. The accounting industry is typically viewed as somewhat antiquated and in fairness I would concede that, by and large, this is not an entirely unreasonable perspective.
The reality for us, however, is that we get to work closely with exciting creatives on a variety of projects and businesses – be they fashion brands, e-commerce marketplaces or creative agencies, for example.
Our service offering is fundamentally two-tiered; we offer a basic service that comprises bookkeeping, mandatory tax and Companies House filings, payroll etc. – pretty much all of the admin that comes with running a business.
For more established or complex businesses that require a little more in the way of forward thinking, we offer a more advanced, bespoke service that involves the roles and responsibilities you’d typically expect of a Finance Director – things like cash flow forecasting, business performance review and advisory. Both of these services operate as monthly retainers but we also offer one-off projects such as business plans, valuations, assistance with raising finance etc.
Zayyar: Talk us through the dynamics of how it all works, how does a piece come into fruition and how do you juggle the client work with that?
Andy: Good question! In terms of content marketing, we have broad objectives that we try to adhere to. These currently look something like one podcast per month, one article per week and two to three social assets that effectively fall out of the longer form content we’ve already produced.
I would say we almost never hit this target! As a founder and with only one employee currently, I have the continuous challenge of ensuring that our clients are being served to the best of our capabilities whilst keeping an eye on business development. A key part of business development for us is building a brand that we believe will resonate with the creatives we seek to serve, of which content marketing is a central aspect. If you take our website, for example, I envisage that people interested in starting a new venture, or simply business in general, will visit our platform for the quality of information and content that we have on there, as opposed to simply being a website that lists our services and contact information. I took inspiration from SSENSE for this approach – ultimately they’re a marketplace yet describe themselves as a “luxury fashion tech leader and cultural resource” as a result of their highly considered content.
READ: Persistency And Determination: Seth Footring Of 502 Bad Gateway
Inspiration for articles can come from a variety of sources, be it something I chatted about with a client, a podcast guest or simply something I’ve read elsewhere. Harvard Business Review is a big inspiration of mine. I personally find a lot of the business advice on the likes of The Business of Fashion to be overly simplistic and lazy but they must be doing something right! I’m a fan of detail, give me a Tim Ferris podcast any day of the week.
Zayyar: So you create these amazing written forms of content, have a podcast and do client work. What else are you looking to expand into?
Andy: I wouldn’t say I’m looking to expand into anything else currently, we’re still very much in the process of becoming as proficient in these areas as possible. Of course, the client work comes first and our primary emphasis is ensuring that we help our clients actualise their business goals. It’s important for us to remember that as our clients grow, we grow.
READ: Active Accounts Interview MAEKAN COO Scott Masek On Succeeding As A Startup
Ideally, the podcast would get to a point at which it could be monetised and provide an additional revenue stream via advertising or something along those lines. I’d also be interested in sponsored content/partnerships if it made sense and didn’t diminish brand equity. That said, if it never reaches a point at which this is viable, I think it acts as a differentiator for the business and I enjoy having such conversations regardless!
Zayyar: What kind of businesses are the bulk of your clientele? Are they established already, start-ups, fashion brands etc.?
Andy: We predominantly work with startups. That said, a startup doesn’t have to be super young in terms of the number of years it has been trading. I was chatting to the founder of a successful agency the other day who mentioned his business, whilst having traded for the past 20 years, was now in its third iteration. He very much considers his business to still be a startup, which I found interesting.
READ: Building A Boutique: A Conversation With Stefan Gregoriou Of Antoinette
From a practical standpoint, I think it’s also a natural fit for us to work with startups as the more established businesses will generally have an internal finance function.
Zayyar: Can you tell us how did you first grow an interest in business and digital accounting? Was this something you also studied?
Andy: I completely fell into it to be honest. After completing a degree in history at Newcastle University (completely pointless in hindsight), I spoke to a friend who was working at Deloitte at the time. He mentioned the money was pretty good for a graduate so I interviewed and got a job there – not quite the pursuit of passion seemingly everyone tries to espouse. I could quite easily get on my soapbox about the passion hypothesis at this point, so I’ll move on!
Looking back, I was very privileged to work for such an establishment and get the opportunity to learn about so many different businesses whilst gaining further education – even if it did mean another three years of exams. I’m definitely a proponent of learning transferable skills. Even if your current job isn’t something you see yourself doing long term, it can still be very valuable.
When I started Active Accounts, I was much more of what you’d expect a typical accountant to be in terms of skill set etc. Establishing and running my own practice gave me invaluable firsthand experience in business as I hadn’t actually studied business per se. Of course my qualification and experience at the likes of Deloitte and KPMG provided me with a lot of knowledge and exposure to a variety of businesses but running your own is a completely different beast! I would say I’ve likely made up for my lack of formal education in business by pretty much reading non-stop for the past three years. I’m definitely an avid reader and learner.
Zayyar: Every young “entrepreneur” has a path per se when they leave school and they have a general idea they want to do. What path were you on before starting Active Accounts?
Andy: I suppose I started to talk about this in the last question. At the time of starting Active Accounts, I was working in a bank and feeling completely unfulfilled and stagnant. Up until this point I’d felt that whilst perhaps the likes of Deloitte and KPMG weren’t for me in the long term, I was learning a great deal which kept me stimulated. When it no longer felt like this was the case, I knew it was time to try something new.
READ: How To Build A Co-Working Space: Sophie Evans & Doug Johns From CHAIRS™
I started Active Accounts on the side and as a result of personal circumstances basically fell into doing it full time, with the help of a small loan from my parents whilst I picked up my first few clients. I would not typically recommend this approach! I think it makes much more sense to build a side hustle up whilst working before taking the leap but it’s just how it played out for me.
Zayyar: I’ve frequented a few episodes of the podcast and it’s killer - such a great low key narrative with guests who are interesting and open. I mean you’ve had Cole Buxton on, Scott from MAEKAN and Caleb from HATHENBRUCK. How did you formulate getting these people on and to follow that up who’s someone you’d love to have on?
Andy: There’s a bit of a story behind The Active Accounts Podcast and how it came to fruition. Some time last year, I messaged Benjamin Edgar, someone I greatly admire, on his Q&A platform, th-oughts. I asked him what his approach to content marketing for a business in what is typically considered a “dry industry” would be.
His response was fantastic – he suggested that ultimately the marketing for such a business is easier as anything slightly out of the ordinary is interesting. It was his suggestion to interview the creatives we either work with or aspire to work with, to draw back the curtain on their businesses with a particular emphasis on the finances and logistics.
In Ben’s own words, this is a very underserved and not often talked about part of what makes these great artists and designers successful. No one wants to talk about it but everyone wants to hear about it, which is an interesting intersection. So I took his advice and ran with it! He also did the podcast graphic for us which is awesome.
In terms of who I’d like to interview, I have certain individuals I’d love to speak to – more so from a perspective of sheer admiration. Tim Ferriss and Seth Godin would definitely be up there!
I would argue that one advantage of my podcast is that it doesn’t require household names for there to be real value in the discussion. I also think we need to distinguish correlation from causation – that is, just because someone is having a moment, especially in the creative industries, does not mean that they have tried and tested business acumen and would therefore have anything of unique value to offer our listeners. I’ve spoken to plenty of creative people who are utterly clueless about business – because that’s not their job! That’s why talking to Scott (COO at MAEKAN) was great, for example. I tend to be quite selective in terms of speaking with creatives who are also very switched on from a business perspective.
To actually answer your question though, I’m currently interested in subscription business models so I’d quite like to interview the founders of WeTransfer as I think that would be pretty interesting.
I’d also like to interview someone who has been super successful in the retail industry to see how they achieved their success. From my experience, service businesses are much easier to scale and make money from as they don’t necessitate the constant reinvestment of capital to progress, so it would be interesting to learn more about that. Someone like the founder(s) of Vitra maybe.
Zayyar: If you were to give one gem of advice for finance for a small business what would it be?
Andy: I suppose I can’t be so direct as to suggest that it is imperative to work with an accountant (admittedly it does depend on the complexity of your business) but I would definitely say get clued up on the basics of financial management, particularly cash flow. Use an accounting software such as Xero or Quickbooks and keep good financial records.
READ: The Business Of Subscriptions: Sam Hickey Of Asuwere
Zayyar: I know you frequent a few books - what are five books you’d recommend for our audience to read? (can be on any subject/topic)
Andy: Here’s a screenshot from the booklist I have in my phone. Any of these would be great. For inspiration I’d go with Shoe Dog (did you know Phil Knight was an accountant?).
I also think everyone should read Deep Work by Cal Newport. The ability to work deeply without distraction seems to be in short supply these days.
Zayyar: What are your future goals with Active Accounts? And where would you like to see this in 5 years time?
Andy: I’d like to see Active Accounts continue to grow alongside our clients. I do like the idea of keeping the business purposefully smaller than typical practices in order to continue providing the level of service that we currently offer. That said, I’m not tied to any single approach and I’m always willing to consider other options. Of course, there is still plenty of room for us to grow until we hit what I would consider our capacity in our current form.
I also hope to see the Active Accounts brand/platform continue to grow as a result of the content we put out. It would mean a lot to know that, in addition to our practice, we are able to provide value to the wider business community.
Interview: Zayyar Win Thein
Photos: Jess Kneen