29 Jun 2012

Tales from the frontline: Elaine Clarke

Elaine Clarke, managing director of cheapaccounting.co.uk, tells her tale

My school and I decided that staying on to do A levels wasn’t the best idea – I hated school and was a bit rebellious. But my parents would only let me leave if I got a proper job. Among the As in the Yellow Pages are accountants, so I wrote to several firms and surprisingly was invited for an interview at what was then Kidsons (now Baker Tilly). If I’d started with Zs I might have been a zookeeper.

I went to college and did a day release course, went to university at 18 to do data processing and accountancy and then joined KPMG in Leeds at 21. There were about 20 of us in the same position. You worked and played hard. You’d do the audit season and then go headlong into exams. It hasn’t got any easier and nor should it. Accountancy is a profession that should be held in high regard and be tough to pass. The ACA gives you a fantastic foundation and put me in good stead for my career.

After leaving KPMG I spent years in corporate roles, a combination of IT and accountancy. But I never really settled – I think it was the rebel in me again. I took a year out a few years ago and did a masters in computing. That was the foundation for launching cheapaccounting.co.uk

If I’m bad at anything it’s being able to focus on one thing at a time. But an entrepreneurial role suits me
Elaine Clark

Having started at Kidsons at 16 (I’m 48 now) it dawned on me that nothing much had changed in preparing accounts for sole traders and one-man bands. But in the rest of the business world, everything’s changed.

It was the birth of cloud technology. I thought more people were going self-employed and wanted accountants they could afford. I’d spent a long time in the corporate world looking at business process re-engineering and thought: “There must be a different way of doing that.” And of course there is – put cloud computing where it should be, right there for the client.

When I launched five years ago a lot of people were cynical. There are people in the accountancy world who are prepared to sling mud. But they don’t know me, my principles or the service we offer clients. Now so many people are copying me.

You can either spend all your time and money to take these people to court when they’ve copied your website word for word or you can say: “I must have the right idea and I’m five years ahead of them”. I know how long it takes to get a good web presence and build a brand. I funded the business through savings and I’ve done all the web development myself. I’m very risk averse, a typical accountant. I wanted control; what I develop is exactly what I what. Having been in the IT world that whole development lifecycle always goes wrong in the translation of requirements.

The business has grown organically. I’m a huge believer in solid foundations. If you have those, you’re there for the long term. I had the choice of opening an office and taking on staff or going down the franchise route. In the first year I took on four franchisees. We’re coming up to 20 now. I expect over the next 18 months that will double. You have to prove something, particularly when you’re doing something revolutionary, and you can use that term in the accountancy world.

I enjoy the flexibility. I live on a country estate on the banks of the Thames in what is effectively a holiday lodge. The role I’ve carved for myself gives me the flexibility to work hard but also take time out, go for a walk or cycle. I’ve had two back operations and sometimes I need the flexibility to work when the pain’s not too bad.

I’ve just taken on two directors because as you grow you need to put more controls and processes in place. The way you operate when you have four, five, six franchisees is very different to the way you do when you have 20, 30 or 40. It’s about looking at what the shape of the business will be and the sky’s the limit for where we can go with it. This is my pension pot, it’s my future.

If I’m bad at anything it’s being able to focus on one thing at a time. But an entrepreneurial role suits me. You can’t be an accountant all the time. In fact accountancy is no longer a big part of my role. I move the business forward. Because of the market we work in we’re expanding. The business has grown so much during the recession I wonder what we’ll look like coming out of it.

Some of the franchisees tried to start their own practices beforehand and took one or two clients from friends and family but then struggled. They’ve found coming with us so much more refreshing because the brand name is really bringing the clients on board.


Elaine Clarke is managing director of cheapaccounting.co.uk