Alastair Barlow is founder, and self-professed Chief Dreamer, at flinder, a multi-award-winning accounting, consulting and data analytics business. Here he tells us the impact that Silverfin has had on his business.
Can you tell us about flinder?
Our main vision is to help our clients meet their business objectives - this is the overarching principle that guides everything we do. We work closely with businesses across a wide variety of sectors to identify the challenges they face and advise them on how to overcome them. We provide consulting solutions that primarily revolve around finance, data analytics, system implementations and integrations, and strategic decision-making.
Our revenue generally comes from three distinct camps: monthly finance functions, monthly data analytics services, and non-recurring consulting projects. Most of our recurring clients are generally in either the tech or ecommerce sectors, but regardless of the specific sector, they all tend to be fast-growth, equity-backed, and incredibly complex in nature.
Our clients generally have a wealth of data at their fingertips, which is both an opportunity and a challenge. If we can help them gain crucial insights from this data then the returns will be astronomical but this takes a lot of concerted time and effort over a long period of time.
When it comes to the consulting side of things, we tend to work with more well-established businesses who are looking for ways to gain a competitive advantage.
All in all, I think we have a nice mix of clients ranging from innovative disruptors to semi-household names.
What are the main growth challenges you’ve identified?
The main one is trying to make sure that everyone is on the same page, that all our team members share our vision and genuinely buy into it. We see the accounting profession very differently to many of our competitors so we want our team to not just be content with being an accountant but to continually challenge convention, pursue new ways of doing things, and embrace technology.
We also have challenging goals. I’m sure some of my team members think of these as a challenge but I strongly believe in setting goals that are perhaps slightly out of reach. That’s the only way you’re going to push yourselves and keep on getting better. However, in order to meet these goals, we need to have first-rate client relationships. We need to build long-lasting partnerships with all our clients. We need to identify what it is that they need from us and work out a way to provide it to them.
How have you seen the profession change?
When we started (back in 2017), we were making a lot of noise around the power of data and APIs - unsurprisingly, we’re now beginning to see plenty of other businesses using the same sort of language. But there’s arguably a lot of talk and not much action. There’s still so much more that can be done when it comes to unleashing the power of data and using it to guide decision-making.
In fact, I think that too many businesses focus solely on their clients’ financial data. This makes sense, after all, accountants are usually financially focused but if you really want to dive into the health of your clients’ businesses, then you need to look beyond simply the finances.
Let’s imagine one of your clients is spending 25% of their revenue on recruitment, yet they’re not growing their business, why is that? When you dig into the data, you realise that they have a horrendous employee retention rate. When you dig further, you notice that one particular department (sales) has a notably poor retention rate. Accountants who are simply focused on the financials would tell their client to consider hiring a cheaper recruitment agency. Businesses that are focused on all their clients’ data, not just the bottom line, would recommend that they take a deeper look at the sales department’s culture. Perhaps the manager is tricky, or maybe employees are set outrageously high targets that just end up demoralising them.
We believe that accountants need to take a holistic view of their clients’ businesses. Numbers are great, and we need all the relevant data that we can get, but you need to also dive into what the numbers aren’t telling you if you want to provide that next level of value to your clients.
What do you think the accountant of the future will look like?
First and foremost, accountants of the future will readily embrace business-wide data. However, data is just the first piece of the puzzle. Data needs to guide action but in order to take action, the data needs to be analysed, interpreted, and its insights communicated to the client.
Communication is also becoming more important than ever before. The best accountants have impeccable soft skills. You need to be empathetic if a client’s business isn’t doing well, firm enough to tell a client if they’re doing something wrong, and trustworthy enough to build long-lasting professional relationships.
Accountants will also have to be comfortable dealing with increasing client demands. SMEs (especially fast-growth ones) are a lot more financially savvy and demanding than their predecessors. Personally, I think this has been hastened by the democratisation of accounting or bookkeeping through cloud-based applications. This is a good thing. Accountants now have to step up. They can’t just sit back and focus on compliance any longer. Instead, they need to prove their value by becoming trusted business advisors.
So what prompted you to look at Silverfin?
I noticed that despite business-wide processes being in place, our team were still applying subtly different changes to these processes across different clients. As a result, errors began to slowly creep in, which we identified during our monthly Quality Assurance reviews.
We’ve always prided ourselves on our commitment to excellence. Mistakes are a big no-no, so we wanted to ensure that these silly errors never happened again. Clients should trust their accountants or their consultants - they don’t pay you to get things wrong.
We realised that we had to go out in the market and find a technology solution to help us maintain accuracy and standardisation. But in order to pick the right one, I decided to first take a step back and reassess our business. As an accounting, consulting, and data analytics business, our business case is very clear - we want to run leading practice finance functions for fast-growth, complex businesses.
In order to do this, we need to focus on the three competing demands of the finance function and to optimise each of them but not to the detriment of the others: transactional efficiency, control and governance, and delivering insight.
How has Silverfin helped you achieve these three goals?
The Silverfin team has been fantastic. We’ve been quite demanding in terms of what we’re looking for and we haven’t shied away from giving feedback to get what we need. They listened to all our needs, and helped us improve the functionality of the platform based on what we’ve asked.
Onboarding Silverfin has helped us create a standard process (backed by robust technology) to produce high quality working papers quicker and more accurately than ever before. This has been invaluable in allowing us to maintain strong governance and provide a first-class client experience.
Silverfin has allowed us to focus on the control aspect of the finance function and has ensured that our processes are standardised across all clients. However, that’s been far from the sole benefit. We’ve also unlocked a massive amount of process efficiency through integrating technology and, ultimately, reduced human effort.
We’ve achieved more than we set out to. Silverfin has really helped us take flinder to the next level.