Will Sterling, one of the owners of Sterling Accounting Solutions (SAS) in Kings Langley just outside Watford, Hertfordshire, grew his team at an impressive rate over lockdown. He spoke to AM’s Jonathan Stobart in early January about 2020, life with AM and his plans for the future.

Will started out by training in audit with BDO before trying out industry – neither of which he particularly enjoyed. “I lasted nine months [in industry]. Doing the same thing, for the same company, every month just didn’t excite me. I wanted to get back into practice, but not with one of the big firms. There, if you want to get to partner, you have to sell yourself for 15+ years. I wasn’t interested in doing that.”

Urm, Dad… can I borrow your address book?

In a story similar to AM’s James Byrne, it was Will’s dad’s career that inspired his path. “My dad’s a chartered accountant and he’s worked in the industry for God knows how many years, 40+. In that time he built up really good relationships, particularly within the construction industry, but he’d just work with one or two businesses at a time as a Finance Director. So although we started with only a couple of clients, myself and my brother Tom, who is also involved in the family business, did have an address book full of successful business owners.”

“Although I really enjoy the challenges of construction,” Will assures us, “I quickly realised we didn’t want to be just a construction business. Today around 50% of our clients are in the construction industry. The other 50% is a real mix of different sectors.” Thanks to this diversification, SAS is now a team of 17 and they’ve just moved into a swanky new office that was purchased in late 2019 and is aptly named SAS House.

AccountancyManager – discovered by SAS’s first employee

Will and the team started using AccountancyManager in our founding year – 2017. Will admits, however, that he can’t take the credit for discovering us. “I think it’s a good example of how we run our firm. Pretty much all the tech we use today, I’ve had nothing to do with it. We take on really good, inquisitive young minds and let them go and find better ways of doing things.”

“That’s exactly what happened with AccountancyManager. Our first employee, Finlay, saw the way we were doing things was not particularly clever, so he went about finding a solution and came across AccountancyManager. We haven’t looked back since.” 

“At the scale we’re at now, we couldn’t survive without AM. It would be a car crash to be perfectly honest. It just wouldn’t work.”

Prior to using AM, Will had everything on Excel spreadsheets or in some cases the notes section of his iPhone. “What we initially wanted was somewhere to store client data and track deadlines. When you’ve got 20 or 30 clients it’s fine, but when those volumes start to ramp up, as they quickly did, you need something more foolproof than a spreadsheet. At the scale we’re at now, we couldn’t survive without AM. It would be a car crash to be perfectly honest. It just wouldn’t work.”

Welcoming new team members – and clients – remotely

At the start of 2020, SAS had a team of ten. They grew this to 17 over the year – with team members starting primarily during the various lockdowns. “The beautiful thing about AM is, it’s really quite easy to pick up. So when you’re taking new people on, having a system in place and instantly allocating tasks to them – it’s perfect. If we didn’t have a system like this, trying to bring people on during lockdown would have been a huge challenge.”

“Because we’ve grown so quickly and our client numbers have grown rapidly, for us to try and keep on top of all the deadlines, all the tasks, making sure that our clients are compliant and getting everything done on time, would literally be a full-time job.”

Task List – with built-in employee stress relief

At Sterling Accounting Solutions, daily life revolves around AccountancyManager’s Task List. Linked to Companies House deadlines and YE dates, it generates tasks automatically for everyone in the practice. “The whole task list is… well we couldn’t survive without it,” explains Will. “We’ve got over 500 clients, so without that task list, there’s no way we’d get everything done when we should. That’s massive.”

“Within five minutes, someone that’s feeling stressed and worried is then all of a sudden fine – that’s a really powerful tool.”

“If someone’s struggling they’ll say ‘can we look at my Task List?’ I’ll go down it and say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about doing that’ or ‘we’ll reallocate that to someone.’ Within five minutes, someone that’s feeling stressed and worried is then all of a sudden fine – that’s a really powerful tool, it helps massively. Particularly at the moment with self-assessment season, being able to solve problems like that in a matter of minutes is fantastic.”

In-system e-signing – great for clients without printers

Another central feature of AccountancyManager – the Client Portal – has been especially helpful during lockdown. “Where clients might be working from home without access to a printer, getting them to actually sign things would have been very challenging. Having that e-sign functionality built into AM has been brilliant. Otherwise you’d have a separate bit of software and it just adds another layer of complexity. So that’s obviously a really, really good tool.”

Responsive software developers who actually listen

As we’ve released new functionality over the years, Will and his team have gradually increased which parts of AM they use. “That’s the thing I really like about AM is that you’re not standing still, you’re constantly introducing new stuff.

“It was amazing to see that so many of the things we suggested did then turn up. It’s really great that you do actually listen.”

In the earlier years, we were quite vocal on suggesting product improvements. It was amazing to see that so many of the things we suggested did then turn up. It’s really great that you do actually listen. I think that’s because AM’s just built for accountants, it really is a package that is perfect for the industry. There are others out there, but they’re not necessarily accountancy specific.”

The best new thing to come to AM? Target Dates.

Last year we released 25 new features, Target Dates have proved especially popular, as Will can attest. “I think the Target Date functionality is brilliant. The whole point of using cloud software like Xero and ReceiptBank is that we don’t need to wait nine months or 12 months to file Year End Accounts and Corporation Tax returns. We should be able to do it two or three months after the Year End. Getting the team to prioritise these tasks was hard, so having that Target Date has completely changed that.”

“Being able to adjust the Target Dates accordingly so we can hit those KPIs is brilliant, it’s really, really helped us.”

“One of our internal KPIs has been to get 75% of Year End and Corporation Tax submissions completed less than six months after the year end. We’ve hit that now, so in the next couple of months, I’ll say 75% less than five months after the Year End, and so on. For Meha, the team member whose responsibility it is to ensure we hit this KPI, the Target Dates have saved her the hassle of having to track progress in spreadsheets outside of AM. Being able to adjust the Target Dates at the click of a button so we can improve upon those KPIs is brilliant, it’s really, really helped us.” 

Too much tech?

When Will stated that he thinks accountants can be guilty of using too much technology, we almost stopped recording. “This might be a bit controversial,” he warned, “but I think there’s a lot of noise in the industry about tech and if I’m perfectly honest I think you can use too much, too soon.”

For Will, it’s been about building a simple foundation of key software first. “The main tech we use… so obviously Xero and QuickBooks. ReceiptBank – every single client has access to ReceiptBank – and then AccountancyManager. Outside of that we’ll use things like GoCardless, Stripe and Unleashed where it makes sense to do so, we’ll also occasionally use Chaser and we’re in the process of rolling out Xavier Analytics across the whole client base. But in terms of the key tech it’s been those first three or four.”

2020 – the year that pulled SAS’s employees and clients together

Like a few practice owners we’ve spoken to, Will actually had quite a positive experience of 2020. “We took on a record number of clients,” he admits, somewhat apologetically, “As a business owner, it also gave me a lot of comfort that the industry I’m in is pretty robust too.”

“The goodwill we built with clients throughout 2020 was amazing. It’s the kind of thing that would’ve taken three, four or even five years to build, but we did it in the space of a few months.

“There were definitely challenges, but then you learn from challenges, don’t you? I think the way our team performed and pulled together was hugely impressive.”

“Without AM, there’s no way we would’ve taken on the amount of people we have and probably would’ve ended up saying no to new prospects. We certainly wouldn’t have had the year we did.”

“Seeing new team members getting involved, learning about the new government schemes and explaining them to clients. It threw everyone in at the deep end, but… they persevered and ultimately did the company and our clients proud. I personally think 2020 was the year that made us. But without AM, there is no way we would’ve taken on the amount of people we have and probably would’ve ended up saying no to new prospects. We certainly wouldn’t have had the year we did.”

So, what does 2021 hold for Sterling Accounting Solutions?

Around the middle of this year, SAS are due to complete on the acquisition of another practice. “I think this will be a real test for us as a business and also AM. Up until now, it’s been a case of just onboarding 10 to 20 clients a month. Once this deal happens, we’re going to have 50 to 60 clients all coming across in one go. Trying to do that smoothly without AM, though, would be very time consuming.”

SAS are using the latest lockdown to make some final flourishes to the new office, building decking and an outdoor bar area for the team to enjoy when they hopefully return to the office in the spring. “It’s really been about creating an environment where people actually want to come to work. Our old office was very dated and located on a busy industrial estate right next to the M25. The new premises couldn’t be more different, with plenty of social spaces, laid back interiors and large gardens, it certainly helps to create an enjoyable atmosphere and has helped cement our strong team culture.”

“We’re actually getting close to capacity in the new office already, we’ve got 18 desks and 17 people. But I think Covid will change the way people work, so realistically, you could have a team of probably 24, 25 in an office with 18 desks.” Nevertheless at current rates of growth, it won’t be long before a second SAS location is required.