Mindmap: finding an accountant

The search

Contacts: Friends, family and business contacts are always your best first stop on the search express. Personal recommendations tell you a lot more than marketing spiel.

Members: Look at listed members of professional accountancy bodies for accredited firms. Try ICAEW, ICAS, ICAI, ACCA, CIMA, CIOT and IFA.

Online: There are a fair few accountant databases out there to help you find firms in our area. Here are just a few: http://www.searchaccountant.co.uk, http://www.chartered-accountants.co.uk, http://www.accountants.co.uk

Trade press: You might not see loads of them lurking in the classifieds, but where accountants choose to advertise gives you a good indication of their sector and size.

Chartered certified: Always look for certification. It means the firms you're considering have passed all the right exams.

Local: Having your accountant within driving distance isn't essential, but it will help. You never know when you might suddenly realise 30 minutes before the VAT inspector's due to turn up that you've misplaced last year's exports records. Plus, proximity always makes a business relationship easier to manage.

Shortlist: Draw up a list of three to six accountancy firms you think could fit the bill, then meet each to get a feel for whether your personality and styles match, and how much they're likely to value your business.

What to ask

Small biz: You definitely want your accountant to have experience with small businesses, preferably at the same stage as you (such as startup, three years in, exit and so on). The issues small businesses face at the various stages of their life-spans are hugely different from larger companies or those who are more mature.

Industry know-how: Your dream firm is going to have extensive experience of your industry. But if you can't find one who does know about importing red-back frogs from South Korea to Manchester, or whatever niche you happen to be filling, make sure they at least have a grasp of the wider sector you're in or have handled the issues you expect to face.

Clients: You want them to have clients who are about the same size as you. Bigger, and you'll be shoved to the back of the pile as they focus on more important work. Much smaller, and they might not have enough experience. Ask to see testimonials - although they're obviously going to show you the best ones, you can still get some insight from what past clients have said.

People: How many people are in their firm and who is going to be dealing with your business? You don't want a junior or to get passed from person to person.

Beyond tax: You want an accountant who can always spot the sneaky ways to reduce costs and help advise you on your business' next step towards glory, as well as sorting out the administrative detail. Explain your current position, systems (if any are in place yet), plans and requirements and compare your shortlist's suggestions for improvement and advancement.

Pay per: Definitely ask about how you'll be billed and figure out what's going to suit you best - to be charged per piece of work, per year, per month, per hour, and so on. If you think you're going to needs loads of support, a flat rate basis can work well. If it's just occasional assistance, per hour could save you cash - just check about how they bill for things such as five-minute phone calls and whether they round up to the hour or charge, for example, for every 15-minute block.

Gut feel

Trust: Absolutely crucial. We're talking about the inner workings of your business here - the financial and administrative blood that keeps it alive. If you're at all uneasy for whatever reason, it'll always be playing on your mind.

Responsive: You might know accountancy methods inside-out. You might not know what VAT even stands for. Whatever your knowledge, you need someone who's patient, understands what you're saying, and answers all your queries, all the time.

Clear: There's no point having someone explain how you need to streamline your payroll for half an hour - and paying for it - only to realise at the end you have no idea what they've been on about. Be wary of jargon-users. If they can't explain things on your terms, the relationship is never going to work.

Final steps

Year 1: Once you've got your guys on board, hold a meeting with them to discuss all your requirements over the next year or so and what their plan of action will be. Then you'll both know what's coming and how much work they'll be doing, approximately, for the foreseeable future.

Honesty: Your accountant needs to know everything about your business if you want them to do a good job. Don't fudge or cover up anything - they're going to be looking at every last detail, so you're better off getting any dirty laundry out there before they dig it up themselves.

Letter:Once you've come to an agreement with your accountant and told them you want to employ them, they'll pop a letter in the post running through all their Ts&Cs.

Legal eagle: It's worth getting your solicitor to glance over the contract they send you to double-check it. This can just help put your mind at rest that if the relationship did sour or you suddenly needed far more assistance than you'd originally anticipated, you're not at risk of them charging you millions.

Communicate: Establish who your main point of contact will be and roughly how often you'll be in touch with each other.

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