It’s good to talk with… Emma Hones, Enterprise Nation

#12 How to sell advisory services to SMEs

Emma Jones, Enterprise Nation

Emma Jones / Enterprise Nation

Andrew Jordon

Andrew Jordon / Connect4

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What is the SME perspective? What do small business owners want from their business advisers?

If you need an expert insight into the small business sector, then this episode of It’s good to talk with clients is for you!

Andrew Jordon speaks to Emma Jones – founder of Enterprise Nation.

Enterprise Nation is the UK’s most active small business network; a vibrant community of small businesses and business advisers. They offer SMEs the resources, expertise and connections that help turn good ideas into great businesses.

15 years on from founding the network, Emma has a wealth of knowledge about the needs and wants of SME owners and she has some stellar advice for accountants looking to access these businesses.

Emma was the Small Business Crown Representative and worked with the government to help smaller businesses in the UK. In 2011, she co-founded the launch of StartUp Britain – the national campaign that encouraged more people to start a business and supported the growth of existing businesses.

  • Introductions
    • Emma’s background and the founding of Enterprise Nation
  • What excites Emma about SMEs?
  • So what’s new about up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
  • Why small businesses need advisors
  • How to make sense of the fragmented business support market
  • What are small businesses asking their advisers about?
  • How do you stand out as a business adviser and win work?
  • The structure of Enterprise Nation – how advisers turn conversations into paid recurring work.
  • Be transparent about your pricing to sell yourself effectively as an accountant!
  • How small accounting firms win work: offer financial advice.

Transcript

Andrew: We’re here for another, ‘It’s good to talk with clients’ episode and I’m absolutely delighted to be joined by Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation. So, Emma, do you want to tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Emma: First of all, lovely to be here! My name’s Emma Jones, I run a business called Enterprise Nation and we’ve been operating for about 15 years now — helping small businesses get the support they need.

I feel as if I’m allowed to talk to you today because I started off with an accounting background! I studied Law and Japanese at university and then I joined Arthur Anderson, way back when AA still existed as one of the big five accounting firms. Through AA, I helped Japanese companies move into the UK in a process that was known as ‘inward investment’. I stayed there for five years and then set up my first business in the height of the dotcom boom. I started a business called Techlocate.com, which was all about putting the inward investment process online. I sold that company within two years to Tenon PLC, which is now RSM Tenon.

I did an 18 month lock-in clause with Tenon when they acquired us. I did my dutiful work and a good job for Tenon, but I essentially spent that 18 months figuring out what the next business venture would be. That was Enterprise Nation.

Part of the reason for the name Enterprise Nation was I was inspired by a book written by a guy called Dan Pink, called Free Agent Nation. Still very relevant today — he was charting the rise of self-employment in the US. What he was looking at was that lots of people were starting businesses, but he questioned whether the infrastructure and the support systems were available in the US to help this kind of entrepreneurship flourish. I read this book and thought, “wow, I think the same thing is going to happen in the UK. I think people are going to choose to start businesses. They’re going to need support. They’re going to need advisors”. And Enterprise Nation was very much kind of born from the perspective of helping businesses get connected to the right advice and support. 15 years on, we’re still very much doing that — in different ways — but we’re still on that same road of “let’s help anyone who wants to start and grow a successful business”.

Andrew: Brilliant, that’s fascinating! So, why are you excited by small business? What is it [about SMEs] that is so interesting to you?

It still gets me excited every day! It’s interesting, we work very closely with Amazon and Jeff Bezos is very infamously, well-known for talking about “day one”. And I still feel like that about Enterprise Nation — partly because of the dynamism of small businesses.

So why do I love them? First of all, there’s a lot of them. So there is so much variety in the small business sector. I love the founders who start the businesses — you know, those incredible founders. And fortunately we’ve helped lots of them. They take this kind of really courageous decision to potentially leave a day job and follow a passion or they’ve spotted a gap in the market and they think, “right, I’m going to do something about it!”.

One thing we’re seeing with young entrepreneurs at the moment is how socially driven they are. There are actually so many young entrepreneurs that see something that they think is wrong in the world and feel that entrepreneurship is the best route to solving that. So that’s one part that interests me — literally the people.

And then what really fascinates me is just how they build a business. The great thing about business is there is literally never a dull day running a company — one day, you’ll be focused on the sales, the next day it’s the product, the third day it’s the team. That makes it sound as if you can categorize it, but it’s a combination of all of those things.

So the founders fascinate me because I have huge respect for anyone who starts out in business. I love the concept of people just doing stuff for themselves — rather than looking to others and asking “what can you do for me” — asking “what can I do for myself”? So that’s where I stand, but I’m just constantly intrigued. I don’t know if you can see the books I continue to get — that’s all business books. I’m absolutely fascinated by how people build amazing businesses. As business changes, you just continue to evolve and that’s how you grow a great business.

So it’s the people, but also it’s the mechanics of business — and that is never-ending delight, fascination and extravagance.

Andrew: That’s really interesting. You’ve mentioned the new kind of dynamics of entrepreneurs coming through today — being a little bit different from the past. What are you seeing then, in the last few years that, that maybe wasn’t there before?

Emma: Well, huge amounts of sustainability. Back in 2012 we started taking a group of small business owners into Number 10 every month to meet with the PM’s policy advisor. We’ve started to do those again and literally the next one is on the topic of sustainability. We’re taking 16 founders — virtually — to meet with the PM’s advisor. The other day I looked at the 16 founders and thought, I “think the average age is about 27!”. And so this is the thing — it’s young people. They’ve seen troubles in the world in terms of climate change, Black Lives Matter, COVID. These people are thinking “we’re going to be paying for this in years to come — in which case I want to live a life that’s worth living”. They feel that that self-actualization can come through entrepreneurship. They’re in control of their time. They can wear what they want. They can act how they like.

Some of these founders — there’s a guy called Rishi who started a business called Zero Waste Club. We’ve got two really young founders of a consulting business called Impactful — they’re really passionate about helping big organizations actually build value into what they do. We see this across young people — they see things and think “that’s not right”. And then they feel well… “how can I correct that?”. They feel that maybe working in a big corporation is not the solution and they say “I’m going to go out and do something on my own!”.

Of course they’re hugely enabled by technology. They go to TikTok, they go on Instagram, they build a presence on Facebook. They are incredibly adept at doing that. And that means they can get their message out there — and hopefully make some profit along the way.

Andrew: I think actually some of our listeners will resonate with that — accountants who have spun out of larger firms to create their own practices, which are more aligned with the things they want to offer to business owners. So I think we’re seeing that in the accounting industry, for sure.

So, what does a small business need in an advisor? What’s the purpose of one?

Emma: Well, I’m very biased on this because I’m building a business based on connecting small business to advice! A tiny bit of history actually — the Enterprise Nation platform was built on a government advice program called Growth Vouchers back in 2014.

The thing which hopefully will be of interest — and relief — to your audience is that small businesses accessing advice and support had been on the wane for the past decade. But that of course was reversed 12 months ago. We have seen a huge appetite since March 2020. Businesses have been terrified about their finances, HR, their livelihoods, and therefore they’ve looked up and said, ”I need an advisor to help me!”. So we are definitely seeing an uptake in small businesses saying “I need advice!”.

Just to give a bit of context to what we see as the barriers as to why small businesses don’t take advice — we’ve done years and years of research on this. The three main reasons that businesses tell us as to why they don’t take advice is, first of all, they don’t know the bit of the business that needs advice. It’s “how do I get advice if I don’t know what I need”. Next is, who they trust? Small businesses definitely look for trusted advisors. The third is, how much they’re expected to pay. These are kind of the things that are going on in the mind of a business owner when looking for advice. They definitely do know that they need it — it’s just, how they get access to it?

As I say, we’re very biased on this point! We categorically know that small businesses who take advice grow better and faster than businesses that don’t. So we’re huge champions for small businesses. Let’s help you figure out the bit of business that needs help. Let’s connect you with a trusted advisor and let’s work with the advisor community to show transparency of pricing so you feel comfortable that you know what to budget for. But yes, I definitely think all small businesses should reach out and get advisors as early as possible.

Andrew: Hmm, that’s interesting — I’ve been in groups before in the accounting vertical where we discussed things such as “where does small businesses look for that advice?” It used to be professional bodies — and it still is to an extent — but the dynamics are changing. A lot of content is coming from software companies — there’s this kind of mish-mash. So how do we make sense of this landscape of competing people giving insight?

Emma: And that’s one thing that we say actually in terms of Enterprise Nation — the problem that we’re trying to solve of business support is a very fragmented market. If you’re a small business, you just want to know what’s right for you. So you need to cut-through to find out what’s right.

What we are seeing from small businesses is they take their support pretty much in one of three ways: First is from that peer group — friends and family, other founders that look like you. Mentors play an incredibly important roles as more of like a coach type advisor. And then of course, professional and trusted advisors that we’re talking about today.

As you say, Xero and Sage offer lots of content to accountants, but also to small business. Government offers support. Big, big tech companies have started to offer lots of free training. To be honest, the only person that benefits from this is the small business owner. It may be a fragmented market, but what that means is that there is this huge amount of variety in the market.

Of course, what competition does is it increases the quality of hopefully what’s served to the small business. In those policy sessions that I mentioned, it used to make me really mad when a business owner would come and they’d say to the policy advisor “I’m looking for support, but I just can’t find any”. And I’d be like, “there’s the legions of it!”. And I’ve not heard anyone say that in a long time. There are lots of layers of support in the UK [now], both public and private sector funded.

This is good news for the small business owner, but what they’ve now got to be helped with — and is the thing that we’re trying to effect on the Enterprise Nation user journey — is how they navigate to get exactly the right support for them. Because business owners are more likely to activate support if it comes at a time when it’s relevant and timely.

I know you and I have spoken about this Andrew — but there’s potential for open banking to deliver exactly the right support to businesses at exactly the point when they’re exporting or hiring someone, or maybe spending on social ads. If they at that point, get a message saying, “hey, you know, we think you need support in this area, here are three people who could help you live within 20 miles of you”. Or, “here’s an event that talks to you about what you’re looking for”. It’s more likely to get activated.

So we are at a point of lots [of variety] in the market. That’s good because it shows we’ve got a very big and vibrant market of businesses. What I think we need to do now, as a country and as a support landscape is get targeted support to the business at the right time. And rest assured, if you do that, they’ll keep coming back for more! It’s not as if you’re reducing the size of the market, you’re giving a good experience. A small business will keep going for advice across their life cycle.

Andrew: Yeah, it’s fascinating. We’re definitely going to see a lot happening with the accounting software and the banks and how they play between each other — and payment providers stuck in-between the two.

What are small businesses are asking for, can you give me an example? What sort of things do they want to know?

Emma: Well, I could go on for hours! We just changed our homepage to literally say “what advice do you want and what type of advice do you want?” And, of course, we measure search terms.

Across the board, there’s three main things which stayed pretty constant on Enterprise Nation in terms of what businesses are looking for. Number one is sales and marketing. So businesses that come to Enterprise Nation— the first thing on their mind is how can I grow my sales? How can I keep my customers coming in? Second is finance. And that’s a couple of areas — access to finance and then managing their money. That’s the second most popular topic. The third most popular topic that people look for on the platform is planning. So how do I plan for Brexit? How do I plan to reopen my physical premises? It is quite constant that they are the top three items that businesses come and say that they’re looking for, but of course they’re quite wide topics.

I did a tweet on this last Friday — I tweeted three things asked for on the Enterprise Nation platform this week. One of them was packaging advice for my skincare brand. The second was “I want to export to Italy”. And then the third was something like, “I want to raise money for a social enterprise business, buying a local community pub”. Something completely specific. So it’s sales, marketing, finance, planning. But then it goes very niche, very quickly because of course each business has got their own personal needs and requests.

Andrew: Absolutely. It’s interesting because I’ve been tasked in the team at Connect4 to help with creating templates for specific use cases. And it’s incredible — the variety of people — when we look what they’re using our platform for. Some running team appraisals internally and then the next person’s running something… VAT specific. Everyone’s got very specific needs. In software, we often try and put people into categories and it get quite niche very quickly.

So on that, how do you stand out then? Presumably there’s lots of advisors in those three categories. I know of hundreds myself. How do you stand out — whether it’s on Enterprise Nation or in general, in the digital environment?

Emma: So this is really straight forward. Platform data is giving us a really clear message at the moment of the advisors who are winning the most work on Enterprise Nation. Maybe this won’t surprise you to know — those that are winning most of the work are those who are proactive. So, on Enterprise Nation, advisors can deliver events, they can build groups, they can upload content, they can upload services. Advisors that do that, definitely get the highest levels of engagement — connection with service calls etc. They’re advisors who have an opinion — that share their expertise. And this is across the board.

One of the things we launched in March of last year was a daily event called ‘lunch and learn’. And the reason why I just mentioned this is I hosted them for the first six weeks — I hosted them every day. And when you host a business event every day with loads of different experts, talking about lots of different topics, you try and draw some parallels of what are the key things that go through what everyone is saying. And one of the things that really came across to me is what everyone was saying is “yes, of course a business wants to sell to customers, but the way in which you do that now is just through engagement”. You share something upfront, you show that you’re the expert in that area. You show that you can be trusted.

Trust is a huge thing at the moment for people, because so much trust comes from when you physically meet someone — you can read their body language, you get a sense of who they are. We can’t do that anymore. So consumers are looking for trust verification factors, just in different ways. And if they can see you presenting, they can read your content and this builds up trust. So the kinds of parallels that we’re coming across are: engage with your audience first, see that as an investment upfront, build trust in what it is that you offer and you will then convert. People will become your clients. And honestly, I know it kind of sounds maybe a little bit straightforward and maybe sounds a bit fluffy to the advisor community, but all the data points we have on Enterprise nation show that the advisors who deliver content are those who get the biggest return on investment.

Andrew: Yes, we did some similar research ourselves over the last 12 months and completely aligned. We put it into the three P’s — you’ve got to look professional when you have that first meeting, you need to be personal and you need to be productive. I’m intrigued on a personal level — when someone has a first meeting with a small business owner on Enterprise Nation, how do you get that to become paid work? How do you progress from having a nice chat with someone? How do you turn that into paid work or even recurring work — which is your ideal world, right?

Emma: So everything that we’re building on the platform enables that to happen. First of all, the business owner will connect with an advisor and in a way, that’s just a way to get to know them. Somebody said to me the other day, Enterprise Nation is becoming like the Tinder for small businesses, because you kind of date first!

You just kind of get to know that advisor. Do I like the content? Do I like what they’re sharing? The next level up is you’d book a discovery call. And this is where it starts to get more serious. So as a small business, you’re booking a discovery call. Same with an accountant. Through the platform you share what the thing is that you want to talk about, so you say… “I’m looking to find out if I need to be VAT registered”. And when I need to do that. You set out what your question is, you have the discovery call — which is at free at 30 minutes — which all the advisors on the platform agreed to give. Essentially, the purpose of that call is for the advisor to show, they know what they’re talking about. And then that leads to a service engagement. And so it’s just an opportunity for an advisor to get a meeting. It’s up to them to show their expertise.

We’re seeing really good conversion rates from discovery call to service engagement. And then ideally the advisor gets recurring income — that happens off Enterprise Nation. If the advisor secures that client — maybe for a one-off piece of transactional work — then it goes into the CRM system of the advisor themselves. So then it’s about maturing that client. Our job is to connect that person who got the call with the accountant.

The next question is, how do I hire my first person? What we would like them to do is come on to Enterprise Nation and find an HR advisor. We don’t take any transaction fee from the transaction that happens between business and advisor — it’s purely a listing fee for advisors. So the transaction itself happens off the platform. But we try and do as much as we can essentially to build the relationship, so it can become a commercial one.

Andrew: One thing I get asked a lot by the advisor community is about positioning. You might give your one-off advice and of course you want to over-perform and overachieve. What’s difficult for some people is they might be brilliant technically as an accountant, but maybe they don’t position themselves in a way. Some people who struggle with that conversion piece.

Emma: Actually the one thing that I would say about accountants — I feel quite bad because I know this is very much your community — but if it’s the one thing that I think would help accountants. We used to run a physical event called startup Saturdays. Every month I’d have 25 people who would come on a Saturday and they would all be wanting to start a business. We’d have five hours together and we would always have an accountant [speaking].

He would cover the accounts in a session and the accountant would stand up and say “right, you’ve got to consider the status of you company, VAT, telling HMRC that you’re a sole trader”. They would go through all the tax items. Every month this happened, I would look at 25 faces who were like, “wow, this seems really complicated!”. All of those 25 minds were thinking, “I need to hire this person who’s telling me how to do it because they’re the expert”. I could guarantee every month, one of the attendees would say to the accountant, “I’d love to hire you, how much will it cost for you to deliver my accounting?” We would have a different accountant every month and 99% at the time, the accountant would reply, well ”the cost depends on what you need”. And immediately, I would look back at those 25 faces. They’re thinking, “this is going to be like 10 grand for an hour’s time”, because they don’t, they’re not given any indication. They think it’s going to be really high.

This is why we bought pricing of services onto Enterprise Nation. The more that you give clarity to a small business owner of how much it’s going to cost, the more likely they are to activate it. Because they’re just going to go, “okay, I get it — this is the value you’ll deliver, this is the price I’m going to pay, okay, I’m in!” If more accountants could do that, I think it would increase those conversion rates.

Andrew: Okay, that’s a great tip! I’ve looked at pricing a lot and there’s all sorts of methodologies. Be it value based, or fixed price — but if you don’t say any number, expectations could be anchored higher than you are. I think that’s a great tip — just, say a number!

So, what parting wisdom would you say to an accountant? A small accounting firm — they’ve an opportunity in this digital space where they can compete for clients. What should they be doing to win work?

Emma: Well, first of all I would say the market is definitely out there, because as I say, small businesses, are looking for this advice. Finance has absolutely become much more prominent on the minds of small businesses in the past 12 months. The other thing is we’ve still got record startup rates in the UK. So for accountants, they can help existing businesses do well, but there’s so many new startups coming into market too. It’s a big market, but that does mean there are more people who want to play in it.

I would just say, engage with the community… be in the places where they are, deliver talks, share your expertise. We have this amazing accountant on Enterprise Nation called Paula Tomlinson. And she’s incredible. Every time we say to her ”would you speak at an event” — “yes, I will”. “Would you write a blog post?” “Yes, I will”. She’s got thousands of pounds worth of clients through us, but it’s because she’s prepared to say, “I will be there, I will speak!”.

Just a final thing on this — we have seen the conversions work really well when advisors talk at events, because for instance, if there’s a webinar on how to raise money, you know that the audience who are tuned-in are self-selected. They’re interested in that topic and you share expertise in that webinar. We have seen that conversions come straight in because the business owners listened and got some value from you for free. If it’s a free event, the next call to action is “right, I’m going to connect. I’m going to engage”. If you’re an advisor who’s not delivering that advice, you’re kind of not in there. So I would just say the market is out there and it’s growing. Definitely get engaged and maybe share and a bit of transparency in pricing — because that will definitely help!

Andrew: That was brilliant. And one thing I’d say that is for accountants who struggle with confidence — remember the small businesses know a lot less about the domain you’re in than you do yourself or your colleagues. Actually in a previous episode with, Alexandra, we speak a lot about confidence, so go check that out.

Well, thanks so much. I found that really interesting. I’m sure people listening did too. So if people do want to find out more about you and Enterprise Nation, head on online, I guess?

Emma: Enterprisenation.com!

Andrew: Perfect. Thanks Emma.

Emma: Thanks, Andrew!

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