• 22 August 2019
  • Accountancy

The Founders: Alastair Barlow of flinder

In this first edition of our brand new series, 'The Founders', we’re delighted to be joined by Alastair Barlow, founding partner of flinder. Throughout the series we’ll explore the success stories of those leading the way in their respective sectors. Alastair’s journey takes us from the Big-4 to co-founding his own business, via the French Alps!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and flinder…

I’m Alastair, founder and Chief Dreamer at flinder.

I spent 16 years at PwC across various business units, in different countries and basically learning a stack of extremely useful skills!

My title at flinder captures my role pretty well. We’re not a typical accounting firm in that we don’t have a series of partners that look after client portfolios and come together to get synergies across the business. While that may work for some firms, it’s not the way we see an optimal business structure and so my role is really to set the vision and direction for the business, in other words, to dream up where we’re going and how.

Given we set flinder up less than 3 years ago, we were in the luxurious position of starting with a completely blank canvas with no legacy challenges that others may have. While we of course provide accounting services, we actually consider ourselves an accounting, consulting, and data analytics business. To add to that, we’re trying to build a brand first, then a business, and then we see ourselves as an accounting firm.

 

Alastair Barlow

What inspired you to come up with the idea for flinder?

Having worked with some of the world’s largest and best companies, we saw a big gap in the market for SMEs. We took the same principles that multi-nationals enjoy around optimal processes, business partnering, and rich, real-time management information so wanted to make them relevant and accessible for SMEs.

Can you describe the flinder concept/approach in 2-5 words?

Helping businesses evolve

(The longer version…flinder is an international and multiple award-winning accounting, consulting, and data analytics business. We specialise in the areas of data, technology, and insight and work with businesses all over the world; from the UK to Australia and the US. We provide the expertise of a top-tier consulting firm, but at the speed and personalisation of a boutique provider by focusing on the mission-critical discipline of making rapid, well informed business decisions using financial and operational real-time management intelligence.)

What was the hardest part of the early growth stages of flinder?

By far the hardest part of the early growth stages of flinder was balancing everything and playing all roles. We were the business development team, legal team, HR team, finance team (easy one), marketing team and, of course, front office delivery team! While it was tough, I’d say that the way Luke and I designed the split of roles made it a lot easier.

Unless founders have a good amount of funding they can use to hire across all these functions, anyone who starts a business needs to fully expect they'll play all these roles on day 1. We certainly did.

Alastair Barlow and Luke

That’s very true that growing a business requires multiple hats in the early stages. How did you get where you are today though, and who or what helped you in that process? Experiences from Assurance through to My Financepartner and beyond.

I helped myself. While I had an amazing education at PwC, setting up flinder was 100% to do with me and Luke. Everything we did at PwC was through our own making and our own taking. We chose to work in different business units, take on specific roles or, in my case, move to a different country. Those opportunities are there for many people to take but it’s up to the individual to get the most out of it. I think anyone in PwC could have had the same opportunities we both had and so they could have taken the same journey. However, they didn’t.

Having built this company with Luke from the ground up, what were the key differences you found moving from the corporate world to a more entrepreneurial environment? Do you have any advice for those looking to make a similar change and adapt?

One of the key differences is structure. Clearly at a Big 4 there’s a lot of structure wrapped around you. While this can feel suffocating if you’re ready to leave for a more entrepreneurial adventure, it does have some advantages; human beings need an element of structure in their lives and so it can be good. This is where motivation and strategy come into play. Both of which are key as an entrepreneur!

We had a relatively easy journey in respect to this. While many people may have seen us work at a Big 4 in a corporate world, we were working in My Financepartner which, you could say, was more of a hybrid between the two, and I was leading London & South East, so much of my work was around setting the strategy and winning clients. I think as you move from a corporate structure to the freedom as an entrepreneur, you really need to stay focused and keep an element of structure and will-power. That could be as simple as getting up at the same time each day and using a coffee-shop or a coworking space as an office rather than getting up late and walking around in your PJs at your home office! The latter is less likely to get you the success you’re looking for!

That’s good advice for anyone looking to go down the entrepreneurial path; structure is an important aspect of creating success. When finding people with the right skills to support this kind of success in the accountancy world, are there any key recruitment challenges you’ve noticed? Have these changed from when you were a trainee?

Mostly these are the same, however, I think the most noticeable difference is the wider range of skill-sets looked for.

Previously, it was technical accounting skills, now we’re looking to expand technical skills from accounting into technology and even strategy too. We’re also looking for a softer skill-set; empathy, influencing skills, and even impact delivering commercial insight are important to us. Altogether, we’re looking for much more rounded business professionals. The skills may have evolved but it’s the same challenge – recruiting, training, and retaining talent.

We’ve gone about it slightly differently and really open up what flinder is like to work at through the eyes of our team on our Instagram channel and YouTube culture playlist. I think that authenticity appeals to a lot of potential candidates, which is good for us!

The way a business recruits, trains, and retains talent can be reflected on the leader of the business. So, how would you define a great leader and what are some traits you think great leaders possess? Are there necessary characteristics leaders should have to become founders?

I think leadership is highly misunderstood. I think too many ‘leaders’ think it’s about direction and telling people what to do. It’s not. For me, one of the most important traits of a great leader is being able to ask the right questions, listen, understand, and continually challenge and grow people. It’s also about authenticity and inspiration.

I was actually interviewed on this quite recently by Alex Bond-Burnett (check out her full podcast interview here).

Leadership evolves over time and is more about listening and inspiring people along their journey. Leadership is very dynamic in that it’s forever changing depending on situations and people.

Overall, leadership is about pushing the boundaries and continually asking why.

I think vision and utter self-belief are probably the two most important characteristics of a founder. I think founders can have different skills or values, and they certainly need to find people who share that vision to help with them with the load. Passion would be the other one; it takes a lot more than a 9 – 5 mentality to get a business off the ground and even more so to be successful. Passion can override the feeling of working too many hours because this moves it beyond a job. No amount of blood, sweat, and tears can stop passion!

Do you think the drive for entrepreneurship is something people are either born with or not, or is it something that can be taught?

I’m not sure either are true per se. I think entrepreneurship develops over time through nurture, which I see as different to being taught something. That nurture depends on the people they hang out with, the company they work at, the books they read, their beliefs, and other factors.

Just like with a relationship, you can’t be told or taught how to fall in love, it just happens with the right person over time. I think the same applies with entrepreneurship; whether it’s for you or not depends on that nurture.

When the entrepreneurial spark ignites and you’re coming up with or analysing a new business idea, what generally are your work processes to evaluate its potential and to get a new idea off the ground?

flinder was an easy one – we lived and breathed the environment for years. We were talking to, what would become, our target market every day and we were listening to their frustrations and challenges. Taking a step back, there was a huge addressable market to go after and a reason to do it differently than others which would make us stand out and give us our USP.

We were in the luxurious position of starting with a blank sheet. While this may faze many, it was an absolute blessing and another advantage over existing incumbents. In the fast-paced, cloud-technology environment, we had no legacy hangovers to deal with and nothing holding back new thinking. Given our backgrounds and especially mine in Consulting, we developed the vision for flinder, set up the operating model the way we saw it, and then developed the strategy to hang off our design principles. That part was relatively easy, it’s the execution of the strategy that’s a little harder :)

What’s the most critical initiative you’re working on now and how do plan on achieving it?

I’m not sure there's one single critical initiative but, if I was to highlight a few of them, they’d be around people, automation, and general process optimisation.

We’re a people business – we sell to people and we develop our own people so continually placing a huge emphasis on this is vital. We’re about to kick-off a people roadmap and looking to appoint senior HR support very soon. In automation, we’re looking to expand our use of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) which is heavily under-used in accounting firms; we want to be at the forefront of this. Process optimisation is a continual performance improvement project where we’re seeking large and marginal gains across front office and back office processes.

To become a successful entrepreneur, you have to embrace the likelihood of failure. Clearly flinder is going from strength to strength but can you please also mention a few examples where you heavily screwed up in your journey? What did you learn from those failures?

Hmm…we’ve screwed up in flinder too! No one gets it right first time.

First off, I would say to be successful, you need to be all in. You can’t be half pregnant and you can’t be half focused on a startup; you either are or you aren’t.

Don’t go it alone – you need someone to bounce ideas off and get the best ideas to market. You also need someone there when you have shit days, and vice-versa.

And lastly, I come back to people; it’s easy to get it wrong in an interview but if you do, then get rid of them quickly as they can impact your business more than you realise! (read our blog about the costs of making a poor hire, Alastair is right that you should act quickly on this!)

How do you build and develop talent and elevate them to be at their very best?

For us it starts with the environment; we want to develop a safe and inclusive environment where the team enjoy coming to work.

In fact, one of our values is the ‘Human-touch’, where we’re ‘passionate about self-development & communication. We promote a thoughtful & social environment bursting with energy’. This is really important to us and, specifically, because it’s important to the team. I think understanding what motivates people is an important start and how they respond to communications and interactions too. Of course, understanding people’s aspirations and objectives is fundamental as well. We find it’s very much an art rather than a science!

How do you support company culture and how do you make sure employees stay happy and motivated?

I think the most important thing about company culture is that it’s authentic; if it’s not authentic, it’s much harder to keep up. We recruit to our values and so supporting the company culture is relatively easy. It’s also easier when you have a smaller team, but, as a team grows, company culture can be diluted if you’re not maintaining those same standards.

When we launched flinder, we were really true to ourselves and injected both mine and Luke’s personalities into the business. That’s apparent in our values and our legendary ski trips (you can see #flinderTakesThePiste here and here.

 

flinder ski trip

We try to get a feel for how the team are feeling by issuing bi-annual surveys and weekly self-reflections. Both are important to us and make sure the team are happy in all areas, feel valued, feel they have support in their development and, if there are things that need to be raised, it’s captured timely, discussed, and remedied.

We try to get a feel for how the team are feeling by issuing bi-annual surveys and weekly self-reflections. Both are important to us and make sure the team are happy in all areas, feel valued, feel they have support in their development and, if there are things that need to be raised, it’s captured timely, discussed, and remedied.

What are some of the key pieces of advice you find yourself repeatedly giving your clients?

I personally deal with very few clients as they’re looked after very capably by our Business Advisors. However, as we work with fast-growth businesses, the general themes tend to be around cash forecasting, funding, and support on their strategy.

What’s your main driver that motivates you to keep taking on new business ventures and to grow the companies you’re already involved in? And, have your motives changed over the years?

I’ve been involved in a couple of other companies which were more like hobbies than businesses; both of which sold for nominal amounts. And both of which I was working on in my ‘spare’ time while focused on accounting. My main lesson from this would be that you need to be 1,000% focused on one business during its early stages to really be invested and develop it.

If I had to summarise my motivations, it’d be around the joy of creating something from nothing. I’ve always loved creating and designing, even from a very young age.

With those entrepreneurial traits in mind, there must be some resources you’ve accumulated over the years to support and motivate your endeavours. Could you recommend our readers one or two books that have helped you during these times?

I think the most important thing to realise as an entrepreneur is that you’re continually on a development journey and the better entrepreneurs ask questions and soak up as much information as they can. Books and groups are a big part of this.

I’m a huge fan of reading business books, listening to business podcasts, or listening to books on Audible. I hate wasting time, so I tend to listen to them while in the gym or on the move around London.

A couple of my recent favourites are Rebel Talent, Rocket Fuel and The E-Myth Revisited. I also think there are some good lessons to take from the 4 Hour Work Week, especially around efficiency hacks, although a lot of it is geared towards a certain type of business.

I think one of the important lessons of going into business or even already being in business is sharing it with someone else; it’s hard doing everything yourself. Rocket Fuel covers the concept that every successful organisation should have a ‘Visionary’ and an ‘Integrator’.

Visionaries are the ones with ground-breaking ideas whereas Integrators make those ideas a reality. Without an Integrator, a Visionary is far less likely to succeed long-term and realise the company’s ultimate goals. With no Visionary, an Integrator can’t rise to his or her full potential. When these two people come together to share their natural talents and innate skill sets, it’s like rocket fuel – they have the power to reach new heights for virtually any company or organisation.

The book is full of examples of great companies where this pairing has worked to perfection. There’s also a brief series of questions to test how much of a Visionary or Integrator you are. Well worth a read if you’re looking to grow your business!

Thank you Alastair for sharing your experiences with us in this first of what promises to be an exciting series. Some amazing insights into the foundations and vision for flinder, who’re clearly pioneering the accounting industry into an exciting new era.

 

Alex Baxter Smith is a Senior Consultant in the Accountancy Division at Harvey John.

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