The tech startup accountant: Robert Collings, UHY Hacker Young

With the new decade upon us, we’re continuing with the latest startup finance interview. This time around, I’ve been joined by Robert Collings who heads up UHY Hacker Young’s Tech & High Growth sector. Robert has had a fascinating journey so far. He is at the forefront of the growing community of startup expert accountants. Over to Robert…

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and your current role.

Sure! Imagine getting to see new technology before it even hits the market. You get to see founders take their ideas and build multi-million-pound businesses from them. It’s pretty exciting, right? I think so, at least, and it’s this fascination that has led to what I do today.

Officially, I head up the tech and high-growth sector at UHY Hacker Young. This means I’m responsible for our fast-growing tech clients and the tailored service plan that we offer them. It’s the delivery of that service, but also developing and executing a growth strategy for the sector itself.

I joined UHY Hacker Young as a trainee accountant and went through the normal accounts and audit route, holding the AAT and ACA (ICAEW) Chartered Accountant qualification. During my final year of training, I decided that I wanted to focus on one particular sector which aligned perfectly with my interests – tech and high-growth startups.

I’ve spent the last few years absorbing as much knowledge as I can about the sector (which will never stop!) and creating a service offering that our clients really value. It’s an exciting time to be working in this sector.

How do you differentiate your offering compared to other firms, small and large, that offer a similar service?

Put simply, we try hard to understand tech companies in a way that most don’t.

Lots of people can do things like bookkeeping, share option schemes, and tax advice. That’s a given. We offer those too, but we make ourselves different by aiming to understand the sector better than anyone else.

It’s about knowing the market and suggesting ideas that we’ve seen work elsewhere. Also, connecting founders to other experts. It’s about making sure the things we do aren’t just good for today, but good for tomorrow, for next year, for 3 years, irrespective of how quickly the company has scaled.

UHY Hacker Young is unique in the way we have the flexibility to work with small, early-stage start-ups and support them through their journey. We’ve got experts across the firm so that no problem is too big, and when it’s time to go overseas, we can utilise our international network of UHY offices. Combine that with our sector expertise and it’s a winning formula.

At what point do you typically see startups establishing their finance function? How does your role change at this point? 

I love this question because people assume we’d never tell a client when it’s time to move things in-house. After all, we’d lose outsourcing fees. In reality, that’s not how things work. We’re in this to support our clients from the very early days through to where they are now.

That means we actively suggest ideas that will help them unlock the next stage of growth.

When we’re looking after the finance function on an outsourced basis, we’re all about ensuring the best tech is utilised so the quality of bookkeeping and insights available are top-notch. We aim to take the load off the client to enable them to focus on things that they do well.

Once the time comes to move the finance function over, we’ll make the transition as easy as possible. It’s not simply a case of handing over passwords – it’s about making a gradual transition and providing support throughout the process.

I posted a few tips on how to build a finance team internally :).

Can you tell us what your typical day looks like?

Like most people, I don’t have a typical day! There are some common themes – for example, I’m usually in contact with both potential new clients and existing clients daily. I love explaining to potential clients how we can help them in their journey rather than helping our existing clients to fulfil their plans.

I’m always looking at ways to improve how we do things too. My interest in tech means I’m naturally inquisitive when it comes to new products, especially when they can help us provide even more value to our clients.

When I’m not sitting at a laptop in Cambridge or London, I’m either out and about meeting clients, attending networking events, or writing content to send out to our clients.

I’m also pretty active on social media, so feel free to give me a follow!

What in your opinion is the key draw of working with startups from a finance and accounting perspective? Why should others in the field consider this area?

My passion for working with tech companies comes from the fact that they are changing the world. It doesn’t need to be an Apple or Uber, it just needs to make a marginal improvement on life as we know it. It gives purpose which is much more widespread than what you’d typically get as an accountant.

From a strategic point of view, it’s exciting to help founders and CFOs build a business around their vision – where will the revenue come from? How do we fuel growth? How do we ensure we’re working to be a sustainable company? They’re quite high-level questions, but it’s about drilling down into how we can execute on this.

Drilling down into this gets you to the technical, more traditional work like share option schemes, convertible loan notes, and EIS advice. Right at the bottom of the chain is compliance work like bookkeeping, tax, and annual accounts. They’re at the base but are arguably the most important as they allow us to build such an amazing service offering on top.

For others thinking about getting into this area, I’d offer the advice of following what interests you – if high-growth tech startups excite you, then jump straight in. However, if complex listed companies fascinate you, then you’d want to lean towards that. There’s no right or wrong answer other than following your passion. Having a natural interest in the sector you’re working in will always give you an edge!

What challenges are you looking forward to in 2020, and why?

I think 2020 will be an interesting year in the world of tech. In 2019, we had the normal storm of tech IPOs (particularly in America) but a certain coworking space provider really shook things up towards the end of the year. WeWork attempted an IPO but it entered with a staggering valuation which caused uproar in the media. To cut a long story short, the IPO got shelved and the company had to be bailed out by SoftBank, its main investor.

WeWork, along with Uber, highlighted that a path to profitability is so fundamentally important. We’ve always known this, but with access to VC funding being so freely available, companies started to grow aggressively before being able to prove their unit economics.

On that basis, I think 2020 will see companies focus more on revenue streams, unit economics, and profit plans so they eventually become sustainable companies. With companies looking to IPO in 2020 (AirBnB for example) I expect will be covering these three topics comprehensively in their IPO prospectuses. Smaller startups will be pushed more for these details by their investors.

Could you recommend to our readers one or two books or podcasts that helped you during your endeavours?

Committing to reading regularly has never been a strong point of mine (hence my career in numbers!). So I’m ashamed to say I only read 3 books in 2019… My 2020 resolution is to read at least 10 books this year, though.

One that I did read in full was ‘Never Split the Difference’ by ex-FBI negotiator, Chris Voss. It’s all about specific techniques you can use in day-to-day life to help persuade people and find out what people want (which means you can help them!). Next up is ‘Zero to One’ by Peter Thiel.

My attention span is too short to be able to listen to podcasts (I lose focus too easily). Music is always my go-to – averaging around 44,000 minutes per year according to Spotify!

Thank you, Robert, it’s been a pleasure listening to your insights and there’s certainly plenty to keep an eye on in 2020! All the best for this year to you and your team as you continue to grow. 

Callum McKenna is an Associate Director in the Accountancy Division at Harvey John.

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