While the majority of us look at working for a big four accountancy firm, or investment bank, as a career with little room for independent thinking but a clearly-mapped path to progression, Sharma is hoping that stories like his will convince those entering the workforce that this is anything but the case – the lack of independent thinking that is.
Sharma has been with KPMG for over 12 years, but is now being tasked with heading up an offering that is targeting the SME community in the UK, and attempting to disrupt what is traditionally thought of as professional services for smaller companies.
He cut his teeth in the business world by taking on the family business, one selling directly to retailers, and quadrupling income. By putting in a new sales process he was able to secure a sale to a “pretty large FTSE”.
Having joined KPMG, he quickly realised the traditional day-to-day there “wasn’t his bag”, as he was constantly drawn to technology and the way it could be used to speed up and automate business processes.
Going to a senior partner he had worked with holding an armful of large clients and saying he could make KPMG money with technology, he was given a bit of a free remit to experiment and innovate. After stints in the US and UK, he originally settled in his home country again to set up a small team.
For the last two years he has been focused on small business accounting, a new challenge as he describes it. “The interesting thing for me is I’m a kind of ‘intrapreneur’, setting up businesses in a large corporate environment,” he told Real Business.
KPMG wanted him to bring innovation, letting Sharma play and build something. “What attracts me is building my own products and market – and they gave that to me. It was potentially a little less secure, but for me was more exciting.
When people think of a big four accountancy firm, or any other large financial institution, Sharma believes there is a slight misunderstanding. “Getting under the skin” of these companies quickly reveals hundreds of innovative businesses, he claimed. As a partner, like he is, there is a sense of ownership – with the really successful partners the ones who are innovating and building new markets.
“Unless you are working with the big four, you don’t realise that,” he added. “Even when I came up with the idea of small business accounting, wanting to offer this new innovative service, nobody flinched. They thought it was a brilliant idea and there was acceptance from day one.”
I put it to Sharma that, with career paths out of university moving away from the traditional route through a professional services firm like KPMG or an investment bank to a more entrepreneurial culture where young people are keen to start their own company, shouldn’t this hidden innovation be put on display more?
“There is a little bit around messaging that we need to do,” he explained. “You are right, we are not making enough noise about it, and we should. We have offerings for any kind of person. A place for an accounting bod, but if you are an entrepreneurial person there is a place too.
“Just look at most of the partners here today – it is virtually impossible to become partner from being just a technical person. You need to be commercial and entrepreneurial.”
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We turn to Sharma’s experience of running a small and growing business, and how this is shaping the kind of products being built at KPMG. Looking back, he remembered feeling isolated and finding it hard to get advice.
“Especially on the exit stage. Tapping into an accountant, working out value, were we getting the right deal. The FTSE looking to buy us had a giant team of due diligence bots – and there were only two of us!”
Sharma spent evenings and weekends, putting in shifts over Christmas, doing the books. Thinking back now, there is a nagging doubt that with greater resources he might have been able to hold out longer and push for a higher price. But it was the isolation being felt that drove this lack of flexibility.
In his field research while developing the small business accounting offering, Sharma time and time again came across the issues he’d encountered with the family firm. Is too much being spent on staff? Is marketing getting enough spend? Who do you go to for support? With traditional accountants just being functional – filing tax returns and doing the books – Sharma saw “real revolution” around cloud accounting, and set out to use it as a way for KPMG to provide “really high quality offering” at scale.
Formerly launched in October 2014, KPMG Enterprise serves as a sort of “virtual FD” – often for businesses which would never invest in an actual FD. “It helps with: am I about to get in trouble with cash flow; if I do need finance, can you help pull together info for banks or investor,” Sharma explained.
The service offers access to one-to-one advice from KPMG experts, with fees starting from £150 per month.
A measure of success to see if what Sharma and KPMG are doing has been a success will be to look at the number of new businesses that fail. With 50 per cent still not making it beyond the three year mark, mainly due to things like running out of cash rather than a bad idea, cutting down on that figure will be key.
“We keep harping on to delivery guys that they are the stewards of these businesses, and need to make sure they are alive and well – getting through those early years,” he noted.
“We’ve got a big chunk of our clients which are lifestyle businesses, not looking to buy giant yachts but to be stable and bring in enough for a good living. There are also the young entrepreneurs who are thriving to be the next Zuckerbergs, and just need a bit of support.”
Having been there, done that and had the financial worry t-shirt, Sharma wants to use the service he’s developing at KPMG to provide a bit more confidence. And if, along the way, he manages to convince a few more people that they can be an “intrapreneur” at a big four accountancy firm, well, that will be an added bonus.