Bivek Sharma is the man behind KPMG’s £40m subscription-based cloud accountancy service, and is responsible for taking his Big Four firm further into the small business space than ever before. He is head of KPMG Small Business Accounting and became the firm’s youngest ever partner in 2003, aged 29. In this exclusive interview, Bivek tells the BDLN what drives him, what gave him his passion for small business, and identifies his – and KPMG’s – long-term small business goals.
How did the idea for the cloud accounting service come about?
A few years ago KPMG took on a number of Shoreditch-based tech start-ups as clients. They were using cloud accounting products. I realised that technology would allow KPMG to interact with a mass market in a sensible, meaningful way – in a way we haven’t done before. There was a market of six million micro-businesses out there yet we didn’t play in that space – none of the Big Four did. A cloud service provided the way to do it.
If you look at the market since 2010, the small business space is buzzing. Huge numbers of start-ups launch each year. We don’t even know most of the businesses that will make up the S&P 350 in the next five years. Some tech start-ups today are going from nothing to multi-billion-dollar companies in two years. That’s never happened before.
Why are you passionate about small businesses and how did you get the insights needed to create a coherent offering for them?
While growing up in Scotland in the 1980s my father would buy struggling retailers and turn them around. That upbringing influenced me and gave me an entrepreneurial mindset. In my early 20s after qualifying I went back home to run the family wholesale food business. I put together a sales force and a marketing strategy and trebled turnover. I also negotiated the sale of the business.
While planning the cloud service I drew on my family business experience. I remembered having to complete VAT returns, invoices and payments at weekends and recalled the lack of support we received, especially when selling the business.
I’m passionate about small business and my mantra is that I want to keep them safe. I want to be sure they are compliant and on top of cash flow so they don’t fall over early in their lifecycle. I want to make them stronger, whether they are lifestyle businesses that simply need to remain buoyant, or high-growth enterprises that require funding and connections.
How is KPMG’s new cloud accounting service doing?
Our win rates are higher than predicted. We set ourselves some tough goals but we’re beating them. And our conversion rates are exceptional: when people talk to us it’s almost guaranteed that they will subscribe to the service.
But what pleases me most is the feedback. People are telling us that they love the service and the phrase we hear most often is “this is too good to be true.” That means we’ve got it right.
Yes we’ve had some bumps along the way but we work through them. We’re obsessive about quality.
What’s next for KPMG Small Business Accounting?
What we’ve created so far is a great accounting offer. In five years I’d like to be seen as fully rounded advisors to small businesses. Today when you need to find something out, you go straight to Google without thinking. In time, when a small business needs to find something out – about grants, advice, funding or finance – I want them to come straight to KPMG without thinking.
Accounting is just the start – you’ve got to do it well, but it’s the start. Next stop is financing, then practical small business solutions such as point-of-sale systems. People talk about the idea of a business-in-a-box and I want to be the first person to crack that. My ambition is to offer high quality end-to-end solutions for small businesses and do it quickly.
KPMG is not trying to monopolise every service here but rather work with partners who share the same vision – to create a small business backbone that lets the right people click in. Ultimately I want to be known as the person at KPMG that made doing business in the UK easier.
You’ve clearly taken an entrepreneurial approach at KPMG. How important is it for big firms to encourage that culture?
When I joined the accountancy profession I found it tough: I had visions of coming in to do amazing things straight away, but at big firms you tend to focus on one niche area. I was in tax-focused roles during my early career and I’d sit there, knowing it wasn’t my bag. During dull afternoons I’d go to Waterstones, buy books on programming and learn how to build apps. Eventually I had a raft of clients using my technology.
I was wet behind the ears – I wasn’t even assistant manager at this point. I created a business plan, toddled off to my partner’s office and said: “I reckon I can do good things if you let me set up a technology service line.”
From that point on I’ve been encouraged to build businesses within KPMG. I’ve created four KPMG-branded tech businesses and have been able to do exactly what I wanted within a Big Four environment. Some people say accountants are at one end of the spectrum and entrepreneurs are at the other. I disagree.
At KPMG, entrepreneurialism is rewarded and that is critical to the firm’s success.
Bivek Sharma was talking to BDLN founder John Maffioli.