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Fan Business Solutions podcast

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Neil De Villiers talks about his life as a small business consultant

Clear Books spoke to Neil De Villiers, founder of Fan Business Solutions - In this podcast, Neil talks about his experiences of running his own Microsoft Dynamics GP consultancy and how his past businesses have helped him to understand the essentials in running a successful business. We also learn how Neil balances running his own company with his family life, as well as how his personable approach enables him to compete against larger consultancies.

Why did you start Fan Business Solutions and what does it do?

In a nutshell, I’m a consultant. I look after, as best as I can, all of my customers and they are mid-range companies that have anywhere from roughly £500,000 turnover upto and in excess of £180,000,000. Microsoft Dynamics GP is a very flexible accounting system for companies that have fairly complicated accounting needs where they have to track inventory, manufacturing and all the other special little bits and pieces that some of the companies need.

I started as a consultant back in about 1999 and working for a lot of the big consultancies in the country, sometimes as a freelance consultant and sometimes directly for them. I’ve seen the world from both sides, and it was last year when I decided that the big consultancies were just not doing a good enough job. They were pretty aloof and saw themselves as being a little bit above everyone else. Rather than working with the end user company to try and make their accounting systems run smoothly and efficiently, they were more, in my sense, obstructive and reactive in many ways, rather than being proactive.

So I started Fan Business solutions as a way to mend that gap, and to actually help customers, their accounting teams and the rest of their business since business is more than an accounting team obviously, and to help the different departments work seamlessly together. Rather than having an accounting system that is a hinderance, all of the different processes from the sales teams through to marketing through to the actual finance teams; that whole process needs to be as seamless as possible so that the businesses can scale.

That’s where I fit in, I work and understand the customers really deeply, so that any solutions that I provide for them actually work well for their business rather than just being a way for me to make money, which many of the other consultancies focus on. I’ve jumped head first into the business and I have a loyal customer following that would rather work with me as a small little company than the biggest consultancies in the country, so I take that as a big favour in the cap.

How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors?

My focus is very much on the customer service side of things. I am yet to find another consultancy, large or small, that takes the time I do, to really try to understand and get to know the customers like I do. If you understand where all the little pain points are for each person in the accounting department, in the sales department and in the management side of things, you can actually start to create an environment that works well for them so I take the time to really get to know them.

All of my customers call me directly; I have a direct line on a mobile phone that they can contact me on whenever they need help. Whether I’m sitting in Costa somewhere, I’m at home or I’m out at another client’s site, I deal with things within a matter of minutes wherever possible, rather than ‘I’ll get back to you tomorrow’ which is a common scenario that you find with many of the other consultancies. I think it’s very important that my customers trust me with what I provide. I don’t give them solutions just for the sake of selling another solution, I actually give them something that will work for them and I think that definitely differentiates me from so many other consultancies since my focus is on helping them rather than on the money. The money is a side thing that happens anyway, but my focus is actually on giving value for everything that I do. I see myself as an extension of their business, rather than someone who gets paid to help them when they need it.

What would you say you enjoy about working in this particular industry?

I absolutely love my clients. I get along so well with them and they like me, hopefully, most of the time, they haven’t said otherwise, but I absolutely love helping them. I get a real kick out of taking something that was a painful process and that required a lot of man hours, and finding a solution that makes something that used to take three hours to process be achievable in five minutes. Those are the things that I absolutely love about it, and being in this position gives me the ability to do that in so many different ways.

The other nice thing is that every day is a different challenge, every day is something new. I love that about the industry because there’s nothing boring about what I do.

What was your biggest challenge when setting up your business?

For me, the biggest challenge was getting set up as a reselling partner with Microsoft. They are a behemoth of a company with so many different departments, so many different areas of responsibility and very few people actually have enough responsibility to get everything done for you. You get shunted around so many different places and so many different people. Every time you contact them you speak to someone else and you have to tell them the whole story again and it actually took them about seven or eight months to get me up and running as fully fledged reselling partner.

The whole cause of the delays turned out to be all on their side and they forgot to tick a few boxes and set me up as a bit of a credit limit, which should have been done at the outset. Things like that become a huge challenge but luckily my focus is on the customers, not Microsoft, so that just happened to be on the side that was a pain I was willing to deal with. A problem out of your control is just one of those things that you have to have, but there’s not too many people who have accounts or who are resellers of Microsoft products that have a lot of good stories to tell unfortunately, sorry Microsoft, it just happens to be the way.

Who is your biggest inspiration in business?

I’ve started a whole bunch of companies, I think this is probably the tenth company I’ve started. Some of them have been ok, some of them haven’t been successful at all, but they’ve all been a learning curve and one of the biggest problems I’ve had which has become obvious to me in the last few companies that I’ve started, was a total lack of marketing experience. As a result, I have huge amounts of respect for the gurus of the marketing industry, most of whom are based in the US. One in particular, Dan Kennedy is a guy that I have a huge amount of respect for, and I think there are people that pay him something like $18,000 per day just to spend time with them and show them how do effective marketing. He’s hugely respected around the world, and is definitely one of my most respected people from the marketing side of things, and like with any business, if you can’t market yourself, you don’t have a business.

Obviously there are other big names like Richard Branson and similar people, but I very much have an affinity for the people that have all done it from nothing. Duncan Bannatyne and Sir Alan Sugar are of the world where they’ve come from a nothing background to be phenomenally successful. I can relate to someone who has created their own success a lot more than I can for people who had a lot of help to get their business going like Richard Branson.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

Generally speaking, I don’t think I get a huge amount of sleep. That’s one of those unfortunate things you have to deal with, but it’s not a problem when you enjoy what you do. I think a typical day for me would begin with an early wake up and I try to do a little bit of meditation when I have the time and ability to do it. It’s a good time in the morning when the rest of my family are still sleeping, it’s nice and quiet so I meditate for a little while. Then I sit down behind the desk and start having a look at what I need to do, prioritising the things that I know are going to happen during that day. I then have breakfast with my family, I have two boys and I enjoy mealtimes with them and my wife when I can. Once they’re off to school, I sit down behind my desk and start the work, particularly the planned activities for the day, there is a huge list pretty much every day that I need to achieve.

Then I have another little section of time that is for adhoc things that come in and all of the reactive little bits and pieces for my clients, like if something’s gone wrong with a transaction, they’ve failed to process a transaction, or the integration between the CRM and Dynamics doesn’t work. Sometimes they come along and say, ‘I’m really having a bit of pain with this particular thing, is there some way we can fix it?’ and there are normally processes that they have put in place and that they’ve had in place for a few years that they’ve decided they want to change, and they ask me if there is a better way to do it, so I start evaluating those sort of things.

Most of the admin work that I need to do happens after the evening session with my kids and dinner and things like that, and once they’re settled down in the evening, I come back to work and do a lot of my own admin, all the billings and invoicing as well as anything else I didn’t finish off during the day. Sometimes I can work until the early hours of the morning. One of my priorities, and something I always promise to myself is that if I say something will be delivered to one of my customers or someone else, I always get it done on that day. That means nothing drags on to the following day, and that I always commit to my promises, so that is very important to me. Even though this sometimes means there’s not a lot of sleep, I think my priorities, my commitment and the trust that I have between my clients and I in that I’ll always deliver what I promise to deliver is very important to me.

There is also a lot of flexibility in working for yourself, you can slot it around your own lifestyle. I really do enjoy working with clients and going out to client’s sites, but with the advances in technology and communications, it’s easy to do a lot of things remotely. I have clients all over the country, for example earlier this week I was up in Edinburgh, but I also go to Carlisle, Swindon, Nottingham and Blackburn. In fact, I have no clients near where I live in Kent which would be nice to have, though it doesn’t really matter since I do most of my from here, and I only go on site when necessary, or when I’m feeling lonely enough to actually want to go out there and do it. It is very flexible and I am still able to deliver remotely, so there’s no problem either way.

What advice would you give to someone starting their own business?

One of the things I’ve learnt from having started so many businesses before, is that when entrepreneurs start up a business, they know how to do the thing that their business is based around, they know how to service their customers, they know how to change a wheel on a car and that becomes the business, but knowing how to do it and knowing how to get customers are two different things. In all of my first businesses, I knew how to do the thing very very well, I just didn’t know how to get the customers which becomes a big strain. You may have one or two customers that you start out with, but in the long run, they can’t sustain a business.

Ensuring that the business model has some sort of recurring revenue stream is another very important thing. Make sure you have customers, but also make sure the customers you have will continually be back again to use your service. Whether it’s on a recurring subscription basis, or whether they’re continually going to need a little bit of assistance somewhere along the line, whether that’s a maintenance thing or a recurring licensing model, something along those lines, just make sure that each customer you have will come back again. The one off customer model business is extremely hard work, and is not something I would suggest people should consider when they’re starting out.

How has Clear Books changed the way you do your accounts and run your business?

I’m a small business owner, and I run everything myself, so I have pretty defined processes that I need to follow. Clear Books has been very very simple for me to set up, I think I set it up within about an hour. It was up and running very quickly, it’s very straight forward, very intuitive. I have used a number of other packages, and being a consultant on an accounting package, I do know how accounting packages work, and having something very simple and easy to use is always a number one priority.

I don’t have a lot of time in the day to do admin, to raise invoices, to send out things, to chase people for money, and all of those sort of things that are normal in business, the thing I like about Clear Books is that it’s very easy to use. Emailing out invoices immediately, sending out remittance advice when there’s a payment being done or received, whatever the case may be, Clear Books seems very straight forward and easy to use. Things happen quickly, and with Clear Books I don’t have to fight my way through a system to make it work and that’s the part I really like about it, and it’s meant that the amount of time I have to spend dedicating to my accounts is minimal really, and that’s what I really like about it.

Where can people find out more about Fan Business Solutions?

All of our information is on our website which is at fansolutions.co.uk, we do a few other things other than Dynamics GP. We also do some business intelligence work and some document management, document fulfilment, document distribution and software reselling as well. If there’s anything else of interest and you want to know a bit more, you can contact us on a freephone number which is 0800 014 2450 and we’ll be happy to talk to you and get in touch as soon as we can.

To find out more about Neil de Villiers, take a look at the Fan Business Solutions website.

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