Business Spotlight: how to commercialise a good idea
11 August: In many ways, ICAEW member Nicola Hames is taking her own advice. During COVID-19, she has set up her own business – The Strategy Hut – and is counselling others with the same ambition.
Hames' story is littered with epiphanies. From understanding how qualifying as a chartered accountant can give structure to an otherwise creative lifestyle, to figuring out how you can use that creativity to attract and deliver well for clients in the creative sector, Hames' career is full of realisation and understanding.
Establishing her husband's business in 2015 was intrinsic to the launch of The Strategy Hut. "That process was fundamental to me beginning to formulate my offering as I enjoyed the way I helped and enabled my husband to do something he loved," she says.
"While he went to work and our son was having his lunchtime nap, I started a business plan," she says. "It outlined profit projections, target market, costs on initial investment, cash flow projections, company legal structure, terms of business, accounting processes and system, and so on. I showed him what I had done, and we went on to refine the plan together."
Thanks to his bravery for making those first steps and his trust in his wife, he achieved his goal. "He's now been trading for over five years and is successfully running his own profitable business with a loyal customer base," she says.
Hames trained as a chartered accountant with a small-to-medium-sized firm, then practised at Deloitte London and New York (focusing mainly on media clients). That training gave her the knowledge, experience and nous she needs to build businesses from very small beginnings. It has also helped that she has had finance director roles with a start-up creative agency and now with Omnicom Media Group.
But there was still an owner-manager itch to scratch, and The Strategy Hut does that, thanks partly to having a very supportive corporate employer in Omnicom.
Hames' role as founder of The Strategy Hut is to set up her own operation and then run the finance function for small start-ups as well as having close involvement in the operational side of these businesses. Her offer is highly structured, packaged neatly around transparent, affordable pricing, but her ultimate aim is to be commercially successful in her own right.
Hames is adamant that there is a benevolent side to the business: it gives back. "My expertise is financial, operational and business-related. I want to give to either those who have no business experience or those who do have business experience but who want to focus on their core product or service while being fully informed on the business and financial side." Essentially, we are talking about Hames being a virtual finance director.
Her experience has enabled her to split out start-up activity into three: 'think it', 'target it', 'launch it'. Then a further two stages, which she has termed 'run it' and 'scale it'.
'Think it' is the first step and will bring a business idea to life through sessions held over video calls. This step fleshes out the practical aspects of the start-up. The 'target it' session brings clarity, help draft a business plan and complete financial projections. 'Launch it' focuses more on the operational side of the new business and will help to determine the critical elements to have in place, including legal requirements.
The final two steps are post-launch: 'run it' and 'scale it'. The former will provide support with bookkeeping, tax and year-end reporting requirements; the latter is really about handling success. It is at the 'run it' stage that the virtual finance director skills come into play. "Ultimately, it is all about helping people achieve their potential and giving them the support they need along the way," says Hames.
She is clear about the value of building a network throughout your career so that, when you start a business, you are supported. "I asked for a lot of people's advice, listened to people, changed some things and applied for my practising certificate as I wanted to operate under the umbrella of ICAEW," she says, speaking as an entrepreneur.
"The timing felt right. Things were changing. People were opening their minds to exploration," she adds. "During lockdown, it seemed like people started to think about what else they could be doing. They were becoming unblocked."
Of course, Enterprise Nation and the Prince's Trust are already working well with businesses and doing great things with them. "I aim to work with and around those services," she says.
"I also want to go the extra mile and talk about these business owners' aspirations; not just do checklists," she adds.
While The Strategy Hut is most definitely a business in its own right – it will have to stack up financially – having brought in some early clients, she is now able to start making assumptions and is doing forward-planning. In some ways, her business is a testing ground for operational decisions that she can then explore with her clients to their benefit.
In the final analysis, Hames' clients are buying her expertise and her 20 years' experience of starting other peoples' businesses. The more misgiving of us might question the timing for starting up, but this could also be a time for being fleet of foot, brave, unhindered and enlightened. Hames and her clients certainly think so.