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Tips for creating an efficient practice with Starfish Accounting

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Monty Blackwood

Apr 7, 2022

Formed in 2011 by Georgi Rollings, Starfish Accounting pride themselves on being approachable, friendly —- and definitely not stuffy. Based in Berkshire, the team comprises nine women and, while they have a diverse mix of clients, the firm has a particular focus on helping female-run businesses. “I think we have a really good understanding of some of the challenges that a lot of our clients go through,” says Georgi. “We have a lot of conversations with people about how they can get additional support to help with their work life balance, or how to deal with maternity pay. Clients feel comfortable to ask us certain things that maybe they wouldn’t if we were a bit more fusty, old fashioned and male dominated.”

Giving the right support is a whole lot easier thanks to Xero — which they adopted in 2012. “I had a play with a bit of online accounting software that one of my clients used, which was a horrible bit of software, but I really liked the cloud-based aspect of it. Then somebody recommended Xero, and so we signed up and have never looked back. That was one of the best business decisions we made.”

Click here to watch Starfish’s story, or read her tips to create an efficient practice. 

Tip #1: Embrace technology to make VAT returns a breeze

With the next stage of Making Tax Digital (MTD) for VAT imminent, many accountants are looking to digitalise their VAT process, but Starfish made the switch long before it became a requirement. “I always hated dealing with VAT returns because they’re just big, unwieldy, clunky things,” says Georgi. “So we switched to dealing with VAT digitally very early on.”

One of the biggest pain points of having clients on spreadsheets as well as on Xero was getting hold of cohesive, reliable data to complete the return. “The biggest aggro was trying to make sure the data was accurate and complete. You then find a suspicious line item and you have to shuffle through an enormous sheaf of papers to try to find any backup.”

The team at Starfish now do all of their clients’ VAT returns through Xero. “When MTD for VAT originally came in for businesses who were above the VAT registration threshold, it was a useful lever for us to encourage clients to move to Xero who were previously reluctant to do so,” says Georgi. “And we made the decision at that point not to treat people who were below the VAT registration threshold any differently, so we registered all of our VAT registered clients for MTD for VAT.”

Submitting VAT returns online through Xero not only ensures clients are MTD-compliant, it also makes the process quick, easy and seamless by streamlining the entire practice workflow. “On the data integrity and the data input side of things, there’s an enormous array of tools within Xero that make life easier — like cash coding, and find and recode,” says Georgi. “And then there’s the functionality that sits within the VAT return in Xero. We use the HQ VAT section to keep an eye out for which returns need to be filed. You can run the VAT return as a report for different periods as well.”

Tip #2: Grow your advisory services by automating administration tasks

With Xero taking care of a lot of the mundane tasks, Starfish can concentrate on the business advisory side of their service. “Automating the admin tasks is definitely a big time saver, but I think more importantly, it helps us to do a better job because we’re not just sitting there asking ‘have we got an attachment for this?’” says Georgi. “There’s all sorts of different things that we can spend a bit more time on now that we’re not frantically just clobbering together the data.”

Even clients who were initially sceptical are impressed by the benefits. “When we’ve moved people across to Xero who’ve previously used spreadsheets and spent many many hours putting together the information, they can’t believe how much easier it is,” she says. “At the end of the day, the clients want to make sure that their compliance requirements are taken care of, but they don’t get excited about a VAT return or a tax return or a set of accounts. What they want is to have a relationship with an accountant who is there as a business advisor, so they can ask questions and understand what the impact might be of paying back a loan early or setting up a new location or whatever it might be. They want the compliance stuff to happen in the background, taking as little time as possible.”

Xero has helped take the pain out of the busy January and VAT season. “I used to get to the end of January thinking I should be able to ease off, but I’d still have all these VAT returns due that were going to take me ages and it felt really stressful,” shares Georgi. Now, Xero helps her get ahead of the game and spread the workload throughout the team. 

“Seven of us work on VAT returns. It is much easier from a collaborative perspective. One of my team can prepare a VAT return and I can go in and run a report. I can drill down into something and ping them over a question. We’re able to have those multiple touch points without it being difficult.”

Driving efficiency to create a healthier work-life balance

By saving time, spreading the load and streamlining workflows, the whole team has a better work-life balance. “We’re very careful to manage people’s workload so they’re able to take some time out. We operate a flexible and hybrid working style,” Georgi adds.

For accountants still using spreadsheets for VAT, Georgi has one simple piece of advice: “Make the switch to Xero! If you’re still using spreadsheets and bridging software, you’re spending more time on a given task than you really need to and producing something that’s not the same value of output” she says. “It’s such a no-brainer.” 

For more resources to support your clients with the next phase of MTD, check out our Resources Hub as well as our new partner guide which outlines many efficiencies that your practice can access through Xero.

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