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Stronger together: How this digital practice is supporting both clients and competitors

Colin Timmis

Jun 9, 2020

Xero partner and Cape Town-based accountancy firm, SMTAX, has, like the rest of the country and the world, faced an uphill battle in responding to coronavirus-related challenges. Despite these turbulent times, they have managed to provide unwavering support to their clients and others in need. 

South Africa’s Minister of Finance recently granted accounting professionals ‘essential service’ status during the lockdown. This is because they have a critical role to play in the survival of small businesses. Buchule Sibaca, CEO of SMTAX, took a moment to talk with us about adapting and supporting SMEs during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Tell us a bit about your practice

We started SMTAX in 2015 to provide tax and accounting services in the Western Cape. Now we work with over 4,500 individuals and small businesses, and we also have a few larger clients. Our team of 18 employees are all committed to doing their part to expand financial inclusion in South Africa, and we use technology to amplify the impact we can make. 

We’re all human at the end of the day, and we have to help each other. That’s why we work with small businesses to ensure they have the knowledge and resources to set up and succeed while doing something they love. We build strong and lasting relationships with the entrepreneurs and individuals we work with. We’re happy to be able to help. =

How has your practice adapted to these uncertain times?

Fortunately, we have been able to make the transition to work from home. However, people’s circumstances at home vary, so we made some changes, such as allowing flexible working hours. Team members with children and other dependents can manage their time around these factors to avoid conflict between home and work.

Unfortunately, we have seen a decrease in the number of invoices we’re sending. This is because people are reluctant to spend at the moment, and many are considering accounting as a non-essential expense. However, clients are increasingly reaching out to us for insights and predictions based on their numbers and treating us as business advisors. Many SMEs are currently in need of funding, and we’re focused on how we can support them to get access to it. We’re trying to do this for them at no added cost. 

What is the current climate like for SMEs?

Behind each struggling business are people, owners and employees, who are worried about paying the bills and how this crisis will affect their families. Regrettably, we’ve noticed that a large portion of these SMEs are not registered for UIF or have other compliance issues. Many haven’t submitted their tax returns, and lots of them think they’re compliant when they aren’t. This means that they can’t get the support they need from the government. 

The government’s efforts are welcome, but people are confused about applying for funding. It’s unclear who to contact to get answers for their questions. We need a unified ecosystem with multiple support levels. Hopefully, the new database will be a foundation for this, but SMEs don’t have months to wait, they need help today. 

What are you doing to support SMEs?

We’re working hard to give the best possible advice and support to keep businesses afloat. We’re working closely with the Department of Small Business and NYDA, as well as FNB, Absa, Old Mutual, and Invosi, among many others, to help our clients get the funding they need to continue. We have also launched regular webinars to offer advice on common issues that businesses are facing.

I’m also proud to see that most accountants we’ve spoken to, despite being competitors, are working to support one another. We all understand that it’s the bigger ecosystem that is at risk, and that we all must play our part in keeping it healthy. We’re also looking for ways to support the accounting community beyond our clients. There are still some accountants who aren’t using online platforms yet, so we’ve reached out to them to offer support in modernising their business.

Have you got any advice for SMEs who might be struggling at the moment?

Firstly, it’s important to determine the not-so-obvious reasons why SMEs are struggling right now. Maybe people have shifted their mindset around your product, or people can’t access it. Once you have found the cause, write it down as a problem statement first, then figure out potential solutions. 

The answer may result in a pivot, such as providing a different type of service, whether offline or online. While we don’t know the position we’re going to be in over the next couple of months, it’s clear that a lasting shift is happening – especially around things like digitisation. So we must think about how people’s behaviours are changing and how to adapt. 

Current challenges have also shown that SMEs need to start thinking about compliance. This is a wakeup call for many businesses who have not met the basic requirements to access funding. I advise businesses to work with their accountant to ensure that they are aware of exactly what is required of them in future.

That’s it from Buchule. We are inspired by his commitment – and that of all our accounting partners – who are stepping up to help clients, fellow accountants, and other small businesses.

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