XU Magazine - Issue 13

Interview: Q&A with James Ashford, Founder & CEO of GoProposal


XU: We have the great privilege of speaking to James Ashford, the founder of GoProposal. James is someone who is very passionate and enthusiastic about helping accountancy firms thrive. James can you start by telling our readers a little bit about yourself and how this passion to help accountancy firms thrive developed?

JA: It all started when I met Paul Barnes from My Accountancy Place in a Mastermind Group we had both been invited to.

Paul was running a very successful firm; 100% on the cloud, one niche, high average fees, monthly billing, half a million in revenue, full systemised etc..

And as most accountancy firms do, he’d taken a lot of inspiration from other firms and thought leaders from within the industry. He’d been through all of the training and organisations available to accountancy firms and was very entrepreneurial in his thinking.

What sparked Paul’s initial excitement was the fact that I wasn’t from the accounting industry.

For over a decade I’d been working with hundreds of great businesses, across many industries, working with their senior teams to overcome all manner of challenges and genuinely helping them to grow…. significantly in some cases.

I helped one business which turned over £15m to improve the number of new accounts they were opening by 700% in the space of 30 days and those figures were sustained. That business went on to grow to £24m before exiting. So this wasn’t just a ‘theory’ of growing business, but a ‘hands-on, in the trenches, let’s make this happen’ approach.

So I was able to show Paul another level of thinking, of systemising, of marketing, of selling and of growing his team that had been inspired by some of the most successful businesses and thought leadership on the planet….. not just the best of one industry.

He felt that the experience I’d gathered from working with such a broad range of businesses at such a high level, allowed me to see things from a totally different perspective – from the client’s point of view, rather than from an accountant’s point of view.

What excited me about Paul was that he wasn’t thinking like an accountant. He was thinking like an entrepreneur who happened to run a business which provided accountancy services.

So I started working with My Accountancy Place and reviewed every single process as though I was a client. I was able to show them how to tighten up their systems, crank up their marketing, massively improve their sales process and evolve their team.

Over time, Paul convinced me to move away from all my other clients and to reinvest all of my energies, ideas and expertise into the accounting industry, and on the strength of the work I’d done with MAP, he gifted me 10% of his business. And I’m now proud to be a Director of MAP.

In the first 9 months of this year we grew our monthly recurring revenue by 50% despite actively reducing our number of clients. We are delivering more value than ever before and have systemised processes which deliver incredible experiences to our clients.

On a personal note, I’m married to Bekki and we have three wonderful children, Lucy, Leo and Scarlett. I used to be closeup magician, I’m a second dan black belt in Goshinkwai Combat, I have a Master’s Degree in Product Design and I’m from Yorkshire, England (where God’s from.)

XU: James, you’re also known for speaking at many different events. How did you get into public speaking and how has it helped you grow?

JA: It probably started with me becoming a magician when I was younger. Magic is a tough gig. You’re essentially presenting something that nobody believes in (the fact that magic is real), to people who don’t like magicians, didn’t invite you to their table and are probably drunk. So a tough crowd.

But I’m from a mining village in Yorkshire, so I cut my teeth on tough crowds.

I would just present the magic over and over again, from one table to the next, selling them on the fact that magic IS real, and having them believe me.

And when I say ‘selling’ I really mean ‘influencing’, and deep down we’re all salespeople with the ability to influence.

The best salespeople are kids. Leo and Scarlett are forever selling me on reading one more book or having one more biscuit.

So the ability to sell and positively influence people for the betterment of themselves, has always featured in my life and in my opinion, it’s one of THE most important skills for an accountancy firm to master.

Not just in the selling of services, but selling a client on the fact that they need to lose a member of staff to be more efficient, or to take on a larger office for expansion, or to get their accounts reconciled so we can do our bloody job!

I also taught art and maths in prisons to Category A offenders for four years. This was a tougher gig still and again, I found myself positively influencing people to do things they didn’t want to do (paint, draw and do algebra) for the betterment of themselves.

XU: As we mentioned at the beginning of the interview you are the founder of GoProposal. GoProposal is pretty new to the marketplace, so for our readers who have never heard of GoProposal can you give you a brief overview of what GoProposal does?

JA: GoProposal enables accountancy firms to price more profitably and to maximize the value they provide to their clients.

It does this by allowing you to configure your pricing in such a way that you don’t leave any money on the table. We pre-load it with all the profitable pricing methodology we use at My Accountancy Place to make sure you’re getting paid for ALL the hard work you do.

As the product has evolved, other high-achieving firms have contributed their thinking on how certain services should be priced too, and all of that has evolved the system even further.

So you can sit with your client and in front of them, easily agree the services they need now, the services they’re going to need in the future and exactly what that looks like from a cost point of view.

It then automatically produces a powerful and great looking proposal, a dynamically-generated letter of engagement, provides digital sign off and then fires the invoice into Xero to trigger the payment mechanism.

Everything is done instantly and automatically so you can sign-up a client DURING the meeting, which was the experience we wanted for our clients and our staff. We didn’t want any of this ‘send a proposal 2 days later with your fingers crossed’ approach. That’s what My Accountancy Place had and it didn’t work.

I can walk into a car garage today and buy a brand new car in under half an hour and be driving out of the showroom in it. Why not accountancy services?

It was also designed for our entire team to use as they are the ones who are on the front line with our clients, knowing what they need and making the promises to them. So it made sense to create a logical pricing and proposal tool they could all use that would leverage our most valuable asset… our team.

GoProposal went live in My Accountancy Place in August 2016 and we began the process of putting all existing clients through the new tool as their year ends approached. 9 months later, we have increased revenue by 50%, half of that has come from existing clients and half from new clients.This wouldn’t have been possible if our team weren’t in a position to be able to easily agree additional services and fees with clients.

We literally have clients signing up on the strength of our proposal and sign-up process. Seriously. Because our client base is digital creative agencies, they are just wowed by the whole process and have told us that it was an important factor in them signing up to our services.

XU: How does GoProposal integrate with Xero and how has this helps a customer base grow?

JA: We’re huge fans of Xero and use it with 100% of our clients at MAP.

So once the Letter of Engagement has been successfully signed-off, it generates the invoicing in Xero with all of the line items from the proposal (if you want it to), correctly attributed to your account codes.

The invoice references the proposal and has a button, which takes you straight back to the Proposal PDF.

Unlike other integrations on the market, we didn’t want to be firing the invoice into Xero each month. Our belief is that Xero can do a far better job of invoicing than we can.

So we fire the invoice into Xero and from there, you turn it into a repeating invoice for monthly recurring billing or just approve it for one-off costs.

And we also believe that Xero should drive the payment as well. Again, why would we want to get involved with taking payments when GoCardless or IntegraPay can hook up to Xero and do a far better job.

Ideally you want your invoicing system to be handling payments. We just trigger the correct Branding Theme into the invoice to make it all work smoothly.

So you can be sat with a prospect or client in a meeting, agree the fees with them, have them sign it on the iPad there and then, and as they walk out the door the payment has already been triggered. That creates a wow experience for our clients and staff.

XU: It’s quite clear you saw a need and space for GoProposal in the Xero ecosystem. What challenges do you face educating accountants of the need?

JA: I guess the main challenge is getting accountancy firms to believe that the results we’re achieving are real and that they can acheive them to.

There is so much BS out there and it’s easy for companies and individuals to prey on accountancy firms and sell them the next shiny thing, which rarely lives up to the hype.

The product we sell is the product we use ourselves….. TODAY….. not 20 years ago in a pre-cloud, pre-uber world.

We designed this to solve the challenges in My Accountancy Place and that was it.

They were using Excel spreadsheets originally to agree the fees in combination with the leading software on the market at that time, which enabled them to generate a simple Proposal and Letter of Engagement.

It worked but it was a clunky process and the main problem was that it required a lot of manual input, had to be signed-off by a line manager, took up a lot of their time, delayed the sign-up process and provided a terrible experience for the clients.

So I solved the process by using the same methodology I’d used year before, that had enabled that £15m business to increase the number of new accounts they were opening by 700%.

We took Paul’s amazing and highly profitable pricing methodology and combined it with the prior technology I’d developed and evolved over several years.

And so the “5 Minute Proposal System” was born (catchy title.)

Our average monthly fee rose to £433 and we now have our top clients paying us anywhere between £1,000 and £2,500 a month.

We ran the system for about 6 months when another firm had heard of the results we were achieving and asked how they could get their hands on it too, and that was when “5 Minute Proposal System” evolved into “GoProposal”.

After that, we simply shared what we were doing, how we were doing it and the results we were getting.

There was one firm in Newcastle who had been charging one of their clients £100 a month. They’d tried to get them paying £150 a month but no joy because they couldn’t see the value of paying an extra £50 a month. They sign-up for GoProposal and presented their FULL range of services far more clearly and the client was over the moon to sign up to £750 a month worth of services.

And I love stories like this because I now know that that client is getting the value they really need and their business is more secure as a result.

And we have this over and over again because accountancy firms have been pricing wrongly for so long which means they end up doing far too much work for too little money.

GoProposal stops the scope creep that corrodes relationships with clients, your time, staff morale and your profits. We have firms easily doubling, tripling and quadrupling fees in a short space of time.

So in answer to your question, the only real challenge is getting firms to believe it’s possible for them too.

XU: What do you think makes GoProposal one of a kind and a must for every accountancy firm using Xero?

JA: GoPoposal is designed from the client’s viewpoint and to genuinely maximize the value given and received.

It was designed to create an incredible experience for our clients and to allow us to easily agree fees and sign-up during the meeting if they want to. I can order an Uber in seconds or buy a TV on Amazon in seconds and be watching it in the morning.

Your clients aren’t comparing you to other accountants anymore; they’re comparing you to the incredible experiences they’re receiving with the other businesses they interact with.

We wanted to bring that level of experience into Accountancy Firms with a system that the entire team could use AND want to use.

If you can’t leverage your team and get them selling all of the services your clients need in order to grow, then you limit your ability to scale.

GoProposal is a must because it helps accountancy firms to scale their own business and their client’s businesses.

One of our users had a new prospective client meet with them one morning, who then went on to meet with two more possible firms that day. That client signed-up at 5pm that day because our user was the only firm who gave them a proposal. What’s more scary, is that this client had been onboarded and paid the first invoice before the other rival firms has even got a proposal out of the door.

The game has changed and we don’t want to play to compete. We want to play to win.

XU: What’s next for GoProPosal? What can our readers expect to see over the next year?

JA: The software is constantly evolving and we launch new innovations on a weekly basis.

Although we’re a relatively young business, we have grown GoProposal organically by providing outstanding value to our clients and already have hundreds of progressive firms using our software.

We’re a rarity in the software world in that we’re already a profitable business, which was always our goal. This puts us in charge of our own destiny, rather than being at the mercy of investors.

So we’re able to constantly bring the innovations to fruition which we believe will genuinely have the greatest impact on our client’s businesses.

Another mistake we wanted to avoid was just agreeing to every suggestion from our users. While we always listen, the suggestions have to be interpreted to understand what the real problem is.

I’m a product designer and remember being told that if Henry Ford were to have asked the people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.

We want to bring the innovations forward that will drive results, born out of our user’s challenges.

One great suggestion which we are working on is getting the reporting right, so you know which proposals you have outstanding, lost and won. But the reports and dashboards have to be actionable. So much software produces irrelevant reports that look pretty, but ultimately have little use. We want to generate actionable data.

But the main work we are focusing on is with integrations.

We don’t believe that you should have systems which do everything, because there’s no way any one system can be amazing at many things. So they end up restricting the growth of your firm.

We believe that you should assemble your tech stack from the very best of what’s out there and it’s always been our goal to be the very best at pricing, proposals and engagement. That’s it.

Not a CRM. Not an invoicing system. Not a payment tool. Not a practice management system

So our goal is to seamlessly integrate with the best systems out there which help your firm to be fully systemised

Our Xero integration is working brilliantly and we have also integrated with Slack, Trello, Mailchimp, Infusionsoft and Capsule CRM (although we haven’t announced them all publically yet.)

Our Karbon integration will be going live soon and we’re also looking to partner with other leading practice Management Software companies too. But they have to be top of their game.

But the GoProposal software is only one element of what we do.

Our Facebook community is one of the hidden gems of GoProposal, with many accountancy firms, generously helping and supporting each other. The value of GoProposal could be found in that group alone. It’s amazing and our users are saying it’s the most active online group they’ve ever been involved with.

They’re not just helping each other with creating proposals, but with wider issues in their firms too.

And our Academy will go live later this year, which will expand on what GoProposal teaches and move into other ways to be more profitable, getting your team to sell more easily and provide wow experiences to your clients.

XU: How important is social media for the success of accountancy firms?

JA: Social media is the greatest opportunity that accountancy firms have ever had and most of them are scared to death of it or just don’t know what to do with it.

We live in a big brother age where everything can be recorded and shared instantly.

We all have HD video cameras in our pocket and the ability to share a story to an audience with anyone in the world in seconds.

If you just think about how many amazing stories and lessons are flying around your firm on a day to day basis, it’s incredible. And now those stories can be shared on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Linked In as videos, podcasts, articles, photos and audio at the touch of a button.

Our belief is that you have to be generating the content yourself, otherwise you lose the authenticity and the message. But by all means outsource the production of the assets (video, podcast, etc) or the distribution of it.

But firms have to move away from this concept of “producing content” and move into “documenting what they’re doing”.

You need to realize that you’re creating an online legacy that your clients and your children will be able to look back over for years to come.

Just tell your story and don’t be scared what people think.

My best two tips are:

If you’re not slightly embarrassed when you hit ‘publish’, then you’ve spent too long doing it.

If people aren’t criticizing you, then you’re not doing enough.

XU: We have come across many interesting videos that you have made on GoProposal or how to be a successful accountancy firm. How important do you think video marketing is to succeed?

JA: Video marketing is critical because not only is it the next best thing to interacting with you in person, but it’s also a great investment of time.

If I produce a five minute video, that content can be turned into several shorter videos, a blog article, a quote, a podcast or whatever.

We have a video camera permanently setup in our firm for staff and clients to dive onto. We have a full time member of staff dedicated to the collation, creation and distribution of that content.

At the end of the day, it comes down to the quality of the message and the audience you’re sharing it with.

With GoProposal, I aim to be producing a video every day by the end of the year. I’m not far off that now.

Even a 30 second video packed with great content can impact somebody’s world.

And I know what people will be thinking when they hear me say ‘a video a day’… Isn’t that too much? What would I talk about? What if people don’t like it?

I’m not naive enough to think that there are people sat waiting and watching everything I produce. Even if I’m sharing daily videos across every social feed, you may see one video in a week… if I’m lucky.

Now it has to be high value; high impact.

I believe in giving it all away and sharing everything I know and learn. I share success stories from my clients and the answers to the questions I get asked.

I film in my office, in my car, at my desk, in the train station, in my conservatory… anywhere.

I would rather publish a video a day done on an iPhone than a video every few months which is professionally produced.

And if you’re ever worried about producing too much, or whether people will like what you produce, remember these wise words…. Some will. Some won’t. So what. Someone’s waiting.

By not producing content and sharing your stories, you’re being selfish, because you’ll never reach that person who’s desperately waiting to hear your message and to be inspired and served by you.

Where we feel most fulfilled in life is when we’re growing and when we’re contributing.

I love to grow through constant learning and to contribute through constant sharing.

Video enable that to happen easier and faster

XU: James, as always, it has been fantastic catching up. Finally, are you able to give our readers a top tip to run a successful accountancy firm?

JA: I think it’s just important to remember that first and foremost you’re a business owner, not an accountant. You run a business and your business’s main goal is to give you the life that you want.

Yes it’s to serve your clients, employ staff, give value and impact the world. But it has to be giving you the life you want.

My goal a few years ago was to take my kids too and from school everyday; to attend every assembly, every sports day, every concert.

I do what I do so that I can have the life that I want for Bekki, Lucy, Leo, Scarlett and myself and you must make sure that your business is giving you the same, otherwise what’s the point?

Start with that in mind and you’ll find the answers you need to grow your own firm in your own way. When making decisions, ask this one question….

Will this take me closer towards the life I want or further away?

Then take the step…. we always have to take the step.

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About the author

Alex Newson, XU Magazine