5th Jan 2023

Dave’s Journey: A Look Back on Achievements and Lessons Learned

Dave Gibson picture

Dave Gibson

Co-Founder and Chairman

Well, now I’ve moved out of the CEO chair and into the Chairman’s, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on my own and Blu Sky’s journey over the years.

Let’s start at the beginning – Life before Blu Sky

Blu Sky was anything but my first role and there’s been much growing up between a very youthful Dave wandering into the NatWest Leeds Uni branch back during freshers week in 1979, and kicking off a start-up accountancy practice around 25 years later.

Technology back then was awesome and so of course were the wages. Not. One of my first roles was to open up the cash machine every morning, take the hundred or so cards out, and hand write envelopes to post them back to our customers. That’s right, cash cards were relatively new, dispensed £10, and were kept by the machine. If you had a good credit record, we’d give you two.

I digress. Fast forward to the mid-noughties. Some career pivots and evolution meant a less youthful Dave had some pretty decent experience in project management, business analysis, and systems/data analysis and design. As a contractor for around ten years during that period I’d never been out of contract, although work had dragged me kicking and screaming from my native Yorkshire into being based in Manchester, Nottingham, and of course, Newcastle with occasional flights to some far-flung places.

Contracting had at least allowed me to stockpile some savings, but I could foresee that without serious change, another 20 years of being based out of a hotel room in Slough. Not for me thanks, although I’m sure the hotels are very nice.

Becoming an accountant

So, what could I do? Head-scratching time led me eventually to a very decent accountancy franchise TaxAssist Accountants. I know my debits from my credits, I knew tax needed re-learning on an annual basis anyway, and I knew I had relationship skills and could soft sell. So I signed up, paid over the usual franchise lumper, and got started.

By the end of day one I had the first client signed up. That’s £35 a month recurring revenue in the bag! Accountants are rolling in money. The following months wore out some shoes as I networked and worked my way round knocking on doors of local businesses.

e-myth principles were as sound then as they are now, and relatively quickly I brought in a couple of team members. Growing a practice from scratch is a fairly slow journey, and although sales and client retention took me to the top of the class the first couple of years turned out to be financially net zero – as planned.

My first lesson: If you’re going to build a team, build a high performing one.

We’re a people business. That means looking after clients as people, but also ensuring you have the right people on the team.

Around 12 months after day one my mother fell ill and I was shuttling back and forth between Newcastle and Leeds three times a week. As you can imagine I was strapped for time and no one on my team stepped up to help. It felt frustrating. Agonising. I couldn’t rely on my people. There was no accountability.

There were two ways to go. One, shrink down so it was only me and I wouldn’t need to rely on anyone. Or two, look for a seriously capable partner to help move things forward properly. Option one didn’t appeal – building a business was what I was after, not resigning myself to a lifetime of bank reconciliations.

Well, my guardian angel took note. A young Jon Dudgeon was also looking to set up his own business and had been advised to ‘speak to Dave, he’s helpful’. We had a life changing first meeting. We got on well, quickly understood we had complementary skills and experiences, and from that first meeting agreed to explore working together.

Lesson two: If you go into business with someone, do some real due diligence on each other before committing.

That’s what we did. We met regularly, Jon gave up his holidays to work within the business, we challenged each other, we got drunk together. Not sure that last bit works – we’re still testing it. Then with a handshake, a pint and various bits of paper, Blu Sky was born and we said goodbye to TaxAssist (we did that the right way, don’t worry). What we had then is nothing like what we have now. Jon joining brought the headcount to four.

Lesson three: You can’t do it on your own…refer to lesson two though.

Step forward. I learned from Jon. He learned from me.  We rotated some of the team and, with some usual ups and downs on the way, upgraded the team including the incredible Paula Henderson (with us 13 years) and Supersonic Helen Huntley (9 years).

Back to the early days. We were different – everyone said we were – because we took an interest, we explained things, we looked to the future with clients and didn’t just give them some numbers reporting past performance.

Being different

“You’re not like a normal accountant” was always brilliant to hear and helped us win our first North East Accountancy Award in 2011.

Moving on, with some good relationships and the help of a little tech, we broke the geographical boundaries so loved by much of our competition. In 2015 we picked up our first London based client, and we now have clients and staff based country-wide. Cloud accounting of course has been an absolute godsend here, and we were fairly early adopters. Xero really helped us move into the cloud accounting space.

The realisation and the proof that we could pick up business in London and beyond was a defining moment in our growth and strategy. Strategy is always early second wave – watch what’s happening, identify the potential benefits, let the very first adopters iron out the wrinkles, then commit.

Lesson four: Always try to upgrade on what you already have.

A growing team needs more people. Good people will learn from other good people. We’ve been mainly successful in that, with some class acts joining us along the way. Some – as is the way of the world – have said goodbye but stay in touch, such as the magnificent Mr Sam Wood now at HMRC.  Others are still here, the most extreme example being Mr Steven Robinson from our 2016 intake, now of course our COO, full board Director, shareholder, and general Duracell bunny.

Growing the team is not just about growing headcount, and indeed, that’s far less important than growing the individuals. The most fulfilling part of the journey has been watching people, clients and team members, grow and fulfil their own potential.

I’m proud to believe that those who’ve been with us for a solid stint have all progressed and almost all who have been and left, left in a better place than when they joined. This isn’t just about technical skills, it’s about growing emotional maturity, communication skills, empathy and decision making.

So, what does the future hold?

Chairman is a new role for me and for Blu Sky. When we first discussed the move, I genuinely felt the concept was potentially pretentious. I was wrong.

We’ve always run our board in a structured manner and we are good at holding people accountable. But as we continue to grow and as the legislative seas that we swim in become more complex, there’s a genuine need for a role to focus on governance as we go forward. So that’s what I’ll be focussing on.

I’ll also remain available to coach or mentor anyone within the team who feels the need – and I’ll continue the strategy role I have with a small number of Blu Sky clients.

More importantly, Blu Sky is in more than capable hands. We have a CEO and management team who are far more of an age with our clients, and with the drive and ambition to keep us ahead of the game in our own industry.

We’ll continue to be client-focussed, responsive and our strategy doesn’t change. We’ve been working on this move for the best part of a year. Jon and Steve have been prising responsibilities from me one at a time over that period. The change-over is business as usual, not culture shock.

We have a great platform, great clients (many of whom themselves are enjoying significant growth), the most capable team we’ve had yet, some fantastic relationships, and acknowledgement from our peers that we’re pretty damn good in the shape of our award wins at both the local level (north east accountancy awards) and national (accounting excellence mid sized firm of the year).

My final words of wisdom

Whatever you’re doing, however hard you are working, however high your aspirations, make sure you stop to smell the roses along the way. Look after what’s important in your life. In my experience your sixties will arrive quicker than you want!

P.S. And whatever you do, do it with conviction.