Staying connected in the Shetlands

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SME Web speaks to Martin Tregonning about his Shetland Islands-based accounting practice and the unique challenges of doing business in such a remote area

  1. Could you give a bit of history of your business and what brought you to the Shetland Islands?

We’ve got family from here and we wanted the children to get a taste of the family history and culture. The job I originally came up here for ended – I’d been a finance director at several companies prior to this and there aren’t lot of other senior finance roles in the private sector in Shetland. I was doing a couple of different things with a bit of accounting on the side, then around 18 months ago I decided to go for it properly and fully develop the accountancy side. Gaining clients in small community is a long, slow process but when you give them the right service, the right technology and treat them right, you’re probably going to keep them for life.

  1. What are the main challenges that come with working in such a remote area?

Connectivity has always been a challenge. When we moved out here 11 or so years ago the only broadband connectivity to the mainland was a microwave link from a highpoint we could see from my kitchen window. But connectivity has slowly improved – there is a legacy image issue that a lot of people still hold; because historically it hasn’t been great, there’s still a perception that we can’t do cloud services. But there is no reason why not. I had it checked recently and my broadband here is twice the capacity that it needs to be for cloud work – people have just lived with bad broadband for so long they’ve become accustomed to thinking that cloud solutions won’t work.

Another problem holding us back is that mobile phone signals have always been patchy and even 3G was a luxury. The government has recently awarded a new emergency services contract, with the requirement that the provider has to achieve 98% coverage of Scotland’s geographical area – which means that every inhabited place, which is currently a dead spot will eventually get 4G.

  1. Is there still an urban versus rural tech divide in terms of technology? How have you seen it change over the years?

When it comes to connectivity we will never be as advanced as a big city. But the big divide that used to be there is now gone. There are actually lots of things happening at the same time which are driving that change. A local example is that crofters (small farmers) must do all their farm subsidy and animal movement paperwork via the internet – you simply cannot do paper forms any more and it has been changes like that which have been a key driver for the large telecom providers to improve their service. Our Edinburgh and Westminster MPs, the local council and the regional development company bring together Openreach and BT retail and any other interested parties every four to six months in what they call the “Digital Forum” to monitor improvements, and things are starting to change as a result.

  1. What difference does having the right technology make to your business processes?

It really makes a big difference. It means I’m ahead of the curve compared to other accountants, which gives me a unique selling point. There is no reason they couldn’t be as up to date as I am with new technology but unfortunately some still have their heads in the sand when it comes to technology. It really is making a big difference on the ground. Shetland is also a very geographically spread out area – around 100 miles top to bottom. I can provide a better service and save a lot of time thanks to technology that what I would if I was running around visiting everybody in person. In addition to the improved service and saved time, it also enables me to save money, which can be re-invested into the business.

  1. What software do you use today to help your business?

I first started to use cloud accounting software mainly because it was a cost-effective accounting solution for my clients. I now find myself actively encouraging clients to use cloud accounting software not just because of the price (although it is still cost effective), but because of the practical features and benefits that it brings.

As well as the general benefits of being in the cloud, Accounting is designed to be used by non-accountants, so my clients love it. I do not have a single client who wishes they could go back to desktop software. While the clients may find it easy to use, it is still powerful enough to provide all the information and analysis that I need at my end.

In the last year, I have made the transition to this cloud software for preparing annual accounts and tax work; this was because of the general benefits of the cloud, better integration with my clients and for a lower cost to my business.

Within Sage’s cloud family, I use Sage Accountant Cloud, which is a connected platform for accountants that allows you access to the key software and services needed to run your practice. I needed a better view of my clients while maintaining a high level of service.

The platform has been very beneficial and in particular how it brings together all client information in one single view. Info flows directly from the accounts package into the compliance software, which means it’s a real time saver. The mobile phone app that allows me to capture my receipts is one of the features I love the most too. Working in the cloud this way has transformed the way I deal with my clients and it will enable me to take on more clients without me losing the personal touch. 

  1. How do you find cloud technology helps with IT support issues?

One of the big benefits of using a cloud-based accounting solution is that you don’t have to install new updates and software as they come out. Previously I would find clients running obsolete systems or missing critical updates missing. People like the subscription model that you get with products like Sage Accountant Cloud. It’s not a case of constantly needing to buy and install updates. You have the reassurance that the software is regularly being updated and improving, which can be provided for an entry level cost. This also helps for those businesses that can’t get the IT support they need with being in such a remote area, because all you need is an internet browser.

  1. What technology would you like to see that is yet to be developed that will help your business grow?

Honestly, I’d prefer businesses in the Shetlands to use the technology that is already here but more thoroughly and effectively. That would be a huge step. The technology is already there to do more than what people are already doing – it just might not work straight out of the box, so more education is needed to help them make the most of it. That is part of what I help my clients to do.

tregonning.co.uk