Accounting may seem like a dull subject and one that inspires very few, but for school friends Lucy Cohen and Sophie Hughes, it was a different story. They saw a golden opportunity and grabbed it with both hands, and now their innovative accountancy company boasts several offices around the UK with an annual turnover of £1m, and they have just opened an office in the US. Both Sophie and Lucy set up Mazuma when they were just 23 years old, but with no business background and no finance to start the company they went on to win numerous business awards. We met up with them to discover the secrets of their success.
Both Sophie and Lucy grew up in Cardiff; Sophie’s mum worked for the Welsh Government and her Dad is a self-employed Merchandiser, whilst Lucy’s family are all self-employed and work in the arts and entertainment industry.
“I knew early on that I would love to one day be my own boss and in charge of a successful company.” – Sophie
“As I enjoyed maths I thought training as an Accountant would be a solid background to have. I was very lucky in that I knew what I wanted to do and was able to focus my subject choices in school towards my future career. Whilst I was fairly academic, I am fundamentally quite lazy and my parents often had to bribe me with extra pocket money to get me to do my homework!” stated Sophie.
After completing her A-Levels, Sophie made the decision to move straight into work and to qualify as an Accountant rather than go to university. Lucy on the other hand had visions of following her family into the film and TV industry, and took a gap year after her A levels to gain some work experience. However, she soon discovered that she didn’t enjoy it, so went to see a careers advisor who suggested accountancy might be a better fit for her personality.
Sophie and Lucy had previously met at school, but it wasn’t until years later when they bumped into each other at night school that they decided to work together. “We figured if we can get through puberty together we can probably run a business together!”
Lucy had already come up with the name Mazuma and was preparing accounts for a few of her family members when Sophie offered to help, and it all went from there.
They decided to look for clients outside of their circle and began going to local networking events. Their first year was tough but slowly their client base grew.
“We could see a niche strongly emerging. Very small businesses are often given a ‘raw deal’ by Accountants and charged over the odds for a set of un-complicated accounts once a year, and are handed a large tax bill to pay with a small amount of notice until the payment deadline date. We saw that these small businesses needed to know how well they were doing on a far more regular basis than annually, and would prefer to pay for these services on a monthly basis rather than one large accountancy bill once a year.”
Mazuma Money is a national service specializing in providing monthly bookkeeping and accountancy for small businesses. Their motto is ‘no spreadsheets, no software, no fuss.’ They don’t ask their clients to learn how to use difficult to understand software packages, that is a drain on their time and resources; they do it all for you.
As two young women however, their families did worry that they were leaving perfectly good jobs to set up their own business, and were quite anxious and apprehensive about their decision, and were often disparaging at the start.
“We didn’t have any careers advisors or mentors. In fact the one business advisor we saw thought it was a silly idea and that it would never work!”
“We did have the support of KEF (Knowledge Exploitation Fund) and secured funding of approximately £500 a month for 9 months, as we’d recently completed our professional qualifications when we first started the business. This helped pay our mortgages whilst we started the business and found our first clients. Otherwise we didn’t have any financial help, and just reinvested what we made back in to the business in order to grow.”
Mazuma’s growth was in stark contrast to the rest of the industry during the recession which saw many accountancy firms go under.
Crucial to the successful growth of the company has been the attention paid to creating a rock solid operational structure. Taking a manufacturing business model and applying it to a service based industry is no easy task, but Mazuma have relished the opportunity to create something genuinely unique. Testament to this uniqueness is the number of competitors that have tried and failed to recreate the model that Mazuma have successfully developed!
“Our growth strategy will involve continuing to promote via the internet and social media to generate the majority of our new business. Operationally our challenges are always to keep improving the service we deliver to our clients, and to make sure that the rate of new business acquisition never compromises the high level of service we provide.”
With all that they have achieved so far, we suspect we’re going to hear a lot more from Sophie and Lucy in the future.
TRS: What drove you to set up you own business?
Sophie: Money! We both are motivated to work hard for ourselves and reap the rewards, and as well as knowing the money you earn is just for you, it’s also great to have the freedom to choose when you want to work.
TRS: You operate in a ‘male dominated industry’ – have you ever encountered any sexism or doubt about what you could do?
Sophie: We haven’t encountered sexism, however when we first started Mazuma we were only 23 and did encounter ageism. We were often asked if Mazuma was our Dad’s company!
TRS: How do you define success?
Sophie: I define success as self-satisfaction. If you can look at yourself and what you’ve done, and are happy and content and don’t think you could have tried any harder, then I feel you’re successful.
TRS: What is the best thing about working for yourself?
Sophie: Being able to make decisions and choices that you know will shape your future.
TRS: What does an average day look like for you?
Sophie: We usually spend around three days in the office where we both have our own roles and tasks to do. I tend to deal with our finances and oversee recruitment of staff, and Lucy deals with marketing ideas and social media for Mazuma. We have a good work/life balance and have worked hard to ensure we are not needed 24/7 at the office, and we have an excellent management team in place to make daily decisions on our behalf.
TRS: How do you keep motivated on the days when you’re feeling depleted?
Sophie: We don’t feel depleted!! I think if you are feeling depleted then you’re not doing the right job. You do have tough days however, and it’s important to speak to your friends and colleagues or other small business owners when they occur. Often what feels like a major problem can be easily sorted and give you piece of mind, once you have spoken to another business owner who has been through the same issues and who can give you help. A problem shared is a problem halved as they say!
Lucy: We’re lucky that we have such a unique friendship and business arrangement. Whenever one of us is feeling stressed or doubtful the other one is there to counsel them out of it. It works really well!
TRS: What was the most challenging part of setting up Mazuma?
Sophie: When we first started Mazuma gaining the respect and credibility from potential clients was challenging initially due to our age. Thankfully it wasn’t an issue for the majority, but some people wouldn’t take us seriously because we were significantly younger than them. As we were confident, knew what we were talking about and also proved ourselves with many happy clients we worked through it!
TRS: Knowing what you do now, if you could go back in time to when you first launched, what advice would you give yourself?
Sophie: I don’t think I would give myself any advice…. the mistakes we made along the way have proved to be good lessons for us and we have learnt from them. It has shaped us in to who we are today.
TRS: What has been the most valuable piece of business advice you have ever been given?
Sophie: Lucy told me “tell the truth in advance” and I love that saying – it evokes a positive mental attitude which always comes across well when dealing with others.
TRS: What is the most important trait in an entrepreneur?
Sophie: This is tough one – I don’t think there is a most important trait…. I think you need to be confident, a risk taker, stubborn and have great vision in equal proportions.
Lucy: I think you need a huge amount of confidence and self-belief. There are so many people out there who will tell you that you can’t do it and you just have to ignore them! You also have to be unwilling just to accept the status quos – that drive to constantly look for change and betterment is what keeps us going.
TRS: What advice would you give to someone starting their own business?
Sophie: Just go for it and don’t listen to your family! If it’s a small risk (e.g. you’re not investing all your money in a chocolate teapot) then believe in yourself and go for it. I remember my Dad being very concerned that I was giving up a good, safe job in order to set up Mazuma, and if I had listened to him, then I wouldn’t have done it and wouldn’t be here today. Your family have your best interests at heart, but if you really want to do it then go for it!
Lucy: Just go for it. Take a calculated risk and embrace the fear!
Read Mazuma’s Money Saving Tips HERE.