Taking the Fear out of Finance

Danielle Friend and Jane Hodge of Create Balance tell Eileen Leahy all about their modern and innovative accountancy firm which aims to take the fear out of finance and approach money matters in a more personal manner

You wouldn’t usually associate funky geometric rugs, plush velvet seating, peace lilies and copies of Living etc magazine with an accountancy firm’s reception area but then as I discovered on my recent visit to Create Balance’s HQ this particular accountancy company is certainly doing things differently to the norm.

Another immediate point of difference is Create Balance’s idyllic location. 

It isn’t tucked away in an anonymous office or hidden down a side street. It’s located in the beautiful grounds of the Eridge Estate, in an attractive two-storey period building. It even boasts a gorgeous garden its team can retreat to when the weather is fine.

“We want our offices to reflect the fact we are different to most other accountancy firms,” says Create Balance’s founder, qualified accountant and finance specialist Danielle Friend as we sit down to talk.

“We are modern and innovative and I wanted the décor here to also echo this. I truly believe we offer something different so when clients come to visit us they can immediately see that.”

The firm specialises in all aspects of accountancy, bookkeeping and tax for mainly small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs) as well as general business advice. It prides itself on a personal approach and aims to demystify money.

“My main goal is for our clients to understand finance. We don’t use industry jargon because if they don’t understand something then how can they agree to it?”

It’s a refreshing and very valid point made by Danielle who has 25 years of experience in the industry.

She goes on to tell me that during her career, which began with her doing an apprenticeship aged 18 in 1999, she has not only developed her accountancy skills but also acquired a comprehensive knowledge of the daily challenges businesses face. 

“After working in a number of places I started my first company, Friends Financial, in 2013 and so I know a lot of the issues that will crop up. I have buckets of resilience and am always looking for innovative ways to deal with things.”

The types of services Create Balance provides include traditional ones associated with accountancy such as statutory accounts, payroll, bookkeeping, VAT and tax returns and estate planning.

Danielle also specialises in advice for not-for-profit organisations having worked with various charities including the Wiltshire Air Ambulance for over a decade.

She founded Create Balance in 2021: “My main aim was to diversify and work with different types of clients and take more risks,” explains Danielle who is AAT qualified.

“I always wanted to do more but you’ve got to have a lot of self-belief to achieve that. At the start of this year it felt like a switch was flicked on inside me. I thought ‘Right I am going to really do this’. I realised I just had to get on with it. And now I am running at 100 miles an hour!”

Around this time Jane Hodge, Create Balance’s Chartered Tax Adviser and now Director, became a more integral part of the business.

Danielle and Jane had originally worked together at a firm in Tunbridge Wells many years previously and had always kept in touch.

“We’d send each other Christmas cards and promise that one day we’d meet for coffee,” smiles Jane who has over 25 years of experience, spanning across various sectors, including accountancy, law practices, and wealth management.

“When Danielle took on this premises a couple of years ago I decided that I would pop in for that long overdue coffee. At the time I had taken a brief career break after working in a very highly pressurised firm,” she explains.

“I originally trained at the London College of Fashion so I started teaching sewing classes. At the time I was also trying to source a school for my son so taking a break worked out for me. 

“When I arrived at the new Create Balance offices in October 2022 we chatted and then Danielle showed me a spare desk and asked if I’d like to be on board. What made the decision a fairly easy one was that she told me that if I accepted a role then it would be on my terms.”

“I pride myself on flexibility,” adds Danielle. “I like to think I’m supportive and treat everyone like an adult. If you allow people to be responsible for themselves then you get the best results out of them.”

Both women have worked both locally and in London for various prestigious firms. But despite their impressive achievements they tell me that it’s only now they think they’re starting to make a difference for their clients.

Ultimately they understand that every business is different and that a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t work for most SMEs. 

“We like to really get to know our clients and understand their business inside out. We are committed to each one,” says Danielle.

Jane’s expertise lies in the field of tax planning. Her clients are made up of individuals, trustees, and small-to-medium sized law firms. She deals with individuals who need help with day-to-day tax compliance as well as IHT planning, Capital Gains tax issues and when disclosures need to be made to HMRC. “It is very varied and keeps my week interesting,” Jane tells me.

Both agree that Create Balance is about personality and not just anonymous number crunching for their clients who are both local and based elsewhere in the country.

“They are investing in us and what we can do for them. They want to work with us because they know we are highly experienced, and transparent and will provide the best service,” adds Jane. 

Danielle says she is very much enjoying seeing her style of innovative accounting and management succeed.

“I have so much belief in myself now about the things I can do. For me it’s about saying ‘Yes’ and I know Jane agrees. We want to say yes to everything at the moment. 

“Since the beginning of the year I have noticed a real boost in my confidence and Jane has played a massive part in that. I don’t think I could have done it without her cheerleading behind me.” 

Danielle says that over the past few months the business has moved forward in myriad ways.

“We’re doing lots more marketing, we’ve redesigned our website, brought in new clients and changed to a subscription model where we charge monthly for doing tax returns and accounts. 

“I’ve also eliminated traditional timesheets – this is where you charge clients for every 15 minutes you’re talking to them. I have also invested in a lot of new software which is already making our lives easier. 

“For example, we have access to Croner-i which is an advisory service for complex tax queries.”

Danielle points out the specific software she has brought in is also helping to streamline as much of the day-to-day business they do as possible.

“I don’t like admin so by investing in tech that does jobs like that for us we can focus on the client relationship and the important stuff.”

In addition to Jane, Danielle also employs another three people at Create Balance: Hanna Smith, the client/practice manager, accountant Lisa Lawson and client manager Becky Pay. And although they are all female Danielle says this isn’t at all deliberate.

“It’s just the way it’s happened. I’m actually looking to recruit at the moment and have a guy in mind who is in the process of setting up his own business. I want to be able to help him because another thing I am passionate about is supporting others. I want to give back, to empower and give those who are starting out the skills they need.”

In terms of her own mentors Danielle cites a person called Jeri Williams who runs the Accountants Wealth Academy (AWA) in addition to her own firm Smooth Accounting in Portsmouth.

“She launched the AWA in January 2023 and I joined later that year. It’s been transformational as it affords you the opportunity to speak to like-minded people who all have their own businesses and practices.”

As a result that enables the Create Balance team to concentrate on clients and make the businesses as successful as possible.

“People think profit is a dirty word but I don’t believe that for a second – and I make that very clear to my clients,” continues Danielle. 

“You want them to do as well as possible with their business and in turn for yours too. We have new clients who say to us ‘I used to only hear from my accountant once a year’,” states Jane. 

“How on earth can they be looking after your business if you only hear from them once a year? How are you ever going to grow your business as a result? For me that’s a disconnect. Surely accountants should always be there, guiding you?”

Danielle says: “I give as much passion to each of my clients as I can and some use me as a mentor and motivator. I’m absorbing all the time and seeing things from both sides.”

She adds that it’s important to note that her staff are also very well looked after. 

“We pay them above the market rate as we want to attract and retain talent. I hope that when people read this article they will want to come and work for us.”

In terms of the Create Balance plan for the next year Danielle and Jane tell me it’s all about growing the business’s profile and proving what they can offer clients as a genuine USP. 

“We’re very much specialists in SMEs and we really care. Some practices say if your turnover is below 100K we’re not dealing with you and if you’re not on a certain software we don’t know want to know. But that’s not us. We run a number of software services like FreeAgent, Xero and Quickbooks and we know we’re experts in all of those so we like to think we can serve everybody.”

And although Danielle says she thinks the jury’s still out on whether AI is going to take their jobs she says nothing can ever compete with face-to-face communication with people. 

“It’s about being approachable and taking the fear out of finance. We’re not just looking at facts and figures – we’re making it personal too.”

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