The challenges of building a tax practice in India as a woman
Alpa Kuwadia, partner at Kuwadia Shah Shah & Associates, shares her journey of building her own tax practice in India while juggling family life. She shares her seven steps to success.
When I passed my chartered accountancy qualifications I was on cloud nine – just like anyone who cleared this prestigious degree would have been. However, everything from that point onwards doubled:
Within a month of clearing my finals, I got married to my lovely husband and my happiness doubled;
I moved from a small nuclear family into my marital home with my husband and my lovely (and large) joint family, so the number of people in my house doubled; and
Within four years of getting married, I was blessed with two beautiful daughters, and so, very soon, my own family doubled.
Then my relationship with the trend of doubling up changed, meaning I had to make a choice between my workplace and my home. This choice is made on a daily basis – sometimes several times a day!
I was often left questioning which is more difficult: raising babies or building your own tax consultancy practice? You cannot choose between these, and that's the dilemma all practicing female chartered accountants face who choose to have a full-time job. However, where is the time to be flexible? The challenge remains to choose between work and family, especially for an Indian woman.
There is never a day when you are not made to feel irresponsible and there is always something that is incomplete. Whether it is at home or in the office, there is always a complaint ready for you to deal with. Someone will always tell you that you have failed to fulfil your duties, sometimes by actions, but mostly by words.
Nevertheless, this should not put anyone off pursuing their dreams. Mine was to build my own practice.
Building your own practice
The typical set of challenges that one faces at the time of building up a new practice can be broadly summarised below. In short, there are seven steps in achieving success:
1) Raising capital;
2) Finding a suitable office space;
3) Setting up and maintaining a good team;
4) Finding new clients, keeping them and growing the client base;
5) Keeping up to date with the new laws and technology, as well as attending seminars/workshops and growing your network;
6) Finding new networking partners; and
7) Repeating all of the above as the business grows.
Raising capital and finding a premises
Arranging the capital to build your own practice can be a challenge, but a chartered accountancy (CA) firm does not require a huge amount of capital in most cases. An office space can be rented out, a few computers are necessary, and some basic furniture.
However, when establishing your own practice, even the smallest amount of capital becomes a challenge, especially when you are completely independent. If you do not have enough savings, you can go for small business loans, which many banks offer. Many banks have special rates for women entrepreneurs and some also offer a discounted rate on work capital loans for CAs in practice.
When looking for an office space, the primary thing to remember is to keep the office space as close by as possible to your home, if possible. Having an office close to your home has multiple benefits, such as:
Being able to reach home/school in case of any emergencies;
When your child is not well, you can manage being present in the office when necessary while also attending to your children;
You can easily work late nights when required while managing family duties; and
A short commute means less fatigue, allowing you for more time and energy.
Other factors contributing to this decision is choosing an office that is safe, has basic amenities, and has various facilities nearby like Data Transmission & Processing Centres, courier companies, etc.
Team management and growth
Setting up and maintaining a good team is essential because a professional's team and the work culture he/she develops in their organisation reflects on their reputation and that of their practice. Having a good team will give you enough time to devote yourself to core areas of practice.
As a team leader, you have to be proactive, take various initiatives on your own and widen your horizons. While employing long-term staff, references are very important in addition to qualifications and capability. Hiring also has long-term benefits because new employees and interns have a very good yearning for learning and contribute to the knowledge bank of the firm. They can also be tremendously innovative and ultimately help in the growth of your firm.
Part of this growth is finding new clients and maintaining them. Finding the first client is the only thing that needs to be done. When you go solo, your contacts from your past jobs, family, friends, etc. contribute in giving you work.
You do not always get to choose what type of work you want to do, which can sometimes get frustrating and it will make you repeatedly question your decision to establish a practice.
However, the key is not to deny any type of work. This is the time when your seniors, mentors, your peer group and member organisations will play a very important role. Do not hesitate to ask for help. You can even share your assignment with your network, keeping your client in loop and thus learning in the process. You need to keep logs, make notes and document your learnings at every stage so that it can be used during future similar assignments. After completing the first few assignments, existing clients will most likely bring you more work. It helps to remember that a client's reference for new work is the best compliment for a professional.
Nevertheless, as a professional, it is important to keep yourself up to date with the new laws and technology, as well as attend seminars and workshops to continue meeting new people. Being a business advisor, even if you are specialising in one practice area, having overall knowledge about all areas is essential. The easiest way to keep up with the changes in business and tax laws is continuously reading and attending seminars and workshops.
However, attending workshops and seminars can be a challenge at times for women because we are often busy on weekends when there are more matters to deal with at home. In addition, this leaves little time for rest. As such, it is important to create a good support system both at home and at work. Typically, a good house maid and a smart admin person in office goes long way in reducing your stress levels, which in turn helps you to become a stronger professional.
Finding new networking partners is an important factor in building strength as a professional and growing your firm. After establishing a good practice that may be reaching a saturation point, any further growth would need the contribution of someone else that is talented and qualified. This is a point where you are not able to delegate any further to your employees and you realise that sharing leadership responsibilities is necessary.
At this stage, you need to reach out to anyone who is doing something you are not and collaborate. Having a consortium of professionals all looking into different areas of practice will offer more client satisfaction. Making a formal partnership would be the best step forward and it will help the business take on bigger assignments. These associations can begin on an expense sharing arrangement and evolve into a profit sharing agreement once trust has developed.
However, it is best to avoid initially choosing a profit-sharing arrangement. A growth period allows all parties enough time to test the relationship for endurance just like any other relationship. These partners eventually become like your extended family. As such, these decisions have to be considered carefully. There have been numerous cases of failed and bitter disintegrations of partnerships across the accountancy profession to learn from. Therefore, you need to give such partnerships time to nurture and mature before jumping into any type of formal and legally tenable partnership.
The key to long-term growth is to repeat all of the above whenever you believe your practice has plateaued – it is important to keep moving ahead.
Accepting new challenges and to keep innovating are the most satisfying aspects of practicing accountancy in your own firm. When the business and political environments change, you need to do the same.
For many people building their own practice, this final step of repeating growth happens during a period when their children are old enough to be independent and take care of their routine very well. There are fewer emergencies and lesser calls. This is the time to take up a big challenge and make a substantial change. You can opt for investing into a bigger/own office, take on a completely novel area of practice, complete additional post-qualification courses, expand the practice into other states or countries, and get into strategic partnerships with bigger firms, etc.
After so many years of juggling between home and office responsibilities, I really feel satisfied and complete. I am satisfied because everything has fallen into place exactly the way it should have. I am complete because being able to be at home and having a notable presence in my kids' lives is something that is irreplaceable. Today, when I see my kids understanding the importance of their mother's schedules and timings, the various chores that are her responsibility, the importance of receiving an important client phone call during the middle of a very interesting cartoon, I feel my mission has been accomplished.
When I see mine and my team's work being appreciated and acknowledged by our clients, I know we have succeeded in our mission. When I look back at my journey from being a proprietor with no staff, to having such a large extended family at the office with a successful practice, I know my mission have been accomplished. It is tough, but being a female chartered accountant in India has not deterred me from succeeding.