The below is the complete interview transcript of VIVA Founder Thomas Newman's discussion with Andrew Lynch. We also include the link to the complete interview on YouTube below.
Thomas Newman: Hello everyone. Today, I'm speaking with Andrew Lynch. Andrew is CIMA qualified and has a really eclectic range of interests. I recently came across him on Twitter and it was clear straight away that he was a really interesting guy and I just had to follow him. He's a prolific writer, his writing has been featured in Business Insider, Inc. Magazine, and The Huffington Post. I think Andrew is a really good example of how CIMA graduates can go on to do just about anything if they so wish. CIMA is obviously a broader qualification than some of the other accounting qualifications like ACCA, and graduates do go on to do all sorts of things with their lives and I think Andrew is, as I said, a really good example of that. So, Andrew, thanks so much for joining us today.
Andrew Lynch: Thanks, Thomas. I really appreciate it and I'm happy to be here. Looking forward to it.
Thomas: Excellent. Andrew, you're a former CIMA student. When did you take your CIMA exams?
Andrew: Yes, like most people, I did CIMA pretty immediately after graduating, so I sat my exams in, I think, 2012-2014. Like most people, my employer at the time, sponsored me through it. So, I was studying my exams with Kaplan. I was taking about two exams every six months or so which someone advised was a reasonable pace. And I think I sat my final exam in about September 2014, although I didn't actually fully get qualified until probably 2017 or 2018, just because it took me a long time to finally get around to submitting my professional experience requirements and getting that signed off took a bit longer than I thought it would. So I finished my exams in 2014, and actually properly qualified, I think, in 2018.
Thomas: I think that's a common thing. Students put so much effort into taking the exams that by the end of it, they're so exhausted that they just can't face another obstacle like filling out forms regarding their professional experience and all of that, but great. What did you take from CIMA into your professional life?
Andrew: Aside from the obvious that I work full-time, essentially, as a financial analyst and wouldn't have that job without CIMA, it's been a qualification that has opened a lot of doors for me. I think, more generally, accounting is the language of business - being able to understand P&L and a balance sheet, how cash flows in and out of a business, it's just a really powerful skill. I love seeing how a whole business works and actually how that money flows through the system. I think my wife gets annoyed at me sometimes because pre-COVID, I guess, when you walk into a bar or restaurant, some people might look at the interior design or if you're a chef, you would look at the food. I worked with a security guy once who, every time he walked into a room was looking at where the emergency exits were situated and where he would hide if a terrorist came in or something like that. As an accountant, I'm always trying to analyse the business in my head, so I'm thinking like, the average order value is £50, and they can turn over each table twice a night, so it's £100 a table, it is 10 tables, so it's £1,000 a night, less labour costs, less the cost of the food, “Okay, maybe they're making this much in profit every night. Cool.” Like that's just inherently interesting to me. So, CIMA gives you that toolkit and that analytical lens and way of looking at a business - it's something I really enjoy. I guess the downside of that is that I do have to remind myself a lot of the time that the numbers aren't the business; they are like a representation of a company but behind every purchase invoice, there's some work that's been done by a supplier or some goods that have been done by a supplier, and some value that's been delivered to a customer before they get an invoice. And I do have to remind myself that the easiest way to do the accounts for a business would be if the business sat in the bank year after year and you could just keep filing the accounts, and that would make everything super easy from an accounting point of view but that wouldn't be a viable business. So, it’s one thing I always need to remind myself because I do get caught up in the numbers a little bit.
Thomas: That's understandable. But is that something that you've always liked about business? You found yourself, even before CIMA, thinking about the numbers and thinking about the revenues that a business could be doing when you go to the restaurant or whatever it is, or do you think CIMA really brought that out?
Andrew: That’s a good question. I'd say, probably, CIMA brought that out, or a couple of years earlier than that I had done a management accounting module as part of my degree in university, and I really enjoyed it - it just naturally spoke to me and fit with me and fit with the way I saw the world and gave me those tools and that language to think about it and think about gross margin and then overhead allocation and net profit and all those kind of things. So, CIMA really gave me the toolkit and the language to talk about it, and just put a bit more meat on the bones of an idea I kind of had in my head and sort of saw the world in that way but CIMA really helped me to clarify it and codify it, if that makes sense.
Thomas: It does. Can you tell us a little bit about your work history?
Andrew: Yeah, sure. Growing up, I had a bunch of various odd jobs, as pretty much everyone does. I did a paper round, worked behind a bar, glass collecting and pouring pints, stacked shelves at Sainsbury's for a long time, particularly while I was at university and I used to work the night-shift filling up the shelves while the store was closed - that was all up to university time. After I graduated, I went to work for a company called NFU Mutual. It's a big insurance company here in the UK. They specialise in providing mostly business and home insurance to rural communities, and in particular the farming industry. They're closely linked with the NFU, the National Farmers Union. So, they're kind of insurance providers of choice. That's the company that paid for my senior tuition. And I was at NFU Mutual for about three years, so I did the finance role for about a year, and then did a couple of years working in compliance advisory - so, talking about FSA and then FCA, NPRA regulation, which is quite interesting. I left NFU Mutual, and went to work for a completely different company in every way, shape, and form. NFU Mutual had about one and a half billion a year in turnover with probably three or four thousand employees. And then I went to work for a company - they are now called Scribe Media. When I joined them they were called Book in a Box - and I was their first full-time employee. So, there were two co-founders over in the US and then myself who came on as their first full-time hire. It's a company that helps people write and publish their own book. So, what Scribe does is if you have an idea for a book, and in particular if you're a professional, a consultant, a CEO, a doctor, or a lawyer, you might want to write a book to share your knowledge and expertise about the world, and it's also a really useful marketing tool for your business. But if you're busy, you don't have the time to sit down and actually write this book yourself, and writing a 40,000-word book is really, really difficult. So, what a scribe does is help you structure that book, and then essentially interview ‘the author’, just like we're doing now, over the course of maybe 8 to 10 hours, transcribe it, edit that into a book manuscript, and then work with you to get a cover design, an interior layout, and publish it on Amazon as a paperback and Kindle book. It's a great service, they've done some really, really good books recently. I don't know if you know David Goggins, the former navy seal - one of the most famous guys in the world. His book Can't Hurt Me is a massive bestseller. It was Scribe Media that helped him do that. He did that book with Scribe. And it had some really, really good success with a great company.
Thomas: Do they bring in any ghostwriters then to help with those?
Andrew: Yeah, essentially they have a team of great freelance writers. Like I said, people who've been ghostwriters, magazine profile writers, people who've ghostwritten New York Times bestsellers or written for Vanity Fair, things like that. So, really, really high-end writers, and they'll work with that team of freelancers to match them with the client, to help them go through the Scribe Media process and then handle the book production piece: the editing, the proofreading, the book layout, and ultimately designing a cover, and then publishing it as a Kindle and paperback book on Amazon. It’s a great company. So, I was their first full-time hire and I worked there for a year. I did three months working out in Texas in Austin, which was really good fun, and then came back and worked remotely from the UK for a little bit. After I worked for them, I went to work for a company called Anabas which no one will have heard of and rightly so. They are a small facilities management company. So, essentially you might have a big office space, particularly in London and have a lot of clients. If you have a big office, you need someone to clean it, man the front desk, security and reception, clean the tea and coffee areas every couple of hours because they get dirty, sweep up at the end of the day, fix the aircon units when they break down. Anabas does all those things. So, you would outsource all of that to a facilities management company. Anabas is an SME which had about 10 to 20 million a year in revenue and about three or four hundred employees when I worked there. So, I joined as their management accountant, commercial accountant, and then got promoted to be their Head of Finance. So, I had the line manager responsibility for accounts payable and accounts receivable, and did all the mundane management accounts, the year-end accounts, the quarterly VAT returns, finance reviews with all the contract managers, all under my purview. So, it was a really interesting job.
Thomas: So, a kind of an unglamorous business - I will touch on this a little bit later in the interview - but it's one that turned very nice profits. I think you wrote an article on that, which, as I said, we'll talk about it in a little while.
Andrew: Yeah, Absolutely. It's not a glamorous business at all. I don't think anyone, when they're young, wants to grow up and run a cleaning company or be a cleaner or run an engineering company but it's a fascinating business. It's one of those under-the-radar businesses that you don't really think about. It operates in the shadows but every large office space in the world will have a company that does this - they operate in hospitals, airports, cinemas, shopping malls. All over the world there'll be companies providing these services, and some of them are huge multi-billion companies. I worked for Anabas for three years - that was based up in the Northeast, and then my wife and I wanted to relocate to Nottingham. So, I was looking at large employers here in Nottingham: Capital One - the credit card company, which was one of the biggest, stood out to me as a company I might want to work for. So, I joined them as the head of their finance analytics team, which essentially means finance analytics is everything ad hoc that isn't regularly posting journals, doing month-end things, doing year-end and quarter-end things, or budgets and forecasts - we do all kinds of interesting things on top of that. So,we might want to dive deep into particular areas of our business or try and figure out what's going on with our customer portfolio and what that means for our future revenue streams. If we want to model what the business might look like in 10 years, or what could it look like if we went into this new business area or this new product, all those kinds of things would fall under my team.
Thomas: Very interesting. It's the modern notion of the finance professional being more than just a bean counter, effectively going into the whole area of adding that strategic value to a business.
Andrew: Exactly, and that's one of the things that really appealed to me about the job. It’s got nothing to do with posting accruals and prepayments and producing monthly reports - we don't do any of that. It’s the strategic things - what could large changes to our business model mean for our finances, in our P&L, and how might we want to think about that going forward?
Thomas: Excellent. What are your remaining professional ambitions, Andrew?
Andrew: It's a good question. I think it's quite a broad question as well, because I'm 32 now. I've only been working for 10 years and hopefully, all being well and good, I'll be working for another 20 years or so at least. So, I don't know, I've gone back and forth on this. I have worked for, like I said, big companies now. Capital One has about 40,000 employees. Compare that to being employee number three at Scribe or employee number 300 at Anabas. So, both big companies and small companies have a lot of benefits either way. I'm not sure, at the moment, which one I prefer. I think, probably, the most likely path and something I’d really like to do is end up running or owning a small company of my own. I've toyed a bit about whether I want to start something myself or one thing I've become quite interested in over the past 6 to 12 months is buying a portfolio of small businesses and being able to tinker around with them and play a little bit and appoint someone to run each one and just kind of swan in one day a week and kick around some ideas and then move on to the next business the next day - it would be quite good fun, I think.
Thomas: Is it unglamorous businesses that you're looking at - unglamorous but profitable? There's a guy on Twitter, I think we both follow him, his name is Nick something. He's big on unglamorous businesses.
Andrew: Absolutely. I think he's really on to something there. It's one thing to try and start the next Facebook, Google, Amazon, Uber, it's also incredibly competitive and high growth and high risk. There are so many small companies doing unglamorous, unsexy things and enjoying really high margins and making good profit for their owners. One thing that Nick talks about, and that certainly I've seen in my own experience, is that those smaller companies often don't have the expertise, or sometimes the interest or the time, to invest in things like technology, getting their processes and systems set up and being really slick. I think there's a lot of opportunity there to help improve them as well, improve them operationally, and I think if we can do that they can be really, really nice businesses to own.
Thomas: Coming back then to CIMA, is there anything that you know now that you wish you had known at the start of your CIMA studies?
Andrew: It’s a good question. I think it is quite hard. It takes a long time to get CIMA qualified, and in my head, that's probably a good thing because if it was easy, everyone could do it and it wouldn't have the value that it does. Also, I think in terms of studying, when I did it, I didn't feel the need to necessarily sit down through every lecture and read every textbook page and do every bit of notes. I tried to learn a bit more differently. I would try and do some practice exercises, and then for the bits I was stumbling on - watch the lectures to reinforce my knowledge of that and understand where I was going wrong. I think it's difficult but there are ways that you can make it easier, do it faster, and perhaps find a study method that works for you. Particularly, if you're working in a large finance department there'll be other people around who have gone through it and have done it, and all of those people will try and give you advice about what works best as well. Generally, I think study habits are probably quite personal and what works best for you is what works for you. So, if other people are giving you lots of advice, or telling you that this is the way you should study or “I did it like this, so you should too,” try those things, experiment with it, but find what works best for you. That is probably the advice I would give.
Thomas: Good advice. Are there any study habits or reading habits that you use now that you didn't use before and, if you were going back and doing CMA again, you might think about employing them?
Andrew: That's a good question. Probably no, I think CIMA is the last thing I really studied for and tried to learn. Actually, probably the one thing I would do more now is I’d try and talk to more people in my company, and I’d try and link what I was studying to the things I was doing in my day job. I think, particularly when you're doing CIMA or any big qualification like that, you tend to focus on, “This is what the textbook says, and this is what the exam question says. So, these are the things that I need to say from this textbook on this question to get the marks.” That is true. It is a little bit of a game like that and you need to do what you need to do to pass the exams. But I think that learning would have been a lot easier and I probably would have internalised a lot more of it, had I been able to link everything back to something I was doing in my day job, in my day company. So, it's probably something I didn't do as much then as I should have done. And it's something I try and do now. For example, if I'm trying to learn about a new topic or a new area of the business, I just try and find the people who know about that and grill them and ask them questions because they'll know far more than I will and it's a much faster way than me trying to go away and research it myself and find out. That's probably one thing I’d change.
Thomas: Excellent advice. You're very active on Twitter, obviously, and you have quite the following. So, what is it about Twitter that appeals to you in particular?
Andrew: I really started using Twitter quite a lot, probably in the past 12 to 18 months or so - maybe a little bit longer than that, a couple of years or so. Firstly, I like that you can just connect directly with anyone who is on there. So, if Elon Musk tweets something, I can respond to him. He probably won't see it and he probably won't like it or respond back to me but he might. That certainly becomes a lot easier the smaller you go - you can connect with people who might be particularly influential in one niche or another but don't have a huge following, and you can talk straight to them. You can get their thoughts and ideas and figure out what they're doing right there and then. For someone like me, who's interested in new things and new ideas, Twitter's just this firehose of new ideas and thoughts and interesting articles. However,I have to make sure I'm not spending too much time on it during the day when I should be doing other things. I need to put the phone in another room for a little bit and make sure I'm focusing on what I want to focus on. But it's just an endless source of interesting new ideas and articles and thoughts - I love it.
Thomas: We should actually plug your Twitter handle. It's @andrewglynch. I highly recommend him. I'm following Andrew myself, and absolutely fascinating stuff. He's quite prolific there. Let's dig into the Twitter bio, actually. Your Twitter bio says, “The finance guy. Tweets on finance, investing strategy, systems, books, Everton FC.” Very eclectic, a wide range of interests, as I said. What do you mean by systems, Andrew, and why are systems so interesting to you?
Andrew: Systems, to me, I guess I'm referring to a couple of things. Like on a larger scale, there are so many complex systems in life: the business that you work in, the city you live in, the car that you drive, the democratic or political system, everything is just a series of inputs and outputs and interrelationships between all these different factors. So, understanding how different parts of one thing affect another is just fascinating to me. One thing I started reading a little bit about a couple of years ago was urban infrastructure and what makes a good city, and so you think about how putting in a new transport system might affect a city? Well, it may lead to more people using it and fewer people driving - that's great. What does that mean for the businesses that are along the main roads? Or what does it mean for businesses that are at either end of a train line? Things like that.
Thomas: So, you're thinking through the second level consequences beyond the direct impact of the transport system.
Andrew: Exactly. Things like that are really, really interesting to me. On a smaller scale, I really got interested in this probably in my first graduate job, I started working a bit with our process improvement team and a guy there - a guy called Chris Harper who was a bit of a mentor to me, an incredibly bright, generous guy - taught me a bit more about Lean and Six Sigma and those kind of things, and seeing, again, how powerful that is. So, if you get a process right, it makes everything easier. And so if you can put in some amount of work upfront to make sure something's right and works really, really well on an ongoing basis, that's fantastic, and if that can scale up as it needs to with no extra effort, it's just really, really powerful. It's something I'm incredibly interested in.
Thomas: You also have a fantastic personal website: andrewlynch.net. And again, I've been reading a number of the articles that you've written there recently and it's obvious that you write very, very well - is that something you were always good at, or is it something that you needed to practise quite a lot?
Andrew: When I was younger, I read a lot. I've always been a big reader. And I’m looking at your bookcase behind you, you've got some of the same books there: Influenced - Cialdini, Mastery - Robert Greene.
Thomas: I can see the Intelligent Investor possibly there, I think I see Predictably Irrational, is that by Dan Ariely? Atomic Habits. There’s quite a lot of overlap.
Andrew: This is the kind of finance and investing section up here. So, we’ve got The Big Short, and The Intelligent Investor, and The Black Swan. I've always been a big reader, and I guess for me a precursor to being a good writer is always being a good reader. So, to a certain degree, it's a little bit like learning a new language. If you just immerse yourself and if you go and live in another country you'll naturally pick up some elements of the language. I think reading for me is what that does for your writing. So you naturally pick up on what makes a nice sentence flow or how to write something clearly. When I was at uni, I wrote an 8,000-ish word dissertation on economic development in post-Soviet countries. So, a contrast between what happened in Russia versus Poland after communism? I still remember the comment I got back from the person who marked it, because it got a reasonable mark, not a fantastic one and not a terrible one, a reasonable one, and the marker said - ironically to someone who's now an accountant - he said, “Some of the quantitative parts and the maths part just weren’t great, and I wasn't sure where you were going with it. Nonetheless, it was beautifully written and a pleasure to read.” So, that kind of spurred the desire to become good at it in particular when I worked for my personal site, where I’ve been writing on my blog for over 10 years now. If you go back and read some of the early posts, they are bad, they're badly written. So, some of this is practice over a long period of time. Then when I worked at Scribe Media, one of the co-founders there was Tucker Max, who is a four times New York Times bestselling author, and some of the stuff I did with him was working on my writing in particular. So, in the past, he's edited a couple of my posts, and that’s one thing that supercharged my writing ability; just getting feedback in line edits by a real-world expert and someone who's genuinely world-class. It was incredible for my writing ability. It's a bit of both, probably a little bit of natural proclivity and then a bit of hard work on top of it as well.
Thomas: It's quite a unique skill set - a finance person who's also a writer. It reminds me a little bit of something that I think Scott Adams said. I was listening to an interview he did recently and he talked about skill stacking. He talked about taking seemingly different skills or unrelated skills and stacking them on top of each other and then you end up with a very unique perspective or a unique set of characteristics, and certainly, I think you're doing that.
Andrew: Yeah, exactly. I've read exactly the same book but you won't see it on here because I've got it on Kindle rather than there in paperback. But yeah, exactly that. I think that combination of skills can be incredibly powerful and I think writing and communication and presentation abilities is one of those skills that pair well with basically anything else. So, one of the things Scott Adams says, “If you know programming plus communication abilities, great, you can be the CTO. If you know accountancy plus presentation skills and communication skills, you can be the CFO.” So, that's generally been the strategy I've taken. Certainly, some people I see in my day job now are a great example of this combined accountancy skills with, in particular, something like programming and technical skills. So, if you know accountancy plus SQL or Python, you can work really, really well with accounting systems and databases and automate a lot of the budgeting, reporting, and forecasting, and you can be incredibly valuable to a lot of companies. So, that skill stacking and melding together two or three related skills that makes you somewhat unique, that's a career strategy I've tried to actively and consciously follow.
Thomas: You write quite a bit about productivity on your personal website. Any tips for CIMA students about how to be more productive with their study? Obviously, they're people who are working professionally as well and have a lot of other things going on such as hobbies, girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, kids. So, any advice on productivity?
Andrew: Most of the study methods I've used, I’ve kind of adopted from when I was at university and have stuck with them for a long time, and I got most of them from a book by a guy called Cal Newport. More recently, he's written the books ‘Deep Work’ and ‘Digital Minimalism’. But back in the day, he wrote ‘How to be a Straight-A Student’ as well, and one of the things I took from that and I have stuck to this anytime I need to learn a new subject or pass an exam is the index card method. So, if you have a bunch of topics and questions that you need to know, get a big stack of 3x5 index cards - I’ve got a big stack of them here on my desk - write, on one side of the index card, the question, “What is the double entry for accruing a purchase invoice?” for example, and then write the answer on the back. If you do that for however many things you need to write down, whether it's 50 or 100, then you have your big stack of index cards. Go through them one by one, read the question on the front and then out loud, in your own voice, try and answer it. If you get it right, great, put it in one pile, and if you get it wrong, you put it in another pile. And then all the ones you got wrong, go through that pile again until you get them all right, and just keep repeating that process until you can look at any index card in your pile and from that prompt, you can verbally, out loud. speak the answer to it. If you do that, you'll basically be able to memorise everything you need and it'll be there at your fingertips. That's far and away the most time-saving study strategy I’ve found. The other one I'd say is that studying online using virtual teaching methods, like you guys have, is far better from a time point of view than trying to give up every other weekend to go to a classroom and do it. If only because you can do things like, skip around, skip past sections of a video lecture that you already know or you're unsure about, watching at one and a half times speed but then stop and go back if you need to clarify something, it gives you so much more flexibility and freedom. That's what I did when I was studying, so I know what you guys are doing at Viva makes a lot of sense for a lot of people, particularly those who are time-pressured and need a bit more flexibility in their studies. I'd highly recommend it.
Thomas: Obviously, you're a big reader. Two to three book recommendations for CIMA students, and why would you recommend those books?
Andrew: I thought about this one, and in particular because you said for CIMA students. So, I'm assuming most CIMA students would have similar interests to me and they'd want to read books about business and finance and investing. First and foremost, I'd say ‘The Essays of Warren Buffett’. This is an edited compilation of his Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters, which are just a masterclass in clear writing and communication on finance, investing, business, compounding growth, how to read a balance sheet and a P&L. It's all in there and it is fantastic. He's been doing it for 40-50 years, so he's got a pretty good back catalogue by now as well. There's so much to be learned from reading those. I highly, highly recommend it to anyone. Probably even more entertaining would be the next couple. So, ‘The Big Short’. If you haven't seen the movie, it's also great. This is the story of the handful of people who identified what was going on in the housing market in 2006-2007 and essentially bet on the fact that there would be a housing crash, and that the value of all these mortgage-backed securities would go to zero. They made a huge amount doing it - it's a fascinating story. Michael Lewis, the writer, is probably my favourite writer. This book, ‘The Big Short’, is ultimately a story about mortgage-backed derivatives and shorting those on the esoteric bond, credit default swap market. But it reads like a thriller. It's just phenomenally written, it's incredible. And then lastly, I'd say ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight. He's the founder of Nike and this is a story about how he founded that business and how it grew over time. I don't know if he had a ghostwriter or not. If he didn't, he's a phenomenal writer and if he did, his ghostwriter is a phenomenal writer - it's such a good book. A lot of entrepreneurial bios and business books are a bit dry and they’re quite self-congratulatory and they spend way too much time on the, “When I was a kid, I did this and my grandfather did this. And anyway, this is what it's like now, I'm running a huge business.” Which is fine but ‘Shoe Dog’ spends a lot of time from, “When I started Nike,” to, “When I knew it was going to be a success,” and I think when they went public. The kind of scrappy middle years between starting it and going public, the really interesting bits, is where ‘Shoe Dog’ spends 80-90% of the book. It's just a fascinating story.
Thomas: I remember when I read that book that he didn't pull any punches or glamorise anything. He talked a lot about the brutal and near-death experiences. It just seems he went from one near-death experience with the business to the next. It doesn't paint a very glamorous picture but for anyone who would be looking to start a business - it’s a very good book. And that one, in particular, I think was excellent. I haven't read ‘The Big Short’. I read ‘The Essays of Warren Buffett’ - brilliant, ‘Shoe Dog’ - brilliant, and I think I'd be adding ‘The Big Short’ next to my list.
Andrew: You should check it out, it's probably my favourite book. And again, I appreciate it's weird to say that a book about mortgage derivatives is your favourite book but that's probably where I've learned.
Thomas: So, you were interested in investing. Were you always interested in investing or, again, did CIMA draw that out?
Andrew: I think I've probably always been interested. I think when I was younger, when I was 17 or 18, I was just obsessed with money and making money. I had a couple of little side businesses like selling things on eBay or selling info products. I played a lot of online poker, I was trying to make a bit of money there as well. And then interest in my business and investing naturally grew out of that. So, once you realise, “Oh, wow, okay, I have some money, I can make more money just by putting this money somewhere over here in this investment account and my money will turn into more money. That's amazing. I need to learn more about this.” It sounds phenomenal and probably that interest in money and things like that, we touched on a little bit, it's pretty much why I became an accountant and it's probably also the kind of lens through which I see the world. We touched on the restaurant example, and to me, that is order value, cost of goods sold, overheads, labour bills, and all that kind of thing. It's fascinating to me, so my interest in investing is just kind of a natural outgrowth of that interest in money and finance in general.
Thomas: Something that really caught my eye on your personal website is your core principles. Can you tell us what they are?
Andrew: I think I listed four. And again, these are all ideas that other people have shared in the past that I've co-opted to make my own. These are in no way original ideas, just ideas that really resonated with me. So, the first is “extreme ownership” and I got that from a book called ‘Extreme Ownership’, funnily enough, by a guy called Jocko Willink, who's an ex-navy seal. This is broadly the idea that everything that happens to you in your life and everything that you do is ultimately your responsibility. There's no one who's going to save you or help you. There's no one who's going to give you everything you want. There's no magic lottery ticket. Everything you can control you should, and ultimately, that means all your outcomes are down to you. One of the examples that Jocko gives is, say if your boss isn't giving you the resources that you need, or won't give you the budget or the time you need or anything like that, that is not your boss's fault for not doing that. That's your fault, and it's your fault for not adequately explaining to your boss why you need those resources or what you're going to get out of it or what the case is for them to do it for you. So, if you're not getting what you want and things aren't happening, that is your problem and it's your responsibility to solve. It's a difficult message to swallow but it's quite a liberating one when you realise that if there's something I'm not happy with, I can either make my peace with it or I can do what I want to change it. But either way, it's down to me to do that. “Process over outcomes” - again, this is one that I, to a certain degree, stole from Scott Adams, who we touched on earlier, and also another book I've got here called ‘The Score Takes Care of Itself’, a Bill Walsh book. The focus here is that Bill Walsh talks about it, obviously, in terms of American football and not winning the Super Bowl. He says, “Setting winning the Super Bowl as a goal is unrealistic and also not entirely in your control because of luck and outside factors and the opposition and referee calls and all these things. What you can focus on is in this next moment and on this next play. Can I do that as well as I possibly can, and can I execute on that small piece as well as I possibly can?” If you're in your day job as a finance professional, “Can I make this report that I'm sending out as good as it can be? Can I make this email as clear and obvious as it can be?” I'm not going to focus on how to become the CFO? Or how do I become the CEO? Or how do I double profits in this business? What's the thing right in front of me right now and how can I do that as best as possible? And if I do that over and again, over time, the good outcomes will happen but you need to focus on what you're doing in front of you right now to get to those good outcomes. “Mastering the basics” is the third one. This is an idea I stole from a fascinating blogger, a guy called Joshua Cannon, who's a writer, an investor and entrepreneur. He's, in my opinion, little known and talked about, he's quite under the radar. He talks about a bunch of skills he's learned in the past, whether it's cooking or the piano or now business and investing. Relentlessly mastering the basics and the fundamentals is so important. If you want to be a musician, for example, do you know your scales? Do you know music theory? If you're playing the guitar, do you know chords and how to swap between chords quickly? And if so, everything else can come on top of that, but you need to have that fluency in the basics first. You need to be incredibly good at the basics and the core fundamental skills. Everything else can come after that.
Thomas: If we were to apply that to accounting, what kinds of things do you think would constitute the basics?
Andrew: The most obvious one for me is, do you know double-entry really well? And do you know it off the back of your hand? If I said to someone, “What's the double entry for a sales invoice or a purchase invoice?” Do you know it off the top of your head? If you're talking about writing off bad debt or buying inventory, what's the double entry for that? And it sounds silly to say, “Do you know how to write out a T account and write the numbers on the debit or credit side?” But if you think about it, it means that you understand where the value is created in a business. Inventory is a really interesting one to me. So, obviously, the double-entry for buying inventory in cash is to debit inventory and credit cash, and if you do that, you realise that's just a balance sheet transaction. There's no value generated by buying that inventory, I'm just swapping cash for inventory. And then when you sell that inventory, you credit sales and debit cost of goods on the P&L, credit inventory and debit cash, and then you realise, “Okay, I've credited cash more than I've debited inventory… Oh, that's where the value is.” That's the whole thing; buying something for $2 and selling it for $3 or whatever it is. But the value generation happens at the point at which it's sold, not when you buy it. So, really understanding that at a deep, fundamental level. The other thing I'd say for accountants is things like Excel. I'm sure the vast majority of people, myself included, use Excel, all day, every day. Do you understand how to do that as effectively as you can? Do you know keyboard shortcuts? Do you know how to get the best formulas? Do you know how to use it as quickly as possible? Do you know how to do pivot tables and V lookups and things like that? So, the piece of software that you use every single day for hours and hours - do you know how to get the most out of that as well? And again, if you can do those two things, those are incredibly powerful and it sounds silly to say but I know for a fact there are people that I've worked with in the past who don't know that. They don't know those things off the top of their head because you don't need to every single day but having that fluency in the basics, mastery of the basics and the fundamentals can be incredibly powerful, incredibly useful.
Thomas: I suppose if you don't have those basics, then you're really building on top of shaky foundations. What about the fourth principle?
Andrew: And the last one's just “continuous improvement.” Touch wood, we're all going to live fairly long lives. I think, in general, we kind of overestimate what we can do on any given day but underestimate what we can do over a lifetime, or over a decade, or even a year - so, making constant small steps towards the goal that you want, or relentlessly making small improvements and refinements in a business process or the way you do things doesn't particularly make a difference on any one given day, but over the course of a decade or a career or a lifetime, it can make a huge difference to your outcomes.
Thomas: They're absolutely great. Again, coming back to the blog, you wrote a really interesting article called ‘How We Doubled Revenue and Increased Margins 10X in Four Years’, and this article, I think, really shows the value that a CIMA graduate can actually add to a business and I highly recommend that Viva students actually go and read this article - we’ll include the link below this interview. Just for the moment, can you give us a bit of a high-level overview about what happened there? Because you took or you helped to take a business that had £19,000 in profit up to, four years later, having £1.1 million in profit. Can you tell us that story?
Andrew: Sure. This was when I worked at Anabus, the facilities management company that we talked about earlier. I'll caveat this by saying, obviously I don't take all the credit for this and there was a reasonably sized organisation with 300 or so people at this company. But I think the work that my boss, the CFO, and I did, was incredibly valuable here and we really, really helped the business a lot. In 2015, which is the year before I joined, they did about 9 million in revenue and like I said, 19,000 in profit, basically breaking even or 0.25% profit margin or something like that. There were a couple of reasons for that. First and foremost, when I joined in 2016, we didn't really have good accurate financials. So, obviously, the first thing we did was to make sure we were accruing properly for everything that we should be for these infrequently occurring expenses. Are we billing properly? Have we got the right cost centre structure? Are we attributing costs to the right place? With it being facilities management, essentially, we had about 15 or so different contracts with different companies, and each one of those was set up as a separate cost centre. And then we had a cost centre for overheads as well. So, first and foremost, were the right costs going on to the right contracts, and the right revenue as well. So, could we see if we were accurately making money on each contract? That took a bit of time. Once we did that, we realised that there were a few places where we needed to sit down and examine the structure of these contracts with a facilities management company. Say if you contract me to do all the cleaning and all the security at your fancy head office in London and you say, “We're going to pay you £50,000 a month to do that. And for that, we want a cleaning team of three in every morning, two security guards during the day, one security guard at night, deep clean the whole office once every three months, and a couple of other things, do a big clean on the carpet in the conference room once a year. And for all that we will pay you £50k a month.” So, to do that, we need to make sure, firstly, are we billing the £50k a month, which we generally were. Are we providing all of those services that we were supposed to under the contract? Generally we were. And then, is the client asking us to do anything else outside of that contract? Which we pretty much did every month. So some client might say, “Oh, we've got a big presentation on Monday and we want you to do another clean of the conference room,” or “We've got a really important client coming, we want the garden landscaping over the weekend so that it makes a really nice impression.” And all those things come to the facilities management company. It would come to us to do and we would generally charge cost plus a markup of 10-15% to do that. Capturing those costs and making sure that we were billing those on was something we weren't doing very well and so ended up being a big leak. And particularly when you think about the thin margins here. If we were doing a £500 job, we would charge the client, say, £550, so we’d make £50 profit on that. If we incur the £500 costs and don't bill out the £550, we're not just losing the £50 margin. But you're also paying £500 of cost that you don't need to, which means in order to generate that back, you need to do another £5,000 pounds of work at that 10% margin to cover that cost you pay. So, making sure you're capturing what should be billed to the client and billing that was a big leak, and one we managed to plug. That was fun. Step two; we knew how much money we were making and we knew that was the right amount of money. Once you have those in place, you can then do a good forecast and a good budget. We knew roughly how profitable every contract was. We knew how much extra work the clients were asking us to do. We knew what the costs for each of these contracts were and what our overhead should be. We could forecast that and track against that and then we could start to set budget targets. If we did everything as we were supposed to do, we’d make X, we want to try and make 1.1X or 1.2X and incentivise our contract managers to both hit their budget and exceed their budgets, and make sure they're bought into the whole process as well. We shared all the budgets with them. We sat down with everyone and went line by line through all of these budgets. Have we got the right number of cleaners at your site on a Monday morning? This is the hourly rate we think you're paying, is that right? This is how much we think you're spending on uniforms each month or each year. This is how much all the bleach and mops cost on a month-by-month basis. Does all that sound right and are you happy with that? And they'll go, “Yeah, that all looks good.” “Great. It's your responsibility then to make sure that you hit these numbers that we've put together and that you've agreed are reasonable and how the contract should be run”. So, we push that ownership onto the contract managers. And they did a really good job of running a nice tight ship, keeping everything together from an operational point of view. And then the last step really was just to start growing the revenue. We knew which contracts were and weren't profitable, the kind of customers we should be going after, and more importantly, everything that we'd done up to that point gave the owner and the managing director the confidence that the business was being well-run and that they could immediately hit the accelerator. They didn't have to spend their time firefighting, and in particular, it made it easier to grow our revenue because not only were they winning new contracts, but we weren't losing old contracts through not billing properly, or just not knowing whether or not we were making money, so, not choosing to rebid it. And we could bid for new work more confidently because we knew what our margin should be, we knew what our costs would look like and so we could price those contracts properly. Because with the way that it was set up, or the way the contracts are run, if you can price it correctly and win the bid, you're essentially locking in a certain level of profit on that. So, assuming you run it as you’ve bid it and the costs are broadly what you thought they were going to be, you’re guaranteed to make money at a gross profit level, assuming you run it properly. The trick is being able to price it high enough that you know you can deliver it and generate a profit, but low enough to still win the bid. A bit like what Warren Buffett talks about in insurance, “It's easy to win business if you write an unprofitable price.” The trick is getting the price just right so that you can win the business but still make money doing it and we were able to do that as well. So, ultimately, I left in March 2019 and I checked their full-year numbers for 2019. So, they did about 22 million in revenue and 1.1 million in net profit, which is after the owners have paid themselves a salary and certain expenses and things like that. There's still a million pounds left to pay out to themselves as dividends or to reinvest in the business and grow it.
Thomas: It's a fascinating finance story and absolutely I would recommend that CIMA students go and check that article. We'll include a link to that specific article at the end of this interview. For me, it's a great example of taking the theories from something like CIMA and actually applying them, and it's a story that is so well told as well, by you, on the blog. It's an absolute must-read for CIMA students. We've got a mutual admiration for Charlie Munger, who is Warren Buffett's right-hand man and his business partner for decades. Have you got a favourite Mungerism?
Andrew: I’ve got a couple that spring to mind. I guess there's one that's right at the top of my website, where I'm going to embarrass myself because I can't remember exactly what it says. But if you try to go to bed every night smarter than when you woke up, over a long period of time, that really adds up. It links to what we were saying earlier about continuous improvement and the power of just making those small, incremental improvements over time and it really, really adds up. The other one that often comes to mind is that it's easier to avoid being stupid, rather than simply trying to be brilliant. Again, I think that’s similar to what we talked about earlier in terms of doing unglamorous, unsexy businesses rather than trying to do the next hot tech startup. Doing a hot tech start-up or something like that is a field that is crowded with incredibly smart, brilliant people - the competition is fierce. If you can do the basics really well in a services business, whether it's facilities management, plumbing, property maintenance, or landscaping, you can do really well just by doing the basics well and just avoid trying to be brilliant and making mistakes. Just don't be stupid and make sure you understand your circle of competence, know the things that you are good at and stick to those and don't try and stray too far outside of that area. If you do stray outside of that area, understand that you are doing so and that you might not have the brilliance that you might need. In my case, I'm a decent accountant but that doesn't necessarily make me a good stock market investor, for example. Although it might do. I'm certainly not a good handyman, I wouldn't try and fix my own dishwasher just because I'm an accountant. It might be a bit of a facetious example but there are examples of doctors who are incredibly bright, hardworking people who think that their level of intelligence plays through to their investing as well. They tend to underperform the market because they try and do their own stock picks and don't do very well. Understand the area where you know and stick to that and recognise when you're going outside of that. Stick to that circle of competence.
Thomas: It's fantastic advice. You've tried comedy and you'd be very interested to hear that you're not the first comedian accountant that we've come across. We used to have a student a couple of years ago who sent us some of his clips and they were actually excellent but most of the accountants that I know are pretty sharp and they've got a good sense of humour. But obviously, that's not the reputation that accountants have. So, why do you think this thing persists that accountants are just bean counters, they're boring, etc.
Andrew: It's a good question. I'm not 100% sure why and obviously, you and I are biased because by training we are accountants. I understand now that many people who aren’t, think accountancy itself is boring - and it may well be to some people, that's fine - and so they assume that accountancy is boring; therefore, accountants are boring. And frankly, I have met some dull accountants. There are some people, I'm not going to name any names, but certainly when I've interacted with some auditors or tax people, they have been boring. But I've also interacted with some auditors and tax professionals who are intelligent, great conversationalists, and who have a good sense of humour. I think potentially some people are conflating the subject itself, which might not be interesting to them with the people who do it. I think it's like anything - there is a complete spectrum of people in finance. There are some people who are very funny, and there are some people who aren't funny, there are some people who are interesting and people who are boring. I think that's true in accountancy and probably the vast majority of professions.
Thomas: Any plans on getting back up on the stage when things start reopening?
Andrew: Maybe, I thought about this a little bit. I did comedy once, 12 years ago. It was a student comedian competition. I thought I could really go. I really like stand-up comedy. I've watched it a lot. That was always something I wanted to try. It went quite well, I guess, I didn't knock it out of the park but it was decent. I'd probably like to do it again sometime. I think the benefit of having done it is that anytime I have to stand up in front of an audience now at work and give a presentation, I don't get nervous at all because I know all I have to do is go there and be factual. There's no pressure to also be funny and make them laugh every 20 seconds. But if you can throw in a couple of jokes here or there, people go, “That was fantastic. That was amazing. It was so funny.” When there might be two mildly amusing comments in a 20-minute presentation, compared to a five minutes standup routine where you need to be hitting punch lines every 15 seconds or 20 seconds or so. I'd recommend everyone do it if only to get over the nerves of public speaking. It's a great trial by fire, but something not strongly recommended.
Thomas: It fits in as well with what we were saying about skill stacking earlier on. You're not going to meet too many accountants that have the ability to get up on stage and tell a few jokes. Andrew, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. Absolutely fascinating hearing from you. To our students, absolutely get on to Andrew’s blog - it's at andrewlynch.net and follow on Twitter. The blog is brilliant, we’ll include the link to that article on improving his company's fortune and increasing profit from 19 thousand to 1.1 million in four years - it's a great read for CIMA students. I think you've got a newsletter as well, Andrew, right?
Andrew: Yes, it's called ‘Human Capital’. You can sign up on andrewlynch.net, and you'll get an email every time I send one out, which is probably every few weeks or so.
Thomas: Great stuff. Thanks so much for talking to us, Andrew, and take care.
Andrew: Thanks, Thomas. This was really interesting. It was great fun. Thanks for having me on. I really admire what you guys are doing with Viva tuition as well. So, keep up the good work.
Thomas: Thanks, Andrew. Take care.
Andrew: Thanks, Thomas. Take care
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