Corner Finance Business Advisors. Helping you find the crucial 4%!
As entrepreneurs running busy businesses, we wear many hats. This is especially true in small business or start ups where you could be doing every job yourself, from delivery driver to CEO. Over the years, I've often become so involved with the day to day running of a business that I've neglected to look at the numbers behind it all. It's too easy to concentrate on sales, manufacturing or marketing, and forget to actually spend time finding out where you could improve your business without having to actually work any harder.
Ian Corner founded Corner Finance Business Advisors to help small businesses take back control of their business data, and use it to create actionable plans for growth and improvement. With over 20 years supporting businesses of all sizes, including senior roles at GlaxoSmithKline and British Airways, Ian certainly has the experience and insight that many of us would find invaluable.
Ian kindly shared his thinking behind the new business and why it's so important for entrepreneurs to find time to analyse their business data.
Can you tell us what you did before you founded Corner Finance Business Advisors?
I’m a Chartered Accountant with over 20 years’ experience supporting businesses of all sizes. I trained at a practice of Chartered Accountants which meant that I gained experience across a huge range of small and medium-sized businesses in many sectors. Since then I have been fortunate enough to hold many senior roles in both GlaxoSmithKline and British Airways – which is where I honed by abilities to simplify complex situations, to make smart decisions, and to be a genuine partner to the business.
With roles as diverse as the Finance Director for Central America/Caribbean in GSK and head of finance for Global Sales and Alliances in BA, I have been able to see my processes and strategies deliver significant growth and success.
Just as important as the experience, though, is how I am as a person. My overriding goal is to take everything I have learnt so far and to apply it in places where it makes the most difference. That is to say, where it will help the people and businesses most in need and who could not obtain the expertise they need any other way.
My approach to everything is human, creative, insightful, and based on building a strong genuine relationship. I am all about helping people find the smartest decision, or the elusive solution to the problems that are keeping them awake at night.
In other words: It’s not just that I can help, it’s that I want to help.
Can you describe Corner Finance Business Advisors in a single sentence?
We partner with business owners to overcome any challenge, with solutions that are firmly rooted in data and presented in plain English.
Tell us about the founding of Corner Finance Business...
The basic idea was always there - to build my skills and expertise and develop an approach that I could take to smaller companies, who could otherwise not access that opportunity.
Choosing the right time was always the challenge, but then my daughter was born and it all fell in to place. The chance to take six months to spend with her early on, and then launch the business that I always wanted was just too good to turn down.
Not only was the timing right, but the motivation too. Given that I want to apply my expertise where it will make the most difference, the idea of helping people succeed is a very appealing legacy to be able to tell my daughter about one day.
The philosophy behind Corner Finance is to be a genuine partner for people who need it. The fact that I care about your business as much as you do means that I can be there as a sounding board, I can help you simplify your complex decisions, to find the answers, and I can bring you peace of mind.
Corner Finance Business Advisors is more than just a firm of accountants. You use data to create actionable business advice. Can you tell us more about this process?
You are absolutely right -the journey from Chartered Accountant to Business Advisor has been an interesting one.
When I first launched the business, it was under the banner of “Chartered Accountants and Business Advisors”, but I soon found that people focused on the first bit only and the message was lost. The problem is that people hear the word accountant and they think they know what you do, whereas the service that I offer is not what many people might recognise as an accountant at all.
Now I think the message is much more clear – I am proud of my ACA qualification, but I use those skills as just one tool in my kit. It allows me to offer something that is the best of both worlds – the rigour, professionalism, and financial understanding that you would expect from an accountant together with the entrepreneurial creativity and experience from my career to date.
The beauty of the process itself is that it has been many years in the making, but it is now applicable to any business problem. In fact, it’s not just businesses with problems. Prevention is better than cure, and keeping momentum is easier than trying to get moving again – so I strongly urge businesses to try the process at any point, because taking stock and setting out a plan is always a good idea.
The process itself doesn’t change – the application is just adjusted slightly.
At the heart of it is the concept of Finding the Crucial 4%. Whatever challenge your business is facing - or likely to face in the future – the answer lies in the data. It may be buried deep or hidden across many sources, but the traces are there if you know how to find them. Those traces are the 1% of killer insight hidden in each of the four corners of your business. They are small, but the opportunities they lead to are anything but.
We call the process to find this 4%, Little Big Data®, because it is based on some of the concepts of Big Data but applied on a scale that is appropriate for small businesses. It doesn’t require investment in systems or data capture – it runs on whatever data sources you currently have – it is merely the concepts and approach that make the difference.
It is about digging deep, using all data sources (manual and automatic) and pulling together connections across the whole data set that you wouldn’t otherwise see. By doing this with an open mind, rather than looking for something specific, we open up a whole world of new ideas, opportunities, and potential risks for you to consider.
Of course, all of this is not worth anything if you can’t put it in to action. That’s why just as important as the process to find the insight, is the process to interpret and present it back to you. We never provide just a report – we interpret, filter, prioritise, and we sit with you to work through everything to make sure you understand it and can use it to formulate a plan.
Can you give us an example of the sort of actionable advice you can provide?
All businesses boil down to a series of decisions, and the advice that we provide is built around making those decisions as quickly and accurately as possible.
Just as with any good decision, you need to gather all the information you can, develop options, critically evaluate them, make the decision, take action, and monitor progress. We are crucial to every stage of that process.
In terms of specific actionable advice, here are some examples:
· For a business owner who feels they are out of options, we use the data to provide new perspective and new angles to consider for the future
· On the other hand, people often freeze in the face of too many options. Considering a multitude of factors, we use the data trends to put a value on each option and to rank them. This gives you a view of where to focus your efforts and investment, and a clear sequence of actions to take to get to your goal.
· Detailed advice on how to become financially fit – vital in getting the foundations right for your business on which all future success can be built. We can show you how to turn your business costs in to investments (https://cornerfinance.co.uk/how-to-turn-your-costs-in-to-investments/), how to improve your productivity, how to get your pricing right, and actions to improve your cashflow
· We can show you the return you are getting on each of your actions, and where they can be improved. A good example is the return on promotional spend. We can isolate the impact of a specific advertising campaign, business expo, or other promotional activity on your sales line. This then informs your future promotional decisions and helps you focus on the areas that make the most difference to your business.
· We can show you where your best opportunities for growth are, by segmenting your analysis down to the lowest level. Insight by product, by date/time, by location, by channel, by customer type to name just a few. Unearthing the hidden trends gives you the best chance of finding your next growth opportunity
A lot of entrepreneurs we talk to are incredibly busy and trying to juggle dozens of different jobs at once. Working with financial data is something that often gets neglected. Where should entrepreneurs prioritise their data analysis?
This is a very good point – I do see this a lot. Either entrepreneurs are so busy that they accidentally neglect the data analysis, or they are burying their head in the sand and deliberately neglecting it. I have a lot of sympathy with the first situation, and slightly less with the second – but in both cases there is a huge opportunity being missed. Not only that, but the longer you leave it, the worse it gets.
Whether you are financially-minded or not, and no matter how you define success, the fact is that numbers underpin every aspect of your business – and getting on the front foot is essential. Getting in to the detail, forming a plan, and acting on it is not a standalone exercise separate to your business, it is your business.
With that in mind, the short answer is to prioritise the initial full review and analysis of your business data. You need to prioritise the exercise, commit to it, set the time aside, and make sure you have the right expertise at hand. Once the initial work is done, you will find life becomes that much easier – it is far easier to keep everything ticking over and stay on top than it is to get started in the first place.
It’s also worth highlighting that this doesn’t just apply to people who have an urgent challenge in their business – this is relevant to all business owners. Prevention is far better than cure, so getting in to the discovery exercise as soon as possible - giving yourself multiple options and awareness of the risks you face - should absolutely be the priority. To stand still is to go backwards.
Given that you don’t know what you don’t know, the exercise should be as broad in scope as possible – as this ensures you capture the maximum amount of insight and opportunity.
We categorise our analysis in to three broad buckets: sales/customers, costs/volumes, and working capital/cash. If you absolutely have to narrow it down, then choose the one that you feel is most relevant to you at the moment – but know that the really rich insight comes from the combinations of these buckets. That’s where you get options on pricing, profitability, productivity, financial fitness, and return on investment to name a few.
Working with entrepreneurs to improve their businesses must be a very rewarding process. Is there a particular case that springs to mind where you were able to positively change a business?
It is very rewarding indeed – it’s why I do what I do.
Our process involves opening up many analysis routes – most of which we end up throwing away as they reveal nothing – in order to get to the crucial 4%. When we find that needle in the haystack – and know instantly that it will make a huge difference - that is as rewarding as it gets.
I won’t give too many details as I don’t want to break any confidences, but here is one example:
While analysing the sales opportunities of a specific product, we incorporated both value and volume data and noticed that the average sale price was unexpectedly falling. To cut a long story short, this led us to realise that the amount of ‘bonus goods’ (goods offered free as a sales incentive) was increasing.
Because we incorporate all the data we can in to every bit of analysis, we also noticed that sales returns of that same product were increasing. When we combined this data with the average shelf life of the product, we found an almost perfect match. In other words, nearly all of the product issued for free was being returned unsold and expired – causing additional costs in storage and disposal. The data systems were not linked, returns were not properly tracked, and nobody had made the connection before.
This ended with a win-win-win. We changed the sales incentives to a cheaper cash volume discount which the distributors preferred; we made more product available for sale to other markets with no production increase; and we greatly reduced unnecessary waste and cost.
What are your plans for the future of Corner Finance Business Advisors? Where will your business be in five years?
As you will have noticed from my earlier answers, my motivation for this business is to help businesses succeed. As such, it is very important to me that I can maintain the levels of service, the personal touch, and the ability to be directly involved in all of my client businesses.
I want to make sure that I can always personally partner with the people that come to me for help, so finding the optimal scale for Corner Finance Business Advisors is paramount. Large enough to help as many people as possible, small enough to be commit my own expertise and time in every case.
The future for us is to firmly establish the vital importance of the “data, plan, prioritise, focus, act” approach for all businesses – and to be the go-to solution for business owners who need the help.
It would also be incredibly rewarding to have been on a journey together with my clients over the next five years – to be able to jointly deliver success. Each growth phase of a business brings challenges, but our core solution remains constant – which is the beauty of it.
If you could have any entrepreneur or business as a client, who would it be and why?
I won’t name specifics, although there are a few that I have my eye on. It’s more about the type of entrepreneur/business.
My ideal client would combine my experience in hospitality and manufacturing, the huge data opportunities within those industries, and my love of both coffee and good customer service.
Put all that together and you get a sweet spot of coffee roasters, coffee shops, boutique hotels, restaurants, and artisan manufacturers.
As for the people I like to work with, it’s like-minded individuals. That is to say, people with a purpose/vision, who want to make a difference with their business and need the help to achieve it. People who know there is more to success than just maximising profit at the expense of everything else, and people who like to deal with others in a natural way.
Is there an entrepreneur who you find particularly inspiring?
It’s so hard to avoid the clichés when answering a question like this. I particularly admire anyone with a knack for conveying complex ideas in a simple and engaging way – as I think it is both very hard and incredibly valuable at the same time.
I don’t know if you would describe him as an entrepreneur as such, but at the moment I am getting a lot out of reading the blog of Tim Urban. It’s called Wait But Why (https://waitbutwhy.com/) and to my mind is a great example of a fresh way of looking at regular topics. Some of his visualisation is genuinely eye-opening – I particular liked his take on how short life is (https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/12/the-tail-end.html) and looking at history horizontally (https://waitbutwhy.com/2016/01/horizontal-history.html).
Can you give us a rundown of a day at Corner Finance Business HQ?
Every day is different, which is just how I like it, but the thing that doesn’t change is the morning coffee.
I always start with the coffee, and spend some time reading – to keep up-to-date on client industries and to give me thinking time to produce the Small Business Tips blog (https://cornerfinance.co.uk/small-business-tips-november-2019/).
The rest of the day is what changes – some days I spend time on my social media, blog content, and finalising an ebook on the planning process. Other days are taken up with client meetings – being face to face to talk through everything is so important. If I can’t establish that understanding then everything else has no value – so my meetings take as long as they take to get it right.
My favourite days, though, are the ones where I am fully immersed in a particular business’s data and a long way down the rabbit hole. On days like these, the routine will be: dive deep, distract myself to process it all, dive deep, distract, and so on – until all of the subtle links and nuances are clear. If you could see the office on days like this, it would look ridiculous – whiteboards, laptops, paper everywhere – it’s a hive of activity but it all ultimately boils back down to the crucial 4%.
All my days end the same too – time spent with my daughter. She is, after all, the inspiration behind all of this.