Business owners frequently have good ideas and products but poor business administration skills, explains Kevin Watson who heads up Sprout Consulting.
“The greatest need for small businesses is to understand business administration and get it right from the outset. A lot of businesses fail because they can’t,” he believes.
The key for many start-ups and small enterprises is actually to outsource administration rather than do it themselves. This ultimately provides access to experienced professionals to which small businesses may not ordinarily have access.
As Watson explains, big companies often share a common head office with teams that provide a host of different, but essential, services. “Smaller businesses don’t have the luxury of having one set of professionals they can plug into who understand their businesses from all of these angles.”
Sprouts goal, he says, is to take away the day to day stress from business owners allowing them time to grow their businesses. Its areas of expertise include accounting, tax, marketing, human resources and information technology.
Knowing that one of the chief challenges for small business – and potentially the off putting factor when it comes to buying in services – is the potential cost, Sprout has introduced a package discount for those using more than one of their services. “We all need cash flow to keep our businesses going, thus we have a bundled monthly payment plan option,” adds Watson.
Watson’s keen understanding of the ups and downs of the world of small business stems from a fascinating 25 year career in 13 different countries.
He started out in 1990 doing his articles and studying towards a CA in the evenings and over weekends. After completing his studies, he headed to the UK in 1995 and spent his first two years there as a treasury analyst. He then worked for a start-up joint venture between three listed companies developing the first mixed use development in London.
As a business consultant specialising in start-ups and companies requiring a large amount of change management, this provided a whole new perspective when it came to the idiosyncrasies of small business.
After completing a change management assignment in Geneva, Switzerland in 2001 where he prepared a company for a stock exchange listing, Watson joined oil giant, Shell. Here, he found himself developing smaller entities on behalf of a big corporate as part of the group’s small business division.
The first was Shell Autoserv in Durban where the oil giant was purchasing smaller car servicing businesses. From there, he moved to a natural gas business in Houston before running Shell’s heating and air conditioning subsidiary in Atlanta.
“This is where I really got to grips with running a business as we had over 50 staff and 25 trucks on the road. Through great mentorship and applying what I was then learning through my MBA (at the Edinburgh Business School), we managed to take a business where revenues had been declining by an average of 15 percent over previous five years to one that was growing by 30 percent within two years. That’s when the bug really bit to assist businesses to grow by just getting the administration and structures right,” he says.
Watson returned to South Africa in 2006 to head up the finance side of a property company that was not only on an aggressive growth path but also in the throes of listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
After three exciting years, he moved on to the Ivory Group which owns Sprout.
Watson was brought on board to streamline the shared services division that evolved into Sprout Consulting. The rationale behind its formation was that, by combining an extensive offering under a single umbrella, Sprout could either offer single services or packages that suited individual businesses.
“This is really our big differentiator. We try to be one partner rather than many suppliers. We are able to sew together the different administration platforms seamlessly and the scale of services offered allows for competitive pricing,” Watson says.
Out of this understanding has come a number of other client-friendly offerings. To support its market positioning, Sprout provides recurring clients with access to a free online business guidance and a query portal called Business Buddy, a free business workshop of choice, and hour of coaching from business partner KISS Your Business Coaching and a free business health check which highlights the strengths and weak spots and then looks at what needs to be done to improve these.
For each company, Sprout Consulting appoints a dedicated commercial manager to co-ordinate all the services. “This is someone who pulls everything together and offers continuity,” he says.
As an outsider, he adds that it is also often easier for Sprout to step back and address issues without emotion. Being neutral has enabled their teams to address potentially volatile situations, especially when it comes to family owned businesses. “As an outsider, you’re objective and people tend to respect independent advice more. Frequently those close to a business can’t see the wood for the trees. Often, we are telling them what they already know but we’re just putting it in a different way.”