The challenges – and rewards – of setting up your own business

Mark Donaldson, who left Grant Thornton in 2009, talks about the challenges – and rewards – of setting up your own business.

‘If I had to choose one word to describe my career path to date, it would be “varied”, I think! I certainly never thought when I left Grant Thornton back in 2009 that I’d go on to have such a wide range of different experiences, from founding a business strategy consultancy, to running an IPO on AIM, to creating a unique business analytics tool and setting up my own software as a service business.

Right now, Norwich is a good place to be doing business. It feels like everything is coming together, not just on the tech side but in biotech as well with all the exciting work going on at the University of East Anglia and the Quadrum Institute. It feels very buoyant. Of course it has its down sides, too. Sometimes I think the pace of change would be quicker if I was in, say, Cambridge or Manchester, but overall it’s great.

‘Originally, I joined Grant Thornton because I wanted to work with bigger clients than I was able to at the small regional practice where I started out. I was doing pretty well in audit, but then the opportunity came up to join the entrepreneurial side of the business, and that really appealed. Helping people deal with the day-to-day challenges and come up with plans to grow their businesses was a real eye-opener, and it gave me the confidence I needed to strike out on my own.

‘What I learned at Grant Thornton was that most businesses fail because they don’t have the information they need to make decisions. They can’t see where they’re making money, and where they’re losing it. I found that really frustrating, so I set out to do something about it.

‘Put simply my business,, takes data and turns it into something that business owners – and their advisers – can understand. Now something that used to take an auditor days to do – crunching spreadsheets, analysing figures – can be done automatically. It’s quicker and cheaper, and it frees up professionals like me to concentrate on the areas where we can really add value to a business.

‘With Cascade, we wanted to make it available to anyone. It’s pre-built, and it doesn’t need any complicated set-up. It literally takes about four minutes to connect. And we’ve pitched it at a very low price point too, to keep that accessibility.

‘Initially, we focused mainly on accounts data but we’re now looking to expand into other types of information using platforms like Mailchimp, Google Analytics and Xero. Our vision is that Cascade will be the go-to place to find out what’s happening in your business. You’ll be able to, for example, look at your marketing spend and see whether that Mailchimp campaign you ran actually delivered the return on investment you wanted.

‘To set up your own business, you’ve got to have the courage of your convictions. But you’ve also got to be able to recognise – quickly! – when something is going wrong, and do something about it. I’ve definitely made mistakes along the way. You can very easily get what’s called “development creep”, where you’re working on something and adding more and more features – and of course spending more and more money – without really being clear about whether there’s any demand. It’s about figuring out what actually adds value, and concentrating on that.’

‘It’s pretty all consuming. I’m thinking about work all the time, even when I’m on holiday. And it can be lonely. It’s important to maintain your network, to engage with the community around you, so that you don’t just end up in a kind of tunnel, totally absorbed in your own world. You need to keep that openness, that ability to see opportunities. But I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s not for everyone, but I love it. It’s such a buzz.’

CV highlights

  • 2001 Graduates with BA in Accounting & Finance, Leeds Metropolitan University
  • 2001 Joins Norfolk firm Larking Gowen as trainee accountant
  • 2005 Joins Grant Thornton, moving from audit to entrepreneurial advisory
  • 2009 Founded business strategy and CFO specialists Mint Consult
  • 2014 Sets up to provide out-of-the-box business intelligence for SMEs

The importance of [not] being idle – review, sift and react

In the modern era we are bombarded by information, updates, messages, emails, notifications, alerts….the list goes on!

In both our personal and business lives, there is information overload and increasingly we are learning to sift, skim read, delegate or ignore the information presented to us. With Cascade for Sage 50 we provide relevant business intelligence to SMEs which stops the need to sift, create from scratch or even ignore your business information.

How do we make it relevant?

We understand business. We have worked in businesses and understand the day to day challenges, information requirements and the ability to make decisions quickly and reliably. makes accessing your business information very easy, our quick, click through drill and analyse technology allows you to delve into the deepest areas of your business and find the answers.

Does sifting increase risk?

Sifting data can be dangerous, you can miss key business information, make poor decisions or fail to make critical decisions at all.

Do you feel under pressure to clear all your notifications?

It may be feeling the need to have a clear inbox, (or at least keep it to one page), address all notifications on your phone / tablet, you will find that you are constantly sifting and clearing all of this information. The danger is that we all sift or clear notifications but fail to delve into the detail. It is important not to be idle and just by clearing the notifications, does not mean that you have all the information you need to make reliable and accurate decisions.

We make it easy to sift information from Sage 50

Let’s look at the example of not monitoring closely your profit by customer, something which as a Finance Director and business owner I have always wanted to achieve. The challenge is always preparing this in a timely manner, and once prepared, then having the time available to react to it before it is out of date!

Sage 50 BI

Being able to instantly identify which customers contribute to your gross profit, and those that do not, has a huge benefit as this information guides you to making the right decisions, delivering change and action across your business. If this information was sifted and not reviewed in detail, you may end up selling to customers at a loss without knowing.

What happens if we look at everything?

Whilst writing this blog, I have been bombarded by notifications on all devices including the same emails being received, tweets to @Cascadebi and LinkedIn messages and updates, together with BBC news feeds to my watch and IPad! This massively impacts on our productivity as they either interrupt our thought processes, distract and disrupt our productivity.

So what’s the solution?

It all comes down to “The importance of not being idle” (yes its a take on the Oasis track from 2005). We all need to understand that whilst we have to handle a significant volume of data, it is important to sift quickly, identify the important and crucially respond to, take action on, and resolve issues as they arise.

Whilst we recognise that for Sage 50 provides yet more information to our customers, the data is very focused, relevant, reliable, comparable and understandable. It is easy to sift and delve into the detail, adding value to SMEs and business owners. We even provide a free email each week, providing a summary of your financial position and key metrics.

We are so confident that our platform will provide you with the information that you need to help run your business, that we offer a free 14 day trial to road test your data.

Please share your experiences of how you have managed data overload in your business in a bid to remain focused and driven.

The role of AI & Business Intelligence

We are certainly on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution which will change the way in which we all work. Whilst with the past three industrial revolutions, technology changes have been disruptive, they have not been net destroyers of job roles. Does AI promise this?

The world of business intelligence is fundamentally all about providing the right information to the right user and at the right time.

Throughout my career as a Finance Director, CFO and accountant within practice, I have worked with hundreds if not thousands of SMEs and the one common theme is them not clearly understanding their business performance… is there now finally the opportunity to solve this?

The benefits to SMEs of receiving business information are now beginning to become clear with a far increased adoption and awareness of the power of their own business data.

We at have proudly developed our out of the box dashboard platform which connects to Sage 50, and provides SMEs with easy access to their data, increasing awareness of their business metrics. The access to Sage 50 business intelligence dashboard vastly improves the decision making process.

This data could take the form of very simple Google Analytics, through to the number of Twitter followers or customer or product sales. Moving forward the understanding of these can be interpreted using AI, however I believe the limiting factor is that all businesses operate differently and the owners do not have the time to teach AI the basic tasks, or perhaps do not even understand the basic tasks to a sufficient level of detail themselves.

AI is undoubtedly a powerful tool which can very easily take on tasks within a business. I think it will be adopted mostly in its most basic form, through machine learning and the standardisation of repetitive and rules based tasks. These tasks for an SME are often performed by the finance function and therefore areas such as credit control and some reporting will be eroded by a far more efficient process.

The adoption of AI for many SMEs may be problematic in the short to medium term as they fail to understand the power it can bring and generally lack the trust of a “computer system”. The most sophisticated businesses will embrace the technology first.

Let’s first take the example of a simple credit control team within an SME. They will periodically raise and send statements, (checking them first for errors), email and phone the customers to chase for payment and use a strong element of human interaction, emotional intelligence and discretion to ensure the cash is received in a timely manner. Using AI to replace this whole function would eliminate the relationship and rapport element to credit control and may end up damaging relationships with customers. Instead a hybrid solution of utilising AI would work, providing prompts to action, automated emailing of documents, leaving the emotional intelligence and relationship aspects to the human. If trained properly AI could free up the mundane tasks and make the credit controller more efficient.

AI is currently in its early stages and is good at the simpler, limited problems like sentiment analysis (e.g. is a free text sentence from your customers good, bad or neutral) where there are few variables. This ‘opinion mining’ may not always be present in communications with customers with an increasing level of email communication being done with very limited amounts of verbose.

Non AI statistical methods are more than sufficient at stating where a business currently is (KPIs % increases, ratios etc.) but are unable to explain why the current situation has arisen or forecast the future.

AI has promising potential to explain both why and predict the future but current AI technology (and this is likely to be the case for at least the next 5 years) requires a lot of processing power (that even the explosion of cloud computing can’t help bring down to the real-time realm that BI requires) and a lot of data. This processing power coupled with the disparate data (paper based), will be a real obstacle.

AI may start to have application in larger companies with sophisticated systems that produce and store large quantities of data for AI to sift through but SMEs don’t. Their systems are usually limited and only tell a small part of the story, a lot still keep important records in paper form (outside AI’s reach), they rarely have specific workflow tools so their accounts system is the biggest source of SME data which will contain a wealth of information about who bought what product and when but without more (non-transactional) data about the purchase, few insights can be gleaned that standard statistical models cannot already predict.

An example for an SME, is that AI isn’t going to predict that sales from a customer will dip next month because the sales rep is off sick or that the contract to supply is due for renewal (held outside any system) and that the contract terms change, alter or the customer terminates their supply agreement.

I firmly believe that AI in its simplest form, can be used to assist SMEs in certain areas, however these are generally the more task based approaches, which would replace a human repetitive task.

In summary, whilst the next industrial revolution is upon us, the number of net job roles to be destroyed will take time. I think in 5 years time, SMEs will start to see the benefits, and it will be those leaner, fitter businesses with more technology accepting minds who will embrace it first and reap the rewards. The masses of “typical SMEs” will be slow to adopt and this will protect jobs for the next decade.

(screenshot from the platform for Sage 50)


Cascade is a convenient, easy to use platform which connects directly to Sage 50. It brings to life the data held within a business system, enhances decision making which ultimately leads to improved results. is available for £45/month (unlimited users) and can be paid by monthly or annual direct debit. For a free 14 day no obligation trial, sign up here.

About the author

Mark Donaldson is the founder of, which provides SMEs with an out of the box solution for Business Intelligence. As a Chartered Accountant, Consultant FD and Advisor, he understand the day to day challenges which SMEs face both embracing technology and adopting it.

Original version first published in nor(DEV): Magazine – September 2017

SMEs are Sitting on a Goldmine of Data – Small Explorations Achieve Big Impact

There are many resources which businesses need to make the most of in order to thrive in today’s market. But one kind of data which is routinely overlooked by entrepreneurs everywhere is data. For a huge number of small and medium businesses, data is actually one of their primary assets. To ignore such an asset, or not know what to do with it, can be something of a travesty. The trouble is that most of those enterprises have a lot of data sitting in the software they use, but barely ever make much use of it. So how can a business turn this situation around, and why should they do so?

Personalize The Customer’s Experience

Once you start to look into it, it becomes clear that the majority of the data you are sitting on is related directly to the customer. This is great news. Having such a goldmine can mean that you can begin to create a much more personal experience for the customer – something that all businesses could get behind. What’s more, you might even be surprised at how much even a small amount of data can do. Using proper business intelligence software, you can mine for this data in a very fine way and use what you discover to make life much easier for your customers. Making personalized recommendations, informing them of offers they will appreciate, even promoting loyalty schemes – it’s all made more effective by leveraging the right data.

In Place Of Feedback

Nothing can really beat the actual feedback you receive from customers – but by utilizing your data in the right way, you can come close. Once you start to use Sage business intelligence software to analyse and transform the data you have in your systems, you can start to see certain trends which might well have been hidden from you before. You can see the specific products a customer is likely to want, and what kind of price they will probably pay for it. You can also discover what kind of features of the shopping experience itself your customers are likely to want to see changed. It’s no secret that this could all be hugely useful information for small and medium enterprises.

Improving Marketing

The more info you have on your customers, the more effective and targeted your marketing can become. For many businesses, this is the single most powerful way to leverage even the smallest nuggets of data. Business intelligence processes can reveal a huge amount about your ideal target audience, and that in turn can influence your marketing profoundly. Better targeting and understanding your demographic more fully are clearly huge benefits which are not to be overlooked by any business. Once again, it is clear that even using a small amount of data can help to make a huge difference to how your business operates. That small data can add up to a make a big impact. Perhaps it’s time that your business started to look at the data it might be holding in its own software. is a Business Intelligence tool for Sage 50 Accounts.  It sifts through your data to give you the important insights that you need to make better decisions.

Contact us for a free no obligation trial:

Packages start from just £45 month, no set up fee, no installation cost or training required. For a free 14 day trial, sign up at or contact us on: or call 03330 112882

Business Intelligence for SMEs…..are you an intelligent SME?

Data is all around us and we often feel swamped by how much there is to understand, digest, and analyse both personally and in business. We are constantly bombarded by updates from mobile apps, emails, and texts, which can put us off wanting to analyse and review data on an ongoing basis.
Screenshot from platform

We have data overload & our mental capacity to accommodate and retain all of this information is restricted. I am going to set out below why I believe timely information and analysis is critical in the success or failure of business performance.

All too often I read in the press that a business has failed by not understanding its current financial position and not being aware of the current trading performance or possessing the ability to adapt to pivot to a changing environment, until it is too late.

An agile business should be able to use its resources (often people) in the most productive and profitable ways to drive business success. This mindset will allow the business to adapt. However, in order to change you need information.

Information allows us to be informed. Having the information available to make such decisions can be critical and the difference between a profit and success or loss and failure.

Business analytics and intelligence is just one area which needs to be covered sufficiently in every business, and I mean every business as it enables reliable decision making. If you are not able to retain in your mind all of the critical information such as knowing your most profitable product, region, sales performance statistics, cash balances, money owed and money due and in addition, be able to identify trends, then I believe you need to have a system in place which allows you to achieve this.

Having a good handle on your own BI is only a start, you need to understand and monitor lots of information in business, including competitors, market conditions (spotting threats and opportunities), the economy (both macro and micro), political and regulatory impacts and changing technology, to name just a few.

Too often getting in depth analysis of your sales, product, customer, supplier and cash performance is deemed as too costly and troublesome. This may be a task which is performed on a monthly basis and most likely more time is spent collating the data (in excel) than analysing and reacting. Does this sound familiar?

My top 5 tips to getting the most out of your BI:

  • Review the time taken to prepare existing weekly/monthly reports.
  • Estimate the % of effort for: Data collation Vs Time spent analysing e.g. 80/20.
  • Plan which data you would like to see and understand. Write down your biggest challenge which you would like to prove through your data (send it to me if you would like).
  • Prepare your data with analysis in mind e.g. tagging customers and products with their segment/category/location/sales manager.
  • Break the data fatigue cycle – move to a constant review, rather than periodic cycle. Become more agile.

Ultimately, I believe Business performance should be a continual process and adapting constantly, not seen as a “review” process. Challenge this norm, explore how can help you improve your business performance.

In summary:

BI for SMEs used to be an expensive task which only larger companies could afford. With modern cloud based technology, the cost of distributing and analysing this data can be as little as the price of a mobile phone contract each month…….pause……who runs their business without a mobile phone?

Contact us for a free no obligation trial: packages start from just £45 month, no set up fee , no installation cost or training required. For a free 14 day trial, contact us on: or call 03330 112882

Cash is king…..?

It is a widely held belief that cash is king in business. I believe it is a myth that if there is cash in the bank then the business is performing well.

Imagine that you are a wholesaler and you sell something today at a loss. Your customer’s terms are 45 days and you pay your suppliers on 30 days. You will have cash in the bank until you pay your supplier, but only when your customer pays you will you actually realise the loss in cash terms. By this time you are likely to have continued to sell at a loss for 45 days and your cash balance will be depleted.

I believe that pricing strategy and information is key. You must know your customers, know your costs and know your prices. Imagine a world where you could instantly see those customers, products or regions which were most or least profitable…or even “making” you a loss.

In summary:

It is a fact that pricing decisions are important and that having the correct information available to make instant decisions and to review is critical. Be informed before it is too late, pricing is king and not cash. Cash is a factor of other decisions and a good barometer of long term performance. provides all of the above in real time, with prices as low as the price of a mobile phone contract each month…..pause…..who runs their business without a mobile phone?

Contact us for a free no obligation trial: packages start from just £45 month, no set up fee, no installation cost or training required. For a free 14 day trial, contact us on: or call 03330 112882

Culture of using Business Intelligence in an SME

We are often told that Business Intelligence, Business Analytics or Management Information is something which large corporates “do”.

Historically, it has been the large corporates who have deployed large scale analytics tools to help them crunch masses of data. If you think of the systems which control Tesco’s Clubcard to ensure customers receive largely relevant offers and vouchers or to the systems which compare pricing across multiple supermarkets. These are all large scale number crunching machines, yet SMEs can benefit from similar data about their customers. SMEs already possess the valuable data in existing systems.

In the age of cloud based solutions and availability of data, there is still a trend to be largely shy about sharing data to employees in an SME. Yes, the data is valuable, however there are different ways of sharing information with staff without providing them with everything.

Software can generally be security protected ( is no exception), so that each member of staff can receive dashboards and information which are relevant to their job role. Much as business owners and directors need information to make decisions, so do the managers in an organisation.

Imagine the scenario where the sales director is fully informed on customer spend, profitability, performance against previous months, years etc, however the sales manager was only given limited information via an Excel spreadsheet each month or week. This lack of dynamic content will undoubtedly impede their ability to make decisions and perform at their best.

Who should lead BI?

We believe that BI should be led by the senior personnel/owners within an SME. Having a culture of making decisions based upon factual information, showing the importance of data will filter down throughout the organisation.

Who should use BI?

Business owners and Managers should use BI to make rapid and important commercial decisions on a daily basis.

Who should respond to BI?

Managers should use BI to filter tasks to employees, empowering them to drive change and improve performance. The whole organisation will respond positively knowing that all of the team are working towards performance which is being tracked and monitored at a senior level and crucially is measurable.

In summary:

BI is not just an activity for business owners. It is a tool by which to make decisions, empower managers and be embraced. It should not be seen as a separate function but an integrated part of the business.

Contact us for a free no obligation trial: packages start from just £45 month, no set up fee, no installation cost or training required. For a free 14 day trial, contact us on: or call 03330 112882