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, Cascade.bi, 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 Cascade.bi to provide out-of-the-box business intelligence for SMEs

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