Grown-ups for start-ups

More for less

Some of the biggest professional service firms in the world are making concerted efforts to woo some of the smallest client businesses in the world – why?

Underground travellers to London’s ironically named ‘Silicon Roundabout’ ­– anywhere else it would be called Tech City or something more dramatic – were recently confronted by a bargain offer advertised on just about every flat service in the whole of the Old Street tube station. The offer was simple – accountancy services for small businesses for only £145 a month – what was more surprising was the firm behind the offer, KPMG. Yes, KPMG the huge, global, 150,000+ strong, accountancy and professional services firm that serves its fair share of the FTSE 100 and Fortune 500; the largest corporations on the planet.

Are times tough over at KPMG HQ?

Look a little harder and you’ll find other similar surprises, Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) have a new division – JLL London Unlimited – staffed by commercial property agents who dress in jeans and hoodies rather than navy suits and ties. International law firm Taylor Wessing has another London office in Second Home, a WeWork-type offer, in adjacent Shoreditch, that invites potential clients to ‘drop in for a chat’. And recently one of the more traditional, buttoned-up law firms Slaughter & May announced that it would be giving away £30,000 of its services for free, to 5 lucky FinTech start-ups.

Staying out front 

All these moves are part of a bigger picture where the more enlightened of the biggest firms are seeing opportunity in the threat of the disruptive business environment. Part of the threat is obvious – if the biggest brands rest on their laurels too much and comfortably just go on serving only the biggest and best of the current clients, they risk, over time, becoming squeezed as new fast-growth companies push aside the old-guard and bring in the advisors that helped them along their journey from start-up to global Titan. But this is only a part, maybe a very small part of the real threat.

The greater threat is that the biggest firms risk becoming perceived as outmoded brands – the older generation, stuck in their ways, with capabilities and practices out of touch with the needs of the new, younger, entrepreneurial leaders of high-growth businesses. This is a brand problem as much as a commercial one and requires a brand-led approach to solve it. Brands are driven as much by narrative as by data, the two must be linked of course or the brand lacks authenticity but they’re not necessarily the same. It seems that most of the examples above are driven as much by future brand considerations as current commercial ones and that takes bold leadership in a partnership.

Symbols of intent 

Each of these examples are in different ways brand symbols, whether consciously designed as such or not. They help craft a narrative in the minds of clients. A young entrepreneur reading about Slaughter & May’s FinTech initiative today might then have a better idea about the firm in 3 or 5 years’ time when it comes to an IPO. And potentially the start-up that chooses KPMG for £145 a month might continue to work with them for £145,000 a month if they like them and keep them on-board as they grow.

Another potential business benefit for these firms is their increased ability to offer their own employees – young and old – interesting and challenging opportunities to work with smaller, high-growth businesses, gaining more exposure to clients than they might otherwise get and enabling some to exercise their own entrepreneurial urges without leaving the firm to do so. These days accountancy firms probably face more threat of business ‘disruption’ at the employee level than at the client level, as smart graduates are tempted to join technology companies rather than the ‘professions’.

These are exciting times for professional service firms in terms of brand strategy. In most sectors the expectation (real or imagined) of market consolidation means that firms must work harder to differentiate themselves from near-identical competitors to maintain their momentum. These initiatives by some of the most prestigious firms in their fields shows that their leaders are not taking anything for granted.