3 business lessons from the movie Hidden Figures


I really love the film Hidden Figures. It tells the true story of a group of African-American women who played a crucial role in the space race for NASA during the 1960s. It’s an inspiring and moving story of their fight against prejudice and discrimination in an America that still had segregation. It also has something to tell those of us in business.

One of the three main characters is Dorothy Vaughan. Dorothy headed a 30-strong segregated team of ‘human computers’, women who made the complex mathematical calculations needed for space flight, by hand. The film tells how she realised that the new IBM computer would soon replace her job, so she took matters into her own hands, taught herself the programming language Fortran then trained her entire team in it too.

I’d really recommend watching the film, which is a lot better than I have made it sound! But there are three things all of us can learn from Dorothy Vaughan’s story.

  1. She had her eyes open

Dorothy identified and understood the threat to her livelihood – she was alert to the changes going on around her. Are you looking to see trends and developments in your particular marketplace? Are you awake to changes? What are the threats to your business right now? These may not be technical, as in Dorothy’s case, but may pose just as big a threat.

Too many business owners have their heads in the sand, focusing purely on what they are doing – and the way they have always done it. Develop a strategy for making yourself aware of the changing business environment.

  1. She embraced the change

Dorothy Vaughan refused to be left behind. She didn’t moan or complain about her bad luck, being a ‘human computer’ just when a machine that could do 24,000 calculations per second was being launched. She equipped herself with the knowledge to take advantage of the brave new world of machine computers.

And it wasn’t easy! In the film, the book she needs to teach herself programming is in the ‘white only’ section of the library where she is not allowed to go. So she ‘borrows’ it as she is thrown out by police, telling her son ‘I have paid my taxes, you can’t steal something that you have already paid for’!

As an African-American woman in the segregated south of the USA, Dorothy faced just about every level of opposition she could. Her determination and effort made the difference; through her struggle she positioned herself as the go-to expert.

As Charles Darwin said, ‘it is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change’. Dorothy took a threat and turned it into an opportunity.

  1. She took her team with her

Throughout her career Dorothy Vaughan was an advocate of women of all colours. Having learned Fortran, she taught her team, so that when NASA realised it needed more programmers, she could meet that need with her team, thus keeping them all in a job.

Investing in your team, keeping their skill set up to date, is crucial for any business to grow. If you find yourself unable to trust your workforce with tasks, ask yourself if you have equipped them with the skills necessary. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link!

In a rapidly changing business environment, we all need to be looking at what’s coming down the line. We’ll need to adapt, to develop our skills, and ensure our team is ready too.

Now, the big question is who to cast in the lead role of ‘Altus – The Movie’?



Why apprenticeships work for business


Smart business people know it makes sense to have an apprentice. Even the Dark Side in Star Wars had apprentices. And they very nearly succeeded in taking over that galaxy far, far away.

You may not be in the business of building Death Stars or battling Jedi, but having a well trained workforce is essential. Just over half (54%) of small firms say being unable to recruit the right person has hit them financially. Well, why not create the right person?

We are seeing the benefits of that ourselves at Altus. Chloe Handy joined us almost a year ago now. She has spent 1 day a week studying at Stourbridge College, while learning with us in the ‘real world’. She has recently gained an excellent 87% merit pass in her AAT Level 2.

The apprenticeship has worked for Chloe, giving her the opportunity to study for a qualification while gaining practical experience in a ‘proper job’. It has also worked for us because we have gained an employee that we can train from the ground up in the ethos and culture of the way we do things here at Altus. From a financial perspective we enjoy a ‘discount’ from the minimum wage in the early stages when the apprentice is learning the role and we got a small grant towards all this too.

Chloe is not our first apprentice. Amy also joined us as an apprentice and has developed into a highly valued member of the team having moved from administration to payroll and now bookkeeping. Christian also developed his skills through the apprenticeship route, although not with us here at Altus.

Of course, as with all recruitment, getting the right person is vital and apprenticeships should certainly not be seen as a short-cut to the recruitment process. The difference is that you are looking for potential, not the completed package.

In May there was a change to the way the apprenticeship scheme is funded. This included a new concession for firms with less than 50 employees taking on apprentices aged 16-18. While large employers will have to contribute 10% of training costs, this will not apply to those small firms. Instead the Government will pay 100% of the training costs.

Because 16-18 year-olds can incur additional costs to support in the workforce – such as needing more supervision and pastoral care – employers will be given £1,000 towards this.

There’s also cash help for taking on apprentices from deprived areas, who were in care or have an Education and Health Care plan. A flat rate of £471 for training will also be given if the apprentice still needs to reach minimum standards in English and Maths.

The changes are underpinned by the new apprenticeship levy paid by employers with a pay bill of over £3 million. The plan is to double investment in apprenticeships by 2020.

Taking on an apprentice can have lots of benefits for a business, allowing you to grow your business by training up a workforce to meet your specific needs.



Key changes to Making Tax Digital scheme announced


HMRC has announced its revised plans for its Making Tax Digital scheme affecting businesses – and it seems to have listened to common sense.

MTD, as originally announced, came in for a barrage of criticism from accountants, tax experts, businesses, and politicians from all sides. It would have seen everyone turning over more than £10,000 forced to keep digital records and file quarterly returns, beginning next April.

The new announcement sees changes to which businesses are affected, when, and even which taxes it relates to. The key points of the revised scheme are:

  • MTD will only apply to VAT until at least 2020
  • Businesses below the VAT threshold (currently £85,000) will be able to opt-in if they want but it won’t be compulsory – yet

The scheme will begin in April 2019. From that date, businesses over the annual registration threshold will have to keep digital records for VAT purposes, providing their VAT information to HMRC through MTD software.

MTD for VAT will be piloted using small-scale private testing towards the end of this year, with a larger live pilot next spring.

The Treasury says businesses with a turnover below the VAT threshold can choose to use MTD, and opt in for other taxes, ‘benefitting from a streamlined, digital experience’. It is not clear when this will be from.

It also says it will not extend MTD to other taxes until the scheme has been shown to be working well, or April 2020 at the earliest.

In my previous blogs on MTD, while arguing against the timescale and requirements, I pointed out that having up-to-date information really benefits businesses and day-to-day decision making.

So while many business owners will be happy to have dodged a bullet for now under these revised MTD rollout plans, the Treasury remains committed to a digital tax future. As it says, millions of businesses are already banking, paying bills, and interacting online. Digitising routine business tasks such as record keeping is the next step and is one many businesses have already taken.

For help and advice on record keeping, and how to get the most out of your accounts, contact us here.

3 golden rules for success in business


Being in business is a struggle at times. Read the stories of any successful business man or woman, and none of them will have had a smooth ride to the top.

It is very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day battles. This is especially true in a sole trader/owner-manager business. You often have no-one to tell you whether something is good or bad, someone to add perspective to a situation.

In the early days of my business a very wise friend gave me some advice. He said that when you are working by yourself it is easy to have huge swings of emotion – one day it is great, the next you want to give up. Something very small can tip your mood; one small thing can turn a great day into a disaster.

Often you will then look to blame yourself and come up with all the reasons why you are not capable of running a business. In reality it is probably nothing to do with anything you have or have not done.

But you don’t have anyone to tell you that.

These are my three pieces of advice to help smooth your journey through the ups and downs of business:

  1. Never make a decision off the back of a ‘bad day’. If you are having a bad day, step back and make your decisions later with a clear head.
  2. Always watch the tide and not the waves. Business can be rough and the waves can push you up and down but it is not the wave which we need to look out for. The wave will be here one moment and then will go past us. It is the tide that we need to be aware of, washing us out of our depth or up on to dry land.
  3. Always try to make decisions from a position of strength. We often make bad decisions when we are under pressure or forced into a corner. Just because it seems like a way out of a problem does not mean that it is the right way.

At Altus, we support clients by providing that listening ear and sense of perspective. We are at the end of the telephone line for that quick ‘can I just run this past you?’ call, while our Freelance FD services provide a critical friend on a regular, on-going basis.

NI change in Queen’s Speech


National Insurance payments reared their head in the Queen’s Speech, but will have slipped under most people’s radar with the focus on Brexit bills.

One self-employed client contacted me to ask what the proposed Bill involved. She was worried that the Government was ‘sneaking’ through the increase for the self-employed which was announced in the last Budget but then dropped after a national howl of protest.

The answer is no. In the small print, the Government was keen to stress that it would not include the increases in the Class 4 NI rates for self-employed people originally announced in Budget 2017. Those increases would have broken a Tory Manifesto pledge, and become subject to an infamous U-turn.

The National Insurance Bill flagged up in the Queen’s Speech will scrap Class 2 NI (currently £2.85 on profits over £6,025) – this was first announced in 2016. From April 2018 Class 4 NI will be reformed so the self-employed can continue to build entitlement to the state pension and other contributory benefits.

While Class 2 NI contributions are at a fixed rate, Class 4 is worked out on a percentage of profits.

The Government says it will make the NICs system fairer and simpler, and ‘help ensure that we can continue to fund vital public service’ – which would suggest they expect it to bring in more money.

We await further details, so watch this space!

Why accountants are history


We have a lot to thank accountants for. It’s great when clients thank us for sorting out tax issues or taking away some of the headaches of running a business. But did you know we were responsible for the invention of writing?

I’ve been reading a fascinating article on the BBC website about the deciphering of some 5,000-year-old clay tablets found in the ruins of the ancient city of Uruk, in what is now Iraq.

This was one of the world’s first true cities and the find looked to hold the key to the development of writing. Were they religious texts? Poems? A chance for man to express his deepest beliefs and innermost fears and longings?  

No – they were accounts. It turns out the tablets, and others from across the region dating back 9,000 years, were a way of keeping count of items. ‘Tokens shaped like loaves could be used to count loaves. The ones shaped like jars could be used to count jars,’ explains the BBC article. You didn’t need to know how to count; you just looked at two quantities and verified they were the same. 

The tokens could be used to add and subtract. People could create contracts, with records of future payments to be made.

Uruk’s accountants also developed abstract symbols for numbers, so rather than drawing five sheep they would use a symbol for five. They could express quantities in the hundreds and thousands.

They also give us the world’s first written evidence of compound interest.

 So literacy wasn’t, as the ancient Egyptians believed, a gift from baboon-faced Thoth, the god of knowledge. It was a gift from accountants.

 And if life then was anything like it is now, no doubt some of those early accountants are still waiting to hear back from the Uruk Tax Office…

 For a more modern approach to accounting, contact us at Altus Business Consulting. Unlike Thoth, we promise we won’t make you worship us.