‘Houses are more interesting than sandwiches’ This is Sarah Beeny on tax going digital

Now she is meeting small business owners around the country, as part of an initiative set up by accounting software experts QuickBooks, to help them prepare for the launch in April of the government’s Making Tax Digital campaign. We caught up with her to find out what makes her tick…

What was your first business Sarah?

“When I was 16, my friend and I started a homemade sandwich business – you’d probably call them artisan these days, so I was ahead of my time! The problem was we over-bought.

We were left with about 50, which I made my poor father and stepmother eat for the next two nights. By the third night they’d had enough and I chucked the rest away.”

Do you prefer earning your income through property?

“Yes, houses are much more interesting than sandwiches, there’s logic to them and I'm interested in design and the concept of the home. I developed my first property with my husband Graham and my brother Diccon when I was just 19, and it’s gone from there.  My dad was an architect and I visited building sites with him from the age of seven so I suppose it’s in the blood.”

What’s the most fun you’ve had with a business?

“They’ve all been fun. You have to be passionate as businesses evolve with your heartbeat. But launching the dating website MySingleFriend in the early 2000s – before smartphones and swiping – was really exciting.

Like all the best businesses, it was born out of frustration. A friend wanted a boyfriend and she was such an amazing person I got irritated that she couldn’t find one. Back then, dating agencies were run by ladies in tweed sitting in fusty offices, and nobody talked about it.

In the middle of the night, I had a brainwave. I woke Graham and said, ‘Let’s put all our single friends on a website and fix them up!’ I rang all the singles I knew, promising dinner if they’d sign up. Then, someone from the BBC joined – the next day we had 600 people from the BBC, and then the BBC itself blocked the site.

Being blocked by the Beeb felt like quite an achievement! Looking back, I do believe My Single Friend changed the view of dating. It made looking for love sociable and it removed the stigma. It was a moment in time and I’m proud to have been part of that.”

Which aspects of business do you most relish?

“I always enjoy the accounts. It’s not the most glamorous aspect, but I get a kick from seeing money going in and out. When I was about ten, I opened a bank account with one of those little passbooks with the plastic covers.

I asked everyone to give me cheques instead of notes for my birthday. I got a kick out of going to the bank and paying them in. My grandfather was an accountant and when we developed our first property, he taught me double entry book keeping. It made sense – the column of ins and the column of outs all tallying up.

There’s a brilliant saying which is ‘stupid in – stupid out’. If you put nonsense numbers in you’ll get nonsense numbers out and while business isn’t all about profit, you need something left to pay the bills or what’s the point?”

What attributes does a successful business person need?

“The most important is bounce-back – the ability to learn from failure, dust yourself down and start over again. It’s an important skill in life as well as business and you can only learn it by taking risks and failing.”

Making Tax Digital…everything you need to know

  1. What’s it all about?

From April 2019, businesses with a turnover above the £85,000 VAT threshold will be required to keep digital records as well as file their VAT digitally to HMRC every three months through compliant software. They will no longer be able to log on to HMRC’s online service to submit VAT returns.

  1. Why is it happening?

MTD aims to make tax admin simpler and more efficient. Ultimately, it could mean the end of the annual tax return and the frantic rush to get accounts in on time. Instead of one big return, eligible taxpayers and SMEs will submit digital summaries at least four times a year, so they will always stay on top of their accounts.

  1. What do I need to do?

Simply sign up to an HMRC-approved MTD software solution, such as QuickBooks, to start filing directly to HMRC the compliant way.

What’s your advice for someone just starting out?

“Stay focused and don’t spread yourself too thin. The most successful businesses I’ve launched are the ones where I’m totally committed. Your headlights can only point in one direction at a time and businesses shift and evolve constantly, so you need to be on it. Also, have good people around you. I’m lucky as Graham and I always work together. If I can't get my ideas past him they’re probably not good ideas. He’s been my partner in life and business for nearly three decades.”

What about the new Making Tax Digital initiative?

“It’s something small businesses need to be aware of and plan for. Basically, from April 1 this year, VAT-registered businesses with a taxable turnover of more than £85,000 have to keep records digitally and use approved software such as QuickBooks to submit their VAT returns.

I think it’s important for any new business owner to understand the basic principles of accountancy too – to see how all the numbers add up. Find the online accounting system that’s right for you.

They might seem intimidating at first but they’re like smartphones – if you play around with all the different functions, you’ll quickly be using them really efficiently, and they make your life much easier.”

What’s next for you? Any new businesses planned?

“We’ve just bought a sheep farm. Well, I did a lambing season when I was 17 so I do have experience. Actually making money from the sheep won’t be our main focus – instead, we’re planning to do exciting things with the farm buildings.

I like a challenge and I grow bored easily, so I’m excited to see where our latest venture takes us.”

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