Training That Meets the Needs of the Accounting Practitioner and Small Business.
How Did We Get Here?
This morning, as I begin writing this, I received an email from Canada’s national business newspaper – The Globe and Mail
I subscribe to The Globe and receive regular email updates on technology and small business. As shown in the email, this particular update was from their Report on Small Business. However, none of the companies mentioned in the article remotely resembles a small business in this (or any other) country.
“none of the companies mentioned in the article remotely resembles a small business”
“Vendasta secured the largest venture-capital investment ever by a Saskatchewan tech company in 2019and has experienced steady growth since a short-term lull early in the pandemic. The company, which has about 500 employees and generates about $50-million in annualized revenue, offers tools to help small businesses speed up digitization efforts in such areas as e-commerce, remote collaboration and online learning. CIBC World Markets, National Bank Financial and TD Securities are leading its offering.” –
According to their website Thinkific has 235 dedicated employees.
While their stories are interesting, these companies are not “small”. They would all be classed as SMALL CAP STOCKS which isn’t at all the same thing. In fact writers for The Globe and Mail really aren’t interested in small business, except perhaps in the aggregate. They simply aren’t important enough.
From the investment website THE MOTLEY FOOL (Fool.com: Stock Investing Advice | Stock Research )
Updated: Feb. 17, 2021, 9:16 a.m.
Some of the best investment stories of the past 25 years started with investors who recognized the potential of a small-cap stock. Just think of being an early investor in a company like Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), which was a $7 stock in 1998, or Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), which had a market cap of just over $1 billion in 2010.Of course, not every small-cap stock becomes a giant. Investing in the stocks of small companies can be very rewarding, but it comes with risks that investors need to understand. Here’s a closer look at what small-cap stocks are, how to choose the best ones, and how to figure out if they’re right for you
SO WHAT IS A SMALL BUSINESS?
I suppose terms like “small” or “big” depend on who is using them. However there are definitions used by statisticians that can give us some insight. The infographic shown below displays the number of private sector employees by businesses in 3 different size categories:
STATISTICS CANADA categorizes businesses by the number of employees. Firms with fewer than 100 employees are categorized as “SMALL”. By this definition, the overwhelming majority of private sector employees work for small businesses. However even that doesn’t tell the whole story.
In 2018 according to Statistics Canada there were 1.2 million “employer businesses” in Canada. In that same year there were 2.9 million Canadians who were self-employed. How many of the firms owned by those self-employed Canadians were included in the 1.2 million “employer businesses”?
It’s hard to say precisely.
Perhaps that is because Statistics Canada seems to trivialize our smallest businesses in terms of their importance. In fact they talk in an almost disparaging way of “micro businesses” (firms with 4 or fewer employees). The problem is that taken as a whole, the self-employed and these micro businesses account for more employment than all of Canada’s large and mid-size businesses combined (24.57% vs 24.44%) by our estimates.
Thankfully BC STATS takes a more realistic approach. Each year they publish SMALL BUSINESS PROFILE. The latest version – updated January 18, 2021 – deals with the 2018 year. In BC, which has the highest percentage of self-employed workers, fully 60.96% of all businesses are run by the self-employed without paid help.
BC STATS classifies businesses differently than Statistics Canada. In spite of the fact that they use data compiled by STATISTICS CANADA, they interpret that data and present it differently. They classify businesses with fewer than 50 employees as small. What’s more, they don’t bother with the category of “medium-sized” businesses at all. So in BC at least, a business with 50 or more employees is considered “large”.
This approach makes sense to us.
According to the more realistic classification system used by BC STATS, only 2% of all businesses in Canada have more than 50 employees. Of course if we used STATISTICS CANADA’s definition, the percentage of Canadian businesses that are “large” would be about a quarter of 1%.
I have to ask myself what planet the editors of Canada’s most influential business paper live on. How is it that they consider companies with between 150 and more than 500 employees as small businesses?
I’m not alone in my concern.
Recently I came across this article by Howard Aldrich of the University of North Carolina:
“Dazed and confused by the wild hype surrounding gazelles and unicorns, entrepreneurship researchers have focused on the black swans of the entrepreneurial world, even though IPOs and venture capital financing of firms are extremely rare events. Despite the rarity of IPOs and obtaining venture capital, entrepreneurship conferences and journals have been filled with papers on various aspects of the process of going public and VC networks. Fortunately, in the middle of the Silicon Valley mania, other scholars have been paying attention to the more mundane aspects of business start-ups, i.e. the ordinary business starts, numbering in the hundreds of thousands for businesses with employees. The purpose of this article is to address what we believe to be scholars misplaced attention on the extreme and their neglect of the mundane in the study of entrepreneurship. Correcting the misperception that has been introduced through selection biases favoring growing and profitable firms will give scholars and policymakers a more accurateand policy-relevant picture of entrepreneurship in the 21st century.”
So the business press, scholars and policymakers get it wrong in terms of understanding the importance of small business. However it doesn’t end there. The accounting profession – of which I am a member – does not really appear to understand the difference between big and small. Or at least their perspectives seem to mirror those of our largest businesses.
The profession is “led” by the largest public accounting firms – affectionately referred to as the “BIG 4”. While the vast majority of accounting professionals like myself work with or for small businesses, we don’t have the time or resources to worry about the leadership of the profession. We don’t have marketing departments or staff with time to dedicate work on committees – we’re too busy working. In fact, in recent years practitioners are increasingly having difficulty even finding staff.
It is inevitable to be molded and shaped by our own economic interests and those of our clients and employers. Certainly I am guilty of this. Each of us lives in the centre of our own universe. The BIG 4 public accounting firms provide assurance (aka “audit”) and advisory services to our largest companies. Needless to say, their clients’ needs and perspectives are very different from those of our smallest businesses.
For me personally it came to a head in 2017 when CPA Canada provided guidance to then Finance Minister Bill Morneau. The recommendations could have been lifted almost verbatim from Donald Trump’s tax plan for the United States. Their guidance reeked of what Professor James Kwok calls “Economism”.
It is easy enough to use principles of introductory economics to support lowering income taxes on the wealthy. Equally it may seem to make sense to massively increase regressive sales taxes by offering offsetting tax credits to low income individuals. However successive governments inevitably let inflation render thresholds for tax credits ineffective.
My point is that my chosen profession now serves the interests of the large international accounting firms and their audit and advisory clients. Needless to say they don’t represent ordinary Canadians or even ordinary accounting professionals. For what it’s worth, they didn’t think it necessary to get my permission to make representations on my behalf.
In about 2015 the 3 professional accounting bodies amalgamated to form the CHARTERED PROFESSIONAL ACCOUNTANTS OF CANADA. From my perspective at least, they squandered decades of experience in distance learning of both CMA and CGA CANADA. The newly amalgamated profession attempted to introduce an intermediate level certificate – the ACAF (Advanced Certificate in Accounting and Finance) – which failed soon afterwards and is now being withdrawn.
This failure just happened to coincide with the arrival of COVID 19. This pandemic served to highlight the importance of online learning. The result is that we are left with universities and colleges whose curriculum is focused almost exclusively on the needs of our largest businesses.
To be fair, large businesses and the largest accounting and legal firms pushed the focus of universities and colleges towards their interests and those of their clients. Interestingly, while these large businesses benefit from using universities to “filter out” applicants, the cost of delivering university education is not borne primarily by them.
These days in many western countries like Canada, a large share of the funding for universities comes from international students who pay handsomely for the chance at permanent residence in a western country with a higher standard of living and less political turmoil. Canadian universities are actively competing for non-resident students who pay much higher tuition fees (typically about 3 times as high) than local students. Smaller universities in less desirable locations in particular, employ “consultants” who work offshore in an attempt to recruit foreign students. These international students now represent the largest single source of funding for post-secondary education in Canada.
While post-secondary education has grown substantially in Canada – According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Canada led the world with 57.89% of adults having a post-secondary education (up from 53.6% in 2014) – in the real world, actual training mostly happens on the job.
In his book “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism”, economist Ha-Joon Chang talks about the role of university as a kind of filter:
“Higher education, of course, imparts certain productivity-related knowledge to its recipients, but another important function of it is to establish each individual’s ranking in the hierarchy of employability. In many lines of work, what counts is general intelligence, discipline and the ability to organize oneself, rather than specialist knowledge, much of which you can, and have to pick up on-the-job. So, even if what you learn in a university as a history major or chemist may not be relevant to your work as a prospective manager in an insurance company or as a government official in the Department of Transport, the fact that you have graduated from a university tells your potential employers that you are likely to be smarter, more self-disciplined and better organized than those who have not.”
Much like the business press and many government agencies, universities are seduced by the “sexiness” of the unicorns and gazelles of the business world. After all, who doesn’t dream of “hitting one out of the park” in the world series, investing in AMAZON or TESLA before anyone heard of them – or landing a senior position with one of the largest companies in the world.
For practitioners like myself, a university degree in business or accounting is not really required to do the work. That is it wouldn’t be except for the fact that an undergraduate degree has become “table stakes” for aspiring practitioners to get in the game.
At the same time the accounting profession is making it difficult for small firms like mine to deliver training that allows staff to qualify as professionals. Unless we can offer assurance services or provide “suitably professional” advisory services, we cannot train our replacements in house. However our clients don’t want and can’t use assurance services or the kind of advisory services that larger firms offer to their well-heeled clients.
In our view the accounting profession – and society at large – has lost its way. We fail to meet the needs of small business by assuming that big businesses are simply sexier, smarter versions of small businesses. Helping small businesses comply with tax planning, regulatory challenges, and assisting with size-appropriate advice suitable for organizations with limited resources is both essential and qualitatively very different than what is currently on offer from the BIG 4 accounting firms and from our universities.
In 2020 we founded the SMALL BUSINESS ANALYSTS SOCIETY OF CANADA and set about the task of developing a curriculum and training materials that are relevant, both to practitioners and their small business clients.