Simon Dolan: Giving up the guitar made my fortune

Simon Dolan planned to make his first million from rock stardom. But when that didn't pay, he went into accounting. Now he runs one of the UK's top-50 accountancy firms with revenues of £12m.

Simon Dolan planned to make his first million from rock stardom. But on leaving college he realised "our band was not going to be signed up". So under pressure from his father he applied for a job with a local accountancy firm. "It was the job I really didn't want but the one I ended up getting." Turns out Dad knew best.

After 15 months Dolan was "annoyed with the fact that I was making my boss £8,000 a month but he was only paying me £800". When Dolan's request for a raise was rejected he decided to leave.

"I wanted to do something more exciting." Dolan tried various sales roles, "trying to shift everything from timeshares to fax machines". He quickly grew disenchanted as he realised on target earnings were rarely achievable. Having "bummed around for a year racking up credit-card debts", by the end of 1992 he decided to return to accounting as "it was the only thing I knew how to do apart from play the guitar and no one was going to pay me for that".

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This time would be different aged 22 he placed an advertisement in the local paper as a freelance accountant. After three weeks he got his first customer, using the money from this contract to pay for more advertisements. SJD Accounting grew, but Dolan was working "flat-out, seven days a week". And despite the hard work after three years it was "just like any other small accountancy practice in the UK".

The breakthrough came in 1996 when Dolan decided to focus on self-employed IT contractors, "a niche market but growing quickly". But "I knew if I was to push SJD up to the next level I would have to give the appearance that I was a bigger company". So he bought a "virtual office" with a Mayfair address and regional branches. He also undercut the market. "There were a lot of established firms already in the sector, which were charging £60 a month. I decided to offer half that." Sales rocketed and within months he had 185 clients and found himself working 18-hour days. "I realised I had to take some more people on to give the firm more structure. I was doing everything from the accounting to going to the post office and it was getting chaotic."

Dolan took on more staff, enabling him to accept more customers, which gave him more money to in-vest in branding. It was a virtuous circle that saw SJD go from a one-man firm with 185 customers and £80,000 a year sales in 1996 to one of the UK's top 50 accountancy firms with 150 employees and revenues of £12m. "Britain's 48th biggest accountancy practice might not sound much until you know there are over 60,000 of them."

Dolan then started up regional offices with licensed accountants working all over the country. "It means I can offer clients more while giving employees an incentive to succeed and earn promotion." Pity one of them "walked away with three-quarters of a million pounds' worth of business". A court case found in favour of SJD, but Dolan concedes it was "probably the worst moment of the business". His regional accountants now have "far less autonomy".

At only 41 Dolan still has ambitious plans for SJD. "The IT sector still makes up 60% of sales but we are targeting other niche areas, such as nuclear contractors."

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.