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After your first business venture fails and no one wants to work with you, the easy option would be to throw in the towel and find yourself a nice, stable nine-to-five job.
Well James Ashford didn’t want easy, he wanted to become a millionaire.
With no extensive knowledge but the determination to create a successful business, he tapped into the accounting industry space and has since written a bestselling book and become a credible expert in this domain.
His company, GoProposal, has worked with a multitude of businesses to transform their internal processes, thereby more than doubling their revenue.
This is a story about building a resilient mindset, even when all the odds are stacked against you, and learning how to dominate in your chosen space.
Here’s his unfiltered advice below:
How to bounce back when your business fails, and no one wants to work with you
So let’s get straight in. Before you started Go Proposal, you ran a marketing agency.
Tell us about when you closed the door on that business. What was going through your head when the liquidators came in?
And being in a small town as well where everyone knows each other, all those networking events that you went to, to help build a business, well now, you then think that everyone is talking about you in those same networking events about how it’s all gone wrong.
I always tell my kids, “Don’t tell people about your problems because half the people don’t care, and the other half are glad you’ve got them.”
So you always assume that’s what’s going on.
And there were people that were close to me, I always remember a firm of solicitors who we’d built a website, done all of the branding, and we’d hosted events there.
And I said, “Right, I’m going to start again. I’m going to invest heavily into the best trainers, the best mentors, the best coaches, to really understand what business is all about.”
When the liquidators came in, they said, “This is such a sad situation because you had so much right.”
And I knew we were arriving at some very interesting conclusions, I just had a few missing pieces. So I invested very heavily into my own training and development with who I perceived to be the best business mentors in the world.
I read everything I possibly could and started to work with some of the businesses who still trusted me and wanted me to work closely with them.
But I remember going back to this firm of solicitors saying, “I’m going into coaching. I’m ready now to help other businesses avoid the mistakes that I made. And I want to run an event at your law firm.”
And they knew me, and they’d worked with me, and they invited me into the office. I’m like, here we go, going to get the first event going.
And they sat me down, and they said, “We just wanted to bring you in to let you know that we don’t want to be associated with you at all because you’ve had a business fail in this town, and we don’t want to be connected to that or any of the aftermath of it.”
And I said, there, there’s “No aftermath. I’ve cleaned everything up.”
There were two suppliers I owed money to when I closed the business, and as soon as I started earning again, I went and paid them back.
I said, “There’s no one with any ill feeling. I’ve cleaned it all up. I’m ready to go again.”
And they said, “Yeah, we don’t want to be associated with you.”
And I went out and sat in the car park and I thought, “Right, I’ll find someone who does.”
And I just started ringing round people, and then I hosted this huge event in Leeds, at this amazing venue.
And I started to sell tickets for it. I can’t remember how much they were, let’s say it was like £200 for a ticket. And I rang this first guy up, and I told him what I was doing, and he said, “Yeah, I’ll have 10 tickets.”
And I was like, “Here we go.”
And that was it. So I just started taking all of my learning and started to bring these conclusions together and started to deliver this.
Off the back of that, I then started working with four or five businesses and I had all of these ideas and concepts. It became a bit of a playground because I was able to implement them, and they started to have huge effects.
So, for example, there was a guy, we became great friends, he was a football coach, and he started to kind of run a bit of coaching stuff for kids.
They were doing £75,000 a year in revenue. And I said, “I can help you turn this into a franchisable model.”
So I worked with him, shaped it up and within 18 months, they’d gone from £75,000 a year to £750,000 a year.
We’re great friends now, he’s got 75 franchises, they’re the fastest-growing sports franchise in the UK, all based on those principles. And it was that that started to give me belief that actually I do know what I’m doing, I fill those gaps in, I can help businesses, I can have an impact on them.
And I was talking to someone about this the other day. People say, “You just need to believe in yourself.”
I don’t think you do. You need someone else to believe in you first.
It’s very hard to just say, “I’m going to go from failure to, now I’m going to start believing in myself.”
Something has to happen in that interim. You have to educate yourself. You have to shine a light on yourself.
You have to have people who love you enough to point out your blind spots. And it’s hard. It’s really hard. But you need to do that and start to bridge those gaps because we all have blind spots.
And then like I say, I was fortunate enough, I had people around me who trusted me, who believed in my ideas, who said, “Show me what to do, show me how to do this.”
And it was that that started to give me belief in myself.
Believing in yourself is key but so is knowing when it’s time to quit
I wanted to ask you about that trust and belief. It sounds like part of the reason you started another business was because you wanted to find those missing pieces of the puzzle, prove to yourself and to other people that you could do it.
How did your wife react though? Because you said there was that moment where you had to say to her, “I’ve messed up.”
What was her response when you said, “I’m going to do it again?”
Yeah, I think all of my family and people close to me, as much as they love you, they don’t necessarily give you the advice and information that you need. And it’s not for any bad reasons. They love you, and they don’t want to see you get hurt.
So you have to actually be very careful with who you tell your dreams to. So my wife at the time was a nurse. So working for the NHS, a large institution. Even the word ‘work’. So the word ‘work’ is a negative thing. “I’ve got to go to work.”
Whatever, where I see it’s not my work, it’s my mission. I love what I do. So it’s a very different thing. So you’ve got somebody from one world saying to you, “Why don’t you just get a job? Why don’t you just try this now or do something else?”
And it’s because obviously you want the stability of finances coming into your world, into your life, and also that you don’t want to see that person get hurt again.
“So just go get a job. You’re a clever guy, you’ve got a master’s degree, you can do this. You could go and earn a good salary.”
But it wasn’t my dream, it wasn’t my vision.
And I became so close to tasting and seeing and witnessing what great businesses can do. Not just because what I saw, but the people I was working with had built great lives for themselves.
And I think one thing that can be quite distracting in some ways, I think, Kate, is very often the people that inspire us in business are the likes of the Dragons on Dragons’ Den, or Alan Sugar or Richard Branson, or Mark Zuckerberg or whoever, Elon Musk, making billions.
You’re never going to do that. And I’m a positive guy. You’re not going to do that. Okay. They are like unicorns. They’re just out there, they’re the outliers.
But I started to meet people who had built businesses and were earning £30,000 a month and selling businesses for £5 million or earning a million pound a year from their business and having lots of holidays and living nice lives.
And you don’t hear about these people. They’re not on TV, no one’s writing books about them.
Maybe £30,000 a month is maybe a stretch for some people to even imagine. But £10,000 a month, £20,000 a month.
This is what the people around me were earning.
And like I say, selling businesses for low millions, which again, isn’t going to make headlines in papers, but it transforms lives, and it transforms families.
So I got to taste it and see it and experience it, and believed in myself enough that I could get us there. I don’t actually recall my wife jumping for joy because of that.
And we did split up after that, after the break-up of the business. And it was a very difficult time, but we did come back together again. And then maybe that’s when I presented my idea of going again.
But you’ve got to back yourself, I guess, and where that belief comes from, you do need other people around you to believe in you enough. Otherwise, you could just be foolish.
I’m not a believer that you should keep trying something. I watched a quote last night from a guy, and he said, “If you’ve been trying a business and after three years, it’s not making any money. Maybe you need to take it round the back of the barn and shoot it.” That’s what he said.
There’s a time to give in on things as well.
If you’re business doesn’t have the right values, it won’t move forward
But you weren’t going for this dream of a unicorn business. You were actually going for the dream of a lifestyle change, weren’t you?
Yes. And so for the business I set up, I started to coach, and I started, like I say, seeing people do very well around me, and realised that through video marketing, producing online video content, there were just some very interesting ways to make revenue, as I saw.
I did find that I was able to go into businesses and, because of my background of design. I’ve got a really varied background, Kate, so I was a close-up magician for a number of years, I taught art in prisons for a number of years. I’ve done 50 different jobs, I’ve tried all sorts of different things.
I’m a designer. I’ve got a master’s degree in design. I’m able to hold lots of thoughts together and think laterally. I’m able to work at a very high level on strategy and work very minute on very small details that I will spot.
And so I felt that I was able to bring a unique perspective to these businesses, and also just had a deep fascination with psychology and with mindset. And very often people will try and implement a strategy, but they’re not actually dealing with the mindset and the psychology of the people involved in it.
So I found that I was able to really help with that. I started to study business values and realising that a business can have everything else in place, but if they don’t have the right values, and they’re not adhering to it, they’re never going to move forward.
So I was able to try all these things and I actually had lots of little kind of safe bets going on. So I had some online video content that was selling quite nicely, I had business coaching that was working well.
I had a couple of businesses that wanted me to get involved with them, and they were doing nicely and were offering me a percentage of their businesses.
So I slowly built things back up just to start getting that steady income stream again.
And that was all on the build-up towards when I started GoProposal.
Dramatically increasing business revenue by updating your internal processes and learning you will be compared to everyone
So tell us about where the idea for GoProposal came from, and what were some of the things you did differently with that business?
Yeah, so one of the big conclusions I got from the marketing agency was sitting with a customer. So you sit with a customer, and they’re like, “Right, what are you going to do for us?” And you tell them, and they say, “How much is it going to cost?”
And every marketing agency is the same, which is, “I’ll send you a proposal over by close of play Friday.” It’s always this mythical time of close of play Friday, right?
So it’s Thursday now. Let’s say we’re in this meeting, Kate, “I’ll send it over to you by close of play tomorrow.”
You come out the meeting, something’s hit the fan, I’ve got a million and one other things to do. You don’t get the proposal. So now your first experience of me is poor because I’ve not followed through on a promise.
Next week I will finally get it round to you and send it over, but by this time you’re distracted, and you’re on with something else.
I now can’t get hold of you, so I’m chasing you for one or two weeks. You read all these things in the proposal, you’ve no idea what half of them mean. The price just misses, and it’s a complete mess.
What I wanted was just to have an honest conversation with you and say, “Right, well if you want this, this, and this and this, this is how much it’s going to cost.” Right?
And do it now while I’ve got your focus and while I’ve got your attention, and to be able to close the sale now. I always remember the first time I hit upon it, so I developed a way of presenting the proposal.
During the meeting, the client said, “Yeah, I’ll go for it.” And I said, “Cool, we just need to take your deposit.” And she handed me a credit card. I said, “Cool.”
And I walked out of the office dead calmly, shut the door and ran up to the girl that was working with me at the time, and went, “Figure out how to get some money off this because I have no idea what to do.”
And then did it for a larger business that was doing £13m in revenue, waste management company, a different sector. And their sales process was so convoluted. I just went through it.
What people don’t do is they don’t experience their own processes.
So they think, “Oh, I’ve got this, and you go here, and you click this, and you download this, and you print this out,” and stuff.
So I said, “Let me just go through your process and experience it.” So I went through it and I had to get a referral from someone. I had to print something out. I didn’t have any ink cartridges.
So I had to go and order them on Amazon and then get them and then print it and scan it. I don’t have a scanner, so I had to photograph it. And I’m like, “Guys, what is this? What are you doing?” I said, “We can simplify it.”
So I simplified it, and they went from opening five and six new accounts a month to 50 and 60 new accounts a month. This was solved within 30 days of starting this. That business went from £13m to £20m. It was crazy.
So I’d had these ideas, and it kept moving from industry to industry, every time getting refined and tweaked. But each time having the same fundamental principles, which is we’ve got to be able to do it fast, we’ve got to be able to have an honest conversation, we’ve got to simplify our pricing methodology.
And here’s another one, Kate, we’ve got to empower the entire team.
So I don’t necessarily believe in organisations having a sales team. It can work. I get that, that’s fine. I believe in every organisation having a sales culture, everyone should be armed with the ability to sell.
If you go to a restaurant today, everyone in that restaurant can sell you a very complicated meal, to a large family and serve them drinks because everyone knows how much these items cost. They’ve got menus and everyone’s empowered to sell.
If you imagine in that restaurant only the head chef could sell, you’ve now got a difficulty because the busiest person in the building is the only person who can go and sell stuff.
And in that scenario, what you’d end up having is someone saying, “Can I have a side order of onion rings?” And the chef going, “God, just give it to them. Just go and give it to them.” So you’ve just lost control.
So I established core principles, which was the key thing. Then met an accountancy firm in Manchester, through a Mastermind event I was at.
And I said, “Let me come and review your process for you.” He said, “It’s good. We’ve got it locked down. We’re really good. We’re one of the best around.” I said, “Cool, let me come and review it.”
So I came and reviewed it and at the end of the meeting he said, “I’ll send you a proposal through.” And I kept checking my phone, this was with his current process, and he eventually sent it through.
I rang him back, and I said, “I know you think that was good, but it was really poor.” He says, “What do you mean?” He says, “We’re great compared to other firms.”
I said, “Yeah, but I’m not comparing you to them. I’m comparing you to anyone I want to compare you to. I came to your building in an Uber. There was a book on the side, I ordered it on Amazon while I was there. I was reading it the next morning, I’d still not had your proposal.
“So rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, I’m comparing you to all these other things. The good news is I’ve actually fixed this with many other businesses and I can fix it for you too.”
So we did it. There was an additional complication of engagement letters, which the accounting industry has. We managed to build that into the software. Did it. Didn’t think anything more of it, Kate, it was just another business that I’d solved the same problem for.
But here’s the thing, in all of my studying of businesses, where they nearly all fall down is in this promise. It’s where they promise the services or the product to the client in exchange for the cash.
How are they agreeing the fees? How are they getting the money? How fast are they getting the money? And how empowered is that organisation to be able to do it?
That’s where most businesses fall down.
And what they do is they will always present these other problems. “I’m really struggling recruiting.” “I just can’t find the right staff.”
No, you could do if you could afford to pay them enough, but the reason you can’t afford to pay me enough and train them and keep the staff you’ve got is because you’re not charging enough because you don’t have this sales system in place.
So most problems in businesses can be traced back to fixing this. So I fixed it for them, had a huge impact straight away, then another accounting firm heard about it and said, “Could we have that?”
And for 20 years, Kate, I just had this vision of, I want to build a business. I want it to be successful. People don’t like talking about money, and it’s crude and all this stuff, I wanted to be a millionaire.
I remember working in a bar, I was 20 years old and this guy coming in and I were telling him, “I’m going to be a millionaire by the time I’m 25.” And he was like, “Yeah, don’t think so.”
It took me a lot longer to get there. It took me another quarter of a century, but I always had this belief. And yeah, people don’t like talking about it, but if you don’t have that, if you don’t have a goal, if you don’t have a dream of where you’re going to, the opportunity will just pass you by, and you won’t spot it.
But I was looking for it and I had been looking for it for so long, and the moment I heard from the other firm saying, “Could we have that?” It was like, this could be it.
This could be the thing I’ve been looking for.
How to gain credibility in an industry—even if you don’t know everything
So you had that sort of light bulb moment. You thought, “The accountancy industry is where I can make a difference, where I can shake things up with this software.”
I’m interested to know though, as an outsider, how you built credibility in that industry and became a key person of influence.
I don’t think I actually knew enough about the industry, and I’ve got a book behind me, I won’t say his name, but of a prominent person who’d worked in the account industry for ages.
And he knew me and he rang me up straight away, and he went, “What the hell are you doing? Why are you working with accountants? You’re making a massive mistake.”
He said, “They don’t like anyone from the outside. They’re slow to make decisions. They don’t want to spend any money on anything.” all these reasons. I said, “Thank you for that feedback.”
I said, “But I’m going to dismiss what you’ve said because at the end of the day, these are people with hopes and dreams and fears, and I’m going to speak to that. I’m going to understand their pains, and I’m going to help them.”
And the reason why I became really impassioned about it and wanted to crack this, Kate, was because I believed not only could I help accountants and help them to build better businesses themselves, but because I’d underinvested in the finance function of my business.
And that was partly on me, but it was partly on my accountant for not showing me everything I needed and for not having the confidence to present it to me and to sell me what I needed, right? Because they’re not trained in that. It was partly on them as well.
So I believed that if I could crack this for them, not only could I help them to build stronger businesses for themselves but help them in turn to get their clients to invest at the right level.
All these businesses are massively underinvested in the finance function of their business because their accountants aren’t having the right conversations with them and don’t have the confidence to present what they’re needing to charge, what they should be charging.
So I felt I could have a double impact here, which is why it really excited me and why I wanted to crack it.
I knew I needed credibility very quickly. So a few things I did was the firm that I implemented the software for was called My Accountancy Place at the time in Manchester. I headed up by a guy called Paul Barnes.
I said, “Look, as a thank you for helping me to start in this space, I’m going to give you 10% of GoProposal, because I want someone with an accounting background to be involved in the business to help to guide me. And I want 10% of your accounting business, and we’ll work closely together, and I’ll help you with other things as well.”
Now, it worked out very well that, because it meant that when I was on stage talking at various things, fast-forward a little bit, I could say, “Yes, the firm that I’m a director of, the accountancy firm I’m a director of…”
So that helped me with credibility.
One thing was I realised that I’m just going to help as many people as possible. I’d been a close-up magician. So I was good at presenting. I’d launched a product, you can find this on YouTube, I’ll send you a link to this because it’s still really good, and it’s called Magic Dad.
And I had this idea of how can dads become magical in the eyes of their kids. So I taught eight tricks of various things, removing your finger and stuff like that, and putting it back on. Just little tricks like that that made kids think their dads were magic.
So I launched this video program, this video course, and it sold a bit as an app, and then it didn’t. But through that, I learned how to video, how to stand in front of a camera, how to set my mics up, my lights and everything else.
And so I thought, the way I’m going to dominate this space is with video content. Everyone hates doing videos, people don’t have enough information to keep sharing, it’ll become dry after a while.
I knew about marketing, so I thought, I’m just going to dominate this. Large companies don’t do it because they have so much bureaucracy, so much red tape, that to get a video out the door takes so long to do, and smaller businesses are not necessarily resourced to be able to do it.
But I’m going to develop an efficient way of producing high quality video content every single day. I’m going to dominate this sector, and I’m just going to share and help. I’m going to educate.
In any given market, I have this belief that about 3% of people of any market want to buy your product and service right now. But there’s another 30%, so 10 times more people, want your product or service, they just don’t know they need it.
So the only way you can get them is to educate them. So these accountancy firms didn’t realise they had an issue with pricing and selling. They didn’t know about all of this stuff. All I had to do was be able to explain their problem to them better than they could explain it to themselves.
And so that’s how I did it, and I wrote a book. So I wrote Selling to Serve, which is behind me somewhere. Let me get a copy of it, because I’m going to show you this, Kate, this is key. You need to see this.
Writing bestselling books and dominating the video content space
So I haven’t actually got the original version here, but this was kind of the second iteration of it. And see how thin it is.
The first version was even thinner than this, and it was so thin they wouldn’t allow me to put any text on the spine. So it was plain, right?
More of a pamphlet, then.
Very similar. But do you know what? It was a book. And I gave myself the brief of one week to write a book. So I thought what I’m going to do is, I’m going to write down the sales process I’ve implemented in my accountancy place. So I gave myself one week to write it.
My daughter’s friend at school, she was starting to do business studies and I said, “Can you be the editor? Can you proofread a book for me?” She said, “Yeah, cool.” I said, “Right, I want you on Sunday to proofread it.” She said, “Have you got the book now?” I said, “No, no, I’ve not written yet, but you’ll have it on Saturday to do it.”
Everywhere I travelled that week, I travelled on the train, so I could write it. My wife said one day, “Should I pick you up from the train station?” I said, “No, I’m going to the pub. Come and get me at 14,000 words. I’ll ring you when I’m there.”
So I just kept battering this book, day in, day out, sent it. We published it the following week. There were typos in it, but I didn’t care. I was a published author. I was a published author in the accounting industry, and the content was okay.
I then got feedback, I polished it up and that’s when I produced the next version of it, that was thick enough for me to be able to have this on it. People started seeing my content online on LinkedIn because I was sharing it all the time.
And then somebody said, she was called Zoe, “Can you come and speak at Accountex?” Because she’d seen my videos. I’m like, “Yeah, sure.”
So I went and spoke at Accountex. Then another accountancy software company said, “Can you come and speak?” So I would go and speak at Accountex. I said, “Is it being filmed?” She said no. I said, “Well, I’m going to film it.”
So I filmed it, recorded it, took the video of me talking, shared that back on socials, a big accounting software company, not Sage, another one, heard about it and said, “Can you come and speak at our event?”
And I said, “Absolutely. Why don’t you, as a gift, give a copy of my book to everyone who turns up to the event? That’d be really cool.” And they were like, “Oh great, yeah, what a great idea.” I said, “I’ll drop the price of the book to cost. You buy them, and they’ll all turn up.”
I said, “But tell me when you’re buying them.” So he told me… I paused then because I realised I’m giving quite a lot of secrets away here, right?
We want to hear all the secrets.
They bought the books. So the way that Amazon review books and decide whether you’re a bestseller or not is on an hourly basis. So for that hour that they bought all those books for the event, it became a bestseller. Not a number one bestseller, but a bestseller, it went into the top 10.
So it was a bestseller for that category. So I then quickly changed the front cover of it to say, “An Amazon bestseller.”
I’m reluctant to show you it on the front cover here, and you’ll see why in a second, and then I’ll explain why there are bits missing of the book, okay?
So it says, “An Amazon bestseller,” here.
The reason why there are bits missing here. Do you know Elf on the Shelf?
Do you know what The Elf on the Shelf is about? One year I cut a face out of my book and I put the elves through it and his arms coming through there. That’s why it looks like that. That’s why I was reluctant to show you the front cover.
Anyway, but what happened was the pandemic hit. So a few years later, I’m like, right, I’m going to rewrite the book, because I’ve been in this space for many years now, I’ve learned so much more. I understand the problems very, very deeply. And I rewrote it.
It could have been a new book. I could have easily launched it as a new book, because I effectively rewrote the original completely. It took me two weeks to rewrite it. I did however many, 50,000 words, in two weeks. But you can see the difference.
So it was a far more significant book. Published that and under its own steam, it became a number one bestseller. It’s the highest rated book on Amazon in the accounting industry for practice management. And there was no trickery involved in the second time. It was because of everything I’d learned, and I was able to share.
So posting online, everyone’s got access to that. There’s no excuse. You can buy a cheap lapel mic for £50, you can plug it into your iPhone, you’ve got a HD video camera, and the only thing stopping you from posting on a regular basis is you’re being selfish.
You’re being selfish because there are things that you know. I don’t care what industry you’re in, whether you’re an interior designer, an accountant, a plaster or whatever, you will have helped a client with something today, one person, but there’s 100 other people out there that need to hear that same thing today.
And the only thing stopping you is because, “My hair’s not quite right.” Or, “I’ll do it when I get a different outfit on.” Or whatever, “When I’ve had a shave.” Whatever. It’s rubbish. Stop being selfish and go and help people.
So I dominated social platforms with video content. I wrote a book. I became a director of a firm in the space. I don’t know how much credibility that actually had, but I think it was a useful thing.
And that was how I grew and scaled GoProposal fairly cheaply and became a key person of influence in the space.
So you became, very quickly, bestselling author, director, expert. Used your backgrounds in marketing and being a magician to really perform, market the business, churn out this content.
Then the business obviously started to snowball and take off. What were some of the big challenges as you scaled that you came up against? What were some of the fears as you grew the business?
To hear James’s answer to that question and get all the advice you need on how to recession-proof your business, tune in to next week’s episode of Sound Advice: Entrepreneurs Unfiltered.
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