HMRC needs to get its online act together

Today, my co-founder and I decided we would register our high technology UK-based start-up for VAT. We are already enrolled on the HMRC’s digital service called Government Gateway, so it ought to be a 5 minute job to set the wheels in motion for VAT registration. Not only that, we’ve done this before for other businesses, so we already have some experience of the process.

Anyone who has wrestled with the Government Gateway service either for personal or business use will know that it is woefully inadequate and generally unfit for purpose. But we logged on in the hope that today would be different…

On entering the Government Gateway, our company page displays:

VATList

The service shows that we are already registered for Corporation Tax and we can see a long alphabetical list of other delightful services on which we could enrol. Heading down to V for VAT we find a list of potential links:

VforVATlist

But none of the options are simply “VAT registration”, and indeed “Submit VAT Returns” slightly higher on the list isn’t quite right either. Looking back through the entire list, a contender is back near the top: “Change VAT registration details”.  On the face of it, this again is not worded quite right for what we’re looking for, but we click through out of desperation:

EnrolVAT

It turns out that this is in fact very promising, as this page clearly states “For businesses to apply for VAT registration”.  Bingo, we clicked continue…

VATForm

And our optimism fades once more. The first box of the form requires a VAT number, essentially the one thing we are trying to apply for. Leaving the box blank is not an option. This is presumably a service on which to enrol to change existing VAT details, not to register in the first place.  We’ll have to head off and do some more research and come back to the task of registering for VAT later.

In the meantime, perhaps we can register for the pay-as-you-earn (PAYE) employer payroll service instead, as we are keen to employ our first member of staff and pay ourselves as directors going forward. We head back to the list of services on which to enrol and find the closest link for our needs. This one is titled “PAYE for Employers”, which sounds spot-on for our requirements.

PAYEList

And the next page confirms that our expectations are likely to be met:

EnrolPAYE

Yes, we want to be able submit PAYE forms, and presumably this includes the realtime reporting (RTI) requirements that we will also need to comply with. We head on…

PAYEForm

And once again we are stuck. The form asks for the Employer Reference and Accounts Office Reference, the two bits of information you get when you enrol on the service. This is obviously not the place to enrol on the PAYE service for employers.

At this point the air is blue with vented frustration. Why is it so hard?

Googling shows that there are other forms on the web reachable via the Gov.uk and HMRC websites, somehow disconnected from the Government Gateway. To register for VAT we need to navigate through a series of links here, and to register for PAYE, we find the necessary starting point here.

What then is the point of the Government Gateway enrolment service if it can not adequately serve up the forms for basic company tasks like VAT registration and PAYE Employer registration? I don’t have the answer, but I do have a suggestion: how about adding links to these pages mentioned above in the list given in the Government Gateway?

The UK’s productivity is low and I suspect some of this is down to busy entrepreneurs wasting valuable time navigating through the HMRC’s poorly presented and confusing forms. This situation is simple to change and would help the UK’s small and medium size businesses so much. Please for the love of God can those responsible get this fixed?

Adrian Burden is author of Start To Exit: How to maximize the value in your start-up.

 

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Entrepreneurship: action this day!

One of the things you quickly learn about running a small rapidly growing business is that the sooner you do something, the sooner its impact is felt. Moreover, the ability to do something and then see the result is part of the appeal. Anyone stuck in a Dilbert cartoon in their current place of work will have long forgotten the joys of cause and effect.

It therefore amuses me when I hear some would-be entrepreneurs say they’d like to start their new business when the time is right and that they are just waiting for all the stars to properly align.  In many ways it would be better to just get on with it; action this day!

“Fail fast” (“fail often”, “fail forward”) is the gung-ho American Silicon Valley mantra. Whilst failure itself may not be the best tactic, getting on with it and finding out what works and what doesn’t most certainly is. Entrepreneurs need to make many decisions every day, some of them really quite crucial for their business.  The skill is making the balanced decision rather than vacillating endlessly for fear that it will turn out to be the wrong decision.

And decisions tend to go hand-in-hand with actions as new courses are set. This agility often leaves larger corporations floundering, and is precisely why disruptions in the market place frequently originate from small medium enterprises spotting an opportunity, deciding to pursue it and responding quickly. This is the entrepreneur’s competitive edge.

It is a double-edged sword, as putting the wrong foot forward through an ill-informed decision could of course trip the whole venture up.  The good news is that another quick decision to change course can save the day. And that’s the key; make a choice, do something, review, do some more of the same or do something different all in quick succession with the facts at your fingertips.

The trick is to keep this ethos of fast decision making and rapid response well oiled as your company grows.  When it is just you, perhaps a co-founder and a handful of employees, it is easy.  But as your company expands and you want to empower your managers to be as nimble-minded with their day-to-day operations, you’ll need them to understand the workings of the business and have any past lessons you learnt accessible to them as they move forward.

It generally boils down to good, frequent communication and centralised, accessible information.  And a company structure that promotes this.  If this isn’t already in place in your organisation, simply decide to make the change and roll it out today!

Start to Exit is due to be published in 2017.