Marcus Small discovered how much joy and knowledge he gained by helping others with Excel. After years of helping automate and improve business tasks using Excel, he created his own website, TheSmallman.com, which provides a host of Excel tips, courses and solutions. He spoke with us recently about providing Excel training for professional accounting body, CPA Australia, and using Excel to tell stories visually.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell us a little bit about the journey to creating an Excel-based business.
It started when I got a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). It became fairly apparent early on that I was adept at automating things. (Now, I think this just comes from me being fairly lazy because I realized pretty early on that Excel can do a lot of the heavy lifting.) Once I automated a few processes for PwC, they gave me a whole heap of processes to automate. Eventually, I went and worked for some investment banks where I was dealing with very large amounts of data. I was able to increase my knowledge of how to manage large data sets with very limited resources.
I came back to Australia and started my website out of love and as a hobby. It wasn’t my intention to start a business. I just wanted to give something back to the communities that have given me so much.
When did you realize that this was going to turn from being a hobby to being a business?
I realized when I started getting questions from people who came to my website and asked for help with their spreadsheets. I was getting requests from industry asking for training. It was at that point that I realized I could do this a little bit more than as a hobby.
I started training with one of the larger accounting bodies in the world, and the feedback was exceptional. Then I got a phone call from CPA Australia. That effectively changed things for me because it allowed me to travel around and preach the gospel of Microsoft Excel.
Your professional background is in analytics and design. How do you think those fields have shaped your approach to Excel?
My website has a hefty focus on dashboards and infographics. I enjoy doing that because it brings out the creative side of finance. I find that finance people really appreciate that sort of thing because maybe it’s not their first calling in life.
Visualization is the end game. You’ve got all this data, but what is it really about? What does it mean? You’ve got to tell a succinct, clear, and concise story. By creating visuals that not only tell that story but look beautiful, what you get is people who want to receive the information. It’s visually appealing, and it hits the mark in terms of telling them the story they need to know, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.
I would think CPAs would appreciate the influence of the visuals and not having to look at yet another stack of spreadsheets.
That’s right. It’s all on one page, and it allows them to absorb what their business is doing in a single snapshot. There’s become an acute focus in the last five years where everybody’s got to have this skill set. Dashboard design and advanced dashboard have become some of my most popular courses. They sell like hotcakes.
Is Microsoft getting an unfair shake from those who say their visualization is not strong?
There’s a valid point in that criticism. If I had the choice of doing a presentation of material in Power BI site or Microsoft Excel, I’m going to choose Excel. In Power BI, you have a tiny space where you can actually include that information. It’s very rigid. With the spreadsheet, you just add a few more rows.
What’s it like working with CPA Australia?
I’m lucky enough to train the members on everything — financial modeling, dashboard design, the Power BI tools and VBA. I’m very fortunate to do what I love and to travel the country.
Do you take a different approach with the CPAS than you may for clients in other industries?
I tend to focus on how to set up a spreadsheet, and it doesn’t really matter if you’re an operations person, HR person OR a finance person. The rules are the same.
You need to clearly segregate the elements of a model between your inputs, your calculations and your outputs. If you can do that, and if you can think with forethought about what you want to produce, then the methodology remains the same.
If you can put your model together so that everything that you want to spin your model on, by department or by region or by product, you have to include it in your calculations. When you do that, you have uber flexibility.
I try and push that over and over again. Look at how the model was set up, look at what the output’s doing, design your models with forethought. Then you’ll have flexibility at the other end when you and senior management are looking at the reports.
I was struck by something else you said early on about the sense of gratitude you had for the people who helped you. On your website, you write about how, in giving, you receive.
I often had time on my hands at work, and I would solve Excel problems online in these large online communities. I knew I was an Excel enthusiast because I’d do it at work and then when I got home. I’d be using Excel up until midnight quite frequently for months and years on end.
You think about how the people you’re helping are helping you. You want to answer the question in the quickest way you possibly can, but you’re also thinking, ‘Is this the best way to answer this question?’ So by giving people the information they’re requesting, they’re actually giving you something as well. They’re giving you an improved skill set. Once I realized that, I understood this was a two-way street.
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