My Wish for Creative Accounting Firms

We’ve been consulting, leading, and speaking to accounting firms for many years now (and running our own firm since 2003). We’ve done this work all over the world, and we’ve come to believe there are some great practices we wish firms would follow. We believe a few tweaks to our profession could create a more sustainable, profitable, and enjoyable firm to lead.

If I had my wish and I could wave a magic wand, I would have every firm in the world do these 7 things.

1. Work with fewer clients. You really don’t need as many clients as firms have needed historically. You can work with anyone, anywhere. You can set up processes to hand pick your clients. I think a lot of firms go through untold misery by having massive lists of clients to manage, tons of out-of-date processes to care for them, and lean profit margins. And it’s not good for the clients either. They want better service, and you just can’t give it to them if you have thousands of people your firm is trying to care for. It’s such a paradox – clients want better service, but they stay with the same firms year after year that provide them mediocre service for the same bland requirements dictated by the government. Firms are full of smart people, and we were made for bigger things than this drudgery. If I could wave my magic wand and have a 13- to 15-person firm only take 40 to 50 clients, I believe the firm owner’s life would transform for the better.

2. Decide if you want to grow or be a lifestyle firm. I’ve gone through this journey myself and I think it’s confusing firm owners all over the world. Social media allows us to see how others operate. We see people working on laptops at beaches with martinis and we wonder “why can’t I do that?” Well, you can. But you have to want what that means too. That kind of firm – a beach-sitting, martini-drinking firm – is a lifestyle firm and it generally can’t support growing families or entrepreneurial desires to expand, grow, and take risks. I’m not saying you can’t run a virtual firm – but leading a virtual firm (which my partner and I have done for many years) is also hard work, just like a brick and mortar firm. Virtual is not the point – a lifestyle firm is the point. In fact, a virtual firm is not the same thing as a lifestyle firm, though many people equate the two. In opposition to a lifestyle firm is a firm owner that wants to grow. Growth is hard work, and many startup growth firm owners don’t get to take vacations in the first few years because of the investment it takes to grow a firm strong. If I could wave my magic wand and make sure no one was confused by the social media pictures online, then I believe firm owners would be making the right choice for their future firm.

3. Price your ‘already value.’ As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been working in and with firms for over 20 years. And firm owners are some of the most dedicated, caring, and sacrificial leaders around. No matter what (meaning, “whether they are getting paid or not”), firm owners will bend over backwards for their clients. They care deeply for the people they work with, and feel bad when they make them work hard. Firm owners will actually cause harm to their own work and life just to care for teams and serve clients well. This can quickly, and often does, become dysfunctional as firm owners let others take advantage of them, allow blood-sucking clients to stay in their lives, and fail to place responsibility on the shoulders of their team even when it rightly belongs there. The bottom line – firms already provide huge value that I don’t believe clients are paying for. Every client in the world needs to pay their accounting firms more money. I believe that. This is not a point I’m making about pricing necessarily. This point is about firm owners undervaluing themselves to their own detriment. I wish this could stop. Allowing clients to fund your firm’s operations, investments, and profits would make everyone happier. You could then focus on the client, thereby giving the client what they’ve actually always wanted in the first place from you. By underpricing, we are guaranteeing that we will hurt our clients since low margins can’t fund the team necessary to care for clients in the way they want us to. If I could wave my magic wand and have every firm in the world increase their prices by 25%, then I believe there would be a shift of clients moving to the right firms, and firm owners would enjoy their work in ways they never have before.

4. Invest in your team. Our team of 13 is the reason we are successful. Julie and I try to stay innovative, try to bring in the right clients, and try to make the best growth moves we can. These are all great, and this level of leadership is required to make a firm great. But the team pulls it all off. Our team is dedicated, caring, and truly want to help clients. Our team listens to our leadership, as faulty as it can be sometimes. Our team genuinely loves each other, and want to help each and every team member be successful. They enjoy the clients too. But none of this happens accidentally. It is hard work to build a team this way, and it takes raw focus and commitment to a team on a daily basis. It’s humbling to see our team work so diligently, and be overwhelmed with gratitude at their decision to actually work with us. So many firms could have had them – but we got this team! We did it through a lot of challenges, putting people in the right roles, keeping them accountable to their roles, hiring the right people, saying no to the wrong people, dedicating our time to them, giving them gifts, telling them we love them, and making it a priority that our culture is a place where they would want to serve. My partner and I are honored to serve alongside the best team ever – but they deserve our dedication to them. They are special people, and they need resources and our time to grow into the people they were meant to be. We can’t run them into the ground constantly. But we do ask them to work hard for us, and not apologize for it. Teams in all firms need to know how valuable they are – they are on the front lines, and they are generating the revenue that keeps the firm sprinting along. If I could wave my magic wand and have every firm owner in the world turn inward and begin watching their team, asking what they need, and make their team’s cultural health a priority, then I believe our profession would prosper in ways it never has before.

5. Commit to the work of firm leadership indefinitely. There is so much talk about growing big, selling firms, and exiting after a sell. I’ve written about this before, and I think this is a new trend I’ve noticed in the past 5 years. This is not how people used to approach their careers when I started. I went to school, invested time in becoming a CPA, learned the ropes at some difficult jobs, and have walked an up and down road building my own firm so I could really become a craftsman. And all of that has taken approximately 20 years. So here I am now (finally) ready to build a firm with some wisdom and real knowledge that can change people’s lives (our team, our clients, and my own). I’m not going to just up and quit now. No way! I’m just getting started. It blows my mind to think of what the next 30 years could look like. Wow! I will be kicking ass and taking names when I’m 60. And if you could put on your 20 year lens, too, you’d see that you will be a rockstar after you’ve been in this profession for 20 years. You’ll know so much, and will have wisdom that can help so many people. It just takes one decision – deciding that you will lead a firm indefinitely. Don’t stop, no matter what. All of the hardships are not forever. You do get through them and you come out on the other side a better leader, wiser, more humble person. Better leader, wiser, and more humble – those are the attributes of amazing people that everyone wants to be around. If I could wave my magic wand and have every firm owner in the world email me and say “I’m going to do this the rest of my life, Jason” (hit me up at [email protected]) I believe firm owners would settle down just a bit, sink into their role, and start to really change lives one day at a time.

6. Collaborate with other firm owners. After leading our firm and consulting with other firms for a long time now, I’m convinced we all need each other. That’s why I started Thriveal – because I needed to be with other firm owners like me more formally. I needed the help, I needed the accountability, and I needed the encouragement. After all, running a firm leaves you with a lot of questions, and puts you in a place to be a master at dealing with other humans (which NONE of us are!). We need each other. Period. I’m not just talking about firm owners. I’m really talking about the human need for other people in our lives. Some of us can be real buttholes. And us buttholes can only hope that others are willing to be patient with us as we grow and mature into the people God meant us to become. And with this maturing and caring, we all get to grow into different people. You will not be the same person in 5 years that you are now. That’s a fact. So the question is – “who are you becoming?” Life’s too short to stay the same. You need other people as inspiration to help you on your journey. Of course, I believe this stuff – Thriveal is a community for entrepreneurial firm owners that want to grow their firms… together. And we believe it’s so valuable that there is a price for the community. And we want you to join if you think you need a community (don’t bother if you know you do NOT need a community). We are only a community of people who know they need each other. We aren’t loners. We collaborate, challenge each other, tell each other when our significant others have gone into the hospital, and tell people when we are struggling with depression (again). Oh, and we talk about leading firms too. Surrounding yourself with good people raises the tide that we all must swim in. Surrounding yourself with amazing people will automatically make you amazing too – if you’ll just stay in the community and do the work of collaboration. If I could wave my magic wand and have every growing firm leader be part of an authentic community, then this profession would transform into curated individuals eager to help others.

7. Focus more. We’re all just doing too many things at the same time. I’m guilty of that. Firms are so spread out on their knowledge, and serving so many different types of clients that they can’t be real experts at one thing. So we stay generalists, and serve the masses. This profession’s service and knowledge are bland, and we never experience the hard work it truly takes to be called an ‘expert.’ Being an ‘expert’ is not an accident, but the result of the narrow need of focusing. Focusing on what? Focusing on a particular part of an industry we have decided to serve, or focusing on part of a particular service we have decided to offer, or serving with particular tools exclusively, etc. There are many ways to focus. But whatever you focus on, make sure there is a market that is eager to consume the value you produce for your intended focus. That is so important before you focus in a wrong way. But that’s not the point. The point here is that we do too many things, for too many people, too fast, with too many tools, etc, etc. Focus a little and start to see what it really means to hone your craft in a way that makes your firm sought out for its value and expertise. It takes time to become that kind of firm – focusing is the way to get there. If I could wave my magic wand and force every firm to hack off half of the service offerings to half of the broad clients they serve, then I know their profit would jump in ways they’ve never seen before.

This is my Christmas list a few months early. So be it. It’s never too early to let you know things that can change your life. If you have questions about this post, or want to respond or complain about it, feel free to email me at [email protected].

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