Response to Jessica Mah, or “What Kind of Firm Will You be in 10 Years?”

Jason Blumer recently posted a great conversation with Jessica Mah, CEO of InDinero. Mah is in a business pivot, and the ramifications to the professional accounting space are foundational. In this article, we’ll explore her thoughts on changing InDinero into a service-based software company, as well as what firms can do to make their own pivots in the future.

I’m sure you’ve heard of SaaS, Software as a Service. But SwaS, or Software with a Service, is becoming ever popular among entrepreneurs. This new model of business is all about building a piece of software, but using that piece of software internally to provide a service to your market place externally. We all know that selling services for $1,500/month is much more lucrative than selling software for only $20/month (maybe). The trick is to make the SaaS product scale, fast. At least, that is what the investors, angels, and VCs are hoping for when they invest in SaaS model businesses.

Services are full of friction, in that you have heavy contact with humans as you seek to transform them; while selling software can scale quickly while leaning heavily on SaaS metrics to measure your effectiveness with your marketplace. Here is a podcast from the TropicalMBA on the value of SwaS.

Jessica Mah began her journey as the CEO of InDinero, seeking to create a Mint-style financial platform for small businesses. But it didn’t work, and she almost closed her doors. She needed a pivot and found accounting services intriguing, and much more profitable. Along with other SwaS style accounting businesses like, Mah pivoted into an accounting firm.

Accounting Startups?
Don’t gloss over the importance of Mah’s decision to become an accounting firm. TechCrunch actually called InDinero an Accounting Startup. Huh? Is this a new category we are now dealing with? Accounting Startup? You bet. Major players in the accounting startup space are InDinero, and Backops. And similar to a SaaS startup, these Accounting SwaS’s are being funded:

InDinero has most recently raised $7 million
Backops pulled a round of funding totaling $7 million in 2013 is up to $10 million in funding

These new creations in the space of what we have known as accounting firms are just examples of how the world is changing right under our feet. Current CPAs and firm owners are so set in their ways that these pivots by smart and savvy startup CEOs are surprises to many. But we’ve been talking about this for years in Thriveal. Even now, there are new business models being created by the firms in Thriveal. They don’t look like what you might expect, and the owners know that the world is fully ready to embrace and use a new type of firm – an accounting startup.

What Kind of Firm Will You be in 10 Years?
So, CPA firm owner, what are you going to become in the future? You may not know yet, but we know that experimentation and innovation are our paths forward. We’ve even started a Laboratory to help us pave our way forward. Why? Because building a new firm with a new business model may not be something we can envision now, but it is something we can experiment our way to. So we better get busy.

To further light a fire under your butt, let me quote Jessica Mah, the CEO of inDinero:

Being able to provide unlimited, flat-fee accounting services as a software is what’s going to make us a household name over the next 10-20 years. We’d argue that our accounting services as a software will make CPAs, as we know them today, obsolete in the next 5-10 years. If accountants aren’t innovating away busy work like inDinero does and instead providing far more strategy rather than paper pushing; they’ll go the way of the Dodo bird and become extinct.

As a way to help us define who we are, and who we are becoming, I’ll attempt to break firms down into four groups we see emerging. When I’m done, it will be important to ask yourself, “what kind of firm will I be in 10 years?”

Group 1: The Small Traditionalist – the low priced, commoditized firms that never made the jump to the cloud or adopted customer-centric methodologies. They serve SMEs but only the butthole clients. This group will shrink but perhaps won’t go away because there will always be butthole clients. Or, they may be merged into other larger firms because of their inability to adapt to today’s changes.
Business model: hierarchical, top down micromanagement, equal partnerships
Pricing model: hourly billing
Competition?: all groups below are a threat to Group 1

Group 2: Accounting Startups – the high value firm, tech-focused and using tech/processes as their differentiator. They are seeking to do what typical CPA firms are doing, but at lower prices because of what tech brings them in greater efficiencies. They seek to scale and build processes around how work flows through their firms internally. These firms may or may not also build their own software to assist them in their work, or customer onboarding. This group is very new, but is gaining in media coverage because of their disruption.
Business model: flat, outsourced labor, C-suite leadership
Pricing model: fixed pricing, cost plus, % of revenue
Competition?: group 1 is a competition but not a strong one (especially in 10 years). Group 3 could also become a competitor for customers seeking deeper transformation, as opposed to efficiency.

Group 3: Boutique – the high value firm, narrowly niched and considered an expert. They have high prices, smaller client bases, and grow more slowly as they seek deep relationships with each client. They embrace the friction of human selling, and seek consulting, coaching, or other face-to-face transformations as their high priced offering. They differentiate by building a brand, but not necessarily with technology. They want to provide services others can not duplicate (which may make these firms harder to scale). Boutique firms have been around a long time, and will continue to be a source of solid profit creation in the future. You’ll find a lot of Thriveal firms seeking to reside in this group.
Business model: flat, employee autonomy, team leadership
Pricing model: value pricing
Competition?: none noted

Group 4: Top 100 Firms – these firms are our profession’s large traditionalists. They would have the most to lose if they were to disrupt their business models, thus they change very slowly. They typically do the most complex work (public company, offshore tax strategies, etc.). But they will survive because of their massive scale and the needs of larger enterprises.
Business model: hierarchical, top down micro management, equal partnerships and C-suite leadership
Pricing model: hourly billing, cost plus
Competition?: perhaps Group 2, since Accounting Startups serve mid-market to larger clients

Please leave in the comments what your firm is, or is becoming over the next 10 years. How would you change the analysis above? What will you do to change your firm over the next 10 years?

The Thriveal Incubator

We need a way forward. Enter the first ever accounting firm Incubator! The purpose of the Thriveal Incubator is to foster the creation of creative firms and creative firm owners. And, boy, do we need to be doing that. Building your firm with a coach, and leveraging the wisdom of a community is what Thriveal is all about, and it is now essential to innovating our way through fear to the ultimate business model pivot that will make us successful in the next 10 to 15 years.

This is a call to action! Apply for the Incubator now… or else.

Jason is the Founder of Thriveal and the Chief Innovative Officer of his CPA firm, Blumer & Associates. He is the co-host of the Thrivecast and The Businessology Show and speaks and writes frequently for CPAs and creatives, his firm’s chosen niche. Jason loves to watch documentaries on just about anything. He lives in Greenville, SC with his wife and their three children. Stay connected with Jason by signing up at

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