An Inside Look at a Small, Cloud-Based Accounting Firm

Oct 12th 2016
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Before I jump into the details of why I’m ditching my normal life and starting a small, cloud-based accounting firm, I’d like to share the backstory with you.

Twelve years ago, after a long and increasingly rambling series of Friday night “What-are-we-doing-with-our-lives?” conversations, my wife Kathy and I made a big decision:

I would quit my 9-5 salaried job at a midsized CPA firm in Orange County, Calif. and take over the newly-created, non-paying, around-the-clock job of full-time dad.

It wasn’t an easy decision by any means because we were barely scraping by at the time. Kathy was in her third year as an elementary school teacher and I was grinding away as a low-ranking senior accountant, doing whatever work the partners put on my desk. However, our kids were one and three years old at the time and our master plan wasn’t exactly panning out the way we’d hoped.

Trying our hardest to build two careers and be great parents at the same time, our lives had become a dizzying whirlwind of 16 to 18 hour days, jumping out of bed and running in a hundred different directions but feeling like we weren’t really getting anywhere. Looking back, I think we had that optimistic “we-can-do-it-all” attitude that often prevails when you’re still relatively young with lots of free time and you’re getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Of course, three years of hardcore parenting tends to change all that.

Anyway, it was originally supposed to be a two-year plan, designed to get us through the brutal diaper and preschool years, but it quickly stretched to four. Then six. At year eight, I realized that the whole parenting job wasn’t going to get easier anytime soon and my resumé was now floating face down in the water, so I started doing freelance work for small businesses on the side.

A Craigslist job here, a QuickBooks cleanup there, some S corp and individual returns during tax season. I wasn’t making much money (that’s for damn sure) and I wasn’t getting my career back on track, but I only had a few hours a day in between school pickups and Target runs and soccer practices (I coached), so I had to take whatever I could get. 

Over the next four years, I worked as a jack-of-all-trades accountant and did a bewildering variety of jobs for startups, retailers, e-commerce sellers, Bluetooth electronics manufacturers, vitamin distributors, you name it.

During this time, I learned more about real-world accounting than I ever did during the thousands of hours I spent studying for the CPA exams or ticking and tying numbers at conventional firms.

I also discovered that I enjoyed the risky independence of freelancing and the constant troubleshooting that’s required when you’re trying to help small businesses unravel their crazy accounting problems.

There’s rarely been a dull moment during these years (accounting-wise or parenting-wise), and that brings me to where I am now: in the process of launching Vanilla (but more about that later).

At this point, my kids are both in high school (one freshman and one sophomore), my soccer coaching days are behind me (9 teams over seven years), and I’ve decided to put my foot on the accelerator and try to do the thing that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now: start a small accounting practice.

It’s a nerve-wracking decision on multiple levels because I haven’t worked in an accounting firm for over 10 years and I have no clients or customer base that I’m bringing with me. Also, I never made it very far up the ranks in the firms that I did work for, so I don’t have any blueprint for how I’m going to do it. 

However, what I do know is that I’ve done a wide variety of things in life - from selling mountain bikes to backpacking through Central America on $9/day to working crappy temp jobs at Accountemps - and I’m ready to take what Gary Erickson calls “the white road” journey.

Gary is the founder of Clif Bar and if you haven’t read his book “Raising the Bar,” I highly recommend it (it’s one of my all-time favorites). In it Gary talks about his decision as a cyclist and businessperson to take leaps of faith and listen to his gut and follow the indirect, lesser-known roads in life. And frankly, if you’re thinking about starting an accounting practice (or anything else), I think Gary’s advice is probably worth more than any blueprint you could get from a conventional business.

I also happen to believe that the accounting industry is right at the start of a major paradigm shift, and that there are a few highly compelling reasons to start a small, nontraditional accounting practice right now. The cloud is a big part of it but there are other reasons as well, including the value pricing movement, the opportunity to stand out by launching a niche practice, and the chance to have a great part-time career so you can raise your kids or pursue other goals in life.

I’ll be figuring out the road as I go and sharing what I learn in my future articles and I sincerely hope they are of value to you, particularly those thinking of starting their own firms.

This series of blogs will come under the title Starting from Scratch. They will be written by Will Keller, a full-time dad/part-time CPA. He’ll provide a behind-the-scenes view of his efforts to start a small, cloud-based accounting practice called Vanilla, after spending 12 years off the grid raising his kids.

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By nfitzgerald
Oct 19th 2016 22:08 EDT

Awesome story! I too am an accountant who left the corporate world to branch out on my own. I'm a single parent so the challenges of building a business are driving me back into the work force because it's kind of hard to focus on growing when the bills are piling up and your bank account is steady going down. My return to corporate will be temporary though because I plan to continue to build until my clientele is able to support another more permanent departure.

I look forward to following you on this journey. It sounds like it's going to be an adventure.

Be blessed!
Nicole Fitzgerald

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By ron johnson
Oct 20th 2016 10:37 EDT

Love your story. I am also an accountant operating a niche bookkeeping and tax service business specializing in providing services to Owner Operator Truckers and have done so for over 20 years.
During that time I built and sold two bookkeeping business with client base ranging from a high 725 to a low 225 clients.
In 2002 after a short retirement to Orlando Florida, I started my third bookkeeping business. In 2008 I decided to go paperless to eliminate the monthly shoe boxes and envelopes filled with paper to process and ship back to clients.
To fix this, I invested in creating a set of online tools to make it easy for client to send the bookkeeping information as data instead of paper.
This was a struggle to get client to want to go paperless, so I began to plan my exit and second retirement. However, I discovered that my major problem in getting out of the business was the fact that I had created a system for getting leads and new client that would not be easily turned off.
So it became obvious if I wanted to get out of the business I needed to decide what to do about the automated leads and new client system I had created.
To deal with a few of the leads on a short term basis, I began to contact accountant and give them the leads free. The excitement by accountants who received the leads free gave me the idea to package what I know and bring a new service to the industry. “How to get Leads and New Clients at no cost”
This idea prompted the creation of Accountants CA Service. A client acquisition and leads generation service for accountants and small firms, that would provide them with leads, referrals and new clients to grow their client base at no cost.
This means my second retirement is on hold
Read more.

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