Case Study: How Lack of Online Accounting Grew a New Firm

Jul 1st 2016
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After scrutinizing their industry a few years ago, Chad Davis and Josh Zweig uncovered an eye-opening trend: Some accountants were offering services that were more important to them than what customers really needed.

The dilemma caused distance between clients and their accountants, and that misalignment spurred Davis and Zweig to start LiveCA LLP in 2013, a Toronto-based public CPA firm and provider of online outsourced accounting services.

Background

Davis and Zweig were focused on providing an accounting firm that centered on operations and back-office technology processes as much as taxes. They found a niche after not seeing other accounting firms offer services that covered all levels of financial management from a tax and technology viewpoint, laying the groundwork for their hybrid CPA firm.

“Our virtual model would allow for conversations to take place with specific tech and tax experts in a team environment delivered over video chat,” Davis says. “It wouldn’t matter if the issue was related to accounting, bookkeeping, project management, or e-commerce, we had someone that could help.”

Davis adds that what LiveCA really sells are good feelings. “Customers don’t tend to buy a tax return because you sell tax returns,” he says. “They’re buying the feeling a completed tax return makes. We take customers from a state of chaos and bring them to place of clarity.”

Reasons for Starting

The timing of starting the firm barely three years ago was spot-on for early adopters of web-based technology that were yearning for accountants to get up to speed with their demands, according to Davis. He added that building relationships with some prominent accounting applications have positioned LiveCA well.

The Building Process

The first step Davis and Zweig made was finding technology-minded people for the team. Their first hire was tech director Dave MacPherson, who left the Canada Revenue Agency for this startup accounting firm with not much more than a few customers and a vision.

Armed with technology expertise with online software, MacPherson tackled many of LiveCA’s initial problems. He helped clients switch to their new systems and supported them until they were doing the work themselves. Without MacPherson, Davis says, LiveCA would have started out like every other firm.

“We would have not been able to get that jump-start in our technology execution,” Davis says. “That eventually formed the basis for our biggest competitive advantage of focusing on technology and systems to solve a lot of customer problems.”

Greatest Challenge

The biggest hurdle for LiveCA came early on by essentially offering too many services for not enough money to sustain adequate profits, Davis says. He says LiveCA realized that it needed to charge more to sustain what was sometimes four or five times the level of service other traditional accounting firms were offering. That contributed to the firm’s decision to switch to value-based pricing after using hourly billing for about a month.

Clients are currently charged for technical expertise to meet specific outcomes opposed to just buying an application or bookkeeping service.

“We now have happier customers because the services and pricing are more in line with their individual needs,” Davis says.

Firm Focus

Davis, Zweig, and their 18 full-time employees work from home across Canada as LiveCA is a connected company. Catering only to businesses, LiveCA’s clients consist of e-commerce, fintech, IT consultants, and retail businesses. The firm’s services include offering unaudited financial statements and back-office technology overhauls and support.

Half of LiveCA’s business comes from using the cloud accounting and financial platform Xero to offer specialty outsourced accounting services, including bookkeeping, bill payments, and payroll. The rest comes from educating and supporting clients’ employees on how to use the software.

“Our client mix ranges from development shops with a few employees to large financial companies that work with us instead of hiring a CFO or building out an accounting department,” Davis says.

The Firm Today 

Davis says the firm is currently Canada’s largest accounting firm without an office. In May 2016, the firm was named Canada’s first virtual CPA preapproved program for training students by Chartered Professional Accountants of Ontario. Davis says the designation shows that the industry now recognizes virtual firms as a viable business model.

Davis says LiveCA is able to sustain growth by continuously investing in its people and processes. LiveCA has a rigorous probation period and high standards of work that translate into high-performing team members that keep customers satisfied and better prepares the firm for growth, he says.

The approach is paying dividends for the firm. Davis says his firm has grown from two employees to 18 in under three years. He projects $2 million to $3 million in revenue for 2016, up from just over $1 million in 2015.

The firm also currently has 500 clients, up from 250 clients a year ago. It expects to reach 600 clients by the end of this year. 

“We speak to roughly five new clients a day, which shows the market is actively looking for services like ours,” he says.

To draw customers in specific segments like technology, professional services, and e-commerce, Davis says LiveCA is developing processes that continually evaluate the applications used in each of these areas. And by pricing customers individually and upfront, he says LiveCA is attracting customers from other firms that subscribe to alternative pricing methods like hourly or fixed-menu pricing.

On the traffic front, LiveCA’s website gets approximately 6,000 unique visitors a month, a number Davis is quite happy with.

“Our blog posts are relevant to the average Canadian small business owner and to those searching for virtual accounting services.”

He added that many Canadian businesses and their owners like partnering with LiveCA because it allows them the ability to work virtually from anywhere in the world.

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