The 3 Biggest Challenges in Starting a Small Firm

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Since the last post in my series on the realities of starting a new practice, instead of pretending like I’ve got everything figured out (which I don’t), I chose to open up my kimono and write about some of the relentless problems I’ve been trying to tackle down here in “Startup Land.”

As such, I’ve come up with a short (and hopefully useful) list of the major challenges I’ve faced on my journey from obscurity to small, happy accounting practice. Although I’ve made a good deal of progress in some of these areas, the battle is far from over and I still wake up thinking about these problems just about every single day:

1. The Identity Challenge. The crucial starting point for any new firm. Who do you want to be? What types of customers do you want to work with? What services are you going to offer? What kind of brand identity are you trying to build? And how in the world are you going to tie all these things together into one cohesive story? These are all fun and invigorating questions, but they’re also horribly daunting when you’re just starting out.

2. The Systems Challenge. As Michael Gerber points out in The E-Myth Revisited, every business is basically a collection of systems. And nowhere is this truer than in the accounting industry. What tools are you going to use to get the work done? What apps will you have in your stack? What will your workflows look like? How will you onboard new customers, and then manage and execute projects effectively? Again, all great questions — and tons of work when you’re building your practice from the ground up.

3. The Marketing and Sales Challenge. Nothing in the world is tougher than starting out with no brand awareness, no marketing programs, no customers, and no sales pipeline. You might know in your heart that you can do great work and you’re raring to go, but nobody even knows you exist (except your wife and two kids). Welcome to the real world!

Figuring out what your primary message is and what tools you’re going to use to reach new customers (i.e. SEO, direct mail, paid search, email, pounding the pavement) is a monumental challenge. And you’re never going to get anywhere until you figure out how to get customers in the door.

In the grand scheme of things, starting an accounting practice is no different than starting any other type of business. It’s a brain-busting endeavor and it feels like the odds are always against you (because they are).

This is especially true if you’re trying to plow new ground and pursue innovative strategies like cloud accounting, productized services, and value pricing. These ideas get a lot of press and they’re definitely the way things are headed, but in reality I don’t think many people have figured out how to execute them consistently yet.

When I was younger, I used to dream about overnight success. And I think all entrepreneurs secretly do, because we read scintillating stories in Inc. and Fast Company and listen to podcasts about mavericks who come out of nowhere and go from zero to $100 million in 18 months.

I still love reading those stories and listening to those podcasts, but I do so with a grain of salt because I know they’re like needles in the haystack. All startups — including accounting practices — face an uphill battle. If you make it, odds are it’s going to be a long, hard game with a lot of setbacks.

You have to go brick by brick, and you have to wake up every morning ready to put your kneepads back on and start laying another round of bricks. At any rate, that’s the way I look at it now.

Forget overnight success or GBF (Get Big Fast), I’m thinking small and doing my best to tackle one simple thing at a time. And I’m still optimistic about the whole thing, thank goodness.

About Will Keller

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Will Keller is the founder of Vanilla, a cloud-based accounting firm that specializes in working with small businesses.

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Sep 26th 2017 14:55

Thanks for the article Will. it will definitely work as a guiding light for those who have started their small firms or are in the process of starting one.

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By esharok
Sep 27th 2017 05:55

I agree with this article except for the last paragraph. If accounting is your passion, you have to think big! Then again, accounting is a broad and boring word. I am passionate about solving peoples problems, accounting problems that is. If I say I'm passionate about accounting, it automatically turns into a boring subject in my mind.
Set huge goals and then break them down into smaller achievable goals. Then, only then, youll get your overnight success. (Could take 10 years though)

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