06 Jul Maximize Your Role as Visionary
Your final role as CEO is visionary. This differs from your role as strategist, as the visionary role deals with the long-term future of your firm.
This is the fun part, if you really relish your role as CEO. Consider your firm a blank canvas on which you can experiment endlessly.
Most of what you try, if you’re really future-oriented, will fail. Back in the early 1990s, we started a bookkeeping service. In theory, we would offer bookkeeping, knowing that it was low-margin, to entice these bookkeeping clients into using more profitable services such as income tax preparation.
Great theory, but incorrect. We learned that clients didn’t want their bookkeepers preparing their tax returns even if we had a separate entity for each. We ended up with a lot of low-margin bookkeeping business. Fortunately, this misadventure didn’t affect the main CPA firm, as it continued to grow on its own. Swing and a miss, but I learned a lot from the experience.
Interestingly, the time has come for this arrangement, but we don’t call it bookkeeping anymore. We call it outsourced accounting. Bookkeeping comes with big negative connotations. As we all know from dealing with QuickBooks data, 90 percent of all bookkeepers are brain dead. So we sidestep that ugly term and craft a marketing message against the backdrop of the average bookkeeper’s incompetence. Monthly write-up died in the 1990s but came back in the 21st century as a zombie.
Timing is everything. I didn’t have it then. I think I have it now.
Some of the best decisions that you will ever make involve killing what seems like a surefire idea. Also in the early 1990s, we discussed creating a low-cost tax preparation service to complete with the national tax mills. They were making huge money offering refund anticipation loans. You could make a few thousand dollars for what seemed like no effort. What better way to make a living than by exploiting your fellow man?
There were lots of things wrong with this idea:
- TurboTax was beginning to eat the mid-range of the low-cost tax mill market.
- Low-income clients are high-maintenance clients. Maybe it only takes 15 minutes to prepare the return, but that’s only a tenth of the story.
- Low-margin services are just … well, low-margin services that require a lot of effort.
We whetted our appetite for riches by offering refund anticipation loans – until we actually did one. That first client called us literally 15 times in three days from the time we completed the returns to the time the loan was funded. We learned that low-income clients really needed their refund – and right now. Rich people are much more laid back about getting refunds. Their rent doesn’t depend on a $500 refund. Lesson learned.
Those two misadventures aside, experimenting with our firm has been fun and resulted in a lot of profits through differentiation and cost reduction. Our first paperless tax season was 1998. My partner, Paul, and I attended a CPA firm technology workshop taught by Bob Jennings. Bob still teaches these and after you read his books, attend one of his seminars; his website is taxspeaker.com.
Bob told us about a two-partner audit firm in Texas that had become wildly profitable using paperless technology. Wildly and profitable are two of my favorite words. Paul and I looked at each other, and knew what we had to do. We were out of file cabinets and out of space for new ones. So I started researching commercial scanners.
We leased a commercial-grade scanner from my brother-in-law’s employer, a copier company.
They had never sold and installed one of these. We made an appointment for a Friday morning delivery, installation and connection to our network. They gave us a list of hardware necessary and described how they would connect the device to our network. Then they called Friday morning to reschedule.
That was fortunate. I took the manual home for the weekend and learned that what they planned on doing would burn out the machine. The manual specifically told me to not do what they planned on doing. That Sunday I connected the scanner and it worked great. I still had a lot to figure out about the workflow you need for a paperless system, but the plumbing was now there for us to develop that workflow. Not all of our ideas fail.
Your reading these articles is a huge step toward fulfilling your role as visionary. There are many other paths to consider.
- Do you have the right tax software for your firm?
- What’s the correct staff mix for your firm in terms of admin versus professional staff? Again, I hate that term “professional,” but I don’t have a better term.
- How can you best use telecommuting? Notice I didn’t ask if you should consider telecommuting. That ship sailed into an iceberg long ago. For better or worse, we are stuck with the concept.
- Closely related to telecommuting is how much office space do you need? Can you do with less? Should you buy office space?
- When should you embrace the cloud? Answer – yesterday.
- Are you offering the right mix of services at the right prices? Have you thought about subscription-based pricing?
- How will you fund your retirement? Will you have an internal buyout or a third-party sale?
- Should you buy a drone to kill the bottom 10 percent of your clients?
A real CEO finds these topics endlessly more fascinating than entering the 10,000th W-2 form. Set aside 30 minutes each non-tax season day to ponder these great questions. Take your iPad or other notebook to lunch and brainstorm the future while you munch on your rabbit food salad. I’m eating a steak and cheese.
Let’s end with a recap of your roles as CEO:
- Chief strategist
- Trainer and coach
- Chief traffic cop
- Chief communicator
If you fulfill these roles competently, you have no time to be a preparer. Being a CEO leverages your skills and knowledge to get others to make more money for you.