Age-old questions answered with the technology of the future.
The $19.95 Engagement
|By Richard J. Koreto|
T imothy C. Stewart has given consulting a new twist by signing up clients he may never speak with. Small business owners can visit his Internet site and, for a one-time fee of $19.95, run scenarios using their own figures with "calculators" Stewart has created for balance sheets, income statements and cash flow statements. They also can view his examples and his explanations of key accounting terms and find answers to the kinds of questions small business clients with minimal financial savvy often ask their CPAs: Whats an "asset"? How does a balance sheet for a sole proprietorship differ from one for a corporation?
Stewart isnt the first CPA to put interactive features on a Web site, but hes unusual for two reasons: This site is an end in itself, not a loss leader to market more traditional services, and hes using state-of-the-art technologies not for technology consulting but, rather, for some very basic accounting services.
WHATS ON THE SITE
The simply-designed home page explains the purpose of the site, from the point of view of a user: "I sure like my eggs over-easy . I wish my bean counter would explain to me what my financial statement says in an over-easy manner." Those who have already subscribed to his site can enter a password and go straight to the explanation and calculator pages. Others who are considering signing up can link to pages that describe what subscribers get and that include a few free examples and a sample calculator. If they decide to become subscribers after viewing the public areas, they can link to an online registration form.
The key portions of the site are available only to those who have subscribed. They can access the full series of pages titled "The Easy Accounting Guide to Easy Accounting" and see a variety of examples, such as a not-for-profit (NPO) balance sheet or a partnership income statement. "Ive been in accounting for nearly 30 years," said Stewart, "and over that time Ive seen many clients too shy to show their ignorance. My site will help them." He welcomes small business owners happy with their current accountants and points out it will help those CPAs, too. More knowledgeable owners, said Stewart, will work more effectively with their CPA auditors and consultants. "A major reason smaller companies fail," he said, "is that their owners dont know what a balance sheet is." Stewart also believes small businesses owners should know more about a CPAs reports, so he includes examples of compilation and review reports and an independent auditors report. An online client can easily print information right off the site and study it at his or her leisure, without worrying about forgetting key information after leaving the accountants office.
Especially useful are the online calculators. Subscribers can click on one, for example, for a sole proprietorship that has an inventory income statement. A series of boxes appears on the screen, each asking for the information the business owner should type in. Results appear on the screen. Stewarts calculators also cover partnerships, corporations and NPOs. "Those who serve as trustees for charities may find them useful." Because each user has a unique password, said Stewart, subscribers can be certain the information they enter remains confidential. E-mail links let subscribers query Stewart if theyre having trouble using the site.
Stewart has put only a few links on his site, all designed to add value to the content. Some are reciprocal links with other companies (each agreeing to link to the other), which helps attract potential customers. Included among the links are Microsofts Small Business Resource, the Small Business Administration and "Entrepreneurs on the Web."
PULLING IT TOGETHER
The creation of the site resulted from a partnership between Stewart and AccountingNet, a company that has created many Web-based tools for the accounting community. Although Stewart had some experience in technology consulting, he did not have the programming skills to set up the complex series of calculators. He created the template for the calculators in Excel and the text in Microsoft Word and turned it over to AccountingNet, which put the text in HTML. The Excel spreadsheets were converted into Java, a complex, versatile program especially useful in creating sophisticated Web sites. (Javas main purpose on Stewarts site is to allow users who do not have Excel to access the calculators.) AccountingNet also linked its sitewhich gets about half a million hits a monthto Stewarts, giving him a marketing boost. AccountingNet charged Stewart about $16,000 for its services.
Stewart also needed to form a partnership to set up a simple, secure method for subscribers to pay their $19.95. He turned to CyberCash, a Web-based payment system, that encrypts a users VISA or MasterCard number. This is how CyberCash works: When a customer makes an online purchase, a uniquely coded digital message travels to the merchantin this case, Stewartwho confirms it and forwards it to CyberCash. Since the credit card number is encoded, only CyberCash and the customernot even Stewartknow the number. (Even someone who intercepts a transaction cant break the code.) CyberCash routes the transaction to VISA or MasterCard, which places the charge on the customers next bill. Stewart likes CyberCash because it guarantees security and pays him quickly. He has added a direct link so users can easily register ( http://www.cybercash.com ). CyberCash, which has about a million users, does not charge merchants or customers but makes its money from the banks by processing the payments. (Other online payment companies, using different approaches, include First Virtual, http://www.firstvirtual.com , and DigiCash, http://www.digicash.com .)
MARKETING AND GROWTH
Stewarts site has been up only since May, but hes already put a lot of energy into marketing. He registered his site with 18 search engines. He also notified Harcourt Brace Professional Publishing that his Web sit was open for business. Harcourt chose his page as one of its top accounting Web sites and created a link from its Web page to his. He is writing an article about his site for a local newspaper and plans to speak at business meetings, including the local chamber of commerce. Hes getting permission from the first subscribers to post testimonials.
Although right now his conventional clients form the vast majority of his practice, Stewart has big plans for the future. He hopes his site will be useful not just to local companies but also to entities across the country and even around the world. If there are requests for more calculators, hell add them. If he finds an overseas market, hell set up mirror sites in Spanish or Japanese"accounting is international," he said.
Stewart knows far-flung companies are unlikely to ever hire him for
traditional engagements, but hes satisfied if all the contact he has
with them is through his site. He just wants to address the widespread
confusion among small business owners hes seen for years. "This
site is essentially a by-product of my practice."