Using the Web to reach your next-door neighbor.
O ne key aspect of the World Wide Web is its ability to link to international sites as easily as local ones. It's an aspect David B. Robinson decided to ignore. He designed his Web site as one part of a marketing plan to make himself known throughout Chesterfield County, Virginia, so the site focuses almost exclusively on local links and local information-a sort of electronic bulletin board in the town square. Robinson's Web presence gives additional polish to a firm that grew from 5 clients at its 1990 inception to 650 today.
WHY A WEB SITE?
Robinson's home page has a plain design with few graphics; it essentially serves as a table of contents to a number of sections, such as business start-up information and firm history. One prominent link leads to a description of his firm, where he promises "passionately dedicated tax preparation, reviews and compilations and business consulting." His passion is to serve his clients and to increase the perception of his firm in their eyes. "I haven't gotten any new clients from my site, but many current ones see I have a site and think, 'We always liked the individual attention we got from you as the little local firm. Now you're on the technology cutting edge with a Web site-we see you have breadth and depth.'"
But the site is about more than perception. Robinson gets lots of calls from people wanting to know how to start up a local business. "So many of them have Internet access, I can just say, 'Go to my site. Check my links on county rules, on City of Richmond rules, on different entities. Download federal and Virginia business tax forms.'" In 1993, Robinson started a service called "Tax Fax" (a copyrighted name). Every Monday he faxes his clients a brief newsletter on key tax topics, such as gifts to employees, family loans, retirement plans and taxpayer rights. When he started his Web site in December 1995, he began posting them online with an index. Now Robinson can often send clients to the Tax Fax list to answer their questions. The Web, as Robinson is finding, is becoming as important to small businesses in central Virginia as it is to large corporations in New York City.
"My Web site helps identify me as a new breed of CPA-the entrepreneurial accountant. A prospective business client asks, 'What do you know about starting and marketing and growing a business? Why should I engage you as a consultant?' and I say, 'Because I started and marketed and grew my business!' I know about staff turnover, receivables, advertising and-now-Web marketing."
WHY ONLY LOCAL?
"The local businesses here are not interested in international tax issues, so why should I bother with those links?" Robinson knows that potential clients who have, or are planning to start, local businesses need local information-and not just on accounting issues. He's provided a history of Chesterfield County, where he lives and works. There are links to the Web site of Richmond's distinguished Jefferson Hotel, a local radio station and a guide to Richmond. He arranged with the local TV station, WWBT, to provide mutual links. Robinson thus provides his visitors with local news and receives additional visits from people who are checking local news and who may need a CPA. Other links include Virginia Tech's accounting department and an accounting professor at the University of Richmond. Robinson has even found links to descriptions of counties, towns and small cities throughout Virginia, such as Chincoteague Island, Quantico and Roanoke; tourist attractions, including the Oakencroft Vineyard and Winery; and regional chambers of commerce.
Key to his local marketing plan are the links to his clients. These serve multiple purposes: "My clients like my site's links to themselves. Potential clients looking for a CPA not only can read about other businesses I handle but also may end up using one of my client's services." His clients, of course, link back to him with such descriptions as "a good accountant and a cool guy." He is encouraging all his business clients to set up Web sites.
Name: David B. Robinson, CPA.
Personnel: One principal, 5 full- and part-time staff.
Location: Midlothian, Virginia.
Type of clients: Individuals and small businesses.
Client services: 60% tax preparation, 40% general business consulting.
Web site: http://www.greatcpa.com
PULLING IT TOGETHER
Robinson had originally thought of creating a site when he noticed some of his clients were on the Web. He sent staff accountant Dena R. Scott to an informational meeting sponsored by a Web design company. They told meeting participants to prepare to spend about $30,000 for an award-winning site. After hearing this, Robinson sent Scott to a nearby software outlet. "The Web wasn't that big then, so it was easy to choose a Web author program-there was only one on the shelf," she said. Ventana's Internet Publishing Kit cost about $79. Robinson's Internet service provider charges $19.95 a month for unlimited Internet use and $5 a month for space for the Web site. The total expenditure, although a lot less than $30,000, was still enough to create a site that was selected as a Top Accounting Web Site by Harcourt Brace Professional Publishing.
Scott, who doubles as the firm's Webmaster, found the program helpful in starting. "But it doesn't do everything. By asking around online I learned HTML and began adding my own codes through a text editor." Windows Notepad, which comes with Windows, is a simple text editor. (Text editors are programs that create "plain-text" or "ASCII" documents suitable for use on the Web, where all formatting codes come from HTML. Word processing programs normally do not do this.) More sophisticated editors are available as low-cost shareware online. She has added a few free or shareware graphics, "but we wanted the page to load fast, so we kept it simple." As time allows, Robinson and Scott hope to upgrade the site to make it more visually appealing while retaining its ability to load quickly. They also plan to register their own domain name. Scott emphasized that a complicated technological setup was not necessary to create a site; "we only have a 486 machine," she said.
Robinson said thinking local doesn't necessarily mean thinking small. Motorola recently announced it was building new facilities in central Virginia and relocating employees there. "These new employees will need part-year Virginia tax returns done. I can say to them, 'Look at my Web site for everything you need to know about your new home and then get your taxes prepared by Virginia's most passionate CPA.'"