How do four partners run a company with at-home offices in four states when they are on the road in separate locations much of the time? K2 Enterprises, which produces and delivers technology seminars, practices what it preaches: It uses the Internet to keep in touch, to market itself and to support its services. The companys business is making in-person presentations; the Internet makes that business possible. Although K2 is a singular entity, its achievements and solutions have implications for any small firm that wants to conduct business outside its hometown. K2 serves as a case study for its message.
Fluid Organization, Fluid Technology
On the surface, K2 looks like a small accounting firm; three of the four partners are CPAs. However, it is technically a company organized as a partnership. Although it does some consulting work, the vast majority of its business is preparing and delivering seminars and conferences on information technology. We formalized what began as an affiliation about four years ago, said Val Steed, K2s chief executive officer. K2s partners have experience in public accounting, information technology consulting and academia. For example, Steed himself worked for both Big 8 and small accounting firms and specializes in tax. Partner J. Carlton Collins managed audit engagements and is an accounting software authority. They turned their communications skills, honed by delivering talks at seminars and writing books and articles, into the full-time business of performing speaking engagements. And while helping other CPAs keep up with technology, K2 addressed its own company-management issues.
Have a conference anywhere. Heres an example of a problem K2 faces that CPAs in traditional firms also have to deal with: Most CPAs in public practice know what its like to travel extensively to perform engagements. And of course, they need to attend technical conferences around the country just to keep up. The K2 staff travels as well, delivering about 530 sessions at conferences around the country each year. And when we arent teaching, were watching others teach to learn more ourselves, said K2 partner Will Fleenor. Time on the road led to massive phone bills as the partners and staff attempted to stay in touch with each other. The Internet helped solve the problem: Microsoft has a free software product called NetMeeting that allows real-time voice and video conferences through the Internet. It works with Internet Explorer (also free) and a video camera that connects with a PC and costs as little as $100. These conferences are technically Internet sessions and thus theres no long-distance bill at the end. Do the long-distance phone companies like this? asked Collins at a seminar. They do not. Fleenor estimated K2 shaves 40% off its phone bill by using NetMeeting and similar products.
We find the Internet suits our travel schedule well, said Fleenor. Auditors especiallywith their need to transfer many documentswill find their clients demanding its use.
The Site Is The Business
A company that delivers a full-day seminar on business uses of the Internet can expect attendees to take a close look at its own Web site. (Would a company want a chief financial officer who couldnt balance his or her own personal checkbook?) In their talks, K2 staff ask attendees to think hard about what they want to do with their Web sitesa simple online Yellow Page listing, corporate information, product and service data or sales and distribution. They also have a 19-point list of suggestions for a successful sitewhich they follow themselves.
For example, K2 advises keeping the graphics simple so the page loads quickly. One of the few graphics on K2s pages is its logo, a simple sketch of the Himalayan mountain the company is named after. (However, you can click on a button to view a photo of K2.) Also, Web pages should include photos of key people so a visitor will associate a facea real personwith a Web site. K2s business depends on a good rapport with its audience. If its seminars are bland, it is unlikely to get further business even if its information is accurate. CPAs in more traditional firms face the same issues: If their clients feel comfortable with them, in addition to appreciating the quality of the work, the firm is more likely to get more engagements. A firms Web pages can reflect the personality of its partners and associates.
The About K2 page describes the firm in terms of its people: We make every effort to maintain a high level of integrity, family values and friendship among all involved. Each partner and associate has his own set of pages, with a photo and its own design. Collins provided a jacket-and-tie photo and a detailed resume, going back to a stint on his high schools student council. Included is a list of his publications and speaking engagements. Fleenor describes himself as a farmer, a good family man, a fine baseball coach, and an all around good husband. In addition to a standard photo, viewers can see him on vacation with his family.
Name: K2 Enterprises.
Content is king. Many Web developers emphasize the importance of content on a Web site, as opposed to overreliance on elaborate graphics and flashy programming tricks. K2 advises tons of useful contentuseful for whomever the Web pages are designed to attract. K2s Web pages support the conferences and seminars. For example, by clicking on K2s Business Use of the Internet seminar, visitors get a detailed outline of the seminar with hotlinks to the Web sites K2 uses as examples. Its a value-added bonus for those who attended and a marketing feature for those who might. How can a traditional firm take advantage of this concept? Auditors may want to put explanatory audit hotlinks on their pages so their clients will have a better idea of why audits are necessary and what they can get out of them. (AICPA Online, http://www.aicpa.org and Yahoo, http://www.yahoo.com are good places to start in building hotlink libraries.)
Collins compiled a list of the 40 most popular accounting software packages, with prices and recommendations based on feedback from the thousands of CPAs who attended K2 seminars. A firm with a lot of health care clients, for example, could talk to them about suppliers and post the information for everyones use.
Pulling It Together
As might be expected, K2 is more on the technological cutting edge than many firms and companies its size need to be. Nevertheless, much of what it uses is in the range of even sole practitioners. K2 purchased its own server for $9,000, but this is not essential for smaller entities. To keep on top of developments, K2 put itself on a two-year cycle, replacing 50% of its technology each year. However, Fleenor said most firms could get by on a three-year cycle. You give the latest hardware to the people in your organization who need it and pass along the older pieces to those who have simpler needs.
K2, which does not emphasize the need for novices to master HTML, highlights Microsoft FrontPage Editor for building Web sites. The newest version costs between $100 and $150, depending on which other Microsoft products an organization already owns. For browsing, K2 is not taking sides in the war between Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. K2 uses both. However, each browser is now bundled with a suite of other related programs, and although a system can have both browsers, if both Microsofts and Netscapes full suites are loaded they will interfere with each other. Internet Explorer and its add-ons are free, and Netscape Communicator Deluxe Edition retails for under $100, although rebates are sometimes available.
Although the Internet has been key to K2s existence, Steed stressed the reliance on older techniques. K2 receives 500 hits a day on its site, but we depend a lot on word-of-mouth marketing, said Steed. Nor does K2 rely exclusively on the Internet for communication: The partners try very hard to meet face-to-face once a month, he continued. According to the CPA who makes his living working in front of an audience, Nothing is the same as face-to-face.