Several years ago, Melody Feniks, CPA, CGMA, saw her small firm basically dissolve before her eyes. With less than two months' notice, one of her two partners decided to return to industry. Less than a year later, her other partner expressed a desire to simplify in anticipation of retirement. The partners demerged, and Feniks was left to rebuild on her own.
Because her partner was still in practice, Feniks had to choose a new firm name to comply with state requirements. Having also recently gone through a divorce, she decided it was time for a complete makeover, one that would include not only reinventing her firm but also changing her name. She did extensive research and chose the new last name Feniks, a Dutch word for "phoenix," the mythical bird that rises renewed from the flames. On the professional side, she seized the opportunity to reconsider her firm's mission, vision, and method of working with clients and staff.
At different points, any of us may find ourselves facing a critical juncture that offers the chance to change the course of our careers or personal lives. Given their strong and valuable skill set, CPAs often have the opportunity to move among professional settings—from public practice to industry, or from government to academia. Here's a look at how four innovative CPAs have charted their own paths to success.
At the top of Feniks's agenda was repositioning her five-person, Fairbanks, Alaska-based firm to take a more consultative role with clients. With that in mind, she shifted to a fixed-price billing approach, one focused on a more holistic method of addressing clients' needs. She implemented standardized procedures across the firm. With her former partners, "we operated in silos, with no officewide processes," she said. She also hired a firm administrator to maintain consistency and manage the day-to-day details that once consumed much of the CPA's time. "She doesn't just manage the employees, she manages me," Feniks said.
Running her own practice has also allowed Feniks to alter the way she works with employees. "I can share client details and communications with them even at very early stages of their professional lives because of our consulting role and the training we do," she said.
She has also been able to redefine "full time" so she can hire employees with a wide variety of active lives outside the firm. Her two CPA candidates include a dog musher, Ryne Olson, who has successfully competed in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest races, and a successful musician. She also has an intern on staff who previously worked as an engineer. "They exemplify the individuality of people in Alaska," Feniks said. "There's a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit here, which makes it exciting to be a small-firm owner. Many of our clients don't fit into the traditional business model."
The eclectic mix of clients and employees prompts Feniks to be flexible and creative in the way she runs her firm. Olson, for instance, owns a kennel and sled-dog tour business, and Feniks has been able to adapt to her business and racing schedules. "She's a wonderful asset to the profession, so we wanted to support her," Feniks said. Olson is also the first person in the firm to take advantage of a sabbatical, an option that Feniks has been excited to introduce.
With three children and a demanding job in public practice, Kelly Welter, CPA, launched her own firm in 2005 because she wanted to take charge of her schedule. She also was able to use her previous experience to build a foundation for her new practice.
"I had worked in public practice, and I knew I had an entrepreneurial mind," she said. In her own firm, she used her strong communication skills to build lasting relationships with clients.
Although she was able to power through on her own at first, she recommended that solo owners get clerical assistance as soon as possible to help with time-consuming administrative tasks. She also benefited from hiring a nanny and moving her office out of her home to better separate her personal and professional lives. After five years as a sole proprietor, Welter ultimately decided to merge with another solo practitioner. The firm now has a total of six people, with more taken on seasonally, and plans to add more full-time staff members.
The road has been rocky at times, but she said it has been worth it.
"I feel like a complete person," said Welter, who now has four children. "I can make my own choices. And my kids recognize the value of hard work."
MAKING STRATEGIC DECISIONS
"Honestly, I didn't know what to expect," said Amanda Proctor, CPA, who recently jumped from a job as an audit senior at a regional firm to the role of COO of a technology startup that she and her husband launched with several other professionals. The new company, Qwip It Inc., provides technology that allows users to clip and share small portions of videos with friends.
Although happy in her previous position, Proctor relished the challenge and opportunity to learn about areas such as technology and marketing that weren't part of her previous job. "I love doing lots of things, and this was a chance for me to do things I excel in and things that I wish I knew better," she said. "There's no guarantee for success, but I can increase our chances by showing up to work each day and putting 100% of myself into the company."
With two daughters at home, Proctor said she has learned the value of making strategic choices about when to say yes or no, even on the personal side. "If you say yes to doing homework with your kids, you're saying no to a networking event"—and vice versa, she said. "Just make sure that what you're saying yes to is inching you closer to your goals," whether they involve making new contacts or being available for important family events. With the startup, she has identified key people and topics for networking, and she focuses her efforts on those areas. She'll say yes to most promising first meetings but is strategic about who gets a second or third meeting, assessing the value of an event or meeting in terms of benefits such as potential contacts or knowledge to be gained.
She relies on her goal-oriented focus to inform much of her decision-making. "For example, being a board member of the charter school my daughter attends gives me experience being on a board," she said. "It also helps me to be seen as a community leader." The additional experience and exposure of serving on the charter school board may also help her secure a seat on a not-for-profit or public company board. Board positions can raise a professional's visibility and offer exposure to new experiences and, of course, new connections for her professional network.
Network-building isn't important only in the business world. Proctor said having a support system has also been crucial at home. "Sometimes I have to speak up and ask for help," she said. "This includes my children. Without the assistance of my family, I'm not sure if I could have taken the leap." (See the sidebar, "Smart Advice on Key Questions," for more recommendations about pursuing a different career path.)
After many years at a large practice, Jacquelyn H. Tracy, CPA, decided it was time to set her own rules at her own firm. Early in her career, Tracy had focused on chalking up high utilization rates and long hours. In her own tax-focused practice, she and her partner, Kathryn B. Mandel, CPA, knew at the outset that they weren't looking to grow into a midtier firm. "We wanted to do great work for clients and have a satisfying work/life balance," Tracy said. Among the ways they've achieved that goal is by working three days a week in the summer, with both in the office on Wednesdays.
Their summer schedule works because of strong communication, scheduling, and planning. "There aren't a lot of true tax-related emergencies, but our [mobile] devices allow us to check in before we take off," Tracy said. That has allowed her to respond to immediate client requests for help when, for example, a client is filing a college financial aid form or needs a copy of a return while buying a house. Tracy also noted that simply posing a question may reveal that clients don't have the same deadlines that CPAs might assume they do. In many cases, "when I ask the client if I can get back to them on Wednesday, it's fine with them," she said. At the same time, though, the partners are proponents of what Tracy called the "sooner rather than later" theory. If they have a task, they tackle it immediately so there's less chance of it becoming a problem down the road.
"We are summer people," Tracy said. "We want to put our feet in sandals and go to the beach." She has built her firm around that option because she recognized what was important to her. "Decide what success is to you, not what it's supposed to be," she said, "then figure out your own path." In judging how well you can manage work/life balance, she also suggested keeping in mind that the balance can't be level all the time. "Sometimes one part of your life will consume more of your time, but you can bring it back to as level as possible," she said.
Smart advice on key questions
CPAs looking to start their own firm should formulate a thorough business plan that takes into account issues including cash flow, budgeting, and capital. What other steps would the CPAs quoted in this article recommend for anyone doing something similar to what they've done? Here are their answers.
• Begin with some serious introspection, advised Amanda Proctor, CPA. "Starting a business is hard and lonely at times, but if it's in your heart to take the plunge, it's worth it."
• Determine what you want your business to be and stick to it. Having decided to serve only individual tax clients (including gift taxes and small trusts), Jacquelyn H. Tracy, CPA, and her partner have been able to focus their practice by turning down other types of business, such as small S corporations or partnerships.
• Develop and maintain your network. Tracy noted the value of turning to other professionals for business or technical advice—and being a resource yourself. "It makes you feel part of a community," she said. Melody Feniks, CPA, CGMA, agreed, pointing to colleagues, mentors, staff, and clients as potential resources who can offer objective feedback.
What technologies have fueled your success?
• A calendar synced to her phone, computer, iPad—and now her watch—reminds Tracy which days she is in the office or traveling or has training, meetings, or other commitments.
• Both Tracy and Feniks rely on cloud software. For Tracy, having the firm's document-management system in the cloud enables her to get client information wherever she is. Cloud options allowed Feniks to skip time-consuming decisions on a server for her new firm. "It was a weight off my shoulders," she said.
What funding sources are available for someone looking to follow a similar path?
• For potential startup investors, identify a competitor or a company similar to yours and use tools such as AngelList or CrunchBase to find details about their investors. Use the messaging option on AngelList or Conspire to reach out to the most promising investors, Proctor said.
• A home-equity loan can allow for small payments, freedom from investor oversight, and possible tax benefits, Tracy said.
• "Make your banker a part of your team," Feniks said. "They've seen everything under the sun when it comes to small business, and they can help you think outside the box and find the best solution for your situation."
About the authors
Yasmine El-Ramly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior technical manager—Firm Services & Global Alliances for the AICPA in Durham, N.C. Anita Dennis (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based near New York City.
To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-402-4056.
- "How to Find Time to Study for the CPA Exam," JofA, May 9, 2016
- "Q&A: How to Present Your Prices to Customers," JofA, Jan. 2016
- "How CPAs Can Start Their Own Business," CPA Insider, Nov. 16, 2015
- The Overachiever's Guide to Getting Unstuck: Replan, Reprioritize, Reaffirm (#PGN1301P, paperback; # PGN1301E, ebook)
- PCPS Firm inMotion Staff Development & Culture webpage
- PCPS Networking Groups
- PCPS Trusted Client Adviser Toolbox and Workshop
- Starting a CPA Practice Checklist and Resources webpage
- CPA.com Client Advisory Services Roadmap Workshop, Oct. 18—19, New York City
- AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit, Nov. 2—4, Boston
- Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference at Engage, June 12—15, Las Vegas
For more information or to make a purchase or register, go to aicpastore.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.
Private Companies Practice Section and Succession Planning Resource Center
The Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) is a voluntary firm membership section for CPAs that provides member firms with targeted practice management tools and resources, including the Succession Planning Resource Center, as well as a strong, collective voice within the CPA profession. Visit the PCPS Firm Practice Center at aicpa.org/PCPS. The PCPS Succession Planning Resource Center is available at aicpa.org/PCPS/succession.