Grow your firm with intention

By Megan Hart

The accounting profession moves fast, and it can feel important for firms to continuously evolve. However, the fast-moving nature of the industry makes it even more critical for firms to step back and consider their priorities. That's the message of an upcoming session at AICPA ENGAGE 2023 led by Keila Hill-Trawick, CPA, and Carrie Steffen — two business leaders who believe there's room for change at many firms.

A lot of CPAs feel like their cups are full, Steffen said. But at the same time, their firms feel pressure to keep up with competitors. In their session, Steffen and Hill-Trawick will explain why growth for growth's sake shouldn't be the goal.

"I think one of the things we want people to take away is recognizing there's not one way to operate an accounting firm," said Hill-Trawick, CEO and founder of Little Fish Accounting in Washington, D.C. "A lot of people are so focused on growth, getting more clients and more money. I'm hoping people leave the session asking, 'What do I want my firm to look like, what do I want my life to look like and how do I get there?'" Here's a preview of what they'll discuss.

Revenue shouldn't be the primary objective. "Some of the things we'll talk about may go against the way the profession has always seen itself," said Steffen, president of the Whetstone Group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Steffen co-founded The Whetstone Group in 2000 to help accounting firms manage growth. For many CPA firms, increasing revenue is the goal. "But I think that takes away from the fundamental reason why most people would say they're in business. That's to help the client," she said.

When firms focus on serving their clients, revenue is the natural byproduct, Steffen said. And firms can usually best help their clients when they focus on doing fewer things better. "It's more about doing what we do best for fewer kinds of clients," she said. "Clients will start to recognize the value proposition so fees will go up."

Of course, it can be difficult to turn down potential business or end relationships with existing clients. Steffen has also received pushback from firms that worry their staff will get bored if their portfolios are limited.

"But I believe it allows people to be more creative when they can understand what makes a client tick," she said.

Hill-Trawick was working at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office five years ago when she identified an opportunity. She knew a lot of creative types operating small businesses who didn't want to worry about managing their finances. "I could offer a unique service because I care about people, education, transparency." She decided to focus on serving the smallest clients who weren't finding help elsewhere because they weren't traditionally the most lucrative option for firms. "I felt if we could go deeper versus wider, help fewer clients at a higher level, that would be better for the firm and client," she said.

The biggest challenge, however, was that she didn't have any experience managing an accounting firm, so she modeled her business after a design firm that focused on the whole client and put an emphasis on branding. "It definitely made us stand out," Hill-Trawick said.

She acknowledges that major shifts can be tougher for larger firms. "I didn't have to turn the Titanic," she said. But she and Steffen agree that CEOs, partners, and managers are increasingly likely to embrace change, and this session could be a good place to start.

Hear more from Carrie Steffen and Keila Hill-Trawick during their session "Five Things to Stop Doing in Your Firm" at AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2023. ENGAGE will be held June 5–8, 2023, at the ARIA in Las Vegas and live online. Learn more or register here.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Florida. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, email

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