How CPAs can start their own business

Budding entrepreneurs, take heart—being a CPA already gives you a head start on some business basics.
By Dawn Wotapka

Many CPAs find success practicing accounting for large firms, companies, or even themselves.

But some CPAs are breaking that mold and finding ways to use their backgrounds in creative businesses that include everything from creating tasty treats to racing packs of dogs across frigid terrain. The trend is particularly strong among Millennials, an age group that doesn’t always want the 9-to-5 jobs that appealed to previous generations, said Jared Plummer, a 32-year-old accountant-turned-entrepreneur. He says many Millennial accountants are asking themselves how they can be a CPA and pursue other dreams at the same time.  

Combining the hard-won credential with more creativity is possible, and the accounting background provides a helpful leg up for budding entrepreneurs or even those who want to invest in an existing business. “People see you as having a vision,” said Ron Siwa, a CPA and one of the owners of Roloff Construction Inc. in Omaha, Neb. “You’re exposed to all the leadership, the management part of the whole business and it gives you some credibility that you know the numbers.”

Are you one of those CPAs interested in starting or running your own business? Before rushing into the thrill of the unknown, consider this advice:

Discover your passion: Plummer, a Raleigh, N.C., resident who earned a master’s degree in accounting from N.C. State University, loves accounting. But he also loves making and selling gourmet ice cream, which led him to found the food truck Two Roosters Ice Cream. Passion on its own isn’t enough, Plummer said; would-be entrepreneurs also should make sure they have the necessary skills. He loves making frozen confections, but, as he pointed out, “if people don’t want to eat my ice cream, that’s a problem.”

Research the market: Once you cement an idea worth pursuing, assess market opportunity and viability. Is there a need for your product or service? As Plummer put it, “You can be passionate about typewriters, but if everybody uses a word processor, there’s not an opportunity to sustain your business.” In his case, Plummer found a market for gourmet ice cream with unusual ingredients—including Lucky Charms cereal and crispy chow mein—served from a custom camper pulled by a restored 1965 Ford F-100.  

Tony Corley of Nashville did extensive research before launching Healthcare MarketMaker in early 2013. After earning his CPA, he worked in corporate and large-firm accounting with positions that focused on health care. He realized a radical shift was occurring: Baby Boomer-era doctors were ready to retire and sell their practices. For him, that represented a solid market ripe for the technological opportunities offered by his site, which he likened to a for buyers and sellers of medical practices.

He also spent significant time interviewing the doctors who would use his technology, though he wishes he had done that even more. “The big thing for starting any business is you have to know your customer,” Corley said.

Assess your situation: Once you decide to go into business, figure out if you can slowly transition away from your CPA job. Corley runs his company full time, but Plummer spends part of the week working at a public accounting firm. For now, the situation allows him to nurture his dream while maintaining a steady income. Plummer’s bosses (and spouse) are flexible and supportive and allowed him to cut back his hours. Still, both endeavors combine for long days and increased stress. “At some point, I’m going to have to choose,” he said.

Ryne Olson, meanwhile, found an accounting job that allows her to take a sabbatical during the spring—yes, including the peak tax season—to train her Alaskan huskies for races. Employer Feniks & Co. even closed the office for an afternoon during tax season to come down and cheer Olson on during the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest race.

Olson, who is working toward her CPA license, owns the Ryno Sled Dog Kennel, a small business based in Two Rivers, Alaska. She began by interning with Feniks & Co. in Fairbanks, Alaska, so her bosses got to know her and understood her desire to own and train dogs from day one. “It was a very easy conversation for me to have. I’m not sure it would be easy at other firms,” said Olson, who advised other aspiring entrepreneurs to “try and find a firm that has a similar outlook to your lifestyle.”

Respect your knowledge: When changing careers, it’s easy to forget that your accounting background and the work you put into studying for the CPA exam puts you ahead. You already know the basics of business and how to balance your books, a skill many other business starters lack. “It’s a solid base,” Corley said. “You get to understand business through a business perspective. It’s always going to be with you.”

Olson said her background helped her to be aware of state regulatory requirements. She was also able to set up a business based around a hobby that many consider to be a “money pit.” Instead, she made it profitable through race winnings and sponsorships, and offering tours. “From marketing to logistics to bookkeeping to budgeting, I could not have created Ryno Kennel without my business background,” she said. “It's not like you can walk into a bank and ask for a small business loan to start up a competitive dog mushing team.”  

For those looking to branch out, Plummer offered a final bit of advice: “Stop talking and go do it.”

Dawn Wotapka

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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