Highlights from Accountex USA

Accountants and bookkeepers at Accountex USA 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts

Accountants and bookkeepers at Accountex USA 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts

I almost didn't go to Accountex USA this year. With everything going on at work and home, it would have been easy to say no. 

But I'm really glad I did!

Every time I go to a conference, I learn something new. Sometimes I learn more than one thing. And that was definitely the case at Accountex 2017.

Plus it's a great opportunity to meet and reconnect with some of the most innovative accountants and bookkeepers in our profession.

Here are the highlights from my conference experience (along with a bit of commentary β€” hope you don't mind). 


Accountants need to be there for entrepreneurs from the start

Daymond John (of Shark Tank fame) said in his keynote address that he could have really used the help of accountants when he was starting his business.

In fact, cash flow problems nearly shut down Daymond's amazingly successful hip hop clothing line FUBU when it was just getting started.

Daymond had borrowed $100,000 from his family for his first production run after securing $300,000 in orders. He spent it all right away on making clothing, not realizing that giving 60 and 90 day terms to his customers meant he wouldn't be making any deposits for months.

Fortunately, Daymond was able to secure financing in the nick of time, but it was a very close call.

He might have been able to avoid nearly going broke if he'd had an accountant helping him with some simple cash flow forecasting.

Back then, Daymond couldn't afford an accountant.

But now with the efficiency of cloud technology, there's no reason why accountants and bookkeepers can't offer basic services to entrepreneurs while they're still in startup mode.


Every person is now a media company

Randi Zuckerberg, former Director of Market Development and spokesperson for Facebook, talked about how Facebook and other social media platforms have democratized the media landscape.

Now, thanks to the cameras in our phones, every one of us has the ability to create content potentially viewed by millions of people β€” at no cost.

You can use the internet and social media to build your own personal brand. It can bring clients, help you in your career advancement, or both.

The benefits can be huge. So why aren't more of us doing this?

Five years ago, it used to be somewhat difficult to put yourself out there online. But now you can publish articles for free on sites like Medium or LinkedIn, which have a built-in audience thirsting for knowledge.

You can stream live video to your followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You just need a smartphone, not a complicated camera setup.

You can use apps like Snagit to record "how to" screencasts and publish them to YouTube where prospects will find them and then come to you for more help.

If you aren't doing any of this, I strongly encourage you to pick one of these channels and give a try. Try it for at least for six months. You may be surprised by the results.


Even bookkeepers can build a million dollar firm

I was very excited to hear Melanie Power speak because she hails from all the way from Australia, and I've been following her for years online. Her private Facebook Group, Bookkeeper Revolution, is a wealth of knowledge about technology and how to run a bookkeeping practice.

In her session, "The Million Dollar Bookkeeper," Mel shared how she built her own firm bringing in over a million dollars of annual revenue with just three people.

She was able to do it by:

  • Leveraging cloud technology
  • Narrowing her focus to a niche
  • Focusing her product offering
  • Having a clear methodology, and
  • Knowing how to communicate her value

Time sheets are immoral and unethical

I'm a fan of anyone who applies economic theory and philosophy to how accounting firms should be managed. And that's what Ed Kless does on a regular basis.

He also enjoys being a tad controversial β€” also something I tend to enjoy.

Case in point: During a panel discussion called "Evolution of the Accounting Technology Ecosystem," the topic of time sheets arose.

Ed happily shared his view on time sheets, which is that they're "immoral and unethical" when required of professionals, AKA knowledge workers.

That's because time sheets can be used to help you or hurt you, depending on how a manager feels. And because all intelligent professionals know this, they all "manage" their time to somehow come in on time and budget.

That's why time sheets are mostly useless from a project management perspective β€” they aren't real.

Another argument from Ed: You can't value knowledge in terms of hours. It's the wrong measurement. So why do we sell it that way?


The app ecosystem is the future of small business accounting

In his session "Zen and the Art of Application Integration," Ryan Watson of Upsourced Accounting demonstrated a real life example of the Xero "app ecosystem" in practice.

Ryan uses six applications integrated with Xero to provide a superior customer experience. They are:

  1. Gusto
  2. Expensify
  3. Hubdoc
  4. Bill.com
  5. Track1099
  6. Zenefits

By implementing this tech stack, Ryan and his firm were able to eliminate tedious physical bank statement reconciliations, printing and mailing of paper checks and invoices, using spreadsheets to track employee hours, manual pay runs, and a whole pile of receipts.

The result was better cash flow and visibility into company performance.

Needless to say, Ryan will have this client for a very long time.

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If you want to make a real difference for your clients, tackle the top line

Mark Wikersham, FCA

Mark Wikersham, FCA

If you want to move into advisory services, you need to help your clients improve their net income, right?

Mark Wikersham says that most accountants are going about it completely the wrong way.

That's because accountants like to focus on cutting costs. But most costs are hard to cut by more than 5-6%, and that doesn't really make much of a difference to the bottom line. 

In his presentation, "Changing Clients' Lives the Fast Way," Mark argued that helping clients increase sales is the #1 way accountants can help their clients grow profits.

One way that accountants can begin to help is by tracking KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) related to sales. For instance:

  • Total # of customers
  • Average sale amount
  • Average # of visits per year
  • Won customers
  • Lost customers
  • New sales leads
  • Conversion rate

By putting these financial and non-financial metrics on a dashboard for clients, accountants can begin to engage clients in conversations around how to grow revenue. 

Often clients are underpricing their services, or not offering enough variety. Accountants are in the perfect place to help their clients figure this out and make a real difference.


Accountants and bookkeepers need to take control of difficult client relationships

In her presentation, "Take Control: Managing Difficult Client Relationships" CPA Stacey Byrne shared her tips for building a list of clients you actually want to work with. 

Step #1 β€” Have a client screening process. Don't just take on anyone.

Step #2 β€” Have a solid engagement letter. And make sure clients understand the details. Make sure your engagement letter includes details on what happens if clients don't pay, and what happens if you need to fire them (or they need to fire you).

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Step #3 β€” Bill in advance. If not in advance, bill early and often. Require retainers for new clients. If a prospect doesn't want to pay a retainer, they're probably not going to be a good client.

Step #4 β€” Document everything. Keep notes for every client meeting. And be thoughtful about what you put in writing. Eventually a client will try to throw you under the bus to protect him or herself.

Step #5 β€” If you need to disengage, take the high road. You don't have to tell them what you really think. Cooperate with the transition, within reason. Put everything in writing.


Firms that want to grow need to focus on the "Why"

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In his session, "Unravelling Innovation: How to Foster Creativity to Improve Your Firm's Growth Strategy," Matthew Heggem, CEO of SUM Innovation, stepped back from the day to day of running a practice (the "How") and encouraged those in attendance to ponder the "Why." 

Why do we do what we do?

Practice leaders need to answer that question before they can tackle the rest because it influences everything else. As you can see from Matt's slides, his "Why" is big on a cosmic scale.

That makes for powerful leadership.

It follows that if your "Why" is just to make lots of money, you're not going to be very inspiring to your employees.


Accountants must take the leap from analysis to impact to increase value

Everyone talks about adding advisory services to their practices, but what does that really mean?

Donny Shimamoto shared how to begin do it in his session "Adding Advisory Services to a Compliance-Based Firm."

Most accounting firms are focused today on being process managers. That usually means producing management reports helping to control risk in the accounting cycle.

To increase their value, Donny says that accountants and bookkeepers must go beyond reporting to analysis and performance management. And if you want to become the most valuable you can be to your clients, you have to provide insight and decision support that makes a real impact on the business.

The challenge is, as you move from analysis to insight, influence, and impact, you need fewer technical skills and more people skills.

The problem is, people skills tend to be lacking in the accounting profession. And while they enjoy providing analysis, most accountants are uncomfortable challenging their clients to change direction in a way that significantly affects the business.

So how do you move from analysis to insight?

Donny suggests benchmarking as a way to get started. By providing a benchmarking scorecard to all your clients in a particular industry, you can stimulate conversations around how to grow sales, increase net income, and everything in between.

Accountants must move from data capture, reports, and analysis to providing insight, influence, and impact.

Accountants must move from data capture, reports, and analysis to providing insight, influence, and impact.


Ecommerce accounting is really hard

I was trying to think of a better takeaway from Scott Scharf's three hour session, "Ecommerce Accounting Best Practices for the Modern Accounting Practice," but there isn't one.

Ecommerce accounting is really hard, for a number of reasons:

  1. Ecommerce shopping carts and inventory systems rarely integrate well with accounting applications.
  2. Sellers can have lots of different sales channels, complicating reconciliations.
  3. Selling online often results in sales tax filing requirements in dozens of states.
  4. Ecommerce businesses often don't have the expertise necessary to ensure that costs are being captured properly in inventory.

Given all the complexities of ecommerce accounting, you should probably just sign up for Catching Clouds Academy, launching in September 2017.

The Catching Clouds accounting tech stack for ecommerce sellers

The Catching Clouds accounting tech stack for ecommerce sellers


It's all about the people

Earning CPE is great, but in the end, what draws us year after year to a conference like Accountex is the people. Here, for your moment of Zen, are a few of the accountants and bookkeepers who made this conference special.


A version of this article also appears on the Accountex Report blog.