How to run a remote CPA firm

December 1, 2017By Stephanie Parton, CAE, INCPAS Vice President - CommunicationsArticle, Blog, Innovation, Talent and the Changing Workforce

Jody Grunden, CEO & Co-Founder of Summit CPA Group, shares his advice and secret sauce to making it work.

1. Schedule weekly team meetings with transparency

Weekly team meetings are crucial within a distributed company. Scheduling 30–60 minutes once a week—preferably Monday mornings—with the entire team is a great way to start off everyone’s week. It’s an opportunity for each team member to share a positive and a challenge about the past week, and what they are looking forward to the coming week. Weekly team meetings keep the whole team in the loop and connected and allows management to keep a pulse on what’s really happening. The same goes for weekly one-on-ones with direct reports.

2. Host company retreats

Corporate. Leadership. Retreat. Are you cringing? Do the words “trust fall” and “ropes course” come to mind? Are you having nightmares of a very cold (or very hot because someone is always complaining about the temperature) windowless hotel ballroom? Are you envisioning yourself staring at four walls for eight

hours every day while being talked at by a lifeless presenter clicking through Powerpoint decks? Wake up. It’s 2017. Corporate Retreats should incorporate compelling facilitators like Traci Barrett with Navigate the Journey (photo top right), interactive peer-to-peer learning, fun activities and relaxing downtime—all at a refreshingly unique venue in an unforgettable destination. If you’re not planning at least one of these for the entire team annually, you need to start. Hosting a retreat for your leadership team in Q1 will help set the tone and objectives for the entire year, and you can then build upon those lessons and outcomes with an entire company retreat later in the year.

3. Offer awesome benefits

The traditional benefits of wages, health insurance, and 401Ks are not going to cut it. You need to offer benefits beyond the cookie-cutter givens. If flexibility isn’t included in your benefits package, add it now, and make it number one on the list. The benefits of flexible days, flexible location, and flexible hours are absolutely imperative. Employees can work as needed to accomplish their job and goals in a timely manner. Flexibility allows your employees availability during the day to pick up kids, go to doctor appointments and allows them to work later at night if needed. And going back to the basic benefit of wages, be sure you’re paying your team based on the national average.

4. Implement communication platforms

This perhaps should be number one on this list. It’s vital. The key is to remember that it is not “us vs. them.” Everyone must be on the same playing field—whether you work in Hermosa Beach, California, or Charleston, South Carolina, or in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Everyone must use the same communication platform. If you do have a few employees who do work in the same building, it’s imperative they use the same platforms to communicate as the 40 people spread through the country. No one is “missing” anything by being distributed. Everyone is treated equal. Tools like Sococo video chat and Slack offer employees opportunities to “chat” both formally and informally.

5. Find the right partners

Flexible is the way of the future. Flexible works as long as you have the right communication platforms in place and have access to quality people who are looking for flexible work. Partnering up with companies like FlexJobs, Remote.co, Yonder, and Virtual Vocations will help with a more positive experience and allow companies to get ahead of the curve and reap the rewards of employing a talented, happy staff. FlexJobs can help eliminate one of the risks for growth: finding talented people. And we all know that sifting through hundreds of resumes is time-consuming. With FlexJobs, you’ll spend less time managing resumes. Remote.co is an excellent resource that provides expert insight, best practices, and valuable support for organizations exploring or already embracing the distributed model. Virtual Vocations is a great website where employers can post flexible jobs such as telecommuting, freelance, part-time, and flextime jobs. The Yonder podcast features interviews that discuss the advantages and also the challenges of distributed teams.

6. Set a cool company culture

When working with a distributed team, it may take an extra effort to keep people feeling like they are part of the team, and that they are valuable to the overall success of the team. Using the communication channels we noted, it’s important to include a non-work related communication channel. There’s no tangible “water cooler” when you’re distributed, therefore having a “water cooler” channel on Slack where employees can share the photo of their new kitty, or ask for recommendations for dining in Colorado Springs during their next holiday brings that “water cooler” feeling alive. It’s also important for management to share the vision of the company. There’s no better way to get employees excited than to share your vision and how they are all part of and contribute to that vision. Involve everyone on the team in important projects or events. Perhaps someone on the team is really interested in helping with the company retreat (see #2)—let that person liaise directly with your marketing events director. Develop a cool, unique, but meaningful way to recognize special occasions like birthdays and work anniversaries. It’s an easy (and fun) way to acknowledge employees, and goes a long way.

6.5. Have fun!

Yep! You read that correctly. The last tip is to have fun. Life’s too short to not enjoy it. And besides, if your employees are having fun, they are going to work harder and smarter. They are going to stay at the company longer and help promote the awesomeness that sets your company apart from all the rest. Your best advertising is happy employees.

Twisted Fry: The Road to Success

December 1, 2017By Kyle Brintnall, INCPAS Communications InternBlog, Innovation, Talent and the Changing Workforce

INCPAS Scholar and his business partners establish first ever Terre Haute-based food truck business

It’s 11:30 p.m. on a warm Friday night in downtown Terre Haute. Hungry, college students line up by the dozens, each waiting to get their first mouth-watering bite of Twisted Fry’s increasingly-notorious selection of unique french fry creations. Little do these folks know, this pint-sized food truck is saving them from more than just an empty stomach. It’s preventing them from getting in their cars and taking the late-night snack quest into their own, (potentially) intoxicated hands.

This is the mission of Twisted Fry, Terre Haute’s first-ever food truck business,  co-founded by ISU graduates Devyn Mikell (and INCPAS Scholars program graduate), DeSean Prentice, and Jess Harris. Their mission for Twisted Fry is to “prevent drinking and driving by providing late night eaters with delicious food at the perfect place and time.”

Twisted Fry was inspired by two key observations: an immediate need for late night food options and the lack of a food truck service in Terre Haute. While Mikell and his partners knew that a food truck on its own would be fine, they believed it needed to stand for something. After conducting extensive research on the drinking and driving habits of Terre Haute students, Mikell and his team found that 45 percent of respondents admitted they’d driven to get food after a night out drinking. With this key insight, they had both an idea, and a mission. However, nothing could have prepared them for the next step in his plan: dealing with the law.

“The Indiana CPA Society gave me so much exposure to a world that I was honestly unaware of. I saw some of the coolest things about accounting. I see so much value in accounting and I’ve made connections through the Scholars program that will last for the rest of my career.”

The inception of the Twisted Fry food truck was now faced with its first fundamental roadblock: it was not legal to operate food trucks on Terre Haute city streets. Thus began a three month campaign of lobbying and meeting with officials to move the case forward, in the hope of changing the law. Quietly brewing in the midst of the campaign was the development of a business plan, securing of funds, and the sourcing of a trailer to operate. Finally, in July 2016, their wish was granted. The law was changed, and now food trucks were free to roam the streets of Terre Haute. However, it would take another two months and securing a little under $50,000 before they would make their first sale on a city street.

According to Mikell, the challenges of being a student entrepreneur were twofold.

Devyn Mikell. Photo by: Katelyn Mikell Photography

“The obvious answer is time,” he said. “Businesses will take your time when you really don’t want to give it. The not so obvious answer is decision making. There have been so many times where a ‘no’ was the right answer but my desire was to say ‘yes.’”

The temptation to give up the business and go back to normal student life was constant as well.

“Being a student entrepreneur puts you right in the hot seat of all these stressful decisions because everyone expects you to do the ‘safe’ thing, and they’ll praise you for it,” he said. “Safe often sounds like the right path. The challenge is fighting through that fear, doubt, and anxiety and just jumping off the cliff.”

Mikell believes that while it is sometimes scary to take such a big risk, the payoff is more than worth it.

“I’ve learned more in almost a year than I’ve ever learned anywhere else, just by taking a calculated leap of faith,” he shared.

Mikell is a graduate of the Society’s INCPAS Scholars program where he learned about the CPA profession and its impact on business.

“The Indiana CPA Society gave me so much exposure to a world that I was honestly unaware of,” he said. “I saw some of the coolest things about accounting. I see so much value in accounting and I’ve made connections through the Scholars program that will last for the rest of my career.”

Mikell credits his and his business partner’s accounting backgrounds with much of Twisted Fry’s success.

“I could spend hours telling you all how valuable my partner DeSean Prentice, Director of Finance & Legal, is for our business,” Mikell said. “If numbers are king then he is their conqueror for Twisted Fry. I honestly don’t think we’d be near as far if we weren’t obsessed with the numbers as an organization.”

“While they may not be innovations on a massive scale like other big brands, we feel like we’re creating a culture of innovation for our business.”

Analyzing the numbers has allowed them to see where they were spending far too much or maybe not enough. The power to project where Twisted Fry has been heading as a business has been invaluable to them.

“Ninety to ninety-five percent of restaurants fail within their first year,” said Mikell. “I believe this is because they don’t watch their numbers. The accounting knowledge that we apply to the business is what I believe will ultimately lead to our continuous success.”

Twisted Fry’s success has come in phases, notes Mikell. Phase one was simply getting off the ground and surviving the first full year, a milestone nearing completion. Phase two will entail continuing to operate in Terre Haute and expand to a new location.

“When we accomplish this task I will be extremely excited, but much work is to be done until then. However, it’s hard for me to deny that Twisted Fry is a successful venture,” says Mikell.

While the restaurant industry is full of risk, Mikell is still a firm believer that it’s full of rewarding experiences.

“It’s pretty special and I love it,” he says. “I think we have a pretty awesome concept that people will come to know and love as time goes by. We want to be closely connected to college campuses and continue to stand for something as growing business owners. Twisted Fry is always looking for new ways to innovate. We call ourselves the six sigma owners because we are always trying to improve a process within our business,” he jokes. “We’re innovative in that way. While they may not be innovations on a massive scale like other big brands, we feel like we’re creating a culture of innovation for our business.”

Ultimately, Mikell wants Twisted Fry to innovate for the customer. By creating these habits within the culture of Twisted Fry, he believes the company is being set up to go pretty far. All in all, the Twisted Fry food truck has been able to pave its own road to success, and shows no signs of slowing down.

How to fight the war for talent

November 28, 2017By Jess Halverson BowyerBlog, Innovation, Talent and the Changing Workforce, Talent Management and People

How to fight the war for talent

 Accounting Today editor-in-chief Daniel Hood recently published the well-stated opinion piece “Stop Fighting the War on Talent.”

He wrote on how the leaders of accounting firms must give their younger employees what they want – more feedback, more mentoring, more manager involvement, more flexibility and more empowerment. He said this will pay off dividends in better staff and a stronger firm.

I couldn’t agree more with all those points

Further, it’s true that most of the Baby Boomer leaders of today’s accounting firms didn’t get that type of training themselves. It just wasn’t “a thing” when they came up, so subsequently it “isn’t fair” that it’s wanted or expected by Millennials and Generation Z. But as Hood says, just because it isn’t fair doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it.

It’s easy to see today’s world is not the same one many firm partners trained in. With globalization, automation and the overload of choices and information business owners face today, accounting is moving from a transactional profession to the more amorphous world of consulting and trusted business advising. This requires a different firm culture and a different skill set at a younger age. We’re talking more strategy, analysis and leadership, and less validation, data management and task-oriented processes.

Frankly, if you don’t get on board now — you will have no firm to worry about in the future.

But we recognize this is a mighty shift. If you are one of the leaders of these firms – where do you start?

Take advice from the sage Robert Matthew Van Winkle (aka Vanilla Ice): Stop, collaborate and listen. Then critique. Evaluate and forgive yourself along the way.

STOP

Make the effort to schedule a time on your calendar to meet with your staff.

LISTEN

Then this is hard part … really listen to what they have to say. Often, this young generation will tell you exactly what they need to succeed. You just need to ask! Don’t make assumptions based on only your experience. Be open to trying something a different way.

COLLABORATE

Think about how your staff is currently trained. Do they know what it takes to be partner someday? Do they know how to properly run a client meeting? Do they know what skills they need to advance? Has anyone ever written this down for them? Often, new employees don’t know what you want them to do when you say, “you need to improve your leadership skills.”

Instead of just telling, show them what you mean. Define the types of leadership skills you want to see by talking about the actions a good leader takes. This can apply to any type of hard-to-define soft skill like communicating, running a meeting or bringing in new clients. If you don’t know how to define these skills, look for a resource that can help you do it.

True collaboration takes a willingness to admit you don’t have all of the answers – a scary proposition for some leaders. Have you ever noticed that if you share a little more about yourself, the person you’re talking to is more willing to share something as well? That dynamic also works when trying to solve a problem. If you’re implementing a culture change at your firm, it will take everyone working together. Don’t be afraid to ask your staff how they think this change is going. Reach out to other CPA peers and ask them what changes they are making in their firms. And if you receive negative feedback, treat it as useful input or data and try not to take it personally. With practice, it’s possible!

CRITIQUE

When I say “critique,” I picture an art school roundtable in my head – where you take a piece of work and look at it objectively, offering feedback because you want this person to be successful. This is different from being critical and speaking negatively to someone because you want them to know they are wrong. The more successful your employees are, the more successful you are. Critiquing is primarily about showing a way to a new solution. Bonus — your younger employees asking for feedback are begging for this type of input. Want to create valuable employees who will stick around? Make them feel a part of something by truly contributing to their career development with your years of expertise.

EVALUATE AND FORGIVE YOURSELF

This is going to be hard but valuable. It takes time. When you participate in a cycle of collaboration and critique, you’ll know what’s working and what isn’t. Change the things that aren’t working and keep the things that are. No one is saying you have to get it perfect the first time.

DON’T DO THIS ALONE

Change is one of the hardest thing we can do. And we don’t want you to go it alone. That’s why we’ve developed the CPA Excellence Quick Start Guide with practical charts, templates and examples to keep your talented staff. Download a sample of our CPA core competency (soft skill) descriptors, which lay out exactly what it means to be a good critical thinker at different stages in your career. Six other core competencies are included in the book.

Give them something to aspire to – excellence.

CPAs Who Innovate: What box?

October 11, 2017By Stephanie Parton, CAE, INCPAS Vice President - CommunicationsArticle, Blog, Changing Role of the CPA, Innovation, Talent and the Changing Workforce, The Changing Role of the CPA

Meet the innovative virtual CFO firm that’s disrupting the profession

Summit CPA Group was founded in 2002 as a firm that wanted to change the way people think about accounting. Co-founders Jody Grunden, CPA, and Adam Hale, CPA, didn’t want to just do accounting work. They wanted to make a difference in business owners’ lives.

“Traditional accountants generally focus on the past way too much in my opinion,” Grunden said. “We wanted to be more of an influencer for those clients. We wanted to talk strategy. We wanted to be proactive instead of being reactive. So, we turned a traditional financial statement review meeting into a strategic meeting focusing on forecasting and the metrics that are used to build it. Only about a quarter of the meeting talks about the past. The remainder of the meeting is strategic in nature focusing on the past influencing the future.”

Summit CPA Group wanted to educate business owners and teach them to build and manage a profitable business. This “want” eventually evolved into what is now their primary service and cornerstone of their company. In 2004, they named the offering “Virtual CFO Services.” “We help small business owners make informed decisions that generally translate to increased profits and cash accumulation. That is why I think we’ve had such high retention with our clients,” Grunden said. “For me, that has been the most rewarding part of being a business owner—helping other business owners.”

Summit CPA Group prides themselves on offering completely different CPA services. They’re not competing against other CPA firms in the traditional sense. They are competing against a position of value. They take over the role of the CFO.

“We didn’t want to deliver a product that everyone else delivered—that’s boring. We wanted to give them a service that offered a greater value than what they could get even by adding an employee to their team. It came from the idea that we wanted to do something different, give them more value, and then it developed from there.

“What we’re doing is providing a similar service and ‘feeling’ as what’s innate at the big companies. That’s something that most small businesses have never had the chance to experience. Most small business owners feel isolated because they have no one to talk to. As a Virtual CFO, we can talk to them as a peer and give them a straight, candid answer. That’s what they really want. They want confirmation. They want to be able to bounce ideas off a peer. The entire experience is pretty eye opening for most of them.”

Like most great innovators, Grunden and Hale wanted to find a solution to a problem and make life better for themselves and those around them. Grunden says the idea for Virtual CFO Services was a selfish thing at first. He was his kids’ hockey coach and had to be present at all of the events. Hockey season, as you may know, falls at the exact time as the traditional tax season.

“We didn’t want to deliver a product that everyone else delivered—that’s boring. We wanted to give them a service that offered a greater value than what they could get even by adding an employee to their team. It came from the idea that we wanted to do something different, give them more value, and then it developed from there.

“I knew I was taking weeks off at a time to go on a hockey trip and it wasn’t fair to the other employees,” Grunden said. “It wasn’t fair to ask my team to work hard while I was traveling around the U.S. or Canada for a hockey tournament. It didn’t feel right to me.” Grunden found a solution to his problem by looking for ways to change the way typical CPA firms do business. His answer was taking a traditional tax client that they would meet with once a year and looking at how they could really help their client, and in the same process help Summit CPA Group and the culture the duo wanted for their firm.

The process developed into taking that annual tax client and turning them into a monthly client. Then when it came time for their tax return, it didn’t take as much time. That approach was so successful that clients started asking for weekly meetings. Clients were so excited about the level of service they were receiving from Summit that they started referring clients to them.

Summit CPA Group is headquartered in Fort Wayne, but their team is distributed and works primarily from home. Their virtual office consists of 40 employees, all but four whom work remotely. Employees are located in 10 states and their client base is represented in over 40 cities across the country.

Summit CPA Group initially performed their Virtual CFO Services communicating over the phone and during in-person meetings. It wasn’t until 2009 that they started transitioning the service to 100 percent remote. In order to give the client the feeling that they are part of their team, they utilize the latest technology through video chat and screen sharing with tools like Sococo and GoTo Meeting. This is Summit CPA Group’s primary means of communication with clients. Because they can service clients anywhere, they have expanded their service across the United States.

Hiring at Summit CPA Group is all done virtually as well. It’s pretty eye-opening for new hires. Grunden says 99 percent of the new hires have never worked virtually before. So, employee onboarding is an extremely important process and key to Summit’s high employee retention. New hires receive a “care package” in the mail which includes a laptop, big screen TV (four monitors), headsets and a technology stipend which they can use for various home office needs throughout the year.

The onboarding process includes being buddied up with a seasoned employee. For example, Tom is a new hire who has been with the firm for 90 days. He is buddied up with Angie who is the senior team member on the account. They hang out in a virtual room all day with video and headsets on. They can have casual conversations as they work through the day.

When nearly all of your employees work virtually, staying on top of technology is imperative. “You have to be adaptive and make changes quickly. That has never been an issue with me, really, in anything I do,” Grunden said, “which is atypical for accountants.”

Grunden and Hale are constantly looking for the newest and greatest thing. Five years ago, Hale was looking for a second revenue stream that could take advantage of the distributed model. He determined that 401K audits could be that avenue. He did his due diligence and sought out an expert in the field. They were able to bring in Kim Moore to run this new opportunity. Since 2012, Moore and her team have been able to grow the 401K audit department from an experiment to currently performing in excess of 120 audits a year. They were able to take full advantage of the distributed model working virtually with their clients.

“We’re always looking for better ways of doing things,” Grunden said. “We’re never stuck on one way being the only way. It comes from identifying a weakness in an area and coming up with a solution to make it better.

“We take what other people are doing well and make it better. We view the world in a different way, always thinking outside of the box. Or, better yet, what box? That’s the mindset that we built the company.”

Summit CPA Group was recognized for their innovative accomplishments in 2017 with the inaugural Indiana CPA Society Innovation Award.