GREAT IDEAS FOR ENTREPRENEURS FROM THE THOUGHT LEADERS AT CASEY NEILON
WHAT THE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE FUTURE SHOULD LOOK FOR IN A CPA
REFLECTIONS ON MY 55 YEARS OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTING SERVICE
I began my career in public accounting more than 50 years ago. Over that period of time, I’ve served thousands of clients, many of whom are entrepreneurs. I still value those relationships of trust to this day. But lately I’ve been thinking about how much things have changed for entrepreneurs.
I believe that the relationship entrepreneurs form with their CPA is more important now than ever. I’ve seen, over the last 50 years, how challenging it is for people to run successful businesses and how much of a toll this takes on their health, well-being and family life. It could become even more challenging in the future.
As I reflect on the last 50 years, I have begun to crystalize, in my own mind, what the entrepreneur of the future will need from their CPA. When I look ahead to the next 50 years, based on how much things have changed over my career, I believe entrepreneurs should look for these five traits from their CPA.
Five Core Traits To Look For In A CPA
The relationship you form with your CPA will impact your business and your life in ways that may not be immediately obvious. On the one hand, it’s pretty obvious that you need to get your taxes done every year so you stay out of trouble with the government.
But it may not be obvious that different CPA firms have very different ways of serving their clients. Some people seem to believe that one CPA firm is pretty much just like every other CPA firm. I don’t believe that to be true.
When I think of the entrepreneur of the future and what they’ll need from their CPA, one word comes to mind: Advocate. You need someone to be your advocate. Here’s why. CPAs are granted access to some of the most intimate financial details of an entrepreneur’s life – details that even some family members may not know about. Who can you trust with this level of access?
CPAs, at a baseline level, serve as an advocate to represent their client’s interests with the IRS, state tax agencies and auditors. Yet, CPAs also serve as an advocate for their client’s interests in so many other situations: with estate attorneys, boards of directors, trusts and even in family disputes. This means that the entrepreneur of the future will need a CPA who knows them deeply and knows how to navigate in these complex situations.
The entrepreneur of the future will need a CPA with razor sharp technical abilities (what we call hard skills) and with a strong moral compass and the ability to develop deep relationships (what we call soft skills). That’s a tall order. However, I believe these traits are essential.
After reflecting on my own career and how I’ve served clients for the past 50 years and how I believe entrepreneurs will need to be served over the next 50 years, here are the five traits I believe the entrepreneur of the future should look for in a CPA.
- Look for someone you can trust.
- Look for someone who will listen to you.
- Look for problem-solving capabilities beyond traditional tax preparation.
- Look for longevity.
- Look for someone who specializes in entrepreneurs.
When I think of the entrepreneur of the future that what they’ll need from their CPA, one word comes to mind: Advocate.
Look For Someone You Can Trust
The first principle of business is don’t do business with someone you can’t trust. This is the foundation of any business relationship. I know this isn’t an Earth-shattering concept. But figuring out who you can trust has become more challenging than ever. The process has radically changed.
When I started my career in 1963, clients came to me after they asked around the rather small community of Incline Village. They might have spoken to their banker or a couple of local attorneys. Once my name was recommended, they came right in and we started talking.
Those days are nearly gone. The transfer of trust, from someone you know to someone you don’t know, may not work for most people in the very near future. Entrepreneurs need a CPA who specializes in entrepreneurs and not everyone knows that kind of CPA.
More importantly, over the last 50 years, our society has become more mobile and our communities have grown. That small-town spirit – where everyone knows everyone else – has disappeared from most communities. This will make it very challenging for the entrepreneur of the future to receive from their local banker or attorney a recommendation to a CPA who specializes in business owners. Yet that’s probably not the biggest change I’ve seen.
When I started working as a CPA, there was no such thing as the Internet (as we know it today) and there were no websites. There were also no cell phones or Google searches or Facebook or LinkedIn. But the tides have shifted. Today many entrepreneurs start their search for a CPA in the digital space, not with a personal recommendation. That trend will continue.
The entrepreneur of the future will probably start their search for a great CPA online. It’s likely that they’ll visit the CPA’s website or LinkedIn profile and look for proof that they serve primarily entrepreneurs. They might look for client testimonials from other entrepreneurs who wanted to achieve similar goals. If a CPA firm has been around a while and has served their clients well, they will have these stories in spades.
The entrepreneur will probably interview one of the CPAs from the firm they’re considering. They’ll spend an hour or so asking questions about how they work. Then the entrepreneur will ask themselves – how do I feel? Did I get a good impression from them? Did they inspire me with confidence? Do they have the technical and interpersonal skills I need? Do they make me comfortable? Can I trust them with access to my inner circle and financial life?
Look For Someone Who Will Listen To You
Listening skills are crucial. This is why I believe the entrepreneur of the future should look for a CPA who is interested in their family as well as their business. As an entrepreneur, your family-life is intimately intertwined with your business-life. It’s really hard to separate the two.
A bad day at work goes home with you. When you have a great day at work, say a big win, who is the first person you want to tell? I’ll bet it’s your spouse or someone else who is really close to you. If a CPA does not seem interested in getting to know your family and who is inside your inner circle, that may not be the right fit for you.
I don’t believe that a CPA’s job is simply to help you pay the least amount possible on your taxes. None of us want to pay more than our fair share on taxes. However, I believe a great CPA is a counselor to an entrepreneur to help them achieve all that matters to them in their financial life. What matters more than family?
The entrepreneur of the future will need a CPA who can understand all of the situations that impact them and produce stress and anxiety. The entrepreneur of the future should look for a CPA who has an active approach to asking questions that matter to them. So many CPAs just do what’s required to get the job done. A great CPA goes deeper and looks at as many variables as possible.
Look For Problem-Solving Capabilities Beyond Traditional Tax Returns
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the last 55 years is how we use technology in our day-to-day jobs as accountants. With the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data systems and software applications, computers can now perform numerous routine tasks much faster and easier than in the past.
This means, as accountants, we’ve had to up our games. We still absolutely have to get the details right in the tax returns we prepare for our clients. But clients expect that as table stakes. Entrepreneurs are looking for more.
A client recently said: “the last thing I need is someone to take my data, crunch the numbers and then tell me how much I owe.” I couldn’t agree more.
Many of the clients we serve at Casey Neilon are not only entrepreneurs, they’re serial entrepreneurs. Some of our clients have interests in, or actually participate in the operations of, more than one business simultaneously. This creates a lot of complexity in their financial life.
I believe the entrepreneur of the future will need a relationship where their accountant serves as their financial quarterback, almost like a personal CFO. In this capacity, the CPA will understand the big picture of everything the entrepreneur is trying to accomplish and will serve year-round as their advocate to make their dreams a reality.
Look For Longevity
If you have to start over every year with a new CPA firm, it feels like you are on a hamster wheel. It’s a lot of energy to get to know and trust a CPA firm and their staff. Why repeat this work every year? That’s not a good use of your time or energy.
This is why I believe that the entrepreneur of the future will look for someone who is in it for the long haul. Not every CPA firm can support that kind of relationship with their clients because it takes a lot of work to maintain that kind of firm. Let me explain.
When an entrepreneur first comes to a CPA firm, they’ll likely interview someone who is partner-level. If the entrepreneur likes that person and feels comfortable with them, they’ll want a relationship with that person, not someone else, year after year. But herein lies the problem.
The accounting field, just like most other fields, is fluid and nurturing and retaining talent is challenging. More than that, nurturing a corporate culture that is entrepreneur-centric is also tough. Just because someone passes the CPA exam, this does not necessarily mean that they are the right fit to work with entrepreneurs.
I think the entrepreneur of the future will have to take a close look at the firm itself to find the right fit for them and their family. What should they look for?
- The ability to recruit young people who want to serve entrepreneurs.
- The ability to create a career path where young people wants to make their job the last job they’ll ever have.
- A demonstrated history of retaining entrepreneur clients for 5 years or more.
- A team of people who all care about the same things and openly share ideas about how to serve their clients.
- A technical infrastructure that allows for that right balance between open access to your data for people inside the firm but complete security from rogue individuals outside the firm.
I’m not sure that any CPA firm will be able to promise that the primary relationship manager you have today will be the same person 10 years down the road. But the entrepreneur of the future can and should expect that their CPA firm will bring in the talent and nurture the character traits that they’ll need. This should mean that even if the face and name changes, it feels like you’ve always known that person.
Look For Someone Who Specializes In Entrepreneurs
I know I’ve already mentioned this point a couple of times, but I can’t overemphasize it. The entrepreneur of the future will look for a CPA firm that specializes in entrepreneurs.
You wouldn’t ask a general practitioner physician to perform cataract surgery on you, even though they have a medical degree. By the same token, just because someone has an accounting degree, this doesn’t mean they’re ready to serve entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs make so many crucial decisions over the course of a year and anyone of those decisions could have a huge impact on their financial future. A CPA firm who has experience in these areas and an appreciation for the stress that these decision-points produce in the life of an entrepreneur – that CPA is different.
The entrepreneur of the future will understand this distinction very well.
William Crandall, CPA, MST
I am a CPA at Casey Neilon. In this role, I serve as a technical resource for our staff and I consult clients with their tax accounting needs. I started my career in Incline Village in 1963. In 1976, I became a partner with Pannel Ken Forster. I started my own firm in 1986 and joined forces with Casey Neilon in 2013.