My accounting career started out with public accounting, and I quickly came to realize that this type of work was not ideal for someone starting a family. It’s not uncommon in that field for accountants to work 60–80 hours per week during the traditional tax season (which can last from January through April). That meant 60–80 hours a week I was spending away from my brand-new family and it was miserable.
I decided to leave public accounting for the corporate world where I worked for three years. Three boring years. At this point, I thought there had to be a better way. I started Summit CPA in 2002 with the goal of changing the way people think about accounting. I wanted to change the way we worked with clients and the value we were offering them as accountants. And I wanted to offer a better working environment for accountants than the traditional, boring roles that were out there at the time.
One of the first things I did was I hired Adam Hale who became my partner and Summit CPA’s Chief Operating Officer. This turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to the firm! Being a big picture person, Adam was able to help take all of the ideas rolling around in my head and put them into place.
Adam and I agreed that we wanted to do more for businesses than simply help them file their tax returns. We started out by meeting with clients on a monthly basis to go over their accounting statements and put everything into layman’s terms. We wanted to help them understand the financial side of their business on a deeper level. We quickly came to realize that whenever we started talking about the past their eyes would gloss over. They didn’t care about the past. They wanted to know about the future.
So we started to implement forecasting into our service. We would teach our clients how to read their financial statement and how their actions on a monthly basis were impacting their future. With forecasting, we’re not just talking about the income side of things –profit and loss, net income, etc. — we’re also talking about the cash position — how much cash the company is going to have in two months, six months, twelve months, etc. based on a solid forecast.
We found that our clients were really intrigued by this. Instead of “Ugh, I’ve got to go meet with my accountant for two boring hours,” it became “I’m going to meet with my accountant and we’re going to talk about strategy and the future of my company!” At that point, we were meeting with our clients monthly and they actually wanted to meet with us more often. We started meeting with them weekly to go over cash flow, forecasting and overall business strategy. And the benefit for us was that when the end of the year came, it took a lot less time to do their taxes because we’d been on top of things and handling their questions throughout the year.
Keep in mind, in 2002 the internet didn’t really exist yet, at least not like it does today. From 2002 to 2007 we were providing these services by going out to the client, which meant all of our clients were still local. We would show up at their office or they would come to ours. Long term, this limitation was not going to allow us to scale. We knew that if we really wanted to grow our business, it had to become bigger than Adam and me.
With the advances in technology at the time, we were able to shift from in-person meetings to video conferencing. This allowed us to expand our client base in a number of ways. Saving on drive time opened up our schedules to be able to take on more clients. No longer conducting meetings in-person allowed us to expand beyond our limited geographical location. And training new Virtual CFOs became easier and much more cost effective as we could simply bring a new person into our virtual meetings and eventually turn clients over to them once they were up to speed on everything. This allowed us to start bringing on about 2–4 new clients per year — nothing outrageous but to us at the time it was significant.
Advertising for CPA firms at that time had been primarily the Yellow Pages which was restricted to the local area. We made a big decision in 2007 to stop putting money into that kind of advertising and to instead shift to the Web. I created a Website and came up with the term “Virtual CFO” to describe the services we were providing.
It took four years before we picked up our first client, but eventually, we got our first call in 2011 from a company in Rhode Island called Lullabot. They found us online and they became our first truly virtual CFO client where we couldn’t actually drive to their location (reasonably) for a weekly meeting. And Lullabot loved the service so much that they started referring their friends! We ended up with a client from Texas and then New York City and it just kept expanding. Now we weren’t just picking up 2–4 new clients a year but more like 2–4 new clients a month. And the biggest success of all was that as we were growing, we were truly helping these companies we were serving grow as well.
What started back in 2002 with just me and Adam Hale has now grown to a team of about 40 individuals working remotely across the United States (and, hopefully soon, across the world). It’s been a really fun ride! We’ve accomplished what we originally set out to do — offering more valuable services as accountants and creating a sustainable family-friendly work environment for accountants. We look forward to continuing our mission of changing the way people think about accounting!
Summit CPA is a distributed accounting firm with a non-traditional approach to accounting. We have an amazing team of CPAs and accountants who provide professional Virtual CFO Services and 401(k) Audits for companies all over the United States — many of which are remote companies as well. We also recently launched a CPA Firm Augmentation service, coaching other CPA Firms on how to successfully provide Virtual CFO services. We fully understand the accounting, bookkeeping, cash flow management, and business tax nuances that come with being distributed, and we love helping our clients overcome these challenges through our own experience and expertise.