LiveCA – how a practice became totally digital
Steve Pipe, author of the recently published book The World’s Most Inspiring Accountants, will deliver the keynote speech at the ICAS Practitioners’ Conference based on the research behind the book.
My new book “The World’s Most Inspiring Accountants” contains 62 inspiring case studies of accounting practices across the world, generating outstanding results for themselves, their clients and the wider world.
And over the next few weeks, I am delighted to be able to share some extracts from the book with you. In them you will hear how three very different practices on three continents are inspiring other practices across the world to achieve more.
This first extract is a case study of a start-up practice that has harnessed technology to:
- Build a 13 person, $1m business within 18 months of starting up
- Eliminate the need for an office
- Recruit “top of the class” talent
- Pay above average salaries
- Earn above average profits
- Provide flexible lifestyle choices for the entire team
LiveCA was founded three years ago, and is owned by Chad Davis CPA, CMA, MBA and Josh Zweig, CPA, CA, LPA. Although they have a postal address in Toronto, in reality none of the team works at that address because the business is 100% online.
When we interviewed them they had a long list of stories of how they had impacted the lives of their customers. But we have chosen to focus instead on the story of the firm itself, since we believe it will inspire many other accountants to see what is possible when you run a truly 21st century practice.
In many senses it provides a blueprint for how to rise to all of the main challenges facing the profession, including:
- Harnessing technology – rather than being destroyed by it
- Providing world class service
- Recruiting talented people
- Winning high quality clients
- Being rewarded financially and emotionally
- Achieving an optimal work-life integration
The situation at the start
Four years ago Chad was working in the Cayman Islands for an international group of companies and Josh was working for a traditional accounting firm. Chad was extremely frustrated by the practical difficulties of extracting the information central management needed from the group’s many different desktop accounting systems around the world, and Josh knew there had to be a better way to serve clients.
Then in 2010, Chad came across cloud accounting. “It changed everything,” he says. “And because no-one was really doing much with Xero in Canada, I spent a year researching and building up the courage until I was ready to leave my job, move my family away from the beach and back to snowy Canada, and start an exclusively online practice.” The situation was similar for Josh. He started offering services over Skype and grew his customer base over the coming months.
Within a few months Chad’s firm was at the top of the Xero partner listing in Canada. “At that point Josh contacted me online, and we started passing work to each other because he specialised in tax and I didn’t. It was incredibly hard to find a CPA that was willing to learn a new system,” explained Chad. “We soon realized that with complementary, but completely different skill sets, we had a chance to build a firm that had a shot at building something truly great. But because we work exclusively online, the first time we actually met was when Josh flew to Halifax, Nova Scotia to meet me to work on developing our partnership agreement!”
What they did
“Being a virtual practice in itself is not anything special,” says Chad. “But what makes it game-changing is how we have also focussed on building a practice driven by customer needs, not pricing based on a menu and not being closed minded on the services we’ll offer. Through this we spent a lot of time on processes, documenting as much as we can, systematically learning from every failure, and involving everybody in the firm in constantly improving every single aspect of what we do. Because of that we are able to attract the very best people, wherever they are located in the country. It’s really rewarding working next to people who believe the same things you believe and work tirelessly every day to make the lives of our customers better.”
This approach can be seen in many of the specific keys to their success, including:
- Semi-annual firm retreats – At the first of these events they focused on Simon Sinek’s seminal book, “Start with why”, and used it to identify and articulate their core purpose. And at the second they focused for four days on how best to apply the systemisation principles of Michael Gerber’s “E-Myth Revisited”. Interestingly, these retreats are the only times most of their team members have actually physically met.
- Learning from the gurus – “Simon’s ‘Start with why’ and Michael’s ‘E-myth revisited’, along with Ron Baker’s “Implementing value pricing”, are the pillars at the foundation of the firm. And a new favourite of ours is Warren Berger’s “A More Beautiful Question”. We don’t agree with absolutely every detail on every page, but they contain so much we do agree with, and they are fundamental to our success,” says Chad.
- Everybody has a say – “The entire team is literally EXPECTED, and not merely allowed, to be involved in making the business the best it can be. Everybody has a voice, everybody is listened to, and every contribution is valued.”
- After Action Reviews – As part of their “sometimes you win and sometimes you learn” philosophy, they carry out ‘After Action Reviews’ every time something goes well or badly. And those reviews are shared in real time with the entire team via the app Slack, so that they learn every lesson and build every nuance of best practice into their systems. “They are also incredibly valuable for new team members to review to see why we do certain things the way we do.”
- Access to the entire client relationship – “Even our most junior team members are fully engaged because they know they can make an impact on the entire client relationship. All they have to do is show initiative. Nothing is off limits to them and in return, they know they will be rewarded with appreciation, feedback, experience and career growth.”
- Quarterly client meetings – “Although most customers come to LiveCA because the technology and processes we introduce solve some of their immediate pain points, the real value comes in the form of quarterly management meetings where we get to learn about the owner’s plan for the business. We support that call with financial information and the result is usually a great relationship that grows the more we learn from each other.”
- Emotionally connected team – “Everybody in the team has an emotional connection with the business because they really believe in what we’re doing. They are here for the profession: to push forward what customers think of accountants as a whole and they know they are changing those perceptions every single day.”
- Giving back to the profession – Because of their deep rooted belief that they are there for the profession, they are always willing to explain what they have learned with other accountants. As a result they are frequently invited to share their experiences at major accountancy conferences, and often share their systems, documents and procedures on a one-to-one basis with other practitioners.
The step by step process at the heart of their success
“Companies usually come to us because they think they need help with tax or their accounts. But we flip the conversation around from the very beginning, because we know that an even more important (but unrecognised) issue is that they don’t know what they want to get out of a good system and rarely consider the entire lifecycle of data in the context of decision making. Our intention is to find out exactly what information is required to support the things that are important to them, and without a good system for that it’d be pretty tough.”
This approach is formalised in the five step process they use with all new clients.
Step 1: Discovery
This is done via a structured and comprehensive online meeting with one of the CPAs. The aim is to identify their goals and aspirations, and then drill down into an analysis of what they really need. As part of this they also explain their approach to customer service to see if it’s a good fit for the potential customer.
Step 2: There’s an app for that
This technical demonstration step is usually carried out by a member of the technical team, who are all accountants with deep technical accounting backgrounds. “Every single potential customer has a unique story and it’s in this phase of the discovery process that we fine tune what they find valuable, how we can structure the accounting processes appropriately to aid in delivering that value and show them exactly how we’re going to do it. It’s easy for most people to find an app online, receive technical support for free and try on their own so it’s important that people see value in us more than just the apps we use, but the methodology behind our technical approach to solving problems. Apps come and apps go, but as long as they know their interests are at the heart of each recommendation we’ll be on the right path.”
Step 3: Value pricing
LiveCA then offers clients a choice of three customised options, each of which includes all the necessary year-end accounts and tax compliance work. “We price every customer individually, so the services delivered can differ greatly from customer to customer. Value pricing is hard work and you don’t always get it right; but the more you practice the better you get. Prices are always presented during a video chat and we walk them through each of the packages to make sure they’re aware of all the important elements of each option so they’re fully prepared to decide which one is the best fit.”
Step 4: Kick-off
“This is an online call where we’ll set up all of the systems, wrap up the admin, and introduce them to the LiveCA team they will work with. That three person team always consists of a Chartered Professional Accountant (not a partner) for high level tax and accounting support, a technical adviser to sort out the technology, and an associate for the day to day details. They work alongside the client throughout the relationship, and get to know them intimately.”
Step 5: The Work Begins
“In this step we teach them how to use all their new apps, and help them to develop a workflow that makes sense. As part of this we create step by step checklists and procedure documents for them, and have them follow a homework schedule. And, on an ongoing basis, they have unlimited access to their accounting team using their preferred contact methods (Skype, Google Hangouts, email, etc).”
It’s a process that the team really believe in, because as senior manager Greg Toner explains, “There are countless opportunities to create value for clients through the proper use of technology combined with a strong tax and accounting knowledge base.”
Some of the technology LiveCA finds most useful in helping them to run an online practice includes:
- Slack – for helping team members communicate and cut down on the volume of email
- WorkflowMax – for managing firm recurring jobs, leads and customer information
- ScheduleOnce – for booking in meetings that require pooled availability
- RightSignature – for signing electronic documents
- Google Apps – for email, calendar and collaborative documents
- RecruiterBox – to manage incoming resumes and job postings
- Teamwork Desk – for technical helpdesk support (internally and externally)
In addition, some of the apps that their clients find most useful include:
- Xero and QuickBooks Online – for the core accounting tasks
- Receipt Bank & HubDoc – for processing purchases and automatically retrieving bank statements
- Crunchboards – for providing flexible management dashboards
- Payline by ICE, Rotessa, TransferMate and Plooto – for online payment management
- Dear Inventory – for inventory tracking and sales
- Shopify – for ecommerce and point of sale systems
The difference it made
This approach has allowed LiveCA to:
- Grow into a $1m practice within 18 months of starting up
- Earn well above average profits
- Turn 85% of the prospects who they price into customers
- Work with customers from anywhere in Canada
- Create 11 new jobs
- Recruit top in class talent, regardless of where they happen to live
- Pay above average salaries
- Avoid the need for an expensive office, and instead only pay $100 a month for an accommodation address service
- Hold all their meetings with clients online. “And those meetings tend to be shorter and much more focused. So they greatly improve our productivity too. In fact, the only time we ever meet clients in person is if we accidentally bump into them at a social event!”
- Have team members working from home in five different Canadian provinces, and
- Allow the two partners to live wherever they want (at the time of writing they live over 4,500km apart).
How it made them feel
“It was tough at first and we were working long hours. But we didn’t mind because we have always believed we’re helping build something truly great. We realise that we are enabling a new type of firm to exist, and the freedom that allows in our personal lives is well worth the extra hours,” explains Chad.
Little by little, of course, things got better and he is now able to take his daughter to school in the morning, put both of his children to bed in the evening, and keep weekends completely free for family time. Josh also enjoys travelling and working from locations all around the world. “Life is good,” says Josh.
According to Chad, “It’s been an extremely rewarding and exciting journey from initial chaos to eventual order because we now have the right people performing the right roles. Our goal is now to become a profitable firm that provides a challenging and rewarding work environment for everyone that wants to come along for the ride. Although we have high hopes and goals for the firm, we’d like to get there the right way, not straying from our core values of enriching the lives of our employees and customers in everything we do. To do this, we are reinvesting most of our profits in people, technology and systems to get there even faster.”
Josh explains, “When I originally set out to pursue my CPA designation, it was so that I could gain a skill to make an impact on the businesses where I’d work and launch an exciting career. LiveCA is an extension of that passion to make an impact in the lives of others, but also in a way that challenges the general accountant stigma and makes us proud to be CPAs.” Josh leads the tax and compliance side of the firm and originally came up with the name LiveCA.
Other members of the LiveCA team put it like this:
- “I wanted to help revitalise an industry that really, really needed a reboot. I love helping people out and teaching them new things or new ways to do old things.” Dave MacPherson, Technical Director
- “LiveCA is a trailblazing company that welcomes innovation with open arms. It allows me to draw from all the hats I’ve worn in my career in order to serve clients, and contribute ideas. Also, after breaking two snow-shovels digging my car out from under 13 feet of snow last winter, working from home is a massive bonus.” Leigh Sheppard, Onboarding Associate
- “Every day I look forward to working with our amazing team, always searching for new ways to improve the lives of our clients and ourselves.” Jeff Kelly, Associate
- “After several years with a national firm, the search for a home that put me in a position to add value for clients day-in, day-out led me to LiveCA’s doorstep. Being part of a group that understands technology and leverages it in almost everything we do, all with the goal of improving both our clients’ lives and our own, is what continues to draw me in. After that, having the flexibility to work from anywhere is just a bonus!” Tyler Bradley, CPA CA Senior Manager
Hear Steve Pipe speak at the ICAS Practitioners’ Conference 2016 – The Inspirational Practice. His book, “The World’s Most Inspiring Accountants”, containing 62 inspiring case studies of accounting practices across the world, generating outstanding results for themselves, their clients and the wider world, is now available on www.stevepipe.com.