The Freedom to Close Your Firm's Doors
In my 12 years of running my own CPA firm, perhaps the most controversial thing I've done has been to close my office. It's been three years now since we began operating as a virtual firm with no offices, no paper, and no physical contact with clients. I wasn't sure we could pull it off, but after working through the initial bumps, we are getting better at being invisible. Back in 2010 it seemed ludicrous to even consider closing our office. Some people told me I was crazy and it's true! I think you have to be crazy to close your firm's office, but for the right firm it can be a move that will increase the enjoyment of running your business ten-fold. To help you out, I'll share two mistakes and two successes we experienced.
Assuming Everyone Knew Their Job
It is almost impossible to “manage” people in a virtual environment. You can really only know that work is getting done after it's been completed (which could be too late).
We implemented a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) early in our move to becoming a virtual firm. This is a business model that has no additional policies, procedures, or meetings outside of requiring a team member to achieve specific results. No vacation policies, no timesheets, no PTO, and no managing people. The key is to do away with managing people altogether, giving them the freedom to produce results.
I assumed everyone knew what their “results” were – man, was I wrong.
Defining results demands a specific task, made better with workflow software, project managers, and NO assumptions. Most offices operate with a butt-load of assumptions – and this hurt us in our attempt to let everyone work when they want, how they want and the way they want. You can't assume people know their job. You must be explicit in defining results and implement accountability to help people achieve success in your firm.
Not Mapping Our Processes
We also assumed our office-based processes would be the same as virtual-based processes.
Office nuances, like body language and assumptions, make it difficult to migrate office processes to virtual processes. For example, in an office, the firm and a client can perform 3 or 4 processes at one time without realizing it. When we completed a tax return, the client (1) would be notified of the results of the return, (2) ask questions about the return, (3) pay for the return, and (4) sign the eFile forms, all in a one-hour meeting.
When we closed our doors, we failed to map out these basic processes in a virtual way. Each of the four steps above are all separate steps and may be performed by four different people in a virtual environment. Miscommunication and confusion ensued! Running a virtual firm forced us to communicate better about our processes and make the necessary adjustments to fix the issues.
Operating as a Niche
Our move into a niche back in 2009 is what gave me the courage to operate virtually. This meant our clients were no longer bound by our zip code. We could serve anyone and anywhere, as long as they were okay with a virtual firm.
We decided that our firm would exclusively serve web, design, and marketing agencies. As we moved more fully into this niche, we began winning clients all over the US. Even though we had an office at that time, no one asked if we would meet face-to-face; they just assumed we wouldn't. I wanted to leverage this new type of client to see if we could close our office while continuing to serve them. It worked beautifully! We are stronger in our niche than ever before and we do all of our content marketing around the needs of creative agencies. I believe choosing to serve a niche that embraced a virtual firm is what led to our success.
Before you consider closing your office, identify a niche that is okay with a virtual firm. The requirements you must place on clients to operate virtually are many – so make sure this client base trusts you to lead them.
Moving to the Cloud
You can't operate a virtual firm without fully operating in the cloud. Period.
Back in 2010, I made large charts on my office wall with lists of all of the software and all of the activities we performed in the office. Over a two year period, we let our clients know that we would be closing our office, and serving them in a new piece of software located in the cloud.
The journey was pretty difficult, since software for virtual CPA firms didn't really exist back in 2010, but we pressed on, used some pretty crappy stuff and moved to superior platforms that allowed us to serve our clients better. Even now, we are considering how we can leave old cloud-based systems behind for newer, better designed software. Clunky servers and tons of paper are a thing of the past. The faster firms ditch these anchors, the faster they can step into the future.
Not every firm should close their office. This is still a “people” business and operating virtually has its challenges. It will affect culture in significant ways. We bring our people together a couple of times a year just to reconnect in person.
But the flexibility you will have to work alongside your family, take breaks to enjoy your kids, avoid unnecessary meetings, make time to think and write and work in shorts and t-shirts is a gift I wouldn't trade for anything. I do not take these things for granted. I love our virtual firm, and we built the best team in the country because we offered them the freedom to live their lives while doing work they love.
You can too.
Jason is the Founder of Thriveal CPA Network and the Chief Innovative Officer of his CPA firm, Blumer & Associates. He is the co-host of two podcasts, The Thrivecast and The Businessology Show and speaks and writes frequently for CPAs and digital agencies, his firm's chosen niche. Jason loves to watch documentaries on just about anything. He lives in Greenville, SC with his wife and their three children. Stay connected with Jason by signing up at JasonBlumer.com.