The Sleeter Group formed in 1994 with one man who wanted to teach small businesses how to improve their systems using technology. Doug Sleeter has developed an international following of more than 650 consultants teaching small companies the ins and outs of accounting software, primarily QuickBooks. They pay an annual fee to market themselves on The Sleeter Group's Web site, use Sleeter's resources and training materials, cross-refer clients, exchange information on an online forum and connect with each other and developers of QuickBooks add-on products in an annual consulting conference, which last year saw roughly 800 attendees.
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Sleeter worked in several accounting firms and earned a degree in computer and information science in the early '80s, when most firms didn't even have computers.
He talked about how things have changed:
What bug bit you first, accounting or computers?
Accounting. It was a job I really excelled at and enjoyed the client work, but I realized computers was where it was all going to go, so I learned how to program and system design. I didn't aspire to [be a] CPA because I didn't really enjoy tax.
Share what you learned working at Apple.
I learned a lot about marketing and elegant design of software. It was about moving to the mouse and a menu instead of character-based interfaces, making software consistent between applications and how human interface really matters.
Why did you start your business?
Teaching a course in Quicken at a local adult school and a community college, I realized I had a gift for explaining complicated things and making people understand and having them enjoy the process. I wanted to start a company around teaching and educating clients. I was interested in small businesses with one employee to 10, 20 employees max. I helped my father build his health insurance broker business before [working at] Adobe. I felt for [those with] no resources, no systems, no processes. I wrote books about the how-to, then talked from the books in seminars throughout the country.
Name the biggest challenge you face today.
Keeping up with the technology changes. I have 73 products I'm going through for my Awesome Add-on for QuickBooks Award (handed out in November). At Apple, I was an evangelist. I helped developers learn how to program good human interface or good features. I'm doing the same thing now-helping these guys develop software that is well-matched to the client needs and how it integrates with QuickBooks.
What surprised you the most about this industry?
In 1999, when the Internet began to become viable, accountants didn't want to go there, they didn't want their clients going there. They thought it was dangerous. Now that has changed as they start to realize their data may be safer on the Internet than it is in their office, but I thought it would happen five, six years ago.
Are there things they should be using now?
Certain application areas like CRM, which I've had in my office since Day 1. I'm frustrated with the pace at which people are buying and installing add-ons. They think the accounting software is all they need. Document management. Even at The Sleeter Group, we have all these files full of paper and we're committed to going paperless, because it's green, it's efficient, it's anytime anywhere access, but how do you get started and how do you get your people to start behaving differently?
Can you reveal the best-kept secrets of consulting?
Knowledge in accounting and processes in a lot of different industries. If you never engaged a dentist and don't understand how they do billing and scheduling, it's hard for you to improve their system. Computers. If you're fumbling around with what to click, you're not going to be credible. Teaching and communicating. If you can't communicate, you can't connect well with your clients. Don't jump to implementation before you fully understand the client. The client thinks in five minutes you can come in, fix it and go away. Resist temptation. Accessing the health of the data file is a critical service that takes time and a lot of skill and discipline.