Sam Levy gave a lot of thought to the name of the accounting firm he launched late last year. He didn't like "Levy & Co.," and "Levy & Associates" was already taken. His choice eventually came down to "Levy Tax & Consulting" or "Levy Tax & Advisory Services," and he picked the former.
Like what you see? Click here to sign up for Accounting Today's daily newsletter to get the latest news and behind the scenes commentary you won't find anywhere else.
"Answering the phone 'Levy T&A' just didn't sound right," he said with a laugh.
Many accountants dream of seeing their name on the door of their own firm. The difference between dreaming about it and successfully realizing it often comes down to exactly the sort of careful thought and painstaking attention to detail that determines whether your dream name is already in use - or has an offputting abbreviation.
In some ways, it was the prospect of that hard work that led Atlanta CPA Levy to his decision last August to form Levy Tax & Consulting. "Basically, I was looking for my next challenge," he said. "I've been in a tremendous growth mode over the last four to five years. I have some strong leadership abilities, and I like to be in charge, so I felt like moving forward would represent the pinnacle of my career and I was ready to give it a shot."
Before giving it a shot, though, he gave it a lot of thought.
A MAN, A PLAN, A FIRM
Over the course of his 16 years of practice, Levy had worked at two small-to-midsized firms, and had been a partner at the second since 2004. With his client list exploding, he first considered the possibility of launching his own firm in 2009, but decided to go through one more tax season and continue building his clientele.
It helped that, from six years as a partner, he understood how a firm worked, and the sort of expenses involved. He was able to look back at his monthly billings for previous years to gauge his potential top-line revenue. That data, along with projections for staff hours and what he was willing to pay, as well as actual quotes for everything from rent to office supplies to computing expenses, went into Excel spreadsheets for analysis. "I just ran different profit-loss scenarios, and got comfortable with the idea that I could actually do this and be successful," he said.
BUILDING THE BLUEPRINT
Running the numbers was only the beginning; turning them into reality required nailing down a vast array of details, and all in a fairly short period of time if he wanted to be up and running for the 2011 tax season.
Among the many items on his to-do list:
Incorporation. An attorney had offered to help with incorporating the new firm, but Levy declined. "I'd been advising clients to form their own corporations for so long, I wanted to do it myself," he said. It turned out to be relatively easy, and he was able to incorporate online through the Web site of the Georgia Secretary of State. He also got a required business license from the city of Dunwoody, the Atlanta suburb where he planned to practice, as well as registering with the American Institute of CPAs.
Financing. Levy was able to arrange a line of credit through a banker he has known for years. While his business plan and the consistency of his revenue base impressed his banker, what most interested them was the possibility of access to his clients. "They said, 'Please refer us your business clients,'" he noted.
Office space. "It was really important to me not to be portrayed as a 'single-shingle' practitioner working out of the house," Levy said, so he hired a broker to help him find an appropriate space in Dunwoody. The short time frame and the size of office he wanted - 1,800-2,300 square feet - constrained his choices, but after looking at 10 buildings, he found a space he loved right down the street from the firm he was leaving. Commercial real estate conditions worked in his favor, as he received the first five months free, as well as a full build-out with new carpet and paint. The build-out was completed on December 1 of last year, but as he had wanted to open for business on November 1, the building gave him temporary space right next door, so he could check on construction every day. "It's a friendly market, but I still had to act quickly," he said.
Software. Levy's old firm had used Thomson Reuters' CS suite of tax and accounting products. "I knew the software, and all my client files were already set up," he said, "so I called the rep, and he said, 'You may want to try SaaS.'" Levy wasn't familiar with Thomson's Software-as-a-Service monthly leasing offerings, but the representative sold him on the benefits. "The biggest appeal was the early-on lack of start-up financing - not having to stroke a check for $20,000, and not having to purchase a server, which ultimately saved me between $3,000 and $5,000," he said. And while he experienced a few challenges in getting used to the cloud-based solutions, he also discovered benefits beyond low cost, like being able to hire staff from as far away as Birmingham, Ala. "Two of my part-time tax preparers were able to work 100 percent remotely," he said. "They never came in to the office, and were able to access everything remotely from the cloud."
Insurance. Levy wanted to be able to offer his staff health insurance, but this turned out to be one of the most difficult things to arrange: He got "a lot of misquotes" from agents, and some carriers wouldn't pick him up until he'd been in business for six months. He was eventually able to get affordable coverage, but certainly not on the first try.
Staffing. From the beginning, Levy had planned to bring Ira Blecker, an associate from his old firm, along with him, but he needed to hire the rest of his staff. At first, he wondered if he should hire "cheap labor" to save money, but a business coach he has been working with for over five years convinced him otherwise. "Her advice was to spend the money, to go out and get talented people," he said. "Don't stress about the dollars - service your clients well in this first tax season and get through it." While he planned to pay well, he kept his recruiting costs low, leveraging social media. An inexpensive ad on Craigslist for a staff accountant brought resumes from over 150 people, including Kyle Askew, whom he ended up hiring, and ads on LinkedIn and Facebook for tax season help brought him "four terrific people who plan on returning next year." In its first tax season, the firm had nine people working.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
On Oct. 21, 2010, Levy Tax & Consulting went from plan to reality, when Levy officially notified his clients via his e-mail newsletter that he was starting a new firm.
That was the easy part; the hard part was telling his old firm that he was leaving, which had worried him from the moment he considered setting out on his own. "One of my biggest fears was starting this and being at war with my old firm," he said. "But they were great. They handled things so well." It helped that he told them he wanted to refer audit business to them, as he wouldn't be offering audit services. "The day I notified my partners, they offered me full access to my client files. That was huge for me - it was their way of saying they trusted me, and were willing to part amicably. I remain grateful to them for how they handled the situation."