Early hurdles: Preparers discuss lessons from their start-up days

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Seasoned preparers may recall the earliest days of practice with nostalgia -- and sometimes they may wonder what they were thinking. Yet several concerns of a fledgling practice, such as building a client base or picking an advertising avenue, can teach lessons for the life of the business.

Like most preparers, for instance, Burbank, Calif.-based CPA Brian Stoner recalled the early challenge of getting new work: “I tried both paper and digital advertising, referral groups and meet-and-greets,” he said. “The best results by far was a WordPress website with SEO putting me on page one of Google for local searches and blogging, and posting both my articles and others that I met on social media, which started to get me a reputation as a tax expert.”

“It was all about confidence in what I was doing and trying to do the best for my clients,” added Jeffrey Gentner, of JR Gentner EA and Associates in Williamsville, N.Y. “Experience boosted my confidence.”

“Putting up the shingle and saying ‘I’m open!’ does not drive business to your office,” recalled Kerry Freeman, an Enrolled Agent at Freeman Income Tax Service in Anthem, Ariz. “I’m not like many peers; I came first from a sales background and I had to apply the art of the sale to every opportunity when meeting people.”

‘It was 1985…’

Putting energy into the right strategic rather than merely tactical moves was a major early effort for preparers.

“Office space, software, furniture – all just purchases. Generating leads for clients -- now that’s a challenge,” said Terri Ryman, an EA at Southwest Tax & Accounting, Elkhart, Kan. “I moved to a small town and made contact with other professions first: banks, lawyers, insurance agents and so on. Next, I put up flyers around town in the Post Office, in both restaurants, in the [convenience store] and so on. I also wrote a column for our local weekly newspaper.”

“I did little print advertising as I increased my client base by word of mouth,” said EA Twila Midwood at Advanced Tax Centre, in Rockledge, Fla. “I participated in local school promotions and community events.”

One of the early big challenges for Bernadette Antonelli, an EA at Arlington Tax and Bookkeeping Service in Kearny, N.J., was technology. “It was 1985. I had a Commodore computer [and] had a friend who helped get my system up and running. Relying on someone else to help was a huge inconvenience. While I felt comfortable in my ability to do the returns, I worked alone and had no one to help with any difficulties. When I look back now, it did force me to research, research, research. It wasn’t long before I was known as the tax expert in my area,” she said.

Independent decisions

Sometimes the first challenge to a new practice can be where the practitioner comes from. Antonelli recalled being “apprehensive about going out on my own after working for a CPA for many years. My first thought was to do some tax work on my own, but a friend said to do it all the way or don’t do it at all. I found a store-front type building which he helped convert to an office. I didn’t have any assets at the time, so my dad co-signed a bank loan.”

Laurie Ziegler at Sass Accounting in Saukville, Wis., started doing prep from her home. “When I outgrew that, I moved to an office in a professional building. When I got too big for that, I made another move,” she said. “I made four moves in three and a half years. Many clients presumed I wasn’t doing well, couldn’t afford the rent, wasn’t devoted to make the business work and so on. Also, I didn’t have any credentials at the time. I became an EA in 2003 and that put a lot of my then-current clients at ease and helped me grow my client base.”

Freeman recalled having “to decide on the type of [clients] – low-income, high-income, business – and stay in that track. I often had to also say ‘no’ to some clients that didn’t fit in to my plan. Nothing slows growth opportunities than trying to be all thing to all clients. For example, you start your practice and take 100 clients of all different needs. 25 of these are clients that receive the Earned Income Tax Credit and always want the lowest price always. Next year, you lose these and are already [down] 25 clients. The better practice would be to only do 75 higher-income and build that relationship for retention.”

“I’ve never advertised,” Gentner said, “so referrals were very important. I had to give my clients the personal touch so that we became connected.”

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