The words "innovation" and "accounting" are rarely uttered in the same breath. Our profession is by nature conservative and slow to change. But over the past several years, a movement of CPAs who see and do things differently has slowly been gaining steam.

After getting to know some of its pioneers, I've concluded that we just may be on the cusp of a significant shift in our traditional accounting business model - the way we create, deliver and capture value.

In a series of articles for Accounting Today I will explore this shift through profiles of three practitioners of what I'm calling "the New Accounting." Let's start by addressing the nature and characteristics of the movement and what it could mean for our firms and our clients.

 

THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'

To get a full sensory exposure to the new accounting, click on Thriveal.com. Pronounced "thrive all" (and this is important), the site is digital home base for a network of mostly young, change-minded CPAs. It is the creation of CPA Jason Blumer, who narrates a fast-paced video on the site's home page (and is profiled later in this article).

Welcoming in an open shirt and hipster glasses, Jason describes Thriveal as a "creative CPA network." We see images of young professionals passionately brainstorming, connecting and generally looking like they're having a blast.

In brief testimonials over throbbing, club-like music, network members talk about the value of collaboration. One admits to loving the profession again, after years of dissatisfaction in a traditional firm environment.

Presentations by and conversations with Jason and others paint a picture of a new breed of CPAs. While the firms they've founded are distinct from one another, the group shares a number of characteristics. They:

  • View themselves more as entrepreneurs and business consultants than as accounting practitioners.
  • Use technology in every aspect of their practice, including removing geographic barriers to serve clients anywhere in the world.
  • Tend to forgo formal work attire. While some critics interpret this as a lack of professionalism and reflective of diminished quality, the new accountants see it as a practical response to the fact that they more often Skype with a client than sit together.
  • Are innovative in their approach to just about everything, including strategies for attracting clients and training and retaining employees.
  • Embrace new business models and value-based pricing structures such as monthly retainers.
  • Rely less on formal specialty training and more on experiences and market knowledge.
  • Have worked in traditional firms and have concluded, "I can do this better."
  • Are committed to finding out what their clients want and delivering it.
  • Are collaborative and operate with an "abundance mentality," confident that the pie is big enough for everyone.
  • Do not hesitate to abandon traditional approaches if they believe that these are not relevant or productive.

 
THE JURY IS OUT

Enduring change can only occur when conditions are right. I believe that's exactly what we're seeing today. Innovations in technology, strong competition and significant regulatory changes have created an ideal environment for a potential paradigm shift in our industry.

Many questions surround the new accounting movement. How strong is it? Can it add value to a traditional accounting practice? Can the approach be adopted within an audit environment in light of the fact that these firms generally do not perform audits?

I'll be seeking answers to these and other questions as I continue my coverage.

I will do this with an open mind and without judgment. As someone who spent 25 years in high tech, some of the aspects and optics of this movement bother me less than they bother others. Informality, for example, does not offend me. I ponder other aspects, such as striking the balance between regulatory rigor and creative practice.

With its focus on technology and entrepreneurship, and strong appeal to those entering the profession, I believe this movement is here to stay.

My first profile of three of these creative, colorful, successful "new accountants" follows below; two others, of Jody Padar and Michael Hsu, will appear in future issues.

 

NOT YOUR FATHER'S CPA

Click on the Web site of Jason Blumer's accounting firm and you might think you have landed on the site of a Las Vegas hotel or maybe a Broadway musical. The solitary word 'Blumer' pulsates in bright orange neon against a screaming teal background.

A small down-facing arrow leads you into a virtual firm that blows the nerdy CPA image right out the window. In place of a mission statement is this in-your-face message: "We are paperless, virtual and we specialize in integrating online accounting technology to make you more efficient, possibly paperless, and disrupt your business model for the good of your beautiful customers."

Blumer CPAs is not a startup, though it has that kind of energy. Jason opened his doors 11 years ago, which is not entirely true because there are no doors, windows or filing cabinets, for that matter. The virtual firm is headquartered in a laptop in Jason's Greenville, S.C., home. On an average day you'll find him hard at work in shorts and flip-flops.

Jason, a native of South Carolina, did his time as an internal accountant and controller before joining a firm in North Carolina. He stayed for five years and spent much of that time questioning how things were done. In 2003 he established a solo practice in order to have more time with his young family and to start putting some of his new ideas into action.

Creating a new norm wasn't easy, but Jason persisted. Today, the six-member firm specializes in accounting, tax, and payroll and business consulting for midsized digital design firms. (If a client business gets too big, the firm politely fires them because they no longer fit the business model.)

Blumer CPAs unapologetically rejects traditional accounting trappings and habits like:

  • Suits.
  • White starched shirts.
  • Polished wing tips.
  • Paper invoices.
  • Traditional preparation of financial statements.

Among the ideas and practices that they do embrace:

  • A belief that the work should be creative and fun.
  • A commitment to constantly developing new services.
  • Value-based, rather than time-based, pricing.
  • Monthly bank drafts instead of paper invoices.

 
DIGITAL HANDSHAKE

Blumer CPAs' approach to client acquisition is a telling example of just how innovative this firm is. Becoming a client is not automatic. Jason has developed what he calls a "strategic onboarding" process to determine if the firm and business are a good fit.

I always thought that "onboarding" referred to the post-sales process of implementing the client conversion to the firm's method. Not at Blumer. In Jason's vision, the client relationship starts at the beginning of the sales process.

I've always espoused the view that sales at its best is essentially free consulting -- you are advising a prospect (regardless of the outcome), but not yet getting paid. Approaching sales in this way moves you from vendor status to trusted advisor status.

You have to be prepared to not close the opportunity, putting the prospect's interests first and advising them of the best course of action even if they don't become your client because it's not a good fit. Many accountants find this difficult to do, but Jason has it nailed. This is solution selling, the most sophisticated type.

The process starts with the prospective client completing an online form that asks standard business questions but also addresses beliefs and values. Jason is focused on identifying where the value is for each prospect. If the firm determines that there's alignment, an agreement is reached and an individualized pricing structure based on the uncovered value is established.

Like many practitioners of the new accounting, Blumer CPAs can command higher rates than other firms because it combines a value-based approach with industry-specific business consulting. The first client "meeting" is typically a Skype celebration and kickoff. Virtual champagne, anyone?

Blumer CPAs is also innovative on the delivery end, where the emphasis is on providing exceptional client service and delivering value. Two of the six CPAs known as "customer allies" serve a client management function. They are responsible for the overall relationship and activities of the client with the firm. This holistic approach ensures that the buck goes no further.

 

AMBITIOUS AGENDA

Today the Blumer team serves clients in 15 states, but with a high-tech approach it could just as well be 150 countries, which I have no trouble imagining in the future.

Beyond growing the firm that bears his name, Jason has an ambitious goal to fundamentally change the accounting profession. He's the founder of the Web site Thriveal.com. The site is an online, global community of those who believe that accounting can be innovative, experimental, fun and creative. Members share ideas at free-flowing (think jeans and beer) conferences and nurture new concepts at "accelerator" sessions.

I especially like the "laboratory" offering, which addresses innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. Click around on the site and you'll get a good idea of some of the potential changes facing our profession.

Blumer believes that if something doesn't work, the answer is to change it. And when it comes to traditional accounting, that's exactly what he's set out to do.

But where will it all lead? Will the new accounting leave a permanent mark on the profession, or is it just a flash in the pan?

In my opinion, this new wave is going to dramatically change the face of accounting.

When early rock-and-rollers turned the music industry on its ear in the 1950s, many thought it was a passing fad. I believe we are witnessing a similar sea change in accounting.

Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal of Crosley + Co., and consults with accounting firms on revenue growth.

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