As little as 10 years ago, if you said you were going to start an accounting firm, most of your peers would have known exactly what you were talking about.

Oh, sure, there would have been a few variations here or there, depending on the size of the firm you envisioned, and any unusual specialties you may have been qualified in. But by and large, there simply weren't that many models to work with, or that many variables to worry about.

And so your practice would have looked like most others -- a solo practice or small partnership, drawing clients from your local region (mostly through referrals). If your region had a concentration of a certain type of businesses (if it was, say, largely agricultural, or had a lot of car-parts manufacturers), or if you happened to enjoy working with a certain industry, or if you just stumbled into a specialty, you might have focused on that, but most likely you'd have been offering a mix of traditional tax, accounting and bookkeeping services to a mix of individual and small-business clients.

Anyone you told your plan to would have known how you'd recruit your staff, and how you'd treat them. They'd have known the software you would use, and exactly when you'd be at your busiest. They'd have known how you'd handle billing, how you'd find new clients, and how you'd structure your firm hierarchy. They'd have known what your succession plan would look like -- mainly because you wouldn't have one. In short, if you said you were starting an accounting firm, it would have been safe to imagine that it would look much like your father's accounting firm.

Now, though, things are a little more complicated.

When you say you want to start a firm, you need to make more choices, more decisions and more commitments. You need to answer a series of questions that simply wouldn't have presented themselves a decade ago. Here are just a few of the more salient:

Where will you work? Most older firms can tell you where they started -- a kitchen table, someone's garage, in space borrowed from their first client -- but new firms don't necessarily need a space. You'll have to choose if you want to start a virtual firm, or one with a proper office, or something in between.

Where will you draw your clients (and your staff) from? The radius of where you can drive in a day no longer needs to determine where your clients will come from, and commuting times are no longer an issue. You can serve clients from all around the world, with staff who live thousands of miles apart. You need to choose which degrees of separation and virtual relationships you're comfortable with.

How will you market your firm? Once, referrals and the Yellow Pages were all you needed. But accountants are competing much more fiercely now, clients have more choices, and you can't afford not to be represented online and in social media, or to go without a serious business development plan. So, which of the many elements available will you incorporate into your marketing strategy?

How much of an "accounting firm" will you be? Rare is the older firm that doesn't do at least some "traditional" tax and accounting work, but now you don't necessarily have to do even that. You can choose to focus so narrowly on something that you don't offer the usual services at all. You need to decide your breadth and range.

These are just a few of the questions that those launching firms these days need to ask, and a fraction of the choices they need to make. Of course, none of this is to suggest that older firms didn't face challenges or have to make tough choices, because they most certainly did; it's just that figuring out exactly what they were going to be wasn't one of them. But while it wasn't one of their challenges, it also wasn't one of their opportunities.

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