Listen up: Veterans offer their best advice for new tax pros
It’s tough to remember how much one has learned as a tax professional — until someone comes along who’s just starting out in the field. So we asked experienced practitioners to share their best pearls, ranging from education to networking to business wherewithal.
“Know your stuff and research what you don’t. Get a certification. Invest in robust tax software — don’t be cheap,” said Manasa Nadig, an Enrolled Agent and owner at MN Tax and Business Services and a partner at Harris Nadig, in Canton, Michigan. “Enroll with a national organization — those subscription dues are worth their weight in gold. Embrace social media as a marketing platform.”
“The important thing is to hook up with a firm that focuses on education and ethics,” said Mary Kay Foss, a CPA in Walnut Creek, California. “Not only does that give you a solid background, but it puts you in touch with valuable colleagues.”
“I’d highly recommend lots of continuing education,” said Terri Ryman at Southwest Tax & Accounting, Elkhart, Kansas, who averages around 120 hours per year. “I seem to learn something new in almost every webinar and seminar that I attend — and I’ve been in the tax business 32 years.”
With tens of thousands of young professionals getting accounting degrees every year, one of the first decisions seems to be whether to head to a big firm, a little firm or strike out on their own.
“Start by working with others, either in a big-box firm or in a smaller firm with multiple preparers,” said New York EA Phyllis Jo Kubey. “There are too many issues related to tax law and practice management to start out solo. Having the expertise and resources of more experienced preparers, along with the firm’s research resources and technological/security practice aspects allows you to get a good foundation and, to be frank, make mistakes in a supportive environment.”
Foss joined the local chapter of the California Society of CPAs when she moved to the state. “I went from being active at the local level, to being active at the state level as well as eventually becoming active with American Institute of CPAs,” she said. “I started my career with one of the Big Four, where I had access to subject matter experts all over the U.S. After leaving and joining a local firm, I was able to replace that network by finding experts all over California.”
“Join your local professional society and get involved,” said Daniel Morris, a senior partner at Morris + D’Angelo CPAs in San Jose, California. “Your fellow professionals will support you, help you and back you up.”
Meet-and-greets and rubber chicken across a real dining table may seem antiquated to the smartphone and social media generation, yet nothing beats the in-person approach, according to Twila Midwood, an EA at Advanced Tax Centre, in Rockledge, Florida.
“Attend in-person seminars. Networking with peers is invaluable and these organizations are worth more than their costs from that aspect alone,” Midwood said. “When attending seminars, introduce yourself to others and get their names and business cards in the event that you need help in the future. Networking provides opportunities which cannot be obtained just by attending webinars for education.”
Those looking to start their own prep practice, no matter their age, should hold their head high and know what they’re getting into. “Understand why you’re in business,” Morris said. “Consider before you ever open the doors the following questions: Why does your marketplace need (or how will it benefit from) a new firm? What do you offer? Why is it superior? How will you evolve? Organically or by acquisition?”
Morris also recommends avoiding “toxic customers. Don’t pollute your river at the source. Crappy customers … refer crappy customers, refuse to pay their invoices and make life miserable. Avoid hourly pricing: Time is not a measure of value. Consider how you can price at superior value – or forever live with commodity thinking that you placed upon yourself.”
“Do not underprice yourself in the beginning,” Ryman said. “That’s a hole that is very difficult to climb out of.”
Specializing may be key. “Be patient and focus on one area of the tax law, such as individual tax or corporate tax,” Bruce Primeau, CPA and president of Summit Wealth Advocates, in Prior Lake, Minnesota. “Trying to understand it all up front will just result in frustration.”
Morris Armstrong, an EA and registered investment advisor at Armstrong Financial Strategies, in Cheshire, Connecticut, recommends focusing on niche returns of businesses, real estate, corporations, trusts or foreign income. “Earned Income Tax Credit returns may also be an area where some specialize,” he added. “Representation will become more important as well.”
EA Debra James, of Genesis Accounting & Management Services, in Lorain, Ohio, would tell newbies what she tells her employees: “Sit down and work through the returns we’ve already done, over and over again until something clicks in your head,” she said. “Finding someone who is adept, has good gut instincts and has the ability to cobble together information to produce an accurate and honest return is hard to find. Repetition, hard work, desire to expand your knowledge and a commitment to understanding the tax laws and how to apply them comes from experience — and there’s no way to get it without digging in and doing it.”