The #Takeoff series is about crowdsourcing issues important to Canadian small businesses. They tell us about their defining moments and we write about their stories, the issues, and strategies for success or how to overcome obstacles.
The accounting industry isn’t generally known for its fresh, innovative approach, but Chad Davis and his partner Josh Zweig want to change that with their technology-focused online accounting firm, LiveCA LLP. Both 31, Mr. Zweig is a chartered professional accountant (CPA) while Mr. Davis took the chartered management accountant (CMA) route in management accounting to becoming a CPA, and did an MBA, so they have different skills and backgrounds. When they met, virtually on Skype, the two co-founders experienced an “aha” moment when they realized their combination of tax, technology and business approaches meshed perfectly. LiveCA was the result shortly afterward in March of 2013.
“We’re both tech guys,” Mr. Davis says. “That’s a prerequisite for working here. Technology has to be ingrained in how you operate as a person in our firm. That’s how we can be so quick and nimble.”
LiveCA offers custom advice and services to small businesses and professionals, assigning them their own personal chartered accountant who is always on call for them through text messages, Skype or Google hangouts (for group conversations) and a technology partner to help them shift toward using a digital platform.
Early on, the co-founders made the decision not to just do accounting tasks, but to be consultative in nature and build deeper relationships with businesses. If people are just looking for accountants who will do single-service work, they refer them to other firms. Rather than charge by the hour – the standard process in accounting – they’ve developed their own system of pricing based on the value they add to businesses so they can offer unlimited support to clients.
“We take a holistic approach, where you look at every single process and goal that the owners have for themselves,” says Mr. Davis. “Technology plays a big part in doing that, but attitude and approach are just as important.”
The firm doesn’t do any in-person consultations, operating strictly online. That allows them the flexibility to serve the largest number of Canadians across the country, and not waste time with travel, according to Mr. Davis. The startup has grown quickly to eight full-time employees and has annual revenue of approximately $1-million. While head office is in Toronto, all employees work virtually from their own homes in different Ontario locations, with one employee in Halifax. The firm offers some guidelines on how to work at home, but there are no typical work days or schedules as long as employees take care of clients.
“The way we keep track of everything is by using online management tools so at any point in time, anyone can see the status of other people and what they’re working on, as well as notes relating to that job,” Mr. Davis says. “There’s not a lot of follow-up that’s needed because these tools are keeping everybody informed.”
LiveCA’s work model works well for them now, but what would their challenges be as they hire more staff? With just under 200 clients, Mr. Davis says they’re controlling how they grow to make sure they can service clients with 100-per-cent attention.
Sunil Mistry, a chartered accountant and partner at KPMG Enterprise in Toronto, says that LiveCA’s business model is one that many growing companies may prefer instead of the usual bricks and mortar professional services, but there are always going to be companies that don’t want advisers who can only be reached over the Internet or may not be comfortable using Skype or other online Web tools as the only communication portal. That could impede LiveCA’s growth potential.
“There may be many companies that could use their services but would want face-to-face meetings,” Mr. Mistry says. “Providing business and tax advice is also based on the ability of the professional to explain what can sometimes be complex rules and clients may want to build a relationship through face-to-face meetings before reaching the trusted adviser level.”
Mike McDerment, co-founder and chief executive officer of FreshBooks, a Toronto-based cloud-accounting service for small-business owners, says organizations have natural cycles of breaking points and, with growth, they need to do different things.
“Running a business is a bit like Whac-A-Mole,” Mr. McDerment says. “You go along and that works for while and then it doesn’t. That’s true if you’re in an office or not. The challenge of scaling is the heart of it, and this is true of any knowledge business. The folks that had the original magic are going to get further and further away from every project, so the challenge is finding ways to provide the right level of integrity of the deliverable. You need to figure out how you’re going to produce that consistency. Otherwise you can have clients who have very different experiences, some of which you had not intended at the outset.
“Today they have eight people. They’ll probably have 30 and still pull it off, but maybe at that stage it starts to get a lot harder. But then how do you scale it at 100? They’ll have to have some breakthrough in process or training to scale past a certain point. But these are smart guys. They can figure that out. They just need to focus on it and not get caught off guard when it happens.”
There is also the challenge of building a work culture when employees work remotely, which Mr. Davis says is really important to them. They use Skype for all their voice chats and have an internal chat application that sits on their phones, browsers and iPads.
“We post everything under the sun that relates to building relationships with each other, so we have different topic flows, such as one called the water cooler,” Mr. Davis says. “That’s where people can post funny cat videos from YouTube or [comedians] Jon Stewart and John Oliver. We’ll post things about tax and technology and have one-on-one chats. I’d actually argue that the relationship we have with everyone through these instant communication tools is greater than all the relationships I’ve had working in an office. We’re constantly in touch. If I went back into an office for some reason, I’d probably want to Skype the person next to me because it’s so much more convenient.”
Sunir Shah, chief marketing olarker at Olark, a San Francisco-based company providing live-chat software, says its employees are spread out anywhere from Toronto to Montana to Sao Paulo, Brazil, mostly working from home or a co-working space. He says the secret to working virtually is to commit to it. His firm uses a number of tools, but mostly Hipchat for group chat, Skype for constant phone and conference calls, Google Docs for notes, Trello for project planning, plus their cellphones. Like LiveCA, its employees don’t have working hours, but trusts people to do their work whenever and from where ever they want to do it.
“There’s a real mental hurdle for many people working from home for the first time,” Mr. Shah explains. “We try very hard to not let new employees slide down into the ditch of social isolation. We fly them out to meet their teammates, check in with them frequently and offer to pay for a co-working desk if they need to get out of the house. We also try to avoid letting people work on projects alone.”
Another way Olark fosters culture is through an annual corporate retreat.
“It's important for us once a year to have face-to-face time just to get to know each other outside the office,” Mr. Shah says. “That's one drawback to working virtually. There’s no regular beer o’clock.”
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