In this particular episode, you will learn

  • About operating a small CPA firm
  • Getting hired at your local firm

John Gillingham:

Hi, welcome to the Accounting Play Podcast number 22. Today I have Travis Long, CPA -- owner of a small CPA firm. How's it going Travis?

 

Travis Long:

Great, John, thanks very much for having me.

2013-11-15 Travis Close-up Headshot

John Gillingham:

Yeah, and -- so today we just wanted to have you come on and kind of let us know what it's like operating an independent, successful, small CPA firm. Maybe some advice for people who are looking to do that themselves, or maybe that's a longer-term goal, or maybe they want to work for a small local firm. Again, this is John Gillingham and you can always find me, John@AccountingPlay.com and check out the apps to learn financial accounting all in the app store.

 

So, Travis, how did you get into this whole CPA business anyway?

 

Travis Long:

That's a great question, John. It was king of a zig-zag course, I think, for me getting here that maybe it is for some others. And then you've got the people who are accounting majors and know from birth that's what they want to do. But that wasn't my situation. I actually -- I was undergraduate -- I went to Principia College, which is a small, private liberal arts college in the Midwest. And I learned a little bit about everything there. Had no idea what I wanted to do. I did have an interest in accounting and there were a couple of students and we wanted to put together a couple extra accounting classes which one of the professors did for us.

 

But then, you know, that was about it. There wasn't really a full accounting program there, and so when I graduated I still wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do. But I had a job offer with a small telecommunications company back in Atlanta where I grew up. And so -- anyway, we -- I ended up working there for a little bit and then kind of went around. Had a couple other things I ended up doing. My wife at the time then was in grad school and --

 

John Gillingham:

Sounds like a type of situation that a lot of people who jump back into their career are kind of facing. And it's always a surprise to me, too, how so many people restart. And so do you think that's part of how you ended up at a smaller CPA firm rather than, like, a big four once you started out?

 

Travis Long:

Well, yes. So after my wife graduate from school we moved out here to Monterrey and then I decided to start looking for work with a public accounting firm to get some experience, just because of my interest in accounting. And ended up with a small firm in the area.

 

John Gillingham:

Really? See -- and I'm going to tell the audience a little secret. Travis and I actually work together at the same small firm. And it was strange, too, because I -- honestly, I had no experience except maybe one junior college class. And after I did that junior college class, I was able to get in with the local firm because I knew how to do tax prep. And so that's one angle, if you're really looking to get into a CPA firm for whatever reason. If it's the allure of the license or the steady hours. One way in is the tax route and that's kind of how I got in that exact same firm. Also in Monterrey, which incidentally, Travis, is a pretty beautiful place isn't it?

 

Travis Long:

Sure is, yeah. Put it at the top of the list

[laughs]

 

John Gillingham:

I always -- we probably shouldn't tell people how nice it is, but I was just thinking of all the luxury of living in a nice area, being close to home, and kind of being able to set your own hours. And those are all sorts of things in my CPA dream that I could do. And so I really think that, outside of just going straight to a big four, or maybe you're learning knowledge that is harder to use when you're working for yourself. There's a lot of benefits for working the small firms.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah

 

John Gillingham:

So what was your experience?

 

Travis Long:

Yeah, no, I totally agree with that. There's -- you know, going to the big firms you get really good, you know, experience. But often it's a very pigeon-holed kind of activities. And so you get really good at one little thing, whereas in the smaller firms you get to see a little bit of everything. And we were kind of a general firm. We did audit work and consulting work and general accounting. All kinds of things.

 

John Gillingham:

Right. That's pretty -- that's a great point too. These little firms that do audit and tax, they seem like they're kind of disappearing.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah

 

John Gillingham:

But, I mean, talk about wearing a lot of hats. I mean, you were managing audits and managing a tax practice at the same time at one point. Right, Travis?

 

Travis Long:

Right, yeah. I mean, certainly seeing it first hand on both sides, got to see kind of what you liked, what you didn't like. And then just giving that exposure to things so that it certainly was a great lead-in to going out on your own, because, you know -- at least you could have talking points, too. And, you know, even though you may not be an expert in everything, kind of a Jack of all trades.

 

John Gillingham:

Right. So if someone had to pick and they -- maybe they're out of the are of the big four, they like the idea of becoming independent. Do you think it's pretty important to consider getting exposure to audit and tax if someone has the chance?

 

Travis Long:

Oh yeah, I mean the auditing, I really felt, it uses your full set of -- skill set as an accountant. Much more so than the tax side. But most people just kind of like the tax side better, a lot of them.

 

John Gillingham:

Yeah, strangely.

 

Travis Long:

[laughs] So, yeah. I mean, the reason I like it is because I like working with people. I like working with, you know, the individuals there. I feel like I'm making a difference in their life. On the audit side, I kind of felt like I was working with a bunch of other accountants that kind of know what I know anyway, and we're just kind of a necessary evil coming in to look over their shoulders. Which nobody really likes anyway.

 

John Gillingham:

[laughs] Yeah, you're not exactly, like, the most popular kid on the street when you're going in looking at those books.

 

Travis Long:

Right, right. But academically -- I want to [unintelligible] the audit guys, because academically speaking it's very interesting, the audit side. And you really do have a -- it makes you think a lot, and I enjoyed it when I was doing the activity of it, but I think I just like the people side better in the --

 

John Gillingham:

Absolutely.

 

Travis Long:

-- tax side.

 

John Gillingham:

That's one of the first thing I remember, working at that small firm. Was entering in the trial balance so we could start he auditing. Kind of old-fashioned preparing for the races or something. And working those binders, through and through, and I believe without that it would have been a lot more difficult to pass the audit section of the CPA exam. That's kind of a small point, bu there's also two different types of CPA licenses, at least in California. One is the tax route and one is an audit route where you also can do tax. So if you have the audit experience you can do both. So that's just another thing.

 

So fast forward. How long were you at the smaller firm before you started your own firm? And tell me a little bit about the name of the -- your firm and how it is.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah, I was -- six and a half years I spent, and learned a lot of things. It was certainly a, you know, good learning experience. And then eventually it just kind of felt like -- you know, I just was ready for the flexibility of time as well, kind of on our own. And family life, looking forward to kind of a work-balance and having kids and needing flexibility. So there were other, you know, things I was thinking about. Obviously money as well. I mean, you know, you can -- you can definitely do pretty well on your own if everything, all the cards fall in the right place.

 

John Gillingham:

And we're going to talk about those cards.

 

Travis Long:

Oh, okay

 

John Gillingham:

Because they don't just -- they don't just fall from the sky.

 

Travis Long:

[laughs] So, yeah. Then I -- my firm, I just opened up. It was simplest just to start sole practitioner, sole proprietor and “Travis H. Long, CPA” became the name of the firm.

 

John Gillingham:

That's great. I remember that day when you told me you were leaving the firm and, yeah, sad day. But I eventually did the same and now I'm also independent. So I'm definitely enjoying the rewards and maybe some risks. I know you've had some long hours and, boy, and -- perhaps even in excess of 24. I've heard rumors.

 

Travis Long:

[laughs]

 

John Gillingham:

Tell me about some of the -- the dream and some of the potential nightmare.

 

Travis Long:

Right. Well, I mean, it is definitely true that, you know -- at least after you get -- probably the very beginning you're kind, like, just hoping for anything to walk in through the door so you have work to do. But I think you quickly find, if you do a good job and you relate well with people, that the work will come. Accounting is one of those professions where you just never really have to worry about having enough work. Seems like everybody needs it.

 

So, yeah. I mean, at some point you're going to -- it quickly becomes more than you really have time to do. And so, yeah, it is a lot. I've definitely put in more hours than I did as an employee, but I'll tell you this: it doesn't feel like work any more. It's just, you know -- well, I guess not having to come in and being like “here, you've got to be here at this hour and leave at this hour. And you can either do it this way or that way” you kind of get to do your own thing and that's a beautiful thing. That's great.

 

John Gillingham:

That really is. And very impressive, too, how fast you were able to build that up. So definitely I can see how wonderful that is when you're raising a family and otherwise. Now, you sort of a natural at that business coming to you, kind of, for a variety of different reasons. But what are some of the unique things that you did specifically when you were starting out to get clients? Because that's not always an easy thing for some people.

 

Travis Long:

Right, right. Well the prior firm that I was -- that I was with, there -- we had been in talks at one point about possibly buying the firm, myself and another individual. It didn't quite feel like the right fit, so it just felt better for me to go out on my own. But I didn't want to just walk away and take clients. I know it happens a lot. So we basically came to an agreement where certain people that came over, we would just go ahead and buy them out under similar terms that we had already talked about. So there ended up being -- and the goal was not to build my practice out of somebody else's practice. So it was just the ones where I had really close relationships. Ended up just basically buying those clients that came over.

 

You know, I think any kind of transition like that is going to be tough, but I think it was definitely the right decision, move, you know -- it's, I think, relationship-wise in the community -- it's a small community as well. It just makes sense. And there's plenty to go around. So I had a little core of people, it wasn't -- it wasn't a lot. But it was interesting how just being in the community for that long, as soon as I left and went out on my own, just -- people kind of came out of the wood works and were like “oh, you're on your own now? Well I'll come and, you know -- I'd like to use you.” [laughs] So it kind of went from there and then, you know, different social groups that you had.

 

And then I definitely spent a good bit of time right at the outset trying to, you know, get a website together. You know, putting profiles on, like, Yelp and Angie's List and, you know, all the different types of social media.

 

John Gillingham:

Yeah. It's a lot of up-front investment.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah

 

John Gillingham:

These things don't just magically go. You do do some cultivation.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah, sure.

 

John Gillingham:

Wow, that's really interesting. And just think of the integrity there, or the karma for lack of better words, for our San Francisco listeners. So you don't have to part with bad blood. And in a small community -- I feel like you're the community doctor. Is that weird? Hanging out with all your friends and you know their financial situation?

 

Travis Long:

[laughs]

 

John Gillingham:

I used to -- it was one of my goals to help my family and friends stay to goals with being a CPA. And that is, now, something stated that I avoid. So, Travis, what's that like? Knowing everyone's --

 

Travis Long:

Well, I will say --

 

John Gillingham:

-- dirty laundry?

 

Travis Long:

I will say this too, though. That, you know, -- you know, the whole -- having all your friends as clients is maybe not the greatest thing. And that's not what I've done either. I mean, I certainly have friends that are clients, but it's not my goal. I think it's kind of nice to have that, you know, separation between friendship and business.

 

John Gillingham:

Right

 

Travis Long:

But, yeah. I don't know. It's -- it's private, you know? And I don't talk about my -- who I work with with other people in the community. It's just -- it's confidential information and I don't say “oh yeah, that's my client” or whatever. You know, that's just -- I don't do that. So generally, it's kind of a non-issue really.

 

John Gillingham:

So it doesn't bother you too much. Now you are actually a pretty prolific writer. Talk about how you've used some of your writing, both maybe -- something that you digest to help you understand things and how you've shared that with the community and brought in clients through that mechanism.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah, well, it was -- I was fortunate enough to have a spot in our local paper in the town where they, you know, had room for a column. So I started writing, you know, every two weeks or so, an article for the paper. And, yeah, it definitely, you know, kind of puts you out there in the community. And people knew -- you know, started to know who I was and everything as well. And it gives you -- you know, even simple stuff. When you're putting it down on paper, you kind of want to make sure it's right. [laughs]

 

John Gillingham:

Right

 

Travis Long:

So -- it's going to be out there forever.

 

John Gillingham:

And just so -- if I can just preface this: for all of our listeners that probably don't even know what a newspaper is --

 

Travis Long:

[laughs]

 

John Gillingham:

-- the community average age in this particular retirement community -- we're actually across the street in Travis' office. Now, I think there's like three senior centers on the way.

 

Travis Long:

[laughs]

 

John Gillingham:

And so people do actually read these papers.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah, right.

 

 

John Gillingham:

And just to give another idea, you know, Travis is also -- has a very close estate planning attorney that works close to him and I know there're some synergies there. But just to give a lay of the land, anyone who's looking to, you know, publish in the LA Times -- it's probably not a good idea.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah

 

John Gillingham:

But Travis hit upon what I think is a very valuable niche to serve this community. And so have you gotten more into the estate and trust work through targeting those -- or, I wouldn't say -- maybe just throwing yourself out there?

 

Travis Long:

Well, yeah. I mean, it's -- just everything contributes. Everything you do, you know, whether it's writing articles -- [unintelligible] isn't going to come just because you write an article. But maybe they've seen your articles, and then someone gives them your name as well. Or -- and then they saw you maybe on Google when the Googled. [unintelligible]

 

John Gillingham:

That's an amazing, amazing point.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah [unintelligible]

 

John Gillingham:

It's never just one point of contact.

 

Travis Long:

No

 

John Gillingham:

It's kind of a familiarity and -- yeah, I was -- well, rotary. Both believe, Travis, you're a current member and I'm kind of off and on. But rotary was one particular community, to me, that was very valuable. It was one point of connection with people, but it's not just one. It's multiple different aspects. And to know that you're a staple of this community, you're not going anywhere, and that's something I kind of struggle with being somebody who does not maintain a physical office. So you -- absent of a physical office, you really have to think “what are the communities going to -- what are the points of contact you have with people for the legitimacy. And I know Travis has several of those.

 

Travis Long:

Right

 

John Gillingham:

Did you take that to the web too? Or did you keep that all on paper/

 

Travis Long:

Yes. Yeah, of course. So all of the articles that I wrote are on my website, TLongCPA.com. And there's a blog link. But, yeah, so it just makes it -- and it's interesting, too. You can see people from all over the world read these things.

 

John Gillingham:

You running Google Analytics on the back end there, Travis?

 

Travis Long:

Yep, sure am. And, you know, even I get calls from -- I get calls from CPAs and attorneys all over the country asking about, you know, certain things I've written. And it's just -- it is really interesting today with the web and how you can just reach out so far.

 

John Gillingham:

Yeah, if -- in that broad network, have you started to specialize in particular things, where sometimes people come reach out to you for?

 

Travis Long:

Well you mentioned, like the trusts and estates side, which I -- again, I work closely with an estate planning attorney next door and that arena, the trusts and estates side, it's definitely a boon to have a CPA-attorney team that're really close. And so it works out really well for us and then, I think, for the clients as well.. So, yeah, that's one area for sure. I mean, there've been other areas that --

 

John Gillingham:

So you said --

 

Travis Long:

Yeah

 

John Gillingham:

-- trust and estate attorney team?

 

Travis Long:

Right.

 

John Gillingham:

Talk a little bit more about, if you can, your relationship with maybe one attorney or others. If you give each other clients, advice; how does -- how does that -- how does that work?

 

Travis Long:

Well --

 

John Gillingham:

At least for you.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah. I mean, it's just -- when you have a good relationship -- because, I mean, that area is just so tied. It's just married between the CPA activities and the attorney activities. And so, you know, you don't know it all and you've got to have the legal side to know, often, how to handle the accounting work and vice versa. And so, you know, just having that close -- someone close by geographically. Like, he's right next door. And so we're able to, you know, just -- any time I have a legal question about it I can just ask him and vice versa. And you don't have to spend, you know, days, you know, waiting for returned phone calls from people you don't really know that well. [unintelligible] yeah.

 

John Gillingham:

Yeah, and what's awesome about that, too, is, I mean -- what kind of great impact is that for the client. It's kind of like a one-stop shop and not like the scammy internet sales way. But you have this great relationship where now you're aware of problems that you can refer out to.

 

Travis Long:

Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, it's -- there's a synergy to it for sure. And, you know, it benefits, like I said, the clients, I think, you know, just as much as it does us. And of course, we're able to refer business to each other. You know, that happens a lot. You know, it -- and again, it just works out better for everybody.

 

John Gillingham:

Yeah, it sounds really reciprocal. So we're sort of getting into the mechanics of small firms here. What about collaborations with financial advisers?

 

Travis Long:

Yep

 

John Gillingham:

Because I always feel like I'm getting invited out to lunch with financial advisers and there's probably some that listen to this podcast, even. What are some potential synergies or risks? Or how has that worked out?

 

Travis Long:

Well -- yeah. I mean, definitely is a part of the planning work that we do. And then, you know, it's vital, you know, to have the financial advisers, you know, in-loop as well. Obviously there, you know -- it depends on how much you have at stake. But the more there is, the more you're communicating with them, you know, at different times of the year. See if, you know, there is an opportunity to have, you know -- sell some stocks and, you know, create gains and losses and things like that. Or maybe Roth conversions or whatever. So, yeah, financial advisers' key. We have one right here in the building as well. It's another kind of [laughs] area that I think it's really handy when you have them all together.

 

John Gillingham:

Yeah, that's really interesting. I know the building you worked in, there's actually several CPAs and, perhaps, multiple attorneys or just one.

 

Travis Long:

A couple. Two attorneys.

 

John Gillingham:

Yeah

 

Travis Long:

A couple CPAs, yeah.

 

John Gillingham:

And they call this, like, the financial center. Which I would think something like a CPA firm would want to be the only one on the block, kind of like an ice cream shop or something.

 

Travis Long:

Yeah, you know, I think it's kind of like -- maybe like the diamond district down in New York City or something, as well. Where you -- you know, again, there's a synergy to that as -- too. And, you know, again, having other CPAs. There used to be four CPAs in this building, actually. But, you know, we could always bounce ideas off of each other. You don't -- you can't know it all and you really need to find those relationships where you can, you know, openly ask other people about things you don't know about, [laughs] even if they seem maybe kind of trivial. But you just can't do it all. And so, you know, it's -- it is nice. And you develop those relationships. It's really not competitive, I've never felt that. You know? And it's really -- it's helpful to have those people around when you're -- especially when you're on your own. You don't have, like, a big firm. You can't walk down the hall and have ten other people to ask.

 

John Gillingham:

Right, and that's a distinct difference. And I know, Travis, in your firm you also -- there's a lot that you don't do. And --

 

Travis Long:

[affirmative sound]

 

John Gillingham:

And for me, I would say I mostly don't do what a CPA does. Meaning --

 

Travis Long:

Right.

 

[laughter]

 

John Gillingham:

I want my practice very focused. See, I have a lot of tech clients, personally. Entrepreneurs, creatives, and business owners. And I'm kind of focused in that. And trying to focus in certain states because otherwise you'll get overwhelmed, so, I mean, there's a lot of risk for a small operator just to go out and try and take on a small audit or start issuing comp reports. I've actually had it, working consulting where they want me to sign off on stuff that's not appropriate for me to sign off on. [laughs]

 

Travis Long:

Right, right.

 

John Gillingham:

Yeah, so, I mean, I know tailoring -- what are just a few of the other value-added things that you think your firm really focuses on for clients and keep people coming back, and appreciated rather than what I call, like, a tax return mill where they're just cranking out as fast as they can?

 

Travis Long:

Yeah, you know, I -- what I always tell clients when they come in, too, is that I -- you know, I don't see the value of working with a CPA as just someone who's going to fill out your forms at the end of the year. You know, I think it's a relationship that you have or, you know someone who is well-versed in a lot of different things. You know, sees a whole bunch. Is