Brad Ebenhoeh is the CEO and Managing Partner of Accountfully, a bookkeeping and accounting firm that helps businesses grow through smart and tailored financial solutions. We discuss the basics of time marketing, why you need to be friends with your clients, and ways AI is shaping accounting businesses.
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Learn Time-Marketing With Brad Ebenhoeh
My guest is Brad Ebenhoeh, the CEO of Accountfully. A bookkeeping and accounting firm helping creative professionals, food entrepreneurs, startup founders, and those in the CPG space grow their businesses through smart financial management and tailored bookkeeping and accounting solutions. That was a mouthful. Brad, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much, Steve. I enjoyed the great intro. That was a mouthful. I’m going to expand more on that as we chat.
As an accountant, I know that there is always an inclination to be very precise and make sure that you cover over the basis, which I would’ve done as well. Tell me a little bit about your journey. How did you end up running your own accounting firm? Most accountants are not necessarily born entrepreneurs. They don’t necessarily want to run a business. Maybe they might aspire to become a partner with a major firm, but owning and running a business is quite a different thing. What is your story?
It’s a pretty good story. It starts back from a small town and did the accounting route in college. I got a big job at a big accounting firm. I worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers. I’m from Michigan. I didn’t know any difference or entrepreneurism or any thoughts around that. My godfather had his own tax CPA firm, but I didn’t ever enjoy looking at that and seeing him during tax season.
With that being said, I got involved with an accounting firm in the corporate world. I did big business stuff and trucked along. I was originally in Detroit, and then I moved to Chicago. There came a point when I was in my late twenties. I was starting to grasp growing up, being more mature as an adult, and trying to figure things out.
I remember one time, one of my partners at an accounting firm felt like he didn’t know people’s names. He was going through life. I’m like, “If this guy’s a partner in a firm, it can’t be that hard.” I just remember some reason that my mind went that way. In short, that’s one of the areas where I steered myself out of the corporate world into a small business.
From there, I quit my job. I got a job at a family wine business that my cousin owns as the first-ever accountant. I controlled that family of companies, and learned the small business, payroll, taxes, cashflow, inventory, and stuffs that you have no idea to talk about or deal with in a big business in the audit world. I moved down to Charleston and still had that job remotely.
This was 2011, so I was probably 27 or 28 years old. My wife now, my fiancee then, we didn’t know anybody in Charleston. We just moved here because we loved the town. We were like, “What’s the best way to meet people in your late twenties?” It’s not like what you do in college days. We’re like, “Let’s go out on our own and start business networking, meeting people, and shaking hands.”
That’s what came out of account place. We were like, “We’re going to start a business where we’re doing CFO consulting. This very gray and tangible thing that seemed a lot cooler than bookkeeping.” We get out, do that, and shake some hands. When you’re trying to explain something or sell something and it’s hard to sell it or hard to even explain it, people are more reluctant to buy it.When you're trying to explain something or sell something and it's hard to sell it or even explain it, people are more reluctant to buy it. Click To Tweet
We realized that bookkeeping, payroll, monthly financials, supporting income taxes, and things like that are more tangible in the awareness and consciousness of a business owner. It’s easier to grasp. That’s when we launched and took off. We originally went to business in 2012. Mid-2013 is when we tweaked it and iterate it into the bookkeeping process. That’s where Accountfully was born and launched off into the phase. Our 11th anniversary will be January 27th, 2023. I can’t believe we’re almost eleven.
Congratulations. That’s a good run.
You developed the blueprint that I got curious about. You called it three tiers of professional service marketing. What are these tiers and how is professional service marketing different from other marketing?
We’ve grown our business from 1 person to almost 70. As of now, it’s 68 or 69 people at Accountfully, which is bananas and crazy to me. We have grown our company without a formal salesperson, sales process, etc. I am the CEO of the company. I have a lot of responsibilities. I’m the sole salesperson still. The reason I’m able to do that is because of all these different layers of marketing leads, qualified leads, and different things that we’ve done to minimize the sales process. From a sales perspective, originally when you’re starting a business, you cold outreach, emails, calls, and things like that. We’ve done that at various times within Accountfully, but it never works very well. The ROI is not there.
As we’ve grown our business, I’ve identified various ways that people have come to account with the three buckets or tiers in terms of what we’re talking about. Professional service, if we step back a little bit, is different than selling a product. At the end of the day, our time and our team member’s time are our inventory. That’s what we’re selling, our time to support them in various services.
It’s a little bit different than just selling a product or selling software as a service app. With that being said, we’ve over time focused on three key items to help us grow our business. Number one, extraordinary delivery to our clients or our client service delivery. Making sure the quality of our service and the deliverables that we promise to our clients what they pay for are properly handled.
As a small business owner and entrepreneur, at least twenty other entrepreneurs are small business owners. You’re trying to grow your business, connecting, and shaking hands. At the end of the day, if we’re performing a good service to our existing clients and they’re happy with it, there are going to be questions and comments around accounting, taxes, and finance to their friends and maybe Accountfully is introduced.
A big part of that client service delivery is having the processes, workflow, and checks and balances in place. I don’t know how many times I can say when somebody comes to us and says, “I’m with this current firm but nobody is there ever to respond to me. They don’t get things timely. They don’t communicate with me.” Things like that can easily be fixed if you have proper talent, resources, processes, workflows, etc, which we’ve developed at Accountfully.
The second thing is what I’ve always explained to our team. At the end of the day, it’s called time marketing. It came to me several years ago. Basically, in terms of what we do for our clients, we are helping them do weekly bookkeeping, paying bills, updating their books and records, helping them with weekly cashflow, sending invoices to their customers, processing payroll, etc.
There’s this bucket and this budget that we say, “For X number of dollars, we’re going to do these tasks and we’d reconcile the amount of time we’re spending.” With that being said, we don’t over-deliver so far that we’re losing money based on the amount of time we’re spending. There’s a little aspect of that fine line in a professional service where you’re going a touch above what your client expects you to do.
You go and ask them how they’re doing. You create that personal relationship with them. I call it time marketing because it’s that extra time we put into our clients. We go above and beyond and reach out to them when it’s their birthday. We’d be cheering happily. When they email us, we respond very quickly even if we don’t know the answer, “I’ll get to this tomorrow.”
It’s that aspect of creating that personal relationship and that value where that client understands what you’re doing. The time that we’re spending creates marketing in terms of two aspects. It creates marketing in terms of two things. 1) Keeping our existing clients happy so they stay clients with us, plus Maybe they use other services we offer. 2) It goes back to what I just said. They tell their friends about us because they’re happy with our service. Their friends need a bookkeeper, an accountant, a tax person, or a CFO.
The last bucket is leveraging other people’s networks. This is much more on the sales side of things. External sales where the other one is you’re leveraging your existing clients and upselling them, plus telling their friends. The other thing is identifying people and key partners, whether it’s our clients or whether it’s other partnerships we’ve created within the industry. Leverage them to use their network to expand about Accountfully and what we do.
Instead of me reaching out to 100 people, what if I go to two people who know 50 people each? That’s 100 people. There’s much more efficiency there, and there’s more ROI. When you plug in the right people, and then they tell their friends or their colleagues about Accountfully. You become a qualified service provider because you’ve built trust that’s in their place.
Basically, from that aspect of all those items, I think it buckets in a concept of the whole referral engine. Leveraging other networks, leveraging your existing clients, and keeping that referral engine going where 80% of the people that we work with come to us and it’s a qualified lead. When I have a sales conversation, they already are trusted in terms of what we do. We’re an expert in their eyes. It’s an easier process versus me just cold calling somebody like a life insurance salesman does, and it’s this very impersonal aspect. In summary, the three aspects are 1) Extraordinary client service delivery or extraordinary delivery. 2) Time marketing. 3) Leveraging our clients’ network space.
It’s very logical. The way you explain it is also quite profound. If you do a great job and you can keep all your clients, and you basically close the back door on your practice, then your job of marketing is so much easier because all you need to market is the growth that you can handle. That’s very true. Extraordinary service will cement your existing clients. A client saved is a client earned.
I like this time marketing thing. Often, we don’t take the time to have that conversation with the client because we think that they are busy, we are busy, and we don’t want to waste their time. Actually, if you’re investing your time in making sure that you treat this person as an individual and recognize them, then they’re going to relate to you in a different way. They’re going to see you more as a friend than as a service provider. Leveraging the network is great. Harvesting some network effects in marketing is beneficial as doing it in the fast business. You want to take the network effects.
Steve, I want to bring about the time marketing standpoint and create that friendship with your clients. To that extent, it makes sense. It’s very important specifically in the last several months the current economic climate. The economy of where people are making decisions of possibly cutting costs due to the lack of credit available and loans available because of where the stock market and the credit market are. Guess what? All business owners are going through and cutting costs.
If you have that super valuable relationship, you may be the biggest dollar amount or the top five, but they may be like, “I can’t live without them because they help me make decisions each day.” Sorry for cutting you out, but I wanted to say that it’s super important especially in the downturns to have that relationship because that goes into the decision-making process.
Another aspect you mentioned is when you provide great delivery, you’re going to trigger referrals. Those people are going to want to do a favor to other people to recommend you because they know that they’re going to look good with you. That’s also a huge benefit. Let’s talk about this idea of leverage. You said leveraging your client’s network, but there are other things that you can leverage in this day and age. I love that you guys are thinking about automation in accounting and bookkeeping and using AI. Tell me a little bit about how it is possible to use automation AI in your work. What are the possible pitfalls perhaps of doing that?
With AI and some of the things that keep coming out weekly and daily these days, it’s crazy to think about what’s going on. With that being said, specifically within what we do in accounting and finance, this typically is the most private part of anybody’s life. It’s what’s in their bank account and how much they owe in taxes.
People will tell their friends about their romantic life, different things that they did, and craziness, but they never tell them like, “By the way, I owe the IRS $40,000, and I’m back due on credit cards.” It’s very private to people. We have the visibility to that and see how good their business is doing. We get their tax returns or file their tax returns. We have that aspect of it.
When you’re dealing with cash, money, and business stress, there’s always going to be this aspect where there needs to be somebody there to help support them, be able to pick up the call, respond to an email, and help them make a decision on what needs to get done. No matter what in this space and a lot of different spaces.
Additionally, helping them make decisions on what vendor to pay and what percent. Can you reach out to them about creating an installment agreement with vendors that are past-due items? Are there key suppliers to their products? There’s that personal aspect that’ll always be there. I think that the automation and things like AI that exist should be something that’s very much behind the scenes.
Creating that relationship, building your business, having that face-to-face conversation, emailing back and forth, but then how can we leverage QuickBooks online? How can we leverage different systems integrating, email marketing, and those types of things that keep getting better? You minimize the man hours, so you don’t have a ton of internal people doing things. At the same time, make sure that the data is right.
I don’t know how many times I go to a chatbot on something like Comcast. We moved out of our house because we’re renovating. Canceling Comcast, you go to a chatbot and you can’t get anybody. They keep bringing up the buttons, “Press this button.” I’m just like, “Cancel service,” but it took forever. It’s frustrating. Those are the things that annoy you. The next time you look at an internet provider, you may not go to them, you may go to somebody else.
Some of our competitors have automated a lot, which in theory makes sense. The young generation may love it, but then a lot of times, they come to us. They’re like, “I can’t talk to anybody. Nobody is available. I’m frustrated because I want to ask them what’s going on, and they misquote a categorization.” There’s a ton of opportunity behind the scenes in the back office. I think that the integration with the clients and the people needs to be personal.
What about AI? What can you use AI for in the accounting profession?
Reporting, creating, forecasting. We use a dashboard called Fathom. It integrates QuickBooks online. It has a ton of KPIs, going backward. That doesn’t include a lot of AI. They have a forecasting function that you can go into your P&L and say, “This is going to increase by this.” They have this regression thing like, “This is going to be like this.” It is constantly dynamic and changing based on the inputs that happen.
That type of stuff is where you can leverage more AI versus automation in handling that aspect because then that helps you in interpreting that to your client. In automation versus AI, sometimes you get confused because it sounds the same thing. Automation is like integrating systems, setting up reminders, automating emails, and responding back to sales and deals.
Whereas AI is identifying one thing or sometimes thinking about it from an accounting perspective, we’ll have everything coded behind the scenes. We have QuickBooks online or these accounting systems. We code everything. What if you use Amazon for five different things and the memo line comes over as Amazon.com, but then you want to break it out by office supplies or by tech?
You need somebody there to go through it because the rule of QuickBooks doesn’t know the difference. That’s where you have that aspect. I’m assuming probably at some point in the future, you could leverage AI to look something up. I don’t have the answer to that. Leveraging AI to create dashboards and looking forward to visualizations, and things like that help out.
That’s what I see from an accounting or more of a finance perspective that’s in there. I guess we have a tax team. There’s probably something there. Clearly, there’s automation there, but taxes are so nuanced and so specific to individuals. It’s hard if you are a complex entity or individual, where AI or automation can do 100% of it. I think it’ll keep getting better but you can’t lose the focus that there’s a personal relationship there.
People don’t want to take a chance that some AI is going to make some judgments on direct counting and make a false report to the IRS. It’s not the place to save money.
I agree with you. In a lot of the other aspects like marketing, there are a lot of different things that are out there and stuff like that. Clearly, it’s an exciting time to see where all that goes with everything in life.
I’d like to ask you a personal question. We talked about this before the recording that you and your wife started the business together. You’re partners in life and business. I’ve been like that with my wife. I know that there are ups and downs, challenges, and opportunities. How did that work out for you? What is the lesson that you have taken from that?
There are a lot of positives that go into it, and then at times, there can be a lot of negatives because you don’t have those boundaries in your personal relationship. There are times that we’ve gotten individually frustrated that we are in business together. It’d be great to have a wife that we can just talk to and chime in at each other.
From starting out, when we were growing Accountfully and when it started to grow and took off, it made sense for both of us to dedicate 100% of our time to it. We just got married or almost got married. We just bought a house or almost going to buy a house. It makes sense as you grow your revenue, and grow your clients to keep it in-house versus hiring somebody else and paying them to do the work.
Step one is clearly from a financial standpoint. It has been great for us personally in that aspect. The biggest downfall we had initially is that we thought we had to do everything together. “We got a prospective client, let’s both go and be in this meeting. We have this, let’s go both do this.” Over time, we realized that doesn’t work.
What you need to do is divide and conquer, and provide 100% responsibility to each person within departments and clients. Let the other person get away, hands off. Let them do it and trust them to make the situation. Don’t micromanage it. Over time, I took over sales and marketing. She’s the COO and takes over all operations. She takes over HR and does different things like that that come into play.
We always had our separate clients. Over time, we’ve all gotten out of clients and worked outside of some old legacy clients that we still have. For anybody that is in business with your partner, it’s identifying those duties and clients or however you can segment your responsibilities. Let go and let that other person do their job.For anyone with a business partner, you have to identify your duties and segment your responsibilities. Then let go and let that other person do their job. Click To Tweet
Otherwise, you’re going to be butting heads. You do things differently. Every time you do stuff together, it’s not good. Outside of that, now that we have a family and we have three kids and have other things going on. We have 25-year-olds. We have almost a one-year-old now. Over time, our tension fully isn’t the business.
The first 3 to 4 were business growing. “This is going to support our family forever.” Once we have kids, first of all, she took maternity leave and gets away. She had to unplug. For a minute, she doesn’t think about Accountfully. I’m running it. It’s good because it starts creating those boundaries, but then you have to focus on your kids, your family, your social life, and things like that.
We’ve been able to segment it where during the week, we go on a date. We’ll talk about business, but come weekends, we don’t talk about it. Over time, it has been good. There have been times of struggle. Over time, now that we’re almost 70 people, we’ve hired a bunch of top talent that do a bunch of different things.
It’s not just Meredith and me at the leadership table. There are 6 or 7 of us. I’m talking about this. We’re still the partners and the owners of the company who make the final decisions. There are so many other things going on that have been good because it’s just not us relying on it. There are other good people here that have helped. In short, if I had to do it again, no doubt, I’d like to go back into business with my wife. It has worked out well.
That’s great. If you can make it work, it’s fantastic. My experience is that sometimes it works great, especially when the business is booming, and then you go through a harder time. You have different opinions on how to save the business and how to make it work. That can be frustrating because it’s challenging enough to make the business profitable and successful if you have to do it with a partner who maybe has a different view. That can happen not just with spouses. A business partnership is hard.
That’s actually one thing that has been good that we’ve been so aligned in our strategic or long-term vision of Accountfully. When we need things, we’re always constantly in a similar mindset. If you have a partner or two, maybe one had a kid and you don’t have a kid. Your minds are in different spots and you still work 80 hours. They’re like, “Family is more important. Business, I’m still working hard but you got to cut me some slack.”
There becomes that segmentation of, “What’s the strategic thing? How do the decisions are made?” That could impact a business partnership. That’s the one thing as well. If you have that proper alignment, it helps out on stuff. To your point, some partnerships have proper alignment anyway. It cracks you at times.
That has been interesting. It’s quite a fascinating journey that you’ve been on with Accountfully. If the audience would like to learn a little bit more about what’s happening, what these three tiers of professional service marketing are, how you serve your clients, and what you provide them, where can they find you? How can they reach out to you?
The best way to find us is Accountfully.com. We’re on all social media channels. Accountfully is what we put out on Instagram. It is cool, especially from an accounting firm standpoint. When we created this, it was, “How do we create a cool accounting firm?” There are a lot of cool accountants out there, but there’s just that accounting firm. We want to be a Johnson & Johnson, LLC, and that type of stuff.
We’ve been Accountfully for a decade, and there are a lot of other accounting firms now that exist that do the same thing. They have a cool brand. We were cutting edge or one of the first that did that, which is super cool. A big part of what we do in marketing is not just for customers, but it’s all for talent. We want our employees to identify that. Check us out on social media.A big part of what’s done in marketing is not just for customers; it's also for talent. Click To Tweet
We do bookkeeping accounting for small businesses. We have a great tax team that does business taxes. We have a great financing advisory team, CFO, and budgeting. We have a lot of inventory-based clients who do inventory management, system implementations and consulting. We have a couple of other things we’re going to do for our clients as well.
What we do is we provide good service like a one-stop-shop for a lot of things that small businesses need. If you need us, go to our website. There’s a getting started form. It’ll come to me and you can talk to me if you’re interested in Accountfully or what we’ve done in general. If you just want to chat, it’s the same thing or send me an email. My email is Brad@Accountfully.com. I enjoyed the chat, Steve. It was awesome.
I enjoyed it too. Do check out Accountfully.com and see what Brad and his wife are all about, as well as their team. They have a big team now. Stay tuned because we are now twice a week and there’s always an exciting entrepreneur who comes on the show. Have a great day.
Thanks again, Steve.