Earlier this year I was interviewed by Rod Burkert for NACVA’s magazine, Value Examiner. Practicing Solo is a feature on solo practitioners, with the idea that it will help others who are solo or considering going solo.
- My credentials: CPA, CFF
- I’m located in: Milwaukee and Chicago (I got my start and live in Milwaukee, but I do about half of my work in Chicago)
- I’ve been on my own since: January 2000
- Name of my firm: Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting (www.sequenceinc.com)
- My practice sweet spot is: Exclusively forensic accounting
Rod: So the BVFLS profession isn’t exactly a calling. Tell us about your background and how you got to where you are today.
Tracy: For me, it absolutely felt like a calling. I am fascinated with the criminal justice system and I wanted to be a part of it. I majored in Criminology and Law Studies at Marquette University, and I saw myself becoming a prison warden someday. As a sophomore, I took a class called Financial Crime Investigation, and I was hooked. I started taking accounting and economics courses so that I could work toward a forensic accounting career. I worked as a probation officer while I worked on an MBA at night, finishing up the requirements needed to sit for the CPA exam.
My first job in the accounting world was as an auditor for Arthur Andersen. I got as much experience as I could while I was there, and then I moved to a small forensic accounting firm so I could get started in my desired specialty. After a couple of years, I left to start my own practice. I had visions of growing my practice by adding staff, but after working with a few employees, I decided that I liked the solo practitioner life better. I’ve been solo for years now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I like being responsible for everything on my cases. I have excellent quality control, and I know the numbers inside and out. When it comes time for depositions and trial, I can answer the questions about the numbers confidently.
Rod: What was your first year like, and what would have made it better?
Tracy: My first year was a lot slower than I envisioned. I knew it would take time to develop relationships and get cases, but I underestimated how long. I really didn’t start developing a network until after I was out on my own, and that made it difficult to obtain clients. In hindsight, I should have waited to start my own practice until I had a stronger network of attorneys and other business professionals.
That said, I don’t regret how I started my firm. I got involved in right away and quickly started meeting people and developing a professional network. Even though I wasn’t really ready for what was coming, I am still happy that I jumped into the business when I did. It was right around the time that the big frauds like Enron and WorldCom were in the news, so there was a lot of talk about fraud. That helped generate interest in my work, and ultimately helped me get the word out.
Rod: Did you have a formal (or even semi-formal) business plan?
Tracy: I didn’t have a business plan, but I did have a solid strategy and outline related to my target market. I knew that I was going to focus on attorneys who did primarily litigation, and I had a plan for getting in front of them.
Rod: How did you first attract clients, and how did that strategy evolve over time?
Tracy: My first clients came from relationships I developed while at my former employer. The next few came from my networking activities. Over time, my networking went from general business groups to gatherings of attorneys. , with a very long range plan for that and how it might bring in clients.
Rod: What kinds of engagements did you start with?
Tracy: At first, I did anything in the area of forensic accounting, but I also did bookkeeping and tax return preparation. I was willing to consider any accounting work that I was qualified to do because it was important to generate cash flow to keep the lights on.
Rod: Do you practice in a specialized niche today?
Tracy: I focus on three things: corporate fraud investigations, divorce for very high net worth people, and litigation involving criminal activity, contract disputes, and business divorces.
Rod: What has been your best marketing tactic?
Tracy: My blog has been very fruitful over the years. It has taken a lot of time (and a lot of patience in the beginning), but it has definitely paid off. More recently, I have been developing my network on LinkedIn and have been posting content there, too. I am already seeing results, and LInkeIn could be a very good opportunity for marketing.
Follow up: I know a lot of people believe LinkedIn is a waste of time, so I asked Tracy about her plan here. She said, as with blogging, she approached LinkedIn with a long-term strategy in mind. She did not go into it with the intent of getting new business within a certain timeframe but was looking only to see if she could develop new relationships. She decided to focus on that for a year, then evaluate whether she had developed any contacts that could lead to work in the next three years, either directly or via referral. She is seven months into her plan, and she has, in fact, developed associations that will lead to long-term client relationships. And she has secured some new business, even though that wasn’t her immediate goal.
Rod: How do you price your work?
Tracy: . I use fixed fees on nearly all of my cases. My goal is to charge clients for my expertise and the results of my work, rather than selling them my time.
Follow up: Given that almost all of her cases are litigation related, how can Tracy possibly price it using ?xed fees? She believes developing ?xed fees for her engagements isn’t about knowing how much time she will put into the case since she is not selling time. The more important aspects of the fee are the value to the client and the project, the type of project, the timing of the work, and the expertise she brings to the table
Rod: How do you differentiate yourself from larger firms?
Tracy: I focus on the fact that my clients know exactly who is doing the work on their cases – me. What you see is what you get, and I’m going to be intimately familiar with your numbers as the case develops and when the time comes for deposition and trial.
Rod: Do you work from a home office or an “office” office? Why?
Tracy: I have a home office because it saves me a ton of overhead and time. I love that I don’t waste time commuting. I found that I am much more efficient in a home office, and I am able to focus when needed, but I can also turn it off when it’s time to be done with work and just be at home.
Also, my clients don’t care that I work from home. And when it’s necessary, they love that I will go to their offices for meetings. I do have a virtual office that rents conference rooms by the hour. This is a great option when a meeting needs to be held at “my office.”