Top Five: Secrets of a CPA Start-Up

In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., an ex-Army intelligence specialist is breaking the mold for accounting firms and inventing new ways of doing business.

by Rick Telberg

Maybe it’s the four years he spent in Army intelligence at the Pentagon. Maybe it’s the influence of a CPA uncle in San Diego. Maybe it’s the entrepreneurial father who, as a part-time magician, established a Guinness World Record for fire-eating.

Brian Wendroff

But 30-year-old CPA Brian Wendroff wants to break the mold for accounting firms.

In his version of a CPA firm, the four-year-old Wendroff & Associates in Arlington, Va., is modeled more on the strengths of a technology company than a traditional professional services firm.  In his firm, he’s working on the kind of new product development, speed to market and customer feedback loops employed by the best software developers. In his mind, he’d rather be less like a KPMG and more like a Microsoft.

“Like a software company,” he says, “we’ve got to come out with upgrades every year, new versions with features that the customer tells us they want to see.”

So far, Wendroff & Associates LLC of Arlington, Va., may only be on version 1.1. But for a young firm, that’s not bad. From a book of business starting with ads on Craigslist and energetic networking through BNI, Brian Wendroff now counts seven accountants and two interns in his firm, plus his brother Darren, who manages marketing and communications. The firm is doubling in size every year. “The Web is our number two source of leads,” says Darren, “right behind client referrals.”

Together, Brian and Darren Wendroff are working to innovate every aspect of how an accounting firm works. Take just five examples of their leading edge strategies:

  1. Adopting flexible and supportive human resources policies — The firm’s tele-work policy was put in place to support a healthy work-life balance and to attract and retain the best talent for the money. But it also came in handy during the “snowpocalypse” that hit Washington in February, which otherwise might have ground their tax season to a halt.
  2. Pursuing Web- and cloud-based business solutions — The firm is a pioneer in QuickBooks Online and sits on an Intuit advisory board. Their CRM system, Highrise, is all SaaS. And they manage many firm processes through Google Docs.
  3. Aggressive experimentation with social media marketing — Twitter has yielded five new clients in the last year, billing about $14,000 annually. And the firm picked up two more in January. The last time I checked @wendroffcpa, they had over 13,000 followers. By comparison, @PwC_LLP, representing the largest accounting firm on the planet, had about 3,700.
  4. Ruthless dedication to changing with client criticism — The firm sends out a client satisfaction survey twice a year, which is unusual enough. But they use the super-simple Net Promoter Score developed in part by Bain & Co. And they follow up with a memo to their client base baring the results and sharing their plans to improve.
  5. Practicing the “sow-before-you-reap” verse is the new age marketing Bible — The firm offers free “Ask-a-CPA” Webinars on basic accounting or tax tips for clients and non-clients alike.  For business owners with at least $2 million in annual turnover, Wendroff & Associates organizes CEO peer-to-peer groups. “It’s a group where C-Level executives or business owners can talk frankly about issues affecting their organizations,” Darren says. “We wanted to join a group like this, and couldn’t find one, so we created ours.” The meetings are invitation-only, highly structured, single-topic and followed by a memo to all, which actually reads more like a Harvard Business School case study than minutes from a meeting.

It wasn’t always this way. When Brian first started the firm, he admits his fees were set too low and he was attracting the wrong clients. Today, fees are set to cover overhead and salaries, plus enough to plow back into the business. And the firm is now getting the right kind of clients — the kinds who want more than just bookkeeping or tax prep, but want and need strategic services.

The proof? Wendroff says, “Nearly every company we worked with last year grew through the recession.”

Copyright 2010 AICPA.