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How to start an accounting firm: Your checklist for successfully starting a firm

So, you're thinking of starting an accounting firm?

That's great. No doubt you have plenty of questions about how to set up a new firm and get off to a great start.

Thomson Reuters spoke with some of our industry experts to get answers to the big questions you may have.

Here's what they told us.    

Starting your own accounting business sounds like a lot of work. Why would I want to start an accounting firm?   

Starting an accounting firm is like starting any small business – it requires a lot of work. However, industry and consulting firms list accounting firms as one of the single most profitable small businesses a person can start right now.

Here are a few questions to consider when starting a firm:

  • Do you want to be a cog in the machine or own a firm? Frankly, there isn’t a wrong answer to this question, but rather a preference. However, going out on your own comes with one significant benefit: you’re getting the profit from the firm, not just your wages. You go from employee to owner.
  • What’s my business purpose? While perhaps a bit esoteric, defining your business’s purpose is crucial. Why am I doing this? What’s my goal behind this? It’s not just a philosophical exercise. Knowing why you’re starting a firm can help you define your target market, whether it’s helping small businesses, real estate, or another service area.
  • Do you want to be nimble and cutting edge? Small firms tend to be much more agile and have a greater ability to do new things. From adopting new technology to discovering and implementing new software or other efficiency creating tools, running your own firm lets you make the decisions about what makes your business unique—and profitable.
  • Should you start a legal entity? For some, a sole proprietorship won’t require incorporation – especially if the work is centered around less complex tasks such as basic tax preparation. However, there are certain liability protections by becoming an LLC, including limiting risk for your business. Assets become owned by your business and are distinguished from personal assets. When a business is not incorporated, it becomes harder to draw that line and the entire enterprise becomes at risk.

What are the requirements to open an accounting firm? What do I need?

Starting an accounting firm is no different from starting any other small business. And while there are accounting-specific requirements, it’s important to remember that you’re starting a business first.

Start by figuring out your purpose, goal, and market. This will influence many other decisions, including the function of the services you provide, whether you want a physical or virtual location, your target demographic, and the location of your business.

Once you’ve selected a location and determined your goals, it’s time to consider the nuts and bolts of owning a business.

You’ll need to:

  • Obtain Employer Identification Number (EIN) and Tax ID number
  • Investigate employment laws
  • Determine startup costs
  • Develop a pricing structure for services
  • Decide on the legal structure of your business (S-Corp, L-Corp, LLC, Partnership, LLP )
  • Look at business insurance
  • Create a business bank account
  • Develop internal policies and rules
  • Hire employees

Additionally, you’ll have to think about the day-to-day needs of running a business, including managing risk, basic administrative tasks, and general questions of how and where you will meet clients. 

Will I need to get a new EIN from the federal government?

In most cases, owning and running an accounting firm necessitates an Employer Identification Number (EIN). However, the IRS website provides an in-depth explanation of who is required to have an EIN and when. A good rule of thumb is: if you plan on hiring employees – or plan to in the future – you’ll probably need an EIN.

That said, even if you don’t think you need one – or the website says it isn’t a requirement– most businesses are probably better off acquiring an EIN.

Luckily, the online process is fast, easy, and free. 

If I’m not a Certified Public Accountant, do I need a CPA to open an accounting firm?

It depends.

While all CPAs are accountants, not all accountants are CPAs. There are differences between the two, including education, experience, and certain opportunities. However, the answer goes back to the question, “What services do you want to offer?”

An accounting firm can do almost everything a CPA firm can do with one exception – audits and assurance services. So, if that is a part of your goals or your target market, then it’s probably wise to think about the steps needed to become a CPA.

However, if you are looking to focus on the multitude of other services accounting firms provide, it’s likely not a necessary credential to start. And while there are certain state-by-state exceptions about what can and cannot be undertaken by a CPA, they are not a requirement for starting an accounting firm.

However, if you want to call yourself a “CPA firm” – you will need a CPA.

Can accountants work from home?

One of the benefits of starting an accounting firm is flexibility. So, the simple answer to the question is, yes—many accountants can and do work from a home office.

All the regulations that apply to a physical location also apply to virtual or home offices. So not having a physical office does not put an accounting firm at a disadvantage.

In fact, working from home is even easier with modern technology and software solutions that help bring vital aspects of your daily workflow into one dedicated (and usually online) space. For instance, Thomson Reuters makes its CS Professional Suite of tax and accounting software available as hosted online solutions and designed its Onvio products to run entirely in the cloud.

It’s important to note: an accounting firm must have a dedicated EFIN (Electronic Filing Identification Number) for every separate location where they perform work. So, if you have a physical location and do work in a home office, you’ll need to investigate whether you’ll need a separate EFIN for home office.

The answer largely depends on how much – and the extent of the work – you do from home. Check with the IRS for further guidance. 

If I’d prefer a home-based accounting business, what should I know about starting an accounting firm from home?

Luckily, accounting firms don’t need a physical space to operate successfully. And like the traditional brick and mortar approach, having a home-based or virtual business brings both opportunities and challenges that are unique to that approach. When considering a home-based business, it’s important to think about the unique challenges and opportunities involved.

These include:

  • Shared work locations. There are many co-working locations across the country, many of which include both space for professionals to perform their tasks, as well as providing a professional, on-demand space to meet with clients. While there is usually a monthly fee to use these spaces, the benefits they provide are often worth the cost (and are significantly cheaper than leasing or purchasing office space).
  • Low costs. New businesses often struggle with overhead. As you build your client list, keeping costs low is a priority. Not only does it allow you to see a profit early, but it also allows you to adjust your service menu to attract clients with lower-than-normal prices.
  • Liability issues. If you choose to meet clients in your home, liability and zoning can be an issue. If a client gets hurt inside your home office, or falls outside of it, it’s important to know the laws surrounding liability.
  • Zoning laws. Most cities and counties have zoning regulations. Make sure you investigate and comply with any laws to ensure your home-based business isn’t operating illegally.
  • Turn limitations into unique opportunities. While not having a physical space can be challenging at times, it can also be an advantage. Consider visiting clients onsite. Not only does it solve space concerns, it communicates a message to the client—you offer a higher level of service.    

What are the key services offered by accounting firms? 

In many ways, this question can be answered by once again looking at your goals and target market. What are the key services needed by that population? How can you serve them better? Still, while many services will be dictated by the specifics of your clients and their business, there are a few standards most accounting firms offer, including:

  • Tax
  • Accounting
  • Assurance services
  • Bookkeeping
  • Payroll

While these are typically the core offerings – and the ones that will provide consistent business in most accounting firms – it’s also important to investigate emerging and buzz-worthy services that are attracting bigger and more progressive accounting businesses.

From consulting and advising to outsourced CFO services (serving as the embedded strategic financial decision-maker for a client), taking a cue from the bigger firms – and anticipating what trends might trickle down to smaller and independent businesses – can increase the clients you serve and put you steps ahead of your competition. 

What should I know about running an accounting firm?

Starting a business is filled with new and challenging decisions. However, once the business is up and running, it’s common to be unprepared for typical day-to-day operations. Anticipating (and planning for) these concerns helps make sure you’re working as efficiently as possible.

Common questions and concerns include:

  • Talent acquisition and development. Frankly, finding and keeping staff is a significant challenge, which is why hiring always leads industry surveys about common needs and concerns. Even if you aren’t ready to hire a team, it’s wise to start developing a strategy early.
  • Going beyond the seasonal business. Every year it gets harder and harder to operate a seasonal accounting business, especially if you’re looking to offer a variety of services. Unless you’re doing just cookie-cutter tax prep – and you avoid complex returns – you won’t be able to operate on a seasonal basis. That said, prioritizing the season and maximizing your efficiency (and your profits) during the heavy times is critical to finding success.
  • Keep on top of regulatory changes. Keeping up with major regulatory changes can be a challenge – especially if you add staff. Finding a solution that helps minimize the burden and risk that otherwise exists will help stave off the constant onslaught of new information.
  • Rethink the traditional role of the accounting firm. Traditional accounting firms used to meet with clients just once a year to do their tax return. More progressive firms are moving to a year-round schedule, which not only allows them to expand services for current and future clients but implies a partnership relationship that goes beyond the “one touchpoint” per year model. 

How much should an accountant charge per hour? Or should accountants charge a fixed fee?

This, in many ways, is an unanswerable question because the only reliable advice that can be given is, “It depends.” Every context is different and is swayed by factors such as competition, location, service offerings, and level of expertise.

However, even though there isn’t a standard fee, most accounting firms are moving away from an hourly fee structure and choosing to institute to a fixed fee model that allows for better value for clients, a more manageable business plan, and eventually an increase in earnings.

Again, every context is unique, and there are certain situations when an hourly fee structure is best. These include:

  • When you’re gathering information to develop a fee structure
  • Gauging profitability in a newer firm and trying to determine the hours you need to work and remain profitable
  • Early in your career when you need more time to complete basic tasks

Outside of those circumstances, a fixed fee is recommended and preferred. As your skill and expertise grow, so will your abilities to complete tasks quickly. With an hourly fee, this means having to take on more clients to maintain (and hopefully increase) your profits.

A fixed fee structure is about value. The expertise and skill you bring to service are of more importance than just an hour of work for clients. Pricing your abilities based on knowledge is not only good for your business but is ultimately valuable for your clients as well.

How should I price accounting and bookkeeping services?

While there is still a debate surrounding hourly versus fixed fees in some aspects of the business, accounting and bookkeeping is not one of them.

Accounting and bookkeeping services (as well as other service lines, such as simple tax preparations) are almost universally charged as a fixed fee, and there is a market expectation for that pricing structure.

When determining a fee structure, many accountants call other firms and ask for quotes. They use the average of those quotes to determine a fair and competitive price for their services.

Another resource is local and national affiliations and associations. Many of the larger ones (such as the National Association of Tax Preparers) will distribute recommended price structures and other useful information. 

How much should a CPA charge for taxes?

While you do not have to be a CPA to prepare or file taxes, the training and expertise it requires to gain that credential matters. Simply put, you’re a CPA, and you deserve a premium for your services.

When trying to structure fees, it’s important to set a minimum job value. By setting a minimum job value at, say, $500, you won’t get mired in lower-level work that you likely don’t want to take on. Plus, that work can take up time and pull you away from more valuable work that you’d rather be doing.

Knowing what you want to charge and identifying the value you bring to your clients is critical. You are providing a service to your clients, but you’re also giving them a value based on your credentials and experience. So, it’s up to you to set the standards and have them choose between lower costs (them doing it their self) versus the value of having a CPA prepare your taxes.

That said, there’s a balance.

Many CPAs make a practice of “writing down” certain services because they know their hourly rate for larger projects can quickly become untenable for a client. Not only is this seen as a discount by the client, but it also allows you to create a fixed-fee structure for your services and show the clients the savings and value they receive.

If they need more staff, what do accounting firms look for when hiring?

When hiring, accounting firms are like many businesses and are looking for a combination of credentials, experience, and the ability to perform the necessary tasks. However, in an increasingly competitive hiring market, many firms are beginning to look at soft skills as valuable for new hires.

For decades, accounting firms have focused primarily on credentials. However, more and more, it’s less and less about certification and more about aptitude. For the most part, it’s easier to train accounting knowledge than it is to build customer service skills. When hiring, it’s important to look at the qualities a candidate can bring into a firm – not necessarily just credentials.

Of course, experience and credentials do matter. Especially when the experience sets for an accountant is specific and narrow. What types of tax returns have you prepared? What specializations do you carry? And credentials such as CPA, EA, attorneys, and state certifications (when required) are all still attractive to firms looking to hire.

How much does it cost to start an accounting firm?

Start-up costs can range from $2,500 to $25,000. Your location and your goals will determine cost in several ways, including whether you want to start a traditional brick and mortar firm or are looking to create a virtual office environment.

It’s important to remember that, besides physical (or virtual) space, accounting firms need to find and install the necessary equipment and technology to help their practice run more efficiently. That, in many ways, is the first step for a new entrepreneur. Once they’ve found a tax solution that can help them achieve their goals, they’ll be able to begin tackling the other day-to-day tasks and questions of running a business.

What’s the best business structure for accounting firms?

Finding the best business structure for your accounting firm is a critical part of not only ensuring success but helping to minimize both your tax burden and your risk.

While the circumstances of what your incorporation looks like will depend on your approach, it is considered a best practice to become incorporated right off the bat due to the legal protections it provides.

Popular options include:

  • Partnership
  • S-Corp
  • C-Corp

If you’re running a solo firm, you’re likely going to be looking at an S-Corp, which allows you to pay yourself as an employee. However, if you are working with other partners, a partnership might be more preferential, as it provides a little more flexibility with payment. You are permitted to take draws or distributions, and it doesn’t necessarily require a payroll department because it’s not considered “wages” per se.

Whichever structure you choose at the beginning, know that it will likely evolve throughout the maturity of your firm. For instance, a firm might accept the risk and start as unincorporated to avoid the incorporation fees. Then they might transition to S-Corp. Over time, as additional owners move into the entity structure, the firm can add additional shareholders or can reorganize as a partnership.

It’s better to have a separate legal entity than to not and better to have separate federal filing than to not.

How do I get accounting clients?

The consensus is word of mouth. However, while a strong work ethic, exceptional service, and competitive pricing will undoubtedly attract clients, a successful business always requires more than just good luck.

Here are a few tips on how to increase your client base:

  • Be a business owner, not just an accountant. This means focusing on solid business practices and looking for ways to ensure both stability and growth.
  • Market yourself. This goes beyond starting a business and hoping people show up. Look for ways to partner with other companies and firms, as well as networking opportunities in the community. The local chamber of commerce is an excellent resource.
  • Don’t forget about friends and family. While they won’t be able to maintain your business over the long haul, friends and family are a great starting place not only for initial clients but also for referrals.
  • Take advantage of easy and cheap technology. Google Ads can be capped at $20 and make for productive investments to help drive local searches for accounting firm.
  • Be in the community. Look for professional speaking engagements that you can offer to local groups for free. Create thought leadership presentations, teach community education classes and provide a venue to show your skills and knowledge.

You’ll find other ideas in our blog post on finding new clients.

How about social media and online presence for accountants – is it worth the effort?

Websites, social media, and various other online presences are a great way to establish credibility in the market.

For the most part, a simple online presence is relatively easy to start with minimal start-up costs. And while an online presence won’t guarantee an increase in exposure, not having one can have a negative impact and can discredit you to a potential client. In many cases, website and social media become an augmentation to your word of mouth referrals. Most people won’t simply call a number without the opportunity to do some basic online research.

However, there is a difference between a website presence and social media. In most cases, a website is static and allows businesses to transmit basic, evergreen information such as phone number, services provided, and credentials. Social media, on the other hand, can drive business in a longer and more indirect fashion.

Auto-posting any relevant story or information can help create a brand on social media – one where you’re seen as an authority on tax and accounting subjects. Posting constant content can help with visibility and, ultimately, increasing your customer base.  

If you think you may need help with this, take a look at our social media and other digital marketing solutions for accounting firms.

Some firms focus on a specific accounting specialization. Should I consider a niche accounting service?

Put simply, the more specialized you are, the more profitable you are. However, it’s not as much a question of “should you” but “can you.”

Many – if not most – firms will start as generalists and then slowly make their way a more niche practice. Sometimes a firm will intentionally build clients in one area. Others realize they have, say, many construction clients and then move to the particular niche.

If moving toward a niche practice, consider:

  • What’s your timeline? When should you plan to transition to a specialized practice? When is the right time to stop chasing general clients?
  • Partnering with more generalist firms can help take on other needs from clients while you take only the niche side of their business.
  • Gaining professional affiliations is important. They can help distinguish you in a competitive market and further signal your niche work.

What’s the most popular accounting niche?

Niches, like many things, are often dependent on location, interest, and understanding where there is a need across different businesses. However, some of the most successful niches are the ones serving fellow professionals such as doctors, dentists, attorneys.

Services based niches as opposed to manufacturing-based are also on the rise. For example, real estate professionals, landscapers, and farming clients are becoming a more prosperous and unique way to do business.

However, it’s important to remember that you have to target businesses where you have the right location and the right skills. Again, farming has particular needs and goals. If you can fill them, then you have a specialization that is highly valuable to that market.

What do prospective clients consider when deciding how to choose an accountant? What do they look for in a CPA?

What are the things that are most likely to influence a client’s perception of you in the little amount of information they’re able to get from a flyer, website, or social media? While the idea that “first impressions matter” may seem a little cliché, they still matter to your clients. As a result, making sure your communication is direct, pleasing, and engaging is critical to your success.

Some important deciding factors include:

  • Aesthetics. What’s the aesthetic of your website? Is it mobile compliant? Does it seem modern? Do your documents use color and seem to be professionally designed? Take care to control the new prospective client’s perception of you and what they think they see in you.
  • Have a professional place to meet. Whether you operate a brick-and-mortar business or a virtual one, having a professional place to meet with clients is essential.
  • Clients want comfort and assurance. Clients want the assurance that, if the IRS or another regulatory authority comes after them, that you be my defender and stand between them and the organization? Extending that sense of comfort is going to help influence them.
  • Know your target market. Know what your market is looking for and make it very clear that’s what you can provide them.    

Thanks to our subject matter experts Jordan Kleinsmith and Mo Arbas for their input into this article.

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