Real Talk With The Real Estate CPA

Brandon Hall built a marketing funnel that gets his firm 400 inbound inquiries per month translating to 30-40 new tax planning clients. He also manages his 33-person firm without timesheets. Learn what he looks at instead of hours to manage scope creep and incentivize his team.

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[00:00:36] Preview

Brandon: My goal is $100 million. I want to build a hundred-million-dollar firm, so that the rest of the industry looks at me and says, “This guy, when he's talking, he's talking from experience, not just from theory.” And I think that like in my head, it makes- it's going to help the adoption to just running better business models in the accounting industry.

[00:01:02] Earn free CPE from listening to this episode

Blake: If you'd like to earn CPE credit for listening to this episode, visit earmarkcpe.com. Download the app, take a short quiz, and get your CPE certificate. Continuing education has never been so easy.

And now, onto the episode.

[00:01:22] Introduction & background on Brandon, his firm, and online courses

Blake: Hello and welcome back to the Earmark Accounting Podcast. I'm your host, Blake Oliver, CPA. And I'm joined today by Brandon Hall, who is building a modern CPA firm. Brandon, The Real Estate CPA, welcome to the show.

Brandon: Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it. Excited to be here.

Blake: So, you have recently upped your Twitter game significantly, at least in the accounting space. And I've- I was on Twitter, in my feed, and I'm seeing you posted back on January 28th, “My goal this year is to grow our online course revenue to 1 million. Last year, we did 180,000. I am using ClickFunnels to process the sales. Does anyone have Facebook ad tips or other digital marketing growth hacks?”

And I thought to myself, “What? That's crazy.” This is an accountant This is an accounting firm, and you have online course revenue of a million- or your goal is to grow it to $1 million. So, tell me about this, and tell me about your firm. And like, how did you get into online courses? And how does this- I mean, you provide accounting services, right? How does this all tie in together? What is this?

Brandon: Yeah. So, my firm is The Real Estate CPA. We work with real estate investors, landlords across the country. Can be really small- you know, one property. Can also be really large. Our largest client has, I think, 10,000 rentals and we’re their CFO. So, they outsource everything to us.

So, we've got like a very unique and broad skillset in the real estate space. we provide tax compliance services, so the classic preparation. We also provide accounting and CFO services, and we provide tax planning services. So, we probably make a million or so a year on just tax planning, the advisory piece, which has been really, really great for us and great for our clients.

And through that process, we've learned kind of like, what the hot button issues are for our clients, for the vast majority of our clients. And we've also learned that our fees are pretty high, at least relative to our peers and in the space. And you know, my mission wasn't necessarily to ever like, just run an accounting firm and do a whole bunch of tax work.

I mean, I'm a very big fan of creating large impact. So, part of running my firm was to do it remotely ‘cause I've been remote since 2016, since I launched, was to scale fast, was to create an awesome team, and provide them with amazing opportunities, and really kind of shake up the accounting industry.

Like, I want to get big enough where these larger firms start looking at us and say, “That's how I want to run my firm, and this guy's figured out how to do it at scale.” So, the impact is important, but back to the courses. Basically, we- our digital marketing is so good that we have about 400 inquiries every month. And we've got an entire automated system to process all those sales and enclose people and funnel them through our process.

But we're only closing, you know, 30 to 40 of them a month. And we're okay with that number because we're priced high, and we were really good with that, and that's going to yield 40% growth every single year. But my question was, all right, if we're only closing 40 out of the 400 that are coming in, how do we capture the other 360?

Like, what are some potential options? Because there's just so much bad advice out there in the real estate space. There's just tax advisors that don't get it. It's complex, the passive activity loss rules. You've got partnership structuring, just all these complex things that people aren't doing a very good job, or advisors aren't doing a very good job of getting into their return.

So, I had this idea of, all right, if we went and did some like, digital courses and we sold digital courses to people, one, would they be interested in that? But two, would that kind of scratch my itch of wanting to serve all of these landlords? Because I want to serve all the 360 people, even if they can't afford our big services.

And so, that's kinda where it all launched. Just, can I provide- can I impact all of these people in a positive way? And it was kind of in- it was actually really interesting. It was a really interesting process because when I first came up with the idea, I was talking about it with one of my partners, Tom. And I was like, “You know, I don't really- I don't know how I feel about, you know, building a course and launching a course because there's just so many shady people out there doing it- the gurus.

I don't want to be a guru.” I was like, “How do we build something that really helps people?” So, we kind of just built these courses on the premise of, “You're not going to use us as your CPA, you're going to use somebody else, and we're going to educate you on how to gut check them.”

So, instead of just outsourcing all your tax work and whenever they give you a tax return back, instead of you being overwhelmed and just signing and trusting and hoping that it's right, we're going to give you specific places to go to make sure that they're doing a good job, and we're going to teach you about those rules in a way that you can digest it. And it's been extremely successful.

[00:06:22] Quickly recapping the numbers

Blake: I love this. I love that you know the numbers. And it's very simple. Actually, I want to highlight these numbers, in case our listeners missed them. So, 400 inquiries per month. That’s like 400 more than most CPA firms get from inbound marketing. So, obviously, you're doing something right there. I would love to drill down more on like, what you're doing to fill that inbound funnel.

Brandon: Sure.

Blake: But let's just start with that 400 increase per month. You have a funnel then that turns those 400 inquiries into 30 to 40 new clients per month. And that actually sounds totally right to me. That was my conversion rate when I had my firm was 10 percent. So, I knew if I got 1,000 people to come to my website, maybe 100 would fill out the form, and then- or- and then 10 would become clients.

Like, it was kind of roughly that, for me. So, that's great. That's predictable. And then that lets you get the 40% growth. And then you said what about the other 90% that don't fit our profile? How can we serve them and create value for them? And that's what these courses are.

Brandon: Mm-hmm, exactly.

[00:07:28] How does Brandon price his courses?

Blake: So, how do you price your courses?

Brandon: So, that is still up for discussion. We're still trying to figure that out. When I first launched- the very first round of courses that I launched was back in 2020- the end of 2020. And I sent out an email to our entire email list- everybody- and I said, “I'm doing a live, four-week course.

So, we're going to meet three times a week on Zoom, and I'm going to coach you on these topics and it's $1,500 for a seat, and it may be that price in the future, it may not, I don't know, but it's $1,500 for a seat. And I just want your feedback at the end of the course.” And those 50 seats sold out within like, 24 hours, which was great. So, then I went through the live- was that-

Blake: You're doing one to many with that, right?

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: And so, you're giving people- how many weeks did you do it for?

Brandon: It was four weeks. Four weeks.

Blake: Four weeks. Got it.

Brandon: Yeah. And that was a slog. That was the first and last time that I will ever do a live for four weeks. ‘Cause I mean, we met for an hour and a half three times a week, for four weeks. And so, that was- it was definitely a slog but I came off of that and I decided I was going to do the same thing- a four-week course, but I was going to just pre-record all the sessions.

So, I just got on Zoom for one weekend. It took me two days- Saturday and Sunday- and I filmed the entire four weeks. I edited the videos myself and I didn't like, do anything really spectacular. I just kind of cut out some random parts of it that I didn't want. And then I had four weeks of content- basically, 12 sessions.

And then I went back to everybody and I said, “Okay, that live thing was great, but now, I want to do four weeks, pre-recorded, and we're going to have a live Q&A once a week. And it's going to be an hour and a half live Q&A once a week. And then I sold that, I think, for Like $1,200 or something like that. So, I dropped the price a little bit.

And then I made it evergreen and I sold that for 900 bucks. But now, we're kind of like, we went back to this sort of live Q&A model and we're at $1,000- $997 for a four-week course, a live Q&A once a week.

Blake: Once a week. Yeah, that's a good blend because then people get the feeling of like, I can ask my questions, I can talk to this- this is a real person. This isn't just a series of videos. You're creating a lot of value for that, but you're also scaling it. It's a lot easier to do a Q&A once a week than to do what you- like, you said three times a week, everybody on a Zoom.

Brandon: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Blake: Amazing. Well, and you know, it's a good thing you did the in-person one ‘cause it probably helped you figure out what should be in the courses you were recording. I imagine just going at it from scratch would have been difficult.

Brandon: Yeah. I think I could have produced something pretty decent from scratch, but what the in-person allowed me to do was ask for feedback live. So, like, I could see people's body language ‘cause I asked everybody, “Hey, like have your camera on because I want to interact with you.” But really, what I was just trying to do is just trying to see, where are they zoning out? And what is not interesting to them?

Because you can create all this amazing content but if you can't deliver it in a way that people are going to listen to it, understand it, and engage with it, then they're not gonna gain anything from this, from whatever you're doing. So, I was kind of just trying to gauge like, where are people just not caring, and what's really interesting to people?

And then I just built sessions around what was really interesting to people and where we could dive deeper.

[00:10:56] More background on Brandon's firm

Blake: So, let’s take a step back and talk a bit more about your firm. I'm really curious to know where you're at. You said you started in 2016. Is that right?

Brandon: 2016, yeah.

Blake: Okay. So, now, where are you at with staff, clients, revenue, whatever you want to share?

Brandon: So, we're- we did a 3.9 million of revenue last year. And I've got- we went on a hiring spree over the past few months. So, I have 33 full-time staff at this point, including the partners. We're projected to- we're projecting to do about 5.4 million this year. And that's assuming that the whole course ecosystem only does like 400K. So, if we do a million bucks, which is my goal, we'll probably be in the $6 million range this year.

Blake: And where are you located?

Brandon: I'm located in Raleigh, North Carolina, but my staff is everywhere. So, we're 100% remote.

[00:11:46] Brandon's feelings on timesheets

Brandon: We've been that way since 2016, which is really interesting. I mean, I love engaging with you and the other folks on Twitter and LinkedIn about timesheets. When I launched my firm back in 2016, I realized- so, I was coming out of PWC and EY, where I had to track my time religiously. And I realized two things.

I was like, “All right, if I'm running a remote firm, I'm never really going to know if people are truly working or not if my core metric is a timesheet-based metric. But two is like, my time at PWC and EY’s like- everybody- nobody's accurate on their timekeeping. So, I tossed that aside and was like, “We're going to measure results, and results are project deadlines, deliverables, and revenue.

Blake: So, yeah, that was my experience too with timesheets when I first started hiring bookkeepers for my firm is, I would give them a budget and then magically, somehow, the hours every week, seemed to fit right exactly around that budget, even though I knew that the work didn't flow that way.

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: There would be- there should be a week when there's like nothing, and there should be a week when there's a ton. But somehow, it all ended up lining up. So, yeah, I'm curious like, when you were at- you said EY and PWC, you know, we've heard from listeners of The Cloud Accounting Podcast that people just fudge their timesheets.

They meet the budget, they even keep like a secret timesheet that they- where they would keep track of you know, what's really going on, and they fill in something else. And like, what's your experience with that in the Big Four?

Brandon: Yeah. I don’t think that anybody intentionally fudges their numbers- at least, I don't think any of the associates and senior associates go out and intentionally fudge their numbers. I think you just listen to what your managers and senior managers want you to do, and you do that. I mean that was my experience.

It was a, “Hey, we have this budget, and we need you to hit it exactly.” “So, cool, I'm going to bill eight and a half hours a day, even though I'm really just sitting at my desk eight and a half hours a day, but I'm only working, actually producing value for six hours.” So, you know, and then I had an interesting experience.

So, I was a really good- I'm not anymore- but I was really good at the time, at building Excel macros. That was before like, I guess, RPA was mass available or widely available. But I was really good at building Excel macros, and I had presented this tool that I built that would essentially, cut our project time in half. And I was told to keep quiet about the tool so that we can continue billing the client. It was just like just a bizarre situation.

Blake: That is amazing. I love that story because it illustrates the perverse incentive of a timesheet. When you bill by the hour, you have zero reason to be more effective, efficient for your client. It's actually better if you’re inefficient.

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: And that's what I experienced when I tried to put in tech in a big firm, the staff didn't want to, because it would cut their hours.

Brandon: Yeah, it was wild. And I know there's a lot of people out there that believe that timesheets are great, and that it produces great data, that you can't manage your practice without timesheets. But I'm living proof. I mean, we've got 33 staff, we manage it very effectively. I've got a VP of operations that has systematized the entire thing.

I can peer into any corner of my business in 10 seconds and understand exactly how it's working. And we're doing it all without timesheets. And timesheets, for me, it's just subjective data. I don't want to make business decisions based on subjective data that can be manipulated by anybody. That doesn't make sense to me. I want objective data that you cannot argue with.

So, like, an example would be, if I touch base with an associate on the team or something, and I'm like, “Hey, you know, how did this relationship go with the client? How do they feel?” And they go, “Oh, they feel great. The last time I talked to them, they were energized and all that stuff,” I can take that and go, “Cool. We’re doing a good job servicing our clients.”

Or I can send the client a net promoter score survey, and have them tell me how they're feeling on a scale of one to 10. So, which way do you want to go as you're building your business? What type of data do you want to collect? I don't want to collect subjective data. I'll take my staff's word for it. I'm going to trust, but I'm also going to verify.

I want that objective piece. And timesheets just- it's all subjective. I don't care who- you cannot have the argument with time- about timesheets and not admit that it's subjective data. You just can't do. it And if you do, you're just insane. It's as simple as that.

Blake: Well, it's just the difficulty of like, tracking time down to what increment you use, for instance, makes a difference. Do you track to the 0.1 hour? Do you track to the 0.25 hours?

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: What if I send an email that takes five minutes? Am I billing 15 minutes for that? A lot of people would. Every email is an entry. It's strange, right? It’s an arbitrary way to track costs, right?

Brandon: Right.

Blake: And it's an imaginary if we have people on staff because we’re paying them a salary.

[00:16:41] Thank you to our sponsor, Accountests

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[00:18:17] How is Brandon tracking performance and work instead of timesheets?

Blake: Rather than just dishing out on timesheets, which I love to do, I'm glad you're here because you're tracking in different ways. So, let's talk about like, the ways that you manage your firm without the timesheets. You mentioned three things I think, and I didn't quite catch them. What do you look at?

Like, how do you know if your people are working on the right things How do you know if they're in scope? The scope argument is the biggest one I hear from people who still use timesheets. That, how would I know if I'm going over scope on a client if I don't have time data to prove it?

Brandon: What? Okay, yeah.

Blake: Maybe you could tackle that one first.

Brandon: So, yeah, that's hilarious. I actually haven't heard that one but that's funny. I guess going over budget or whatever, yeah.

Blake: ‘Cause they- I think it's ‘cause they price that in engagement based on an estimated number of hours.

Brandon: Sure.

Blake: And then if people are tracking more time, then that's how they know they're over scope.

Brandon: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That's funny. So, first, I think when you move away from timesheets, you get your entire firm worried about the right things, right? ‘Cause your staff is always going to be worried about, how do I do a good job? Like, what does a good job look like? And how do I move up in this firm?

‘Cause I want to look good for management, and I want to get good reviews; I want to move up in this firm. And if you have them worried- if a good job means simply logging time on a report card, then that's what they're going to be focused on all the time. They're not going to be focused on your client. They're not going to be focusing on the quality.

And I'm not saying that they're going to do a bad job, but they're just not focused on- that's not the top thing that they're focused on. So, when we- when you remove the time-sheets, you get them focused on the right things. Now, what we focus on is production. So, we focus on revenue, we focus on deliverable deadlines, turning projects around, and we focus on net promoter scores.

So, those are the three kind of pillars that we focus on at our firm. And we fixed-price all of our engagements. And this is actually- we have an interesting problem where we send out fixed-priced proposals, November, December and January for all of our upcoming tax season. And we actually spend a lot of time sending these proposals out.

I'm trying to figure out ways to make that way more efficient ‘cause it's just- it's it's hard to scale something like that when you're fixed-pricing. So, you know, we've actually had the conversation, do we just switch back to hourly billing? ‘Cause then we would never have to send a proposal. We would save hundreds of hours not sending proposals.

But I'm not willing to make that move. So, we've fixed-price everything. And because we fixed-price everything, then the question becomes, “Well, how do I allocate costs and data to the various projects? Like, how do I know if any one project is going to be profitable or not? And what I look at is, I just look at it more of a- more at a macro level.

I say, forget about the individual tax preparation project. Look at it more on a macro level, like you would run an actual business. You're going to have winners, you're going to have losers. But on average, are you pulling in 20% margins? And we're able to see who on our team is working on what projects, and what their revenue allocation is.

So, we'll- we can tell staff very clearly, “Hey, I need you to produce $10,000 of revenue per week, or I need you to move $10,000 worth of projects to the next status per week.” And we're able to track that per staff, and we incentivize them with production bonuses too. So, they've got a skin in the game to actually make those moves happen. But that's how we kind of track it on the revenue side, yeah.

[00:21:47] Allocating revenue down to individual staff level

Blake: So, you are allocating revenue down to the individual staff level. Is that a challenge when you have multiple staff working on one client, or are your engagements such that you don't have that issue?

Brandon: Yeah. So, it's less about allocating. So, we went through a lot of planning to try to figure this out. And what I've realized running my business is that there are times when you want to get very granular. And it's going to make sense to build systems and processes and data around getting very granular. And that may be now, it may be five years from now.

There are other times where it doesn't make sense to get that granular. So, right now, the way that we approach our tax preparation service line, and we have a- it's a 2.2 million-dollar service line. The way that we approach it is we don't get that granular. So, we just say, “We've got a $2,000 project. It's going to be worked on by an associate, a senior, and a manager.

And these associates, seniors and managers can be 10 two-thousand-dollar projects out per week, roughly. We just know that by checking with staff how much you’re actually working, ‘cause we don't want people working 60 hours a week. I also don't want people working 30 hours a week. So, we try to get around the 40-hour mark, but we're not tracking time to do it.

And if somebody produces those 10 two-thousand-dollar projects in 20 hours, I'll high five them and then have them train everybody else on how they're being so efficient. So, we just kind of like have a feedback loop going, but the way that we do like the production bonuses is we just- we do it per staff level. So, we have an associate.

They get 1% of total revenue that they move- that they work on or move to the next status. Seniors get 1.75, managers get 3. So, for every two-thousand-dollar projects that this team works on, they get a slice of that pie. And we've determined that we end up with about 20% every single year, margin-wise.

Blake: I love that because you have- well, there's two things there that I love. You are linking the firm goal, which is revenue, to the staff goals, which is how much revenue do I touch. So, if I'm working in your firm, I'm thinking, “I want to help people because every project that I move to the next status, I get a piece of.”

So, I'm out there asking for more work. Not asking for more hours, I'm asking for actually more revenue. And then you're not getting too granular, which is the other problem we have in accounting, where we try to look at every single job, and calculate profitability on every single job. But hardly any other business in the world does this anymore.

Unless you're building like an aircraft carrier, you don't look at it at a per boat basis, right? I mean, if you're making- I love the airplane analogy, right? An airline does not look at profitability on a per seat basis because if they did, they'd be losing money on all the economy people.

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: And they wouldn’t sell those tickets.

Brandon: Here's an interesting- ‘cause I know that we probably have some people listening to this that are going to be nonbelievers, and they're gonna be like, “Oh, this guy does not know how to run his business.” But I'm telling you, we pull 40% margins every single year. We grow at 40% rates every single year.

We're probably one of the fastest- if not the fastest- growing accounting firms in the nation and our growth, it's all organic We've not done any sort of acquisitions, mergers, anything. But here- for all the nonbelievers, here’s where I- ‘cause I'm the same way. It's like, wait, I want to know on a per project basis, if we're making money, right?

I obviously don't want to load my team up with $2.2 million of business that we're not going to make any money on. So, how can I possibly know on a per project basis? But here's what made me comfortable. When you start giving your staff production bonuses, they do not want to take on projects that are going to take a significant amount of time when the revenue does not reflect that.

So, they will tell you when the projects stake.

Blake: Oh yeah.

Brandon: And then you get to go back and take a deeper dive into it.

Blake: And that's how you solve scope creep.

Brandon: That's how you solve scope creep, yep.

Blake: Because the staff have incentives to work on projects that are profitable.

Brandon: Exactly.

Blake: That turned around quickly. And that was one of the other metrics that you measure, is turnaround time.

[00:25:55] Example of how they track turnaround time

Blake: Tell me, give me an example of how you track turnaround time.

Brandon: Yeah. Well, we track it across the entire firm, depending on whatever service line you're in. So, the- it's a little bit different, depending on the service line. But with tax preparation specifically, it's the day that- so, again, I'm coming from a place where I hate data that can be manipulated by people.

And so, in the past, we would always have these deadlines that would change. We'd have statuses that would go back and forth. Upload dates would be changed by people randomly. So, now, we have a system that memorializes the date that clients upload their documentation, and it also memorializes the target deadline to get them totally filed by.

And we run at a three-week turnaround time, at this point. And so then, once you kind of identify, “All right, we got three weeks,” you can work backwards from there and say, it needs to hit these statuses by those timelines. And then they start getting- everybody starts getting flagged when they're behind. So, it's kind of just- it's like, have you ever heard of SLA service level agreements?

It's popular in customer service. You've got like 24 hours to respond to the email. That's kind of what we do with our project management system.

Blake: Yeah. It's something that is standard in customer service organizations. In almost every industry now, when you send a ticket in to ask for help, there's a timer that starts as soon as that email hits the support desk. And if somebody doesn't answer it in X number of hours or even minutes, depending on the organization, and your service level agreement with them, it gets flagged to a manager.

Brandon: Right. Exactly.

Blake: And you think about most accounting firms, what are we doing? We’re setting up our team with email inboxes. Our clients are emailing them, and we have no way of measuring how long it takes them to get back. And we have no way of measuring how long it takes even to deliver a return. I think a lot of times, in firms, we don't even measure that.

Like, once we get all the info we need, how long does it take us to turn around a tax return? Or how long does it take us to reconcile the books?

Brandon: Well, and on top of that, in a lot of firms, especially as you get to be a larger firm, you end up with these- you end up with managers that are doing everything differently, right? So, they're using different systems, they have different processes, they have different expectations. And when you do some research or you do some asking, or I guess, inquiries as to figure out why that's happening, you realize, “Oh, it's been mergers, or this person just didn't believe in the system or whatever.”

And so, you know, the whole turnaround thing, your system's only as good as your weakest link. But what I've done is I've installed a VP of Operations that basically just looks across the entire firm, and makes sure that everybody is on the same page. And then what we do is we- the results that we measure people against, the only way that you can hit those results is if you use the system the way that we've designed it.

So, like, the revenue is a simple example. You know, we- in the past, we've had people that, you know, okay we see the system, but we're going to use a spreadsheet instead. And I let that go for a little bit, but not anymore. And now, it's just a, you can use the spreadsheet, I don't care. That's fine.

But if it's not in our system the way that it needs to be in our system, you're not getting credit for it, which means you don't get a production bonus. So, you might as well just use our system and not do the double work. And now, people are using the system.

Blake: Yeah. It seems kind of simple when you put it that way.

Brandon: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:29:12] How do they use net promoter scores?

Blake: Like, why aren't we all doing this? So, the last thing you're measuring is net promoter score. Another way to think of this is client- customer satisfaction, client satisfaction surveys. Do you do like a true net promoter score where it's zero to 10 ranking? I'm curious, what do you get? Like, what is your net promoter score across your client base?

Brandon: So, this is our first time doing it for tax preparation. But we ask net promoter- we send out a net promoter score at different times, depending on who you are as a client, and who you're working with. On our- on the advisory side, the tax planning side, we send out the net promoter score immediately after the first phase of the engagement, which is typically 30 to 60 days.

Those net promoter scores average like a 9.7 when you factor out like the outliers of the people that just rate you a one for whatever random reason. Which are always important to look at too, by the way.

Blake: Oh yeah.

Brandon: You should never just throw them aside. But we have about a 9.7 on that side of the coin. So, that's exciting.

Blake: That's pretty darn good.

Brandon: On the accounting side, we send them out once every six months. And then on the preparation side, this year, we're just starting to get some back. And they're pretty high. They're not as high as the advisory side, but we send them out whenever we deliver the tax return.

Blake: Awesome. Well, that is three great ways to measure your firm as alternatives to timesheets. Thank you for that.

[00:30:35] How bonuses tie back to net promoter scores

Brandon: And you can tie production bonuses to all this too. Like, our advisors, we tie the production bonus to the net promoter score. So, we say, you get a 10% bonus on all the revenue that you produce as an advisor, as long as the net promoter score is above a nine, you get like 7%. If it's between eight and nine, you get a 3%.

If it's like, I think, seven to eight, and then you get nothing if it's below seven. And then we go through the education piece. We go through and we explain, “Here's how you get a 10 out of 10 net promoter score.” Because you know, if you have an amazing experience with a company, you're going to give them a 9 out of 10 because nobody's perfect, right?

Blake: Right, right.

Brandon: You know that. You're not going to give somebody a 10 out of 10. So, how do you get somebody to give you a 10 out of 10? You have to do things that are not related to your engagement, that are not related to taxes and accounting. You have to pay attention to the client. What their interests are, what their motivations are. And you have to send them those things from time to time.

So, for example, we work with a lot of real estate syndicators. These guys like, they want to buy 10-million-dollar apartment buildings and they want to raise $3 million to do it. And it's- they're called a syndicator ‘cause they're the ones sponsoring the deal and syndicating this pool of money.

Well, one of the things that- one of the examples I use during this net promoter score training is if you get a syndicator that comes in, and then you see some special event that's coming up for syndicators, then you just send them an email, and you say, “Hey, I saw this special event for people like you. And I thought you might get some value out of it.”

And all that- it’s a two-second task for you, 30-second task for you, if we're tracking our time. It’s a 30-second task for you, right? But in the client's mind, they go, “Wow, that's so cool that you're thinking about me. And I don't feel like I'm just a number here, I feel like I'm your only client. I'm going to give you a 10 out of 10 on that net promoter score.”

Blake: That's the kind of stuff that really good managers do. And you don't learn that though, from your firm, most of the time. You just kinda figure that out on your own. But you're actually training people how to do that. You're actually building that into the way you work with clients. Which, I mean, when was the last time anyone got something like that personalized from like a staff person, or- you know, at an accounting firm?

It just doesn't seem to happen, right?

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[00:33:59] How is the firm structured?

Blake: Actually, that brings up something in my mind, a question. You said you have partners. How do you structure the firm? Like, how do you decide who's going to be a partner? You've been growing organically, not by acquisition, how do you manage this thing from that perspective?

Brandon: Yeah. So, I was solo until January 2021- solo owner until January, 2021. We had just come off a $2.7 million a year. So, that's what we pulled in 2020. And basically, I was like, “All right, it's time for me to get some people to help me run various parts of the business, and help me grow.”

And so, I just picked the- there were three people that are my current partners that were key employees and we're doing a really good job in their various service lines. So, I wanted to pull them up into partnership with me. And the way that we work there- I mean, partnership is, I've got one partner who helps me with the information business, which I'd love to circle back around to because I don't think we gave it enough justice.

The information business guys is incredible.

Blake: You talking about the courses?

Brandon: Yeah, yeah, the courses. Yeah, it’s incredible, but-

Blake: Well, we’ll get back to that.

Brandon: Yeah. I've got one partner that helps me with that, and he's like all in trying to help us get it to $1 million this year. So, he used to be on the advisory side, that tax planning side. So, kind of like, more in tune with like, what people are at, what questions the people are asking that can't afford our services, and how we can curate content for them.

I've got a partner that leads up our CFO service line. He's the one that works with our big syndications and funds- that one fund that I mentioned that has 10,000 homes. He's the guy for them. And we build out an accounting team around that.

And I've got another partner was leading our tax preparation service line, and is now going to be moving into more of like a- or potentially, going to be moving into a more of like a technical sort of chief trainer-type of a role, which we really need at this point, as we continue, as we have found out ‘cause we're onboarding so many people now, staff-wise, to keep up with our growth. And we need to make sure they have really good training, and he's a good guy for that. So, less about-

[00:36:06] How many people on staff help with onboarding and training?

Blake: Wait, hold on, one second. I got a question on that. So, you're adding like 30 to 40 clients a month. How many staff do you need for that? One or two? Three? Four?

Brandon: So, the way that it works is these 30 clients, they buy our tax plannings. We price our tax planning- it’s a minimum $4,500, and we're getting 30 to 40 of those engagements a month. And each one of our advisors can handle about 100 total clients.

Blake: Okay, gotcha.

Brandon: So, they can only do 10 a month, but 100 total clients. So, right now, we have three advisers, but we were in the market for four and five to get ahead of that. And then once these people come on, then they typically- we have like a 90 or whatever percent close rate. It’s around 90% for tax preparation the following year.

So, we end up with all those tax returns as well. And that's nice. Like, the thing that timesheets don't tell you is what's coming up. And now that we have all this data- because we've been using a system or we've been using a software called ClickUp- and we've done a really good job getting all of our data in there and streamlining everything.

But now, we can literally see and project how many people we need. Like, we know almost to the $10,000 mark- I don't know, it might seem large, but we're talking about millions of dollars, it's a really- there's a really small margin of error. We can see that and predict exactly who we need, when we need them. So, it's pretty powerful once you start using that data.

Blake: Well, your forecasting capacity, you're not looking at it historically with an arbitrary subjective measurement of a timesheet.

Brandon: Exactly.

Blake: And you’re linking revenue too, you’re linking client numbers. Like, I love the fact that you know just intuitively- well, not intuitively, empirically, you have observed this over years that somebody can handle 100 tax planning clients. And that makes sense to me because it's not really about how much time you're spending with them.

I feel like a traditional firm would say, “Okay, it's a hundred tax planning clients. And each tax planning client has this many meetings, and that requires this much work per month. And therefore, you're going to fill up those 2000 hours with this many tax planning clients.” And what they will inevitably do is overestimate how many you can handle.

Because people don't work that way. We work based on relationships. And how could I have- like, if I have, you know, too many tax planning clients, I couldn't have a meaningful relationship with them because I couldn't keep them straight. You know, that was the way it was for my bookkeepers. It wasn't how much time that they were working on the clients. I just knew that a bookkeeper who works with the client every week is sort of like a teacher in a classroom.

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: And you can’t have a classroom with more than 30 students in it, and give them personal attention, so.

Brandon: Yeah. Well, it took us some time to figure out that 100 is the magic number. I mean, we started with 150 and then we had advisors burn out, and we realized, “That's too high.” So, we went lower to 80, and then we realized advisors are twiddling their thumbs. So, 100 is kind of that magic number.

And what we're looking at is the net promoter score. What does- how does the net promoter score change over time as our advisors take on more clients, take different trainings, try different methods? So, we want our advisors to pull in $300,000 to $400,000 of revenue every year. That’s the starting point.

And then the next question is, if we have 150 clients, what is the net promoter score look like? If we have 80, what does it look like? If we have 100, what does it look like? And what does the pricing need to be all throughout to get to 300K to 400K a year per advisor?

Blake: I love the way you're thinking about it.

[00:39:25] Back to his marketing and courses

Blake: Well, I interrupted you and I don't know what we were talking about before that, but I'm happy to go back to the marketing stuff you're doing with this course, is if you want to talk more about that, and kind of close the loop on this whole thing.

Brandon: Yeah. So, CPAs- accountants like numbers. This marketing, the information businesses run at 90% margins. And you can sell these information businesses for 10 to 15 times earnings EBITDA. Compare that to your CPA firm, where you can sell it for 1 to 1.5 gross revenue. Even my CPA firm that's niched, highly profitable, really automated, I still can't go sell it for 5X revenue.

It's just, nobody's ever going to buy it, right?

Blake: Maybe you could get two or three is what I’ve heard at most. And that would be a stretch.

Brandon: Right, right.

Blake: It’s simply because there's so much labor involved, and the people.

Brandon: Right. Exactly. Exactly.

Blake: Whereas with an information business or a software business, your cost of goods sold the cost of what hosts the software and maintain it.

Brandon: Yeah, which is negligible.

Blake: Right. 10%, 20%, right?

Brandon: Yeah. Yeah. So, if we're talking about $1 million of gross revenue, that's what we're aiming for, we're also targeting a $900,000 margin, which would-

Blake: And then this would be worth $10 million. It would worth more than your entire firm.

Brandon: Exactly. Yup. Yup. So, that's definitely one aspect, and that's where I like to start because it typically gets accountants excited to pay attention to the rest of it. But the courses are a lot easier to set up than you would think. You don't need anything special. You can get a blue Yeti microphone for like 100 bucks off Amazon. Just put your laptop in front of like a window that's facing you, so that you have good lighting, and just press record, and sell it for 500 bucks.

Do 10 sessions, an hour each, on topics that your clients are asking a ton of questions about. And price it at 500 bucks, and you've got a course. And people will buy that course. And then the next question becomes, how do I funnel people into the course? Because I want to build this revenue up, right? I want to get this in front of as many people as I can.

And if you have really good content, people will tell other people for you. Like, they'll just shout about it. They are happy to promote it for you. You don't even have to ask. That's how you know you have really good content. You're not just one of those like, guru people. So, for me, I had to get over the fear of being a guru, first and foremost.

And that was hard. It took a while. I sat on this idea for a long time because I did not want to be viewed as a guru. But I combated that fear by just producing really good content and pricing it right. So, we built this whole course, this whole ecosystem out, but then what we did, is we created the Facebook group for real estate investors.

So, it's called Tax Smart Real Estate Investors. You can go check it out if you want to. We're happy to accept you into the group. We have 8,600 people in that group right now, and what I've realized- this is where it gets really powerful. What I've realized is people in that group- so, it's a bunch of real estate investors and landlords- they know my name, and they know Tom's name, and when they ask a question, they will tag Tom and myself. They’ll-

Blake: Who's Tom?

Brandon: What's that?

Blake: Who's Tom?

Brandon: Tom is my- Tom is one of the partners at my firm that's helping me with the information business.

Blake: Gotcha.

[00:42:37] Gaining social proof and authority

Brandon: Yeah. So, they'll tag Tom and myself. And all that does is give a social proof. It gives us authority. Think about it like this. Like, Blake, if I didn't know you, and I walked up to you on the street, and I said, “Hey. Hey, pay me $900 and I will teach you how to save $20,000 on your taxes because you're a real estate investor and I know that I can do that for you.

If you've never gone through any of this before, I know that that will be the result. Pay me 900 bucks or 1000 bucks and this will be the result.” And you're going to be like, “All right. You're wearing a suit, you look handsome, you've got nice hair, but I have no idea who you are. So, no, I'm not going to buy.”

But if instead I walked up and I said, “Hey, Blake, I know that you have rental properties and I've created a free Facebook group for people like you. We have 8,600 people in there. Go join that,” you're going to go join the group because it's free and there's 8,600 people in there. And then you're going to see all these posts from all these other people tagging me, right?

And so then, when I come back around and I say, “Hey, Blake, you ready to buy that course?” you’re going to be like, “Yeah, I'm ready because I know you now. I know that everybody thinks that you're the authority, so I will take the chance and buy this course.”

Blake: Why are people tagging you in the group?

Brandon: So, people are tagging myself and Tom, one, because we're the admins. So, I've always thought, there's like a saying out there, that you don't want to go to the party, you want to host the party, right?

Blake: Right, right.

Brandon: You can host parties about anything but if you're hosting the party, you're at the center of attention. That's why you want to speak at these events- at different events. You don't want to just show up with a booth. So, you want to be at the center of attention. So, people are tagging us because of that, but also, I mean, we've just done a ton of digital marketing since 2016.

We've got a podcast that has 100,000 downloads a month. We've got blogs, we've got different engagement things that we've done in the past on forums, all this stuff. So, people kind of know who we are, but if they don't know who we are, they find out real quick that we're the real deal when they get into that group. And so, it just gives us immediate social proof to then make the ask, “Come buy this course.”

Blake: So, they're having a conversation with you in the group. They're tagging you, they're asking questions, they're sharing stuff with you. Got it.

Brandon: Yeah. So, we basically- that free group- we give a lot. We give a lot away. A lot away for free. And then every once in a while, we make the ask. “Hey we're running a bootcamp. Do you guys want to come join this bootcamp? We're running a one-day sale 20% off. Here you go, $80,000 in 24 hours.”

So, you give, give, give, give and then you ask. And when you do that, again, people are just going to consistently tag you, give you that social proof in that Facebook group. And it just becomes this like, machine that feeds the course, but then what do we do after the course? We say, “Hey, if this was great and you now want to work with us one-on-one, here's what it looks like. It's $4,500.

Again, I meet you on the street. Blake, I can help you save $20,000, if you give me 4,500. You’re gonna be like, “Eh, I don't know about that. I don't know who you are.” But if you go through my course, and you've just saved 10 grand because of something that you learned in the course, and then I come to you and I say, “Blake, give me $4,500 and I'll help you save $20,000.” You're going to say, “Absolutely. I'm in,” and you're not even gonna fight us on price. It's the easiest sales process ever. So, it also acts as a feeder into our firm.

Blake: And the way you're talking about value is, you're saying, “Here's your investment. I'm going to deliver many times that, in terms of savings for you, in your business. You already trust me- you've already tasted the knowledge. Like, it's kind of a no-brainer at that point. The trust has been built. The knowledge has been demonstrated.

The expertise- you've got the social proof with the thousands of people who are in the group. You've got the hundreds of people who are your clients, probably thousands at this point. You know, that's the way to do it.

Brandon: Yeah. We just- we try to go over the top on the core stuff and because we do that- because we deliver so much value, and we tell people exactly where they can look in their tax returns to gut check things, they're going to find mistakes, right?

So, they're going to walk away saying, “That was so valuable. How can I work with you on a long-term basis? I want to- I want something more.”

[00:46:45] How did Brandon start and grow his podcast to 100k downloads a month

Blake: Tell me about your podcast. You said you get 100,000 downloads a month. It’s all about real estate.

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: Like, tell me about- like, how did this- how did you do this? How did you grow it? How did you get it to that point?

Brandon: So, way back when I started the firm, I was a guest on the Bigger Pockets Podcast. And that helped me get my initial like, jumpstart with clients contacted me on a weekly basis. And so, after that experience, I was like, “I need a podcast. So, I called it The Real Estate CPA Podcast and just started recording episodes.

And Tom, my co-host of the podcast, once I brought him in, he actually helped me with the consistency piece. So like, I am typically the guy- I'm very- it's a very entrepreneurial problem. I will call it a problem. I'm the guy that will jump into something, try it for four weeks, and then peace out if I don't like the results. But Tom helps hold me accountable and say, “We gotta do this for six months before we're really going to see any sort of traction. So, let's commit to it for six months. Here's the plan.”

He helped me do that with the podcast, and we- I haven't looked at February's numbers. We may have broken 100K. We were at 91,000 January of this year, but we've had the podcast since 2016, and it's just grown, grown, grown. And I would say of the 400 people that are coming in the door every month, that podcast is probably the main driver. It's hard to track- it’s hard to attribute revenue to it.

We've got like this rudimentary system in HubSpot that says that we've earned like $5 million from it since 2016, but it's definitely a core driver of the number of leads coming in the door.

Blake: Well, as a podcaster myself, I am very happy to hear that it's a successful strategy for you and your firm.

Brandon: Oh yeah. Well, I mean, think about it. Like, people can just sit there and listen on their way to work, commuting, doing lawn work or whatever. Whatever they're doing, they can listen- during random- tasks to your voice. They build a relationship with you without you having to talk to them. So, you're just building relationships at scale.

Blake: One to many.

Brandon: And eventually, somebody is going to inquire, right?

Blake: Yep. One to many. You do it one time, and you can distribute it infinitely. The same way we're having this conversation here. If we were doing this on a webinar, we may be reach 100 people, 200 people. But this way, it can reach thousands.

Brandon: Yeah, exactly.

Blake: You don’t have to do it over and over again. And we don't have to go speak at conferences to do it either. Like, I’m sure you go to real estate conferences. Like, is that a strategy that's paid off for you as well?

Brandon: Yeah. Pre-pandemic, yeah, the conferences.

Blake: Oh, yeah, yeah, of course.

Brandon: That whole circuit starting back up again. And so, I'm going to go speak at a couple of them, but yeah, that's a-

Blake: When you go, are you like the only one that's The Real Estate CPA? Are there others? Do you have competitors in this space?

Brandon: I do have competitors. Nobody that has grown as fast as we've grown, and that is as large as we are. We're kind of like, in this middle ground of like, we're not like a sole prop or with like four employees, and we're also- we don't have hundreds of employees. We're kind of this middle space, which is nice. And there's really not a lot of competition there for real estate specifically.

Blake: Well, those- that's a market that tends to have been underserved, right?

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: They need a firm that has a lot of different types of expertise and can provide a lot of services, but maybe a mid-sized accounting firm. Traditional CPA firm is just going to be way overpriced for them, right?

Brandon: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Yeah. And we're running into that now too, right? It's like, our prices are too high for the people that we were onboarding two years ago. And so now, they're going to the firms that have four staff and then those guys get to grow up and move upstream as well.

[00:50:10] Any acquisition strategies?

Blake: Are you going to have an acquisition strategy?

Brandon: I don't know. I kind of envision ourselves as sort of being like the Procter and Gamble of CPA firms, where we just buy up these brand CPA firms, like, different niches, but I don't know. Because we run things- we've looked at some firms, and we've just looked at how hard it's going to be to transition their clients, and their staff, and their pricing, and their service model into ours.

And I don't want to run a firm that's got a bunch of firms within the firm. I want to run a firm that does everything our way. Sure, maybe different niches, but it's my way, because I know that my way works. And so, when you look at the acquisitions, and then you just look at your organic growth of 40% per year, it's just like, “All right, maybe I'll just keep working on the organic growth to make sure that we keep hitting that 40% number.

And maybe when that drops to 10- who knows how long that'll take- but maybe that's when we start looking for the acquisitions.”

Blake: Well, I look forward to following your journey as you build this firm. And I mean, maybe you'll end up being an information company more than an accounting services company. We'll see what happens there.

Brandon: Yeah. Yeah. As long as I don't turn into a guru, that's the goal.

Blake: You can wear the- I’m picturing you here in a year with the long hair and you know, the WeWork style of speaking, Adam Newman. You could do the Adam Newman thing, get up on a stage for your expectation.

Brandon: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We're not a real estate leasing company. We are a software unicorn, yeah, sure. No, yeah. Well, okay. This is the ask then for you. You, as you're watching, you hold me accountable to that. I don't want everyone to be gurus.

Blake: And I feel the same way, right? It's like, it's one thing to be- I hate the word thought leader. Because you can be out there and just, a lot of the stuff people say in our profession is just feel-good. They just want to make you feel good. And it's not about making you be better. And sometimes, people are going to disagree if you're really leading them. Like, I like to talk about the timesheets thing. I get so much pushback on the timesheets thing because maybe 5%, 10% of our profession has embraced other ways of managing their firms.

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: And I just got to say like, “Look, if you don't like that, I'm sorry, but you're living in the past, and the future is different.” And that, a lot of the, you know, “thought leaders” aren't willing to say that because they want to get the big speaking slots and all that, so.

Brandon: Oh, exactly.

Blake: That's the difference.

Brandon: There's always unique motivations, but one thing that I've always tried to do is follow people who have built it, and then talked about it. So, versus like, there's so many influencers and people out there that are talking and they're very good at talking. They're very good at posting things on Twitter, and LinkedIn, and TikTok, and wherever else. But when you look behind the scenes, they haven't really built it.

Blake: Yep.

Brandon: And so then, you're just like, “Well, alright, how valuable is your advice? Like, I want to know about how you failed, right? I want to know the things that you tried, what worked, what didn't work. I wanna know about those failures.” And typically, the people that actually build it and then come back and talk about it are the ones that are giving you that more honest approach.

But even like- even some of the value pricing stuff, I mean, there's so many people that have adopted value pricing. And I love the theory of value pricing. And then when you look at the people that- like, are very hardcore about it, they're doing good work, but they just haven't built the 100-person firm. And so, it's hard for people like me who want to build the 100-person firm to automatically say, “Yeah, that makes total sense.”

So, that's part of my mission, is to build this really large firm. My goal is $100 million. I want to build 100 million-dollar firm, so that the rest of the industry looks at me and says, “This guy, when he's talking, he's talking from experience, not just from theory.” And I think that like, in my head, it makes- it's gonna help the adoption to just running better business models in the accounting industry.

Blake: There is nothing that gives me more hope than firms like yours. The other dozen or so firms- there's more, I know, that I want to meet- that are doing what you're doing There is- 10 years ago, y'all were you know 6-person firms. And now, look at where everybody is. This is incredible. The traditional CPA firms have no clue what is coming.

They are completely oblivious because these, you know, 33-person firms or 100-person firms, we've even got some modern ones that are up in the hundreds now in terms of team. I'm not saying that's the only metric for how, you know, growth and success and everything. But I think what it shows is how many people are in this new way of working as a profession.

And that growth is going to be exponential because it's, you know, 20% to 50% per year across this group. So, where are we going to be in 10 years? I think we'll have firms like yours that are, you know, in the thousands.

Brandon: It's really interesting. I mean, if you're listening to this, and you're like, “40% growth, that sounds like that's not true,” I'm happy to share our revenue numbers every single year. And I think it's like 39% on average. So, it's right there. And I mean, honestly, three years ago, if you would've told me we're still going to grow at 40%, I wouldn't have believed you. Because I mean, logically, at some point, you just simply cannot keep growing at that rate.

Blake: You slowed down.

Brandon: But I think that there's just- it's just a new way of doing business. The staff want to work for these types of firms. They don't want to work for the large, old, clunky firms anymore. The clients want to work with these firms that are figuring out the client experience. I heard you talking- I think it was on The Cloud Accounting Podcast, about focusing on the client experience. And it’s just been hard-

Blake: It's the number one thing. I think it's the number one thing.

Brandon: Like, that just doesn't even cross my mind as an option, to not think about, like, that's the number one thing to focus on.

Blake: Brandon, I got pushback for wanting to do customer satisfaction surveys.

Brandon: Yeah. That's wild.

Blake: In a firm. They didn't want to know.

Brandon: Right. Well, it's scary. It's definitely scary. The first time you send them out, like, you're going to have people tell you, you suck.

Blake: Yeah. Yeah.

Brandon: But that's where you learn, right?

Blake: That's how you learn.

Brandon: You gotta put your ego aside, you gotta be vulnerable, and you gotta send the surveys out ‘cause your clients, they're effectively your stakeholders in this business, right? I mean, you don't have investors. You have these clients that are paying you to do a job, and then they're putting food on your table.

So, you've gotta figure out, at scale, how do I keep my clients happy? But yeah, it's just, that always shocks me when I hear people like, not even think about that or send surveys or anything.

Blake: They don't do them. Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's all the time we've got today. Brandon Hall of The Real Estate CPA, CEO there, thank you so much for your time. If our listeners want to connect with you online, where should they do that?

Brandon: Yeah. Well, I'm trying to build a Twitter following right now. So, I'll just give you one call to action. It's @BHallCPA. So, join me on Twitter. And I try to be real about my experiences. I know that there's a lot of fluff that people like to tweet and post on LinkedIn, but I try to be real and give numbers, and break things down.

Blake: @BHallCPA, definitely worth a follow. That's the reason we connected here today. So, you know, if you're listening, you're not on Twitter, it's worth it. It's probably the best place to connect professionally with people outside of going to a physical conference, which you know, we got to get back in that game. And I'll see you in May at Accounting Web Summit. Are you going there?

Brandon: So, I just looked at it. I haven't booked my tickets yet.

Blake: San Diego in May.

Brandon: Yeah.

Blake: It’ll be good. And I'll be there. So, anyone listening too, you want to connect with me, I'll be in San Diego in May at Accounting Web Summit. And again, if you want to get CPE, you can get an hour of CPE credit for listening to this conversation. You already did it. Now, go get your CPE. Go to earmarkcpe.com, download the app. It's completely free.

Register for the course. It’ll be online about a week after this episode drops. So, if it's been more than a week, go get the app, download it, get your CPE credit. Hope to have you as a subscriber to this podcast, and also, The Cloud Accounting Podcast, my other show that focuses on accounting and technology.

Brandon, thanks again for all your time today, and I'll see you around.

Brandon: Thanks, Blake.

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