How Niche Accounting Can Help Build A Successful Practice
The most common question I get from CPAs is: how do I grow my business? My answer is always the same: build your niche!
When Alan Sasserath, CPA, and Greg Zoraian, CPA formed their firm, Sasserath & Zoraian, in 1997, they knew they needed to differentiate themselves from other firms by creating one or more industry niches.
Today, they have three niches: QuickBooks®, hedge fund administration and international tax. How did they end up with these three niches? They grew their niches through a focus on service, a strategic decision and a situation of happenstance.
Making QuickBooks a Service Niche
Sasserath and Zoraian’s QuickBooks practice came from the desire to offer clients “soup to nuts” services to ensure they have the big picture regarding trends in their business. Lynn Montag, CPA, is an Advanced Certified QuickBooks ProAdvisor and heads up this side of the practice. Her role includes a variety of accounting services, but she specializes in QuickBooks. Daily, she works with clients by troubleshooting their QuickBooks problems, helping them set up the software for themselves and consulting with them on or off-site.
“People lose sight that accounting is a service industry,” said Lynn. “And we really provide full service to our clients – we don’t keep them waiting. We get back to them within 24 hours to make sure they get what they need.”
Lynn ensures clients use QuickBooks for more than just tracking their income and expenditures. She teaches her clients to use the data do see trends in how her clients’ businesses are really performing, what they are selling and the profit they are making. QuickBooks becomes much more than an accounting tool; it becomes a strategic business tool.
Strategic Decisions: The Hedge Fund Administration Business
To truly differentiate themselves, Alan and Greg deliberately chose an extremely unique specialization: hedge fund administration. This strategy has paid off. Even though they have a smaller pool of clients, they also have a smaller pool of competitors.
“By design, we knew we wanted to create a valuable practice with services that not every CPA could offer,” said Alan, “We wanted a barrier to entry.”
To create this niche, Alan and Greg had to invest in time and staff to learn their first specialty niche, hedge fund administration. They hired someone who was a head trader at a fund and had contacts with attorneys and others in the field who helped the firm bring in its first clients.
“In the beginning, we knew enough to be dangerous, so we leveraged the experience of someone who had been with a $20 billion fund,” said Greg. “We continued to add resources to get the work done, including people and software.”
Their hedge fund administration business is now run as S&Z Fund Services; today, the company administers 40+ funds.
Happenstance: The International Tax Windfall
Once the hedge fund administration niche was established, Alan and Greg knew they needed another complimentary, yet unique niche to continue to grow their business.
This niche fell into Alan’s lap. “Because of our reputation for caring for clients, I was referred to a client that needed 10 international tax returns prepared,” said Alan, who admits he would have liked to have more international experience at the time. However, he felt comfortable taking on the client due to the network of resources he could reach out to if he needed it.
The international tax niche sprouted from there; today Sasserath and Zoraian provides cross-border and expatriate tax services for corporate and personal clients.
“You can’t just hang out a shingle and say you do international tax,” said Alan. “It took me a couple years of learning before I felt comfortable even saying I worked in this area.”
Get the Clients in the Door
Having the right niches is the first step in ensuring you build a successful practice. The second step is getting the clients in the door. For Sasserath and Zoraian, networking is the lynchpin of finding new clients.
“Relationships pay off,” said Alan. “I’ve been in the business for more than 20 years and kept in touch with just about everyone I meet. Our firm’s philosophy is to become part of the ‘woodwork.’ We want to be seen as reliable experts. It shouldn’t just be about the rate we charge or the cost for our services; what we want to do is provide so much value that our hourly rate is not even a thought.”
Alan and Greg have found attorneys to be a great resource for each of their niches: QuickBooks, the hedge fund and international tax niches. They have also had good luck keeping in touch with colleagues at larger firms who may make a referral or contact them for specific services. Clients also provide referrals, especially those who chose Sasserath and Zoraian for personalized attention after leaving a large firm.
“It helps that our connections know we’ll take good care of a client,” said Alan, who spends about 10% of his time networking and estimates his partner Greg spends slightly more time.
Sasserath and Zoraian also rely on online marketing tactics to generate leads for their core businesses. They have websites for their CPA and Tax services, for their hedge Fund administration business and a new one for international tax work.
Sasserath & Zoraian has a lot going for it with unique niches, contacts, a great reputation and its online marketing strategy to increase business.