With Dominique Molina
On Episode 89 of The Unique CPA, Randy chats with Dominique Molina, President of the American Institute of Certified Tax Planners. Dominique talks about her early days as a CPA, and how she thought opening her own practice would eliminate a lot of the negatives associated with working in the accounting profession. She realized, however, that a few more steps were necessary—with the key being control over one’s own business and time. She discusses how accounting firms can achieve this, as well as delving into the Certified Tax Planner license and its utility in demonstrating that you are an expert at saving your clients money.
Today, our guest is Dominique Molina. Dominique is the President of the American Institute of Certified Tax Planners. It’s a great organization—I’ve been very fortunate to be at a lot of their conferences over the last few years. And so Dominique, welcome to The Unique CPA.
Thank you, Randy, for having me.
Yeah no, no problem. It’s so—I’ve been very fortunate to be part of this, the conferences you put on for the last handful of years—I’ve always enjoyed it. We were out in San Diego, what was the last, uh—what was the last, was it October last year?
It was October. Hard believe it’s been that long. But yeah, October.
Yeah. And that was a great event. It was nice to get out and do some live things again. So again, I really appreciate you being here.
What I’d like to talk about a little bit today, you know, we have two requirements on the show. One, we have fun. So we’ll definitely do that. And two, we educate the tax profession on something, or the accounting profession on something. And I think you have a lot to educate on, because that’s what you’re doing all the time through this organization—at least that’s my impression.
So let’s talk a little bit about your background to see how you get to this point. So give me a little background on where you came from, and uh—
Yeah, as long, Randy, as you don’t ask me anything that will reveal my age, we’re good with that.
I will not do that!
I will say that I was licensed—I got my CPA license during the period of time where we were not doing computerized exams, and we didn’t have two tracks, and you got your 2,000 hours, and so if that’s any indicator. But I have a feeling that those that did it the other way probably won’t be able to figure anything out from that information.
That’s true. I’m the old route as well.
Yes. So yeah, I started out like most CPAs, you know, getting my degree and my CPA license, going to work for the big guys and learning—you know, really cutting my teeth and learning this field that we’re in, in public accounting. And, you know, there’s a lot of disadvantages that kind of creep up with that, obviously: fatigue, long hours, you don’t always have the freedom of choice when you’re an associate, or even as you get into middle management, you don’t always have a choice on the clients that you’re working on, and what kind of services you’re able to perform for those clients.
And so I thought the answer to all my problems, Randy, was just starting my own company, and then all that stuff would go away. And I’m laughing because we know how the story ends, don’t we?
You know, basically, public accounting has these disadvantages because we tend to follow this industry model, right? And so it wasn’t long before running my own CPA firm, that these things started to creep in, you know, the long hours, the you know, trying to focus on billable work and trying to get things out the door and get new projects in the door, and so it didn’t take a long time for me to get burned out, as I’m sure a lot of people listening can relate to—this is a business that can really chew you up and spit you out.
And so I really got to the point where and I like to say that, you know, our relationship with our businesses sometimes is like an abusive relationship. So you get beat up by this business quite a bit, and then you get to the point where you say, “Alright, I can’t do this anymore.” And the problem with that is that there’s so many aspects of this work that I love. I love the problem solving. I love the relationship piece with business owners. I love that meeting of the minds when you become part of something that comes to fruition, you know? It might start as an idea with a small business owner, and you’re able to see that all the way through and really be a part of something. And, you know, the creativity, the strategizing, the really being intentional with what you’re doing and why.
And there’s only one problem with all those things that I love—is that I really wasn’t getting paid to do any of those.
And the stuff that I was getting paid for—compliance work, you know, the annual filings of things, sales tax, payroll tax, every kind of returns that were required—none of that includes the strategizing. There’s a little bit of problem solving there. None of it requires a relationship, right? You can just take your, your financial statements and do your work and never have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to.
True, and some people like that, but I don’t think that’s the way to build a business, so.
Yeah, you know, some people do like that. And they’re called actuaries. And they get to sit in a cubicle—and I’m just teasing in good fun. I definitely, people sometimes are surprised to hear I’m an introvert, and there’s definitely times where I just want to put my head down and get the work done. But there’s certainly aspects of what we do that I love. And at that time, in running a traditional model taps tax practice, I really wasn’t monetizing those well.
And so I decided, look, if there’s some way for me to change the way that I’m doing this and running the business part of it, then it might be worth saving, and actually see a really full enriching career, which is exactly why I started the business to begin with. And so it started with having conversations with clients and really finding out what they want. A lot of us in this profession sell something that people need, and that’s sort of a persuasion job, right? We’ve got to persuade somebody to get this work done.
You may have had people before, that you just can’t get the information from, and you’re trying to pull it out of them, and that’s a tough business to be in. And it’s all because they really don’t want what we’re offering. They have to have it. They don’t want to deal with the IRS, they have to deal with the IRS.
Oh, for sure. And so we need to educate them on the opportunities that we can help them with, I assume, rather than just being the evil necessity of the tax return.
Right, right! And, you know, I think as an accountant, we love the details of what we do. I get really excited when I can quote a code section just because it feels really good, and I know what forms to use, and I can get really fast and efficient at it. But at the end of the day, if we’re not talking to our clients, and better understanding what they want, it becomes exceedingly difficult to ever really charge a lot more than what the so-called going rates are.
So what I did was started talking to people, and really better understanding what they really want. So instead of trying to convince somebody that they want something that I’m selling—that they really don’t want—identify what they do want, and give it to them. And people will pay a lot more for something they want, versus something they just need to have. So you think about this, it’s like, what do you pay more for? Do you pay more for the economy, compact car that gets you good gas mileage, or do you pay more for the sports car? It’s a want versus a need.
Do you pay more for, you know, the routine, preventative surgeries that you might need as you age in life? Or do you pay more for like, cosmetic procedures that are gonna make you look a lot better? Prescription medication, maybe it’s for high blood pressure or something like that, or Viagra, right? People will pay a lot more for what they want versus what they need.
And so what I figured out is that an awful lot of people really wanted solutions to their business problems—and their business problems are not really tax and accounting related. They’re not walking around going, “Oh, dear, I can’t close my books on time,” or it’s not keeping them up late at night thinking about how much tax they pay. However, money will solve a lot of the problems they really have, which is how to take their business to the next level, how to get time freedom in the business by hiring good support, you know, retaining top talent, marketing strategies. Having more money can address those issues, and I can get people more money all day long with tax reduction. The problem I was having at that time is I wasn’t getting paid for that, and I wasn’t charging for it.
And so that’s kind of what started this whole transformational process of going from a compliance-focused firm built with the traditional model, to looking at more advisory relationships with clients, learning how to value price, and get paid for those engagements, and being able to get paid, finally, for my expertise. People don’t really understand what your expertise is when you’re filling out a form, but they can see what your expertise is when you’re creating those results. So if I can save somebody forty, fifty, sixty thousand dollars off of their tax bill, and they’ve got that much more money in the bank as a result of working with me, they’re much more willing to pay those types of premium fees to get those kinds of results, because now I’m actually giving them something they want.
Yep, that’s great. That’s something we talk about on the show a lot—is just, a couple of things you talked about: One, being the advisor, not just reporting what happened, the advising on what’s happened, affecting what’s happening. And then, based on that, sounds like value-based billing, because now that they can see the value, they know they have $50,000 going back in that business, and you were the cause of that. And so now you can get paid what you’re worth, rather than, you know, paid what everybody else is charging to file a tax return and report what happened. So that makes a lot of sense.
Right. There is one issue with that, though, and what I found over the years is that that’s not what we’re learning in accounting school. So when we’re going through, and we’re getting our degrees, and we’re taking the education so we can enter into public accounting, the IRS doesn’t really care if you know how to save people tax. And they certainly don’t come along and tap a business owner on the shoulder and say, “Hey, you could’ve save this, here you go. Here’s your refund.” And you know from your work, Randy, that it’s an educational thing, right? It’s the technical training, it’s the specialists that we can partner with that can help bring these types of strategies to fruition with our taxpayers.
And, you know, that became evident after really focusing my practice many, many years ago on tax reduction—it took about 18 months, and my waiting list grew to be two years long. And kind of simultaneously, my colleagues and networking peers in the community started seeing what I was doing, and the benefits of transforming my practice into an advisory-type business where we’re really trying to create someone’s future, versus recording someone’s history, and wanting to know, “How do you know that? Where can I learn more about that? What classes can I take? Who do I partner with?”
And those two things didn’t seem to line up very well—why would somebody wait two years to meet with me, unless they perceive that they can’t get this elsewhere?
And why do I have accountants saying, “I don’t know how to do this stuff. Where do I get this information?” And so that’s when I saw a real need in our industry for training in advanced tax reduction, so that us in public accounting have that as an opportunity for us if we decide that’s where we want to focus our expertise. And so I still run a tax practice today. Albeit, it’s a lot smaller, and I’m much more passively involved than I used to be. And yes, it is possible to run a tax practice passively. But I found that’s a lot easier when you give people what they want, versus something that they need.
I was going to ask you that question—if when you started the institute, if you got out of tax preparation, or you stayed in it, so you still do, well, “passively”—a tax practice.
Let’s get into the Institute. And that’s what you call it as an abbreviation, right? The American Institute of Certified Tax Planners.
So when did this start? You lived this, you learned it, you saw that there was a need. So when did the institute start?
Yeah, it kind of started out as a gathering of friends. “Hey, if I put a class together, would anybody be interested in showing up and attending?” And there was an overwhelming “yes,” and so I held my first class in 2009, and it’s really just evolved from there. What we have done is taken a very intentional step in making it have regulatory compliance requirements, so that we know that there’s integrity behind that license. We have an advisory board that sets the requirements and reviews issues that come up, and handles complaints from the public—which don’t happen too often, but they do come up.
So we wanted to create something that has oversight, so that there is integrity behind the ideas and the strategies that we teach. There’s a lot of stuff out there—a lot of it actually has never been litigated yet. So it’s hard to know, you know, “Is that a legal strategy or not?” And it’s nice to have an institution, if you will, that can weigh in on that, and be a resource, and serve as an influencer in the market where you can go to, to get reliable information. And so that’s what we did. We created a licensing program to go along with it so that we know that people are meeting the minimum education requirements to maintain their license, and really do a lot of good for the community that we serve.
And that’s the Certified Tax Planner—Certified Tax Coach! Certified Tax Coach,is that the license?
Certified Tax Planner is the license. Certified Tax Coach is a stop on the way to becoming a planner.
Ah, I got it.
Yeah, it’s like an apprenticeship. So you start out getting some coaching, and some support, and mentors, and opportunities to test out your knowledge and required education, and in as little as twelve months, someone can become a licensed, certified tax planner. And so that’s what we do. And it’s a lot of fun. Again, I love what I do—I love that I have the opportunity to not only continue to help small business owners in the tax arena and saving money, and putting more money to use in their business, but also being able to serve our community in the public accounting arena, and make it more interesting, make it more fun, take away some of those disadvantages.
And so, in a way, this kind of comes full circle, Randy, because when we come back around to my story, I really thought in the beginning that starting my own practice, I’d be able to do some of these things, and do something about the negative symptoms, if you will. And I’ve sort of been able to do that by having this focus, and I’m looking to leave that ongoing progress, if you will, to my peers in the community.
And so, the impressive thing that I’ve seen, in the four or five years now that I’ve known you and your organization, is I’m seeing more and more and more, it seems like, individuals on LinkedIn, or Twitter, or whatever, that have the CTP initials at the end of the name. So how many professionals out there have that license at this point?
Um, we’re approaching 1,200 licenses across the country. We have folks licensed in every state in the U.S. We have also launched an international licensing program. It’s still focused on U.S. tax, but we’ve got licensees around the globe that are working with expats who live in other countries, like Thailand and Sweden and France and the Czech Republic. So it’s been a real exciting thing for us, and I think it just highlights the hunger for this way of doing business—the hunger to do better for our clients. And that’s exciting.
And for ourselves. I mean, I’m assuming part of the benefits here is not only obviously for our clients, which is huge, but I think CPAs in general, or tax preparers in general, sometimes don’t look at their firm as a business. And I think this turns that more into them that they’re looking, “Okay, this is a business. Let’s maximize what we have here. Let’s reduce our hours while increasing our income. Let’s have more free time. Let’s give us more opportunity to grow because now we are doing these advising services, rather than just the regulatory, you know, the services that we’re supposed to.” So I assume, what do you define as the benefits that your people get out of the licensing and the program itself?
If I had to boil it down to one word, I would say “control.”
It puts control back in the hands of the accountancy practice owner. You know, some of our working conditions are dismal because we have such demands on our time, and because of the way we get paid for what we do. You know, most of us will take a deposit, and then we get paid at the end of an engagement. And so for that reason, we depend on the client to give us their information, and if they lag in getting that to us, and wait till the night before a deadline, we stay up all night making sure that they meet that deadline, because there’s a paycheck on the other end of that for us. We wok holidays, we work weekends—why? Because we want to get a paycheck, and we’re uncertain of when that work is going to come in, because the control rests with the client.
And by doing this, again, we are offering something that somebody wants, and they’re much more willing to work under our terms. So if I say, for example, I’m going on vacation, and I don’t do client work or take calls while I’m on vacation, because I need to recharge and rest my brain, so that I can be in tip top shape to better help you, they actually respect that. And this whole notion of getting paid up front before any work occurs gives you that freedom. It gives you that control back, to say, how I get, and what processes I use in my firm to get information, to perform work, to manage deadlines and due dates, and who I work with. And that’s a really powerful concept that, to your point, I think a lot of us practitioners don’t realize—we often neglect the business aspect, but it’s a terrible way to run a business.
Giving your customer all of the control in that relationship, they kind of dictate how things are going to turn out for you. This is a different opportunity there. And again, you can double, triple, quadruple your take home, cutting your efforts in half, so that’s not bad. But it’s some of those working conditions: the stress, the criticism from taxpayers, things like that, that we can completely eliminate just by having better control over the business itself.
So when you were talking about billing there and fees, it sounds like it’s more of a fixed fee monthly billing, or is there a standard that you teach people that they should be doing?
Yeah, for sure. Again, going back to this idea of control, it starts with you. And it starts with saying, “Well, what kind of business do you want to build?” That means saying, “How much do you want to work? What kinds of clients do you want to work with? What kinds of work do you want to do?”
You know what, I don’t like payroll, I don’t like bookkeeping, so guess what we don’t do in my business. We don’t do those things. No offense, but I just didn’t personally like it. So we don’t offer it, right? And then you set out and say, “Okay, based on this outline of what I want from my business, how do I earn enough to also hit my revenue targets,” and you sort of back into it—you reverse engineer—you say, “Gosh, if I want to make half a million dollars a year and take that home and do that in 25 hours a week, what do my minimum fees need to be to make that happen, if say, I can only work with 30 or 40 clients, because I want to work this minimal number of hours.”
So that becomes the starting point and the driving force behind everything we do with our own firms, because ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re building this business to give us the life that we really want. Again, there’s some great things that we do with clients. I don’t mean to sound callous, or like we’re not there to help people—we absolutely are. But most of us didn’t get in this business to be a 501(c) company. We got in to build something for ourselves. And so we have to start there.
Yes, I think that’s great. Because like I said, that’s something I see too often ignored. We actually did a webinar last month on building a sustainable and transferable firm, just meaning that you’re building the firm that can run, without you potentially down the road, and the next generation, and it sounds like that’s what you’ve done with yours as well, which is great. So we may need to get your expertise and one of our monthly webinars so you can continue to teach us this.
Yeah, I’m happy to! This isn’t like an ancient secret that you have to go through all these hoops and climb into caves to get. This is available for everybody. And I want to share. And our licensees that are in part of the institute, and in this movement with us, we want to create change in the industry. And so you’ll meet some great people that are really willing to be there and supportive for you in helping to make this happen, if that’s what you decide works best for your business.
So with that being said, then, because I think people should be interested, obviously—this is a great opportunity to learn what I think, like you said, isn’t taught in school, isn’t taught when you’re getting your accounting degree. And so if someone wants to reach out and find out more information about the institute or the certification, where would they do that?
Yeah, just go to CertifiedTaxPlanners.com. We’ve got lots of resources available. So if you’re a do it yourself kind of person, we’ve got books you can buy, we’ve got webinars you can take, you know, there’s a lot of ideas and strategies you can apply without ever getting licensed, if you don’t—if you decide that’s not right for you. But my advice is to do what you want to do, and build that business that’s going to support the life that you love and that you want to live.
Yep, great. And you also and I didn’t even talk about this and I recently subscribed to Think Outside the Tax Box. That is a—I think I’ve got that right—that is an online, I assume online, journal or magazine that you put out. What does that—give us a little breakdown of what that is.
Yeah, it’s a digital magazine. We’re super excited and proud of it. We’re coming up on, well, I guess we’re in our about 18 month mark. We’ve got well over 150 articles. So it serves as a research tool—everything’s cited. And so if you’re looking for a source of ideas on, you know, what you can offer clients, you know, that provides lots of in-depth analysis, and we try to write it in a “plain English” way so that people can understand better, and it breaks down what the law and the court cases say.
So it can be a tremendous resource for those that are looking to continually bring new ideas to their clients. And that’s the rough part about getting paid for your expertise, is once you make that switch and you’re getting paid for your expertise, you want to keep bringing it, so they keep coming back and paying those premium fees. So you want to stay connected to a good resource for that, and Think Outside the Tax Box has been a lot of fun. We’ve got some really great writers—Peter Riley and Amber Gray-Fenner from Forbes Magazine are there. We’ve got Tom Gorcynzski, and Matt Metris—he’s our expert on crypto tax planning. We’ve just got Annette Mellon. Just a lot of these names that you see in the thought leadership community in tax that are willing to share their ideas and strategies. So it’s been a lot of fun pulling all this together.
Yeah, we’ve had Tom Gorcynzski on the show, and he’s great—very knowledgeable. And then another person that’s written some articles for you is Dan Chodan, and he’s been on the show as well, and Dan’s—
—Oh, Dan’s an amazing writer, we have to convince Dan to give us a little more of his writing. He loves what he does, he loves to practice. And so yeah, we love Dan. Great writer.
He loves writing on Twitter, too. So he’s, he’s often out there sharing his knowledge. And that’s a big thing with me, is sharing your knowledge too. And he’s out there doing it. And he and I, we get in fun discussions on Employee Retention Credit, because the both of us have spent the last year and a half digging deep into that. So it’s a fun discussion.
So yeah, he had a great article on the whole OSHA rules that people tried to quote for Employee Retention Credit, which he debunked that, I completely agree with him. But it was a great article that was in Think Outside the Tax Box.
Alright—with that being said, I want to, before we close out here, and I will see you I think, in about a month, right? Don’t you have the next conference coming up?
We’re going to be in Nashville, Tennessee! So I can’t wait to be with you in Music City. Yep. We’re gonna kick up our heels a bit, talk some tax strategy, and have a great time.
Yeah, that’ll be fun. Well, I’ve been fortunate to speak at the event, I think, three or four times, and it’s always about, you know, different ways to help clients save money. So I think it fits in well with what you’re doing, and so I appreciate you giving me that opportunity.
A hundred percent!
Before we close out one question, I always like to ask at the end, because we’re talking tax, we’re talking business, talking accounting. But what do you do when you’re not doing that? What’s the fun part of outside of work you do? What’s your passions besides tax and accounting?
Well, I love to read, and I love to read tax and accounting. So even in my spare time, I do that. But I will tell you that I have taken up pickleball lately.
And that has been a very fun challenge. I’m a tennis player. So it’s a new set of rules, it’s a similar court setup, but it’s a lot of fun, and I love to play in doubles. And in tennis. I was always a singles player. So I’ll tell you it’s a lot more fun when there’s four people on the court. So yeah, that’s been a lot of fun lately. It’s a whole new way to look at a Wiffle Ball.
That’s actually my goal is to start playing that. I have a knee replacement, and I heard it’s easy on your knees, so I want to get out there and try that.
Very easy on your knees, Randy. Hey, I’ll hook you up in Nashville and I’ll show you a few things.
I don’ t know much. But I’ll show you the few things I know.
You know more than me, so that’ll work out perfectly. Alright, before we close then, one more time, the website address for people to go to?
Yeah. Real easy. CertifiedTaxPlanners.com.
Alright, and again, Dominique, I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while. I’m glad we got it done. So thank you for being on.
Me too! I’ll see you on the pickleball court.
About the Guest
Dominique Molina is the Co-Founder and President of the American Institute of Certified Tax Planners. As the driving force and visionary behind the San Diego-based company, Dominique set out to change the way tax professionals approach tax planning. The Institute teaches CPAs how to increase their income and save their clients money by using advanced tax reduction strategies. Through her nonprofit organization, over 1,000 tax professionals have been licensed so far, creating a national network of highly qualified advisors. Thanks to her leadership, the Institute provides hands-on training, systems, tools, support, and offers the Certified Tax Planner (CTP) designation. When graduates achieve their tax planning credential, the designation conveys their unique expertise in tax planning.
Dominique received her Bachelor of Science in Accounting degree from San Diego State University. She is a licensed CPA. Additionally, she has her Master of Laws – LLM, Tax Laws – from the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and she is a Certified Tax Strategist (CTS) from the American Institute of Certified Tax Planners.
Meet the Host
Randy Crabtree, CPA
Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals, is a widely followed author, lecturer and podcast host for the accounting profession.
Since 2019, he has hosted the bi-weekly “The Unique CPA,” podcast, which ranks among the world’s 5% most popular programs (Source: Listen Score). You can find articles from Randy in Accounting Today’s Voices column, the AICPA Tax Adviser (Tax-saving opportunities for the housing and construction industries) and he is a regular presenter at conferences and virtual training events hosted by CPAmerica, Prime Global, Leading Edge Alliance (LEA), Allinial Global and several state CPA societies. Crabtree also provides continuing professional education to top 100 CPA firms across the country.
Schaumberg, Illinois-based Tri-Merit is a niche professional services firm that specializes in helping CPAs and their clients benefit from R&D tax credits, cost segregation, the energy efficient commercial buildings deduction (179D), the energy efficient home credit (45L) and the employee retention credit (ERC).
Prior to joining Tri-Merit, Crabtree was managing partner of a CPA firm in the greater Chicago area. He has more than 30 years of public accounting and tax consulting experience in a wide variety of industries, and has worked closely with top executives to help them optimize their tax planning strategies.