Leading the Way with Kenji Kuramoto
On Episode 84 of The Unique CPA, Randy Crabtree welcomes Kenji Kuramoto, CEO and founder of Acuity. Kenji follows on from Matthew May’s appearance last week, as the two of them are co-hosts of the Drink While You Think podcast, which Randy has also appeared as a guest on them. Randy and Kenji talk about what makes Acuity unique in the accounting space, including a plethora of information on how to maximize your accounting firm’s revenue and profitability, and with a focus on technology.
Today, our guest is Kenji Kuramoto. Kenji is CEO of Acuity, which Acuity—you’ll find out as we discuss today—but it’s a very large, well, I’ll let him explain what it is, but a really large firm that gets lots of accolades. And I’m very excited to have Kenji on the show today. So Kenji, welcome to The Unique CPA.
Randy! I am really happy to be here on The Unique CPA. It’s great to be on. I’ve enjoyed listening to a lot of the other [guests] you’ve had. So yeah, super fun to be here. You’ve been on our podcast, so I feel like this is only fair, that I get to be on yours. Thank you.
Yeah, no, well, yours is I love, your idea is, Drink While You Think, your podcast, and I had an awesome time on that. And it was nice to see Matthew got a little inebriated it seemed like, while we were on.
I think so. I think so.
He was drinking, what did we determine? About 11 or 12%, 16 ounce pastry stouts?
Some of those high ABV pastry stouts. Got him going.
Yeah. And well, a lot of fun. So thank you for having me on that.
Ah, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me here.
Yep. Alright. So let’s talk in general—I find your story really interesting. I mean, Acuity, I honestly hadn’t heard about much until recently, and then when I looked at the background and everything, I go, “Holy cow, this is one of the larger firms in the country that I should know about, and I don’t!” And I’m not saying—I’m sure everybody else does, I was probably the one person that doesn’t. But before we get into that, give me a little bit of Acuity, I guess, like the origin story. How did it—because you technically started, I think, in 2004, and gone through some variations, right?
Yeah. So if you can, why don’t you spend a little time, give us a background of where this came from?
Yeah, so certainly, I don’t even know if I’d call it successful, and definitely not overnight success, going back all the way to 2004. But yeah, when we started Acuity, really, it was kind of, I looked at it like it was the third real job I’d ever had, like, right? I had all the kid jobs, the summertime stuff, or whatever.
But I started my career at Arthur Andersen at the audit practice, and did that for a few years. Left during the initial tech boom, and became the controller and CFO of a tech company, when everybody thought they were going public. I was there to do that. Stint there for a number of years. And then, honestly, through those two experiences of being at big global public, Arthur Andersen, then being in a very entrepreneurial tech firm—kind of an internal finance and accounting—that’s really where Acuity came together, is where, I’m not very creative. But I’m not bad at looking at things I’ve either done before, or I can see and like, let me pick apart the things I like, and the things I don’t like and kind of mash it together.
And so I literally, with another friend of mine at the time thought, “Well, what do I like about public?” And there’s a list of a few things. There’s a list of a number of things I didn’t like.
Mmm hmm! That’s important too!
Yeah! What did I like about being part of a high growth, innovative startup? There’s some great things… There’s some pretty crappy things, right? There’s some things that aren’t very enjoyable. And so I kind of just took those things, crammed them together, and what we got out of that, Randy, was back in ‘04, a fractional CFO advisory firm just focused on kind of Atlanta-based tech startups.
And I think I thought from in ‘04, that’s all we’re ever gonna be—just a very specialized niche firm, just providing advisory services for startups. And, you know, to fast forward all the way through the rest of Acuity: We ended up adding controller services, bookkeeping services, tax services—a whole bunch of things I never imagined. And in fact, a few of those practices, where I would have told you I never want to have.
But they all evolved throughout time, and they kind of came onboard. And now yeah, we’re about 100, 150 person firm. We are still headquartered in Atlanta. We’ve been remote though, for guys close to a decade, or “hybrid remote” as I call it. We have team members throughout the country, even internationally. We have clients throughout the US. So it is certainly not what I envisioned when we started Acuity. It has not been constructed at all, like a probably traditional accounting firm has been. But it’s also in a spot to where it’s a place that Matthew and I, my co-founder who was on here, on your podcast earlier—
—are in a spot that he and I really enjoy the way we’ve kind of constructed it. But it’s certainly been built up throughout the years in a bit of a different manner that I would say is highly non-traditional. And so everything from the types of clients we serve, to how we’re kind of built, where we’ve taken motivation from to try different things within the firm—so yeah, that’s kind of, that’s maybe one of the reasons you haven’t heard of us. And again, there’s lots of reasons, so many great firms out there. But also, you know, in certain ways, we probably look more like a consulting firm. Technically, we’re not a true accounting firm anymore, since we said no attest services. But we certainly consider ourselves part of the profession for sure. So yeah, that’s kind of that’s, that’s how we kind of got here.
Let me ask you this, then, because you’re not a huge, traditional firm, you say, you are not you don’t call yourself a CPA firm. Right? Or do you?
Okay, so you’re not a CPA firm. And for some odd reason, you let your CPA license go inactive, right?
I did. I did. I absolutely did.
Alright. But you don’t do any attest work. I mean, you don’t need it, right?
We don’t! And, you know, that was hard to do. I think it’s hard for any of us who go get the CPA exam. Matthew has not given his up yet, right? Now, he actually was a former audit partner at a top 25 firm. I never lasted long enough to make it to partner. I mean, no way I was gonna make that. And so, maybe I don’t have as much of a hold on that as he did. Also, I mean, I just got—candidly, Randy, I got tired of, you know, on the last day of the year here in Georgia, where it’s calendar year reporting for the CPA—like, I would spend New Year’s Eve, just cramming trying to get CPE done, thinking, “What am I doing? Like, this is crazy.” And so I was very sensitive to it. I didn’t want to be out of compliance, I really didn’t want to be, I didn’t want to, you know, not hold my requirements up. So I said, “You know, I need to take a look at whether it’s really worth it for me or not.”
And in that regard, I also looked at saying, “We’re not going to ever have attest or assurance services. I’ve done that before.” And in fact, there’s probably an aspect of it there that’s a little bit freeing for me—passed the, you know, had been a CPA and active CPA before, passed the exam. But that’s not the motivation I typically use or the inspiration I draw from typically in the CPA industry to think about how we’re growing the firm. So kind of a good way to maybe delicately burn the bridge behind me.
Alright, that’s, yeah, I can see you’re rationalizing it. And that’s completely fine.
That’s true, that’s true. I’m probably doing more of that than…
No, I mean, I honestly I mean, I sold my practice 16 years ago, and I keep up my license still. And do I need it? I don’t, we don’t, I mean, we’re a specialty tax consulting firm. I don’t do any attest work. I don’t—do I need it? I don’t know, it’s just I have a hard time giving it up. And I’m at so many conferences, and so are you, it should be pretty easy to get CPE. My problem is I don’t always apply for it when I’m at conferences, so.
I don’t apply for it. Sometimes—I was just speaking last week, spent the last two weeks on two different accounting conferences. And, you know, honestly, sometimes too, I typically find my way to a corner of the convention center, or maybe to a barstool somewhere and find a few other people I’m really interested in talking to who are firm owners, and I feel like if I could get CPE there, sitting up at the bar, and maybe the Earmark folks can figure out the next generation how to do that.
I was just gonna say that!
Yeah, then maybe, you know, I’d kind of go active again. But I also find that a lot of the conferences too, there’s just sessions that I just honestly don’t feel like sitting in anymore, because they’re not relevant to where we’re at or where we’re trying to get. And that’s okay, that may be just me, there are some firms that are maybe not quite in a different place in their journey, but.
Okay. Alright, so let’s go back to the Acuity—although I’ll talk CPE all day if you want. No, let’s go back to the Acuity story, because you mentioned, you know, Matthew came in, and I think that was 2013. And before we went live here recording, and you mentioned that, and you kind of alluded to it when we were talking here, you’ve really built the firm in some really unique—sticking with The Unique CPA theme—some unique and weird ways. So you want to go into what those are and give us a little background on that?
Sure. So one of the things, going all the way back to things I actually liked about Public—and I was in audit practice. And audit as a service, I just found miserable.
It just was really, you know, it was very eye opening to me as a young professional.
Just, I couldn’t believe how I won’t say “disliked” we were by clients, but like, just, you felt like such a nuisance. There’s an understanding the value of course of an audit, but like, it was not my cup of tea.
One thing I really loved about being in audit was, I loved going out and learning about new businesses. I found out very early on, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial [bent]. But like audit, or just being in a consultative fashion—when you’re on-site working with clients, you get to know these businesses like they’re really interesting. I was always fascinated by how businesses worked, how people built them;I’m to this day amazed by the businesses I see that we get to work with and I go, “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t know you could make money doing that.” I mean, I must have said that I feel like I say that every single week, because I’m blown away by what I see people doing and building.
And so, when I think about the ways that we’ve constructed Acuity, I do feel very fortunate that I was at a great firm like Arthur Andersen, that’s just a top notch firm, full of outstanding professionals. So I learned a lot about what a truly global, incredible firm looks like. But I kept looking around, going “There’s so much inspiration to be drawn from clients. In fact, they’re giving us complete access to their whole business!” And so, because we started working in the startup space with technology companies, that was my dominant influence from early on, of how people were building their businesses. We were looking at all these tech companies. And so I was very influenced by the business practices we saw of early stage, innovative startups, more so after a while than I was from the accounting profession.
And so we started picking things that we saw working in the startup tech community, we started adding them in at Acuity. And everyone in the accounting profession would go, “How did you think of that? That’s just amazing. You guys are so creative.” And really, all we were doing, Randy, was just drawing inspiration from our clients, as a CAS practice like we were. It’s almost —it is more integrated than even I was, as an auditor. You are really inside their organization on a regular basis. And so there’s so much to draw upon from how their operations are constructed.
So we started running all kinds of interesting experiments. I mean, technology was a very early pillar for us—we saw all these tech companies who were creating these good sized organizations by really leaning on modern technology. Like, cloud adoption, was almost not even a thing for us back in the day. All of our clients have “been cloud” for twice as long, ten years prior to the accounting industry. And so we saw that coming a long way forward because of our clients. So we were very, very quick to adopt technology to automate processes.
From a customer acquisition standpoint, all of our metrics, even today, are built around, from a sales and marketing perspective, they’re really structured like a tech startup does when they think about customer acquisition. And so the fact that, gosh, even a decade ago, we built an outbound sales team. We had sales team members outreaching. There was no model of like, where we’ve got a business development person, and each of the partners kind of do their own work on their own book of business. We were emulating and following a playbook—it’s actually called Predictable Revenue. Aaron Ross wrote the book years ago—he was the original head of sales at Salesforce.com. Every single tech company, or VC-backed company was following Aaron Ross’s book called Predictable Revenue. So we didn’t go to you know, I didn’t go knock on the doors of E&Y, or Deloitte, or the top 100 firms and go, “How are you guys selling?” We went right and said, “Well, here’s what our clients, they’re all reading this book, they’re all following this, so why don’t we follow it, too?”
So those are some of the interesting ways throughout time that we’ve developed as a firm. There’s still many ways that Matthew and I feel a bit more akin to tech companies. Like we just have our roles, if you look at even our roles and titles and things throughout Acuity, they do follow a little bit more like as if we were a software company. We are not. However, we just think there’s a ton of innovation happening in startups, and we’re just happy to go in there and grab the things that we think work, experiment with them. If they don’t work, we try something else.
So it’s a strange way that we’ve constructed this, but it’s also a little more obvious than people think, if you look at the types of clients we were around all the time.
That makes sense.
Well, that’s pretty cool. So a couple things. And so I assume, just looking at your website, and meeting you and Matthew over the last month or two, you know, technology was obviously a huge place for your client base, but for you as well. Is there ways you go about selecting technology you’re working with? Does each client have a different accounting system? Are you generalized accounting? And you know, like, when I was growing up, when I was—back in my day—we had Creative Solutions and we were doing all our writeup work on one software. I assume that’s not the way it is today.
That is not the way it today, at least for us at Acuity. Now we do have, we say, “Tech Stack Partners.” Now these are about twenty different tech stack partners that we probably most commonly use. And we do have it in certain practices. So let’s say for example, our bookkeeping practice—if you would like Acuity to come in and be your outsourced bookkeeping solution, you’re limited to certain choices for things, right? We’re going to tell you, it’s either QuickBooks or Xero. The GL has to be on one of those two things.
Now, the good news for us is, that’s 99% of the market share of small business accounting systems anyway. And so we’ve got some parameters there.
But also, what we’re looking for typically, in our tech stack partners, is we want to make sure that we have the ability to cross-train our staff across these technologies. We think that gives us a pretty good footprint, and some tools to draw upon, to help construct the right type of accounting structures. I think what’s fascinating for older guys like me—maybe not for you, Randy, you’re a little younger than me. I’m sure.
I think you’ve got this backwards here.
But yeah, I do remember those days of where, you know, the only companies I had heard of who had custom accounting software, were like the Fortune 500s. Maybe even the Fortune 50s, I mean, back in the day.
It’s just amazing that right now, any business you can think of, can have a custom accounting solution, if they just go and say, “I want to take Xero, and I’m gonna plug in these three tools,” essentially, everyone’s got this. So we saw that as, there was gonna be less of these, like, “Hey, I’m on one platform or one stack.” Again, super similar to what we saw in the tech space industry, a lot of our clients. We just tried to think of, “Well, how are we going to adapt to this?” And, you know, we found that we certainly need to be able to cross-train team members across tech platforms. But the more modern we were from a tech perspective, our clients were happier.
I mean, I can’t tell you, Randy, throughout the years, how many times we’ve come into a new client—and again, remembering that we focus on things like, you know, tech companies, we come in, and we’d say, we’d talk about our tech stack, and what we’re working with, or how we work virtually. They were floored. They said, “Ah, it’s about time I finally met an accountant who’s not trying to stick me on some damn desktop software,” or “He’s not trying to like”—so as soon as they got even a little idea that we were slightly modernized using technology, I mean, Randy, it was almost like sales call over, done, “You guys are in, you got the same vibe we do.” And it was just, we were closing like crazy.
And so we have a natural curiosity about tech at Acuity. Matthew and I have always enjoyed it, we’ve worked in the tech space, we’ve seen how it benefits our clients. The biggest challenge that we face is just making sure the team gets proper training. Because what the team does not want anymore, which used to happen a lot, is Matthew and Kenji coming back from a conference going, “Hey, everybody, we got a whole bunch of new tech to try out!” The team kinda goes, “Oh man, kill me, we just learned this.” So we do now have a tech stack team, that when we come back with these ideas, we have to actually take it to them first—they do some additional vetting, piloting of it, maybe some beta testing of it, before we start deploying this. Because at 150, it’s way too disruptive for us to go in and add something. It was fun when we were 15 or 10. Yeah, you could come back from a conference and slap something in place, that wasn’t a big deal. Now there’s some more change management that has to get put in place.
So it’s a fine line of where we love tech, we want to keep using it, it’s been really important for who we are. But we have to be really thoughtful about how we deploy it—not so much for the clients. The clients are usually like “Woohoo, finally, some new, cool tools.” It’s the team—we need to make sure that we’re not just we don’t have a thousand different tools and we’re asking them to kind of put these things together. So that’s gotten more complicated as we’ve gotten larger.
Yeah, that’s, we’re in the middle of that, too. You know, we’ve grown pretty rapidly the last few years, and we’re at fifty people now, and we’re all across the country, you know, similar, you know, to you, and just that whole getting the processes in place that everybody’s on the same page. And, you know, what I do is I disrupt the marketing team, because I come up with a new idea every week and, and then I’m like, I’m afraid that I call them then they’re like, “Ugh, Randy’s got another idea” like you just said with you guys.
And yeah, I can understand that. So I try to keep them fairly reasonable these days. But yeah , I can’t help myself. It’s just, it’s just fun. I’m having the time of my life.
You know, it is fun! I think that’s a huge part of what Matthew and I found, is there was probably historically a more cookie cutter approach to building a firm.
And it’s pretty tried and true. I mean, it works. Candidly, it works. Accountants are good at creating, right, a set of very concrete, you know, frameworks, playbooks—that’s just what—
They do! I mean, we do!
Us and engineers, right? We’re just good at that kind of things.
And those are the two things I work with is well, engineers, accountants, and lawyers. So I get all sides.
You get all of ‘em! That’s exactly right. I think that—and there’s not anything terribly wrong with that. I would say, though, that I think what we’ve found, there’s a lot of fun you can have, when you start thinking about different methods of construction, and different ways to build outside the regular playbook. I think that’s for Matthew and I what’s led to a lot of that happiness and joy of like, “Oh, that was fun.” And obviously we make a ton of mistakes, that’s fine. But like, we are able to construct this in a little bit of a different way that actually allowed us as firm owners, to not just follow the scripts of, “Hey, it’s time to add another partner,” and then you kind of go and all that.
We were able to do it in a way that I think flexed our own creativity a bit, because what we found that he and I really enjoy is, we love building businesses—that is really fun for us. That’s very enjoyable. Firms are great, we love the accounting profession, but like, the act of building a business, and doing it with a little creativity—not just the same old, “Hey, here’s how traditional CPA firms kind of work.” And so I think more people could maybe explore that. I’m seeing more and more firms to do that, which is cool.
Yeah, it’s funny. I have a webinar that I’m hosting in 56 minutes, which is obviously not going to be the same time for people listening here. But it’s about building a sustainable and transferable firm. And it’s not a transferable M&A firm, it’s a transferable, “Hey, we’ve built this, this continues without us as owners, and this continues, you know, the next generation of people coming in to run it.” But something you just said… Oh, crap, I completely forgot what you just said! And that’s what made me think of this!
Well, building in different ways—I’ll tell you, I had a conversation last week with an accountant up out of Canada, a great one—Andrew Wall, who is a great guy, he’s got a great firm up in Canada. And we were at this conference last week, and he said to me, we’re walking into an AI talk, and he said, “Man, you seem like this whole week, you’ve been like pretty present, engaged here at the conference—you don’t seem like you’re running back and forth with a bunch of work or things like this.” And I was like, “Well, yes, we are in San Diego. So first of all, like, I want to spend as much time as I can in San Diego, one of the most beautiful places on Earth.” I said, “But also, we have worked very hard at building something that is sustainable.”
There you go.
“Something to where we have really great team members that we can trust, that we as shareholders, partners, owners, can step out, and not be still stuck in the day-to-day.” That’s for me, something I recognized in my early years. I knew that very clearly—
This is great. Yep.
—where if I didn’t figure out a way to stop doing all the work myself, I wasn’t gonna last. I just, that’s more of a Kenji thing than maybe most people, but I’m like, I can’t keep slinging the hourly rates.
No. Me neither.
The clients, of course, wanted to work with me. But I was exhausted by it. I just was exhausted by it, and I just, even though I was still relatively young, I just, I felt like if I didn’t break free from that, I’d be trapped in it. And what we found is, it’s hard to get beyond where you’re doing all the work yourself. I think there’s a couple years I look back, that I don’t want to repeat again, because they were really tough and lean.
But, getting to the other side of it, to where, just like Andrew mentioned last week in San Diego, like, “Wow, you’re really present here, and you’re having great conversations. You don’t seem like you’re super distracted, trying to run the firm.” That is a benefit of scaling and getting bigger and figuring out those pieces to where the owner, I mean, the owner is not so involved, which I think gets to the point around M&A, is where inherently there’s more enterprise value in an organization if the entity and the organization can continue to exist and move forward without the owners being so present.
Matthew and I get to go travel to warm, sunny places to have beers, occasionally. Everybody should have that ability, not just the owners, I think. Everybody at Acuity should feel like they can step away at times for important things and not feel like the world is gonna crash.
Awesome. Well, we’re hoping to get you Matthew out to Chicago sometime at the end of the summer and have a few beers.
Oh, my old stomping grounds!
And hopefully we can record a podcast at the same time. So we’ll see if that works out. I’m hoping it does.
Well there you go. See I think that’s the unique part of that, you know, the profession, [and]I think about your podcast is finding ways to connect those things that we’re all interested in. Of course, we’re interested in the profession and we all spend our lives in the profession. But also when you can connect the unique aspects of whether it’s, we’re growing our businesses in different ways, we have a passion for you know, homebrew, or craft breweries, it’s really, really fun to bring that together. I think that’s one of the things that is very rich about the accounting profession is because it’s so vast.
And there’s this homeless fundamental way that we’ve all been taught and educated in it. And we all care about it. But also, there’s so much diversity we’re seeing these days that you think we’re the only people who like craft beer, and then we run into you, Randy, and we have this amazing podcast where we’re like—I don’t know if you saw the title of that podcast, Randy, I mean, are one of the things we put out there?
What was it?
It just said, like, “Is this the most perfect guest we’ve ever had on Drink While You Think?” Right?
Because you just shared so many of the same passions. It was just fantastic. Just fantastic.
And that’s so cool about you and the podcast and this—I wouldn’t have met you without this. And just sitting there drinking with you guys was so much fun. And then okay, so now we’re going on tangents, which is great—I love all this. What I do want to do, and we can go all day, but I can’t because I have a [thing] in 51 minutes.
But I do want to go back to the way you built this because you touched on it, and I wanted to get back to this—you know, the sales. Because you mentioned it, CPA firms—my voice is gonna get high now because I’m getting excited. You mentioned it—I mean, CPA firms, partners, are supposed to be out selling, and I just don’t get that. With Tri-Merit, we started from day one, well, I’ll say year one, with hiring a salesperson. You know, as we grew it was like, “Okay, we hired an engineer. Oh, wait, now we have to pay the engineer. We need more sales. Oh, yeah. Let’s hire a business development person.” And so it sounds like you did that from the start. So give me a little background on your sales team and how you built it, and I guess what it looks like today.
Yeah, yeah. Again, I would tell folks, you can go back and look at the old predictable revenue model that’s out there all over, you can Google that. And we found exactly that. Which means, what we did was, we focused on outbound sales. So this is not relationship selling, it is—the dirty word for outbound sales is “cold calling.” It’s, you’re literally cold calling. And so accountants hear that and go, “No way in hell am I doing that. Nope, nope, nope. We’re a trusted professional. We don’t do that.”
My challenge to that is—yes, that’s all true. But I think that the things we learned that were really valuable about doing outbound sales were, we first of all, we learned that outbound sales is incredibly analytical, right? We used to get people who’d say, “Oh, I’ll be your business development rep, because I have this great Rolodex, and I just know all these people.” And, you know, it’s hard to assess that. Like, how do I know this person’s got all of it?
Now, on the outbound sales side, you can say, “Well, we’re going to put together an outbound program that you’re going to reach out to fifty prospects a day. There’s tools and technologies that allow us to do that, within industry segmentation—the types of clients we like—and they’re reaching out with, so we used to run, we call it the cadence. And the cadence would be fifty people per day per sales rep. And they would reach out and do something, like we’d call it “seven touches cadence.” So maybe over a week, they would do a series of emails and phone calls to those fifty.
And what happens is, when you look at that, it’s not something that most people want to do. I’m not gonna lie to you. Who wants to? Because it’s “No, no, no,” all the time. But what you start creating is mathematically creating this funnel, and you are literally pushing fifty in per day, right?
One rep, 250 a week, and you start finding your conversion rates. “Okay, what makes sense? If I tweak the language a little bit, what starts converting?” And you can really go at it very scientifically, which I think is really interesting. So that’s one aspect—that it’s way more mathematical than people realize what I think should be comforting to most accountants. We like analytical things.
I think the other thing is, we also specifically went after non-accountants to sell this. Now, this was a theory we had, we wanted to test it, of like, “Can we teach these—we’re using young, just right out of college grads—to sell accounting services?” And what we found was not all of them were able to. But also accountants, we make a mistake a lot about like, we start getting super technical right away, and prospects kind of go “Ugh, here they go.” They just, they kind of glaze over.
What we were finding, was actually non-accountants, speaking to other non-accountants, they already kind of get a bit of a, “Oh, you’re speaking my same language. You’re not trying to talk over me or make me, you know, I don’t know what, what the hell’s EBITDA? I don’t know what a balance sheet is versus a P&L.” They’re not doing that, right? And so it really forced us to look at the way that the services we provided, and put them in plain English. If you’re going to have a non-accountant speak to another non-accountant about accounting services, how do you get this stuff in plain English right out, skip the jargon, all that crap, get it out.
That I think tightened up our marketing message and had an impact on our website. We started putting things in ways that were way friendlier than most accounting firms. In fact, we got a lot of great feedback about it as we refined this. They’re like, “You guys don’t sell like an accounting firm at all! Like, your prices are clear on the website,” and all this gets honed, when you’re out there being forced to deal with people saying “No,” or “You suck,” or “You’re terrible,” or “I don’t like this,” at least you’re getting feedback.
So I think getting a feedback loop going like that.
And then the third thing is, I think that doing outbound sales like that, it just builds toughness and courage. You know what? Anybody you meet, like, back in the day, you’d meet someone who was like a door-to-door salesperson back in the day? Those folks can go through walls, if they do that.
I mean, they’re used to it. And so you build a little bit of a muscle within your organization of like, “We’re not going to be afraid of no’s,” right? People are gonna say, “Oh, stop spamming me or stop, like why you calling?” You’re gonna get that. And it’s a good way to build a little bit of a little thicker, tougher layer there around your whole team and say, “Sure, we’ll deal with those, if we can get one out of every hundred of those someone goes, ‘Ah, you’re just the person I’ve been looking for.’”
And so we learned that. We’ve altered that approach over time, Randy, it’s still a lot of it’s that way. But I think that’s been really important for us, we got very, very close to the way that customers want to buy, what they wanted to see on the website. And I think we built some good toughness amongst that team of where, no is not a big deal to us. It doesn’t hurt our feelings at all.
Yeah, it’s funny, we’re probably a little bit slow to get there, the way you guys did from the start, but this is a big push of ours right now. Outbound sales is a big push. Our marketing team, we have a very robust marketing team that has grown over the last six months, and they—the things they are putting out is generating revenue, just from marketing, not even outbound sales. And then we have a, I guess you would call, “traditional” sales team, and we probably have eight or nine business development reps that are out selling. I don’t say selling, but generating—making relations and building relationships. And then bringing in business.
So our outbound sales team—I call it inside sales, but they are the outbound sales team, which officially kicked off about two months ago, and we’ve been talking about for a long time—the goal in the first year was I think, a million dollars of sales from them.
I think they hit it in a month. And so yeah.
I mean, it’s unbelievable how this has worked. And so, the outbound sales team is just two individuals—one manager and one, I guess, employee working for him. And that is rapidly going to expand because of the success that we are seeing already, and we’re also using things like Pardot, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that I think it’s a Salesforce add-on.
We use Pardot, we sure do.
Yep, yeah. And so we’re using that, and it just is really kicking off now as well. So I completely agree with everything you say. Our sales—our new business is going through the roof right now, and it’s because of these techniques that it sounds like you are a much smarter person than me and put these in place a lot quicker than we did. But I can attest that it is perfect, yes.
Quicker, Randy, is not smarter. We went in pretty early—maybe a little too early in some cases. But I will say that I’m not—I can look at a few different times in the business, and that was one of them, when I launched this whole sales initiative, is I had to focus most of my energy on that. And all these new young salespeople we had. It’s hard for me to think of a time when I learned more about the business through those eyes, right? Otherwise, you sit there and you think about it as an accounting professional, you just talk to other accountants, you look at it from our own lens, and boy, building up a sales organization, and having to go through that, is such an opportunity to learn about what resonates to the small business owner, right? That’s who our target client is. You learn so dang much about that. It’s just, it’s just invaluable.
And yeah, you’re gonna take some lumps, you’re gonna get your feelings hurt.
You can’t believe that you’re an accounting professional and someone’s mad at you because you know, you’re blowing up their inbox and asking them if they want to kind of, you know, you’re gonna get those. But I will say that the value we’ve gotten from learning, and then once we started getting good about really tweaking messaging and getting those conversion rates up, it gave us such confidence to move forward—such confidence as an organization, because we said accountants always love to talk about, “Oh, our number one source of business is referrals.” That’s great. We get a lot of referrals too. But I don’t ever want to be dependent on just referrals. We want to go and create and find our own opportunities at the same time, too. And so that was very important. Give us a lot of competence.
Yep. Alright. That sales information—I think, and I’m not the expert, I think you could do just a webinar on that. I think educating the profession would be huge. Or maybe you know somebody. I want to get—I started a monthly Practice Management webinar that we’re hosting on our website, you know, TheUniqueCPA.com / Tri-Merit.com is hosting a monthly [webinar], and that’s the first one today. I think that would be a huge topic to talk about just as a sales training type topic.
Before we wrap up, a couple of the last things I want to ask and one is, I know you have—your pricing is not the normal hourly billing pricing, at least I don’t think it is.
So you want to give us a little recap of how your pricing works?
Yeah, and so this is, actually is perfect, because it goes hand in hand with what we just talked about from a sales standpoint, Randy. We had surmised this, but we really felt when we launched the sales team—if you’re gonna have a sales team who are not accountants selling, boy, you better make things really clear and obvious to help them out. And that’s sort of with us, with pricing—we had to kind of go in and, you know, and figure out a way that we could kind of work the pricing.
And so on our Compliance Services, which for us are tax and bookkeeping—all of that is done fixed price, and it’s all on our website. From day one, we’ve never sold either of those services without there being clear, fixed pricing on the website. I wish I would have kept, for my own sake, just a history of all the different pricing changes we’ve made. There have been many of them, right? You kind of go and you show the three tier pricing, and you show all these different—we’ve done all of them. Again, once again, we were absolutely emulating the way that tech companies do pricing. We wanted to make this look like a subscription as much as possible. Because who are we selling to? Subscription-based SAAS technology companies. So we wanted to put it in a framework that they were used to.
And so yeah, we made a ton of mistakes, we mispriced things, all those things. But it was so helpful for us to really kind of pick apart different solutions we’re providing, and kind of go “Okay, well, how much time does this typically take us?” I mean, that’s where you start. Everyone goes, “Well, how do you do that? How do you do this?” You just got to break down into kind of unit economic components, different services you’re providing for a client, get some estimates, figure out the pricing, and just have a little bit of the audacity, little bit of courage, to stick it out there and say, “Well, I’m going to put up on the website, this price for this service.”
And you know what, you’re going to be wrong, you’re going to screw it up, but you go back and you change it, you go back and you change it, you put in your agreements that you can come every 90 days and change things. But you just start by doing that. And that’s really all it really takes is to kind of get things going. And you’ll be amazed by—we were amazed by—how quickly that helps convert on the sales side. It also really helped on some alignments with team members. We have a lot of team members at Acuity who are paid based on the book of business size. So right, they can quickly go look at the website and go “Well, this many clients using it roughly equals this, if they’re using these different solutions from Acuity,” they know they get a percentage of that revenue. It’s a very easy way, I think, to operate the business. And I think it was so refreshing for clients to see this. More and more accounting firms are doing it today, and I really applaud them for it.
Some of the advisory work is trickier, I think, than the compliance work, to fix price. We’re not 100% there yet on our advisory side. There’s still a lot of hourly stuff there that we’re kind of working through. But we are trying to push more and more to that. Because, you know, fast forward to today—I don’t know that we’ll ever get there, but I think that the inspiration I take about what our pricing should look like at some point is Acuity’s pricing page, our solutions should someday look like Amazon, right? And I say that because that’s how we’ve all been conditioned to buy things. I want to go and I want to go see the product, I want to know what the price is, I want to know what the return policy is on it very clearly, I’d love to get some reviews on it.
I was gonna ask. Yep.
You know, I think if you think about it that way people go “I can’t ever sell accounting services that way.” Why not? Like why? Why shouldn’t we push ourselves because that’s how every buyer in the world right now is conditioned to buy things, and then the more divergent we are from that. I think there’s risk to us being effective in selling. And so, I don’t know, I don’t know if we’ll ever get there one day where we just look like Amazon, our pricing looks like the Amazon of accounting. But you can go look at our price today and we’ve got all of our pricing up there. We believe in being fully transparent. We have no problem with other firms looking at what we’re doing, because the benefit of it is it stands out so much compared to competitors where clients see that and go “Gosh, you’re at least putting all the pricing out there right away.” And so it’ll help your sales team help you guys, us internally, it’ll certainly help the prospective clients.
And you still have to go in and monkey around with the pricing every so often. We just did a big pricing, update and change and review. But I think it’s a nice way to help really think very discretely about the services you’re offering, and how valuable they are to you as a firm if you kind of productize them like that.
Yep, no, I think that makes sense. It seems I mean, you’ve been at the beginning, again, you said “weirdness and unique ways.” I think you’ve just been ahead of everybody. I mean, honestly, that’s what it is, and that’s why you’ve grown. I mean, you know, I’m assuming 2014, 2013 was maybe slow growth, and 2013 on, it seems like it’s been pretty significant.
Shh, just don’t tell Matthew that.
Oh, okay, I won’t. And I I just assumed that I have no idea if that’s true or not.
That was very much the truth. And Matthew will not let me ever forget that. But I say hey, that’s why, you know, I know good talent. I know what growth looks like when I see it, Matthew, so you can be as happy as you want to be about the growth took off after you were there. I’ll just be happy that you know, I brought you on as a partner.
Exactly. Perfect. So you really, you get the credit for bringing him on, I mean.
There you go. Thank you, Randy.
That’s the key to this.
Alright. So I think I think we should probably wrap up. Before we do and I like to ask everybody this at the end. Great information you just gave us. I think people will learn a ton. I think it’s awesome. I love this profession. And we can go on all day. But I also want to know, what do you like to do that’s not this profession. What do you enjoy outside of work?
Well, a couple of things. I’m a big outdoors person. I love being outdoors. So you can almost find anything out there, whether it’s skiing, golfing, trail running, all kinds—I love being outside.
The other thing I’ve enjoyed doing, and I’ve been slow this year on it, Randy, but I just finished a batch. I just finished brewing a batch of beer, I just kegged it a couple days ago, my wife and I tried it last night, it needs a little bit more carbing up. So that whole home brewing went for bottling them out kegging and so I’ve got a saison that I just finished up here that is my wife’s favorite.
But I might want some adjustments to it next time. That’s been something kind of fun that’s I’ve been doing there. But yeah, those are those are where you can usually find me. Again I’ve got two two kiddos too. One in college, one in high school so don’t spend as much time with them only because they don’t want to spend time with me at that age.
Yeah. That changes.
And I’m a big travel buff. As hard as it is planning things, I’ve been—I love getting out and about traveling. So that’s good for me if I can get out and about travel, be outdoors, exercising and traveling, and finding a good place for a beer when there’s so many good breweries, Kenjiis in his happy place, and I’ll talk accounting all day long with you.
Nice. Alright. So what I just found out about that is, I just built a 16-foot trellis in my backyard that I have hops growing on right now.
Oh, no way!
I grew them last year, and brewed a beer with them, you know, you know, a wet hop brew. So this year, I decided, because [last year] I did a hodgepodge of trellises, and they kept going up and up and up. This year, I built this thing, which I have no idea how we got it in place, because 16 feet is pretty high.
it’s an A-frame. But what we’re gonna do is, when it’s time to harvest, I’m getting immediately into a plane, going to Atlanta, giving you a batch of it, and you’re gonna brew a beer, and then I’m gonna come back in a month or two, and I’m gonna taste the beer you’ve brewed.
And crack some of those open. That’s fantastic. I would do that in a heartbeat. Another one of my team members and Acuity grows some hops, too. So maybe we can do a little exchange.
There you go. Alright. Alright. I don’t brew enough. I’m gonna have way more hops that I can use so if someone can use them. I’ve been thinking, you know, I know a lot of breweries. I’m wondering, can they use my hops? I think they probably can’t, I don’t think there’s any regulations against where they get their hops from. They probably don’t want them, but… you never know.
So alright, well, last thing then, if anybody wants to find out more about Kenji or Acuity, where would they find information?
All the socials are typically Kenji Kuramoto—I know that’s not the easiest to spell. But I’m sure Randy will have links there. You can find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, all that good stuff. Or, I really encourage you to come over and listen to the episode with Randy, Matthew and I on our weekly happy hour conversation called Drink While You Think. You can find it on all the podcast areas, or you can find it also on YouTube. And we are always, every week, talking about the really weird things. We talked about some of the weird things we’re doing, Matthew and I are literally sharing every weird thing we do each week on that. So if you want to hear more, and if you want to get some great recommendations on beers, especially look at the episode with Randy because those were just phenomenal.
Alright. Well, that’s great. I appreciate that. I appreciate you being on the show and stick around for longer than we probably planned on, but thank you.
Glad to do it, Randy. Great to see you my friend, and thanks for having me on.
About the Guest
Kenji Kuramoto is the CEO and founder of Acuity. Acuity builds and maintains financial functions for thousands of companies with a full range of financial solutions from high-level strategic financial counsel through its fractional CFO practice, all the way to virtualized bookkeeping and tax services. Acuity has been named one of Accounting Today’s Top Firms For Technology and Top Firms To Work For.
Kenji also co-founded Acuity Invests, which makes seed-level investments in Accounting Technology, SaaS, FinTech, and Crypto companies. Prior to Acuity, he was the CFO of an Inc 5000 tech company and worked in the assurance practice at Arthur Andersen.
Kenji has served as a board member or advisor for The Entrepreneurs Organization, Staplehouse Restaurant (a subsidiary of The Giving Kitchen), Refuge Coffee, the Xero Partner Advisory Counsel, the Gusto Partner Advisory Counsel, and the FreshBooks Partner Advisory Counsel. He has an accounting degree from Wake Forest University and was The Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 40 Under 40, a TIE Top Entrepreneur, and a Hubdoc Top 50 Cloud Accountant.
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.