With Ellen Choi
Making technology work for your firm is the theme on Episode 112 of The Unique CPA. Randy talks to Ellen Choi, co-founder of Aiwyn, an automation platform for accounting firms. She talks about how Aiwyn helps firms streamline processes and overcome resistance to change. Leveraging AI, through what she describes as the “virtuous cycle of mutual learning,” can help not only to improve value based pricing and client experience for firms of any size, but increase the knowledge and understanding of the humans who use these AI-based tools.
Today, our guest is Ellen Choi. Ellen is co-founder of Aiwyn. And Aiwyn is a practice automation platform that has a few different functions—client engagement automation, billing automation, payment automation, collection automation—you know, I probably shouldn’t even go into it. Let’s welcome Ellen to the show, and we’ll have her kind of explain Aiwyn and her background itself. So Ellen, welcome to The Unique CPA.
Thanks, Randy for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be here. And I would love to explain all of those automations that you just listed, you know that we do we do automation. So I think we definitely got that part, right.
Yeah! So we’d love to tell you a little bit more about my background and how we started I went on, I think that will give you kind of just more of context of why we’re doing what we’re doing today.
So my background just really quick, I studied data science, just big data, like basically, large complex regressions, before it was machine learning and AI. But really, you know, I think that that was just the trajectory. So did a lot of that in school, and then worked at Google’s finance team doing technology and automation projects, and also wearing a lot of different hats—data science, business, analytics, HR, Finance. And we use, you know, since we’re being recorded, I’m not gonna say the name of the system that we use for our ERP, but let’s just say that we did not like using it—it was very clunky, like, you know, very old, just, you know, so what really ended up happening was a lot of just very manual, repetitive processes, you know? Lots of Excel files passed around, very insecure, very, very, you know, non compliant, you know, things happening.
And we’re talking about Google, you know, which is a technology leader in our society. So, you know, from my perspective, like, I just basically, you know, why do I need to deal with all this crappy software, when there’s so much great, like, consumer software out there, you know, so for me, like, you know, being on this founders’ journey, it’s really trying to solve a problem that I experienced personally, and having very deep empathy for the back office, you know, worker, that have to deal with kind of some of these legacy tooling, you know, things that are that don’t talk to each other, fragmented, which I think Randy, having spent a lot of time in the space, you are probably familiar with a lot of sort of a dynamics of what I’m discussing, you know, that exist.
Oh, yeah, yeah.
So after that, yeah, I got my MBA, came back out, worked, actually, as went into product management at a mobile gaming startup. So actually learned a lot about digital engagement, and, you know, just kind of consumer experiences. And one of the things that I’ve just been really interested in doing is really meringue, kind of the, you know, experience of cutting edge, like consumer-grade experiences with powerful, fully functional, high-ROI software for the enterprise.
And so before even, I started another company, building B2B, SaaS software for HR, so that company started this company with my co founders, you know, kind of with the same pieces of, can we bring, you know, modern, you know, like, very highly, greatly experiential, you know, tooling to a space that has now seen a lot of innovation, quite frankly, and a lot of the software that, you know, we’re using today from the CPA firm’s perspective, so it kind of started, you know, Aiwyn, kind of the thesis and my co-founder, Justin, he is a serial entrepreneur as well, along with Pat, and basically, when they sold their last company, they had accountants that were doing really great work. But, you know, three months after the work was done, they got an invoice for the work, you know, say, why, where did this invoice come from? Why did they bill us at the time?
So that really just drove home the point, you know, the fact that I mean, like, revenue is the lifeblood of a company, no firm, you know, we’re like, right, so it’s like, how is it possible that, you know, this process is not being run tightly as it should be? So we just started digging and digging and digging and just, you know, from our perspective, we’re a very customer-first, customer-centric, company so then started doing lots of interviews. I’m really like, you know, our earliest customers, you know, CPA firms pointed us the revenue cycle, just saying, hey, like, the billing is such a, it’s such a hot mess. You know, clients, it’s so cumbersome for them to pay, we don’t know how much AR is outstanding, really, it’s like a very fragmented, painful process.
So then, you know, we realized there was so much opportunity to really partner with CPA firms and you know, help them on a problem that is just so core to thriving and growing, you know, their business. So we started, you know, Aiwyn kind of with that thesis, and started with a payments and collections automation, and then kind of started to build other parts on top of the existing tooling. And one of our really like superpowers that we developed very early on is, we developed really tight integrations with kind of all sorts of different tools that CPAs use today, starting out with the practice management systems. So we spent a lot of time just making sure we can have, you know, read access to the core data, so we can provide an experience where the client can pay in two clicks on mobile instead of ten different steps that they might have to take with the system, you know, that’s not integrated.
So like, we have that sort of automation, and modernize experience along every single step of sort of the different workflow cycles that we support. And we’re just kind of building more and more on top of the automation that we’re discussing that you kindly listed at the beginning. You know, so really excited about the potential for that. So yeah, that’s a little overview of Aiwyn.
Nice, I mean, things that you said there, I find so intriguing from just the ten clicks to two clicks and automation and saving time, and which is something that I talk about a lot. And what I find often, it just seems like when people go or look at automation, or look at change in technology, that they get scared. There’s this, I think it’s our brains, just see this short term, and I’m gonna say pain, but I’m not sure it really pain, but the short term pain, it really is. Okay, we’re gonna make changes, oh, no pain, short term pain, I can’t deal with that. And they can’t see past that to all the long term gain, that’s going to be there all the savings they’re going to have down the road, getting paid quicker, like you just said. I’m probably jumping way further ahead in the conversation than normal. But when you just said that, I was thinking of that. So is that something you see that there is resistance to change in technology and automation? And how do you deal with that?
Yes, no, that’s a great question. And something that we think about constantly day in and day out. Because you’re absolutely right. Really, like, you know, one of the biggest sort of like, objections that we hear, it’s actually that, like, your software is great. Like, I get the ROI. Like, it’s just, it’s a matter of when not if, like, we’re going to implement it someday, just not today. Not today.
Exactly. You know, so from our perspective, it’s really like, trying to help them understand yes, like, you know, in the short term, this is really painful. And there’s also, a lot of it is just very, like, emotional, right? And mental. And it’s just like having the mindset to like, be able to say, I’m going to change, and not everything’s gonna go exactly the way that I expect, because nothing ever does in life, but we’re gonna come out at the other end successful, and, you know, this is gonna be like a game changer for us.
So from our perspective, we actually coach our, you know, out of the firms, our contacts, you know, our main contacts, in terms of the change management, you know, of, like, the rest of the organization have to roll it out, you know, how to actually have messaging and framing and one of the things that we actually also coach them on is let’s actually make it less scary, you know, by having very small wins—iterate, actually build, right, like build sort of like the positive experience and momentum, and then iterate again, on top of that, on top of that, and that’s one of the reasons, actually, main reasons why we started out by implementing our payments solution for our customers, because that has the lightest lift, and it’s also very high-ROI and doesn’t require as much change management as some of the other high-ROI, you know, automation out there.
But that is kind of like a wedge into showcasing, hey, look, like, dip your toe and it’s a great experience. Now, like, put the bottom half of your body in, and it’s going to be a little painful, but like, you know, have you ever experienced a little bit and it wasn’t that bad, right? You know, it’s absolutely like coaching them through that is a really key part of our experience in working with firms.
And the last point I would say on that is we also make our implementation really simple. And we realize like just kind of giving everyone like the easy button to kind of like do every single step, you know, from the beginning in terms of the change management helps a great deal because when you make it super, super concrete and with, you know, milestones and project management and tasks, you know, sort of like very concretely outlined like, it then becomes something that’s like nebulous. Something that’s a lot more like concrete. And that’s just something that’s more certain and concrete is a lot easier to change with and deal with than something that is just kind of like, you know, out there.
Yeah, I love the baby steps. Let’s start with the small, let’s see, okay, see how little that pain was, and see how big the gain was, and see. And I love that, that you’re kind of going through the psychology of change when you’re when you’re doing this. That’s pretty cool. I haven’t had heard people—I’m sure they do. But I haven’t heard people talk about that before. And there’s so many things firms can do more efficiently, that they just avoid. And if you can help them make that change, I think that’s awesome.
Absolutely, yeah. Because at the end of the day, you know, the thing is, we’re not like, we’re not selling a technology, we’re selling a solution to a pain point, you know, and we never want to lose sight of that. Technology is absolutely the enabler like we, we need our product and technology to actually like, solve the problem. But like, solving the problem requires a couple of other major facets, you know, here, which is also, you know, making sure that the organization is set up to actually like receive the automation, you know, well, or scale, and things like that I’m really helping our firms and coaching them through kind of that transformation, the digital transformation, as well, alongside technology and using technology as a wedge for them for that organizational transformation. Because at the end of the day, that’s just as critical as being able to use new technologies for automation.
Yep. And then your software, your system, your solution? I don’t know if that’s the right question. But standalone? Or is there other systems within the firm that it’s going to supplement or work with the end to gather data and do with these other—how does it integrate, I guess, with other systems?
Yeah, so our system integrates really, usually like, it requires another system, like another practice management system for us to really like build on top of and enhance and accelerate. And that’s something that we recognized really early on as well, which is firms have spent a lot of investment and time into building out their existing practice management system configurations, whether it’s custom dev work, or the change management required, as you know, really great. So from our perspective, you know, we want to once again, we’re solving the problem, we’re not introducing technology for the sake of introducing, you know, cool technology, but it’s like, how do we actually make this useful for you? And really, the answer so far has been, you know, you don’t even have to change your process, we can actually help you enhance with technology, what you already have, like, and you can actually go very far. So that’s been our orientation so far.
Also, because as you know, there’s lots of tooling in the space that don’t talk to each other. And just that fragmentation of technology and process, you know, like workflows that are siloed, that’s like, a really big problem. And we don’t want to necessarily add to that noise. So from our perspective, we want to be the unifier, a platform that actually can ingest, like the other systems, workflows and relevant information and be able to turn, you know, something cohesive, that firms can use, that combines different types of data sources, or be able to automate, you know, from one system to the other. So from our perspective, from day one, we’ve been very oriented towards, how do we work really well, you know, with other systems that the firms already have today, so they can get the most value out of all the systems they have?
Got it. Okay, and then, and then from your platform in general, is there like, an ideal candidate? Or what’s the normal firm that works with you? Is there a size? Is there a service? Is there—I’m assuming that everybody can use it. But is there an ideal candidate, I guess?
Yeah, what we find is that, you know, we our solution solves kind of a few major, you know, different variants of like pain points, like one of them is aging AR, so we find that out on an accounting firm that has massive, you know, like AR problem, like that firm is a great candidate for getting a lot of value out of our system, because we actually help to double the speed of cash flow and really cut down the AR and like make collections you know, much faster. So a firm that has a problem, just great candidates for great fits for, you know, finding value from our solution.
Lots of times when firms are trying to modernize their client experience and you know, for many firms, that is a very big topic in terms of pay, lots of our clients are just like it’s more and more upcoming, like millennials are making decisions, you know, younger, younger clients, we have to keep up like, how can we actually make sure we can compete well? Then, like the modern or modern theory, like very delightful frictionless client experience like that really addresses that. So like, firms that have like strategic imperatives around that like also a really great fit.
Capacity is just a universal challenge in our industry, but in particular, you know, firms where maybe people are retiring that have very specific, you know, domain knowledge on collections, and payments, and like building processes and things like that those firms are really interested in using our solution because they can actually get get that tribal knowledge into a technology form. So it’s not lost. And it’s not human dependent. And, you know, many times if those types of resort like talent is kind of they’re getting they’re retiring or, you know, it’s really difficult to find that we’re helping them to solve that problem. So we really like when we talk to CPA firms that we’ve really tried to understand like, what are your biggest hair on fire problems? And do those problems fit into, you know, something that we can help you like solve for and those three buckets, I would say are kind of the main ones.
Okay, that’s nice. There’s a couple things you just said in there, a couple of words, a couple of key phrases: one, just talking about the profession in general, you mentioned capacity issues; two, you were talking about showing the value of what you bring to them. I’m going to mesh those together, and talk about just billing in general, because you are a billing collections platform and everything. And I know you and I’ve talked a little bit before about this, but you’ve seen a change towards value billing. And I think that solves a lot—I think I mean, that’s my personal opinion. But I think selling hours is one of the worst things we do as a profession. I’m just gonna throw it out there. Do you have thoughts on the move to value million or even subscription pricing? Is that something that you think about as a platform that deals with that?
Absolutely. So really like what we do, like our solution, we automate, streamline, digitize the revenue cycle. Like we really help them improve, we help them improve, accelerate, throw their revenue, and I think value based pricing, and can you actually charge more for the work that you’re doing? Which is almost certainly yes, for our customers like, that is a very direct improvement to the top line. So this is something that we’ve actually, you know, we knew from day one that we want to help firms kind of go there and support them in the journey as an industry. And it’s been really exciting to see the progress, you know, that now we’re starting to see the, you know, kind of the leading edge firms that are like, doing value based pricing, you know, for new clients, we’re going to put them on subscription, we’re going to, you know, templatisize, like our services, and like put a price on it. And, you know, I’ve seen kind of saw these processes play out kind of at a very nascent stage for, you know, a subset of our industry, which is really exciting.
So for us, we think about that a lot, we think about how can we use technology and AI to really help, you know, our firms solve for that problem? And the other thing about, you know, our team is, we all we’ve always thought, you know, AI is a great force multiplier, and that’s something that we, you know, like, you know, sprinkled in and baked in from the big beginning of our product development. So a lot of us, you know, it’s also very exciting specifically for value billing, there’s a lot of work that we could be doing, and using kind of a lot of these interesting AI techniques to help firms better understand, yes, you should be billing 20% more, you know, this service, you know, that you did, don’t just slap a 10% [increase], like you can actually double the price. So that’s something that we’re productizing and building into our technology today. And you know, from our perspective, like, it’s just really exciting to see.
And really like the end game that I think makes sense for our industry is really like switching the idea of productivity from “unit of time” to “unit of outcome or output,” right? And like, that’s just kind of been years and years and making. But I think really, the first step is to say we’re going to price things, not based on time, but we’re going to price it based on output or outcome, right? And then the next step is, and I think this is, I think it will happen and some of the firms have adopted it as actually say, you know, we’re never going to going to track time anymore, because it is not necessary for us to be able to measure the profitability and productivity, you know, of our employees. And I think, for me, that’s really, really exciting. Because just think about how much time and effort you know, our industry spends on like, time entry and how effective that is, which is not super effective, you know, from, I think that’s probably not a very controversial statement. You know, yeah. So from my perspective, it’s like, how can we help firms do that? And that’s really interesting for us.
Yeah, it is. It’s the more the more and more I talk about pricing and billing and hourly, you know, because I do a lot of presentations on mental health and burnout. And I think selling hours is one of the worst culprits when it comes to why burnout is an issue for so many people in this profession.
And so, I like the fact that you, you’re helping firms while you’re out there, make this change.
You mentioned AI as we’re going to ChatGPT is going, and your name, Aiwyn is actually the AI in there.
I assume AI is something that you thought about from the start when you’re doing this, but AI has I think, probably really forwarded a lot since you even named the firm, hasn’t it?
Yes, absolutely. It’s very interesting. Because, yes, it has forwarded a lot, but a lot of it is also very much, I think the public, sort of like conception has caught up with the actual technology that’s been going behind the scenes.
You know, so from our perspective, you know, so Randy, I live in Silicon Valley, I live in San Francisco. So I just I’ve seen like, you know, all the crazy sort of like hype cycles going up all the investments, you know, that are going into startups. And it’s just really, really exciting times right now, here, you know, in Silicon Valley, just a lot of like, technology, sort of like breakthroughs. And I think these are things that we don’t necessarily see like in the industry, but we probably feel it. And I actually really—Joe Woodard from your last podcast, said something that really resonated with me, which was that, you know, his point was that you don’t have to be an expert, you know, as a CPA firm in AI, because AI is just embedded in like, all the software and all the tooling that you use. So really, like, the thing that you should do is understand, like those toolings and those products, you don’t need to actually understand very specifically, but, you know, it’s basically what’s like the outcome. And you know, what’s the impact of AI in the tooling that you use today.
And that really resonated, because I see a lot of the foundation work that’s been happening in Silicon Valley today, a lot of the technology behind the foundation models, you know, a lot of enterprise, you know, AI startups in generative AI that are building like, development, like there’s just this whole, like infrastructure of being able to have startups take very easy advantage of all the latest AI breakthroughs, kind of the way that, you know, Joe was describing. So we can just all have aI just sprinkled in through all of the software and the technology that we use, and I actually ultimately think that’s what’s going to happen, it’s going to be way beyond, you know, ChatGPT, which is, I think, kind of like the main buzz, I really like ChatGPT. It’s just, it’s like a symbol, I think of a capability. And that capability will just be embedded into, you know, all the tooling that we use over time. And from our perspective, that’s what we’re investigating, you know, as a as an AI company, how do we actually take advantage, all the latest breakthroughs and technologies into embedded into our software?
So the firms don’t even have to know that it’s AI, but it’s just so much better. Like the value based pricing the recommendations and the predictive insights? Like, it’s 10x. You know, it’s like, actually, like something that wasn’t able before, regardless of AI or not.
Yeah, I assume AI is just going to give us insights into that pricing model that makes sense. We can look at profitability without tracking hours, we can see. Yeah, I didn’t even think about that part. But that’s pretty cool.
I see a good future for our profession. And I see that fear factor not having to be large, I know people fear what’s going on? How am I going to integrate this, you’re not gonna have to, because Ellen just told us—it’s gonna be sprinkled in? Yeah, it’s going to be there, we’re going to be using it. And that’s the key for us.
It’s gonna be just magic behind the scenes.
It’s like just magic dust sprinkled into all of our software. And there it goes. And it happens. And we’re more efficient.
So that was all great information. I love to see what you’re doing. I love the pricing talk and the magic dust of AI going into these softwares. Before I ask you a final few questions. Do you want to kind of give us a wrap on what you see talk about whatever your product automation in general, what the future is? Or just, you know, give us a little wrap on what you what your your passions are with technology, I guess?
Yeah. So I think we definitely covered a lot of it, which is how do we really, like, help to really improve the lives of you know, our customers, right? In terms of how do we make them more efficient, more effective? How do we make them less frustrated, you know, at the end of the day, like, just like, how do we have a very delightful cohesive experience in which like, they can actually do the work that they want to be doing in a very strict straightforward, easy way, and how we help them grow revenues?
You know, so that’s actually at a very high level, something that you know, it’s super exciting for us, and we wake up every single day, and really motivated to work on that. And I think, going back to this, you know, train of thought on AI. One of the things that we think very deeply about is how do we integrate that AI into, you know, our software product? And one of the papers that from MIT review actually, that we read that informed our thinking was kind of all about human-AI partnership and reinforcement learning and mutual learning. And I think that’s like a really interesting model for us to think about, especially because as you know, there’s a lot of sort of like, fear, you know, is it going to replace our jobs? Like, are we gonna have to, you know, is it a zero sum game? And I think there’s definitely many, many concerns that we have to work out, you know, short, mid length long term as an industry, and really, society, you know, as a whole.
But the model that we think makes sense is that humans and AI, they learn from each other, and like, it’s a virtuous circle, you know, so like, you’re training the AI, but the AI is, is also able to generate answers and suggestions and things that a human may not have thought of, where it’s like actually teaching the humans something else. And you know, it’s able to then take—so it’s like a very interactive, you know, very virtuous circle loop of mutual learning that helps to improve essentially, the performance of each. And I think that’s something that we really want to make sure we can embed in a way that is very productive for our customers.
Nice. I like that. I like the way you say it, because it’s us together. We’re both human, AI, working together, teaching each other and learning from each other and, and helping us to be what you said that they’re being more productive. Because the bottom line is, that’s everything—being more productive, working less, making more, avoiding burnout, can’t have an episode without me saying burnout—avoiding burnout is important.
Alright, well, that was great. I have a couple of last questions, I’d like to ask you. And I didn’t warn you ahead of time. So we’ll, we’ll see if you’re prepared for this or not.
But one question I asked everybody is, you know, Alright, this is great. I love this information. I love you’re passionate about what you’re doing and everything. But I assume you have outside of work passions as well. What do you like to do when you’re not working on the Aiwyn information?
Yeah! Well, you know, as a founder, we’re always working 24/7 in the background, but we do other things outside of work. So I love spending time with my friends and family. I have a niece and nephew who are like in the elementary school age, so they’re just in a super fun age. So I love spending time with them. I love hiking, just getting out in nature. So this year, actually, I pulled out a mental map of the US and I thought I’m traveling so much this year, let me actually see how many states have I not been to? So basically, I realized there were 17 states that I have not been to yet. So one of my goals this year is to try to hit more states that I have not visited yet. So right now, I’m just looking for us to sign a customer in North or South Dakota, so I can go visit the customer.
Nice. Has Illinois been on your list already? I assume it has.
Yeah. I have been to Illinois many times. It’s a very lovely, lovely state, as you know,
Yeah. It’s where I’m at. And we’re having a conference. The plan is that we will see you at our conference. So I’m looking forward to that as well.
Yes, I am too.
Alright. And then the final question, if people want to find out more about you or Aiwyn, where would they get more information?
Yeah, um, yeah, our website’s always a great initial resource. You know, Aiwyn.AI. Our LinkedIn is always also a really great resource. We’re quite active there. And, you know, we post a lot on what we’re doing, you know, where we’re going, what we’re thinking, fun post, you know, professional pose, like the entire gamut. So I would definitely encourage anyone that’s interested in Aiwyn to follow us on LinkedIn, or anyone can just shoot me an email as well. So Ellen@Aiwyn.ai.
There you go. Well, I had the pleasure of meeting you recently. We’ve had a handful of conversations. I always enjoy them. So I really appreciate you being on the show.
Awesome. And thank you so much for having me on the show. I really enjoyed this conversation as well.
About the Guest
Ellen Choi is the co-founder and COO of Aiwyn, which has the stated mission to automate and enhance the revenue cycle to help accounting firms increase capacity, speed up cash flow, and deliver a superior client experience. A multiple startup entrepreneur, she previously founded CareerLark, which provided employee performance and engagement tools embedded within teams’ workflows, and which was acquired in 2021.
Ellen earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Economics and Management Science & Engineering at Stanford University, and her MBA in Management from the Harvard Business School.
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.