The Recession-Proof Accountant

CPAs flock to at-home offices to battle downturn. Is it the right move for you?

November 20, 2008
by Rick Telberg/On Careers

If past recessions are any guide, the number of CPAs launching solo or side practices should surge in the next few months. But is it the right strategy for you?

The practitioners I hear from who are already working at home give it a double thumbs up. Still, the work-at-home accounting practice is not for everyone. It requires the right focus, self-discipline and an appropriate home-office setup.

Don Weinstein has seen the trend before. Even now, as vice president of strategy and marketing at Automatic Data Processing Inc., he notes that small business has generally been faring better than large business. And franchising is expanding. Indeed, CPAs can be very competitive.

Harking back to his days at a Big Four accounting firm, Weinstein told me, “I know that when I worked in consulting, whenever someone left, they hung out their own shingle and started working with the same clients, but at half the price because they didn’t have all the overhead of the large company.”

But, how do they like it? CPAs who own their own home-based businesses tend to be extraordinarily enthusiastic about what they do and are apt to encourage other CPAs to branch out on their own.

In a series of surveys of over 1,617 accountants and CPAs, 66 percent say working at home is “great!” Thirty-two percent call it “okay” and only two percent call it “lousy.”

“Try it. You might like it. It’s much easier to coordinate work and personal life if they are in the same place,” advises Maurie Fox-Warren, who operates an at-home public practice in Cambridge, Mass., that focuses on small business and professionals. She launched the business after first working for another local CPA firm.

“If you want some freedom and the opportunity to control your own destiny, then go for it. There seems to be plenty of work to go around,” adds Tammy Paxton who also owns a CPA practice at her home.

John Sibley, who owns an at-home public practice in suburban Chicago, boasts that being his own boss enabled him to take the time off to watch his daughter play in a college basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C., last year. He also notes that he’s more productive at home because he has eliminated his former three-hour commute and “the low overhead means more profit to the owner — me.”

Speaking of overhead, John B. Barfield is quick to mention that owning his own at-home practice in Atlanta saves him considerably on gasoline for his car. The amount of those savings has probably increased since you started reading this post.

While the majority of CPAs who own a home business work them full-time, eight percent work less than 10 hours per week on their home businesses, in many cases after other jobs elsewhere.

David Jauvtis, who runs a public practice at his home in Monsey, N.Y., advises others seeking to work from home to “build up slowly as a moonlighting situation and then take the plunge.”

Before taking a plunge consider the elements that CPAs who own their own businesses identify as most essential to successful work at-home arrangements:

And the answer is:

  • The right attitude and self-discipline
  • Good technology
  • A dedicated and quiet work area
  • Experience and maturity

Experience and maturity often help confident practitioners realize that they may be more successful by themselves in a small shop than in a big organization among many others.

"It's great that there are no office politics or commute," says Leah Melton, who runs an at-home accounting business in Avondale Estates, Ga. "But the bad is that there is no one to bounce ideas off, no one to share the laughter with."

Indeed, isolation from peers is what home business-owner CPAs most identify as their biggest work challenge. The top challenges in order of how often identified are:

  • Isolation from peers
  • Meeting clients in professional settings
  • Lack of administrative support
  • Time management

For home business-owner accountants, time management is more than just balancing the hours spent on marketing for new clients with those spent completing business at hand. It can also mean overcoming the temptation to work too much because you feel so comfortable at home.

For example, Frances Wallace says the convenience of her home business enables her to get more work done, but she also admits to sometimes working until 3 a.m.

Ron Villiotti says the big drawback to his home public practice in Castle Rock, Colo., is “a tendency, especially during tax season, to always be on the job.”

Kim Hartman, who also is aware of the temptation to work too much at her home business in Franklin, Tenn., notes, “A dedicated office is essential, preferably a separate room, so that you can walk and ‘leave’ work.”

Indeed, back in Cambridge, Mass, Fox-Warren has this one negative to say about her home business: “It isn't great that you never are away from the office.”

SOUND-OFF: What's your work-at-home story? Tell me here.

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