In a prior post, I wrote about how in order for an accounting firm to go national, it helps to have a niche. Lots of firms take that path, and I profiled a few. But I’m also curious and very open to being proven wrong, so I thought I’d report on the other side of things.
To wit: a generalist can do just fine. In fact, sometimes a generalist firm or practitioner is at an advantage, provided they are what we’ll call an “expert generalist.” (And not, as I’ve shared previously, a guy who gets paid to do nothing, which is a very different business model.)
Today I’ll explore the idea of expert generality through an exemplar of this type, Jason Deshayes, CPA/PFS, CFP ®, CKA®, Chief Tax Officer at Cook Wealth. He works at a firm with 17 employees that’s gone national while sporting nothing more specific than “tax and accounting.” And they’re doing fine. More than fine. Their advisory revenues are up 16x over just the last year.
Must like variety and possibly have synesthesia
An expert generalist is someone who is comfortable with and loves learning new stuff. They like to be dropped into an unknown environment, find their bearings, and develop situational expertise. But then, they don’t dwell. They move on. And keep doing that. As an accountant, that proclivity works very well when you love applying those learnings across fields.
Once you see 150 different business’ books, and talk to just as many owners, your brain starts to make novel connections. For example, wow, the cat cafes have got revenue recognition all wrong. They really ought to be learning from the doggy diners. Or, wow, agencies that carry an “uplift” clause in their contract where they automatically raise their rates to adjust for annual inflation really did well in 2022. What other businesses should be thinking about that? Or, why have 62 percent of businesses still not heard of R&D tax credits when nearly all industries have a way of qualifying?
The way Jason tells it, this comes naturally when you crave variety.
“I mean, I’ve never understood how in the profession, you ‘niche up’ and only serve dentists or breweries or whatever,” he says, “I’ve just never been about to get myself into that fully because I like the variety and think lessons learned from some industries translate really well into other ones. If you think about how the issues a dental practice deals with are similar to what a chiropractor has to deal with, or any medical practice, it just keeps getting more interesting.”
This, more than anything, Jason feels, positions him to be a more than capable advisor.
You get to understand the whole business, not just the parts
Another advantage to non-specialization is seeing how the entire business functions. It’s just like in the sciences, where people tend to head down a path of over-specialization to the point where each individual develops an “arcane and esoteric view of [their] subject” and loses the ability to think about the bigger picture. Or to talk to other people—e.g., clients who often lack your expertise—about the problem.
“It helps you talk to folks all throughout the business, even those who aren’t owners, who have ideas they want to run by someone,” says Jason. “It helps you say, yeah, I think you’re on the right track in that area, but be careful about this one thing. As just one example, I had a client who had to deal with a whole bunch of issues around classifying people as contractors rather than out-of-state employees, and I can tell any other business using contractors, look where that got them.”
Not to mention, an esoteric-level understanding of your client’s business may give you great confidence going into meetings. But how often is that level of knowledge necessary?
“I recently got back from Albuquerque to visit old clients, especially one in the powder coating world. Do I know the differences between electrostatic painting versus anodizing? No. But I know a lot about trying to expand your business and forming a succession plan to a family member,” says Jason. “All businesses, it comes down to a few common things, and then you can connect them with the right specialist or legal counsel. We connect people. I think that’s what makes the difference between a really good advisor and not just an accountant.”
Do good work, and word will spread
Jason told me about how referrals cascade through families, networking organizations, and more. It’s like a (relatively) weak AM radio wave that, while it might not be as high-fidelity as its FM radio cousin, travels long distances.
Especially if you have some unique-ish angle on your general help, like advising on people operations.
“I think I was one of the first one hundred People Advisors, if I remember correctly. What led me to it is you’ve got a few things that tend to confuse every business like health insurance. I served on a health insurance board for a few years and, man, I was in the guts of the machine and I still had trouble processing it,” says Jason. “I’d make healthcare easy for them, and once we were talking about health insurance, we’d zoom out to a more holistic take. We’d talk tax planning, people advice, financials, and they’d end up becoming clients, saying, ‘Wow you guys do a bunch of stuff—it’s like having seven advisors here.’”
Do that and keep up that work, and word spreads. Also, people spread.
“My old firm was very dominant in one locality, but occasionally people would move to New Mexico or Denver or California, who’d take us with them,” says Jason. “And we’ve had a number of relationships with families who’d expand and move, and we’d build relationships with advisors and attorneys and bankers in those new places, and so our practice just kept expanding. We kept saying ‘Yes.’”
And just because you don’t advertise yourself as a specialist doesn’t mean your clients don’t see you that way. Jason says dentists tend to tell other dentists. Folks in agriculture tell other folks in agriculture. You do good enough work and people will want to tell other people, and they’re bound to tailor your message to their friends to say the thing those people most need to hear.
When you’re an expert generalist, it doesn’t so much matter where those people are calling in from, or what they’re calling about. You love to be dropped into that sort of situation.
Plus, with Cook Wealth’s 16x increase in advisory revenues over the last year, who can argue with the approach?