Editor's Note: This is the third in a new podcast series featuring the "2016 Most Powerful Women in Accounting."
In Part 3 of our series featuring the "2016 Most Powerful Women in Accounting," Joe Woodard speaks with Robin Hall, CEO and principal professional of VARC Solutions. Her firm is one of the nation’s largest and most respected QuickBooks and QuickBase consulting firms.
Joe and Robin discuss her journey from sole practitioner to firm builder, the challenges she faced reaching her goals, and some of the amazing and unprecedented opportunities for QuickBooks ProAdvisors in today’s drastically shifting technology landscape.
You can hear this podcast and others here.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the "Scaling New Heights Podcast."
Full transcript of the episode follows:
Joe: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Scaling New Heights Podcast. During this episode, I will continue my conversations with a few of CPA Practice Advisor’s "2016 Most Powerful Women in Accounting." When that announcement was made in October 2016, the editor-in-chief of CPA Practice Advisor said that, "These leaders are setting new standards for professionalism with accounting," and I agree – I couldn't agree more.
These are leaders who are absolutely driving the direction of the profession, and today, I'm going to get to speak with one of these talented leaders, Robin Hall.
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Now, let me tell you a little bit about Robin. Robin is the president and principal consultant of VARC Solutions, specializing in QuickBooks and QuickBase training and consulting. Now, her specialty is taking small and large business clients to the next level. Wherever you are in that emerging cycle, Robin will get you through that emerge process and allow you to scale. She'll also teach those businesses how to be self-sufficient and Robin's the developer of several tools that assist clients and other accountants and is certified in numerous products, such as QuickBase, TSheets, of course the entire QuickBooks product line, Method and Revel.
Now, I couldn't begin to list all the awards that Robin has earned over the past six years, but her most recent achievements include being named as one of CPA Practice Advisors "2016 Most Powerful Women in Accounting," obviously because she's part of this series with us, Insightful Accountant's "2016 QuickBooks ProAdvisor 100 Award Winner" and "Top Trainer/Writer," and Intuit's "2016 Sales Excellence Award."
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Robin, welcome to the podcast.
Robin: Thanks for having me here Joe. I'm very excited to be here today.
Joe: Well, it is great to have you on board. You are a premium example of exactly how a successful Intuit-centric consulting firm should operate. I've been to your offices in Huston and it's an amazing operation, an amazing infrastructure that you've built.
I'm excited about the conversation, because I know there are a lot of QuickBooks consultants who are listening to the podcast today and they're thinking, "Okay. How can I take that next step and how can I emerge from wherever I am today?" – if it's a sole proprietor to working with a couple of employees to building out an organization like yours where they can be winning sales awards issued by Intuit and they can be among the most influential people within the profession. So, let's talk about your journey a little bit.
When you were moving from a sole proprietor to a firm with multiple employees - big, big step, right? How did you know it was the right thing and how did you know it was the right time?
Robin: A couple of things. The first thing that I did was, when I was out training clients, nobody was in my office answering the phone, so I had a lot of missed calls and I had a lot of missed opportunities. That was my first signal that I needed to do something. I didn't have enough to bring somebody in full time. I didn't have enough confidence to bring somebody in that did what I did full time because it was, "Well, if I teach them everything I have, then they'll just go open up next door." So, I had some of that fear that was holding me back a little bit.
The first thing that I did was to hire someone that would answer the phone and they could be productive while they answered the phones. I didn't just have a receptionist hanging around, but I had a part-time high school person that had a good phone voice that could answer the phone and that could do some data entry on my bookkeeping clients that I ended up doing at night, that I would do when I really should be spending time with my kids. And at that point my kids were pretty young.
I hired someone to field some of those calls even if it was to say, "She's out right now. She's on with another client. She'll call you back." Because they got a voice, they got to know that it was a real business on the line and not just someone that was maybe going to be there and maybe not going to be there.
That was my first step. I had to prove to myself that I had enough, that they could pay for themselves. That's always been important to me. Every time I've added, there's always going to be a little dip because there's that training, but they need to be able in a certain amount of time to pay for themselves and be a value added to the team.
My growth over – I’ve been in business 17 years now - my growth has gone from myself in my spare bedroom to a 4,000-square foot office with 13 of us. I wait until we’re at about 120% capacity and then it's like, "Okay. Now it's time to add somebody else because we have that to move over." I do stretch the limits a little bit, which, Joe, you and I will probably disagree with, but I do stretch the limits a little bit to make sure that I'm ready for that next step and not putting an undue burden on the staff. Then, I feel personal responsibility; I don't want to bring somebody in and then two months later go, "I don't have enough work, so I got to let you go."
Joe: I want to drill down on what you meant by that, because there was a little bit of an inside reference to a long-term conversation we've been having related to the E-Myth. What Robin is saying - and I think a lot of people listening would agree with this - and I actually agree with you more than I like to admit whenever we're arguing about it - but Robin's saying that before I bring on a new person, I want to make sure that I have compression. I have a compression of client need. I am going to push my own consulting schedule a little harder and then I'm going to hire that person as a pressure valve for myself.
That's actually a very smart strategy because it means that, from the time you hire the person to the time where they start generating profits for you, it shortens that curve. It also, like Robin just said, reduces the risk of a premature hire, and then having to give someone the disappointing news that, "Yeah, we just brought you on board, but looks like we don't have the work to sustain you."
Now, the downside of that – and Robin this is the ongoing conversation we have, and I think you've picked the lesser of two evils here – but the downside of that is, when you're in one of these seasons where you're building up that pressure, that compression, you don't have as much attention to focus on your business as you've increased the involvement in your business.
But it's cyclical anyway, right? As soon as you've hired somebody and you've got that pressure valve released now, you can go back to your business plan and you can shore things up and do a little bit of that strategic work. Correct?
Robin: Joe, you are absolutely right. You and I have had the long conversation about the E-Myth. We've probably had it for about 10, 15 years. Contrary to what that says, you've always said, "You're doing the E-Myth busted." I'm putting it on its end. I'm actually, as much as I hate to admit it, saying a little bit that you're right and that I really do need to step back and work on my business more instead of in it. As I've had some of this growth and now I'm up to 13 employees, I've had conversations and I'm working on things; now I need to take the position that I am the coach and not the player.
I need to take myself out of that player role and I have a long struggle with that. I need to be that player so that I can be in touch with the issues that are going on with QuickBooks, how best to consult, how best to train my staff, and how best to do that, but if I'm too far down in the weeds, then I can’t do the direction of the company. Even today, 17 years in, I have that internal struggle of, what's the right time? What's the right balance to do that? I teeter totter back and forth on that, but I am taking a more aggressive role in becoming that full-time coach and not part-time coach, part-time player.
Joe: That's exactly what I think everybody listening needs to do if they're going to ever create scale. I have a business mentor, he's also my CPA. Before I ever hired my first person, as I was sitting across from him at breakfast, swearing that I never would hire my first person - this was long before I launched an events organization, this was when our entire business model was QuickBooks consulting - he said, "Well, Joe, you got a choice in life. You can either earn money or you can accumulate wealth."
By accumulate wealth, he didn't just mean how capitalistic are you or how big of a house do you want to have. What he was getting at is, do you want to earn money trading hours for dollars, however you slice that up, so that if you’re working, you're making money and if you're not working, you're not making money. And you do that all the way to the day you die or retire – for me that's going to be the same thing. Or, do you want to build an organization that's bigger than you, that's scaled beyond your efforts, greater than the sum of your parts, and is something someone might want to buy one day? You have an asset.
When I understood the power of that distinction - build a sellable asset, be greater than the sum of your parts… It has financial implications and it has visionary implications.
Robin, you are absolutely passionate about the transformation of small business, which you know is Woodard's core vision. You're transforming many more small businesses with an organization of your size than you ever could have could have done by yourself. Both financially and in terms of the fulfillment of your passion, building something is almost always better for everybody listening today.
Now, you've got a phrase, Robin, that says, where you describe “eating your own dog food”, and I know that that phrase is used often in the business world but can you explain what you mean by it for the ProAdvisor and the Intuit reseller?
Robin: I can, Joe, but I want to go back really quick because I want to hit on one more point if you don't mind.
Joe: No problem.
Robin: I want to go back and I do want to give you a compliment and say that you were indirectly responsible for me doing my transition going from player to coach, and let me explain that just a little bit.
I believe it was two years ago, one of your speakers that you had at the conference, in which I taught every session, so I was absolutely tired. I went to the last session where somebody else was speaking, and it was about predictable success. I was so tired, I could barely keep my eyes open, but I was listening and that session woke me up like you wouldn't believe. I went back. I read his book. I went to a session on predictable success because that's what we want. We success, not just for us but for our customers, and I want it to be the same. I want people to have the experience whether it's with me or with my staff, with my team.
That's what I always struggled with. If I add people, are they going to get the same level of skill, same level of competency that they're getting with my team as they are with me? That predictable success, I believe, gave us that.
This kind of goes with the first question, how do you know it's time to hire that first person? One of the first exercises he had us do was to do an organizational chart. Not people that work for you in a box that they're in, but design your org chart of how you want it to be. Then, put the people who are doing those jobs in that org chart. Joe, how many boxes do you think that Robin was in?
Joe: By the way, this Les McKeown, the author of Predictable Success. I went to the same workshop Robin went to, which is why I brought him in as a speaker at the show. You'd be excited to know, Robin, that he's going to be back in June in Orlando at Scaling New Heights 2017.
Joe: When I did this same exercise, I was in somewhere between 10 and 15 boxes.
Robin: I was in nine boxes, and so it was very eye opening. I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to be in nine boxes.
Joe: Exactly right. Maybe in an organization the size of yours and mine - and even though our business models are a little different, I think organizationally we're about matched - maybe you're in two or three.
Right now, I'm in CEO, CMO, and COO. There are no C-level executives in my corporation but me; I have executive directors. Yes, that makes sense. Back then I was in all sorts of boxes, all spread across the entire of the org chart and in the entire of the reporting structure, and no wonder I was exhausted and no wonder I was holding the organization back.
Robin: Correct and that's what I was. Ultimately to answer your first question, how do you know? Do your org chart. If you're doing everything, then it's time to hire that next person. If you want a day off, it's time to hire that next person. There are several factors that generally are staring us straight in the face that we tend to ignore for long periods of time.
Joe: You're absolutely right. Let's go to that comment now. You have a very unique application for the “eating your own dog food” colloquialism that applies to the ProAdvisor, QuickBooks consultant, technology consultant. Tell me about it.
Robin: Yes. I'm a firm believer in, as you call it, “eating your own dog food.” Some people like to say “sipping their own champagne.” We're trusted advisors, so I don't want to recommend something to a client that I don't intimately know. If I'm going to go out and I'm going to say, "Oh, you need to go in and do TSheets, and it's the best thing since sliced bread and it's going to do this," but I've never opened the product, I don't use it, I've never tried it out on my staff, I've never tried it out and made sure that it works and how it integrates in and if I don't know the ins and the outs, if I don't know where it's imperfections are.
I need to know those things so that I can consult better on it, so I can consult around the imperfections if there are any, and so I know that it's the best product for their business. Obviously, there are thousands of products that now connect with QuickBooks and QuickBooks Online and you can’t know all of them, but you have to be able to train in the ones that you do know and let that be your niche. Let that be the ones that you're guiding your customers to.
Otherwise, you're just going to be referring things out because you've heard that name or you saw it at a conference. If you want to refer something out, make sure that you use it. Make sure that you know it. Make sure that you're true to that and you're doing that product justice and you're doing your clients justice.
Joe: I like that. I like that a lot. That's what you're practicing on your side and I know QuickBase, which I know Intuit just divested, but QuickBase is your niche in terms of technology. Tell us a little bit about how QuickBase differentiated your practice and how you're eating your own dog food with that product.
Robin: Sure. QuickBase is an online data base, so you can build anything you need out of it. We started using it as a CRM. I tried to use QuickBooks and use the custom fields to say what version people were on and use it as a glorified CRM. Well, it's an accounting system that has some CRM functionality, but it's not a CRM. I took it to its limits and then I said, "I have to find something else." At that time, I was at an Intuit conference and they happen to have someone that said, "We have a QuickBase engineer and you can ask them anything you want. You can have a free hour with them."
For people that know me well enough, I'm like, "Sign me up." I sat and I talked to the engineer. They said, "What do you want to know?" I said, "I don't know anything. So, tell me what you have." I sat down with them and it was something that I could make into whatever I could dream.
I track everything about my clients, everything I've done with them, everything I want to do with them, everything from when our time sheets from TSheets go into there, they go into QuickBooks. I know how much time I've spent on them, billable, non-billable. I know all of my opportunities. I know what version people are on. I know everything about them, so I can use it for my technicians, to service the clients and they know what they need to do next. All the way to my sales staff, can look at them to see what products they have.
We know what constant contacts to send out.
We know what marketing to send to them. We know if they are sunset in their version of QuickBooks. Everything that we need to know about them. When we call them, we can go, "Oh. You have a payroll question. I see you're on version X; that's outdated and that's not going to work." I didn't have to log in. I didn't have to see what it is. I already knew everything about them and what their problem was before I even talk to them.
Joe: Guys, I hope you really get what Robin is saying here. I know some of you are listening to this as you're driving down the interstate, so just process the concept, and know what she's done in QuickBase is super sophisticated. It's because Robin has numerous people that are supporting hundreds of clients at any given time; it's a massive organization. The action item I want to give you from Robin's comment is – Yes, eventually, the more sophistication, the better, as long as it's manageable for the size of your organization. Wherever you start, start now to document the essential information about your clients in the areas where you support your clients.
Because Robin knows when their product is about to sunset for the QuickBooks desktop products, she can reach out to them ahead of that sunset period and help them to not have any interruptions in their payroll services, for example, because the product became sunset.
Through that pro-action, she's not only better servicing her clients, but she's also turning the brush fires that we experience when our clients call us hours before the payroll submission deadline, and say, "I can’t process payroll," into a now measured task load and getting ahead of the deadlines. The client isn’t panicked, her people aren't panicked, and she's making a lot more money.
If the client gets panicked and they cannot push their payroll, they might call Intuit, wait on hold for however long they might have to wait on hold because they don't have the ProAdvisor support we have, and barely make the deadline or miss it. Then, Robin's completely cut out of the mix and the client is not best served. Even if it's an Excel Spreadsheet, folks, do something to get the process going to track the data and the more you can build that into something like a fully formed CRM, the better.
Now, Robin, we could talk about the way you run your practice all day and I know we could do it all day, because you formed your strategies into a set of courses that you've taught at Scaling New Heights in the past. Rather than continuing this, because our time is limited, can you tell us a little bit about the kind of courses you've taught at Scaling New Heights? We know you're coming back in June. Tell us about Consult-a-Thon. Tell us about the operational consulting courses.
Robin: Sure. I think I've talked since the first year or maybe the second year at Scaling New Height and I look forward to it every year. It's a great teaching experience for me.
One of my favorite classes is moving from a sole proprietor to a mid-market, navigating in the Intuit universe.
I call it the Big Blue Ocean. I go through the steps that I went through that we talked a little bit about today, going through and hiring your first person, how to talk to Intuit personnel, and what they need to know. At Scaling New Heights, Joe, you bring us so many Intuit people, and we want to tell each and every one of them everything that we know about every Intuit product.
That's not good for them and it's not good for us. One of the parts of that session that I go through is how to efficiently talk to an Intuit personnel to get done what you need to get done. I bring an example in there of what I did that resulted in changes in the product because I brought the problem to the right person and I saw changes. And that Intuit person routinely checks in with me to see because of the way that we documented everything and gave it to them. That's one of the things that we did.
One of my other favorite classes is… we did a Consult-a-Thon. It was nine sessions long. We went through everything from building a team to getting a pitch from a client, finding out what their needs are, what questions to ask back, looking at third party products, how to integrate that in, and then how to turn it back around to do the sales pitch back to the client to get that sale at the end.
We went from A to Z and taught them everything they needed to know.
Joe: This experience was highly interactive, Robin. The teams even competed, and there was a winner who had serviced the hypothetical theoretical client the best over the course of the Consult-a-Thon.
Now, folks, I know that that was just a brief fly-by of it, but if this sort of a highly interactive workshop that trains you on everything Robin's been talking about on today's podcast is interesting to you, I need you to let us know. Training is all about supply and demand like any other product that you provide to a consumer. We need to know that you want this, and we'll offer it again. If you're interested in Consult-a-Thon, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and just tell us in the email that you would like us to add Consult-a-Thon back to either Scaling New Heights or as a standalone experience and we'll do that with Robin again.
Now, Robin has one of the most influential women in accounting and as one of the most successful ProAdvisors on the planet, I want to ask you two questions and I know that your answers are going to mean a lot to the audience here. What is one of the biggest challenges you believe the accounting profession is facing right now and what is the biggest opportunity available to the accounting profession right now?
Robin: I think the biggest challenge that the accounting profession has right now is redefining what accounting is. It's not redefining the debits and the credits, it's how we're working. Technology has changed this industry. It has always been a very reactive profession. People come in, they say, "I need X." We give them X. We do what people ask. Now, we're needing to anticipate what their needs are. We need to be ahead of the curve and we need to have a solution for their problem before they even know that they have a problem.
Joe: I love that.
Robin: As far as the biggest opportunity, our biggest challenge is our biggest opportunity. Our biggest opportunity is there is no road in front of us. We get to pave our own road. If you look back at the last three or four Scaling New Heights.
The conversation on QBO changed four years ago, when Joe Ward – I believe it was four years ago - when Joe Ward came out and said, "You can have both. It's peanut butter and chocolate. It's the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of QuickBooks. You can have the desktop applications with the online features. You can have both and you can migrate over to the online world as you need to and as you are comfortable with doing so.”
Us getting comfortable with that, us moving our clients, that's our biggest opportunity. More and more we have things that ... You can do a tax return on a cellphone now. All the way down to that. Five years ago, you would have never thought that. A cellphone was for calling somebody. Now, you have all your accounting opportunities right there on your phone. You can be anywhere and everywhere for your clients. Your clients don't have to be next door and your employees don't have to be next door.
Joe: See, there you go. You just hit the nail on the head.
If I could break that down, what you're saying is there's a new wave of technology answers to small business problems. Whereas, quite frankly, if Intuit hadn't embraced the cloud, if the cloud had not come along, we had a very comfortable and either confident or overconfident QuickBooks Desktop user base.
They were saying to the accounting profession, "We figured this out. We've got it all down. We don't need you." And now there's this world of opportunity available to them and it's foreign to them again. It's almost like going back to the early 1990s and mid-1990s and this massive wave of Intuit-generated small business energy.
Then, you said, we get this double benefit, because bringing our clients to the cloud is a consulting opportunity. When we embrace it, our clients can become virtualized and anywhere in the world and our employees can become virtualized anywhere in the country and that means that it gives you, in my opinion, the ability to recruit the best possible talent at the lowest possible cost.
Not that you're going to pay that person less, but you don't have to deal with a lot of the infrastructure of traditionally supporting them. You just nailed it, Robin. That's a huge opportunity for us.
Robin: Joe, I think the possibilities are endless for us. I think it's our turn and it's our time to redesign what we want our clients, our staff, our team, to look like. The world's our oyster. We have in front of us whatever we want to do and we have the power to change what the accounting industry looks like.
Joe: We've got to be, not a thermometer, we have to be a thermostat. We have to affect that change and Robin, you are a living, breathing example of that. Thanks for being that. Not just for women professionals, that's the nature of your award, but for every single accounting professional on the planet. They should be watching what you're doing and they should be imitating that and, of course, coming to your classes at Scaling New Heights. It's going to be exciting to have you back in June.
Thanks so much for being on the podcast with us today.
Robin: Thanks for having me today, Joe.
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For more information about today's episode, to explore other episodes in this podcast series, or to learn more about our annual conference, visit Woodard.com.
As always, we encourage you to stay tuned, stay connected, never stop learning and scale new heights.