Break free from the fear that’s holding you back, and let your accounting practice soar over the rainbow of success. Join us in this eye-opening episode as our guest, Geni Whitehouse, shares her journey from a CPA firm partner trapped in a cycle of overwork and underappreciation to a thriving advisory expert and speaker. Geni shares the mindset shift that accountants might just need to create the accounting practice they’ve always dreamed of. She shares how difficult it was for her to get out of her hell loop, but then, with a wake-up call and a brave decision to start investing in herself, she redefined her value and transformed her life. Geni discusses how accountants don’t have to settle, sharing strategies on setting minimum pricing, getting deposits, and attracting clients who appreciate your expertise. Don’t wait for a crisis to force change—take control of your accounting practice, value your worth, and get over the rainbow of fear. Tune in now!
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Ditching Fear To Build An Abundant Accounting Practice With Geni Whitehouse
In this episode, we have a very special guest. She is a CPA and she divides her time between working out as a winery consultant in Napa Valley, teaching advisory skills to her newest venture, TheImpactfulAdvisor.com, doing writing, speaking, and even tweeting at EvenANerd.com. She’s also a regular keynote speaker at CPA and technology conferences around the country. She’s also been named Top 100 Influencer by Accounting Today, and 1 of the 25 Thought Leaders in Accounting.
Before we welcome our special guest to the show, if you are a firm owner, and you’ve had enough of how things have been going this last tax season, say to yourself, “I never want to have a year like that again.” You want to get paid upfront. You want clients to turn in their documents on time. If you want to confidently charge fees that you know you deserve, I have a system that works. I’ve helped 1,327 different firm owners create the firm they’ve always wanted but it’s up to you to take the next step.
If you’d like our support and explore what those options look like, you can head on over to TheAbundantCall.com and we’re going to cover three different things. Number one, where your firm is at right now and what are the things that have been keeping you stuck or driving you crazy? Where do you want your firm to be and in your life to ensure you’re paid first, avoiding all the pitfalls along the way, and saving you a ton of money in this process?
Also, the exact next steps you can look at to double your firm revenue and never have to think, “How am I going to continue doing this career? My health is taking a toll. I’m not putting myself first, etc.” Once again, head on over to TheAbundantCall.com to book a call with me or one of my teammates. Now, let’s welcome Geni Whitehouse to the show. Welcome to the show, Geni.
Thank you, Michelle. It’s great to be here.
Thank you so much for joining us again on the show. It is wonderful to have you back here and I’m super excited about our conversation about knowing your numbers and how accountants and firm owners are supposed to be experts at money but how come sometimes we’re not and what to do about that.
If you have a grasp on your numbers, it also will help you run a better firm, and increase your revenue higher, and I am all about helping each of you make more money. Before we start and dive in, Geni, why don’t you share with everyone who you are and what you do just in your own words? I’ve done your bio already, and intro, but it’s always great to come directly from you.
I’m Geni Whitehouse. I’m a CPA. I work in Napa Valley with wineries part of the time and then I’m a speaker. I’m a trainer. I teach accountants to deliver advisory services and I work with tech companies as well.
What do you feel has been the biggest challenge that firm owners have had running their firm and operating it not knowing their numbers, and possibly even coming from a place of fear and not thinking that it’s the most important part of their business?
I have a good many people who are starting their own businesses. One of the things that I’ve seen is they come in and they want to help figure out how to deliver different client services. They come in and they have some concept in their mind of what they earned as an employee of a firm or when they were doing another job. They come in and set their rates at an hourly rate based on what they were earning. They’re giving away a lot of their service and setting their prices low. They’re trying to get revenue so they take every client that comes along and they end up not making any money.
This is so perfect, Geni, because I spoke with a woman, and for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to call her Susie. She charges hourly between $75 and $150 an hour. She outsources the work. She works for different people doing bookkeeping and she’s 7 days a week working 12-hour days on the verge of a heart attack and a stroke at any moment, she said. She is stressed out and living paycheck to paycheck.
I want to help her but I can only bring a horse to the water. I can’t make them drink the water though. We’re still in discussions, but I completely had no clue about her finances. She says she can’t afford any help right now, which doesn’t make any sense to me because I’m like, “You can’t afford to get help.” If you don’t get help, the hospital bills are going to cost you more than investing and getting out of this mess.
Why is it that so many people are taking what they earned as an employee and thinking, “I’m going to go out on my own and start my own business,” and charge the exact same thing, if not lower just to beat out the competitors in their area? Someone’s saying, “You’re too expensive.” What do you see as a solution to switch that model up because it’s hurting everybody? Not only themselves but also the other firm owners that now have to deal with this from other prospects.
I built my own practice in Atlanta at one point. I started a CPA firm and then I went into corporate tax. I’ve started with Deloitte. I did corporate tax and said a bunch of stuff. Eventually, I ended up in Atlanta and started building my own firm around software consulting. I’d been in employee roles and all that stuff and I did exactly that. I started out going, “This is what I needed to do.” I have to set the price low enough so the people who need me can’t afford it. I had a very client-centric focus that they needed help because their books were a disaster.
Also, that’s easy. Most people try it on their own and then Susie would do a cleanup project and charge the same amount and not charge more. You’re incentivizing clients to do bad work. You’re like, “We’ll start with the same. You keep doing work and bring it to me. I’ll clean up your mess.” It makes no sense. I was sitting with Susie and I was like, “In fourteen days, your whole life will change.”
However, I’m not here to convince or change you, or something like that. I can only show you what I’ve done with hundreds of other firm owners and what she was saying is like, “It’s tax season and I got seven more days of this. All my clients are getting me things last minute.” I’m like, “You allow that, but that’s what you were saying. You would take on any client that came here like you were desperate.”
You’re afraid you’re not going to cover it. I built a fantastic not-for-profit which wasn’t my intent. I was working all the time just like your example and this is our profession. This is not unusual. We put our clients above our own interest, but we also don’t value what we do and we don’t have the gumption to say, “This makes no sense.” For me, it took making partners in a firm, working all the time, and realizing that it wasn’t going to get any better.
I didn’t have the right perspective and I also didn’t know how to educate people on the value that I delivered. When I gave my clients the tax return, it didn’t have value anyway. I left in pursuit of a way to make accounting better for accountants, but also, to make it more useful for our clients and you have to do both.
To me, Michelle, where it starts and I know this is one of the things that you do is it starts with, “What do I want? Why do I want to do this? What is the minimum amount I’m going to accept to pick up a piece of paper or anything for a client?” I came to the point where I went, “It’s not worth my time to talk to anybody for less than $1,000.”
What she wants is to go hiking, spend time with her dog, and not put off the landscaping projects at home. All her friends don’t call her anymore. She’s neglected by her friends. She’s not invited anywhere and she’s completely miserable. However, even that Geni, I would love to know your two cents on this because I know there’s someone reading, and Susie, if you’re reading, this is for you.
There are a lot of Susies but there’s one in particular and she knows who I’m talking to. You still aren’t willing to make the investment in yourself and you’re going to continue to be a people-pleaser. You’re going to continue to bend over backwards for a client. What are these firm owners supposed to do when you’re supposed to be an expert at money, but you’re not or it might feel like you are yet you treat your business like you said, you built the fantastic non-profit?
That’s what Susie has going on right now because she’s saying, “She can’t afford me.” I’m like, “You can’t not afford me.” She had about $300,000 in retirement. I’m like, “How are you going to retire on $300,000? At least, I know your investment in me will be much greater than your ROI on a retirement plan.” Even if you take out 5%, the biggest investment anyone can get Geni is on their own business. You’re going to have the hugest return on investment than any stocks, CDs, and other investment vehicles. Your biggest return is on betting on yourself.
It takes some 2×4 to the head for most people or some tragedy with all of them. I did a TEDx Talk on this. It took three different things for me to see that I wasn’t listening to my inner voice that said, “This is great.”
For those who didn’t see your TEDx Talk, let’s get a summation of the 3 things that you had to take a 2X4 to your head.
The first thing was getting to the end of the rainbow. For me, in seventh grade, I decided I wanted to be a CPA and that meant I was going to be a partner in a CPA firm. I started on this track and spent all this time, and that was the goal. That was the huge thing. Once I get there, everything will be cool, I’ll be rich, and all the stuff. I made partner and I go, “This is not going to get any better. I’m still going to be working all the time. They’re not paying me enough money to make it worth my while. I’m just going to dig a deeper hole. I’m going to die in my chair.”
I realized it but it was the first time and this was fifteen years after I started in accounting. I finally went and got to the thing that I was working for and went, “Do I like this?” I went, “No. This is horrible and my kids don’t see me. I’m exhausted like a zombie when I get home. I’m depressed and stressed. That’s the first thing. You don’t stop and a lot of us do this. We keep doing what we know we’re supposed to do and we don’t listen to, “What do I want to do?” It takes some big knock on the head to stop.Episode 122 | Ditching Fear To Build An Abundant Accounting Practice With Geni Whitehouse Click To Tweet
The next morning, I went in, quit, and laid out this whole thing. Within a year, I doubled my income. I went and started teaching. I also started doing implementations of software. It was at a time when it was possible, but I went out and I started doing stuff that I was better at that didn’t take all of the life juice away from me when I delivered it. People paid more for me in that mode. They paid for me being miserable behind my desk, exhausted, not vibrant, and not creative enough to help them do stuff. I did my first presentation and the moment I did that, I knew that was what I was supposed to have been doing all this time. I invested in training and stuff.
How much did you invest in yourself? That’s a key ingredient to this. If someone’s been stuck in this mode you were in or like my example, Susie, you have to invest in someone who sees something greater than you. I have to get greater than her than she’s seen in herself. She’s living in a world of scarcity. She needs ten 2x4s hit against her head right now.
I’ve done a lot of different stuff over the years, but I’ve been on this spiritual journey since I turned 50 to try to figure out how to change patterns and all that stuff. One of the things that you’ve learned is you can’t fix a problem from the same perspective that got you into the problem. That’s why you need an external opinion on it. Other people can see the pattern that you’re in or the gerbil wheel that you’ve been running on and say, “This is the third time you’ve done this thing.”You can't fix a problem from the same perspective that got you into it. Click To Tweet
What happens is typically people in accounting will change jobs and do the same work or something else. They bring the same crappy stuff to the next place and keep doing it over and over. I have a friend who’s doing that. She keeps leaving different firms because they’re bad and then she comes back and makes herself miserable again.
It takes hitting the bottom. That’s what they say about addicts and stuff. You won’t make the change unless the pain to stay is greater than the pain that you fear about changing. What happened is, for me, the day I walked out, it was like, “The clouds parted and I felt like a human being for the first time in a lot of it,” and I could breathe because I wasn’t dreading every single moment of every single day.
I’m doing things that brought me joy and energy and the revenue started following that. I’ve done that and then I went into corporate software stuff and high tech companies. I did executive positions and then I left that and I had already built my speaking career, but then I came back to a CPA firm, only doing advisory work within that firm. I’ve been doing that ever since part-time.
From ’07 to now, it’s more than fifteen years, but I found a role where the stuff I am good at could be brought to bear for clients versus trying to make myself do repetitive detail tax work over and over again. If you ask me in the middle of tax season, you’re so blinded by the effort that you can’t stop but I also had another reset. I built my own business.
I had multiple businesses on top of this part-time thing and again, I’ve got this whole thing recreated where I was working all the time. I was undercharging because people couldn’t afford me as a speaker. I was building the pattern all over again. COVID hit and things stopped. The speaking stopped, which was half of my revenue.
I’m sitting there going, “What am I going to do now?” I said, “I can either sit here and be miserable and do the same stuff that I’ve been doing or I can take a risk.” I called up a coach who I’d met and I thought, “I can’t afford a coach. I might make it enough because I’m doing the same stupid thing again.” I went, “Wait a minute.”
That’s Susie, 100%. You are doing the same thing. She has to tap into her savings to make the investment. Everyone can afford it if they’re committed. It’s about being resourceful and getting to the point as you said like an addict. The pain to stay has to outweigh the fear of the change.
There’s a Rumi quote about the pain of staying in the bud being worse than the fear of opening. It’s along those lines. The pain from blossoming, blooming, or whatever is way less than the pain from staying in the bud. At some point, you got to open up and experience what’s out there. I had met a speaker right before COVID.The pain of staying in the bud is worse than the fear of opening up or blossoming. Click To Tweet
I thought, “She’s perfect.” I said, “What do you charge?” She said, “I’m getting ready to double my rates.” I’m like, “I won’t be able to afford it.” I never reached out to find out what the amount was. COVID hits and I’m sitting there going, “What am I going to do? I don’t even know where to start.” I said, “I’m going to call a coach. This is it. I’m doing this same thing over and over again.”
I picked up the phone and I called her. I said, “What do you charge?” She said $1,500 a month.” I went, “If you’re as good a coach as you say you are, then you’re going to help me figure out how to pay for it.” She said, “Okay.” The moment I committed, it’s like all the roadblocks to abundance went away, the moment I believed that I could make it happen.
It’s because she saw something in you from your last conversation that you didn’t see in yourself to take you to that place so you can stop the patterns that you were in just like anyone here. If you have the patterns of every month not even doing your own books for your firm, it’s like, “If you want to be an expert at money, help people with their money, and be that person for clients, we have to do that for ourselves.” Also, if you want to be the best speaker, as you said, you couldn’t keep doing and giving yourself and creating another fantastic nonprofit in the speaking world.
I was working a lot but I had multiple things. What changed was not only knowing that there was somebody who could help me but also my belief that I could cover it, when the moment I believed I could cover that fee, that changed me. That’s the first step. It’s the fear of, “I don’t know but I’m going to jump off the cliff anyway. I’m going to trust that I can generate enough to cover this and more.”
It was immediate. Things started to happen because I had a different mindset than I had ever had before. I’d been operating from fear for most of my career and life. At that point, I started to trust and go, “I have skills. I have value. I’m going to set the bar. I will not do stuff for less than X. I don’t care what it is and I’m going to turn away. I’m going to wait for the people that’ll pay over X.” That shift is hard.
I speak to firm owners all the time. I would say that 99.9%, not all, but more than the majority, operate from fear.
Most people are operating from fear especially right now. We got the COVID fear that is still hanging on and then we got, “What is going on now in our world and economy?”
That’s always going to be that way but if you keep operating from it, then you’re going to keep having results like you had before.
You bring more in. The more fear comes in, the more you practice it.
When someone is in the beginning stages of their firm or starting out operating from that fear and taking on the clients they should not be, undervaluing their services and how they should not be. What are the ways, if you’ve got a couple of steps, on how someone could stop that to get to the place so they can learn that they need to hit their version of rock bottom?
I do believe that you can shift the mindset to do that prior to hitting rock bottom. I don’t think everyone needs to deal with a heart attack or stroke like Susie might encounter if she doesn’t make a change. Using Susie as an example, how do you stop the place the people-pleasing and running your life from fear all hours of the day?
There’s no other way than go, “I’m done.” Something has to click. You have to step away from the desk and go do something completely different from what you’re doing day after day. That’s what I kept doing. I kept trying to get a new perspective. That’s why I took stand-up comedy. I took improv training. I went and worked at a retail store for a while on top of a VP job. I had to get my mindset out of the detailed drudgery mode that I was in. I went on spiritual trips. I’ve done all kinds of stuff. I’ve been to Columbia to visit a shaman. I’ve done all kinds of stuff because I needed a different way to see my own world. You’ve got to find what’s it going to take for you to stop and wait and listen to that noise.Keep trying to get a new perspective. Click To Tweet
How much did you invest not only in the coaching but going to see the shaman, going on these trips, and the spiritual journey that you went on? At the end of the day, it’s not going to happen if you don’t invest in yourself. Putting in time and money, that’s what I mean when I say invest. We’re not getting the results that you want. I invest probably anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 a month in coaching for myself right now. People have therapists. You get a workout person, a trainer.
We’re doing it on all fronts.
If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you get to go find someone who’s going to help see things that you don’t see. As you said, you were able to not only make a decision but what changed was your beliefs.
That’s always the core. It’s always the mindset. With the advisory work, what I’m teaching people is a different kind of service that you could deliver. What can I do for clients when I sit across from them that adds enough value that you can raise the price? If I start raising the price, that’s the other fear. I don’t know what I’m going to give them for this fee. If I said if a fixed fee, then I got to add a bunch more stuff to it. That’s the other thing I would do. “I’ve said $1,000 fixed fee. Now, I have to do all kinds of stuff and not charge them.”
We don’t specify the scope of what we’re going to deliver. Again, it comes from this lack of valuing what we do and lack of trust in our own ability to deliver things that matter to that client. That’s what I’m doing. I’m giving them, “Here’s a tool. Use this.” When you sit down with the prospective customer or client and ask them different questions than they’re used to hearing from us as accountants, it elevates you out of the price war. You decide before you go into that, I will not pick up a new client unless I do a paid needs analysis first to find out what it is I’m going to do for that client. If they won’t pay it, then I’m not going to take them.
After all the work you’ve done and for those that are struggling and operating from fear, it doesn’t matter what you learn from any episode here in the show because you’re just going to keep operating on the same wheel.
You have to set a boundary somehow. You have to find a way to get yourself to value what you have, draw the line in the sand, and say, “I’m no longer going to do this.” Do it before your body shuts down on you and makes you. That’s what we usually do. That’s what you’re saying.
I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with that are sick right now and stressed.
In the whole accounting profession, there are tons of people you can look at tax Twitter and see all the people who are complaining about how horrible their clients are during tax season because they’re not managing the client interactions and the expectations with those clients. Again, the mindset shift has to come from somewhere. If you’re breathing your own fumes, it’s very hard to do that. You need an outside perspective from somebody.
What other ways have you realized to get some outside perspective if someone’s not going to hire a coach? They think they’re going to figure it out on their own or would you just say, “Probably go get a corporate job?” What would be your input from the firm owners that you work with?
I would say, “Go get a corporate job.” You have to find a way to shift your mindset if you want things to change. There’s no other way because again, you can move jobs. A bookkeeper, who’s doing a bunch of work and not getting paid for it, takes that to somebody else in the practice and keeps doing the same thing. As an entrepreneur, you’ve got to have the gumption and the ability to take some risks and make some investments that are going to have a big payoff for you in your business and your clients. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be running your own business.
Entrepreneurship is not for you, for sure.
If your main motivator is job security or something that doesn’t exist anymore, but it feels like you’ve got that in Corporate America, you also have a cap on how much you can earn versus building something that grows in value and you can set your price. As you get more experience and confidence, you can raise your price and people will pay it when you are confident, expert, and good at something.
Maybe you need to go get a couple of 2x4s, knock your head on them, and see what shakes it out because it’s not going to change on its own. Thank you, Geni. Is there anything else from your TED Talk that you would love to share with the readers that might help pull them out of the weeds or make that mindset shift that will help them get past that fear that’s in their way and say, “I can’t do another tax season like that? I no longer want to be treated like a dumpster by my clients.”
“I need clients that do anything I ask them to do on time. I can’t deal with the people last minute. I can’t deal with people that think they can do their books and then they come to me for a cleanup project and think it should be the same price as regular bookkeeping,” and on and on. What would you say to those people that are having any of those thoughts right now?
I would say sit down with your best client and identify all the aspects of that client that make them your best client and then decide what you can do to get more of those clients and get rid of half of your other clients and look for the good one. You have to get clear on what makes a good client because much of what we say the client is bad is our own bad management of the client interaction.
I would go find the client that I enjoy and focus on more of that client, whether it’s an industry or it’s a type of technology that relates to that client or the type of mindset they have. Also, the personality of the owner or whatever it is. I would get clear on that and I would make it my intention or my focus to get more of that and start dropping clients.
That’s what people do when they come through my training. They go, “I fired a bunch of clients so I can bring on only clients that want me to deliver higher levels of service.” That’s the only way you can make capacity. You’ve got to cut somebody off. It’s the ones that you hate to pick up the phone and talk to that you need to get rid of.
Those are the first ones. My last follow-up question is, what if someone’s just starting out? They are a first-time firm owner.
I had a bunch of those people follow me. Those are the people who say, “I’m going to build what I build. What I’ve got paid hourly is what my billing rate is,” and I went, “It’s not. Don’t you dare start that way. I want you to set your minimum price. I want you to figure out, ‘What do I need a month to cover all my expenses and end up with a lifestyle that I want?’”
You then decide how many clients you want to work with to cover that and start from that as your minimum. Whatever it is, you set a fee, you determine what you’re going to include for that fee, and you start from there. You don’t start selling yourself short because what will happen is you’ll get a bunch more of those cheapo clients and you’ll never be able to raise your rates. The first client will refer their cheapo friend and you’ll have twenty of those people.
You’ll have a big plate on your hands. That’s how you’ll end up being like Susie who does free work. The fantastic nonprofit of her business is about $9,000 a month that she donates in free work because she doesn’t even bill for half the work because she forgets what she does. Accounts receivable are adding up to about $28,000 right now but there’s such a better way. We didn’t even add up how much time she spends sending out the invoices and hoping that they all get paid. She says they’re going to get paid but there’s no guarantee and you’re doing all this work before you get paid.
That’s insane. I don’t do anything without an upfront deposit. I don’t start unless you pay me first. I never take it in arrears because you do a ton of work before that first invoice. I set a fixed fee. I get a deposit. If they don’t want to pay, they’re fine. I’m going to go find somebody else.
Thank you for solidifying everything I’ve said, Geni, for so many different episodes, sharing the things that you shared in your TED Talk, and making sure that you know looking and maybe doing a reflection of where’s the end of your rainbow, the seasons past us, and new deadlines upon us. “How much longer do you want to do this that way?”
It’s always, “I’m going to fix it next this X,” and then you get to X, “I’ll fix the next X.” It’s always the 15th of some month. “I can’t do anything until this,” and they never do it. They die in their chair. That’s what happens. That is when I realized, “This is not going to change. I’m going to keep working like this. They’re not paying me anything for all the hours that I’m putting in and now, I’m going to add responsibility and liability for the firm and all this other stuff?”
I probably have to pay them money to take on all this other stuff. It’s ridiculous. What is it going to take for you to see what matters to you in your life and your family? At some point, something will happen. Your body will tell you or some other external event will happen and make you stop. Do it before you’re forced to.
Geni, thank you again for being here with us and sharing your journey. Also, all of these amazing golden nuggets that you had to share and your personal story as well. Thank you again.
Thank you, Michelle. It’s my pleasure.
What an amazing episode with Geni. There are so many golden nuggets. You heard it from the horse’s mouth. For each person reading, if you are dealing with this fantastic nonprofit that you built and you feel that you are underbilling, you are undercharging, and you’re being taken advantage of by your clients. They don’t turn in their documentation on time. You’re chasing people around for paperwork.
If you’re undercharging your prices because other people in your area are also that low or you fear that you’re going to lose your clients, then make sure to book a call with us over at TheAbundantCall.com as Genie did. All her speaking engagements went out the door during COVID, but what’s the one thing she did? She said, “I’m going to call a coach because I’m not going to keep doing the way I’ve been doing things.”
She had a fear of changing but until the pain to stay was greater than the pain to change, there was nothing she could have done but it finally got to that point. If any of you are at that point and you are committed to jumping off the cliff anyway and doing something different with a proven strategy because you know you deserve the fees that you want to charge, you know you want to get paid upfront and in full before any work is done just like Geni said.
I have a system that works and can help you create the firm you’ve always dreamed of. Head on over to TheAbundantCall.com to book a session with me or one of my teammates. We look forward to exploring what’s possible for you. I look forward to speaking to you and I’ll see you in the next episode.
- Geni Whitehouse
- TEDx Talk – Geni Whitehouse