Jessica Farmer is the COO and Co-Founder of Foray Business Group, a Pacific Northwest accounting firm serving clients across the U.S.
How did you start your accounting practice?
Farmer: Foray Business Group started about two years ago, over our accounting thesis papers, editing pieces, papers, and trying to decide where we’re going to go in our lives. My co-founder, Elizabeth Bergen, was profiling a particular business owner, who said all entrepreneurs should ask themselves five specific questions before starting a business. So we said, well, let’s just answer those questions and see how close we are to being prepared to launch on our own, and our answers were very in sync with each other.
We knew what we wanted, and we knew how we would measure success. We knew what we would bring to the world as far as something new or different from our competitors. So, after that little practice, we went, “let’s start a business”.
We got started right away, we chose a business name that night, we registered a domain, we got all registered with the state, and off we went. So it was pretty spontaneous but a long incoming decision. We’ve been talking for years about starting a business together. And she and I are both children of entrepreneurs ourselves. And so we saw our parents own businesses and struggle because they didn’t know where to turn for help. They didn’t know that help was available to them or even what kind of help they needed. So the sort of founding mission of our company was to provide for small business owners what our parents would have needed to have been more successful, provide a helping hand, provide expertise, and be accessible financially and regionally. So our entire practice is online.
How do you bring creativity to accounting?
Farmer: Historically, you don’t look at an accountant and think “creative”. Elizabeth and I tend to believe that we’re a bit unique in that. We knew we wanted to change the world, and we chose accounting to do it. As opposed to being accountants who decided to start a business, we both knew that we wanted to have a huge impact in the world. When we look at our options and how we were going to accomplish that, we both agree that small business is the backbone of the economy and our society, neighborhoods, and families.
If we could do something to strengthen small business owners, lives, and businesses, that would have the greatest overall reach in the world for where we are positioned right now. If we can help business owners grow wealth, that will improve families, which will improve communities, improve cities and demographics and on and on and on, and just have a cumulative effect greater than if we chose to do something on our own, like motivational speaking or life coaching maybe.
How do you determine your client base?
Farmer: We are always looking to partner with innovative and collaborative business owners. I would say the clients that we’ve brought on in the last two years that don’t fit that mold don’t stay. They don’t see the value in that added benefit that we bring to being a business partner with you. I would say less than 5% of clients have decided that we’re not the right fit for them in the last two years. They just want somebody who’s going to give them reports and move on, who’s just gonna do it and not ask questions. So I’d say the people who aren’t a good fit weed themselves out pretty quickly.
But over the last year, we’ve become even more honed in on what it is that we’re looking for. My business partner handles the growth and development aspect of our business primarily, and she uses a selling system called “S3”, which is phenomenal. The idea is that we are looking for our ideal client at all times. We are not looking for every client. So she builds her network primarily through referrals and community engagement.
In the beginning, we started our business with our first five or six clients coming from walking around the downtown areas where we lived, and just knocking on doors and meeting business owners and saying, “Hi, we’re a new bookkeeping firm in the area, Do you need any help?” And nobody had ever had somebody walk in and say, “Hi, we’re here to help”.
That was where we started. At this point, we have referrals coming in from across the country, and from all different sources, from friends of clients to business connections, CPA firms. We are not CPAs, we don’t handle tax at all – so our business partners out in the community who do taxes sometimes don’t have the bandwidth to do bookkeeping as well, and so we’ll get referrals from those places.
We go through a pretty rigorous consulting process with new clients initially, where we find out about their business. There are about six or seven different points during that conversation where they can disqualify themselves from being a client of ours. If they say, “Oh no, I don’t want to have a monthly review meeting with you,” well, then we’re not going to sign that client if they just want us to send them a report and be on our way. That’s not who we are.
We know that when there’s a lack of communication, that doesn’t mean that there are no problems, it just means that the problems are piling up, and then when they finally do come to the surface, we have a problem.
Our goal is to be proactive and to preempt those issues and deal with them upfront so that when it comes time to file taxes, apply for a loan, or sell the business even, we’re not finding problems at that point. And that only happens through collaboration and communication all through the process.
What did you do to set up your firm for remote success?
Farmer: Coming from traditional accounting, where everything’s paper, and everything’s localized on your computer, and clients have to come to you, I feel like it creates a disconnect between people.
You have to leave your place of business, drive across town to my office to sit with me, for me to show you something that you’re going to then walk away from, and I’m billing you by the hour. So you feel like you can’t ask all the questions you have because your questions cost money. These are some of the traditional issues in accounting that I didn’t want to have any part of. We decided really early on that this is not something that we’re going to have. I want people to know they can ask questions.
This goes back to seeing our parents build businesses where they didn’t know who to ask. And it would be so expensive to find out that they didn’t, and they just struggled through. So we didn’t want that to be a model that we perpetuated. Deciding early on that we were going to be remote only removed the difficulty of connecting with our clients. You can connect with me in your pajamas at home or from the office at your workplace. It enabled people who didn’t think that they could have that relationship to have it.
What’s the future of accounting?
Farmer: So before starting this business, I worked at a very large CPA firm. And it was really interesting to be in conversations in that environment about the future of accounting, and what automation was going to look like, and whether or not travel across the country to visit clients was still going to be necessary.
I would say I would stake the future of our business on that the pandemic was the catalyst that accounting needed to force it forward. Because if you think about it, over 50% of the accountants working right now are still using traditional models. They wouldn’t have opted to change, because it made sense what they were doing was working. Most have full books of business, which is why it’s so hard for people to find a good accountant because everybody’s full. And when you have a limited office space with limited staff that can fit in that office. Then you do run into the issue of being full. But what the pandemic allowed, was it allowed us to remove those spatial limitations.
I think we’re going to see more remote firms, I think we’re going to see more use of technology, less fear of technology in general. I think there was a hesitancy around security, but I think the companies that are growing into this space, they’ve had to prove themselves quickly as far as security goes. And this time, this last year of being forced into this environment, I think it’s allowed us to see that that fear was just a shadow, it wasn’t real, that there’s nothing more secure about having papers on my desk in my office than there is about having it in a secure encrypted cloud environment.
Automation is another place, it’s really scary, and traditional accounting is what we trust technology to do for us? Technology doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree, technology doesn’t have a brain. It doesn’t have the ability to reason and think through these things. But the automation that’s being rolled out by so many different vendors right now is just incredible, and it’s increasing in its proficiency exponentially.
The more that happens, the more we’re going to see automation, and one of the concerns I hear from peers in the industry is that that’s going to take away jobs. And I am a firm disbeliever in that theory, and I have been my entire working life. One of the things that I did in my previous work-life was to create efficiencies and workflows, and when you free up people from doing tedious work, you don’t have to let go of those people because there are always other things that staff could do to improve a business.
Creating automation means that we can reach more business owners, it means we can have more personal connections, it means we can build more relationships and trust, it means we have more hours to give back to our community. There are just so many other options that don’t involve losing jobs.
Automation will allow us to make our jobs more fulfilling in our personal lives because we’re going to build in things that we didn’t have before. Without it costing more money.
Because if I want my team to give back eight hours a month in volunteer time, I need to hire more hands to do the work they’re not going to be doing. But if we can automate that work, then we get to go give back. We get to reinvest our time in other places.