Josh Zweig, co-founder of LiveCA shares his story about the inspiration behind founding LiveCA and the benefit it has for small business owners. As well as the benefits of working remotely and valuable advice that has helped him in his career.
When I originally set out to pursue my CPA designation, it was so that I could gain a skill to make an impact on the businesses where I’d work and launch an exciting career. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many prime-time television accountant dramas and often CPAs will find themselves at odds with a certain public image, expressed in a “but you don’t look like an accountant” comment.
LiveCA is an extension of that passion to make an impact in the lives of others, but also in a way that challenges the general accountant stigma and makes us proud to be CPAs.
I graduated from the Richard Ivey School of Business and spent a number of years in public practice at both a national and mid-size CPA firm where I received both my CPA, CA designations as well as a public accounting license. I co-founded LiveCA LLP in 2013 which is now the largest online CPA firm in Canada with over 60 team members.
I like to take advantage of this whole “work from anywhere” thing, and enjoy exploring the world with my backpack, guitar and laptop.
What inspired you to launch LiveCA? What was the inspiration behind it?
When this began about six and a half years ago, there wasn’t necessarily some grand vision, I was working for a traditional accounting firm and I wanted to move to Tel Aviv because I spent some time there and I notice about 90 per cent of the work I was doing was either e-mail or phone which was nothing that innovative. So, I said to my boss, I can work on the same files, you can pay me less money, I’ll fly in a couple times a year with my own guys and I’ll work remotely. He said absolutely not, you have to be in the office. That’s what prompted me to say I’ll look into if this is something that people are willing to work with, in terms of relationships. That’s when I moved to Tel Aviv and launched this website as an online accountant. At the time, it wasn’t all that innovative, you would send me a QuickBooks file or what accounting system you are using to do your taxes, just as a regular accountant, I would charge by the hour. After a couple of months of not making very much money, I met my business partner, Chad, online and he was doing the systems side. He was working with Xero and helping customers getting onto accounting software. We started working together and realized we had something there and combined the concept of advice and tax which the idea of financial operation systems. We came together and started a partnership. Within a couple of months, we had our first employee. There was a time when our first employee said to us something like, ‘I really want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to find fulfillment in work.’ It was that comment that made us realize that this wasn’t just work remotely and eat coconuts by the beach, but let’s actually build something together that’s going to be a meaningful workplace for people.
LiveCA is Canada’s first online accounting firm. How does it make you feel to have created something that is the first of its kind in the country?
The idea of being first is actually something I care less about and I go back to what I mentioned about creating a workplace that people find fulfilling. I think in traditional accounting people are guilty of not prioritizing that. If you look at the Big Four model, you hire a whole bunch of people and you know the majority of those people aren’t going to make it through because they just aren’t going to enjoy their job and their going to get their CPA and go into industry. The motivation here was let’s actually build something where people want to stay here in the company, that people find purpose, their impacting customers and have time to [live] their own life. I don’t think we’re necessarily perfect yet, but to me, it’s that kind of trailblazing that is important than perhaps being the first virtual firm.
What would you say is the biggest benefit that LiveCA has for small business owners? How can it help the success of their business?
First off, every business needs an accountant. There’s the tax side of the relationship that I don’t think is any different than what other tax accountants provide. What I think we do is we combine the tax advice with the system side. It’s really for business owners who say, ‘I don’t really want to do the day-to-day accounting, so I really need someone to lay the groundwork or foundation from a larger business. So, what we do is, we understand a person’s business model and we [advise] what apps they should use, [develop] the financial workflow that makes sense to [the business], and then we present the fixed price for us to handle the full back office. The idea is as the customer grows, they can then build their own finance team and one day perhaps be completely independent, but that seed is planted in the beginning. That’s the value we provide over another traditional accounting firm that just focuses on the tax.
LiveCA’s philosophy is that accounting isn’t just about numbers, but also about technology. Can you explain how technology and accounting go hand in hand?
If your just providing advice, you’re basically saying to a customer, I don’t care what systems you use, I don’t care how inefficient you are, I don’t care what kind of operation problems you have, all I’m going to do is find the best way to compensate yourself in the business. That may be fine, but it’s really just one piece of this whole puzzle of how do you create a sustainable and profitable business. Sure, there is the tax advice, but there is a whole other side of advice, and this case being operations. What we use technology for is to make a lot of those financial approaches efficient. Things like Zero, which is an accounting software a lot of our customers are on, which means you have online access and don’t [require] a customer to send us back up files and makes communication a lot more efficient with us. Because it’s online you are able to connect with a lot of other apps that open up a world of possibilities when it comes to good inventory and payroll systems. Ultimately, what this results in is better communication with the customer, faster data to the customer, less manual work and less costs.
Today’s technology has given entrepreneurs and employees the possibility of working remotely from almost anywhere in the world. Giving accountants the possibility of working remotely from anywhere is what LiveCA is all about. How can this benefit small business owners?
When we look at the principles that make up our vision, one of them is autonomy. Working remotely as far as I just want to work from the beach and that’s important to me, I think less about the coolness factor and more about the independence that you have over how you work. For example, we have a lot of moms who work with us. They use that flexibility to be able to pick their kids up from school at 3:00 p.m. and then come back to work in the evening when things are quieter and the kids are in bed. Everyone chooses their own use of the flexibility that we have. In my case, I spent a lot of time in Argentina and I lived two years in Colombia, so for me, this allows me to live the lifestyle I want to live. For Chad, he lives in an RV and is traveling around North America with his wife and two kids for three years. That’s how that flexibility benefits us, but as far as the customers are concerned, because we work online and work the way we do provide advice and [offering] the systems that we do, it enables our customers to do the same thing. They can contact us far more rapidly and if they wanted to [live] a similar lifestyle, they can access their finances in the same way we do.
What would you say is the biggest challenge that entrepreneurs face and how can LiveCA help them overcome these challenges?
What entrepreneurs don’t have is time. Perhaps the biggest challenge for an entrepreneur, in general, is learning how to prioritize your time because there are always a thousand things to do and there are always more things to do than what you can do yourself. What your suck trying to do as an entrepreneur is figuring out what things am I going to do today and what things are I not going to do. I think that’s probably one of the hardest challenges because there isn’t a rule book on what you’re supposed to do first. And second, in theory, maybe an employee will have that direction, but an entrepreneur doesn’t. What we help do is take that whole decision-making process as far as what accounting system are you going to use, how should you compensate yourself, how should you invoice, what’s your inventory? All those questions that might come out of the financial side of the business, is what we answer. Because of that, the entrepreneur is then able to prioritize the other things in their business such as running the business, making strategic decisions, and relying on us to provide the data to make those better decisions.
How do you believe LiveCA’s philosophy and the new trend of being able to work from anywhere will revolutionize the way that people do business?
I think more and more we are seeing people work remotely. Some of the larger companies such as Google are allowing their employees to work remotely for some part of the time. I think it’s certainly a trend, so we’re not the first company to have remote employees, but certainly, in the accounting space in Canada, we are one of the first. I think the more this becomes commonplace, the more the customers ask their accountants to work in this way, to use this kind of software and to have this kind of accessibility means the other firms will follow. What I hope actually happens is more people have that kind of independence and timing over their own lives. [As well as], when people look at accounting, it doesn’t look like an industry that is old and unchanging, and that people can consider accountants as innovative.
Can you tell us about a time when you received valuable advice that has helped you in your professional career?
Only about two months ago is when I got a business coach. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received is, in sports as an example, some of the best athletes have coaches. To me, that was a reminder at no matter how good I think I am or we are as a partnership, there is always the opportunity for outside advice or help. I think one of the best things we’ve done is to seek help. Whether it’s from, in this case, a coach, or perhaps more often from each other – in our company, from my other partners or team members. I think that the concept of actually seeking help has been sort of a guiding principle for us and has allowed us to make better decisions and not just rely on our own view of the world.
What advice can you give to entrepreneurs to guide them on the path to success?
When I was an entrepreneur when I started, I don’t think I really knew what I was building. I was actually at a talk the other night [and I heard a quote from who I think was Steve Mann], ‘just build something, and that will allow you to see around the corner.’ That really stuck with me because that’s how our business came to be, it wasn’t a great vision. You don’t have to have this [mentality] that I’m going to build this fantastic product, just start. Build something and once you’ve built that something, the next thing will likely come. When people say iterate, iterate, iterate, that’s kind what I mean. A lot of people might get stuck and may not be sure of which way to go, I think the answer is just do the thing you believe is right and do your best. When you accomplish that, the path will eventually become clearer and the next task and goals benefit itself.
On a final note, where do you see LiveCA heading? What does the future of the company look like?
When I go back to our vision, which is to effectively build a remote, profitable and sustainable CPA firm, in the next two years we hope to accomplish just that. [Where I hope to see LiveCA in the next couple of years] is every single role in the company working normal hours, contrary to the standard busy season that in accounting which includes working weekends. We’d like to be the place where everyone works normal hours, takes weekends off and has access to regular vacation. Where there is enough coverage in the company, so when someone goes on vacation and comes back there isn’t a mountain of work. Where people can support you along the way. Whether we’re a 25 million company with 150 people, I think it’s less important to us and more so, let’s just make sure we’re profitable, but continuing to make an impact on our customers and all the people that work for LiveCA, including myself, feel fulfilled while working normal hours and it’s the type of work we want to do.