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Transcript: Aaron Peters, CPA

April 16, 2020

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
Welcome to Leading Forward the Virginia Society of CPAs podcast where we focus on innovation and leadership in the CPA profession. I'm your host, Maureen Degas and I invite thought leaders for short, casual conversations on topics and trends important to the success of the CPA profession. This episode is part of our series on how the vs CPA members are managing and even thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks for listening, and I wish you all good health. Alright, On today's episode, I am welcoming Aaron Peters. He runs his own firm up in the Northern Virginia area, and I'm going to let him introduce himself and tell you a little bit more about his firm. So welcome, Aaron. 

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Thanks Maureen. As mentioned, Aaron Peter I am a CPA license in Virginia and I had worked in public accounting in the past, a small firm first through gradschool then went with PricewaterhouseCoopers, did some work in industry at a start up pretty big called LivingSocial. And in 2011, started my own firm, and Peters & Associates CPAs. And we focus predominantly on small businesses and individuals providing tax services and business and financial planning services. And so I've been kind of growing the practice, little by little, but it's kind of built up a nice client base. And like I said, focus in that that area of small business closely held business, some startups and then individuals.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
I will say that Aaron is a good volunteer for the VSCPA. So we've spent a good amount of time on calls and meetings and video calls, and one of my I think favorite member moment was when you're on a video call and he pauses and then reaches beside him reaches somewhere and then all of a sudden has a newborn baby in his arms. He tried to turn off the camera, so we couldn't enjoy that sight, but it was it was awesome to see a member do him doing what you do and blending that family that family in there. So you work from your home with your young family, is that right?

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
That's correct. So I have a separate space in my home for my office. But I do work predominantly from here and while my kids do go to daycare, they are around a lot. It's just kind of the new world and everybody helps out the family and work fromwherever you can and be flexible. 

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
So three kid sunder the age of five?

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Five, three and eighteen months. 

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
Yeah, so well done. It was the 18 month old. I can't believe it was that long ago. So in your introductions you talked about your previous experience with the Big Four and then with LivingSocial, a worldwide company. So I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about how your experiences with those companies influenced how you run your practice today?

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yeah, for sure. So when you think of the Big Four, you kind of think traditional accounting firm. And obviously that's moved a little bit over the years but a lot of the in-person, FaceTime, business casual dress, you can kind of pick out the the person that works in public accounting in a room of people. Great, great experience, you know, learned a wealth of knowledge, all the technical skills. I learned a lot there as well about management skills both of with your clients, and that's kind of taught, you know, from even the financial side of managing practice, but also then, working with people and they focus a lot in the Big Four on on training you how to coach people, how to be a supervisor, things like that, that have been beneficial to me. Just been working with clients and I had a number of clients. So just, you deal with all kinds, right. 

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
And so the management skills you're saying are for your clients, not necessarily for staff? 

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Correct. I do have one staff person, but yeah, you know, when you're touching maybe 400 different people a year, you got to manage that. You got to have the skills to be able to deal with a wide range of people. So that was a, it was a great experience, but as I mentioned, I'd worked at a small firm when I was in college and gradschool. And I, I really kind of by the time I made manager and in the Big Four I said, I don't I don't see myself on the part of the track. I'm not sure this is really what I want to do, so I ended up going to work and becoming the corporate controller for LivingSocial as they were in their big growth period, back in 2011.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
So for those of us who have never dealt with LivingSocial. Can you tell us a little bit about them?

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Absolutely, yeah. And the LivingSocial was the largest competitor for Groupon who's still around, and it's a public company now. But essentially, it was a marketplace to kind of connect starting out with local businesses with people in their area, finding discounts or deals, you know, things like restaurants, things like experiences, and it moved into different products. And so it was providing a platform to allow merchants to connect with consumers and putting those two parties in contact. It was very much, you know, built as what you would think of as a tech company. And you know, if anyone's watched Silicon Valley, and I just started watching that now that we're all quarantined, and it makes me laugh, thinking back. There's a lot of things that are kind of true, but just the mentality everybody's got their Apple Computer and earbuds and whatnot, but I obviously was still doing accounting there. But the culture and the atmosphere there was very laid back. I was always a traditional accountant coming into work every day in business casual, and other people are there in shorts and tshirts, and I was kind of the odd guy out. But really, I learned a lot there from the operational side of accounting, but also as it related to technology and the idea of having to have face-to-face meetings, having to be physically sitting at a desk for x-hours a day, was kind of thrown out the window there. It was a hey, we've got a lot of work to do, do it. When you can do it, where you can, just make sure it gets done. And, you know, you're a professional, you know, we've hired you and get your job done, and that's all we really care about. And so that was again a little bit of a new experience for me, but it's something I was able to take a lot from and including the the idea of Hey, you Don't have to sit, every meeting doesn't have to be face-to-face. We had different companies and offices all over the world that were in 26 different countries at one point. And most of the time was spent on telephone calls and or live meetings. That either using the Zoom technology using the Google Hangouts and and whatnot, and that was a brand new experience to me. But it was something that when I ended up starting my own practice, it was something that, you know, I immediately was thinking about implementing and in my practice was, hey, in this world of technology, it doesn't matter where we are, we have all kinds of tools to connect and be able to get work done.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
So there are a couple things that you said that I want to touch on. I think a lot of people will say I don't care how or where you get your work done, or when you get your work done, but I don't know that they really really believe that. So I guess, you know, you felt like you lived it, you really live that, that was not just a saying but true that was implemented or lived by.

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yeah. And there's, you know, there there is good and bad to that, I think, you know, sometimes that means amplification but the someone who knows that I have my my phone and they expect to respond because they know I have access to it. But, you know, there, there's definitely good to that there is, you know, flexibility, especially, you know, in this area, Northern Virginia where it's not uncommon to have, you know, even it's short in mileage to have a very long commute each way. And so the ability to, you know, even if it was once or twice a week for somebody to say, hey, let me work from home because I've got all the capabilities to do so. That could save you two to three hours that day of just commuting an hour allowing you to get more work done in less time.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
Right, right. So we're in the middle of a pandemic right here. And many people are working from home that have never even thought about working from home, or maybe they always wanted to, but didn't have that flexibility because of whatever reason, but they can push to do it. So I want to kind of go in that direction, a little bit in a couple different routes. Since you've been doing this for a while, what are some, you know, maybe two or three tips you would have for folks that are are working from home for the first time, whether it's related to technology or personal management or just workflow, whatever?

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yeah, so a couple things. I guess the technology is obviously very important. It's going to be a futile attempt. If you have have employees that say, hey, I work from home and you don't, make sure they have the resources to be able to do it. I mean, things as simple as being able to print things out if you need to. And so having some of those basics and making sure that your employees can be set up correctly. Obviously, for a lot of firms that just started going through this with the pandemic, that may be a little more difficult. Typically for my staff person, it was, hey, obviously got to get to your computer. We want to make sure your printer. We want to make sure that you've got an external monitor because I find it to be way more efficient to have at least two screens.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
I've heard a couple folks mentioned that it's one thing to send folks out with a laptop for a little bit of work, but for the long term success of folks working from home, having that, it seems so simple, but that monitor setup is big. It's a real thing.

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yep. And then the other part of that is just kind of the software or the the tools to be able to get the work done. So, that can be things like the Zoom meetings. I know a lot of firms will use things like Slack or Google chats or whatever, just so that you can make sure you've got communication lines open. The one thing that's going to halt any type of progress is just a bunch of people in silos at their houses not connecting. And so making sure you've got those, connections is important. When my staff person started, and we do this, I guess twice a week now just during busy season, but we had set up scheduled appointments twice a week to just connect and make sure that we both knew what each other was working on. Make sure that you know we were getting work done. Hitting our milestones. And so, there is another aspect of having a clear vision and a clear plan. Because it can be pretty easy, especially in larger organizations, out of sight out of mind, and you let an employee, you know, maybe they don't know what to do, or maybe they're trying to take advantage of it. And so, the management from afar is also an important aspect. 

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
And they might be working really hard but working on the wrong things. I think a lot of people assume well, maybe they're not working, but it sometimes could be, hey, do we have the right vision and the right priorities? So just reiterating that.

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yep. Yep. And you know, the other piece for me, you know, there was even times I just recall when I was working for for Price Waterhouse Coopers and boy, this was probably 2008. We had a big snow Storm. And I think it actually happened another time around the inauguration for Obama. And it was so crazy in this DC area that for a couple days, he had his work from home. And I just remember how inefficient I was, like, oh, what do I, what do I do? And so it does take a little bit of personal planning to, you know, where can you be efficient and effective? Is it sitting on the couch? Can it be with the TV, I'm sure for some people, it might for others for myself. It wouldn't work. And so if I'm, I have a very difficult time even though my office in my home, and everybody says, Oh, you work from home. I don't even really consider that necessarily, because I focus best by getting into this one space, sitting down in a more traditional kind of at a desk environment. And again, that's not going to be for everyone, but it does take some planning to kind of figure out, you know, from those that are working from home, how do you still maintain some efficiency and effectiveness in your work. And so you don't get caught just watching TV or taking naps.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
Yeah. And it might take a few days or a week or so for a lot of folks that have kind of been pushed and thrust into this unexpectedly or maybe rearranging some rooms and getting thatspace, but it is figuring out what makes you productive. So there isn't the blanket guidance on it, but really, maybe looking at yourself and knowing what you need to do.

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yep, absolutely.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
So we touched on the the pandemic a little bit and I wanted to hear from you about maybe what you're doing differently or what you've done to help your clients cope with what's what's going on.

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Sure. So let me just give a little bit of background, because I think that will help. So like I said, I started my firm in 2011. For a little bit, I was doing some part time work on the side and whatnot. But when I did, I was in the DC area already, but I had some clients even at that point that I want to say grew up in Wisconsin and went to school in Milwaukee, I had some clients, family and friends from that area. And again, in the DC area, you know, sure we're all close, but with traffic and whatnot, maybe all all apart. And so even early on. I had clients who we were doing work at a distance. You know, in those days, it was it was a lot less sophisticated. And there was a lot of, hey, let's use Dropbox or just send things via email. But we've really evolved and so I would say 2016 was really the first time when we pushed kind of More and more inclined to do things virtually. And so. And I'm not a technology person, per se. So I end up outsourcing a lot of this. But we put into place some software for a client portal where we can do electronic data exchange so clients can scan or even as simple as take pictures of their tax documents and things. And we share them through that through that client portal, which is a secure portal. Obviously, we're dealing with people's social security numbers and bank information. So the the security aspect is is very important and something that is a challenge to the technology and the IRS and the state testing requirements. We do digital electronic signatures for things but you have to have software that that meets some of their requirements. So like I said, we did that in 2016 and I still had a lot of clients would like to come in face to face quite honestly, I still, at least the first time of the client, I'd like to meet them face to face, I feel like it helps to develop a little bit of relationship. But over the years, once clients are feel comfortable to you, they've been sometimes just say, hey, do I have to come in, we do this remotely. And so we would do document exchange, electronic signatures, you know, I may send a draft return, we have a call or a video conference to review things. So we got to the point that you can before this pandemic, I probably on an annual basis, like this year would have only been seeing 25% to maybe a third of my clients in person, and everybody else was was virtual. So with the pandemic, our hands were kind of forced, but we were well positioned are ready because we have some of these tools in place. And so I still have clients that prefer to you Technology is not for everyone. And, you know, I have some older clients who don't use the technology. And from that perspective, you know, we still have people that will mail things in or right now drop things and when we're not meeting in person, but a lot of clients are using the tools that we have. 

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
Yeah, yeah. So 75% of your clients are already in that virtual world. So that's, that's amazing. You know, some people talk about having a virtual CPA firm, but it doesn't sound like you set out to necessarily do that. But you did want to leverage the technology to allow for maybe a broader client base or just ease of service. And yeah, like your business owners, they're, they're used to running their businesses that way, maybe. 

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yeah, especially since a lot of my clients are startups or small business, they're, they're using technologies in their day to day. So they appreciate that, that we offer the same type of technologies that they do. And to use it, I will say that the one thing into your point I didn't set out to, to run my business or think of it as a virtual firm. And the one thing I'm always thinking about is, how do you make sure how do you still have the sticking point of if you're not sitting down with somebody and looking them in the eye? Making sure you communicate effectively? Making sure you're still kind of meeting the client's needs and having some level of communication plan because the one thing I don't want, and I don't think I think I would lose clients to this or the case is, if it's a, let me just go hit a button, upload something and then it spits something back out. Well, yeah, there are places that that that you could do that. I don't think that's a great way to differentiate. And so you've got to you don't just throw technology at a problem. And the business is not going to be successful by just saying, Oh yeah, we have these technologies we can use. You got to focus, you got to kind of change the areas of focus. So we leverage that. It's great. But then how do we still make connections with clients? How do we still make sure if they're just submitting PDFs of things, make sure we understand their needs. And so that's where using follow up phone calls, using the videos and some of these things to have discussions is where we can really kind of drive some of the value in addition to just having technology in place.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
Yeah, so when I reached out to you about recording this, I sent you an email and I immediately got a reply that just straightforward address is what we're doing, about the pandemic issues and you know, of course, you you Very, very quickly followed up with not auto response. But I thought that was an interesting technique to just get that communication out there as quickly as possible. So could you talk a little bit about that? And maybe what else you have done to specifically respond to people's concerns?

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yeah, for sure. So, again, communication, I think is the key. And nobody wants to send an email over and not get a response or not know that it's being read. But especially right now, with so much going on, and obviously we read this year has delays in the tax filing deadline, we now have a stimulus bill that's impacting a lot of people. And so people have questions, but I'm not going to be able to answer individual emails from 400 clients today. It just won't happen. And so I wanted to make sure that people understood, yes, we're assessing this and and we have the resources to help you, but let's, let's make sure you can kind of get an idea of  what is going on. So I did put up an out of office that's basically an automatic reply, saying, hey, there's a lot going on here's some information on the changes. It allows them to go to our website where they can kind of see some updates from us on what is happening, both from our practice and telling clients, hey, I know if you had an in-person meeting scheduled, I'm going to follow up with you and switch that to a video conference. But also just from the overall landscape of tax law and the stimulus. It also provides them, and most of them should already have this, but provides them links to our resources, the client portal. We use a calendar where clients can schedule their own appointments with us. So they have access to see my calendar and pick a time that works for them for a meeting or a phone call. We do use social media quite a bit, predominantly the Twitter and the Facebook page for our company to provide more realtime updates. And again, it's just we want to give the information to everyone. Ultintimately, we will touch every client, but you can't touch everybody at once. And so being able to put some of these things out to say, we're working on it. We're considering this for you, but we might not be able to take the time to just respond to you right now. It helps put them at ease. So I actually sent an email out last night to all my clients because the big thing now as it relates to the stimulus package is it's going to be based on client's income. And if they've filed their 2019 tax returns, great. The payments in a receivable based on that If they haven't filed, it's going to be based on their 2018 returns. If people had changes in their lives, more children, changes in income, the amount of money that they are going to get in this check that comes out within a couple of weeks is going to be dependent on the filing of their return. And so I sent an email out to clients telling them, Look, in general, we work on clients, you know, first in first out, but just given the circumstances, we're trying to prioritize clients who will be most impacted by having their 2019 returns files are trying to assess certain clients, it's better for them not to file collect your stimulus check off their 18 return. So we're telling them great, you know, we can look at this give you an idea where you're at but probably don't want to file but then for those clients who did have a decrease in income in 2019, or had another child, making sure we prioritize and get their returns out the door and the next week So that they can, you know, receive a larger stimulus check, you know, when they really need it. So we're, we're using the technology, but we're also kind of being very proactive in communicating with our clients to tell them, we're going to we got to prioritize the crazy time for all of us where to prioritize and trying to do the most good. And I've already had a few clients write back to me and say, Hey, we're happy to wait, you know, take care of anyone that might be. So that's, that's awesome. Yeah,

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
Yeah, I have to imagine that there's so much information out there that it's so hard to first of all, discern it all, but to know that it's coming from a trusted resource and maybe being able for your clients to hone in on. I'm going to wait for Aaron's email or I'm going to go to Aaron's website, and that certainly has to be a comfort and you know, a ongoing service are just a part of that relationship that they know that the trust is being built.

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yeah, absolutely. And again, it's, it's unreasonable to think I can answer 400 phone calls or answer 400 emails. So it's nice to, again, communicate with clients through these different mediums so that you can cast the net wider if you will, and allow people to find what they're looking for without you having to touch each one of them individually, at every moment.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
Yeah, well, Aaron. On that note, you're a busy guy, I'm gonna let you get back to your work. I really, really appreciate what you've offered. It's always great talking to you, regardless of the pandemic or not, so I'm glad we had some time. But before we sign off, tell us what you're doing to manage the stress of not only a heavy work season, but just the pandemic in general, any new things that you're working in?

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Yeah. So in with the three kids at home again, that's, that's a challenge. So I mean, I think the biggest thing, obviously busy season is always always busy and now it's just busier because there's even less time when you get three kids running around. So it's really, really focusing on priorities, figuring out, you know, maybe not everything can get done as it would have before the pandemic, but what are the important things that have to get done, focusing on those things. And the other thing on a more personal level it is, this is a crazy time and so, making sure we, you know, we are lucky to all still be healthy and we're kind of enjoying the time together. You never know what day it is because there's not just a weekend now when you have the kids at home, it's every day. But we're enjoying the time outside and trying to make the most of it and also trying to use it as a little bit of a teaching mechanism for our kids to.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
We'll always be able to say remember 2020?

AARON PETERS, CPA:  
Exactly.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  
All right. Well, Aaron, thanks again. It's been great chatting with you and I hope your your family stays well and your clients stay well and maybe in the fall, we'll catch up and talk about lessons learned. So thanks again.