As part of my series about the “How to Navigate and Succeed in the Modern World of Finance,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Moll, founder and advisor at Breakaway Bookkeeping & Advising.
After practicing law for several years, Martin joined the Big Four accounting firm of Andersen. He specialized in representing physician entrepreneurs, medical clinics, health systems and executives in taxation, planning, strategy and compensation related matters. Martin then joined Aldrich, a top 10 west coast accounting and advisory firm as a partner and leader of their healthcare practice. Along with leading the firm’s healthcare practice, Martin personally served as acting Chief Financial Officer, Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Executive Officer of several large medical practices. Martin ultimately became Aldrich’s Chief Executive Officer and Managing Partner.
Just last year Martin left the world of public accounting to co-found Breakaway Bookkeeping & Advising, which provides distributed share bookkeeping, controller and CFO advisory services. The company has expanded rapidly to 17 advisors serving clients across the country in a multitude of industries. Along with Breakaway, Martin and his partner Kristen Keats invest in related financial services companies.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Happy to participate, Charlie. As you can see from my background, in 30 years of professional service, I’ve had a variety of experiences. But the through line has been the fact that I am passionate about finding new ways to deliver a superior product. The clients I served and, ultimately, the companies I created, all asked the same question: “there’s got to be a better way”.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I spent decades representing businesses of all sizes and stages of growth but, until last year, I never created a company from powerpoint to revenue. First the first months (okay, maybe year) of our founding, everytime I asked myself “who is responsible for X?”, it dawned on me that it was none other than me. As a founder you have the elation of developing a go to market strategy, pitching your idea to investors and creating your guiding principles. But you also get to figure out how to change the printer cartridge, fix a broken link on your website and order business cards. As as result, I have a different level of admiration for those entrepreneurs brave enough to start and grow their own business.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
We built our business around Ray Dalio’s Principles. The concepts of Radical Truthfulness and Radical Honesty drive every major decision we make to this day.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the cornerstones of our business is community — which allows our team to “work for themselves, not by themselves”. We have grown to a team of 17 in less than a year and have five more advisors joining us at the beginning of the year! Because of our focus on creating community, each of these advisors feels connected to each other and to our mission of ‘bringing joy to accounting’. In 2021 we are working on an as yet unnamed project to make our community even stronger.
Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the central focus of our discussion. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our purpose is to bring joy to accounting. Our team of virtual controllers, CFOs and bookkeepers love what they do. They view accounting not as a ministerial act of putting numbers on a page but, to the contrary, working side by side with our clients to help them understand the story the numbers tell — and how their clients can use that information to drive short and long term decision making. This is fun stuff. It’s not dull. It’s not boring. And when we see our clients thrive, it brings us joy.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Don’t over or under react to bad news … or to good news.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
While we try not to look at the world in terms of generating leads as much as helping every single small business out there who is trying to make sense of their numbers, trying to make rational intelligent decisions supported by data and trying to make a difference. We do so by showing up. By not being afraid to have an opinion. By offering our thoughts and counsel willingly and openly. And by taking genuine pride in the growth and resilience of small business. When we do this regularly and consistently, the leads take care of themselves.
If a fellow CEO would ask you for advice about whether to bootstrap or to look for VC capital, how would you help them weigh the pros and cons of that decision?
The best way I can answer this question is to share our own experience. When we founded Breakaway we developed a budget to take use to positive cash flow and then doubled that. We knew that we had sufficient personal capital to get us to our threshold goals (which is where we are today). We then made soft pitches to potential investors to both gauge receptivity. We were honored to receive commitments for an amount that was roughly 25x our capital spend.
With that commitment in hand, with every major decision we ask ourselves what would we do with those extra funds. At the point we are confident a significant infusion of capital will dramatically scale our business we will consider bringing on outside investors.
Many businesses look at outside investors as just another headache to overcome. While this is certainly true, it is also a sobering responsibility. We will never take capital unless and until we are beyond confident that we can meet our investor’s expectations.
What measure do you use to determine the value of a company? What advice would you give to other leaders about how to get an optimal evaluation of their business?
The answer to this question varies with the size of the business. For most of our portfolio companies, we use a simple formula that is based on a modest multiple of EBITDA. As for an outside valuation,we operate by the same advice we give to our clients: run your business as if you are selling it tomorrow. By this I mean, make sure your corporate organization documents are current, you have clean and accurate financial statements, you have job descriptions for all of your team members and you have a clear, concise one, three and five year business plan. For any of our portfolio companies, if a prospective buyer approached us tomorrow, we would be prepared to provide a complete set of these documents for their due diligence. While we obviously don’t expect that to happen, it is a great mental trick to ensure that you are using best practices in running your businesses.
What would you advise to a founder who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Dan Sullivan speaks often of the perils of the “ceiling of complexity”. This happens when the tools a business has in place are no longer sufficient to take it to the next level. The simple truth behind this message is no matter how hard you try, you won’t get past this ceiling without taking a hard look at your business and determining whether you have the resources you need to grow. This can be a hard process because many of those tools will be ones that worked exceptionally well … until this point.
What are the most common finance mistakes you have seen other businesses make? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Manage cash. Manage cash. Manage cash.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to succeed in the modern finance industry? Please share a story or an example for each.
Team You are only as good as the people around you. And if you don’t feel that the people around you are, in some way, better than you, then you have the wrong people.
Community Once you create your ideal team, ensure that they have opportunity to learn from each other. We have a simple mantra when we think about our team: “I see you. You’re here.” Ensure that each member of your team feels welcome and encouraged to add to the discussion. That said, while consensus within the community is valuable, constant deliberation kills execution.
Diversity Diversity is incredibly important for all the right reasons. A side benefit for companies who truly embrace diversity is the economic advantage you have over your peers. Ensuring that your team is diverse in every possible way will give you a competitive advantage.
Rebel intentionally Rebel with purpose and the intention to change the world. What’s the point otherwise?
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Manage your energy, not your time. While we all have necessary tasks that drain us, be mindful of when you are in a state of “flow”. If the majority of your day is spent on tasks that drain you, the effect is far worse than the time that the task takes. Being drained of energy makes you less effective in every other activity.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
We are already pursuing our movement of bringing joy to accounting. We welcome anyone who wants to join us!
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