As part of my series about the “How to Navigate and Succeed in the Modern World of Finance,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy Barlin.
Financial expert, CPA, and founder and CEO of About Profit, Wendy Barlin, has over 25 years of experience helping entrepreneurs grow their profits, reduce their taxes, and improve their lifestyles with easy to understand financial strategies. She’s the author of “Never Budget Again”, a guide on how to keep more and spend less all without budgeting. Her client roster is made up of Hollywood directors and producers, doctors, lawyers, realtors and entrepreneurs. Wendy is a frequent speaker at conferences and association meetings and is a member of the California Society of CPA’s and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. For her expertise, Wendy has been featured on Los Angeles’ ABC 7, CBSN Los Angeles, and U.S. News and World Report.
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?
I came to America in 1997 with a bag of dirty clothes. As an accountant, I worked at several firms across Los Angeles until I decided to venture out on my own and do things my way in 2001 after the towers fell in NYC.
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 was working from home and did not want to give out my home address, so I got a post box at a mailbox store that was: 12345 Ventura Blvd. The address looked like an office address. One day a client called and said they were on their way to my office with a cake. I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say. This was 20 years ago when not having a real office would be the kiss of death. I had no choice but to tell the truth. Lesson learned! It is ok to share with clients (not my home address) but that I do not have an office. To this day, we are a virtual firm.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Profit First by Mike Michalowicz has changed my life. I am now a Certified Profit First Professional.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am limited in my scope of how many clients we can help in our business so I am working on a mass audience TV show that can reach millions. Business and taxes do not require a college degree. I can help so many business owners with tips and tricks. Then they can grow businesses and together we can change the world.
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?
When I first started, my purpose was to show clients that an accountant can do so much more than just file tax returns. I am committed to the people side of our business. For years I was told to sit down, be quiet and bill time. I knew this did not help anyone!
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
One day at a time. I get up everyday and know I will do the very best I can on that day. I cannot control what happened before or what may lay ahead, but I can make good choices and be the best today.
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?
The majority of our best clients have cme from other client referrals. Because of this we treat clients who refer us business like VIP’s with personal gifts and handwritten notes. We are in the people business.
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?
I am not a fan of taking in VC capital or giving away equity. I was a 30% partner in a 3-person accounting firm for a few years and I learned how I like to be in control. Having partners was not a great experience for me even though my partners were fabulous people. I like to make decisions and quick moves and voting and discussing makes me crazy. I recommend bootstrapping. Running a business lean keeps us hungry and working hard.
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?
I believe optimal valuation comes with a replicable product or service and well documented systems and processes. The business should be able to run without the owner and key team members because systems are strong. These are the businesses that do best in valuation.
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”?
Take a four-week vacation, no email, no electronics, Unplug. Works for me everytime!
What are the most common finance mistakes you have seen other businesses make? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I see too many businesses chase sales while ignoring profits. If you cannot be profitable as a small company, increased sales will not solve the problem. Figure out how to be profitable before you chase sales.
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.
1. Don’t follow the crowd, pave your own way and stand out. Different is better. We started doing flat fees 20 years ago when others were still doing hourly billing. This is probably why I was able to grow our business so quickly. I saw a need to move away from hourly billing.
2. Clients and prospects cannot know whether you are any good at the technical side of your work. They are only able to judge how you treat them and how you make them feel. Be a human before you are an expert, put yourself in their shoes and make them feel taken care of. In my first job here in Los Angeles, I was assigned a client moving to the US from Canada. I knew nothing about cross border moves for taxes, but I treated the client as I would treat family. I said “we” and not “you” when we talked through scenarios, I said “our” and not “your” as we addressed situations. When I left that firm and moved on, the client stayed with me and they are still a client of mine today, almost 25 years later.
3. Focus on client profitability and not revenue. I spent the first few years in business working so hard to grow my revenue number. I used to think more clients and more revenue would naturally mean more profit for me to take home. I learned the hard way, trying to satisfy hundreds of clients, I worked 80 hours a week. Then I realized that 20% of my clients generated 80% of my profit. So now we focus on client profitability. I would rather work with fewer profitable clients than brag about my revenue numbers and only have a small profit to show for all my hard work. In our industry, I see too much focus on revenue bragging rights!
4. Delegate. And I don’t mean hire people to do work and have them be accountable to you for that work. Then you are simply an octopus who keeps all the information in their body with arms running all around. This is not true delegation. I recommend making your team responsible and effective so that they are responsible for their results. This is true delegation and will free you up to focus on your core strengths, growing the business and client relationships.
5. Time Management. Because clients pay flat fees to us, they see us as “free”, so they call and email us a lot. We love this, it keeps them close to us and is our core differentiator. It does call on my team and I to protect and manage our time effectively. We all take unplugged time off. We all use schedule blocking as well as daily and weekly huddles to manage our time and our focus. Too many business owners feel as though they need to work a lot of hours in order to be successful. I have found the opposite to be true. Working fewer but more focused hours actually increases productivity and profitability. I only meet with clients on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I turn my email off after work hours. I protect my boundaries. Now not to say that we don’t run hard for clients, we do. We return calls and emails the same day and never leave clients without an answer but we teach our clients how to respect our time and we do the same for our team.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Boundaries! Manage your calendar pro-actively. I only meet with clients two days a week and block out my calendar the other days. I have 2 cell phones. One that is personal that does not have office email on it and that is what I carry after hours and on weekends. I leave my work cell phone on my desk.
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. :-)
I would love to show people how everyone can learn how to manage their money. This is not a privilege reserved for the lucky or the ivy league educated. We can all learn to make our money work for us.
How can our readers follow you online?