When I began my career in public accounting, I was fascinated by the great variety of businesses I worked with. Every project taught me something new, and as an eager new accountant, I was ready to apply what I’d learned in the classroom to real life.
But with the quick rotation from plumber to manufacturer to attorney to restaurant, I felt that I was never able to truly understand these businesses. Some clients were the only ones in that industry I worked on. Many had unique tax and accounting rules and regulations that were tricky to understand and apply. And some required a steep learning curve when I worked on them the first time.
No problem for Liz and her big brain, as one of the partners frequently told me. So I eagerly dove in and learned.
After several years of endless cycles of learning new industries, I was exhausted. My big brain was full. All the businesses blurred into each other. I didn’t feel I was able to offer much in the way of specific advice to really help those clients grow their businesses.
A different way forward
When I began exploring the idea of freelance writing, my teachers and coaches almost universally advocated choosing a specific niche to focus on. The best niche would be one that combined my passions, past experiences and talents to work in a field where my writing skills would be valued and well compensated.
For me, the obvious field to work in is accounting. I’ve discovered that being a CPA who can write and who understands marketing makes me pretty unique.
As I’ve worked with accountants and have studied high-performing firms, I’ve learned that choosing a niche can be a great plan for accountants and bookkeepers as well. Here are some reasons you might consider developing either a niche for your entire practice, or a specialty niche within your practice.
1. An end to being a jack-of-all trades, and a master of none
As a generalist, you must be agile so you can quickly pivot from working with an electrician to a realtor to a manufacturer. This flexibility can be a wonderful asset because it means that almost every business is a potential client.
But as I experienced, this incredible flexibility makes it difficult to gain the specialized knowledge and skills needed to serve clients at a higher level. Serving clients at a higher level means you’re in tune with the changes in their field.
You read the same trade publications. You’ve got your ears tuned for new laws and regulations that impact their industry.
As a generalist with the entire world as your potential client, how can you decide what news to pay attention to and what will help your clients the most?
2. Serve your clients better because you know more
When you know more about your clients’ industry, you’re able to help them in a more proactive manner. Your clients will benefit from your expertise. You’ll be tuned into the regulatory changes that impact them, and you’ll have ideas on how to mitigate the impact..
You’ll develop a keen awareness of what their financials should look like. When something looks odd, you’ll spot it immediately. You’ll ask better questions because you understand how their business works.
You can recommend software tools that will simplify their back-office operations. You’ll be able to design streamlined processes for getting their work done.
You’ll be more than just the CPA who does their tax return every year — you’ll be a trusted advisor who helps them succeed.
3. A faster path to becoming the expert in your field
Now that you’ve learned more about this field and have worked with clients to successfully help them grow their businesses, you’re on your way to becoming an expert in your field.
You can capitalize on this by writing articles and blog posts on this industry on your website and on social media. You can speak about this at local events or on podcasts.
When you specialize in one area, you have the advantage of being able to focus your time on honing your expertise.
4. Specialists get higher fees
A general medical practitioner doesn’t earn as much as a cardiologist or a neurologist. This is true for accountants as well. When you become an expert in a field, you can charge higher fees for your expertise. Clients who need that expertise would rather pay you more when they know they’ll get precision advice, and they’re not paying for you and your staff to get up to speed on their industry.
If you were a business owner, would you rather work with an accountant who serves small and medium enterprises, or an accountant with expertise in their industry? Your specialty will separate your firm from the thousands of other accountants who don’t have a specialty.
5. Familiarity leads to efficiency
When you understand an industry well, you’ll be able to leverage your experience to become more efficient. Efficiency means getting more work done in less time. It means you and your staff can have a life beyond work.
You’ll learn which key predictive indicators are the most relevant for a business. Maybe you’ll develop a spreadsheet tool that gets you an answer quickly when you just enter a few key numbers and let the formulas do their magic.
When they need to implement a software tool, you’ll be able to help them integrate it into their systems painlessly.
6. Specialization helps your prospects find you
When you become an expert in an industry, and your marketing messages reflect that, the prospects you can help most will have an easier time finding you. Sure, your pool of prospects has now shrunk from “anyone with a business” to “owners of restaurants” or “HVAC contractors” but there are still thousands of potential clients out there.
The internet and cloud accounting make geography less relevant. You’re no longer limited to serving only the businesses in your community. You can work with clients across the country, and even around the world.
7. Only those you can help with seek you out
Having a specialty doesn’t just help your ideal clients find you — it also screens out those who aren’t suited to working with you. If you specialize in restaurants, you’ll likely get very few calls from construction contractors.
Having an advertised specialty also announces to the world that your services come with a premium price. You might scare away the ones who are especially price-sensitive, but as my late father used to say, “You’re not doing this for your health.”
8. Marketing just got easier
Choosing a niche means your marketing can be focused like a laser instead of taking a scattershot approach. As you work with more clients, you become aware of their particular pain points and can address those in your marketing. You’ll also figure out what advertising media work best for them. You’ll find out which social media channels they spend time in, and you’ll be able to focus your attention there.
9. More of the work you love
An argument I’ve heard against choosing a specialty is that the lack of variety will become boring. I agree that it was pretty exciting at first to learn about plumbers last week, then microbrewers this week, and food manufacturers next week.
But if you’ve chosen a field that’s interesting to you, then the constant jumping around will be replaced by a deep dive into a field. Every business within an industry will have its quirks and unique facets simply because they are led by unique people. This keeps a niche exciting.
One of my writing clients is a CPA who specializes in dentists. I have had a blast learning about the business and accounting issues unique to dentists. Every week I learn something new about the industry, something I had no idea about.
10. Greater confidence in your knowledge and abilities
When you focus on a particular industry, you develop a keen understanding of how their business works. You learn what the cost drivers are, and which financial ratios are early signs of success or failure. You learn what measures will help boost a sagging bottom line, and which will be a waste of time and money.
Think of the confidence you’ll have when a glance at a set of financials will be all you’ll need to determine what this business owner needs to do.
11. Create a firm that suits you
A recent newsletter from copywriting guru John Carlton discussed two successful models for building a successful writing business. At one end of the spectrum are the writers who truly love their craft and spend long hours at work, achieving financial success partly by the sheer volume of their work. These writers don’t tend to have much of a life beyond writing, but they’re spending their days doing what they love most.
At the other end of the spectrum are the slacker writers, who spend very little time writing, but that little time is focused and high quality. This short time spent on writing allows them to do other things in their free time. The money they earn writing buys them the freedom to do other things they love. John Carlton places himself in this camp.
Most accountants I know spend long hours at their work. But I’ve learned about a few radical and revolutionary accountants who spend much less time working and who focus their time on a handful of clients. They can do this because of the value their expertise brings to the relationship.
What does your perfect firm look like?
What’s your vision of a perfect work-life balance? Choosing a specialty can help you find the right balance. Imagine working fewer hours but for the same income. There’s no one answer for everyone. There are just as many ways to run an accounting firm as there are accountants running accounting firms. My hope is that you create a firm that’s just as unique as you are.