Category Archives: Who’s The Boss?

20 Things I’m Thankful For

Around this time of year, I often find myself reflecting on life. What has happened this past year, where I want to go next year and how I fit into the world.  This often happens when I am on the bike (as all you have time to do is ride and think), but this year I feel compelled to share what swirls around this old noggin with you.

If you’ve known me for any amount of time, you know that I “try” to see the good in things.  Despite reality, I try to “assume positive intent” of others and their actions.  I attempt to take nothing for granted and show appreciation for all that I have in life.  While I didn’t grow up in the lap of luxury, our family didn’t struggle either.   So with that, as I sit here on Thanksgiving, I wanted to share just a small fraction of the things I am thankful for.

Life  People take life for granted; the frailty, the certainty that it will one day end, the marvel of breathing without conscious thought.  To that end, life is an extremely precious gift that can be taken away before one’s had the opportunity to fully experience it.  With that, I am grateful for each day that I have walked on this Earth. 

My Immediate Family  The world can be a cruel place.  Sometimes, you feel as if you are standing alone and no one gives one iota about you.  But then there is your family. To my mom, dad and sister, I am so fortunate to have had them (and still do) in my life. 

The Rogers Side of the Family

The Rogers Side of the Family

My Extended Family  When you marry your spouse, you marry into their family.  If you’re lucky, it’s like gaining a whole new set of friends.  To all of those new friends (okay, not so new as I’ve been married 7 years now), I am fortunate to call you part of my family. 

The Wilson Side of The Family

The Wilson Side of The Family

My Wife I could write a book about this woman.  When you’re searching for a person to share your hopes, passions, dreams and life with, you can only hope that you’ll meet a person who meets a fraction of what you are looking for.  I was lucky enough to find someone who vastly exceeded them.  Aaronita is my rock and quite possibly the strongest woman I know besides my mother.  To that end, I wouldn’t be able to do or attempt half of what I do without her support.  So to you babe, I am extremely thankful that I had the opportunity to meet you and for me to be a part of your life. 

The Love of My Life

The Love of My Life

My Daughter  She is my love and my life was forever changed on that August 15, 2009.  She makes me strive to be a better person so that I can be the father that she deserves.  Kiddo, Dada loves you! 

The Light Of My Life

The Light Of My Life

Love  The simple act of being kind to a fellow human being is sometimes all it takes to help that person make it through a difficult situation.  I am fortunate for all the love that people have shared with me. 

My Upbringing  I grew up in a loving household with two parents that cared and a sister with whom I could share my grief with.  Not everyone has/had this in their life.  I’m thankful that I did. 

My Education  I didn’t go to the fanciest schools.  My parents did the best for me with what they had.  Each one of those schools I attended taught me something; whether it was book knowledge or life lessons.  Whether it was St. Thomas the Apostle, De La Salle, Truman State University or DePaul University, I value all the opportunity I was given.

Opportunity  What is the difference between someone who lives in Beverly Hills, the barrio, the ghetto, and Kenya?  Nothing.  But what determines how their life unfolds is intrinsically tied to the opportunities they are presented with.  Not everyone is dealt the same deck of cards.  I am happy for the one I got and the hand I’ve been able to play. 

My Corporate Career  I’ve worked with lots of people in various companies over the years.  Each one of them taught me something which made me into what I am currently.  I’m fortunate for all that I was able to experience. 

My Company  It evokes a certain feeling of pride every time I see our company’s name.  To know that it’s something that I helped create, something that serves a purpose bigger than myself, something that helps others in this world; that makes me feel proud and honored. 

Our Clients Without their trust, confidence and patronage, we wouldn’t have a company at all.  So to all of you, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Nature  This world is a beautiful place filled with wonderful people, places, animals and other things.  I try to do my part to not destroy it and preserve it so it’s around for Pilar to enjoy.  But that aside, I am lucky to have seen some of the many sights that our amazing planet has to offer.  I can only hope that I get to see/enjoy much more in the future.

Me and Mother Nature Starting The Day

Me and Mother Nature Starting The Day

Health  Things could always be worse.  Be grateful for what you have because one day, health will fail us all.

Busted Up As Pilar Would Say

Busted Up As Pilar Would Say

Friends  I don’t keep a large circle of friends; just a few close ones.  Blame the loner in this Aquarius!  But I am extremely grateful for everyone that I have in my life, no matter how large or small the extent.

Support  It makes me smile when people say that they are “self made” or that they “did it all on their own.”  While that is somewhat true, we’ve all received an extended hand at one point or another.  To anyone who has ever helped me (like the good Samaritan who called the ambulance when I crashed and knocked myself out on the bike path), I am appreciative of you.

The United States  Sometimes this country is like the drunk Uncle in your family.  You love them, but sometimes they drive you crazy.  In the end, this county is still one where one can attempt to achieve their dreams and live a life that others in this world cannot.  Thus, I am thankful to call this place home.

God  You don’t have to be religious to believe in a higher power; I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not overly religious.  Yet I do believe that I’ve been blessed as all my “chuch folk” would say (no that is not a typo).  God, Yahweh, Buddha, Muhammad, The Universe (or whatever you want to call it) and I have a relationship.  I am thankful for that.

The Necessities  I have a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food in my belly.  Tyler Durden said it best with this statement: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy s@&! we don’t need.”  In the end, I am happy for what I have because it’s all that I really need (and then some). 

To Be Employed  In these trying times, people who have had their entire existence defined by where/who they work for are struggling to cope with extended periods of unemployment.  To all of you, keep up the good fight and if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door and then kick that joker in!

Do You REALLY Have What It Takes To Start A Business?

Get ready to eat a lot of this stuff!

Get ready to eat a lot of this stuff!

So there you are.  You’ve read all the articles, books and talked to tons of people about what it’s like to start a business.  Now you’re at the point where you’re actually ready to begin taking action on your dream .  If you’re like me, when you began this journey you probably thought “I know it will be hard, but will it really be as bad as all the stories I’ve heard?”   Today’s post will attempt to give you the “real” on what you are in store for.  I won’t sugar coat it, dilute it or spin it in any way.  So if you’re ready to take the ride of your life, strap yourself in!

The truth of the matter is that no matter how smart you are, the amount of preparation, the industry or the product, this process will push you into places you only dare dream about.  Some places are joyous in that they help you learn and further your development in ways you didn’t think were possible.  Other places are like that scary labyrinth of your dreams where demons roam and you pray that someone will save you.  With that being said, here are my 5 pearls of wisdom for taking this journey AND making it to the other side in one piece.

Develop a comprehensive plan.  The first step of any trip is to plan it out.  Going on a road trip?  Better consult a map so you at least have an idea of where you are going.  In the months leading up to us opening up our retail location, I was reading any and everything I could about what to expect.  One of my particular favorites was What No One Ever Tells You about Starting Your Own Business by Jan Norman.

Once you’ve prepped your mind for what you are about to go through (i.e. a lot of sacrifice) then you need to run the numbers.  I suggest looking at what it will cost to get you started, what you anticipate generating/spending for the next 3-5 years and what you will need to meet your living needs.  It’s also a good idea to run a best, likely and worst case scenario.  I would also recommend cutting your worst case scenario in half when you are done.  Why?  Just so you can see how bad it may get if things really don’t go to plan.  Remember, you are trying to prepare for a fight that may just go a round or two longer than you want it to.

Have an extensive support system.  Starting a business is unlike anything you’ve probably trained for in the past.  It’s not like going to a new job and having to learn a new system, culture or people.  It’s more like being dropped off in another country and having no clue how anything works.  To that end, it’s a journey that most people can’t relate to and won’t be able to help you through.  So the first layer of this pearl is to find some mentors who’ve tread this path before you did.  They may be business owners or professionals (lawyers, accountants, consultants) who can relate to the journey AND give you actionable advice.

The second layer is to make sure you have a solid financial plan developed.  This includes anywhere between 6 months and 2 years of savings and a plan on how you will make it through the lean times in your personal financial world.  Personally, since our business is seasonal, I have a contract job (i.e. a short job that doesn’t extend past 6 months) that provides me with income in the off season.  50% of the startup battle is just surviving the lean years, but success can come if you can keep the business and your personal obligations afloat until you reach critical mass.

The last layer in this pearl is to treat your family right.  They can be the key for those of us who decide they want to start a company later in life once you have kids and the like.  So make sure you thank them often for their support, never take your work frustrations out on them and when you have some “free” time/money  make sure you give them a significant piece of it.

Prepare to make a LOT of sacrifices.  I often joke when people say “wow, you’re the CEO of your own company.”  I typically respond with “yeah, I’m the Chief Everything Officer!”  When you run a small business or a start up, you are responsible for practically everything.  It doesn’t happen without you and YOU are responsible for making everything happen (even if you have a team).  As a consequence, plan to spend a lot of time making those things happen.

In addition to sacrificing your time, plan to pull those purse strings tight for a while.  This will be especially uncomfortable for those who left a “cushy corporate job” prior to going it alone.  I can’t tell you how many things that I use to do without thinking that I now only contemplate every blue moon.  Want to go out for lunch?  Yeah, better be a special occasion like the day after tax season or the start of contract work.  Other than that, I’ve kind of gotten use to the taste of those Raman Noodles in the picture above!

The last thing that will probably need some adjustment will be your hobbies.  I use to hit the weight room, go swimming, race my bike, ride my motorcycle, etc.  Well, let’s just say that I cut back most of my hobbies to those that don’t take too much time or money.

Be flexible but ensure you are committed.  Nothing that you do when you start a business goes according to plan.  Thus the key to success lies in being flexible but at the same time committed to the long haul.  You can make adjustments to the direction you are headed, but you shouldn’t go in a different direction UNLESS your initial concept was just way off.  Now what do I mean when I say committed?  I mean you have to want this 100%, with every fiber of your being, more than you love life itself.  This is a very long, dark and lonely path and the light at the end of it can sometimes seem as if it is getting dimmer versus brighter.  But your commitment to making it happen (even in the darkest hours) is often what can get you to the next critical occurrence of your journey.  So in short, if you aren’t willing to go “all in” so to speak, sit on the sidelines.

Constantly evaluate and course correct.  One of the things I see new entrepreneurs struggle with is making adjustments when faced with challenges.  In sailing, when your destination and the wind are both head on, you have to use a technique called tacking to make it to your ultimate location.  In short, tacking is a series of zig-zag movements that continue to catch the wind while moving your forward.  For a business person, this often means paying attention to the numbers, tracking what is working and then adjusting what isn’t.   Corrections ensure that you give your customers what they need and that you do what you need to so that your business survives.

Even though we started this company back in 2005, taking the step to head it up full time back in 2012 was like going back to square one.  In addition to that, opening our first retail location was a scary endeavor.  But I am here to tell you, if you can commit to doing the above, the trip is well worth the agony and preparation.  While starting your business is often nerve racking and challenging, it is also highly rewarding.  At the end of the day, I know that my efforts really impacted someone’s life.  At closing time I can stand on the street, look at our office, and take satisfaction knowing that I am creating something that will hopefully be around in the future (just like these guys).

1st Walgreens Drug Store

1st Walgreens Drug Store

I can’t say that I felt the above on a daily basis when I was working in corporate.  However now I can’t envision living my life in any other way.  So if you are just starting the action phase of your journey know this; it’s rough out here, but you can make it.  Just take your time, prepare as outlined above and make sure you have a little faith.

Until next time…

Why I’m Not Your “Typical” Accountant

green-visor-accountant

When you tell people that you are an accountant, the image that pops in their head often looks like the one above.  Some older gentleman wearing a pressed white shirt, spectacles, a green visor sitting under some intense light immersed in calculation.  All of the above hint at an individual who, while quite intelligent and diligent about their work, is probably not viewed as the life of the party.  But why is this the image that comes to mind?  Where is the social accountant?  Where is the person who likes to go rock climbing on the weekends?  Where are the real men and women who represent the accounting profession?

Ready to hit the zip line!

Ready to hit the zip line!

Truth be told, the image classically associated with accounting professionals is actually just stereotypical.  Now what do I mean by that?  Well, a stereotype is a thought that may be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things, but that belief may or may not accurately reflect reality.  The reason this image has persisted so long is largely based on historical grounds.  However, the reality of the current accounting profession is that most people have “another side” to them which isn’t reflected when they are with clients and colleagues.  The same would be true for me as well.

In this post I talked a lot about how I got into the profession (which was kind of by accident) as well as some of the things I like to do in my spare time.  But what I wanted to focus on today is the why behind why I don’t fit the mold so to speak.

I’ve always had a business mind.  Back in my younger days, I use to do yard work for our neighbors.  They had a pretty big house and converted much of their yard space into gardens.  The one in front was full of flowers and the one in back had vegetables and other plants.  One day I was working with the owner’s wife and she asked me what I wanted to be when I “grew up.”  Without hesitation I spouted off something to the effect of I wouldn’t mind owning a landscaping business, a car wash, a towing company, etc.  Why I didn’t mention going to college still escapes me, but apparently I was focused on starting something.

TSU class ring day with Pres. Jack Magruder

TSU class ring day with Pres. Jack Magruder

If you fast-forward to my time in college and graduate school, one trend always tended to emerge.  While I was good at my accounting classes, I almost always did better in my business classes.  Whether it was business strategy, economics or investment theory, I simply was always able to grasp the concepts and meld them with the associated financial impact.  What this means is that I not only understood the accounting side of the transaction, I also got how it related to the business.  Thus, over the course of my 13 years in Corporate America, I ended up moving more towards the business side of the financial house (e.g. Sr. Financial Analyst, Manager or Financial Planning & Analysis) and farther away from the accounting side.

Most “typical” accountants get business in general, but sometimes get too entrenched in making sure all the numbers tick and tie.  While this is part of making sure your financials are solid, it’s not what most business owners are looking for.  Many want someone to give them insights on what they see; not simply regurgitate what happened last month.  They also want someone who understands all the business functions and knows why marketing spends so much money (i.e. because sales don’t happen without it and no sales means no bookkeeper/accountant).  I was fortunate enough to work on cross functional teams in my corporate days thus I get how the puzzle fits together.  Unfortunately, not all financial professionals do.

I steal from the best and forget the rest.  What I mean by this is that when it comes to business, I look for what works and discard what doesn’t.  The key with this (for me) is that it doesn’t make a difference what industry the concept is used in, so long as it’s the best one.

For example, in the insurance industry it is known that you must manage the customer relationship if you want to be successful.  I mean, what’s the difference between one insurance provider and another?  Not much to the untrained eye.  But what will keep you with your agent given that everything else is equal across all providers?  The way that they treat you when then deliver service and how they engage with you when they aren’t.  This is why you get a birthday card, a calendar for your refrigerator and those monthly newsletters each year.  All of the proceeding are ways to keep you feeling as if your agent cares about you AND keep them top of mind whenever someone asks you “do you know a good insurance agent?”

So what does that have to do with me?  All of the above are marketing tools adapted from another industry and applied to our practice to help us keep our clients engaged.  Do they work?  I like to think so as we have a pretty high client retention ratio.  But what’s different about this is that not all accountants conduct their marketing in this manner.  Some think that advertising in the yellow pages is the way to go.  Some feel that splashing your name all across a golf tournament is the trick.  Me?  I think advertising where your competition isn’t or doesn’t focus is how you gain the business that they’re neglecting.  If you want to get mediocre results (no matter what the topic/activity) just do what everyone else does.  Thus, we always look to emulate the best companies out there, even if it’s viewed as unconventional or unorthodox for a financial services firm.  Bet that would make that stodgy green visor CPA roll over in his grave huh?

I like to let my personality show.  While I like to consider myself a relatively intelligent person, I do like to do things that are outside of what I’ll call intellectual endeavors.  I participated in sports while I was in high school, and while I wasn’t any good at most of them, I still liked the thrill of competition.  This passion for a challenge is prevalent in my business dealings as well as my hobbies.  Whether it’s weightlifting, cycling, riding motorcycles or playing a good ‘ol game of tag with my daughter, I like to have fun.

Having a little weekend fun!

Having a little weekend fun!

In addition to the above, I also like people.  I mean, you can’t really be effective as an accountant if you don’t like people or you feel that they are always getting on your nerves.  Thus I like talking to people, learning what makes them tick, what’s going on in their lives and just bouncing ideas around.  While you might not see me shutting down the party or dancing till the cows come home, I do like to mix and mingle with people every once in awhile.  I mean hey, you can’t expect me to use my brain all day dealing with numbers and business problems and then not have an outlet to decompress right?

Sunset dinner with the missus.

Sunset dinner with the missus.

All of the above are just simple examples of what goes on in my life.  What’s more important is that if my clients ask, I have no problem telling them about what I do outside of work.  Why?  Read the last point.

I like to share.  While I tend to do my best thinking and problem solving when I am by myself (i.e. typical introvert), I can’t function without some interaction from others (i.e. classic extrovert).  Thus, I strive to achieve a balance between my need for inner quite and my desire to be active and have fun with other folks.  The end result is what you see in this blog; me sharing my life with you, my friends, teammates, colleagues and anyone else who happens to stumble upon it.

Do I mind sharing what I do outside of business?  No.  Many people view accountants as intellectual, emotionless, lumps of goo that have no life outside of crunching numbers.  By sharing my escapades, it proves that I am human and that I am no different than they are.  It offers them a glimpse into my life and what makes me tick.  Do most stereotypical accountants do this?  I wouldn’t know; but that’s because I’m not your typical accountant!

Hey, even us accountants have a fun side.

Hey, even us accountants have a fun side.

Until next time…

Keeping The Faith

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about my escapades within the company.  Part of that was because we had a pretty good tax season; which we’ll share via a post in a few days.  However, another reason was because I had been dealing with a roller coaster of emotions during this same time period.

You see, back when I took the plunge to head up Wilson Rogers on a full time basis, my wife and I cut a deal.  3 years.  Yup, that was the amount of time that I had to make it work or it was back to Corporate America for me.  Hey, when you have a family to support, you have to do what’s in the best interest of the unit and not what you desire.  Well, this was the second of those three years and needless to say I was feeling the pressure.

While season one was okay, the financial results weren’t what we needed them to be given the three year time frame.  Thus, it was imperative that season two be pretty good and then some.  The genesis of our 2013 tax season went something like this:

  • Due to 2012 bills, the company’s cash had gotten so low that I had to make a capital contribution
  • The Fiscal Cliff shenanigans of Congress pushed the start of tax season back by two weeks
  • Our newsletter program that we had banked to bring us in some new clients wasn’t producing
  •  I had a meltdown about mid season under the premise that things were not going to work out and we weren’t even going to hit our minimum revenue goals
  • I resolved to do anything and everything that I could to try and turn things around
  • The presence of our facility being in the neighborhood for a second season started to bring us new clients from the neighborhood
  • A few practitioners in the area retiring brought us some more clients
  • Our client referral program finally kicked in and a few rainmaker clients from 2012 gave us a nice amount of referrals
  • A partnership program that we had with a major company brought in more money then we had anticipated in our wildest dreams
  • We finished the season out strong and beat our minimum 2013 revenue numbers

In case you missed it, the turning point with our season happened in bullet number 5.  I had no idea how I was going to make things work, but all I knew is that I needed to do something.  And what was that something?  It was keeping the faith.

You don’t have to be a religious person to buy the concept of faith.  Quite simply it’s believing in something that you can’t see, hear, taste, touch or feel.  It’s having the courage to push forward when everything is giving you indicators that you should stop.  It’s knowing in your heart of hearts that if you keep at it long enough, things will work out.

Every entrepreneur reaches that deep, dark place that I hit earlier this tax season.  It’s an inevitable part of the process of growing your business.  But if you are willing to keep the faith, just know that it gets a little brighter on the other side.

Until next time…

My Offseason Vacation

Funny how time flies.  About this time last year we were knee deep in trying to get our new office ready.  Now I’m in the process of getting it all cleaned up and back in shape for our second season.  But a lot has happened since we shuttered the doors for the summer.  With that being said, I thought I should pen a note updating everyone on exactly what I’ve been up to since then.

Kinder Morgan

Well, back in April I landed a temp/contract job with a company called Kinder Morgan.  For those unfamiliar with the name, Kinder Morgan is the largest midstream energy company and the third largest energy company (based on combined enterprise value) in North America.  If you’ve ever driven down I-55 and seen a facility that looks like this then you’ve more than likely driven by their Argo terminal.

The company actually has many business segments ranging from pipelines (natural gas/products) to CO2 and terminals. I was actually stationed at their Argo terminal which is basically a big liquid storage facility for anything and everything fuel related.  The business is actually quite interesting and was certainly a departure from my manufacturing and service industry days.  Initially I was brought on to help create some routine financial reporting based upon the Hyperion Essbase application.  I was told that my time with them could be anywhere from a few months all the way up to a full six when I was scheduled to return to Wilson Rogers in December.

Well, the initial reporting was created within a month of me being there so I wasn’t sure what exactly would be next.  However, I did wind up staying almost seven months and assisting with things ranging from budget reporting to a host of other things.  But the best part of the gig had to be the people.  Not since my days with the PCD team at PepsiCo had I had the opportunity to work with such an “eclectic” bunch.  So to Ron, Brion, Steve, Flo, Angela, Asad, Keith, Lukas and Maureen (aka the mother of Mr. Spanky, who makes some mean hummus by the way) – it was a blast working with you all and thanks for the opportunity.

Cycling & Racing Bikes

Well some of you may have heard a little story about me breaking bones back in March.  Via a boneheaded move that is not really worth writing about (as it’s not awesome and didn’t happen in a race) I managed to take a spill on my bike and break my wrist.  This happened right during the height of tax season and required surgery, a titanium plate and about 8 screws to fix.  To say that things were interesting during this time would probably be an understatement.

Well, the short story about my race season is that it was 1) delayed due to healing, 2) had its ups and downs and 3) was only somewhat similar to what I had hoped for.  So to make up for that I decided to make it epic in other ways like riding 200+ miles to four states in a single day and taking 3rd in my age group at the Illinois State Time Trial Championships.

 Ben, Nikos, Ryan, Bill, Jared and Coach Randy showing off our hardware

 

Ms. Rogers Becomes Mrs. Rogers?

If the title has you confused then maybe this story will help straighten it all out.  Typically in August, Aaronita and I head up to Michigan to visit my parents for a little relaxation and some bike racing.  Well, this year the entire family was in Chicago on the date of this year’s Cherry Roubaix.  Why?  Because my little sister was getting married!  The funny thing about it is that her fiancé Melvin actually had the last name of Rogers.  Don’t worry, we already checked and no he’s not some long lost cousin!  Guess her lack of name change will at least simplify things for her when it comes to her next tax return huh?

Melvin & Whitney Rogers

The original Mr. & Mrs. Rogers with the kids

All in all it was a good time and we’re happy to have Melvin as part of the family.  As you can see from the picture below, Pilar also had a blast.  Not only did she get to be the flower girl at her Aunts wedding, she also got to compete in her very first dance off!

Melvin’s brother Romey vs. Pilar in the infamous dance off

Vacations, Hurricanes and Weddings – Oh My!

In early November all eyes were on the east coast as hurricane Sandy threatened to make a mess of just about everything.  This was important to our family as my sister-in-law Sonya and her fiancé Jason live in New York.  What was even more pressing was that they were supposed to be getting married on November 4th down in beautiful St. Thomas.  Needless to say, they decided to catch an earlier flight so as to not get stranded by the storm.  Good thing too as no one wanted to miss views and experiences like these:

 Trunk Bay – St. John’s US Virgin Islands

Sonya & Jason on their special day

The St. Thomas trip was a blast and is probably the first “real” vacation that our family has taken in about a year.  When you work for your own company, when you don’t work you don’t earn.  But with that said, the trip was most certainly one for the memory books and we’re proud to add Jason to the family.  Here is a shot of me with all my girls so to speak.

Judy, Aaronita, Pilar and Jared after the wedding

Getting Ready For Next Tax Season

So other than all the exciting stuff mentioned above, I was also busy working on building up the practice.  While tax season is only a four month affair, there are always things that need to be done as we strive to grow.  First there was the addition of some new sales reps to the firm.  I’m pretty excited that they will represent the company well and continue to spread the word of what a wonderful practice we have.  In the offseason we also added a monthly newsletter to our advertising arsenal.  The response to it has been pretty good thus far, especially when you have a monthly contest where you’re giving away $50 gas cards!

Other things we worked on included some of the following:

  • Continued servicing of our growing number of bookkeeping clients
  • Increasing our advertising reach via supporting local church bulletins
  • Expanding our current client referral program with one we think will generate some real excitement come January (more on this to come in the next few weeks)
  • Renewing and expanding our partnership with EPS Financial as we strive to continue to offer economical and responsible financial products to those who are “unbanked”

So as you can see, my summer was filled with lots of activities, lots of fun, and lots of work.  Now all we have to do is try and gauge how  delayed the tax season will be due to the Fiscal Cliff and the IRS scrambling to decide which way to go with updating their system.  Who said being in the tax field was boring?  Until next time!

The Advantage of Being A “Small” Business

This past weekend my family and friends celebrated our daughter Pilar’s 3rd birthday.  Her grand event was held at the Bronzeville Children’s Museum  which meant that I would have the designated job of “goffer” until it was done.  One of the things on my list was getting two Yo Gabba Gabba character balloons filled with helium so that I could bring them to the party.

Well, in case you didn’t know there is apparently a shortage of helium going on currently.  Seems like it happens on an annual basis, but this year party store retailers appear to be limited in their ability to obtain it.  Unless you are in the medical, brewing or welding industries, you are not considered top priority.  Thus, many of the retailers who are selling it have their own restrictions on how they dole it out.  Unfortunately, one of the restrictions that I came across from the “big boys” was that they weren’t filling outside balloons with helium, only ones that were purchased from them.

If you’ve ever hosted a kid’s party, you can relate to the stress of trying to make it all come together.  Needless to say, after going to a couple of the big stores I was getting pretty fed up with the inability to get these balloons filled.  So I decided that I would take a different approach, I’d find a “small business” that specialized in party decorations and the like.

This is where my friend Jo Jo The Balloon Lady enters.  You see, this is a shop that I have seen on my way to our office quite a few times.  I’ve never had a reason to frequent their establishment before this, but as I knew where it was I figured I would see if they would fill my balloons.  I was greeted by a young woman who promptly took my order and told me that it wouldn’t be a problem to get them filled.  It would cost me a little more than normal due to the helium shortage, but as a parent you know there is no price too great when it comes to your child’s happiness.

During this time I also got to speak with the proprietor and learn a little more about their business and just how long they had been there (15 years).  I learned about the passion they had for the business, their commitment to it and just how much their customers meant to them.  I vowed that they would have my business in the future and that I would spread the word about what a gem this little place was.  Which brings me to the subject of this post.

When you’re small business, you have a set of competitive advantages that larger competitors may not.  Thus, always make sure that you leverage the following as they are true tools that can bring you business:

Genuine Customer Service.  The customer service experience is one that can make or break your opportunity to turn a first time customer into a repeat one.  To this end, make sure that your staff is fully vested in just how important it is to make each customer happy.  Whether it’s engaging in conversation, listing to their stories or just greeting them with a smile, make it a part of your operating procedures.

Opportunistic Thinking.  Small businesses are started and run by entrepreneurs.  These are the type of people that see a problem and try to build a better mouse trap to solve it.  Likewise, they are also the ones most likely to “think outside the box” so to speak.  So when the big boys set a certain status quo in the market, but you can figure out a way to capitalize on it, by all means go for it.  “So you don’t want to fill outside balloons because you want the increased margin that comes with people buying balloons from you?  That’s okay, we’ll fill all the balloons you won’t and make a nice little penny off it too!”

Build Relationships.  I’ve said it before but I’ll mention it again; people do business with people they like.  Better yet, people will go out of their way to rant, rave and refer business to people they like.  So treat every customer as a friend and invite them to get to know you.  Likewise, just like Sal the butcher learned that you would want your “special cut” of meat every Friday, make it a point to learn what makes your customers happy.  You’ll soon find that by building these relationships you’ll have the opportunity to service a customer for a lifetime versus just a single transaction.

200+ Miles & 4 States on A Bicycle

Every since I first hopped on a bike, I knew that it would be a long love affair.  There is just something about the feeling you get when you know that the machine you are riding is 100% powered by your efforts.  That feeling of the wind in your face when you go down a hill.  That feeling that is as close as you’re ever going to get to flight without jumping out of a plane.

Many of you know that I race for xXx Racing – AthletiCo when I am not being daddy or handling client finances.  This team was founded back in 1999 when a group of messengers decided that it would be cool to try their hands at some sanctioned racing.  One of the founding fathers was a guy by the name of Eric Sprattling.  Eric was known for being a pretty good distance rider and one of the things he would do as part of his training would be to ride to the three surrounding states in our area.

Well, Eric passed away in 1999 after he suffered a brain aneurysm near the conclusion of a race.  In 2010, our coach began an annual 3 states ride in Eric’s memory.  2011 was the first time I participated and while it was hard (145 miles and 8 hours), it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had on the bike.  A few weeks back I got this hair-brained idea of what it would be like to ride the 4 states in our area.  That’s right – what would it be like to ride Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin all in one day?  Well, read on to find out!

The day was scheduled to be relatively calm from a wind standpoint and the temps were projected to get up to about 87 degrees.  From a rider standpoint, this is about as good as it gets during the summer, especially considering that we’ve been well into the upper 90’s for the past few weeks.  The route out to Michigan has some pretty high speed sections (45+ MPH speed limit) so I decided that it would be the portion I would ride first.  Given that I was starting at 5AM, I hoped that this would help me avoid some of the heavy traffic that would surely start as people began to get started on their days.

4AM comes after about 6 hours of sleep and I begin with a big breakfast and a final load up of all the gear I would have.  I’d have my usual tools to fix anything major that would go wrong on the bike, but I would also carry a few extras along with an extra water bottle.  I’m out the door at 5:15AM and it’s a quick 7 miles before I hit my second state of Indiana.  The sun is just starting to come up as you can see in this picture.

After my quick photo op I get rolling again and press on through the oil facilities of Whiting IN and in about an hours time I hit Gary.  Things are going okay and I am eating and drinking regularly to keep the engine room stoked.  I’m cruising along at an average of 19 MPH which is just what I am hoping for.  Once I leave Gary I hit US 12 which would take me through the Indiana Dunes, some more industrial areas and then through the Dunes Park.  The tree cover was excellent (which helped as the sun continued to ascend) and the only real hiccup came when I was supposed to take a route known as the Calumet trail.  Well, turns out this bike path is made of gravel and is more suited for mountain bikes than my skinny tired steed.  Needless to say, I just rerouted to US 12 and about 3 hours after I started I hit my third state, Michigan.

The route to Michiana MI takes you up a road called Lake Shore Drive.  The road itself is pretty picturesque with hillside villas on one side and beachfront property and the shoreline on the other.  On my cruise up this road at 8AM,  people were out running, biking and just enjoying the outdoors.  All of them had smiles and waves for me as I plodded along the rolling shoreline.  Kind of reminds you of those seaside drives of the coast doesn’t it?

The ride back to Illinois was pretty uneventful with the exception of how I felt at mile 70.  Typically I can do 100 miles without too much “discomfort” but for some reason I was starting to feel a little bothered on the bike.  The plan was for me to stop back at the house (mile 100) for a quick pasta lunch and refuel before I pushed north for the 4th state.  Thus, I just told myself to just make it home and I’d be okay.  The key to completing a ride of this length, at least for me, was to break it into small segments in which I could get a victory.  After a while, your body is going to just hurt no matter what, but it’s your mind that will make you stop and quit.

After a 30 minute rest and some lunch I pushed north up the bike path on the lakefront and headed into the burbs to play in our teams usual training grounds.  Well, this is where the ride “started” to get hard for me.  No matter how much I ate and drank, my power levels slowly started to come down as time progressed.  I would take a break every hour or so, which recharged me to an extent, but it was getting really hard to convince myself that I was going to make it back home.  Well, after 160 miles and 9 hours of riding, I finally got to my 4th state!

Well, this served as one of my milestones and gave me a little encouragement that I might be able to pull off the secondary goal – 200+ miles if I rode all the way home.  I stopped at a Subway close to the WI boarder (really wanted to eat cheese curds at Culvers, but figured it would make me sick) and had me some dinner and a quick 20 minute rest.  With the exception of breakfast and lunch, most of what I ate that day was “junk food” whose purpose was simply to give me the most calories for what I could carry on the bike.  Thus, it felt really good to eat some real food before heading home.

The ride home was slow, painful and involved me really considering hopping the first train back to the city that I could find.  I probably stopped at least 4 times over the 59 mile route, but after the last one (which was just 7 miles from my house) and a text from a teammate who was checking in on me (thanks Diddy), I found the wherewithal to power home and get ‘er done.

So what was the final tally of this insane ride?  Let’s see:

  • 4 states covered
  • 15+ townships/cities visited
  • 214 miles ridden in 12 hours 18 minutes
  • 7,179 calories burned
  • 8 liters of fluid (Gatorade included), 3 honey buns, 1 powerbar, 1 pack of cakesters, 1 lbs of orzo pasta, 1 subway veggie sandwich, and 2 fruit pies all consumed post breakfast
  • One mega suntan
  • Zero flats!

All in all, I was very happy to pull this ride off.  It wasn’t easy by any measure, but then again, that was part of the reason I did it.  A part of me gets a great deal of satisfaction of pushing myself into new realms.  What some may consider insane is what I consider proving that you can do whatever you want in this world, so long as you put your mind to it.  Would I do this ride again?  Yes (I can’t say that I felt this way immediately upon finishing) but it will probably be quite some time from now.

If you’ve ever seen my helmet after a ride, you’ll affirm that the straps are usually covered in salt.  This last pic doesn’t do my jersey justice, but let’s just say that salt was fully embedded into every fabric of it’s being.

And lastly to Eric – Kyle says that you would have thought I was crazy for doing such a ride.  But then again, he said you would have been right there along side me pushing me on.  Well, I hope I made you proud sir and thanks for the inspiration!

What It Means To Be A Father

It’s been a while since I’ve penned a note about myself, but with today being Father’s Day, I figured today would be a good time.  On my walk back to my car from a client call this morning, I had some time to think about what it means to be a father.  I’m very fortunate to have this job in addition to the other roles I play in life.  It’s one of the most rewarding, challenging, nerve wracking yet joyful jobs that I’ve ever had.  This got me to thinking about its importance.

My sister and I were fortunate enough to have both our parents in our lives.  My dad was a hard working guy who always made sure we had a roof over our head and my mom made sure we always had clothes on our back.  Together they kept us in line, encouraged us, shuttled us to and from games and held us accountable for everything we did.  During my high school years, it was this last point that made the world as I knew it pretty difficult.

My parents were old school.  You know, the kind that made you come home when the street lights came on.  The kind that wouldn’t let you go outside unless you showed them that your homework was done.  The kind that didn’t give you an allowance, but taught you the importance of earning it.  To say they were strict would probably be an accurate observation!  But to say that they didn’t care would be an injustice.

During high school, all I wanted to do was escape to college.  I remember applying to the University of Miami just for the sole purpose of getting as far away from Chicago as I possibly could.  Too bad (and thankfully) it was way too expensive for me to attend despite being accepted.  But in all honesty, I really didn’t want to be close to home because I wanted to be “free” of all the rules and regulations that I felt had stifled me.

Well, many years later and having started a family of my own, I now “truly” understand what my parents (specifically my father) were doing.  They were doing their job!  The role of a parent in the wild is to protect their young until they can fend for themselves.  Their job isn’t to be liked all the time.  Their job isn’t to tell you what you want to hear.  Their job is to teach you what they know so that you don’t get yourself into trouble.  And if you do find yourself in a spot of bother?  Hopefully they’ve given you some tools so you can try and get yourself out of that jam.

I’d like to think that in the years following my return from college, my father and I have grown closer.  I don’t necessarily see him as the guy who told me what to do, but more so as they guy who tried to advise me.  I don’t see him as the man who tried to rule my life, but as the man who tried to guide me in the right direction.  And now he gets another job – that of Papa or the guy whom my little one loves to hang out with when we go and visit their home in Michigan.

So today, I’d like to say “thank you” to the man who was always there in my life.  The guy who always told me he loved me and that he thought I was the greatest guy in the world.  To the man who taught me through his actions that life is hard, but you never quit no matter how high the chips are stacked against you.  To the guy who taught me that all a man has is his word and his reputation.  To the guy who always supported me, stood by my side and gave me a role model to try to emulate.

I’ve always tried to do what my dad said because in the end, I really looked up to him.  For every time he said “you make me proud to have a son like you” I wish I could have responded “but I’m more proud to have a father like you.”  Now as I try to raise my own child up into a responsible member of society, I can only hope that I do half as good a job as he did.  Happy Father’s Day Dad!

My Time As A TurboTax Ask A Tax Expert

October 2011.  There I was staring at Craigslist searching for roles, projects, gigs and jobs that I could use to supplement the income from tax work that would soon begin with our new office.  One role in particular struck me; one where you would be giving tax advice remotely during tax season.  This sounded right up my alley but I was skeptical.  “This is on Craigslist?  Is this legit?  What company is this for?”  Long story short – it was legit and it was being offered by the fine folks at Intuit, the same company behind the TurboTax brand.  So now what?

I applied for the role and shortly after Christmas I got the call that they would like to speak to me.  After what I’ll call a “challenging” computer assessment (which I thought I crashed and burned in) I got the call inviting me to join the team.  I happily accepted and got ready for a month of training and then a month of working on the floor taking calls and chats from customers.  Boy, was the fun just about to begin!

Our training cohort (Wave 7) had about 30+ individuals in it from all walks of life, geographic locals and disciplines (Attorneys, CPAs and Enrolled Agents).  Some were like me who were “relatively” new to the tax game while others were battle tested veterans who had been in the industry for 20+ years.  Want to talk about feeling like a rookie?  I can say that I truly appreciated learning some things from the people who had seen it all, knew the specifics of the IRC regulations and could rattle off IRS publications and forms as easily as someone who is fluent in a second language.

Training flew bye with the blink of an eye and before I knew it, it was time to jump into the pool and either sink or swim.  The first few days were a little stressful as I became acclimated to how the phone and computer interface operated with my equipment (in particular my headset).  Yet after a few days, taking calls was pretty seamless and that’s when I began to really experience what the role had to offer.

When it comes to operating a tax practice, every office is a unique animal.  What I mean by this is that the nature of the clientele AND the preparer are usually interlinked.  If you are a newer preparer such as myself, the chances of your client base containing a significant amount of retirees is probably not high.  Thus, the number of returns that I would work on that would involve retiree topics (e.g. annuity payments, required minimum distributions, IRA to Roth conversions, etc) would be limited.  But what happens when you are connected to taxpayers who have questions from all over the country, across varying social economic groups and from all ages?  You learn!

During my time on the floor, I handled numerous questions ever single night.  Some would come in that I had an “expert” working knowledge of while others made me want to scream in terror as I had no idea how I was even going to tackle it.  Yet, the questions that terrorized me in my initial discussions with customers proved to be my biggest learning moments.  I remember the question about an individual who had bartering income and needed some help figuring out where to report it.  There was the question from a New Jersey taxpayer on why their Federal NOL wasn’t showing up on their state return.  And then there was the one about the mixed use property and a Section 208A ordering of expenses.

In each one of those interactions I had to learn something in a short amount of time.  Sometimes I was learning about the tax law, sometimes tax forms, sometimes the software itself.  In addition to learning, I had to ensure that the guidance I provided to the taxpayer was sound and grounded in fact.  Lastly (but certainly not least) I had to ensure that the taxpayer understood what I was conveying and agreed that I had actually solved their issue.  Individually none of those things are complicated nor stressful.  However, when you combine them all and repeat the process several times within a few hours, let’s just say that you have to stay on your toes!

As I write this post, April 17th 2012 is coming to a close and the clock is swiftly ticking towards the deadline to file on time.  Over the next few days I will begin to transition out of the Ask A Tax Expert role as well as wind down the office for the offseason.  Yet in looking back, I think I have to admit that I was fortunate to find that ad on Craigslist that one October day.  Through this experience I had the opportunity to meet some really nice professionals, challenge my tax knowledge and learn about things I might not have touched for years to come.  And just like the work I do in my practice, I had the opportunity to really and truly help make a difference in the lives of several individuals. 

The work I did was not life or death surgery.  Yet if you ask the callers whom I helped resolve their issues, you might get a different take on what they think I did!  To all my ATE colleagues, it was a pleasure working with you and I hope our paths cross again in the future. To all the folks at Intuit, thanks for allowing me the opportunity to participate.

Until next time.

Dealing With Adversity

As I started to get up off the ground I began the usual “check and see if anything is hurt” routine. I’ve fallen off my bike dozens of times before so it’s usually no big deal.   Only problem this time was the fact that something “was” actually hurt.  I stood there looking (in disbelief) at what appeared to be a dislocated wrist.  “Maybe if I just pop it back in place everything will be okay?” is what I was thinking.  Too bad I’d later find out that it was broken.

Two weeks prior to the above escapade, I crumpled in the front end of my car when a lady decided she wanted to stop in the middle of the intersection on a green light. She had no insurance and the damage wasn’t worth me paying the deductible from mine.  A few weeks prior to that some other random challenge raised it’s ugly little head.  What’s going on in my life?  Who did I make mad? Why are all these “challenges” presenting themselves?  Why is this happening NOW, when we’re trying to grow the business?  Why, why, why?

The next time an obstacle presents itself to you, you’re probably going to consider one of these four routes:

Escape  You feel as if the challenge is too much for you so running away feels like a good option.  Only problem with this is that the obstacle isn’t really gone.  It’s just waiting for you to find it again so it can continue to apply its unwelcome pressure on your life.

Conformity  This is the “okay, you win” approach.  When faced with an obstacle you are really at a point where you are “stuck” so-to-speak.  You can’t move forward (easily) and you probably can’t go back to the way things were.  If you conform, you’re really just a notch above escaping.  What you’re saying is “a known evil is better than an unknown one.  The challenges of life are just too overwhelming.  Conformity, surrender or assimilation are the only realistic options.”

Fight  One approach is to fight whatever the challenge is.  You can do this via denial, obstinacy or just flat out refusal.  While it may appear that you are winning by not giving in, the reality is you are not making any progress or solving the situation.

Belief  Call it meditation, reflection, prayer or spirituality.  While the aforementioned will help comfort the soul and mind, they are only a part of the answer.  Wanting something to be different will typically not change the situation by itself.  Change takes more than just desire.

This brings us to the option not listed – moving forward.  Let’s face it, life is difficult.  However, our attitude is what determines whether we benefit from misfortune.  The same furnace that melts gold also hardens clay.  When faced with the heat of life you can either become hardened, callous and cynical or you can let it hammer, forge and shape you into a better and stronger person.  Case in point?  Dick and Rick Hoyt.

When I was younger I never really understood all those adages like “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  Yet then again, I also thought that “making ends meet” was some type of weird food process.  Anyway, the point is that all of those sayings have a point which is, you have to move forward.

I got up off the ground, drove myself to the ER and got my arm fixed.  I’ve adapted my computer to work with my left hand, which isn’t my dominant one.  I’m counting down the days to when I can start rehab.  But most importantly, I’m grateful that it’s not worse.  Be thankful for whatever situation you are dealing with because someone far worse off would give anything to be in your shoes.