After years as a controller, vice president of finance, and accounting manager for small businesses, I decided to be my own boss and start a bookkeeping, accounting, and tax business that services small businesses and start-ups. What all my diverse clients share is the need to establish a set of books, keep good records, and navigate extensive government compliance requirements, especially if they have employees and are in a regulated industry.
Like a GPS (global positioning system), the accountant must focus on multiple data streams: location, navigation, tracking, mapping, and timing. In accounting, each of these functions overlaps the others; tied together, they form an effective entrepreneur’s positioning system. While each function presents its own distinctive qualities and requirements, all five general purposes could easily be renamed with one word: communication.
Entrepreneurs need to know where they are in order to proceed in the right direction. Like a GPS, the accountant helps the entrepreneur determine the business’s position. This process begins by gathering the essential coordinates—the state of the business and its financial position at the moment. That involves a discovery phase of preparing a set of books for the company.
For start-ups, first-time entrepreneurs, and even some experienced entrepreneurs, starting early with a set of books is obviously the ideal. That said, accountants are often asked to develop books for mature small businesses who didn’t consider it a priority to maintain an accurate set of books from the start. They eventually realize that you can’t do any accounting without doing the bookkeeping first. You can’t apply for a loan, can’t communicate with partners or potential investors or buyers, can’t produce tax returns or comply fully and accurately with government authorities, and so on.Before they brought in an accountant to unveil the bigger picture, many clients had already attempted to make day-to-day spending decisions solely by looking at the cash balance in the bank. I have encountered a few exceptional entrepreneurs who managed to make money while operating this way, but more often than not, it catches up with you. All of a sudden, it’s “Hey, where did the cash go?”
Like a GPS, the accountant helps the entrepreneur determine a destination and the path it takes to get there. Once you know where you are, you can then proceed with clarity on your intended path. This is where you really start providing value to your customer. The accountant helps “navigate” in three essential ways: long-term financial, governmental, and operational.
Navigation for the long term means the accountant helps the entrepreneur begin with the end in mind. Longer-range goals need to be ascertained—for example, is the business being built to be sold eventually, or is it going to be handed down to children, positioned to franchise, and so on? Talking to entrepreneurs about subjects like entity selection (sole operatorship, partnership, S Corp, C Corp, etc.) is crucial and should be based on considerations such as taxes, transferability, and other pertinent factors.
The governmental navigation is where the accountant helps the entrepreneur navigate the forest of government regulation like payroll compliance, licensing, and taxes.
And, finally, the accountant needs to help the entrepreneur navigate the operational routine. Good records, secure assets, and solid planning (such as building the budgets and predicting cash flow needs) all help the business owner make better decisions. Like a GPS, the accountant not only helps point the entrepreneur in the right direction but also helps plan and prepare for the traffic, weather, and roadblocks in the way. A powerful entreprenuer’s positioning system anticipates what lies ahead well enough to provide alternate routes when required.
A GPS offers real-time travel information such as distance to the destination, the speed at which you are traveling, and the estimated time of arrival. An accountant can provide real-time feedback on the way to the business’s goal.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” or GIGO. A component of “garbage in” is a lack of data. The need to recalibrate is inevitable. The business is going to take a wrong turn now and then, so it needs that voice along the way to suggest what to do next. It isn’t always a pleasant voice—it can even be annoying at times and doesn’t always deliver the best news. But it’s a necessary and useful voice. For small businesses, an accountant is that voice, monitoring key performance indicators and advising on course corrections.
Like a GPS is used for making maps, the accountant can map out financial information for its user. Maps are primarily graphic representations—a GPS has a screen that shows you the route ahead in dynamic visual form. Spoken navigation instructions and tracking data complete the sensory experience of your route mapping. A map’s function is primarily unchanged. It carries information and reflects an explanation of what is in a particular location. It uses colors, symbols, and labels to represent features found on the ground. It provides information on the existence of, location of, and distance between ground features, such as populated places and routes of travel and communication.
Like a good cartographer, an accountant makes maps to convey information in a clear, concise way that’s effective for the particular user and business type. By putting in the tools that frame at-a-glance information within the bigger picture, an accountant makes financial data useful and accessible for planning (e.g., budgets) and explanation (e.g., dashboards). These tools need to be easy to follow, download, and update, and they become the template for others to follow.
Just like a GPS is continually resynchronized to a standard time, the accountant will use financial information to help bring precise timing to the various decisions an entrepreneur needs to make. Information presented at the right time is a big part of success. The right financial information needs to be prepared and ready to go in order to take advantage of the timing in any scenario. This could encompass everything from operational efficiency like inventory ordering and control to a more life-changing decision, such as when a “side hustle” becomes a full-time business or when the entrepreneur needs to hire employees.
There’s always a proper time to close, leave, or sell a business. An accountant may be called on to help determine that precise time. An accountant helps an entrepreneur determine the value of a business sale. Helping a business close down is an important function of accounting, and if this follows the realization of the entrepreneur’s goals, then that’s an especially satisfying professional accomplishment.
The entreprenuer’s positioning system is a multifunctional resource that communicates accurate, timely, useful, and relevant information in a variety of ways. Like a GPS that needs to stay up to date on the latest new roads and traffic conditions, accountants need continuous learning and improved productivity to add value to their client engagements.