People profiles: Ryan Lazanis reflects on his journey from start-up to accountants' mentor
We get to speak to a lot of interesting people in the accountancy world. In the first of a new series of interviews with people we admire, Ryan Lazanis shares his story from digital start-up to superstar accountants’ coach.
If you’re not familiar with Ryan, the potted history is that he started up and sold his own digital accounting firm within five years. More recently, Ryan created Future Firm to provide guidance to accountants who are interested in adopting a digital-first approach; with a focus on technology, efficiency and automation. This is a shorter version of the full article available on our website.
Senta: How did you get into the accounting industry?
Ryan: I worked for a very traditional CPA firm for about five years until I received my CPA designation, then I went into industry for about six months as an assistant controller. I was in my twenties working as an assistant controller and I knew I wanted to start a business. I wanted to create a new kind of firm; one that would make accounting easier and less painful for small businesses, so in 2013 I created Zen Accounting. Back then it was one of the first fully virtual firms in Canada.
I was nervous, but I was excited. I started as a one-man show with zero clients and no real skill set. I was launching a virtual firm; meeting clients online, using accounting software, making things easier and more automated. Accountants I spoke to thought it was a ridiculous idea, and a lot of the ideas I implemented were unique. For example, calling it Zen Accounting when 99% of firms at the time were named after the partner or owner. Or implementing subscription billing where clients could see costs on the website and choose their own package. People would sign up without even speaking to me, and in 2013 people weren't really doing this...at least in Canada.
Senta: And do you think there are still challenges associated with being a digital-only firm?
Ryan: When I started, it was definitely a challenge. There was an education process with clients; convincing them that cloud is safe; why we should be paperless and what are the benefits. Very early on I realised that the younger, more tech-savvy business owners were the ones that were really on board with that kind of model, and that’s why early on I built a niche with tech startups.
Ultimately when I created the firm my focus was: how do I make accounting a pleasant experience? Really focusing on the customer and looking at the typical pain points clients have with their accountant. How could we create a model that overturns those pain points?
For example, subscription billing. Yes, it's good for the firm, but it's also really good for the client. The client wants certainty in price and to know what they're getting. They want to see this clearly laid out rather than uncertainty around scope of work, and surprise bills in the mail. All of the things that I was implementing early on were really just focused on the client and making the client experience better. I think more people across the board are seeing these benefits, and are interested.
Senta: Have you experienced any big challenges or hurdles? And what did you learn that might help others who are just getting started?
Ryan: I’ve been through all of them, basically! I think the problem a lot of practice owners face is that they're often trained in accounting and nothing else. But there's so much more that’s required from them.
An accounting firm is a business like any other. It needs to do sales, marketing, pricing strategy, talent management and operations. It's not just about serving clients. Firm owners have been trained as accountants; they know how to work with clients and that's what they like doing. But they often don't know how to handle all the other stuff it takes to run a business. Naturally, I'm a terrible accountant, so I think I was more inclined to learn the aspects of running a firm that I find more interesting. But I learned the hard way.
I was never trained on how to price my services, so when I first rolled out my subscription plans, the highest package was $200 a month and obviously wasn't profitable, so I ran into issues.
The first few employees I hired, I didn't know what to look for. I’d never hired or managed people before and they didn't work out.
I was never trained in how to do marketing, but I had to figure something out because I had $0 coming in. I tried just about every strategy, and most of them failed miserably.
Senta: So are there any go-to tools or tips that you would recommend to those in the early stages of setting up their firm?
Ryan: The first thing I do when coaching a firm is establishing a roadmap. Something that’s often missing for firms is a strategy. People start a business to create a better life for themselves but often fall into the trap of a horrible work-life balance. They look at automation as the key to solve everything; they're bombarded with different ideas, shiny objects, and people pitching things. They try to do too much at once and they end up going nowhere.
I help firm owners define - what do you really want out of life? What makes you happy? How much money do you want? How many hours do you want to work? I then model the business around that. What do we need to be doing in the next 90 days to be on track for some of our mid-term and long-term goals and recognise that we can't do it all at once.
So my first tip is: define where you want to end up specifically and put a roadmap in place to get there. Identify what you want to achieve in the next 90 days and just focus on that.
Maybe one of those goals is implementing a practice management system.
Maybe one of those goals is implementing a subscription model.
Maybe one of those goals is refining some of the processes in place.
Start with a plan of attack; create a roadmap; work on the fundamentals of the business.