3 Common Pitfalls when Starting a Bookkeeping Business: A Case Study

common pitfallsThe first challenge most new or aspiring freelance bookkeepers face when starting their bookkeeping business is…

Q: How do I find my first few clients?

A majority of bookkeeping businesses get most of their clients through referrals. But the problem when you’re just starting out is, how can you get referrals if you don’t have any clients yet?

Your first few clients often come from networking and reaching out to your existing contacts. What other ways can a fledgling bookkeeping practice acuire new clients?

Here’s the story of what one of my students attempted, the pitfalls that plagued him, and how he can course correct to set himself up for success going forward.

I’m sharing the actual email exchange so you can see what happened, fly-on-the-wall style… (He gave me permission to share his story, since it may be helpful to other freelance bookkeepers)


Student Message:

I actually talked with my second [potential] client that I will hopefully be working with as their bookkeeper. I quoted a rate of $19hr through a website for the service they needed but I know they are going to need more. I used your engagement letter [template] with the terms and limitations of what I will do and what I will not. I feel that after I am on-board with them I am going to be teaching them how to use QuickBooks Online. Would it be wise to charge that as a separate price in the beginning until I feel they are knowledgeable about the software?

Gabrielle’s initial response:

When you say you have communicated with this potential client through a website, is it one of those bidding sites (like eLance)? Is that why you have quoted such a low fee? ($19 is extremely low for even very basic bookkeeping services). Will you be doing cleanup services, and then the client wants you to teach them to do it themselves thereafter?

I can better answer your question if I understand the engagement. But in general, yes, training should be charged separately from bookkeeping, unless you are only giving them small pointers to make it easier to work together (when you’re doing the monthly bookkeeping, but they are handling other aspects, such as the invoicing, for example).

Please let me know the situation and I can give you a more helpful response.

Student reply:

Yes, the client reached out to me through one of the bidding websites which I just quoted a rate of $19. After speaking with the client I found out that they did not actually have an accounting system, but they are recording their transactions on Excel. In the agreement letter that I sent to them (waiting for approval) I mention that I would provide invoices to their clients and data entry. First they would have to purchase QBO by working with me to see which system is best. This would be only my second client for the business to get in the door, but I know I will have to address different prices for me to train them. What range would be best in training the client?

Gabrielle’s response:

With a client project like this, which is going to be a lot of work, I recommend that you get a retainer up front (I hope you asked for one in your engagement letter). They also need to realize that this is going to cost them quite a bit because there are really TWO engagements here (without consideration of training).

If the prospective client is currently keeping his books on a spreadsheet, then he is going to need a complete setup of new books in QuickBooks Online (likely including catch-up work). I would not recommend taking on this client if they want to continue with their Excel system. If they don’t want to pay for QBO (and paying monthly for software is an issue for them), you could recommend Wave, which is free.

For you, please remember that you’re not an employee-like person in this scenario, but a professional and have some standards that they need to meet to make this a win-win situation. I’d recommend in general that you charge at the very least $35/hour for bookkeeping services and $45/hour for training and set up services. Those are absolute bare minimum. The national average is higher.

If the client thinks that’s too high, it means that they are looking for an employee. It would be very difficult to run a viable business on only $19/hour. So just be careful about backing yourself into a corner so that you’ll regret taking clients on at too low a rate. If you really want the client, you could make the $19 rate apply for a limited time only, and then go to a “regular” higher rate. It’s a common mistake to undercharge, but if you’re busy slaving for this client, it means you don’t have the capacity to take on clients who will pay a professional rate on which you could actually turn a profit.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the latest Intuit survey that shows the basic rates others are charging. Hope it helps.


You’re awesome, I really needed to hear your expertise in this situation. Along with your virtual guide that I purchased from you, I see that I made a mistake and that it would be a lot of work. If they really want my service and they wish to grow there business, they should have no problem paying the rate of $35 to do things correctly. Next time I will make sure to ask the right questions that you provide in your guide to see if we are a good fit or not. Thanks Gabrielle.


There is no teacher like experience! Glad it’s helpful.


Lessons Learned

Here are some key lessons to be learned from this case study:

1. Don’t price services at the rate an employee would be paid. Charge professional rates that will support your business and communicate that you are providing true value to your clients. Never compete on price alone.

2. Don’t quote a rate blindly. Ask questions that will help you know as much as possible about the client and the results they are looking for so you can adequately quantify the results the client wants, the work that needs to be done, and the rate that would set up a win-win working situation.

Some key questions to ask are…

* What is the #1 reason you want to hire a professional bookkeeper?
* What results do you expect and are there any deadlines involved?
* How is your bookkeeping getting done now? Are your records up to date?
* What software are you using to get the books done?
* Do you require on-site service or is online access / virtual bookkeeping preferrable?

3. Use effective marketing methods for bookkeepers, not online commodity bidding websites. Effective marketing comes from building relationships and leveraging proactive, online and in-person strategies. Marketing that gets results needs to become a regular practice, not an event.

The challenges faced in this case study are all too common, and can slow us down when trying to build a profitable bookkeeping business that we love filled with clients that pay us well and are great to work with. That’s why in October the TFB Premium lesson will be on “How to Get & Keep Top Quality Clients” If you’re ready to kick up your client base to the next level, join us in TFB Premium!

What war stories do you have to tell (and the lessons learned) for getting your first few clients? Please leave a comment below and get a discussion going.

Tagged As: , , ,

Bookkeeper to Trusted Advisor: TFB Spotlight on Cindy Noelk

tfb-star-spotlightAre you primarily providing compliance and data entry, or are you looking to make the transition from “just” a bookkeeper to trusted advisor for your clients and your own practice growth?

I caught up with fellow virtual bookkeeper, Cindy Noelk of Cindy’s Mobile Bookkeeping, to see how she has made the swtich and get her best advice for embracing a more profitable way of starting and growing your freelance bookkeeping business

Watch or listen to this interview now! Total running time is 31 minutes.

Would you rather just listen to the interview?  Download Audio Here (right-click and “Save As…”)

Interview Highlights:

  • Started her practice in 2009 (in Florida – currently located in Buffalo NY)
  • The QuickBooks ProAdviosr Program helped to jump start her business; it’s still a main source of new client inquiries
  • Biggest challenge was getting clients during the recession
  • Got initial clients using traditional marketing & referrals from volunteer work
  • She has learned to set clear boundaries for the clients she accepts based on software and industries
  • CPAs are a main source of referrals; she has built a strategic network by nurturing existing contacts
  • She recently became a certified Profit First Professional and is working more deeply with clients to help them build financially strong and healthy businesses (based on the methods found in the book, Profit First by Mike Michalowicz)
  • If she had to do it all over again, she would have started with higher rates and done more marketing
  • If she had to do it all over again, she would be just as responsive to clients (great customer service)
  • Best marketing methods now for Cindy is the Find-a-ProAdvisor website, strategic referral network, and sending email newsletters

Tools Cindy Uses:

Used with clients:
QuickBooks Online
Dropbox – online file sharing / storage
eBility – for client time tracking

Cindy’s best advice for struggling bookkeepers: Learn the automation

Cindy is a Charter TFB Premium member – monthly business training for freelance bookkeepers

Learn more about Cindy Noelk at Cindy’s Mobile Bookkeeping


Tagged As: , , , , ,

Online Software: Navigating the Dark Side of the Cloud

dark_cloud_400_clr_9513Do you find yourself using more and more online software? If you listen to the marketing, there’s no downside to using web-based, subscription apps to run your business and support your clients. In fact, online apps are held out as the silver bullet for automated efficiencies at minimal cost. But is that really the case?

Of course, by its very nature, marketing is designed to persuade us to buy while downplaying or even hiding any disadvantages. That is definitely true when it comes to buying cloud-based software solutions. But we need to see past the rainbows and butterflies if we are to become trusted advisors to our clients and use business apps wisely ourselves.

The Dark Side of the Cloud

Security. Initially when financial information handling started to move to online platforms, the biggest fear was security. And rightly so. Identity theft and credit card fraud due to hacked websites is a common occurrence in our Internet-connected world (even huge, secure websites like the IRS get hacked!) Chances are you’ve had to replace a credit or debit card, or change an account number at least once due to fraud or a breach of “protected” information that posed a thread within the last year. Maybe even multiple times!

But the good news is, security has improved and continues to do so, especially with the new credit cards chips. Mobile apps are safer than they used to be too. But just listen to the news and you know that no information accessible via the web is 100% safe. Of course, neither is the information on your desktop computer or laptop either. So bottom line, security is still something to pay attention to no matter what kind of software you use. It’s just a fact of life.

Control. Another downside that dovetails with security is that when financial information is stored and manipulated via the web, you do not have total control over who can see the information, how often the software is upgraded, or when it’s available for your use. On upgrades, the software companies spin this as a benefit, saying that your software is always kept up to date.

In reality, this means that you may also be dealing with buggy new “innovations” whether you want them or not, since “improvements” are often rolled out without sufficient testing, advanced notice, or even confirmation that it’s what users in fact want. In the accounting technology world, new features may be driven by what is perceived as a way to stay ahead of competing apps, or a means to bring in additional revenue streams for the software company. In the process it may run counter to what users actually want and cause them unnecessary frustration.

SIDE NOTE: The lack of timely upgrades can also spark frustration. Large, popular online apps may, by necessity, release new versions on a phased-in schedule. That means that the new upgrades are rolled out over time. Therefore, not all users are on the same version at the same time.

The problem? As an existing user, you have zero control over how quickly you get access to the new features… the same features that new customers are getting! That means you could be stuck with an older version of software than what your clients are using, even though they look to you to train and support them on the latest software! Yes, another source of frustration.

Personally, I’ve had this frustration multiple times. First with QuickBooks Online and now with QuickBooks Online Accountant. As of this writing I’m STILL waiting, for the latest QBOA – over 8 months now since its promised availability date! Yes, being an early adopter can have its disadvantages. I guess someone has to be the absolute last to be migrated. *sigh*

Too Many Choices. With the proliferation of online apps to handle every function the mind can conceive, it can make your head spin! For example, with mobile devices tablets, laptop and desktop computers, cloud-based syncing is definitely helpful. But which app do you pick to handle that? While there are many options, trying to connect everything seamlessly is not a simple task.

Much like buying physical items such as pens, shoes or handbags, there’s so many to pick from. The problem? You can’t really tell if you’ll like an app or whether it will fill your needs until you actually USE it! That’s why ears perk up when we hear hot tips about apps others recommend, instead of slogging through the time-sucking task of testing out one app after another to find what actually works well (or fulfills the marketing promises)

Cost. Most business apps are provided on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) basis. That means you are paying to “rent” the usage of the app for a specific period of time, usually month-to-month or annually. One of the attractions to this style of software is the appearance of low cost. But appearances can be deceiving. That app that costs “only $25 a month” is really costing you $300 per year. Compare that to the price tag of desktop software, and it can be a real eye opener! SaaS apps may be easier on cash flow in the moment, but they’re rarely more economical. If you’re using multiple apps, your monthly software expenses can get quite hefty really fast.

Finding Your Way

So how do we best navigate the morass of online apps both for ourselves and our clients?

The short answer is to use the tried and true principle of “begin with the end in mind” (from the classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Know exactly what you need, when, and for how much. Then choose on that basis only. Simple advice, but not always easy to follow. However, just taking time to get clear on what you and your clients truly need, and then finding the apps that best fit those needs, helps clear the path to getting what you want faster with fewer headaches.

For a deeper dive, with step-by-step guidance for cutting through the clutter and choosing the best apps for you and your clients, join us this month in TFB Premium for How to Choose the Right Cloud-Based Bookkeeping Apps.

Do you have a method you use to advise clients on which apps to get? Are you in favor of or against cloud-based apps altogether? Please comment and share your own thoughts… and war stories!


Tagged As: , ,

How to Use Professional Training to Grow Your Bookkeeping Business

teacher_and_student_400_clr_11776Professional training plays a big role in a prosperous bookkeeping business. At first glance, however, this might seem a bit strange.

The rules of double-entry bookkeeping really haven’t changed over the centuries since it was invented back in the 1400s.  So if you already have a solid grip on standard bookkeeping practices, how does ongoing training fit in?

Two powerful ways.

First, most bookkeeping is now being done with the help of computerized technology, and there are many software programs that help automate the process. So we do, in fact, need to be trained to stay up to date on the proper use of the ever-changing bookkeeping software, both for ourselves and our clients, to assure efficiency and accurate results.

Creators of accounting software offer a plethora of training programs to help us use (and promote) their software effectively. Just to name a few, there’s the QuickBooks ProAdvisor Program, Xero Partner Program, and Sage Network. Plus there are scads of add-on apps for every need, many of which include partner / certification programs, such as Method, T-Sheets, LivePlan, Bill.com and MANY more!

But this is just one side of the training story (albeit the one we hear the most about).

While I do think software training can provide a definite technical advantage for distinguishing you as an expert virtual bookkeeper, it’s not the primary way that you can leverage training to grow your bookkeeping practice!

The second, and most profitable way you can leverage training, is to turn the tables. Take on the role of trainer to your clients and potential clients. And you don’t need to be a software whiz to pull it off, if you don’t want to be.

My own bookkeeping business really took off once I realized that clients will pay for training. Yes, there are many that want “done for you” bookkeeping — and that’s certainly the bread-and-butter service we offer. But the best quality clients — the ones who truly value our services — realize that we are in the perfect position to give them personalized training, troubleshooting, and advice to make their business more prosperous.

Here are three ways you can take on the role of trainer with existing clients, as well as attract more clients to engage your (premium level) services:

Short Training Videos

Making simple screen capture videos is easier than ever before. They’re a great way to not only create an online go-to library of tips and tricks to share with your clients, but you can also use them on your website, YouTube, and social media to attract new clients.

What should you make videos of? Start with the most common questions you get asked over and over again. Make short, 5-10 minute narrated videos to answer those questions. Demonstrate HOW to solve problems so your viewers can follow along.

You’ll soon be viewed as an expert on those topics, and over time, new prospective clients will automatically come your way. You’ll also delight your existing clients (so they’ll be far more inclined to send you referrals)

Best of all, it costs next to nothing to get started. All you really need to buy, if you don’t already have one, is a computer microphone. A headset works great. For recording, you can use free screen capture software like Jing and set up a free YouTube channel. That’s it! (I’m assuming that you already have access to any software that you want to demonstrate)

Public Training Classes

Another highly effective way to grow your business is to offer public training classes. These can be paid or free gigs, online or in person, depending on your objective. Beginner classes on how to use QuickBooks are always popular, but other topics that clients and potential clients appreciate are tax savings tips or anything that helps improve the bottom line.

Start simple to get your feet wet, such as with local business meetups (online or offline) or Chamber of Commerce meetings. You can also partner with complementing professionals (such as lawyers or bankers) which turns your class into a newsworthy event that will indirectly gets the word out about your services in a non-salesy way.

Personalized Training Classes

If public training sounds scary, no problem. Even introverts can leverage training. Simply work with clients personally to help improve their business’s financial health and well-being. They’ll start singing your praises.

You can, of course, offer one-on-one software training (either online or in person), but you have other choices too. Consider simple topics that you might take for granted, but are very valuable to small business owners (and often lead to more billable services). Examples are how to read financial reports, Accounts Receivable best practices, or how to lay out a budget. Some clients may even be open to business consulting, such as using the Profit First system.

Even starting very small can get big results. Simply setting up a monthly or quarterly review meeting with your clients will make a difference. Try slipping in a 5-minute recommendation that will make their workflow more efficient or boost cash flow. Your clients will take notice and start viewing you as a top-notch bookkeeper.

When your existing and potential clients realize the fountain of knowledge you have to offer them, you can quickly shift your bookkeeping practice from a commodity administrative service to a valued member of their business team. That is the real power of training for bookkeepers!

Want a deeper dive into how to train and consult to upgrade the kind of clients you attract AND raise your fees in the process? Then you’ll want to join TFB Premium sooner rather than later since the current training lessons give you a
step-by-step plan and the resources you need to take action now!

What kind of training has been most profitable for growing YOUR bookkeeping practice so far?

Should Bookkeepers Specialize?

specialize-differentFar and away, the vast majority of accounting professionals, both bookkeepers and accountants are generalists. Why specialize? Bookkeeping is bookkeeping, right?

Is it really?

Even if you feel that knowing the basics is all you need to be successful, here’s a key fact to consider seriously if you want to grow your practice:

When clients are looking to hire an accounting pro, one of the top qualifiers is expertise in the client’s industry

As a freelance bookkeeper, how do you stack up, from the client’s perspective? Are you offering truly professional services, or do you take on any client who’s willing to pay you, no matter what kind of bookkeeping-related services they want?

Here are three reasons why I strongly recommend you consider specializing:

1. Clients view specialists as experts and expect to pay higher fees

2. It’s harder and inefficient to be a generalist

3. It’s more difficult to get high quality clients when you don’t specialize

Let’s explore these a bit deeper.

1. Clients view specialists as experts and expect to pay higher fees

When you specialize in a specific type of service or industry, you immediately set yourself apart from the competition. There are very few specialists in our field! Therefore, you instantly have a lot more credibility in the client’s eyes. When a potential client is looking for an independent bookkeeper, chances are they’d rather hire someone who already “knows” how his business operates and understands his unique needs.

If you specialize in the prospect’s industry, you’ll be at the top of his list very quickly, if he cares about quality services. He’ll also expect to pay more for your expertise and advice. Why? Higher value. Otherwise, the client would need to “educate” and lead the generalist bookkeeper until she understands how the money flows through the client’s business (due to inexperience in the industry). Clients usually don’t like to pay for our education. They expect to have to do that for employees, but not for true professionals. They’d rather have us serve them as trusted advisors.

2. It’s harder and inefficient to be a generalist

Choosing a specialty means you don’t have to spend hours researching how to handle unfamiliar situations every time you get a new client so you can provide quality, accurate services. Or (say it isn’t so!) you might be tempted to fake it and *hope* you didn’t mess up any of the industry-specific types of transactions (for example, the unique situations for lawyers, car dealerships, manufacturing, or real estate companies)

Let’s face it. Bookkeeping is detailed work with a lot of moving parts (even with automation). There are nuances to each type of business, even within the same industry. The last thing you want to do is spend a ton of time trying to figure how to book industry common situations that you’re unfamiliar with because you haven’t done it before. The client will expect you to already know how to handle it. That’s why they hired you!

Try as we might, it’s just not reasonable to expect that we know how to handle every kind of business well! Being a generalist certainly does provides lots of variety and learning, but it also involves a lot of unbillable time that’s at best, very inefficient.

But as a specialist, you’re in a very different situation. You focus narrowly on a particular industry or type of service you know well. You can get the work done quickly and much more effectively, since you already know the ropes. Even the time you do invest in improving your skills is focused on being the best in your niche, making it much easier to price your expert services very profitably. Specializing, by the way, is also fuel that feeds word-of-mouth referrals as well. Win-win scenario? Oh, Yes.

3. It’s harder to get high quality clients when you don’t specialize

The primary challenge freelance bookkeepers (and accountants) usually struggle with is getting clients. Any clients. But as soon as they pick up more than a few, the next question always is, “How do I get better quality clients?”

Truth is, marketing is how you get the ball rolling to attract clients. But it’s really tough to get the word out about your services when you’re not quite sure who your potential clients are exactly. Not all business owners are created equal.

By way of contrast, if you offer specialized services, such as helping online retailers integrate their Point of Sale system with QuickBooks, your specialty makes it much easier to describe what you do to the specific types of clients who need your help the most. You know exactly who you’re potential clients are, the specific benefits you can provide them, and they easily recognize that you provide exactly what they want. (read: they feel ecstatic that they’ve finally found you!)

Yep, once again, it’s a win-win match!

So, how do you go about choosing a specialty?

Does specializing put you in serious danger of not finding enough of the “right” kind of clients?

What can you do if your current client base is a hodgepodge of cheapskates, deadbeats and high-maintenance noodges?

Great questions! In fact, if you’re intrigued by the idea of specializing so you can start attracting higher quality clients and charge premium fees, but it feels a little scary and you’re not sure how to make the switch, then I’ve got some great news! You can join me and expert author / entrepreneur Mike Michalowicz this coming Thursday, June 25th at 3:00 PM Eastern and we’ll answer these questions, and more. Mike literally wrote the book on this topic, and we’re going to discuss how to do it for accounting professionals in very practical ways.

UPDATE: The Replay of the webinar is available for a limited time (until August 8) for all TFB Premium members. 

The webinar is a bonus class entitled: How to Specialize and Find Your Niche that’s included with the June training lesson Click Here to learn more 

In the meantime, tell me, do you offer specialized services already, or focus on one or two specific industries? What has been your experience or challenges?


Tagged As: ,

  • October 2015
    S M T W T F S
    « Sep