Brian DiBella, CPA in Rocky Hill, Connecticut
“I Doubled My Practice in Seven Months”
Brian DiBella has big goals and he’s not afraid to let you know about them, as you’ll soon find out. This makes sense since Brian is also a big fan of motivational guru Tony Robbins, who places a large emphasis on goal setting in his motivational programs. I’m familiar with Tony because my father, Bruce Clark, the founder and CEO of NCI, has been a big fan himself since 1991 when he attended Tony’s live seminar. He gives Tony Robbins and his programs a lot of credit for the man he is today and what he has been able to accomplish with his life and his company. He has incorporated some of the goal setting concepts that Tony puts forth in his material into the Plan 1 Practice Development Seminar.
So who is Kuttin-Metis and where do they come into all of this? If you’ve been reading this newsletter you already know that NCI has recently partnered with a Wealth Management firm called Kuttin-Metis who has an unbelievable offer to those that qualify and want to do an NCI marketing program. Kuttin-Metis is so confident in NCI’s marketing programs that they are willing to invest $18,000 for someone to do a Plan 2 program. That’s not a loan, that’s a gift. So what’s the catch? The catch is you agree to partner with Kuttin-Metis to allow them to offer wealth management services to your ever expanding client base. Considering that wealth management is in great demand, especially among the business owners our accounting clients cater to, this really isn’t a catch at all, it’s an added benefit. Brian DiBella is the first NCI client to utilize this amazing offer. This is his story so far.
You attended the Plan 1 Practice Development Seminar a while back, can you tell me about that experience?
The first time I went through the seminar I was a new partner at a firm in Connecticut and I was wet behind the ears. I was hungry but didn’t know what I wanted exactly. I signed up for the Plan 1 program without my partner approving it. Not a good way to introduce yourself to a new partner. I got excited and went to Atlantic City and met Bruce and had some fun. I came back to the office, put the seminar training material on a shelf and went to work. I just figured it was something I’ll do later. You probably hear that story quite often. That was back in 1997, in fact, I still have some of the old VHS and audio cassette tapes that you gave out back then.
We definitely do hear that story quite often, implementing a consistent marketing program takes work and a lot of times life gets in the way and the motivation isn’t truly there yet, like in your case. Can you tell me a little bit about your business background that eventually lead you to starting your own practice?
I started in 1990 at a firm in Hartford, Connecticut. I left there in 1992 because a partner there liked to throw things and slam doors and it just wasn’t a good work environment. Then I joined a different firm in Connecticut. Five years later in 1997, one of the partners said he was on his way out and asked if I was interested in buying him out. I said that I was, so I’m a partner in a CPA firm, oh boy, now what? Around this time I’m starting to really understand what goes into practice management which has nothing to do with the day-to-day accounting but actually running a business. The concept of working on your business rather than in your business was very appealing to me. I wasn’t really happy being a partner in a firm and doing 1040s during tax season until 2:00 in the morning. That’s not how I pictured it happening, I thought to myself, “is this all there is?”
Something wasn’t right, so in 2006 I left that firm and joined a larger firm with two offices and about 40 staff members. I thought this is great, bigger is better! As it turns out, bigger was actually worse in this case. I was kind of like Alice in Alice in Wonderland, where Alice says to the Cheshire cat, “Please tell me where to go.” The cat responds, “That depends on where you want to get to.” Alice says, “I don’t really care where,” and the cat responds “then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” So I wasn’t happy and the partners knew it and eventually they forced my hand to move on. I had probably been there too long anyway. I left that firm in 2012. It wasn’t completely amicable; I took some clients with me and the other partners weren’t happy about that. We went back and forth and eventually settled it. You tend to get very possessive over your clients, I’m sure you understand how that works.
Sure, I’ve heard that story plenty of times as well. A lot of the time the clients want to follow the accountant they know and trust. So those clients constituted the base for your own practice?
Yes, I started out with about $120,000 in annual business from those clients.
Okay, before we move on, my father Bruce wanted me to ask you something. He was curious if he was the one that got you into motivational speaker Tony Robbins at the Practice Development seminar in 1997? He said he knows you are a big fan and he was curious if that started prior to the seminar.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Tony. I have an original audio cassette version of Unlimited Power,one of his older sets. I bought it back in high school I think. It was one of those try it for 30 days free type deals, so I ordered it and ended up putting it on a shelf and kind of forgot about it. I rediscovered it a little later on and when I did listen to it I was totally blown away. It was unlike anything else I’d tried. I’ve also listened to Zig Ziglar and a few others and I like them but this was on a different level for me. I still follow him and after talking to Bruce I bought The Ultimate Edge that you, Bruce, and Tyler are listening to. Some of it is familiar from his earlier sets but it’s still good to refresh. With the way my business is growing and the stress that goes along with that, I probably need it now more than ever. It helps me to center myself and it reminds me of why I’m working so hard and why I took a chance on my business and all the risk involved. It’s helping me a lot.
That’s awesome. My father credits Tony with changing his life and helping to inspire him to create NCI, the business that has been supporting him and our family for the past 28 years. It’s not for everyone, but if people would give it a chance I think they might be surprised. I have been, and a nice thing about it for me is that listening to him just makes you reflect on your life, your goals, your dreams, and your deficiencies that you want to work on. In today’s fast-paced world it can be really nice to take 30 minutes or an hour to do that.
So when you came back to NCI after you had started your own practice, the original plan was to attend the Plan 1 seminar and start to build the practice on your own with you being the salesperson, correct?
Then you heard about the offer from Kuttin-Metis and that enabled you to instead jump right into a Plan 2 program, can you tell our readers about that?
Right, the Plan 2 program is close to $40,000 when you factor in working capital, and I didn’t have that. I would love to have been able to plunk down the money and get started, but I was just starting my business and didn’t have the resources to tap into. So my original thought was to do Plan 1 again, but be a lot more disciplined with myself and actually implement it. I figured if I did that and had some success and grew my firm, then that extra revenue would help fund an upgrade to Plan 2.
The programs are designed to work together for someone who is not in a financial position initially to do a Plan 2 program. So then Kuttin-Metis Wealth Management came along and that opened up the door to go right into Plan 2. How has that been working out?
They’ve been great, they’re a great firm. It’s definitely different than your typical financial planning arrangement. Quite frankly, when I meet a financial planner and they find out I’m a CPA they’re all over me. “Let me buy you lunch” and things like that because they want my clients. With Kuttin-Metis, they want to help you grow your firm and they make you look better to your clients. It’s not just handing over your clients, there is an actual formal plan in place that serves both parties. They put on client appreciation events for my clients and it’s a more structured approach. It’s been great. The challenge is that, and I think you may have made some changes on your end regarding this, but when the NCI program first rolls out, it can be overwhelming. You have the CSR and the appointment setters to oversee and get to know and as the growth starts rolling in you need to be able to manage it. Then to add Kuttin-Metis on top of that, it was a little overwhelming. I believe now there is more of a delayed implementation. Also, we had started in November so tax season was right around the corner and that opened up a whole other can of worms.
We have six clients working with Kuttin-Metis currently. The goal is to sign up two clients a month for wealth management services and I think now that tax season is over I’ll be able to devote more time to the weekly meetings and coaching calls with Kuttin-Metis. We’re starting to average out at two clients a month, we got one in May and are on track for two in June. It’s definitely trending upward.
Ultimately my goal is to build a large practice and it’s not about my love for accounting, I kind of hate doing accounting work, but I’m an entrepreneur. I want to build a business, I want to create jobs. If I was in a different field than accounting I’d be working on building a business, not working for someone else. I want to work on my business and not in my business, I want my business to be able to operate without me if need be. Then when it comes time to sell, I can easily get 1.25x gross if not 1.5x gross and the transition will be much easier to a new owner. I actually don’t want my clients to know me because if they know me and expect me to do their work in some capacity, some of those clients would leave after a sale.
That makes a lot of sense and is part of the NCI philosophy. It’s smart to build a practice that can run without you because what if something happens to you? Not something we like to think about but failing to plan is planning to fail, as the saying goes. Getting back to Kuttin-Metis, how involved are you in setting up their representative to meet with your clients?
I’m very involved, I need to set the stage for who they are and what it’s about. During tax season every client got a certificate for a free portfolio review from Kuttin-Metis. When I would meet with my clients to do their return I would do a little introduction to financial planning so that lead to some future meetings that we’ve had over the last few months. A lot of clients reported to me that they were unhappy with the wealth management they were currently receiving, if they were receiving any at all. Kuttin-Metis is based out of New York and I’m in Connecticut so they had someone driving to my office a few times a year to meet with people. Technology is great but people still want to meet face to face, especially for something like financial planning. I knew their goal was to build a local office and now they have a Connecticut office for the financial planner that is working with me so he’s five minutes away, it’s awesome. He’s been a financial planner for 15-20 years. So far we’ve had one client appreciation dinner, I invite clients and Kuttin-Metis does a talk and pays for the whole event. They are fully invested in this and they have a very structured approach. We had one client appreciation dinner in November and are scheduling another one for September.
What has your growth been like under the NCI marketing program so far?
I took a look at my numbers and we’ve grown by 78% in the first six months of 2014. We started the NCI program in November 2013. I compared our growth rate during the first six months of 2013 when we had no NCI program and compared that to the first six months of 2014 where we are going full steam with NCI and the growth rate increased by 78% over the same time frame. Over the entire time we’ve run the NCI program, eight months in total, my gross revenue has increased by 61%. When I started the program I was grossing close to $150,000 and I’m on track to get close to $300,000 after the first year of the program. Projecting that out further, I should be at about $450,000 after two years and quite frankly it will probably be much higher. The thing about your program is that it feeds on itself with referrals. I got a consignment shop client from the program and she got married recently. She told me her husband needs accounting help and has some tax problems and owes the IRS money. He owns a construction company and he hadn’t filed in four years. That turned into about a $6,000 engagement. Beyond the back work he also signed up for the monthly service. I told him, I don’t just want to see you every four years, let’s set you up monthly and take care of your sales tax, it just makes handling the taxes so much easier during tax season. So that’s why I’m confident that I’ll surpass the NCI guaranteed billing increase, it’s hard to track though because I’m getting referrals from referrals!
That’s great! Do you offer any kind of reward to clients for referring someone to you or is it happening naturally at this point?
It’s happening on its own at this point although I do want to setup a nice, structured referral program to give incentives for referring my company business. For now I don’t need it and I have enough going on as it is!
How would you rate your overall satisfaction with the Kuttin-Metis partnership on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being excellent?
I would say a 4 or 4.5, right around there. Not quite a 5, but it’s no fault of their own, it was just a new experience for them and for NCI since I was the first one to do this and early on I had to take a step back from it because I had so much going on and they were understanding. Overall it’s been very good.
What was your biggest concern before doing the NCI marketing program?
Well, you’re just never totally sure if it will work. You can talk to every CPA on the planet, and one of the things that really impressed me, I probably watched every video on your website. There are testimonials that go back to 2005 or 2006 and beyond, plus a bunch of more current ones. I’m sure this is the reason that you have all those references, but quite frankly, accountants are very skeptical so you need to give them so many testimonials, but even with all that you’re just never totally sure.
Nothing in this life is 100% certain, but as you mentioned, we have an excellent, verifiable track record of success.
Even though Kuttin-Metis provided half the NCI fee and I financed the other half through NCI, I still had concerns about working capital and cash flow. One thing that helps with that quite a bit is the ACH credit card system of taking payments automatically each month, that makes life so much easier. I think we have one client that is not on that system, but I see that money coming in regularly each month which is great for cash flow.
You don’t want to have to deal with collections on top of everything else going on. Can you offer any advice to someone considering the NCI marketing program?
Use the projections NCI provides and be sure you have enough working capital available to fund the program early on. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” as you guys are fond of saying. The other thing is to make sure you have enough capacity for staff. You don’t want to over-hire and pay people who don’t have enough to do, but on the other hand when you get two new clients a week, eight new clients a month, you’re going to need to hire some help.
Now I’ll tell you some funny stories. The very first client we signed with the program, we got the check from him and as soon as we got back to the office he called and told us he had changed his mind. The second client we signed up, we got the first check from him in November or early December and he was very excited. We forgot to have him sign the ACH form because this was still new and it was overlooked, but I never got any work from him. We keep reaching out to him to get his paperwork and he says he’s busy, if he answers at all. He gave me money, I just haven’t been able to do any work for him and I don’t really care if the response is negative, just let me know you’re still alive! [Laughs] When you’re dealing with small- and medium-sized businesses you get all kinds, that’s not to say they are all like this. We’ve signed many wonderful clients too. It kind of balances out too, because some clients you get money from and don’t end up doing much or any work for, not for lack of trying! Those clients help to offset your more demanding clients who maybe take “unlimited consultation” further than most.
Good point, plus for any clients who take up a lot of your time, you can always increase their fee the next year to compensate for that as well. What advice can you offer for someone currently running the program?
It’s like I was saying early on, think like an entrepreneur not like an accountant. There are a few negative reviews for NCI online, and NCI responded and it was clear you had tried to help but you can’t please everyone. That’s the way it is, but I read a couple of them pretty closely and I could tell that they approached the program as if NCI would come to their office to set things up and then they would snap their fingers and $300,000 in new business would appear in their bank account. They didn’t necessarily have realistic expectations for the program and they were thinking like accountants. You can’t think like that.
I have several employees and we’re working on establishing my firm’s value. I give my marketing team hugs or high fives when they make a sale or set an appointment. I console them when they’ve had a bad day and of course that happens to everyone. I praise my CSR for the good job he’s doing. I’ve only lost one appointment setter since the program started and I’m proud of that. I treat them like people, I don’t ignore them. We have a monthly meeting with the entire firm. I made sure to have those meeting even during March and April and since I was too busy to come up with content for the meeting, guess what I did? I put on Tony Robbins. So we had lunch together and listened to some Tony and then discussed it afterwards. I can see some accountants looking at the marketing team and thinking, that’s the marketing side, I don’t want to be involved, I handle the tax side. You can’t think like that. You have to run your business, all of it, effectively. I think that’s the key.
Those are some fantastic points. The appointment setting job is very difficult, dealing with rejection is hard and as an appointment setter you do it on an hourly basis. It’s a part time position, it doesn’t pay very well. It should not be a thankless job. You have to know how to manage and motivate people who work for you. If you can’t, you generally will not succeed. You obviously appreciate them for helping you to realize your dream and grow your business.
I tell them that all the time, and I say it’s not just my firm, it’s our firm.
What is the largest client you’ve signed up in terms of the client’s overall size?
We signed a construction company that does about $4.2 million a year.
What is the largest back work amount your CSR has brought in?
With our two largest back work amounts so far, both clients hadn’t filed taxes in four years. That’s the largest amount of back work I’ve had so far. For one client, who I mentioned earlier, it came to $6,000 and the other one is still a work in progress but I’ve collected about $3,500 from him so far with more to come. That one will probably end up in the $6,000-$8,000 range. The nice thing about the program is if my appointment setter calls someone, sometimes their guilty conscience makes them speak up and say they haven’t filed in a while and I should probably see someone about that. With large back work clients I definitely get some money up front. I got $1,000 up front before I did anything from both of the clients who hadn’t filed in four years.
That’s another great tip, to get money up front on large back work amounts whenever possible.
Another tip for clients with normal amounts of back work. One thing I noticed that happened this past tax season and it’s my own fault but hindsight is 20/20. So let’s say my CSR signs up a new client in February and marks the back work as TBD, to be determined. Then we’d bill it after and the client would baulk because they didn’t see it coming. I was just so crazy busy during tax season that I went into traditional accountant mode and got down to work and worried about getting paid later. In the end, it all worked out though.
It’s important to lay the groundwork for that at the time of the sale. You don’t want to hit them with an unexpected large fee for back work with no warning.
I did surprise a few clients with some bills but we were able to work it out and make some adjustments. I had to discount a little bit, which is fine, you learn by trial and error. I’m totally up front with people, I don’t try to hide anything and I told them, I got crazy busy and we overlooked telling you but I also told them, this is the only time you’ll get this back work bill. They saw the logic that they are still going to have to pay someone to do their 2013 return, it has to be done. I’m learning my lesson, I’m working on a client’s S-corp. return and I let her know that her back work bill will be between $1,500 and $2,000 and I wanted to let you know ahead of time in case there are any problems and she thanked me for letting her know. As you get more experience with the program you learn these kinds of things moving forward. My CSR is now quoting the back work when he signs up a client and I’m working on a way for him to gauge that somewhat accurately so they have a sense of it up front and are not caught off guard when the final figure is determined.
Have you been surprised by the level of the growth so far?
I’d say yes, especially during tax season which was just crazy. Jim would give me this check and this check. Surprised might not be the right word because I did expect it in a sense; it’s part of the plan but until it happens you just aren’t sure.
Can you sum up your feelings on NCI, our staff and our marketing program?
It’s a great program and I highly encourage people to do it. The only caveat is, you have to be serious, and this isn’t a game. This is real, explosive business growth. If you want to grow your practice, do the program, but be ready for some exciting, challenging, stressful times. Don’t think I’ll just set this up and go back to the status quo. Get ready for a ride. At the same time, these are all the challenges that go along with running and growing a business. It definitely is for the entrepreneurial accountant. People who really want to build something rather than someone who just wants do their accounting work and maybe add a few clients a year.
In those terms, the program has probably been a great learning experience for you. A hectic, and challenging one but it sounds to me like you’ve come out of it stronger and more knowledgeable about running and growing a business.
Yes, that’s how you grow as a business and as a person.
What is your end goal with this practice?
I’ve got some serious aspirations for my business, I want to see my firm on the Top 100 ofAccounting Today. That’s my goal. Are the people on that list smarter than me? No, they just figured out how to do things a certain way. I’m not against finding partners, I’m looking for some right now because I’d like to increase my working capital. I need to talk to a bank about financing options. I need to hire more employees and leverage myself through them so I can focus on the bigger picture.
Very impressive. Well we at NCI wish you the best of luck in your lofty endeavor. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me and share your NCI experience. We look forward to updates on your way to becoming a Top 100 firm in Accounting Today!
Chris Clark is the oldest son of New Clients Inc. founder and CEO Bruce Clark. He has worked as a Senior Account Executive at NCI for the past four years. During that time he has presented at the Practice Development Seminar on Internet and E-mail marketing and he also plays the prospective client during the seminar role play sessions. Chris also edits and contributes to the NCI newsletter, New Client News.