The Virtual CPA Success Show: Episode 57
In this episode, Jody Grunden, our CEO and Co-founder sits down with our Virtual CFO, Ashley Vaughn to talk about her experience attending the Bureau of Digital Owner's Camp and Owner's Summit. Jody and Ashley discusses the benefits and key takeaways from attending these events and how it can help us provide a better service to our clients.
Jody Grunden: Welcome back to the virtual CPA success show. I’m Jody Grunden. Unfortunately my cohort is not going to be able to make it today. He's got a scratchy throat, so Jamie will not on this meeting. But today's guest is Ashley Vaughn. Ashley, it's going to be an exciting interview because Ashley is somebody that we took along with us to two different bureau of digital events.
One was an Owner’s Summit and one was a Owner's Camp and Ashley was able to experience both of them. And we thought this would be a great episode to get Ashley's feedback since they just happened over the last few months. Ashley, welcome to the show.
Ashley Vaughn: Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to it.
Jody Grunden: So to start off Ashley, you're going to have to explain your background. You've got this big, huge picture on your background. I assume, is that your lovely husband?
Ashley: Yeah. That's my husband when we went to the aquarium. So I feel like I am a good fit. I do characters all the time. It was like a match made in heaven to come to Summit and get my character sketch.
Jody Grunden: Have you ever seen our website? We've got everybody's characters on the website and it makes it a fun, exciting thing. When did you get that caricature drawn, Ashley.
Ashley Vaughn: Probably like 2013.
Jody Grunden: Oh, it looks like a relatively similar picture.
Ashley Vaughn: Yeah. We've grown up a little bit since then.
Jody Grunden: Give a little bit about your background before coming to Summit and then a little bit about your experience so far with Summit to give everybody an idea so that they know a little bit about you.
Ashley Vaughn: I'm a CPA by trade. I worked in tax mainly and focused on financial forecasting and tax projections for high-income individuals and businesses for about nine years before I came to Summit. I came to Summit because I wanted to do more consulting work and wanted to work more hand-in-hand with clients.
I've been here for about eight months. I feel like I've been here a lot longer than eight months. It's been great. I enjoy my clients that I work with. I love the culture at Summit. I believe in the culture at Summit, and I believe in what Summit’s doing. So that's really nice for your beliefs to align with the company that you're with.
I didn't really know much about the digital agency world until I got to Summit, and I learned so much about it over the past few months that I actually really think it's interesting. I enjoy the clients that I work with that are in the digital agency space. And I look forward to learning more, and I'm going to the bureau events.
One, it's a lot of fun; there's always something to do. And, two, they're just a great learning experience. It was great training.
Jody Grunden: Tell me, you said you came from the tax background. We get this often when we're bringing on a new client, a new prospective client; they want to know how much digital creative-agency experience that you have.
With not having any creative-agency experience, how were you able to adapt that? How were you able to work with the other CFOs to bring them up to speed so that you can really help them consult those individuals?
Ashley Vaughn: I think one of the biggest help was our CFO meetings. On Friday we talk about industry trends.
Since a lot of our clients are in the digital-agency space, we focus on digital-agency industry trends. All the CFOs here at Summit are so helpful and willing to jump in and help wherever you need. There's also a lot of training that Summit does that we get to watch all the videos and we record everything, so there's tons of process information.
Jody, you and Adam’s learning. I read your book. So that helped a lot. And Adam has given me a whole library of books to read that helps with the consulting part. And the education part that you guys allow for us to go into training, and you always have people coming in for lunch-and-learn that are specifically in the digital space.
So that helped a lot, too, because I had no experience in that. I was like, ‘oh, you're a digital agency; oh, you're a marketer.’ That's literally where I came from with it. So I had no idea that it was this huge space.
Summit brought in some contractors to help get the new CFOs on board and they specialize in digital space. So that helped a lot, too.
Jody Grunden: Basically you learn a crash course within the year that you've been with us. How would you rate that now? Do you feel comfortable sharing your knowledge?
Ashley Vaughn: I feel a lot better now. And also, I've come to realize that a lot of our clients, they're so smart and they know their business and they know their industry so well that it's really just guiding them and asking those questions that, from a financial perspective, they're not thinking of.
That's what I've noticed. It’s just leading them on that conversation to get them all talking. If they figure it out, it's just helping them navigate the conversations.
Jody Grunden: I think that's a good consultant, right? Someone who isn't the Superman that comes in and saves the day, but turns the client into that Superman; you know, just guiding that individual to come up with the answer for themselves and figure through their issues.
Ashley Vaughn: It took a while to not want to be the Superman. When you think of a consultant when you're not in consulting, you think of someone coming in because there's a problem that you need to fix. At Summit, there's not a problem for most of our clients. It's just kind of the way that they run their businesses.
They have a sit in on meetings, and they have us there all the time, so that if something were to arise, we already know what's going on. We prepared for it. And most of the time we've forecasted it–hey, this might be a problem–so we already have ideas on how to fix it.
Jody Grunden: This is a shameless plug by the way [holds up book]. Digital Dollars and Cents that you mentioned earlier. When we wrote it, it was kind of fun. I wrote this about four years ago. It talks about the creative-agency space. It really talks about and walks through what we provide for our clients. It's really nice if anybody out here doesn't have it, I'd definitely recommend reaching out.
You can get it on Amazon. It's fairly inexpensive. And definitely helps with the guideline, but this is something that we have all of our CFOs read through, understand, quiz, talk about, and make sure that there's a clear understanding of not only of the methodology, but the vernacular that's used in this industry.
Ashley Vaughn: You're a CPA, but you didn't write it like you were a CPA. You don't have to have a finance degree to understand it which, I enjoyed because we look at numbers all day. The last thing I want to do is get off the computer and then read a book about numbers.
Jody Grunden: 100%! So that kind of brings us to the bureau events. And if you don't know what the bureau is, definitely pop on the websites of Bureau of Digital. Carl Smith basically runs the bureau events. He's got two different types of events he typically has.
One is the owner’s side. The first one would be the Owner’s Summit, which brings a bunch of people together. Usually between 100 and 200 different firms will come to the Owner’s Summit. It's more of a lecture-type format, and it's really a lot of good sharing of knowledge.
The other is more of an intimate one, which they call Owner’s Camp. With the Owner’s Camp, it's more of a round-table discussion. There's usually 25 to 30 owners sharing ideas. We just recently attended two of them. We had an Owner’s Camp in Palm Springs. Oh, and by the way, they're usually at pretty cool destinations. Wouldn't you agree?
Ashley Vaughn: Yeah.
Jody Grunden: And that was in Palm Springs, California. I had a great time there. And then a few weeks later, Ashley and I went to an Owner’s Summit. And that was at Universal in Orlando, Florida, and again, a pretty cool destination place for sure. Ashley, can you kind of walk me through your thoughts before Owner’s Camp? What were your expectations were going into it? And then, bam, you're in the first one there. What was it really like?
Ashley Vaughn: My expectation going into it was that I would know nothing–that I was going to absorb all this knowledge and just listen to everything and not really know where I fit in. And then when I got into it, it was a completely different experience than I had expected. It was not your lecture-type experience.
It's a round-circle conversation. And, luckily for me, two of my clients were there. So it was nice to get to meet them in person. And I knew so much more, and I could actually talk about things and actually contribute to the conversations. It gave me a little bit more confidence in myself that I was like, ‘oh, I do know what I'm doing.’
Like I said, I didn't really do much with a digital agency before. So that was really nice. And everyone's just so genuine. Everyone's just genuine people, good people. And that made it even better. And it was nice to see people coming together better in the same industry and giving advice on how to get through things that people wanted to talk about.
For example, like sharing documents on things. You just don't see that very often. So it was a very humbling experience, but it also opened my mind to this whole other industry that you don’t hear about.
Jody Grunden: The cool thing about it is, through that whole time, we invite our CFOs to attend these different events so that they can learn. So it's not a sales pitch by any means. It's more of a, ‘Hey, here's what the industry is experiencing.’
When they hear that, you know, five other owners are having a similar issue that maybe one of their clients are having, well then it's easier to educate and really consult that client with.
The cool thing about it was that she might've come in with a little bit of imposter syndrome and really that’s unjustified because she definitely contributed time. She knew a lot; she was able to answer a lot of questions, and really contribute to the entire event. So that was pretty cool–seeing that happen during the Owner’s Camp in Palm Springs.
So tell me a little bit about the camp; outside of the sharing of ideas. We had Carl on here just a little bit ago, and he talked a little bit about it, but I wanted to get your opinion from a newbie when it comes to the camp.
Ashley Vaughn: Go! Go to any of them. I will go to any of them forever. I love them. You get to see another place. Also, they start later, so you can actually experience that place. I know people did walks; they did hikes and stuff, and we had an outing as a team. We did the Jeep tour.
That was really cool. Other than that, the weather was beautiful. We sat outside, and we worked outside, which was nice. It's different when you're going into a pipeline or financial statement meeting when you're only focused on financials.
And then, when we were in our circle, owners that I work with, we're talking about other things like operation issues and stuff that we don't really get into.
It's good to be able to hear what's going on, so that we can bring it back to our CFOs and they know, ‘Hey, this is the trend, and this is what's happening in the industry.’
It was so informational. The week I was there, I learned so much about the industry and about the people in the industry and how they're doing than the time I've been at Summit,
I learned so much in that week, and it gives you a little bit more confidence when you're going into meetings. Which is really important as a consultant; you have to be confident in what you're talking about, so having that background and having that support system there that you can reach out to is nice.
I still talk to a lot of the people that we met at the bureau event via slack, so that's really nice. Carl does a great job at being the mediator of the events and making sure that everyone's heard.
Before the events, we all did a summary. We had topics that were important to everyone, and he made sure to get to those topics. And we had breakout events on certain topics that people were doing. It was nice to know that what your clients are experiencing, a lot of other people in the industry are experiencing.
It’s also nice to hear the different ways that they’re reacting to it–the ways they're working their company through it because there were some ideas that people were talking about. I was like, ‘oh, I never thought about that, never thought about doing it that way.’
So it's kind of nice. And it also allows us to align the way that we're going to react to something with the culture of the company.
Jody Grunden: You mentioned different trends and so forth that you're hearing. What were some of the certain trends that you heard during the meeting that was a ‘wow’ moment? Something that you could then share–or not share with your clients because we took the oath that we wouldn't evolve secrets and so forth– the general concepts and ideas,what were some of those trends that you saw that the owners are having?
Ashley Vaughn: I think another big trend is hiring. That was one of the things that we knew about going in, though. A big trend that we knew about going in but we didn't know what to do was bill rates. We knew that we were going to have to raise our rates, but I don't think anyone knew what the right rate was, what the right percentage was. Obviously, it depends on your company and the way things go. But, to hear how some people's rates were so low and then some people were already on the high end of rates, it was interesting to hear that and see how they go to sell those rates. So that was nice.
And also just like hearing about the operations part, like, ‘oh, we hired five or six and we completely put them as directors, and then we've been kind of undoing that.
It's like, don't be too hasty when you're hiring. Don't be too fast. Take your time. Every now and then you're like, we need heads. We need someone to do the work.
But I think it's good to be able to align your company with having those strategic hires, especially for upper management, that you can take time and find the right fit. And I think that was something that we thought about and talked about, but I didn't realize how important it was until we got into the meeting and started talking about the way clients and the industry work and just how important those leadership roles are.
Jody Grunden: I agree that those were the two that really popped out in my mind. The rate thing was interesting because during the great resignation, tons of people leaving, changing firms, all that kind of good stuff which caused everybody to increase salaries. Various percentages, 5, 10, 15, whatever percent.
Some different disciplines were higher than others–that type of thing. But the overall thing was, we need to increase rates. We need to make things better for people so that they want to come and join the company. A lot of the companies weren’t virtual, but virtual is basically becoming a normal thing now, whereas 10 years ago, it wasn't. So they didn't have that competitive advantage.
They're like, ‘how else can we do things?’ Rates were one thing they thought, ‘well, maybe let's give everybody a four day week.’ That was another option that came up. But again, the important part about that is that you have to have a real solid forecast in mind before you can do that so that you can see exactly what we need to do to offset that.
You just can't let people not work and expect to hit the same numbers and same goals. So you've got to do some adjusting on the other end. It was kind of interesting the different rates. We saw companies as low as $125 to the upper $300. So, it was huge.
Ashley Vaughn: There was one that was like $105; it was crazy.
Jody Grunden: And the funny thing about that was that that person had no idea. They thought that's what everyone else was charging. They couldn't figure out why they weren't hitting the numbers that everybody else was heading and they were so busy. Of course it was because they were low.
And so what that did, it gave them the courage to say, ‘maybe I need to go from $105 to maybe $150. Maybe not the $175 or $165, which is what our average client’s at; maybe they needed to be a little higher and maybe $200 was just too big of a leap for them.
But you know, $150 may be that stepping stone to help them out. So I think the Bureau allowed the opportunity to give to those people and say, ‘Hey, I can raise it and I'm not going to lose all my clients doing so.’
And even going to the higher-end people, when they had to increase their rates 5-10%, it began to give them that confidence that everybody's doing it. So that's good.
I wasn't going to be the only one doing it, so it gives me permission to do it. Because a lot of people are afraid a lot of times if they raise rates, they’ll lose clients. Nine times out of 10, that's really not the issue.
Ashley Vaughn: Especially, I think like you were saying, it gave him the confidence. I think, like what we're talking about at Summit, if you're going to do it, this is the year to do it because everything's going up. So your clients are probably raising their rates, too, on whatever they're doing.
Jody Grunden: With inflation at 7.5%, you really have to increase it at least 7.5%; otherwise, you're going backwards. If you've been the type of client that hasn't raised rates in a long time, you need to start looking at that every year.
It really needs to be a rate increase every year to keep up with paying your employees, unless you don't give your employees raises; it's hard to outrun sales to do that.
If you give employees raises, which I assume you do, then you've got to increase rates on the other side; that's just finance 101. It was important to hear that from everybody and to see what they're and how they're doing it. The other you mentioned was organizational structure for hiring people.
Don't be too quick on giving them a title that you can't take back later. Right? I think that was the big message there. You make somebody a director right out of the gate and find out they're probably not director quality. It's hard to take it away from them, that title, because titles mean a lot to different people for various reasons.
And I think that was a big, big message there. So, as we're hiring new people to fill roles that we fed people vacant through the great resignation, I think it's important to make sure that you know, maybe that the title isn't the big drawing. Maybe it’s a temporary title with the idea to make them the director of marketing–or director of whatever, a project manager, whatever that might be. make sure that you give yourself a way that if things aren't working out, you can not give them the title that you're looking for without losing that person, because that person could still be extremely valuable to your company, but maybe not in that role that you initially thought. So, I think that the title thing is really important.
Ashley Vaughn: Yeah. It was nice to hear the different cultures of the different organizations and what they do. I know everyone wants to give their employees all this money and as many raises as they can and bonuses and stuff, but some organizations don't have that. They don't have the luxury to do that.
So it was nice to hear small monetary ways that they showed their employees appreciation. Some of them buy dinner for employees and their families. And I know a few of them started a book club, and they're all reading a book about managing. It was nice to hear that and how when they're in town, they'll go to dinner with clients or with employees and their families.
So it was nice to see that sort of stuff. I know here at Summit, we do a Friday happy hour type deal, and we all kind of wind down at the end of a long week. So it was nice to hear that because yeah, as an employee, we love money, everyone loves money, but it's the small things that really do make a difference.
Jody Grunden: This is kind of changing lanes a little bit here. We talked a lot about the Owner’s Camp and again, that was the more intimate view with a lot of discussions like that. Now, we're going to fast forward to just a few weeks ago when you and I attended an Owner's Summit in Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida.
Can you tell me a little bit about that and in comparison to what the Owner’s Camp was? They are two distinctly different types of events.
Ashley Vaughn: Yeah, the summit was more of a conference. I felt like, now with COVID, it was a little bit more intimate than it normally is. I think we had about 50 people and then they streamed it.
So people who couldn't attend could at least watch it. But it was nice. I enjoyed the first day. They did interviews. So it was nice to hear interviews and hear how people started in the industry. And it's funny how most of the people who started in the industry are self-taught. They taught themselves how to code and hear about them being in college and teaching themselves how to do something and how 20 years go by.
And they created this really profitable business. So it was really nice to see that aspect of it. And it was also nice to meet people who aren’t clients of ours that we really don't deal with on a day-to-day basis and to know what they're going through because it was a completely different shift from Owner's Camp.
I feel like the summit was a lot broader, and we touched a lot more on what's going on in your organization, but it wasn't as in-depth as the owner's summit. I felt like we had quality conversations, and I left knowing I met a lot more people in the industry, which is nice, but I also left with training on other topics.
I know one of the big topics was your calendar–how to prevent burnout was one of the big topics at our table. And it's something that we feel from all angles, burnout from work, burnout from your home life. It’s hard to come back from being burned out.
One of the organizations was talking about how they have burnout check-ins! “How are you feeling? I know we're busy. What's going on? How's your life?” So it's nice because they care about the people, and it's nice to see that.
Jody Grunden: It's in a different setting, right? So you had the fireside chats that you had mentioned to start things off. And the second day, they did a little differently. They had the presenters; they had Tracey Barrett come in from Navigate the Journey–awesome speaker, by the way. What was your take on her talk?
Ashley Vaughn: She's a bad-ass; let's just put it out there. She knows her stuff. She mentioned HGTV. And I was like, ‘oh, she worked there.’
I didn't realize she started HGTV. I was like, ‘oh, okay.’
Her talk was something you could relate to. It was about where your life is and where you want to go and how to be on that path.
I also liked the way that instead of a work-life balance, they call it like a whole life so that you find a way for your job to fit into your life and the way that you want to live.
I’ve taken that concept and am trying to figure out a way that I can have a whole life instead of like the balance of work and life.
I think with the way that Summit structures everything, we can do that. We can have a whole life and still be there for our clients and be there for our families. It's just finding the balance.
Jody Grunden: And then they had many great speakers. I think Rob Har, I spoke for a little while and talked about his agency and how things work and how he's kind of moved from that true visionary role where he's out, and he's not in the business. He's working a three-day work week running a very large firm in Dayton, Ohio.
It was pretty inspirational to hear that people are being able to start to step outside the business and really become a true owner versus a producer inside, or are captive to that business; they’re blocking times off to go golfing, blocking times off to workout–all those different things that people say, “I wish I had time to do that
Well, make time. Put it in your calendar.
Ashley Vaughn: Exactly. I mentioned this when we were in Palm Springs, because that was another conversation that they had at Owner’s Summit, how to step out and not be in the weeds on things. I remember mentioning to you, “I don't ever look at your calendar and wonder, ‘why is he doing that?’”
Because I'm taking a remote job. I want to make it work with my life. I don't work Tuesday mornings because I take time on Tuesday mornings to get everything in order at home. And then I come in fresh and that allows for me to not burn out. So it's just finding those things.
Jody Grunden: And if you ever look at my calendar, I've got two hours a day blocked off working out throughout the day, and people have to get permission in order to schedule time over those. And very rarely does it ever happen. So, it allows me to control my schedule so that I can workout. Or if I needed to pick the kids up after school, when the kids were young, that was blocked. Or when I coached hockey, I had to make sure that practices were in there, so I blocked those in there. Controlling the work schedule was huge for me. That’s something they really focused on to prevent burnout, especially at the owner level, at the Owner’s Summit.
Ashley Vaughn: When I look at a senior accountant’s calendar to get on there, and I see like, they have a schedule. They walk; they have a schedule to go walk at lunch, or to take a lunch break.
I wish I had done that when I was in that role because I didn't and I burned out; you would hit burnout really quick. It's so quick; it's so easy to get burnout, but it's really hard to unwind from it. At Summit, we're very good about respecting people's calendars, taking time for yourself, taking that mental health day if needed and putting that time on your calendar to just sit outside.
I just have to go outside for an hour or so. I'll take meetings outside, and, so it's really nice. And that's one of the perks of working from home and working for a company that is so big on culture and your mental health.
Jody Grunden: Now kind of getting back to the Owner's Summit. Universal Studios was a blast. It was nice that we were able to take advantage of that. As part of the retreat, we saw the Mardi Gras parade, went to Universal Studios, walked around, and saw the Harry Potter stuff. It was kind of fun because it was with other firm owners.
We were just hanging out and sharing. Most of the things I get out of these events are not necessarily the speeches and stuff like that because I've heard them. I get a lot more out of just simply hanging out with people, hearing what their issues are, helping them out, maybe relating to some issues that I’ve got with my history and background.
I think that's the coolest part because that's where friends are made. It was pretty nice when you go there and half the people, or more than half the people, knew you and would hang out with you, and welcomed you into the crowd and to the team.
Ashley Vaughn: That's how I felt. The first day, I introduced myself, and by the time we left on Wednesday, I had people's cell numbers and we were chatting on Slack. It just felt like you made friends for life or even like you already were friends–like you can't remember a time when they weren't in your life.
That’s how genuine the people were and how the Bureau brings people together. And it brings great people together–good, genuine people, which, I think, goes to show you what the industry is.
Jody Grunden: I don't know if you realize, but we're coming up on time. This went extremely quick, like I told you it would. Can you give us one takeaway here from the Bureau of Events, which one should they go to, where, depending upon where they're at in their stage of their career and what your thoughts are there?
Ashley Vaughn: If you are an owner and you're a new owner and you need advice from owners, the Owner’s Camp is the best. You can talk to other owners who have been through it, and they are more than willing to help you.
And if you are trying to figure out what your next move is, Owner's Summit is a really good place to go and talk to other owners–not even owners because it wasn't only owners, talk to people in operations. That’s the two differences; if you're an owner and you need a little bit more help, Owner’s Camp is great. It's a great place to go.
Owner’s Summit is good just to keep an update on what's going on in the industry. But I enjoyed both of them. I enjoyed the company that I had; it was Jody. I really enjoyed it. It's a great training event to tell all of our new CFOs that they should go. It's great for training. It’s great to meet people, but you are also going to learn so much.
Jody Grunden: The learning experience is the big thing and the openness, the candidness people have for basically sharing everything from owner salaries to, you name it; everything that's pretty much on the table. And there’s a lot of confidence that wouldn't get spread throughout. It’s a genuine place to go and learn and really to help your career out–especially if you're in a lull at all. It might give you a little bit of pick-me-up hearing what other owners might have.
You realize that the issues you’re having aren’t just you; everybody's having them. That type of thing makes it a lot easier as an owner. Well, Ashley, thanks for being on today. This has been awesome.
Ashley Vaughn: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me.
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