During his five years as a CPA, Sean Kenny became well-versed with the annual Busy Season grind.
But in the past year, as he has worked toward his goal of launching a web platform that helps firms connect and work with remote freelance accountants and consultants, Kenny has become just as familiar with the grind of inventing a new model for working.
“I have this whole new appreciation for business owners and entrepreneurs,” said Kenny, who lives and works in Charleston. “Everything that we’re going through, it’s a mental game. There’s uncertainty, when you ask what to do next, and if you’re doing the right thing.”
Kenny is in the final stages of turning his platform PrepLink into an active community after the April tax deadline. Along the way, it’s been a journey of having expectations put to the test – and seeing what comes out the other side.
Through his CPA career, Kenny had worked for three different firms, and that exposed him to working in small, medium and large-sized environment.
“I noticed everyone pretty much has similar problems,” Kenny said of the needs for firms to have employees with specialized expertise. “Large firms have an advantage of huge network of experts in other offices they can reach out to. When it came to specialized issues, someone could put their hand up and say, ‘Oh, Tyler in the Charlotte office is an expert at this.’
“If you have a bunch of business returns, it would be great to bring on help when you need it.”
The crush of CPA Busy Season made Kenny rethink his career expectations.
“I’ve been on the CPA track. ‘I’m going to work this many years and then buy a firm or become a partner,’” Kenny said.
But the more he thought about the combination of long Busy Season hours and the need for accountants to find professionals who can answer in-depth questions, the more he thought about the need to find an answer.
“It’s a tough time of the year. I was looking for ways to get around that,” Kenny said. “I was like, ‘How are some companies getting talent when everyone else is struggling to get talent?’ That didn’t make sense to me.”
It was after the April 2017 tax deadline that Kenny decided to test his idea for creating a website where firms could find tax professionals who wanted to work remotely and on their own terms. Kenny decided that even though he had no background in startups, he was ready for a crash course on what it would take to turn his hypothetical into a reality.
“For the next two months, it was me doing deep dives and seeking feedback on the high-level idea from other colleagues,” Kenny said.
In June and July, Kenny sought partners and other firm owners around Charleston that he didn’t have a relationship with so he could receive candid feedback. And the feedback showed not just that his idea attracted interest, but there was a difficulty in convincing people that there was so much great available talent that was looking for work.
“I was noticing their eyes would light up,” Kenny said.
While there are companies who maintain their own for-hire recruitment boards, such as PwC’s Flexibility Talent Network, Kenny said PrepLink will be a way for smaller firms to tap into the expertise that’s out there at large.
For smaller firms, finding employees isn’t just about finding qualified tax professionals, it was also about retaining them.
“The feedback I heard was, ‘We just get so crushed at tax time, I can’t hold on to anyone, I can’t afford anyone. I give them a package, then once they get experience they go to Dixon Hughes or Elliott Davis. I can’t afford that. But I need good people.’”
By mid-July, Kenny knew he was on to something, but he would have to devote a lot more time to bring the idea for the website into shape. By August, he had attracted software engineer Aaron Collegeman as a partner who would build the platform.
Next came the step of Kenny telling his employers at Dixon Hughes Goodman that he needed to make time to work on the idea. An arrangement was reached for him to work reduced hours from August-October. Now, Kenny devotes all his energies toward PrepLink.
From late August through September, Kenny and his wife, Emily, worked on the design flow aspects of the product.
“She is a designer and a communications consultant and has been hugely instrumental on taking my nonsense idea and distilling it down,” Kenny said.
In the weeks approaching the website’s launch, Kenny said he has about 60 people interested in the exchange. They are a combination of firm owners and partners, and freelancers and consultants.
“There’s so much talent and need out there,” Kenny said. “Let’s make it happen.”
PrepLink’s initial business model is that firms will contract out for work and pay a fixed amount for that work, based on estimated hours or a percentage of their billing. As firms communicate with providers, that could lead the site to add other contract arrangements such as hourly pay or a bidding system.
“We’ll let them use it, and we’ll adjust it from there,” Kenny said.
For accountants who are in a position to put their skills toward freelance opportunities, it’s not just about the notion of being one’s own boss but being able to control the flow of work to avoid burn-out.
“This gig economy, I’ve kind of ignored it, but there’s just something there,” Kenny said.
“These ways of living are encouraging ways to think about their work differently and their lives differently. And I hope to be a part of this story.”
Now, the time approaches when Kenny feels the platform is ready for a future where the costs are under control for finding and acquiring high-quality accounting talent.
“We’re just entering this new realm of freelancers in the professional world,” Kenny said. “It was just a matter of time.”
ABOUT SEAN KENNY: Kenny earned his Bachelor of Science in Accounting at the College of Charleston. He is scheduled to be a speaker at May’s Spring Splash Accounting Conference on the topic of “Understanding & Mitigating Cyber Security Risks”