Stephen: How’s it going, Michael?
Michael: Hey, good. How are you doing Stephen?
Stephen: I’m doing good, man. It’s really great to have you on the show today.
I’ve looked at most of my podcasts. I always start by talking about how I keep meeting cool people on LinkedIn and you’re definitely one of them.
I’m always telling people, “Man, you’re not using LinkedIn the way you could be.” Because I know a lot of people do a little bit of outreach. They don’t really connect with anybody. But I was doing a bunch of outreach. A lot of the stuff goes nowhere.
And then you get on the call and all of a sudden I’m just blown away. You’ve got all this really cool information. You’ve started three businesses.
You’ve started more than that, but you have three right now. And you’ve grown them all pretty substantially, man. I appreciate you being here. This is going to be a cool talk.
Michael: Yeah, it will be fun.
Stephen: Yeah. So you have these three businesses. I want to talk a little bit more about those a little bit later, like the story.
But, you run Reconciled and I know you also help build professional service firms, other people’s firms.
Stephen: Hoping to dig in the beginning here and talk a little bit about, how do you go about thinking about building a modern professional services firm and, specifically, if you want to talk more on the accounting side?
Of course, but I feel like they all have a lot of similarities, so I’m just curious, how do you start to think about building a modern professional service?
Michael: Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t know if I have all the answers. I think I’m figuring it out on the way as well, like everybody else that’s doing this.
Building a modern professional services firm today, whether it’s accounting, HR, marketing, whatever, I think it has a few components that are similar.
One of them is that the firm is branded. So there is some branding, intentional branding that’s happening.
That’s generally not tied to the principal or owner’s name. So you’re not focused on trying to build the name or the reputation of the last name of that person. I think that was a generation or so ago. That was what people used to do. So if I were starting a business, 20, 30, 40 years ago, maybe I would call it Michael Ly Accounting or Ly and Associates, or, and you still see this happen for some reason.
But I think that the hard part or challenging part about that is, this isn’t an age where your focus is building on the expertise of that individual. I think in building a modern professional services firm, your actual focus is on building on the processes and the trust that all the people involved in the firm put together.
So, it’s not just relying on you. It’s also relying on the team you’re building, and the people you’re building and the actual processes and infrastructure you’re putting together.
A modern firm also is scalable, generally, in that it’s able to work with customers, work with conceivably an unlimited number of customers that fit the target profile, but also work with an unlimited number of team members as it continues to grow.
So you think of scaling in a modern service firm.
Then probably thirdly is a modern service firm is not reliant on location to be able to serve.
So it can both provide its services online or remotely, without being physically located in the same spaces as customers, as well as it can. The service firm can leverage a team of people to provide services to customers remotely. And so I’ve had the fortune of building Reconciled that way.
And actually all of my professional services companies that I have, I’ve been able to build them in that way and had the fortune of figuring out how to continue to do that. It’s they both, as they all grow.
Stephen: Yeah. That’s cool. And, I think what’s interesting about professional services is that the realm in general tends to be, out of all of the different types of businesses, such a wide range between companies that have this more modern approach and companies that are just really old school.
You even see a lot of new ones popping up that are still very old school. So I do find that interesting because in a lot of startups, I think the culture just is different. They tend to understand branding better and content and if you’re building a tech firm or not a tech firm, but like a tech startup, you’re always trying to make it scalable.
So, I think a lot of these ideas are just more ingrained. But in terms of brand, that is an interesting question, because in the beginning, when, unless you have a lot of capital where you just hire a bunch of people to start, it is just one person. So, how do you help someone navigate that?
Because in professional services still, there is a lot of trust involved, especially depending on what you’re doing, especially in financial services. If you’re a financial advisor specifically, it’s someone’s trusting you with their whole life with their entire life. So trust is a big part of it.
How do you help someone think that through, as they are an individual and then they want to start to build the brand of the company itself?
Michael: Yeah, I think that, much like an individual, as an individual going into the market, providing the service or expertise they have, they’re trying to get people to trust them.
You need to begin in the very beginning building trust in the brand that you’re building. Why did for, why, for example, do people trust, ordering off of Amazon? It’s not like when Amazon came out, on its first day, that it was a way of selling books that all of a sudden people just trusted that they would get their book order from Amazon.
When it came out, when Amazon launched the, when it did early on, Jeff Bezos was relying on the fact that there was this unique thing called the internet that people were trying out and willing to take a risk on and had a product that people regularly bought. There weren’t eBooks at the time.
And it was pretty low risk, right? you spend five, 10, 20 bucks. If the experience isn’t that great. That’s okay. You can leave a bad review and leave and not have to shop there anymore. But at some point, Amazon kept going at it and it built enough brand loyalty or brand trust. Where if you order something off of Amazon, you trust you will receive it.
Or you trust that the return process or whether the process of getting that item recovered will happen. And Amazon will fulfill that same thing with you.
You name it, right? You name it where somebody starts off with a brand that has no trust in it yet. Like Airbnb, and then all of a sudden people start building trust in it because they’re using it and they’re experiencing it.
So I think with a professional service person, if your sell always is you, if the sell is, I’m going to, for example, sell Michael Ly all the time and my expertise and my skill set, and I emphasize that in my sales process, I emphasize that on the calls, I emphasize that with my customers. Like every time you have a problem, you call me every time there’s an issue, you call me.
Well, as I start building my team, since I’ve spent so much time and effort focusing on trust in Michael, instead of trust in Reconciled or whatever brand it is that you were building, then your customer will default to, “Okay. I bought into this brand that I trust. Now what’s the updated process, who are the parties in which I access that, the brand and access the services the brand provides?”
So I think that’s the way to think about it. If you never had a good experience with, let’s say customer service anywhere, and you feel like there’s a consistency to that customer service experience, then you generally don’t know or care who the person behind the line is.
You don’t really care who their names are because you know that when you call you’re going to get that great customer service. Anyway, Zappos has become known for that. And, it doesn’t really matter who you get on the Zappos number or online. Whatever experience you’re going to get, you credit Zappos, the company, for that because of the processes they built, the training that built the culture they built, and that’s what gets credit.
So you want to start with the end in mind, what you’re trying to get customers to buy into, not you. You’re a part of it. But you want them to buy into the next person you bring on and the next person in your mind. And so really the brand, trusting that the brand itself is taken care of the whole process.
Stephen: So are you intentionally using specific language when you talk to people when you put it on your website?
Michael: Yeah. Yeah. I think when you talk about what you’re trying to build, I remember initially when I started Reconciled, it was called Reconciled at the time, I let people know, “Hey, I’ve launched this online bookkeeping service and have hired my own team.” You call them ‘team.’“ I had one bookkeeper, right?
It’s not like I had 50 people. I had one bookkeeper, one accounting professional. But you say I hired a team and you can talk about that team, if you want. But as you sign on customers, you add more team members and you talk about your team. So I think you gotta be very intentional talking about “we,” talking about “the team,” even in the beginning.
And it feels weird cause you’re selling yourself at the time, but you’re projecting to the customer, I’m building this and you’re buying into this. I don’t want you to buy into “I’m working with Michael for the rest of my life.” I want you to buy into “I’m working with this team.” I’m building this company and building, that’s really what’s important.
Stephen: Yeah, that even touches on what I’m doing, too. I’m already working with people. I could be doing a better job. I do talk a lot about the processes and stuff that I’m helping people to employ.
But I could be going like, “I’m working with the video editor,” I’ve got several different people. I could be talking more about that support that’s behind me. Yeah, that makes sense.
And then in terms of the scalability thing, I know another firm that has done this really well. How do you end up creating the packages? Is that ultimately what it is? You’re creating packages that people can just buy and then they get enrolled in something? Is that how you achieve the scalable part of it? How do you…
Michael: That’s one way to look at it, the pricing or the business model in regards to, how do you have a scalable business model? That’s very easy to package or productize your services. So that’s one way.
The other way on scalability is, do you have the hiring and onboarding process where you can bring on team members to service new customers? That’s another thing. Do you have the sales and marketing process to bring on more customers? And to find where they are and sign them up?
And then what is the ‘ease of use’ or the ‘ease of process’ for those customers to sign up? Is it a customized quote every single time? Is it an algorithm-based calculation on your website? Is it a productized flat fee package? And they got three options. What is that? What does that look like? I think all of those things have to be figured out.
In regards to making it scalable, because you could figure out one of the components, but if you actually don’t have multiple of the components, it might not work. So if you can’t find team members, if you don’t have a way to find them quickly to scale as fast as your sales process, you could get overwhelmed all of a sudden and then burn the reputation of your brand.
If you sign up a lot of customers and then they all end up churning or quitting because you weren’t even able to onboard them. So that’s a big challenge as well.
Stephen: Yeah. So when you’re talking to a firm, do you have them thinking about these various angles of scalability at the same time? Or do you have them do a little bit of this, then go do a little bit of that?
Michael: Yeah. So it’s, most of the owners, their identity is not, they’re not entrepreneurs, that’s not their identity. Their identity is the service that they’re providing. So I’m an accountant. I’m a marketer. I’m a salesperson. I’m an IT person. Even though they own, they literally own a small business.
They literally own a firm, their identity is not that. So they’re not thinking like that. They’re thinking like I’m going to create myself a job. And then my goal is to fill the job so that I have enough income that replaces my salary. The problem if you think of that mentality is when you get to that point where you fill yourself with enough work, where now you have a job that you own, but you still have a job.
You don’t have any more time to actually grow your business. So I talked to firm owners about, let’s change. Let’s talk about your identity first. How do you view yourself? And what is your ultimate goal? You just want a job? Is your goal that you want a lifestyle business and you want to grow a small team?
Or is your goal to build a real business that has its own life? That has goals, that has team members that grow? And when you pass away or when you retire, or if you decide to sell it or leave, it continues on its own?
I don’t think people think that far ahead, they, most people are thinking I need enough income to replace the job, the salary that I just left that’s where they stop.
And that’s really, I think, a place that people get stuck,
Stephen: Yeah. No, I agree. And what’s interesting too, is that sometimes even the entrepreneurs get stuck in that same thing. Cause it just always keeps growing it.
But, I have, since our last talk, we were talking a lot about the entrepreneurial mindset and the practitioner mindset.
After we talked, I thought a lot more about it. Since I’ve been talking to a lot of service professionals, a lot of them really are entrepreneurs. I’m also running into the ‘just practitioners’ as well, and there’s no right or wrong.
But I have been running into more and more professionals that really want to do something big with their firms or they want to be able to sell it, or these other things. So it’s an interesting, interesting space. And then in terms of the location thing, like for me, I almost don’t know how to think about building a more traditional business.
What is it when you’re talking about how to think about location? What do, what training do people need in terms of being a virtual business?
Michael: Yeah. That’s a great question. Cause you think, Oh, this shouldn’t be an issue.
Stephen: It hasn’t been because that’s how I’ve always lived that way.
Michael: Yeah. But for most people, they go find an office somewhere.
They put up signage and they focus on word of mouth. Sales process or word of mouth, marketing, and referrals. And so where does that generally happen? It generally happens in your network. Where’s your network? It’s generally mostly within the one hour radius of where you are physically located and not many people are actively trying to build their network in other places or other cities.
Or just online. Like you said, just using LinkedIn and not caring about where people are based, just reaching out to people, getting to know people, engaging people. And that might be one of the reasons why you’re engaging so many entrepreneurs who have firms, because those are the people who tend to reply on LinkedIn.
Stephen: Yeah, that’s been the most interesting thing is like when somebody replies back. I know it’s going to be an interesting conversation for the most part.
Stephen: I’m always surprised, like sometimes they’re way more interesting than others, but man, it’s like, It works really well.
Michael: Yeah. And yet you’d be surprised at how many service professionals are still not on LinkedIn or they’re not active on it at all.
They don’t even have a premium account. They got nothing. So they don’t even know you were sending a message because they don’t have the level of LinkedIn to know that they got a message because they’re too cheap to think about it. Or they’re not engaging in it like that.
Stephen: Yeah. I’m not actually surprised. I will always want to make sure that I never sound judgmental here, but I’m a part of a normal, networking group, a traditional one. And most people are not very active on LinkedIn. And even their profiles are not optimized. They don’t see that as the beginning of their sales page.
And it always blows me away a little bit, especially now, because when you think about it, when I go to this, the group and I like the group a lot, it’s really cool people. But the interesting thing about it is this. Now it’s on Zoom and it’s an hour and a half. And like you see a zillion faces and everybody gets like 30 seconds to say something. You don’t get to have that kind of dialogue, water cooler stuff.
And so all it really is, like a super mini social network.
Michael: Exactly. I think a tiny 30 second social network and then you leave. And then for some reason that doesn’t translate immediately to, “Hey, I should be leveraging these other platforms, more efficiently and more effectively.”
But there is a mentality of ‘local’ in some businesses, where obviously it would lend itself to ‘local,’ like your local coffee shop, your local cafe, your local retail store. Those are, you’re going to go, gas stations are not going to leverage LinkedIn. So I get that, but then there’s a whole plethora of new, what I would call new economy firms, new economy, businesses that don’t, I don’t know why they’re not getting into more leveraging of it.
And it’s because, if you look at the grand scheme of business history, these tools are still fairly new, in the grand scheme of a long business history.
Stephen: Yeah. Yeah. 75% of my current business is all from LinkedIn, which I think is cool. And most of the people that are not, I already knew them and I’ve had a relationship with them and they liked me and they’re like, “Oh, I think you could do what you’re talking about.”
But the other thing too, is I think creating a relationship through DM and then actually converting that person into a customer. I think that’s one of the most fascinating processes. I will say it’s daunting at times, because it can feel like a little bit of a grind. Like you’re reaching out to people and people aren’t responding and it’s, man!
But man, when you go through that whole process of, no, they didn’t even know you. Then you get on the call, you step through these processes and then they sign the deal. Like you learn so much that you would never learn through a referral unless you were, unless you are a really inquisitive person and you really backtrack to figure out why that person, what that person said about you, and how they came to you.
Because you develop all this language that you can then put into your marketing. Because the first time you talked to them, you’re stumbling on yourself. You’re not saying what you need to say. Just like when we first talked, it was like, you’re like, huh, what are you talking about? And then you learn as you talk to people like you, I start to develop these little chunks of stuff that I know registers with people.
I started to learn about how accountants are always talking about CPE credits and how financial advisors are always talking about, are they an LPL or an RIA and all these different, that you learn all these terms that like…
Michael: …on the inside.
Stephen: And then I start saying those things and they’re like, Oh yeah, I get that.
And, I don’t know, I just that part of it, I really enjoy.
Michael: Yeah. That’s great. Yeah. No, I love engaging in meeting new people. I think it doesn’t matter what the medium is. And I think it’s amazing that you can meet people that you would never normally have met in the past because of the internet.
Stephen: Yeah. And then the other cool thing is I’m always encouraging people to start a podcast. And they’re, there’s always these initial things like, how am I going to get subscribers? There’s already a million podcasts, right?
I’m like, no, just like the conversation we’re having. I’m going to be able to give you something, I can give you clips for social media. I can, I can do something tangible for you.
I’m also learning a bunch from you, professionally. And then we’re also creating a relationship and it’s a totally non-threatening way to get to know somebody. It’s just recording basically.
Michael: You’re saying, Hey, instead of, maybe one way to tell people is, Hey, don’t get podcasts. Why don’t you just start recording? All the 30-minute conversations. You have so many, all of us have so many thermocouples and how many of those have so many good nuggets in them that should be shared.
So that’s, that’s, what’s interesting. Yeah.
Stephen: Yeah. And in fact, a lot of it is I’m trying to dispel what a podcast even is because it’s a loaded word. So a lot of firms, I know you do a bunch of webinars, workshops, a lot of these companies are already doing that, but they use them as these one-off events.
They’re only inviting their local group when they could be taking those things and distributing them and putting them on YouTube. It takes some, it takes a little bit of process and some post-production skills and stuff like that, but there’s just so many cool opportunities to go virtual.
And, anyway, quick, we were talking about practitioners and entrepreneurs, so when you come up against one or the other, do you think differently, like when you’re dealing with them, or do you take the same approach? I guess what I’m wondering is, is that part of your thought process? Do you say, Oh, this guy just loves what he does or this guy’s really an entrepreneur and I have to treat them a little bit differently or…
Michael: Yeah, like in my coaching services.
Yeah. Most of the people that I coach, most of the time they would fall into the, from owner service provider identity, they’re needing to shift into the entrepreneur identity in order to really grow their business. Because that’s what they want.
Otherwise, if that isn’t their goal, and they’re super happy in the identity of being a sort of, and that’s what they want to be, and the idea of being an entrepreneur is really scary or not exciting to them, then there is no reason to change that identity for them. Because you can always find team members and future team members that can play that role for their business.
So I often tell service providers, if you love providing the actual client service, if you love being in front of the client, engaging with the client regularly and actually doing the work for them, then eventually you’re going to, depending on how big you get, you’re going to have to find a CEO.
And it is okay to say, you’re not the CEO. You can own the whole thing and not be called CEO. It’s totally fine.
Stephen: So I think there’s like a maturity there actually.
Michael: Yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah. Definitely.
Stephen: I think that’s cool. I’ve very much realized some of them, like right now I have to play all roles, but I love the big picture thinking and I have a hard time, I have to really be diligent to execute regularly and just get everything done.
So I think it empowers people to really be honest with what their skills are, because then you can, if you need to, you can actually compensate for some short period of time. Because if you don’t at least acknowledge it, if you, if I walked around talking about how I’m the best executer in the world, then I would always be floundering on it because I wouldn’t be honest with myself.
So I wouldn’t even be able to notice that I can’t do it as well. And just focus on it.
Michael: Yeah. People pick up on that stuff pretty quickly when you don’t execute, when you just don’t execute right there, what’s going on.
Stephen: Yeah. Another cool thing that we were talking about when we were talking personally was, and we were talking about this a bit in the beginning as well, but outbound versus marketing and building a brand.
So I know you talked a lot about the beginning, I think it was Reconciled where you did a lot of outbound, but how do you balance the two? Because I know you do believe in marketing and brand. How do you go about thinking about those when you’re, I guess yes, for Reconciled specifically, and then how when you’re starting to help somebody else?
Whether they’re making content or blogs or doing outreach cold email, how do you get somebody going?
Michael: Yeah, I think it also depends on where, what stage your industry is in. In the accounting industry, it has traditionally been a very low marketing/sales-based industry. It’s very much relationships, word of mouth.
Who do you trust? Who does your friend trust? So it’s really understanding the buyer’s journey and how they find you, how do they currently, most people, find their service professionals.
So it depends on what industry you’re in. So if you’re in an industry where it’s really matured and people actually search online, dramatically, or almost consistently first for that provider that I think that’s one thing.
If it’s still an industry that’s a little slower to move, and you’re finding people through referrals, relationships, trust, then you want to think about, where along that journey can I meet and how can I get in front of the customer? Email marketing is an example. Email marketing has not been used in the accounting industry that long.
There’s not many firms that do it well or do it at all. And I’m not talking about a weekly newsletter. I’m talking about actual, straight up what SaaS companies have done for a long time, straight up email, cold email marketing, getting in front of their customers, booking, getting booked appointments.
That’s not a common thing in the accounting industry until probably the past few years where you’re seeing more and more firms do it.
Stephen: Where I do see that cold stuff is on LinkedIn, I get a lot of those. And usually they’re not really doing that.
Michael: No, they’re not, there’s LinkedIn, there’s just straight up emails. And again, accounting firms are generally not in that space. Most accounting firms are not in that space. For every one accounting firm doing that, there’s 10, 20, 30,000 accounting firms still doing just word of mouth, not even touching email.
And so it really depends on what your buyer’s journey is, where your buyer’s looking generally, because all those buyers aren’t going to just suddenly shift behavior, right? Unless other trusted services around your services are also, then the buying behavior changes around them. So no different than finding an attorney, a business attorney. Most people that I know, and even including myself, looking for a business attorney, I don’t actually start on Google.
I find out, who do I bank with first or who is my CPA? I’m going to ask them, or a fellow business, a business owner. I’m going to ask them, who’s your attorney, whoever you say it is, I will contact and trust. It’s just, it’s this reinforcement. And I almost always never look on the line to reinforce that trust for that thing. it’s very interesting.
Stephen: I probably wouldn’t look either. In fact, I know a couple of lawyers I would contact, but what I would say though, is that I have come across people online and I’ve run across their content and I’ve become aware of them that way. And I would reach out to that person, if I saw enough of what they were talking about.
And if I had seen them long enough, because I might be a little bit different because I live online. And so that’s kinda how I think, but I think that’s a growing population of people that…
Michael: Yeah, it’s growing. I just still don’t think it’s the majority of buyers.
I think it’s growing. And if that’s your, if that’s the market you want to enter into, you want to capture those, that market of people that are. They’ve changed their buying behavior, to do that. But if you’re, if you were in a, if you were again in an industry and area where most of the people you want to sell to haven’t shifted that buying behavior, then you’re also missing a large part of the market.
That’s still buying traditionally. And so how do you reach them?
Stephen: Here’s an interesting question though. All of us are online, so is it possible that it’s like a chicken and the egg thing where maybe the buyer behavior hasn’t changed simply because this market hasn’t aggressively taken advantage of the opportunity?
Michael: Yup. Yup. That’s one possibility, I would agree. I would agree with that, and again, it goes to the mentality of the, who’s in the professions of that service industry? And accountants generally, the accounting industry is an older industry, it’s dominated by old, white men that are almost retiring, in retirement, or have retired, and have not, most are not even on the cloud-based internet-based software tools.
So you’re talking about an industry, the age of the industry as well. Yeah. Who’s running, who are the leaders, who are the owners of those industries? Law firms are probably very close. So the same thing, as this transition happens, then you’ll start seeing a shift in that marketing and sales behavior and therefore the buying behavior, right.
At the same time, I completely agree with you, I think it’s this, it’s this chicken and the egg, of which side is going to change the behavior first. And, and how you, how do you do that?
Stephen: Yeah, because I do see, I’ve been, I’ve been using Tik Tok a little bit just to see what’s going on over there.
And there’s a bunch of lawyers, especially lawyers that I’ve seen, going on there and doing little quick, like 30 second videos. I only thought about that right now. I haven’t seen any CPAs, but very specifically lawyers I’ve seen a lot on, which I think is interesting. And the other thing too, like at least the tip, from the other side.
So I get added to a lot of accounting newsletters that I never signed up for, but what’s interesting about them is like every time I get one, I’m like, I would never read this, even if I signed up for it, because that’s just a list of stuff that I hire someone to do. I don’t, I specifically do not want to know anything about this.
Exactly. So I’ve been telling these guys, Hey, you’re doing, you’re in business. So I was talking to another, really cool lady earlier. And she does EOS, the entrepreneurial operating system. She does PR for personality tests.
I was like, man, you could be talking about some of this stuff. Like how, and like you, I know you talk to firms about how to scale their business. It’s like people can become aware of your services through a different channel, or you can, you can be out there doing content marketing, doing social media on these entrepreneurial things.
And it will suck in people and pull them towards your services. Cause they’re like, man, if he’s built this business, he obviously knows how to do money and manage it. And I was talking to another financial advisor about that too. He works two days a week.
I was like, Whoa, that’s pretty cool. How did you do that? Tell me about that story. And then I can get into how you obviously know how to do the money stuff.
Cool man. So we’ve talked about a bunch of things. I know you run three different businesses. More specifically, what do each of them do and how can people get a hold of you?
Michael: Yeah. Yeah. So the best way you can find me is on LinkedIn, just search Michael Ly, spelled L Y, and feel free to reach out to me, connect.
Stephen: Yeah, and he will respond.
Michael: Yeah, I will respond. And, that’s how Stephen found me. And, or you can look on Twitter as well, at Michael underscore L Y underscore and, the thing with social media, I think in reaching out is I’m always willing and able and ready and excited to meet people and to engage and talk with people and have a conversation.
Stephen: And, on that point, man, that was one of the things that kind of blew me away with you, is you booked the call. You were on time, you spent a bunch of time with me. Like you really engaged, gave me a bunch of feedback. I thought it was, it really blew me away. So I’m just confirming what you’re saying and I appreciate it.
Michael: That’s great. No, that’s definitely great. Yeah, definitely reach out. And if you’re interested in talking about entrepreneurship and talking about building a services firm, you’re talking about accounting, whatever it is, I’m up for whoever, love it.
Stephen: Yeah. Cool man. And I’ll, I’ll link to your stuff as well,
Stephen: Again, man, this has been awesome. I’m looking forward to continuing our discussions. I think we’ve had a good rapport and I’m hoping to help you out in the future as well. So again, thanks for being on and I appreciate it.
Michael: Great. Thanks Stephen.
Stephen: I’ll see ya.
Reach out to Michael: