Supporting Strategies Founder and CEO Leslie Jorgensen spends some time with FBR discussing what led her to start her company, which provides turnkey back office accounting services for its clients. Leslie elaborates on the benefits that make them a valuable resource for small businesses and a strong opportunity for franchise owners.
Listen to the full interview here or download the mp3 version.
What Services does Supporting Strategies provide?
Leslie: Think of us as an outsource accounting department. Most companies have either one or several folks that are sitting, more or less, in the back office, doing everything from getting bills paid, collecting revenue from customers, whether that's invoicing or collecting money online, paying their employees, getting reports generated to make the business owners understand how their business is operating. There's all this work associated with working out of that back office.
Supporting Strategies is able to provide a turnkey solution that does all of this work for a company. They don't need to deal with hiring folks, handling it all internally, managing a staff of employees. That might be turnovers, vacations, and all those things that will take them away from their core focus.
We're able to give them that full solution while at the same time allowing them to be focused on their core competency or what they're trying to build in their own business.
Essentially, does your service provide your clients with a lot of cost savings and stability?
Leslie: Absolutely. If you were going to do a direct comparison of the fees for outsourcing to Supporting Strategies versus having an in‑house team, it's a lot more cost effective just from not needing to worry about payroll taxes, benefits, and all those other direct costs as well as all those hidden costs.
We're able to provide not only a more cost‑effective solution, but we're able to give these companies the predictability of having a solution where they don't skip a beat. We can literally plug in Supporting Strategies. We can manage a company from startup all the way to maturity and continue to have their business operate very smoothly, without a lot of interruption from their perspective.
What led you to launch Supporting Strategies?
Leslie: I had ended up out of college working for a series of growing businesses here in the greater Boston area. Some were just owner‑managed businesses, just more typical, run‑of‑the‑mill small business. Then I actually worked for several venture‑capital‑backed startup companies. This was back in the dot‑com era, if you will, in the late '90s or early 2000s.
What I learned to be true is that there were a lot of businesses in the area that I was working with that didn't really have a full‑time need of doing that full back‑office solution, but they needed to get it all done. They needed to make sure vendors were paid. They needed to make sure, at the end of the month, they had a financial statement that helped them understand how their business was doing.
What's difficult for those types of businesses is they don't need a bookkeeper and a controller and a CFO. They don't have the amount of work required to basically keep those many employees busy, but they need to have a little slice of each one of those folks.
What I learned in these different jobs that I was in was I was often finding myself bored. I would get to Wednesday and my work would be done, but I still needed to do the nine‑to‑five. The people I was working for were having to scramble to make time, and I was sitting there thinking, "I could be at the grocery store right now. I could be going to the gym."
I thought to myself, "I could hang a shingle and be my own boss, be in charge of my own destiny, take on as many clients as I want, because I can see that there are so many businesses out there that need this slice, if you will, to get this done."
At the same time, I could have that flexibility. I could be able to provide this great experience for these companies but, at the same time, have a great experience myself. That's where I got the idea of Supporting Strategies.
Based on what you said, it seems like there must be a huge marketplace for the variety of services that you offer. Is that the case?
Leslie: That is the case. I started in 2004, and now it's 2017. Currently, the market for outsourced financial services is roughly approaching $150 billion. It's a really big market.
A lot of this is driven by what's happened with technology over the last decade, is that it actually is fairly straightforward today to do this as an outsourced solution, where even back in 2004, there was still a lot of paper, a lot of snail mail. There wasn't the types of cloud accounting tools available. There weren't that many tools like that available then that there are today.
Even back then when I hung my shingle, the phone was ringing. Over the first year to year and a half that I started my business, my answer card was completely full. I couldn't take on more clients with my own schedule.
The demand, even for myself, putting the backdrop of the size of the market behind me, even just generating my own book of business within the greater Boston area, I found myself consistently hiring staff, which was amazing.
I was able to attract a staff that was interested in having the same type of work style that I had, and also a lot of doing accounting and working in the back office of clients, virtually. I was able to consistently hire a team in the Boston area. We grew from myself to about 50 employees in about eight years, here in the Boston area.
What makes Supporting Strategies stand out from other competitors in your marketplace?
Leslie: I think that our big competitive advantage is that, first and foremost, what we're doing is we're putting together what we call people, process, and technology. Not only are we bringing on these very experienced accounting professionals that are seeking this flexibility and the ability to work from a home‑based environment, but we're also bringing the best in breed of technology to our clients, just from the needs for them to manage their own businesses.
Our secret weapon on the technology front, which has allowed us to effectively scale the way that we've had and the way to provide consistency for our clients, is we've actually developed our own proprietary software called WorkPlace.
Each one of our home‑based, US‑based employees, they're working from a home‑based environment, but they're plugged into this WorkPlace system, where they can actually monitor what the clients are asking of them.
We route all of the email communications from our clients securely through our WorkPlace software, so they can work in a team environment to make sure we don't fall through the cracks on anything that our clients ask us to do on a day‑to‑day basis, but we also manage all of our tasks in that system as well.
You can be somebody that may choose to work at Supporting Strategies because you have young kids. What's really nice is you can go to WorkPlace and say, "This is what I need to do today for my deadlines, and then this is what I have coming in for our clients that are asking questions."
You can feel good about leaving at three o'clock to go to a soccer game and feel like, "You know what? I have everything covered."
Having the WorkPlace software, something that's proprietary to us at Supporting Strategies, and the way that we document our engagements in there, again, goes back to the not missing a beat from the client's perspective, if someone's on vacation or out of the office, because the way that we run our processes using the software gives that consistent approach.
The clients enjoy best‑in‑breed processes, very skilled accounting professionals that are doing the work for them, and this consistent process that is throughout our organization, so they have a really good and strong infrastructure to help support them as they grow.
What I find when I go to industry‑related conferences and things like that, it's pretty amazing that most of even just either the individual bookkeeper consultant, similar to how I started, or even it's 5 to 10 folks in a regional bookkeeper or accounting support services company. I have yet to see several businesses that have achieved the success that we have had at Supporting Strategies.
Really, what that means is those companies aren't big enough yet to have the systems and the processes in place the way that we've developed. Those companies that try to outsource to those smaller players won't get that same consistency of service, the way that we're able to offer at Supporting Strategies.
When it comes to new franchisees who join your team, how do you get them to launch their businesses quickly and successfully?
Leslie: This has been an area that has definitely evolved over time. One of the things that I think makes us a good franchisor is we always have our ear to the ground, if you will, and hearing what works well and what are things where we can improve our processes in terms of how we support our franchisees.
The way that the onboarding process works now is we actually directly align, along with myself, an operations specialist to each one of our franchisees. From the day that they sign the franchise agreement, we basically walk through a very specific set of weekly activities, with, "This is what you do week one, week two, week three." Really, most of the opening activities happen in the first four to six weeks, the training and the business cards and all of that.
For the first three months, we're holding their hand through this process of giving them their action items and doing these phone calls to make sure that they hit the ground running.
In addition to that, they also join in a peer group. We call it the Franchisee Success Network. Each new franchisee will then get assigned to a new Franchisee Success Network group, and they'll be joined in that group with five or six other franchisees that joined around the same time.
I work with them at a higher level as a group to say, "OK, guys, you all are coming into the system around the same time. Let's work together collaboratively so we can help each other to be successful," share best practices, have accountability and things like that.
They have that peer support, they have their direct‑in‑line operations specialist, and then I'm checking in with them on a periodic basis, more at a strategic level, to make sure that we're removing any roadblocks that exist to their success and that I'm keeping them on‑plan as they move forward.
Do your newer franchisees, and even your more seasoned franchisees, receive support from each other?
Leslie: Yeah, absolutely. A big part of having received support from each other through the Franchisee Success Network, in addition to that, we have other forms as well. We use email communications where we have different groups of folks. We have one group that's sent to all franchisees. Even outside of their Franchisee Success Network group, they can actually just start a dialog with each other.
For instance, I just saw an email come through yesterday. "I've got a potential client who is a small law firm. I haven't spoken with a client like that before. Is there anybody else that's worked with a small law firm?" Three or four other franchisees chimed in on the email, "Yes, I have that experience. Feel free to give me a call."
That's a huge benefit from a sales perspective, for franchisees to tap into the network as a whole. Even all of our team members.
We have close to 300 team members across all of our office locations that are also in communication through our email network, where it can be, "I've never used QuickBooks for a contractor before. How do we handle doing job costing for them," or, "I'm looking at this piece of technology for this retail business that I just started up on, and I've got questions if anyone's used it."
Even just across our team members, they're sharing information, which is huge. It's great for the franchisee to have that kind of support for their team members, so they're getting up to speed quickly, and amazing for our clients.
At the end of the day ‑‑ again, going back to that we are a team of very experienced accounting professionals ‑‑ the proof is in the pudding, with not only are they getting a direct, assigned an accounting professional to work with them on their business, but they have this entire network of folks backing them up to make sure that they're getting the best expertise available to help that end client.
What are some of the things that you hear from your franchisees about why they chose to join the Supporting Strategies team?
Leslie: I hear a lot, and I hear myself in what they're talking about, that "I've had an X‑year career, 10‑year, 20‑year, 30‑year career, working in finance, working in management consulting, working in accounting at XYZ big company. I've done the commute. I've done the travel."
"I've done all of that. I'm interested in building something for myself, and I'm interested in working directly with entrepreneurs and business owners to help them be successful, and do something that I'm passionate about, while at the same time making sure that I'm having a life as well."
That's something I hear a lot from candidates that are potentially coming into the system. You have this great, rewarding career, if you will, because not only are you working with these growing businesses, you're leading a team, you're out in your local business community, building relationships. It's a very dynamic job.
At the same time, even our franchisees, more or less, they can go get an office, but they don't need one. Most of them do work from a home office environment, similar to myself. They like to have that flexibility, where they're at their home base, and when they're done working, they're at home, and they're with their kids, with their partners.
If they've got hobbies, they're able to do those things. I love that, because it's just so speaks to why I started the company to begin with. I love that. From all of our franchisees to our team members, and even members of my leadership team, we're all able to really enjoy that kind of a lifestyle, while at the same time have a very dynamic and rewarding career.
You mentioned the backgrounds of a lot of your franchisees. Can you elaborate a little bit on that, as far as what you're really looking for when it comes to the franchisee selection process?
Leslie: I know that the franchisees that are doing the best are ones that they may not necessarily have been a CPA or a bookkeeper, somebody that was deep into the numbers, but they tend to be folks that have a strong business background. They could have been a manager in a large company, where they had P&L responsibility, or a management consultant.
Many do come from accounting careers. They might have been a CFO or a controller or finance person within an organization. It's a wide range, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a set accountant. It needs to be someone that understands a P&L, understands how a business works. They need to have strong business skills, maybe they have an MBA kind of a thing.
What really sets apart a potential franchisee versus someone who struggles in the business, it needs to be somebody who has a drive to execute, both from a business‑development perspective as well as from a leadership perspective. The way our model works is that the franchisees aren't going to be the ones doing the actual day‑to‑day work.
From day one, our recommendation is that, through our talent acquisition team, we help them to hire a staff of folks that are going to run their operational day‑to‑day.
They need to lead and drive that operational team to be successful and make sure their clients have a strong and positive outcome, but really, there's definitely more of a leadership role, more of a manager role, more than it is a doer role.
That's why, in terms of their career background, we're looking for folks that have the ability to look at someone's financial statements and understand, at a high level, what they mean. They know how to lead and manage a group of individuals. They need to be able to lead a team and be able to effectively get out there, communicate our value proposition, develop strong relationships in their community and with their clients.
You have taken your company, which you never envisioned growing the way it has, a huge distance. What is your plan for it in the near future?
Leslie: We've put a collective carrot in front of ourselves and our franchisees. We actually just had our third‑annual conference of our franchisees earlier this month. The carrot we put in front of us is we want to get to a hundred franchisees. That's not territories. That's actual, physical franchisees. Right now, we have 38 franchisees across 59 locations.
I want that 38 to be at 100, at a minimum, and we're trying to get to a hundred million in system revenue. That's the carrot.
What I like about our network today is that it's a very intimate and interactive and collaborative network. Success, to me, is getting to that 100 to 200 franchisee level in the United States. That's really what we're trying to build, because that will allow us to really, I think, enjoy the scale of what we've already set out to scale up.
At the same time, keep more of that intimate, more of that collaborative, team‑oriented network, which I just see is very rewarding for me. That's what I love doing now is working with my franchisees to help them be successful and grow their businesses.
As I mentioned in several of my stories here, I think it really is a big driver of success, is working collaboratively together as franchisees towards this mission of helping businesses focus on their core competency by outsourcing the accounting department. I don't see us becoming a big franchise system, where it might be a little less personal.