Today’s guest is Meagan Dowell, who spent 9 years in Tax with CBIZ. Meagan left public accounting in 2018 to start her own company. Read below!
Grim: Thanks for joining us! Tell us about your background.
Meagan: I did my undergrad at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. I knew that I wanted to study business but wasn’t sure what I wanted to specialize in. I took an intro to accounting course and thought it was interesting. My accounting courses seemed to come naturally to me, more so than the other intro business courses, so I did some research, talked to my parents, and decided it was the right fit. That’s the most unexciting way to choose a major 😂 but it speaks to why I’m an accountant. I’m very methodical and like to plan things out.
I interned with CBIZ during my senior year and received a full-time offer. I knew that once I started there, I was going to be in Kansas City for the foreseeable future, so I thought it would be fun to go somewhere new for my master’s degree. I researched top 25 programs and applied to universities located in places I would want to live for 9 months. I didn’t get much scholarship money for the out of state schools, so it was going to be really expensive. But three weeks before the semester started, the University of Arizona called and offered me a TA position, in-state tuition, and a scholarship. So it was going to be cheaper than going back to KU. In a worldwind, I moved to Tucson and specialized in tax for my master’s.
How was starting your career at CBIZ?
The first two years, you’re scheduled to do both audit and tax. I knew I wanted to specialize in tax unless somehow my mind was changed. I went on one audit right after I started and that sealed the deal for me. Audit was not for me and I declared tax pretty early on. I worked on a lot of real estate investment companies from the beginning. I had great mentors who taught me a lot. I was fortunate to have managers and partners that were willing to help me learn. They challenged me with more advanced projects than a lot of other first and second year associates were working on. I really enjoyed that and it helped me grow professionally very quickly.
How were you able to work on advanced projects so early in your career?
A large part was my mentors. They invested a lot of time teaching me. Another part was I worked a lot. I have trouble saying no to people. Even if I had 15 other things on my plate, I would always say yes. And then I’d be working until 1:00 AM. That quality is a blessing and a curse. But it impressed the partners and managers, so they trusted me to take on more challenging projects.
Can you talk more about the different sides of working in tax?
Sure, first there’s compliance which is filing forms on behalf of clients. This is where I spent the first part of my career. You’re doing the compliance work while partners are coaching you on the second side of tax, which is consulting. Consulting addresses questions like: “Does this strategy make sense?”, “Is this entity structure still appropriate?”, “Should I buy this equipment this year or next?”, “What exit strategies make sense?”, etc.
Once you become knowledgeable enough from compliance work, you take on client-facing responsibilities. You become a main point of contact. The partner is still there for high-level things which give you the opportunity to think about things from 30,000 feet. The high-level consulting work is the exciting stuff.
You spent 9 years at CBIZ. How did your role change as time went on?
When you start, you’re the low man on the totem pole. You’re given a lot of direction and learning as much as you possibly can. When you get promoted to senior, you’re supervising people and still getting instruction from above. This might be the most challenging level. You still have to be in the weeds, you’re managing down and managing up. Someone always needs something from you and you’re pulled in many directions.
Manager is still extremely challenging but in a different way. I had more autonomy and felt like I had more control over my career path. A colleague and I had a passion for entrepreneurs and early-stage businesses. We decided to form an entrepreneurial services group within CBIZ. We pitched it to the office president and got him to buy into our vision. The group offers a package of services to startups at a discounted rate. We took it upon ourselves to bring in new business for the group with the hope that the clients grow in size and scope.
If you work hard early in your career and establish yourself as someone who’s responsible and trustworthy, you’re more likely to get to work on interesting and risky projects. That’s where your career can skyrocket because you’re able to work on things that you’re passionate about.
What influenced your decision to leave public accounting?
My last few years at CBIZ were brutal. I was doing three or four networking events a week to bring in clients for the entrepreneurial services group. That got me out of the office, which was great, but I had so many other responsibilities. I was running our associate group, had people reporting to me, and had client work to get done. I was stretched very thin. The burnout factor was multiplied in those years and I was starting to think that it wasn’t sustainable.
When networking with business owners I would see them killing themselves to grow their business, but it was something that they were so passionate about. I was working just as many hours but the passion for the work I was doing wasn’t there. That was a gut check for me. I wanted to feel that same way about my work as these entrepreneurs felt about their business. Fast forward to summer of 2017, I reconnected with a former colleague who left CBIZ to start a company. Through talking to him I came to the conclusion that I wanted to run my own business.
I started thinking about what business I would want to run. I’ve loved animals my entire life, they’re a huge passion of mine. I have two dogs with unique needs that have never really fit in doggy daycares. I thought there needs to be a better way to run that business where dogs who are shy or fearful can be successful. And where the space looks and smells nicer, kind of a boutique experience.
I realized this is what I wanted to do, but this all happened right before busy season. So my thought was to get through busy season and see if my feelings changed. One particularly bad week I had already worked 45 hours Monday through Wednesday. I walked into my colleague’s office and told her that this was going to be my last busy season. I was done. The day after busy season ended I registered for the Kauffman FastTrac program and started building my business plan. I worked on that until I put my notice in, which was around October 15.
Tell us more about your business.
On the Ball offers boarding, daycare and grooming services for dogs. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to do it in a different way. I kept telling my contractors and architects during the startup phase that I don’t want it to look like a doggy daycare, I don’t want it to smell like a doggy daycare, and I don’t want it to sound like a doggy daycare. We’ve created a place that’s visually appealing, quiet, and smells nice. I spent a lot of time and money on the brand and the concept. But it has paid off. People have been impressed with the space, how clean it is, and the equipment we use. We also have staff that truly care about dogs, and we have more staff per dog than any other facility in town. We think that having the human component is super important. The dogs that stay with us want to be treated with the same love and care that they receive at home.
We opened on March 28, 2019 and turned one during the COVID lockdown. It’s been really challenging running the business in the middle of a pandemic. Thankfully, prior to the lockdown we were doing very well. We had built a great client base and I stayed in touch with them during the quarantine. We’ve been able to rebound, but it’s not been without a lot of late nights, tears, and hard work.
How is being an entrepreneur different from working in public accounting?
It’s very different. You still have long hours and a ton of work, but the stressors that you’re dealing with are so different. If you don’t get a tax return done, it doesn’t really affect you personally. It doesn’t impact your bank account or your family, other than you’re working a ton of hours. When you own a business, you’re still worried about all of the things that need to get done during the day. But you’re also worried about the sustainability of the business and bringing in revenue. And making payroll. And paying rent. And not defaulting on your loan. All of these additional stressors make it so much more challenging.
On the opposite side, the successes are so much greater. When I did a good job on a project in public accounting, yeah, I felt great about it. And maybe I got a recognition award or a cute card. But all of that was fleeting. When you have a big success with your own business, the highs are so high. You feel validated and that your vision and hard work are paying off. You feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives. It’s the most amazing feeling. The highs are the highest highs and the lows are the lowest lows. But the highs make the lows worth it.
How did your background in public accounting help in starting and operating your business?
It helps tremendously. When I was at CBIZ and working with entrepreneurs, not all of them were extremely finance savvy. They had the vision and could run the business, but they would glaze over when you started talking about finances. They knew they needed to make money, but didn’t necessarily understand how all of their decisions impacted their ability to do so.
I make every decision with an understanding of how it affects my bottom line. I know the exact financial position of my company every single day. That’s huge when you’re running and growing a business.
What advice would you give to anyone working in public accounting?
Definitely ask for different experiences within the firm. Try to see different parts of the business and try to become as well rounded as you can. Ask to do audits, tax returns, consulting engagements. Even if you stay in public accounting your entire career, it makes you a better consultant for your clients. It enables you to understand more aspects of their business. So try to get the most out of your time there. Take on new challenges, regardless of where you end up it will help you.
Any best practices when leaving public?
Well for some, public accounting is a great place to start and end a career. It’s a great jumping off point that provides opportunities to do all kinds of different things. If you can, stick it out until you find something that you’re passionate about. I’ve seen a bunch of people leave for the wrong reasons and want their job back within a year. Then they just leave again. So it’s a balancing act of trying to find what’s right for you.
Any advice for students or recent grads?
Yeah, similar thinking for students would be to get the most out of all of your classes. Even if it’s not your major, getting an understanding of different components of business will help you in the long run.
More than anything, I’d say network while you’re young. When you’re in college, this is called making friends. In the real world, we call it networking. For some reason that word scares people. But it’s really just meeting people and building relationships, which is the same thing you do in college. So continue to meet new people and follow up with them. Grab coffee or lunch once a quarter and maintain those relationships.
What are some important things you’ve learned about business or careers?
One thing that comes to mind is that hard work is greater than book smarts. You can have a perfect GPA and memorize textbooks and still not succeed in the business world. People who go into public accounting are smart. It takes good grades and a lot of schooling to land a job in this field. If intelligence is a given, you have to default to hard work. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. But if you’re the hardest working person in the room, you will go far. I was definitely not the smartest person in the room, but I worked harder than everybody else.
What does the future hold?
Ultimately I want to build something that makes a difference in people’s lives and in the community. I’m not saving lives here, but we’re building a community where people trust me to care for one of the most important things in their life. So I want to continue building a business that’s successful and sustainable. I want to add locations in the future while still maintaining the integrity of the brand.
Another big reason I started the business is that I really want independence and freedom. The ability to take time off when I want to travel or spend time with friends. To do so whenever I choose and not be chained to a desk. I’m hoping that my hard work now will allow me that opportunity in the future.
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