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How to be a self-employed CPA

Tips for being your own boss

You don’t want to work for The Man. You want to be The Man. Okay, great. The good news is that CPAs have skills they can sell to individuals and companies alike. But before you go designing your business cards, beware: there are a few things you need to know about the road to self-employment.

Tip #1: Before you can walk, you have to learn to crawl.

“I don’t think someone coming out of college can go start a CPA practice,” says Debbie Lessin, owner of tax practice D J Lessin & Associates in Chicago. “You have to pay your dues. You have to get the experience, to learn things from other people.” Lessin spent two years at a large public accounting firm and five years at a corporation before branching out on her own.

Tip #2: Expect to feel in over your head.

Starting your own business is a leap. It’s going to be scary and you’re going to wish you could have a practice round. “At the time I did it, I don’t think I knew what I was doing. I just knew I didn’t want to work for a big public accounting firm and I didn’t want to work for a corporation anymore,” Lessin says. But that’s what makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur: the willingness to take risks. “I have had the opportunity to create my own life. The difference between me and other people is that I took the opportunity, and I did something with it,” she says.

Tip #3: If you think it’s going to be easy, good luck.

Starting and growing a business is hard—really hard. Lessin says there were some years early on where her employees got paid and she didn’t. Aside from the economic stress, there’s also the sheer workload—given that you’re the CEO, the brand manager, the accountant, and the receptionist all rolled into one. “I would get up in the middle of the night sometimes and work,” Lessin says. “In the early years of the business, there were times when from January 1st through April 15th I was working seven days a week.” Be prepared to neglect your hobbies and favorite TV shows.

Tip #4: Patience isn’t a virtue. It’s a requirement.

This isn’t American Idol. In the real world, it takes patience to reach the point where business is booming and everyone knows your name. Expect a slow burn. “It took about seven or eight years to grow the business and turn it around,” Lessin says. When you’re on your own and having to get the work done, it’s hard to find time to do the marketing and networking that will help grow your business. Of course, you could hire someone else to do that—if you’re bringing in enough money, that is.

Tip #5: All of the above will be worth it.

Once you get your business humming along, you can live your life exactly how you want. Want to grow your business into a regional company? Want to keep it in your basement? Your call. After years of growth, Lessin chose to downsize her business so she’s the only employee. She has mastered her schedule so that work comes second to life—and she couldn’t be happier. “If I work really hard for 10 weeks [during tax season] and then I work 3 days a week the rest of the year, I think I can do this a pretty long time.”

Now that you know what it takes to be the boss around here, use our Career Planner tool to narrow down your potential career trajectory even further.

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