I had no idea what to expect at Thriveal’s 4th Annual Deeper Weekend other than ludicrously passionate accountants. It was held over two days in early November at a small gallery in West Greenville, South Carolina. When I arrived, a presentation was already going on with 60 or so people sitting in rapt attention.
The group’s founder, Jason Blumer (rhymes with “rummer”), welcomed me at the door with a hug and handed me a custom-made wooden clipboard with “Accounting for the Brave” engraved on the back. He took me to an empty seat next to Greg Kyte — who is one of only nine Deeper Weekend 4-timers — and I settled in to listen to the first part of the keynote presentation by Tim Williams. Williams is the author of Positioning for Professionals and reading that book was the assigned homework for Deeper Weekend.
After a break, we were welcomed back and re-introduced to Williams with puppets. Yes, puppets:
Yeah, you kinda had to be there.
Position? You mean, like, CPA Quarterback?
Anyway, Mr. Williams’s presentation was on positioning for professional services firm. His background is in advertising and marketing but he argues, both in his book and in his presentation, that any professional knowledge worker can utilize his strategy to create more value for firm owners and their clients while simultaneously eliminating competition. He or she can accomplish this by narrowly positioning their firm, building boundaries around it, executing both those things and pricing for the value of your work rather than billing clients for your time.
Yes, that’s a hyper-abbreviated version, but you get the gist.
Even if you don’t think your future lies in public accounting, it’s hard to argue that these ideas aren’t compelling. And that’s what Deeper Weekend is supposed to be about — providing its attendees with ideas on how to improve their firms in a substantive way. Blumer told me that the lessons learned at Deeper Weekend are intended to take a year or more to implement.
Some of the ideas are simple — ideas like firing clients that suck and getting on Twitter; some of them are controversial and difficult to implement — like abandoning the billable hour for value pricing techniques or adapting principles similar to the Agile Manifesto; and some of these are pretty radical — like closing the physical doors and making a firm 100% virtual.
For the accountants at Deeper Weekend, these may be strategies that they’ve considered, tried and failed and are trying again, or full-on implemented, but the point is, these steps make people uncomfortable.
Which is why I sensed a feeling of “Whoa, shit,” in the room during Williams presentation. Seriously, I wrote those words in my notes, showed them to Greg and he agreed. I don’t think many of these Deeper Weekend first-timers were expecting such a holistic experience.
That was Day 1.
You must unlearn what you have learned
Day 2 started with a brief presentation from Dave Onkels and Christopher Vogel on “Leveraging Design” because, as one Deeper Weekender put it “all our websites suck.” To be honest, I missed most of it because, well, the day job.
Following Onkels and Vogel, we were given an assignment that prompted us to put the principles from Williams’ presentation into action. We were given three simple fact patterns of an accounting firm that was in a strategic quandary. We were prompted to come with a business concept/plan and find a narrow positioning for each firm in order to revive it to a contemporary, specialist firm.
We had 5 hours to complete the plan. That may seem like a lot of time, but the teams were chosen at random and the main guidance we were given from Jason and Tim — to a ROOM FULL OF ACCOUNTANTS — was “be creative.”
Needless to say, it was a challenging project. You had to come up with a creative solution to a challenging problem with the previous day’s lessons in mind. Oh, and you were working with complete strangers with various working and communication styles.
At the end, we’d present our plan to everyone and Williams would score each, with the positioning of the new firm being given the most weight but points also going towards creativity in the presentation, pricing and other areas.
It was the most creative approach to learning that I’d ever encountered. Plus, it was fun — not kidding — and I didn’t even care about the CPE (my license has been inactive for years). When was the last time you participated in a CPE course that was interactive, challenging and that you actually enjoyed?
The point to this part of the story is that among the aspects of accounting that Thriveal wants to change, education is a BIG one. Thriveal’s Academy page explains their approach to education as, “CPE doesn’t have to suck,” and that “we’ll let the community decide what is to be taught, by whom and when.”
And because it’s one of the most important aspect of Deeper Weekend, Thriveal is concerned about maintaining it at a high level of quality. Jason's wife, Jennifer, is Thriveal's Community Director and while this year's event was clearly a hit with attendees, she says that it's "harder to get teachers that can go deep for a whole day vs. speakers that can give one hour talks."
Jason echoed that as one of his main concerns:
The education and content in Deeper Weekend is becoming more important each year. Developing what we'll teach is starting to take months and months just to develop. The speakers have to be good, we need workshop-based exercises to go through, and it all has to be creative and transformative too. These are pretty tall orders. It's a challenge each year, but it's why people come. We have to keep blowing minds.
Were minds blown at Deeper Weekend? I think so. When things started wrapping up on Friday afternoon, many of these Deeper Weekenders were looking around at each other with expressions of cockeyed optimism. They know there's lots of work to be done to their businesses and it's up to them to make it happen. But they also know there is a tight community of accountants that share their ambition run their businesses smarter.
But, the thing I can’t stop thinking about is this — accounting is a profession for people who like the security of their jobs and the nature of their work. SALY was no accident so can these people really change their businesses? Jason admits that he can’t “advertise to the masses because most public accountants are wrong for [Thriveal],” but he is looking for more of these people. He’s just not sure where they are:
I really don't know how to reach "the creative, entrepreneurial public accountant that hates working in an old outdated firm model of management, and who is ready to take the leap to own their own company." There is no list of these people, but I need to reach them.
And while growth is a primary goal, size is not. Jennifer worries that as Deeper Weekend gets bigger — the number of attendees has doubled already — it might lose the community vibe that they've worked hard to create. She says that at some point they'll limit the number of people that come to Deeper Weekend to around 100-150.
It's easy to see that the Thriveal network works for the accountants who attended. The profession has been staid and reactive for years and lots of people are tired of that. For accountants who are searching for something better — puppets or no puppets — Thriveal and Deeper Weekend might be the community they need.
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