If you grew up “shooting the loop” every Friday night in high school, knew the names of every single person living on your block, or rode a tractor to school at least once, chances are that you grew up in a small American town.
The differences between small towns and big cities can be staggering, from the food you eat to the clothes you wear and the music you dance to. While life in the city can offer CPA and tax preparation firms virtually endless marketing opportunities, options are generally more limited in rural areas.
Small town life can offer a special set of benefits that include:
- Less competition. Once established, professionals will find fewer challenges from larger firms and national firms, because there is not enough business to cover a large firm’s overhead.
- More respect. Instead of being one of hundreds of professionals in the field, you are accorded status as a local problem-solver and business advisor. The skills of a professional are in greater demand, because the businesses served tend to be smaller.
- Lower real estate costs. For both homes and office space, the costs in small towns can be less than in the cities and suburbs. Be careful of property taxes, though, which may be higher because of the lack of major businesses to tax.
- Great for raising a family. People are closer, crime is generally less, and it is often safe to leave your front door unlocked. There are things for families to do with one another and with neighbors.
- Know your clients better. It really is true that there is no privacy in a small town. Everyone knows who you are what you do and how well you do it. As you know these things about your clients. It’s not gossip, but merely knowing your neighbors.
If you’re thinking about moving to a smaller town, there are some disadvantages to consider. If the accounting and tax preparation market is already saturated, it may take years to really establish your practice. And job opportunities may be less varied and more difficult to find.
For many tax prep professionals the choice is clear. Here are just 10 things you should do to improve your odds of success if you're going to make the move:
- Plan carefully before making the move. Do a competitive analysis to determine whether the market for tax and accounting services is already saturated, and how many competitors may be nearing retirement age. Study the business base – not all small towns are the same. Some are farming communities, others are built on tourism, and others yet are built around a single feature such as a college or mid-sized manufacturer.
- Study the culture to see if it is a comfortable fit. Driving a Mercedes may not serve as well as a pickup truck, and the pace of life is slower. Hunting and fishing seasons are major life events, as is the annual county fair. Dress is more casual. Make sure you are ready for the lifestyle change.
- Get to know the local media. There is likely only one newspaper, one cable TV service and one radio station – the owners or managers of which will either help or hinder your reputation. Advertise as the budget permits, contribute articles and quotes as appropriate, but cultivate relationships with these thought leaders. Such relationships are more easily developed in small towns than in their larger counterparts.
- Join in. Fraternal, business, and veterans’ organizations – from the chamber of commerce to lodges named for animals – are critical threads in the social fabric of small towns. Country clubs and churches also play a role in the social life of small towns. Pick one or more that are a comfortable fit to join and be active. These organizations are very often non-profits, and are in desperate need of accounting and tax help. Learn the ins and outs of the Form 990.
- Support the local schools. From an ad in the yearbook to a modest scholarship in the name of the business, provide financial support. If it is a farming community, buy a cow or a hog at the county fair to support the local 4-H students. Get to know the principals of the schools your children attend, and the members of the school board. Be as active as possible, from attending sports events to volunteering as a chaperone on field trips. Join the PTA as appropriate, but keep a low profile until you understand the politics of the organization.
- Stay out of politics. Likewise, keep a low profile in local politics. The forces behind local politics can extend back generations, and backing the wrong party or person can create trouble long before you understand the lay of the land.
- Support local organizations. Just as in urban areas, when you donate time, money, or resources to local aid organizations and churches, you want to investigate how and where their resources are spent. Find reputable groups that already have the infrastructure in place to address the specific needs of the community.
- Maintain professional ties. It’s wise to maintain memberships in state and local associations, follow tax and accounting blogs, read trade journals, and subscribe to IRS mailings to stay abreast of the latest news. Remember, developing relationships with people in the community is essential for quickly finding information, especially if a local business doesn’t have an online presence.
- Develop multiple streams of income. Small towns demand a little more work to sustain the business during non-peak periods, and the concept of multiple streams is a bedrock marketing principle for rural America. Outside of the tax season, it may be lucrative to pursue a client base in financial planning, payroll services, succession management, or other skill areas that may not be otherwise available in the community.
- Join the county economic development council. Virtually every county has one, though it is not simply a matter of volunteering. One must generally be appointed by the county Board of Supervisors or county administrator. It may take time to gain an appointment, but this will benefit the community through the firm’s business acumen while simultaneously giving the professional vital information about new businesses and their needs. Work through your district’s supervisor, and while waiting, volunteer to work with the local Chamber of Commerce.
Practicing in a rural community presents some unique challenges and – generally – is not a great for fast income expansion or a larger practice in the short term. It is, however, an excellent opportunity for a slower-paced, lucrative practice enhanced by a unique quality of life.