Interview - Argel Sabillo

Startups
Tax
Entrepreneurship
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Today’s guest is Argel Sabillo. Argel is a Deloitte alum, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. This post is the first time Argel has publicly shared his story. We’re thrilled he chose this platform to do so!

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Manila and immigrated to the U.S. just weeks after my 15th birthday. I loved growing up in the Philippines and was upset with my parents about moving for a long time. We arrived in Sacramento in mid August and by early September I was attending high school and working as a waiter during the nights and weekends. I had watched some American films and taken one English course before, but I pretty much learned English on the job. I remember questioning my teacher about why it was necessary to learn English. Next thing I knew I was being shipped to the United States.
My mom wanted me to work to instill a strong work ethic in me but I didn’t know what to do with the money I was earning, so I just blew it on video games and clothes. My parents, me and my three siblings were all living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment at this time. When my parents split, we ended up getting evicted from the apartment. That’s when I knew it was time to get serious. I started working three jobs while attending community college. I started 3:00 in the morning working as a produce clerk. By noon I’d be working in a warehouse packing SKUs to be delivered. And I was a McDonald’s manager working the closing shift at night. By the time I turned 20, I was able to buy my mom a house that she still lives in today.

What an incredible story. How were you managing that with school?

School became the lowest priority. It was so easy to drop classes at the community college — and easy to justify when I was working to help make ends meet. But thankfully I landed a career as a mailman and was able to stop working three jobs. After doing that for three years, I got serious about my education. So I quit a high paying job to go to school on student loans while working part time as a banker.
I went to school at the University of San Francisco graduating cum laude with an accounting degree. After working full time, I had so much appreciation for being able to focus on education. I was lucky enough to get 1 of the 2 tax internships available at Grant Thornton during the financial recession. I got an offer in San Francisco but I had to relocate to LA where my wife landed a job so I accepted an audit role at Deloitte Los Angeles. It was all thanks to my USF professor, Eric Bell, who helped me get an interview. I was volunteering at ACAP (Accounting Career Awareness Program), which is a week long program for high school students from underserved backgrounds to get exposed to the Big Four. Professor Bell graduated from that program and worked for Deloitte so it comes full circle for me to give back and donate my time and money to ACAP.

What led you to study accounting?

When I bought my mom her house while also working 3 jobs, my taxes went from simple to complex — and I was audited by the IRS. I was using H&R Block and I remember how expensive and inaccessible it was. I also thought it was unfair that the IRS was picking on me. I was just a little guy trying to make ends meet. I was scared and stressed out and I didn’t have anyone to help me.
From then on, I have educated myself on taxation and really enjoyed researching the tax breaks I can take advantage of to increase my take home pay to help take care of my family. I thought that an ideal career would be to get paid to learn from the best on how to find loopholes so that I can apply it to me, to my family and friends — to my community.
So I was on a mission when I chose tax accounting as a career.

How was your experience at Deloitte?

Overall, it was an amazing experience. I was surrounded by smart and driven people. I learned a lot of technical tax. I was there five and half years total, the first year and a half in audit and the rest in tax. My first busy season was brutal. 80 hour weeks, getting home at 2am and waking up at 7am. But I didn’t mind it so much because I was very grateful to have the job. And it wasn’t as bad as working three jobs or delivering mail in the rain. I looked at it as if I was getting twice the experience as someone who only worked 40 hour weeks.
Audit was very different from tax. There were a lot of good parties in audit 😂  - I missed that when I switched to tax. Auditors all seem to be extroverts and I’m an introvert. And my mission was to learn tax, so audit was just a foot in the door. You can put in a request to change practices, but I went about it a little differently. At one of the Deloitte volunteer days that the firm does, there was a raffle for a lunch with a partner. I won the raffle and chose a random tax partner who ended up becoming the managing partner. He invited me to come over to tax. I started in partnership and individual tax, but that didn’t match well with what I did in audit so I went to corporate tax. I wanted to get to international tax and managed to get into the Japanese service subgroup. So I had visibility to multinational conglomerates and their U.S. subsidiaries. It was a really great experience to learn how big corporations structure their businesses for their benefit.

Why did you leave?

I had a lower back injury. I literally could not walk or sit down. It was the worst feeling. I was home alone because my wife was living in San Francisco at the time. So I had my colleague, Dan, stay with me to help walk my dog. Anyway, I had to take an emergency leave for over a month and I was told by HR not to work which meant that my workload had to be reassigned as we were just gearing up for the September busy season. Long story short, when I got back to the office, I received poor evaluations from the senior managers who were under pressure because they were up for promotions. After all the hours and hard work I put in, I just felt under-appreciated.
So I felt it was time to execute the next phase of my journey, which was to help the little guys with taxes, and I thought that was the time to do it.

What did you do next?

I happened to find my tech partner around that same time, and we actually created a tax app called Levee. At the time, the sharing economy was fairly new. And there was no easy way for Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts to separate their business deductions from their personal expenses and know how much taxes they owed at the end of the year. So we built an app with a Tinder-like interface where they could swipe left or right to categorize expenses as personal or business. It was supposed to map to a Schedule C and automate your filing but we quickly learned we didn’t have product market fit. Drivers or hosts doing those things as side gigs don’t generate enough revenue to justify investing their time in a tax planning tool like Levee. And once they do generate enough revenue, they typically hire a more traditional CPA.
That's why we pivoted to what we do now.

Tell us more about your current business.

Sure, heyApril is a digital accounting firm for startups. We are taking a page from the Big Four playbook by hiring global talent, creating a world-class process and deploying the right technology to be more efficient and effective. We keep the quality of accounting and tax work high and keep pricing accessible to startups.
We approach accounting and tax with a consultative mindset. Our processes and technology to do the heavy lifting on the accounting administration. That way, our professionals can focus on providing insights that help our clients save thousands of dollars on taxes.
When I was working on Levee, it was really hard to wear so many different hats: finding product market fit, trying to fundraise, talking to potential clients, and product development. The last thing on my mind was accounting and taxes, even though I'm a CPA, that was the last thing I thought about. Plus, it wasn’t an option to delegate or outsource our financial back office because the cost was too high. If we can solve that for other founders while they’re doing all of these other things, that would be a big lift for them. So from day one we’ve been focused on process and automation, and we’re continually working on that.

What’s it like being a founder compared to working at Deloitte?

At Deloitte, I had my head down and had blinders on. I was getting super technical, very deep in tax accounting. The startup ecosystem is worlds apart from Big Four. When I became a founder, I had to become more of a generalist and learn everything —every aspect of the business. A key component of that is to be able to rely on talented people. Most professionals in my network are accountants so I had to build my network from scratch.
From day one we’ve been conscious about the culture we want to build. When I was at Deloitte, I did a lot of work with our employees in India. Most of my clients were leveraging these employees to keep costs down. Deloitte talks a lot about a “culture of one”, but there’s so much inequality in terms of the roles in India versus roles in the U.S. We have a satellite office and employees in Manila, we are leveraging a global workforce. But just because you’re on the other side of the world doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get the same opportunities. So we really try to be open minded about the way a 21st century accounting firm should run. We want to be mission driven but also a place where you can further your accounting career.

You’ve mentioned giving back and being mission-driven. Can you talk more about that?

My biggest thing is financial empowerment. I've been fortunate enough to have gotten out of some challenging circumstances. When we immigrated to the U.S., my mom was telling me not to save money because the government will take it. So as a kid, I had a financial miseducation. In order to uplift people of color, financial education can be an escape. I'm doing that through heyapril. It’s a vessel to inspire and support more people of color to pursue entrepreneurship. I’m using the knowledge I gained from Deloitte and bringing it to that community. Startups and small businesses should have access to high quality tax and accounting work. For a long time it’s been reserved for people who can afford a high price tag. But my key driver is helping people globally break the cycle of poverty.

What advice would you give to those early in their career?

  • Automate and delegate to free up your time so you can focus on things that matter and get the spotlight.
  • Learn the value of being visible. I’m an introvert and want my work to speak for itself. But that’s only part of the job. Accounting firms are services businesses, you need to be able to sell and generate clients.
  • Build your personal brand. You can do this by sharing your story, which I know can be hard. This interview is actually the first time I’ve talked about a lot of this stuff publicly. You should also be creating content. It takes a lot of time, but it can do a lot for your career.
  • Everyone should be building something. Could be a startup or a side project, but something you can take ownership of. Another way is to be an intrapreneur while you’re working for a company.
  • Always learn and expand your view. Have patience and be a sponge. Take pride in whatever work you’re doing and always strive to do things better and be a better human. Make your mark so people behind you have a chance.

How can people connect with you?

Connect with me on LinkedIn where I’m actively sharing insights, recommendations and best practices for running a growing business.