Entrepreneurial obsession with Katie Thomas

Other Roles

After starting her career in tax at EY, Katie left public accounting to start her own business. Read about her entrepreneurial journey below!


  • How to think about leaving public accounting
  • Being a business-owner compared to an employee
  • Finding quality talent
  • Non-traditional career paths

Thanks for joining us, Katie! Please tell us about yourself.

I have been entrepreneurial obsessed since day one. As a child, I created businesses around gardening services, cookie dough, and horseback riding lessons. I tried to solve any problem I could find that people would pay me to solve. 
I went to college, and I knew that I eventually wanted to go down this entrepreneurial path. There wasn’t an entrepreneurship degree at the University of Kansas, where I went to school. I'd heard accounting was the language of business, so I took my first accounting class my freshman year and loved it. I got both my undergraduate and master’s degree in accounting. I also interned at both PWC and EY. I chose to start my career with EY in their tax division.

Can you talk more about deciding between audit and tax? 

I did a tax internship with EY and an audit internship with PWC. With EY, I never had to do many individual tax returns, but instead I got assigned to specific tax projects. While interning at EY, I worked in their SALT and international tax division, where we did a lot of cool projects like restructurings. With PWC, I was placed on one project the whole time which consisted of doing a lot of confirmations. When trying to decide between the two, it just came down to the separate projects and what I found more exciting.

What led you to leave public accounting?

EY was a great place to start a career, but I went into public accounting knowing it likely wasn't a long-term fit since I did feel like I would eventually start my own company. When I felt I was ready to take that leap I had just ended up getting a weird sickness unrelated to that decision that left me in the hospital for nine days. I realized you can be healthy one day and sick the next, and you just don't know how long life is. 
There's never going to be a perfect time to go after what you want. If you have this burning desire to do something, then go do it. I ended up going back to work, sat down with one of the partners, and told them where my heart was. I asked them if they had a business development role, but they said it wasn’t available for someone as early in their career as I was. 
I accepted that and decided I was going to try to do it on my own. It seemed like accounting firms would be a great place to start working with. It didn't seem like they had a lot of marketing resources and weren’t providing the training needed to the senior managers to market to new clients, so that’s what I focused on. Now at Leaders Online, that's my company, we do digital marketing for accounting firms and professional service firms.

Any advice to someone in public accounting that is thinking about the right time for them to leave? 

I would advise sitting down and writing out your long-term goals. Maybe you don't have the job fully identified but start thinking about some of those characteristics that are important to you. For example, imagine what your version of a perfect day is - what exactly does that look like? Are you in an office? Are you out visiting with clients? Are you traveling? Everyone’s idea of a perfect workday is going to be different. Whenever you look at where you want to go, that’ll give you more insight into when you should leave because maybe your perfect day fits into a job that is already available to you now. 
If potentially being a partner at a Big Four firm excites you, then you probably shouldn't leave yet. Some people think you've got to stay till manager to find your next job, but that doesn’t have to be the case for everyone. It should always come down to the individual and what makes sense.

Tell us more about your business, Leaders Online.

At Leaders Online, we work with a lot of accounting firms and professional service providers that are in the financial space to provide them marketing services. We really like this space and know it. Each accounting firm is different and unique, but by targeting a niche market like the accounting industry, we can smoothly transition work with new clients because we understand their problems, their clients’ problems, and the value the firms provide. We truly understand what type of clients they want, and we can market effectively to get them what they need.
How we do that is through a variety of services - depending upon their goals, their needs, and what they want to do within their firms. It might be a new website or helping them on social media. It could be doing some search engine optimization or working with Google ads or some other form of pay-per-click ads.
There's a lot of different strategies, so another thing we do is help the client assess what is most cost effective to them. Telling people that they can do all this is great, but what's going to work best for them based upon their goals and resources is what drives value.

What are some non-obvious ways public accounting helped in your current career? 

Public accounting does a really good job teaching you how to be confident when new problems arise and how to find a solution. You are not going to be spoon fed everything, so you must learn to figure it out.
Another thing is working with different types of people. In public accounting you work with a lot of different personalities - some strong, opinionated, smart people. No client I work with is the same, but I’ve got to find ways to communicate effectively with them, get on the same page, and work towards a common goal. 
You also learn how to prioritize your time. Public accounting teaches you how you are going to prioritize when and what gets done. You also learn to take care of yourself because you can't just be a machine at the end of the day. You learn how to stick up for yourself and how to voice concerns whether you can hit a deadline or not.

What are some of the key differences between starting a business vs working as an employee for a large firm?

One of the biggest differences at the beginning is you're not going to be guaranteed a paycheck just by working hard. You've got to stay up to date on latest trends. You've got to be filling your pipeline constantly. At the end of the day, the business must make money. In public accounting, at least as a staff or senior, you’re not worried about finding new clients. 
Then, as you start growing a team of people, you're not just responsible for teaching them and giving them the tools and the resources, but you also must make sure that they're paid appropriately for their value and happiness. You’ve got to keep your employees happy beyond just a working relationship which means really investing in their lives.
Further, at the end of the day you still must maintain a sense of self and not let the business consume you 24/7. I think this one can be applied to any job, but I found it harder to turn off my “work brain” when running a company versus working as an employee at a large firm.

What’s a major problem or challenge that you’re currently trying to solve?

Trying to find quality talent. When I say quality talent, it doesn't necessarily mean that they have all the skills, but it does mean that they are trainable and have a good work ethic. To me, this is more important than having a “perfect resume.” As a profession, we can be so set on focusing on credentials, but really it comes down to ability to be trained, learn, and work ethic. 
Then making sure you can balance that with the workload that's coming in to make sure that then when the work comes in, it can get done. This is a delicate balance that I'm learning to deal with and get better at.

How would you advise someone to explore non-traditional accounting roles?

Explore what your interests are. For example, let’s pretend you want to get involved in real estate. I see a lot of accountants get involved in this industry, whether it’s to provide accounting to this industry, become an investor, etc. Understand what it is about the real estate industry that you think you would enjoy? What is it about the lifestyle? Do you enjoy interfacing with clients? Do you enjoy the processes and the behind the scenes? Do you enjoy the technical aspects? 
Think hard and deep about this, and finally, go beyond the “what.” Determine the “why” behind it. A lot of the time people think they want this industry or this title, but we don't take long enough to think about why we want it.
Once you’ve done this, I would say start talking to people. On LinkedIn, you can really find anyone in any profession at any position. If you reach out to enough people, you'll find plenty who are willing to share the good, the bad, and the ugly with you. Maybe that can turn into a job opportunity and maybe it can’t, but at least now you have more information. 
Finally, don't be scared to just take the leap. Certainly, don’t be reckless but follow your gut instinct because I tend to find it’s usually in the right direction. You never know where one decision will lead you.

What do you know now that you wish you knew 5-10 years ago?

One thing that comes to mind is don't feel you're ever trapped in a box because you got a certain degree. A lot of times your degree, and the knowledge and relationships that come along with it, translate to different industries. Knowing that would have made me more confident when I was in school. I always knew that while I loved accounting, I never saw myself being a partner at a Big Four firm. At one point, this led me to doubt whether I picked the right degree at one point. When actually, I love the education and experiences I got, which all contributed to where I'm at today.

Imagine you could pick anyone in the world to be your mentor. Who would you pick?

I have to go with Dawn Brolin. If you haven’t heard of her, she is an incredibly powerful woman in the accounting industry. She is a firm owner, author, and an amazing public speaker on top of being an incredible mom. I love what she stands for.
She has overcome huge obstacles in her career to get to where she is today. When you speak to her, she always makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the room; you’d never guess that she has a million things on her plate. If you have yet to know Dawn, grab her book and start following her on social media. She’s, as I said before, incredible.

What are your long-term goals?

Continuing to grow the business, add more clients, build the team, and continue working on systemizing it so that it gets more and more able to run without me. I hope in 5-10 years, I don't have to be as much in the day-to-day. I don't ever see myself stepping away from working, but I think it's always a goal to get it to where it's running more on its own.
And then personally, I want to have a family someday and make sure to give them a good life. That's what inspires me to make sure that I'm creating a business that doesn't need me 24/7.
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