Interview - William Webster

Tax
Startups
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Today’s guest is William Webster. William spent 7 years on the tax side of public accounting. He now works in business development for Pitchbook in San Francisco. Enjoy the read!

Appreciate you being here! Tell us about your background.

I went to the University of Kansas and got my undergraduate in accounting and then got my master's in taxation. I chose accounting because it's the language of business. Every business transaction has to be recorded and accounted for. So understanding accounting is very crucial to understanding how businesses work. Also, I was graduating during the Great Recession, shortly after Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers failed. I feel like I was pushed into selecting accounting because it was the most stable career path at that point. If not for the financial crisis, I probably would have studied marketing or finance. I definitely enjoyed those classes more. And my perception at the time was finance was sexier than accounting. I’m not sure if that’s true now, but that was definitely my perception at the time.

So you started in public accounting right out of college, is that right?

Yes, I joined Meara Welch Brown, which is a boutique accounting firm in Kansas City. It’s a small firm, when I was there they had less than 20 employees. I mainly worked on the tax side, but also did some forensic accounting and a little bit of audit work. During summers the tax employees would oftentimes get pulled into helping with an audit. And there was one partner who had a lot of forensic accounting work. But the firm offers professional services for small business owners and closely held businesses. A lot of clients are lawyers and doctors, your typical Schedule C filer.

Why did you decide to move to California?

I wanted to experience another part of the country. I had lived in the Kansas City area my entire life. I wanted to be closer to things that I enjoyed, like being outdoors, while still having a city environment. I joined a regional CPA firm, which really showed me how different the economy is out here. I got a lot of experience in state corporate tax, transfer pricing, income tax provisions, R&D credits, and similar things. But what was really interesting was working with tech companies and the startup environment. I learned a lot about net operating losses due to the nature of tech businesses. They hire these huge engineering teams to build out a product, a lot of the time with little to no revenue. So learning how to treat those losses was interesting.

You spent 2.5 years at the regional firm and then moved to EY?

Yeah, still on the tax side. Most of my engagements there were commercial real estate groups that operated funds or REIT structures. Many of my clients had 501c3 limited partners. My client’s businesses generated unrelated business taxable income, which needed to be shielded from the limited partners. So a lot of the work was around that. The ownership structures were complex. Most of the properties were owned by a single member LLC that would roll up to the REIT. Then there would be a fund where the other limited partners came in, and the fund would either sit right above or below the REIT. So tracing ownership was pretty complicated. We also had to do a lot of testing around the REIT structure, which comes with a lot of rules.

How do responsibilities change as you’re promoted up the ranks?

Sure, as an associate you’re preparing things and doing all the legwork. Then you submit your work for review. You’ll find out that different reviewers like to do things in different ways, organize things in different ways and just have different styles. So you work your way through that, make a bunch of mistakes and learn from them. Now you can look at other people’s workpapers and help them find better ways to do their work, which is basically the supervisor level. Supervisors are doing all of the same tasks as a manager, but without the title. Pretty much the same thing in my opinion.
It’s slightly different at EY because you have an associate that prepares and a senior who is supposed to be the first level of review. My experience was the associates were so green that the senior was almost acting as the preparer. The manager is intended to be the second layer of review, but sometimes they’re actually the first level.

Can you talk about the differences between Big Four and smaller firms?

I think a smaller firm is going to give you more of a chance of becoming a well-rounded public accounting professional. They give you exposure to different sides of public accounting. However, you lose the exposure to larger entities and don’t get to see how they operate. You’re not going to see complex general ledgers, parent-subsidiary relationships, control groups, etc. You’re probably not going to see clients with sales in 20+ states. So there’s good and bad to both sides.
Busy season was the same across the board. Taxes are due the same time every year, so it really didn’t matter what firm it was. Culturally speaking, the smaller firms definitely have more of a family environment. For example, during busy season you probably sit down as a team and have dinner together every night. Afterwards, you work for a few more hours. That doesn’t really happen at Big Four firms. At least not nightly.
Another difference is you can get pigeonholed into a certain space at Big Four firms. I think they’ve gotten better about this, but auditors might get stuck auditing inventory for two years. I think the firms realized that contributes to burnout and creates churn within their employee base. When I was at EY they started rotating associates through different functions. They’d have them do international tax for four months, then move them to corporate tax, and cycle them through in that manner. But you have to be proactive otherwise the firms will put you where they need you.

What’s tax busy season like?

There’s a joke in the tax world that there’s a 15th of every month, so someone’s taxes are due every month. So busy season is totally dependent on your clients and the type of tax work that you do. If you do a lot of individual returns, the 4/15 deadline will be the worst. But if you’re on the corporate side, it will be the 9/15 extended deadline. But it was always an accomplishment to get past 4/15. Then you have time to chill for a few weeks before you kick it back up for the second push in August and September.

After EY you made the jump out of public - can you talk about that decision?

I got burnt out on the grind. The reason I left BPM (the regional firm in CA) to go to EY was to get Big Four experience on my resume. My perception was it would get me a premium when leaving public accounting. Looking back I don’t know if it was the right move. I feel like I could have left the regional firm and went directly to the private side. But I felt like having the manager title at EY would give me credibility in the accounting and finance world. So after a year at EY, it was time to move on. I started working with a recruiting firm and looking at various roles. One of the opportunities they brought me was a business development role at a tech startup that had recently raised some venture financing. The company was building a tax app to compete with TurboTax. They brought me on for my background in the tax industry and knowledge of the tax code. So I was traveling around the country and doing presentations on tax strategy for stock options, how to write off the cost of your MBA, things like that. I really enjoyed it. I also learned some hard lessons about the business world and product market fit (PMF). We thought we had PMF within this massive marketplace. But once we were really in the market, we realized we didn’t solve the problem we were trying to address. PMF requires so many iterations and until you’ve failed a bunch of times, you can’t really make improvements on the product. Everything needs to be driven by data, otherwise you’re just guessing.

What was it like working at a startup?

The number one thing I learned is that nobody is going to tell you what you need to be doing on a daily basis. There's no guidance as to the immediate tasks that you need to do. You have to set your own key performance indicators on what you should be accomplishing. There's no middle management to guide you. You're reporting directly to the CEO and founder who has so many responsibilities - business operations, capital raise, marketing, all the functions needed for the business to be successful. So my experience was they don’t have time to sit down with you and really dive into things. So I tried to trust my instincts and fail fast. I’d keep trying new things and document my learnings.
It seemed like we were scrambling all of the time. We brought in so many people to try to meet our growth projections, and we couldn’t service all of the new employees. The company is still in business but last I heard they were pivoting. I think there’s still a benefit the business can offer, but they’re not doing the same thing they were when I came on board.

Now you're doing BD at Pitchbook. Why did you decide to leave your former role?

Yeah, my former role taught me a tremendous amount about the startup ecosystem. I really enjoyed the sales side and the partnership work I was doing - trying to find channels for us to utilize to drive sales and growth. But it is tough to do partnerships when they’re all a bespoke agreement - all of them were a one-off. I was also kind of bouncing around the organization. I was wearing a lot of hats. I was actually preparing and filing tax returns at one point, helping build out the user interface that we were developing at another point. So, I started to look elsewhere and wanted to stay in a sales role.  I was the first outside sales hire in the San Francisco office for Pitchbook, and it’s been a great fit.

How did public accounting prepare you for business development?

Well, public accounting really helps you understand how businesses operate. You learn how different businesses make money. It gave me the knowledge to understand the needs of the businesses I’m talking to, or at least know how to ask the right questions to understand how their business model works. It really helped me learn the business acumen needed for a role like this. It’s also really valuable to be able to speak the same language as the CFO when they’re part of the decision making process.

If you could go back in time, what would you do differently early in your career?

I would start out with the mindset that I’m not going to make a career in accounting, that I was going to use it as a steppingstone. With that in mind, I would have explored the consulting or advisory side of the public accounting industry. For example, I probably would have looked into transaction services, just knowing it could have led to a better exit opportunity. Going in I just didn’t know what the options were, I thought it was just tax or audit. There are a lot of other options that I wish I knew about.

Any advice for students studying accounting?

I would say keep your options open and realize that you don't have to be pigeonholed into the public accounting track. There are a lot of skills that you learn by having a degree in accounting that are transferable to other industries. So don't just think that you need to be focused on winning a Big Four job. Keep your mind open about private industry and consulting opportunities. Don't have a one track mind.

Advice for those still working in public?

If you love working in public, then become as valuable as you can as the firm's business development function. Focus on building networks and bringing in clients so you can make the leap to partner. But if you're having second thoughts, don’t think you have to stay to manager before you can leave. That's not true. Start looking now and work with a recruiter. There are a lot of good recruiters out there. They are always looking for quality candidates for their pipeline. They really struggle to find qualified candidates with public accounting experience.

How can people with public accounting backgrounds transition to a non-accounting role?

Yeah, good question. That's where you leverage industry expertise. For example, I had expertise in taxes and I found a fintech company that was developing tax software. So leverage your industry knowledge. If you have a lot of manufacturing clients, leverage your understanding of supply chain manufacturing to see how you can now add value to a manufacturing organization. I think there’s a lot of value in having someone in customer success or sales that has a robust understanding of the industry. Even if they don’t know sales, that stuff can all be taught. I look at the college graduates that work for us, they get taught those kinds of skills. The stuff you can’t teach them is the industry knowledge, that takes experience.

How can people connect with you?

Happy to connect on LinkedIn!