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How Can Sole Practitioners and Small Firm Owners Stay Competitive?

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Oct 9, 2015

A.J. StrausAlan J. Straus 
Sole Practitioner, New York

I think that in order to remain competitive, you have to develop a specialty. Mine, for example, is tax matters. I don’t do audits or bookkeeping engagements or that kind of traditional work; I specialize in defending people before the IRS and doing tax planning for those who are either looking to sell a business or make investments. As both a CPA and an attorney, I also provide a one-stop shopping experience—in other words, if someone is looking for estate planning, I can draft the will, draft a trust for when that client passes away, file the estate tax return and do the probate in court. What some might need a whole team of professionals for, I can do on my own.

Because I specialize, a lot of my clients are referrals from other professionals who bring me in when they need my expertise. For instance, next week I have a meeting with a colleague who’s representing a client in a tax audit that seems to be going badly. I’ve come to be known as the guy you go to when you have tax questions or problems.


Rosemarie Giovinazzo-BarnickleRosemarie Giovinazzo-Barnickel
Sole Practitioner, Staten Island

Having a niche practice helps. I specialize in audits of employee benefit plans and small not-for-profit organizations. Since all of my clients are obtained through referrals from other CPAs, I stay very involved with the NYSSCPA, at both the chapter and state level, and make it known that I focus on these areas. Accordingly, when my colleagues at one of the CPA firms with a heavy concentration of tax work—of which there are many on Staten Island—have clients who need these types of audits performed, they will refer them to me or hire me on a consulting basis. And they never have to be concerned that I will try to take their clients’ tax work, as I do not do tax at all. 

Martin ShenkmanMartin M. Shenkman 
Sole Practitioner, Rockland

With creativity, technology, collaboration and the right specialization, a sole practitioner doesn’t need to shrink away from the big boys. Instead, you can be the David to their Goliath.

Sole practitioners can think outside the box and be more creative, in many cases, than some of the big firms. They can also provide tailored services that others may not be able to—or may not wish to. For instance, when large firms do estate planning, which is my specialty, they do an incredible job technically, but they don’t always get to the heart of a particular client’s human or personal issues. Technology is also a major equalizer. Today there are systems that allow you do things that, until recently, were very expensive. I have an app that transcribes voice messages to my inbox; another that turns faxes into emails; a mobile hotspot, so I can always be connected; and Web conferencing software, so I can meet with clients whenever I need to. All of this enables me to be nimble and work from anywhere, rather than being tied to any one location. It also enables me to give a high level of response to clients.

Before any of these things, though, you need to have a specialty. You can’t be all things to all people, especially if you want to compete with the big firms, who have experts in every area. So, choose a specialization that lets you compete with those experts, instead of trying to take on each and every one.


Steve KaplanSteven M. Kaplan
Sole Practitioner, White Plains

Taking full advantage of technology is important. It makes you efficient, so that you can get things done faster and cheaper and, in a world where everything needs to be value-oriented toward the client, that can give you a strong advantage, not only in terms of the work, but also in terms of cost. The combination of the two results in a client paying more for valued advice and less for necessary, but not perceived as valuable, tasks, such as bookkeeping, data procurement and data entry.  From a professional’s perspective, it also allows you to spend more of your time on things that are most enjoyable. There are a lot of great data-aggregation tools that let you obtain and organize client information in different ways. Portals, too, are very helpful, as far as getting information and sharing work. I do a lot of work in the dispute resolution area, including collaborative divorce and collaborative business disputes, and portals help to keep everyone on the same page, as they can all view the same information at the same time. Using innovative technology also encourages clients to take advantage of it themselves, so they’re more efficient and run their businesses better, which can mean better business for you, too.


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