Mindset

Starting With the End in Mind and Reverse Engineering the Plan with Ryan Lazanis

Creating scalable systems isn't necessarily intuitive and it runs counter to most of our narratives about how hustling hard and creating more is the path to success. I propose that the path to success is actually radical consistency!

Susan Boles
March 30, 2021
 MIN
Podcast
Quote: "I knew from the outset that I want to have a more passive income model. That kind of model meant I could be anywhere in the world and I wouldn't be tied down to any time zone." - Ryan Lazanis

Sometimes it takes more than one try to really nail the execution of an idea.

Creating scalable systems isn't necessarily intuitive and it runs counter to most of our narratives about how hustling hard and creating more is the path to success. I propose that the path to success is actually radical consistency.

As I was looking around for guests for this series on maintenance mode, I started thinking about all the business owners I know who REALLY seem to have nailed it. Who think in systems, in processes, who really understand the power of consistency. And I noticed something about most of the folks that came to mind - they were all second or third-time founders. They'd built a company and then built another.

They'd been through the process at least once before, realized that consistency and systems are the key to building and scaling a successful company and then when they built their second company, they designed it FROM THE BEGINNING, with maintenance mode or scaling in mind.

Most of us are creating businesses that tie us to a physical place and set hours. But oftentimes, the life we want to live doesn’t always align with the businesses we create. When I started ScaleSpark, I designed it from the ground up to be the kind of business that would give me the freedom and flexibility I wanted. I knew what my end game was so I built a business that reflected that.

My guest today did the same thing. Ryan Lazanis is the founder of Future Firm, which helps accounting firm owners grow an online scalable firm. I thought Ryan would be the perfect person to talk about this because Future Firm is his second company. Back in 2013, he founded Zen Accounting, which he started, scaled, and then sold.

Listen to the full episode to hear:

  • What Ryan learned from his first company about creating a scalable company that can operate on maintenance mode
  • The lessons he took with him from that first company and how it influenced how he built the second one
  • How Ryan reverse-engineered his business to revolve around his ideal life

Learn more about Ryan Lazanis:

Episode Transcript

Ryan Lazanis (00:00):

What my ideal life looks like, what I would ideally like to do, where I want to be spending my time, what I want to be doing, how many hours I want to be working, how much money I want to be making. I think that's important too, to set those... I don't need $10 million a year. I don't need to have a billion dollar business. I'm happy with a more modest lifestyle, being able to enjoy time with my family. I have an eight month old daughter now, that's a big focus for me.

Susan Boles (00:32):

Sometimes it takes more than one try to really nail the execution of an idea. Creating scalable systems isn't necessarily intuitive and it runs counter to most of our narratives about how hustling hard and creating more are the path to success. I propose that the path to success is actually radical consistency, but I didn't get that the first time around or even the second. I'm Susan Boles and you're listening to Break the Ceiling, the show where we break down unconventional strategies you can use to save time, boost your profit and increase your operational capacity. As I was looking around for guests for the series on maintenance mode, I started thinking about all the business owners I know who really seemed to have nailed it. Who think in systems and processes, who really understand the power of consistency. And I noticed something about most of the folks that came to mind.

Susan Boles (01:35):

They were all second or third time founders. They built a company and then built another. They'd been through this process at least once before, realized that consistency and systems are the key to building and scaling a successful company. And then, when they built our second company, they designed it from the beginning with maintenance mode or scaling in mind. They basically backwards planned their way into a systematized business that can scale or operate in maintenance mode. They started with the end in mind, the kind of business they wanted to run or how they wanted it to feel. And then they designed the kind of business that would meet their needs. This was especially true for me. So ScaleSpark is business number four for me. I started out as a professional organizer, but my husband was still active duty Air Force at the time, and we had to move just as I was really starting to grow.

Susan Boles (02:32):

And I had to start from scratch in a new place. So it wasn't a great fit if it wasn't location neutral. Our next business was a guest ranch in Northwestern, Colorado. It was beautiful there, and it had always been a dream of ours to operate a bed and breakfast, but my son was one and he woke up at four in the morning and we ran a bar. So my husband was up until two. So I'd do the morning shift with the kiddo and we hardly ever saw each other. That kind of business didn't fit the life we wanted to have. We wanted flexibility, but we never got to leave the ranch. Then we opened up a brick and mortar running store, which was fantastic and fun, but retail is really hard and we still had a kid. And again, we were tied to this physical place and set hours.

Susan Boles (03:17):

It was more flexible than the ranch, at least it closed, but it still didn't match the life we wanted for ourselves. So when I started ScaleSpark, I designed it from the ground up to be the kind of business that would give me the freedom and flexibility I wanted. I knew what my end game was, which was the kind of life I wanted day-to-day, and I built a business that reflected that. My guest today did the same thing. Meet Ryan Lazanis, the founder of Future Firm, which helps accounting firm owners grow an online scalable firm. I thought Ryan would be the perfect person to talk about this because Future Firm is his second company. Back in 2013, he founded Xen Accounting, which he started, scaled and then sold.

Susan Boles (04:01):

Ryan and I talk about what he learned from his first company about creating a scalable company that can operate in maintenance mode, and then how the lessons he took with him from that first company influenced how he built the second one. So let's talk about your first accounting firms. So you built it, you scaled it and then you actually sold it. So tell me a little bit about that process. What were some of the kind of critical parts or pieces or processes that you realized you needed to be able to build out to make your model scalable? Is that something you were thinking about from the beginning or kind of learned along the way? Talk to me about that journey.

Ryan Lazanis (04:36):

I think when I started my firm, it was with the concept of making things easier for all parties. And I came from a pretty traditional CPA firm background as I was obtaining my CPA designation. I worked at a small firm for about five, six years and the way that services were being delivered really didn't jive with me. I felt it didn't jive with the entrepreneur in the digital age. Once I received my CPA designation, I went into industry very briefly. Didn't last long there, had the entrepreneurial itch and decided to start my own firm. And when I started in 2013, it was one of the earlier online accounting firms in North America. And the idea was really, how could I make accounting more accessible, easier, less painful for small business owners I wanted to work with? But also look at how I can make accounting less painful for the firm owner and the employee working within it as well.

Ryan Lazanis (05:39):

So the idea of automation and scalability were certainly things I wanted to run with. I wasn't experienced at all at that point, I had no experience in any element of business. So really had to go through a lot of trial and error. But I think the core part of being able to scale a professional services model, had to do with how you structure the offer and how you productize your services. And that's something I became incredibly interested with very early on. I think one of the first, first things I did was I drafted up a gold, silver and bronze plan.

Ryan Lazanis (06:20):

I advertised those plans on my website at a time when most firms weren't even doing anything close to that. I actually had it where people could self-select the plan, enter their credit card information right away and pay for it without even speaking to an accountant, without even speaking to a professional. That actually was a terrible idea, but it just kind of shows where my head was at when I first, first launched my website. It was an e-commerce site from the start. So my head was really around... It was really geared towards productization. I think that was the critical component for being able to grow the firm so quickly.

Susan Boles (07:03):

So when you approached productization... Because I agree with you. I think that's a huge component in being able to scale a services firm. How did you approach it? What did you tackle first? How did you think about productization?

Ryan Lazanis (07:19):

Well then, I didn't really think much about it other than getting away from the billable hour and having a package that people can sign up to for a fixed monthly price and them seeing the price in advance and being able to sign up for it right away. So, I didn't really think too much about the strategy around productization. It was just lumping all kinds of things together into a subscription, but certainly now my thought process is a lot different, a lot more strategic, a lot more around how you can differentiate the offers. A lot more around how you can create a more stickier offer. But certainly then, it was just about getting away from the billable hour and seeing what the price would be upfront and having people sign up for that. So, when I started, I really didn't have much of a strategy.

Susan Boles (08:12):

Just get them to sign up as easily as possible.

Ryan Lazanis (08:16):

Pretty much, yes.

Susan Boles (08:17):

I mean, that's not a bad strategy.

Ryan Lazanis (08:18):

Not a bad strategy, except if you're pricing it terribly low, which I was doing. And early on, the firm started as more of a virtual CFO model and I didn't want to touch bookkeeping. I felt it was just not a service that I wanted to offer at the firm. And I was really pushing virtual CFO packages and it was a hard sell. And once I was getting people onto these plans, I realized that I wasn't able to properly offer the service or deliver the service because the books that we were receiving from our clients were in disarray, were in shambles and you can't offer a virtual CFO service based on dirty books.

Ryan Lazanis (09:13):

So the productized offer very quickly morphed into something where if I want to hold onto these clients, and if I want to provide a good customers experience, there's things that have to come before, which is providing the actual bookkeeping. And from that point onward, I decided to make bookkeeping mandatory for all clients that we would be working with. And that became a staple of the productized service offer. And I realized that not only did it help scale the business, but it created a much stickier relationship with the client.

Susan Boles (09:50):

That absolutely makes sense. And I found the same thing with the virtual CFO services is that you really can't do any kind of [inaudible 00:09:56] if you don't have any data to work from.

Ryan Lazanis (09:58):

Absolutely.

Susan Boles (09:58):

And went back and forth on offering bookkeeping and not offering bookkeeping.

Ryan Lazanis (10:04):

Absolutely, totally [crosstalk 00:10:05].

Susan Boles (10:06):

So once you built this firm, you also actually managed to sell it, which isn't necessarily super unusual in an accounting firm, but it is pretty unusual, I think, for your average service business. So when you were thinking about building the accounting firm, where you building it with the end goal of selling it, or did you just kind of happen into it because you had this productized kind of thing that you could sell to somebody?

Ryan Lazanis (10:35):

You know what? Selling was never a thought in my mind, never crossed my mind even once when I started the business. I guess I followed in my father's footsteps where he was a small business owner his whole life. He had a business probably from his thirties all the way to retirement. And I just felt that I would start a business and I would follow the same footsteps where I would just run it for decades and I would run it until I was retired. I never really thought about actually creating something that you would sell. The idea of selling only came about once I started getting approached by different firms that wanted to acquire this kind of expertise, because the firm was developed in a time where cloud accounting was just in its nascent days.

Ryan Lazanis (11:24):

There was a lack of other firms doing that. So there was larger firms that wanted to acquire that kind of expertise. And so once I started getting approached by offers to merge, offers to acquire, offers to partner, I was really faced with a variety different options. I was faced with a fork in the road and I decided to kind of really think about what my purpose is in life, where I want to be spending my time, what I really want to be doing. And that led me to my next business, which I'm running right now, Future Firm. When I started the business, it was never a thought on my mind to sell it. It was only when I started getting approached by others. And that one thing led to another, I received a very good offer from a corporate services firm based out of Isle of Man, of all places. Had to go there to sign the deal. So I never thought I'd actually go to a place like that, but it was a really, really great experience overall.

Susan Boles (12:32):

And I think the thing that is interesting is that while you didn't build the business with the idea of selling it in mind, you did all of the things that you would normally need to do to be able to sell a service business, which is create this productized thing that's not based on you and your expertise, but something that's repeatable and somebody else could take over. But it's interesting that you didn't... That wasn't intentional.

Ryan Lazanis (12:56):

I mean, it worked out, right? But definitely that was a core component of it because it allows me to kind of step out and transfer the business elsewhere. And I don't think you could have that without having that kind of productized nature of the business.

Susan Boles (13:10):

I agree. I think that's one of the reasons why accounting firms are some of the few service businesses that actually manage to sell on a regular basis.

Ryan Lazanis (13:21):

Yep.

Susan Boles (13:22):

Because most other marketing firms and those kinds of styles of business, just aren't thinking about productization in the same way that accounting and bookkeeping [inaudible 00:13:34] firms, just the workflow lends itself to very productized workflow and repeatable things that I think a lot of other service businesses can't envision their workflow in the same way.

Ryan Lazanis (13:46):

Yeah. I'd agree with you there.

Susan Boles (13:50):

Hey there, it's Susan, if you've been listening to this interview and it's making you think about some of these issues and ideas, and you wish you could talk to some other real live business owners about it, I wanted to invite you to my free monthly round table, Dollars and Decisions. Once a month, I get together live with a group of amazing business owners, just like you, to geek out on money and operations and workflow and software, all that stuff that you hear me talk about here. The round table is kind of like a live interactive version of the podcast. So I would love to have you join me. To sign up for the next round table, head to scalespark.co/dollarsanddecisions, no spaces, no hyphens, or you can just click the link in the show notes, hope to see you there.

Susan Boles (14:39):

So how did your experience, kind of growing and scaling and selling this first firm, change how you decided to build Future Firm? So what either mistakes or things that you were thinking about from the first time did you change? What did you think about as a second time founder?

Ryan Lazanis (14:56):

I think the big thing is that with my first business, I was very purpose-driven, which is kind of really present moment kind of stuff where it's like I want to make accounting easy for instance. That was my purpose, but I never really thought about the end game, the end goal, what I really wanted to achieve. I just kind of fell into it.

Ryan Lazanis (15:21):

The purpose drove me, but I never really thought about how that fits into my life as a whole and where I wanted to take my life from a personal standpoint. And when I was faced with that fork in the road, that really forced me to think about what I really wanted out of life. What I wanted my life to look like and allowed me to then have a blank canvas to then think about what I want to really achieve, how I want my life to look like and reverse engineer a plan to get there. So I really started with the end in mind as my starting point when I spun up my second business. Whereas with my first one, I wish I would have maybe thought about that a little bit more clearly.

Susan Boles (16:12):

I think that's so common in second time founders, because I had the same experience, that the first businesses I started were not ones that... They just didn't work with my life. They were fine, they were good businesses, but that wasn't the life that we wanted to have. And the second time around, definitely thought about how is this style of business going to fit within the life I want? But I don't know that you could ever get that from the... I've never heard of a first time founder being like, "Oh yeah, I'm going to engineer my business around my life." We all get in and go, "Oh, I'm so excited to have a business." And then go, "Man, I also don't have a life now."

Ryan Lazanis (16:52):

Yeah, no, totally. And you know what? The second time around is way, way easier. The first time around, I had no clue what the heck I was doing. I was all over the map, but certainly a lot more focused, a lot clearer direction and everything is just a lot easier.

Susan Boles (17:08):

So you said you went in with the end in mind [crosstalk 00:17:12] and designed the business from kind of that point. Talk to me a little bit about what that actually looked like for you.

Ryan Lazanis (17:19):

So it was just writing down on paper, point form what my ideal life looks like. What I would ideally like to do, where I want to be spending my time, what I want to be doing, how many hours I want to be working, how much money I want to be making. I think that's important too, to set those... I don't need $10 million a year. I don't need to have a billion dollar business. I'm happy with a more modest lifestyle, being able to enjoy time with my family. I have an eight month old daughter now, that's a big focus for me.

Ryan Lazanis (17:52):

Being not tied down to any kind of time zone. My wife and her family, they're... My wife's Indonesian, their family all lives over there. We have brutal winters here. I'd love to spend some prolonged period of time over there, but you can't be tied down to time zones if that's the case. So it's about just understanding exactly what I want to be doing, where I want to be working, what I want to be spending my time on, how much money I want to be making, having that in mind and then reverse engineering the business model from there.

Susan Boles (18:24):

So for you, that ended up looking like Future Firm.

Ryan Lazanis (18:28):

Yep.

Susan Boles (18:28):

And talk to me a little bit about how that style of business became what you were deciding to build.

Ryan Lazanis (18:36):

So I knew personally where I wanted to be as an end game, and I knew I had a very strong purpose to help advance the accounting profession in some way, shape or form. I've always been frustrated with the accounting profession. Our professional bodies don't do enough to help firm owners. When I was running a modern firm of my own, I had no resources out there to support me when I was running my firm. And it could be a very lonely and frustrating experience. And with Future Firm, I wanted to help other firm owners fast-track the growth of a modern, scalable firm of their own. And avoid a lot of the trial and error period that I had to go through, avoid all those costly mistakes and just fast-track their results. So I knew I wanted to help other accountants build a modern, scalable firm.

Ryan Lazanis (19:30):

And I knew what I wanted. I wanted to create a passive form of revenue that can derive from that. My initial idea was in the form of online courses. I saw that model being rolled out very successfully by a number of businesses I've been observing. And I liked the online course... When I started the business, the idea was to start rolling out some online courses to accountants. To start things off, though, what I did do is I knew I needed to get a better understanding of the market. So I was doing one-to-one coaching for about a year, collecting information. That helped me really understand the market and allowed me to then create a membership model where I could remove myself from the one-to-one coaching aspect and do everything through an online platform where they'd get access, these firm owners would get access to online courses and online community.

Ryan Lazanis (20:38):

And depending on the tier, they'd have some messaging access to me as well. So that kind of model removed me from having to actually have calls with people. That meant I could be anywhere in the world, and I wouldn't be tied down to anything. And it's a much more passive model because some of those tiers actually don't revolve around me delivering any work on an ongoing basis. So I knew from the outset, I wanted to have a more passive income model. I thought at the beginning, it would just be one soft courses that I would be selling. But as I understood the market a little bit better, I turned that into a subscription based membership program, which combines online courses and online community and an online coaching component from myself in a messaging format, depending on some of the tiers that people select.

Susan Boles (21:32):

Interesting. So now that you've kind of built this more scalable model the second time around, you've been through this kind of envisioning, building, scaling thing more than once. What do you think are some key components to creating a business that can operate in maintenance mode that you think kind of everybody should be building into their own business?

Ryan Lazanis (21:57):

I mean, I think the key component is how could you eliminate yourself from meetings? I was able to do that through the way that I structured that productized membership model, where it includes online courses, so that I'm not repeating the same kind of themes over and over again. So I think online courses, you could leverage that quite a bit. All my base tier in Future Firm Accelerate, that's that online coaching program, I could sell unlimited of those based tiers. And it's really not going to take me any much more time than if I sell 10 or 20 of them. So that's exceptionally scalable and that's really based around the online course and online community format. So, really taking those recurring themes that you're probably repeating over and over again and turning that into more of an online course, I think that's a big component of it.

Susan Boles (22:56):

I think that's been something I hear from lots of business owners, is even if you're not offering it as an online course, being able to create repeatable training materials in some format, so you don't have to answer the same questions over and over.

Ryan Lazanis (23:12):

Yeah. Even if it's not a course, I mean, a training, a course. I mean, it's the same thing at the end of the day. You're just taking something that you've repeated over and over again and turned it into some kind of training format.

Susan Boles (23:22):

Absolutely. Where can our listeners find you if they want to connect and learn more about Future Firm or what you do?

Ryan Lazanis (23:30):

So Twitter is probably the best spot, @RyanLazanis, also on LinkedIn. If there's any accountant listeners, I shoot off a weekly newsletter to over 4,000 accountants, giving tips and tricks on how to build a modern, scalable firm. That's at www.futurefirm.co/newsletter. Those are probably the best places to find me.

Susan Boles (23:55):

Awesome. Well, thanks so much for being here and for sharing your story with us.

Ryan Lazanis (23:59):

Much appreciated, Susan.

Susan Boles (24:01):

You don't have to start a new company to take advantage of the lessons Ryan spoke about. You can apply them to your business right now, and you can do it a little bit at a time. Ryan mentioned how creating packages went a long way towards helping him create scalable systems in his first accounting firm. Creating something that you can consistently sell over and over, is a fantastic first step towards a more efficient operation. That consistent offer allows you to have a standard scope of work that you can reuse, a list of the same task or process to deliver that service. You can even create templatized communication for your client. It's hard to create a standard process when you never sell the same thing twice. That's just one way you can start to intentionally design your business for scaling or for maintenance, and you don't have to start a second business to do it.

Susan Boles (24:56):

But thinking about designing your business around systems is a powerful way to make sure you're building a business that'll be ready to operate in maintenance mode. Next week, I'll be talking to Sarah Avenir about the dichotomy of being a startup CEO or a maintenance CEO. And do we necessarily have to be one or the other? So make sure you hit subscribe in your favorite podcast player so you don't miss it. And if you want to dig more into this idea of maintenance mode live with me, come to the next Dollars and Decisions round table. It's a finance and operations strategy session for business owners like you.

Susan Boles (25:31):

And it is a great way to talk through some of the challenges you might be facing with scaling your business, or with trying to figure out how to get into maintenance mode. You can register at scalespark.co/dollarsanddecisions, all one word, or just click the link in the show notes. Hope to see you there.

Speaker 3 (25:49):

Break the Ceiling is produced by Yellow House Media. Our executive producer is Sean McMullin. Our production coordinator is [Lou Blazer 00:25:56]. This episode was edited by Marty Seefeldt, with production assistance by Kristen Runvik.


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