Starting a Freelance Bookkeeping and Accounting Firm

A Semester at Sea in college and the loss of a close family member made Adam Nubern realize there’s more to life than clocking hours in a cubicle. Rather than sticking it out on the corporate career ladder, Adam took the leap and started his own freelance bookkeeping and accounting firm, Nuventure CPA in 2015.

He’s brought his business with him on the road for adventures from traveling the states in a Casita camper to backpacking around the globe. We chatted with him recently to learn how he balances his time, his favorite freelance accounting tools, and his best advice for anyone who wants to start their own freelance accounting and bookkeeping firm. 

An Interview with Adam Nubern of Nuventure CPA on Starting a Freelance Bookkeeping and Accounting Firm

Starting a freelance bookkeeping and accounting firm has allowed Adam the freedom for adventures from RV’ing around the states to backpacking the globe.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Have you always worked for yourself or did you start out working for someone else?

I graduated from the University of Georgia in 2009 and started working at an auditing firm in Colorado Springs, where I stayed for 4 years. Then I moved over to a natural resources company. That job just didn’t work out — the director and I didn’t see eye to eye and it wasn’t a good fit. But that actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise since my wife and I really wanted to travel more, and we needed to be independent to do it. 

I’d done the Semester at Sea program in college. We’d be in each country for 7 days max. You just don’t get an opportunity to really get rooted in a culture that way. So we knew wanted to travel for at least one or two years abroad. 

When a close family member passed away, that was a big wakeup call to start living the life we wanted. Then a friend totaled my truck, which was unfortunate, but I got a decent insurance payoff, and we decided it was time to go. 

We had been doing a ton of research on sites like Backpacking Matt  about budgeting and bootstrapping, and knew we needed to save up about $30k for that first year. We hit that goal, and set off in June of 2014.

How did you start your own freelance bookkeeping and accounting firm?

Before we left, a buddy of mine said, “That sucks that you’re about to leave! I wanted you to help me with my accounting.” I told him I could still help him from abroad, and he became my first client. 

Then 2015 was my first real tax season. When you’re a CPA everyone thinks you know how to do everything – taxes, etc., so you need to be able to offer those services. We were living in a camper van in New Zealand that spring. I was always looking for the best Burger King since they had the best free wifi over there at the time. New Zealand is where everything really clicked for us and we realized we could really make careers and travel work (it was also the later inspiration for our RV travels around the U.S.) 

That fall we headed to Chiang Mai in Thailand, which is a huge destination for digital nomads, and we started talking to people and getting advice, which was a huge help. I had started out charging something like $40 an hour, and everyone said I needed to increase my rates.

How do you market yourself and find clients?

Mainly, I focus on being on podcasts and saying “yes” to people who want to do interviews (like this one!). One of the biggest traffic drivers for me has been being on the RV entrepreneur podcast with Heath and Alyssa Padgett. I also write articles for XScapers, which is a group for full-time RVers who aren’t retired

If I hear a podcast I like that would appeal to my potential clients, I’ll reach out and see if they’d like to do an interview. I also work on my SEO. I’m usually coming up in the top 1-4 results for “digital nomad accountant,” so people can find me via search, too. 

I’m not a writer so I have my wife Lindsey handle that. She’s the COO for Nuventure CPA now. We found that I really enjoy drumming up business, but she’s better at writing and following through, so we split the work and she’s really helped the business grow.

How do you manage workflow and cash flow throughout the year?

The way we structure our lives now is to be at our base camp in Colorado Springs to hammer out tax season and make all the money we need to live on for the rest of the year. Tax season is 40-60 hour weeks, 6 days a week. Outside of tax season, I try to do 4 hours a day, 4 days a week. 

We try to figure out how we want to live and save in any given year (our fixed expenses, etc.), and then we break down EVERYTHING by day. Each month we meet and see if we’re staying on budget. If the answer is yes, we’re confident that we’re doing it right. Then we multiply the remaining days, times our dollars per day number, and we can tell if we have enough money to live on for the rest of the year. 

Since we make our money up front we really have to be strict about it. One of the biggest things we learned is that a budget is going to be moving with your various phases of life. We’re always tweaking it and changing our lifestyle. 

For example, my wife is pregnant, and we’re taking a “babymoon” to travel around Colorado for the summer. Those months will be different than life at our home base. Our gas costs will be higher, but restaurants will be lower, so that’s why the monthly check ins are super important.

How did you set your freelance accounting rates? How do you track your time to make sure work is profitable on fixed-price projects like tax returns?

In 2015, which was my first tax season, I had no idea how to charge people or who to ask. I just wound up Googling and found survey information on how much people pay for each kind of tax form. Since my clients are across the country, I felt it was reasonable to charge the average or a little above. (A lot of my clients are in cities, and places with higher incomes). I haven’t changed those prices since I made them. 

I also do hourly work in the slow season and I have adjusted those rates over the years. Like I said, at first I was charing something like $40 an hour, and now I’m up to $175, and my hourly rates are based on the averages I could find from survey data. 

Now that things are getting busier, for new clients I have a minimum charge of $500 for tax returns or projects. It’s taken awhile to get here, but I have so much growth now I don’t want my quality to suffer by not having enough time. That’s been a good filter since there’s always some unbillable/administrative time with new clients.

What do you like about freelance accounting? What are the biggest challenges?

Ultimately, “freedom” is that buzz word that floats around. But it’s true. Working alone, I get to say when I start work, and when I stop. It just gives me so much more life. Back in the day I had a lot of pressure, and that came with a lot of stress: Being at the office at a certain time, etc. I can’t imagine living like that for my whole life. 

On the flipside, not having anyone to talk to is hard. I’d love to be able to hop over and talk to a colleague about a challenge. Instead, sometimes I have to spend 10 hours researching, so that’s frustrating. That’s the biggest thing. I try not to get sucked into a “the grass is greener” mentality though!

What does a typical day look like for you?

Outside of tax season, I wake up around 7:00, have some tea during the week, or coffee not he weekends. I have the morning to myself, and I’ll read, go on a walk or a bike ride, work on our garden if we’re in Colorado Springs, or just go out and explore if we’re traveling. In the afternoon I work from 1:00 – 5:00. In the evening I try to be really diligent about closing the computer and spending time with my wife, Lindsey, or friends. 

What tools do you recommend for a freelance accounting and bookkeeping firm?

A few of my essentials are:

  • The Roost stand – I can bring this anywhere, it brings your laptop up to eye level
  • Duet app, which turns your iPad into a second monitor
  • I have a collapsible stand up desk, like this one 
  • Insightly helps me with task management and I use it as a CRM
  • A time-tracking tool like Paydirt is crucial for making sure you’re charging right, making estimates, and keeping your time on projects profitable
  • Facebook and LinkedIn groups really help solve for the isolation factor, and I use them to reach out to other CPAs for advice. I belong to a Sole Practitioner group, and an Accounting Firm Influencers group on Facebook. 
  • I consult with people to help them get started with freelance accounting and bookkeeping, and the Lifestyle Accountant website is also a great resource with all kinds of advice and articles. That dude’s done a great job! 

What advice do you have for others interested in starting a freelance accounting and bookkeeping firm?

Say yes, and always be on the lookout for opportunities for guest posting, podcasts, or anything else to get your name out there. And remind yourself that “this too shall pass.” You’ll always have ups and downs, no matter what phase of business growth you’re in. Just think about how you can problem solve whatever’s causing your issue, and learn how to press pause on any anger or stress to figure out how you can make it pass sooner. 

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