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Josh Zweig - The Globetrotter

Sure, working remotely from anywhere in the world sounds like a dream. But CPA Josh Zweig is showing how an out-of-office lifestyle isn’t just about sending emails from a beach. You can still elevate expectations — even in the online world.

All Josh Zweig wanted to do was work remotely.

“I had lived for a time in Tel Aviv, and I really liked the city and I wanted to go back,” the now 34-year-old CPA recalls of his early days in the accounting profession.

At the time, he worked for a firm in Toronto and found the majority of his interactions with clients were done over phone and email. “So I said to my boss, ‘Look, is there any way I can do this remotely from Tel Aviv? I’ll come in a few times a year when I have to, and it will be on my dime.’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not. You have to be in the office.’”

The catalytic conversation sparked something new in Zweig. Up until then, the path he visualized didn’t include becoming an entrepreneur. But if being in-office was mandatory, he’d need to make a change on his own. “It wasn’t any sort of breakthrough,” he says. “It was: I’m going to do the same thing, but in my own way.”

Along with his co-founder, Chad Davis, Zweig set out to launch his own firm, one free from the brick-and-mortar restraints of traditional accounting practices. The result is the virtual accounting firm LiveCA, and for the past five years Zweig and his team have redefined not only how businesses interact with their accountants, but what accountants can bring to their clients. Today, LiveCA’s team of over 50 employees all live and work across Canada, using online channels to provide their more than 500 clients with standard accounting services as well as act as advisors that help implement and utilize stat-of-the-art business-process technologies.

“You have to stay driven, you have to stay focused in order to support a fast moving vehicle”

Without the need to put down permanent roots, Zweig has found the globetrotting freedom he craved. For two years he lived in Colombia and now calls Buenos Aires home. But it isn’t just about scratching a country off a bucket list. “The places where I’ve made my temporary home, they’ve allowed me to not just check a place off, but to really get to know a culture, develop friends, learn new skills, like speak Spanish or dance salsa or flamenco guitar,” he says. “Some of those things I would have never had learned had I been static in one place.”

And even though he’s living that envy-inducing dream, Zweig refuses to take his foot off the gas. “You have to stay driven, you have to stay focused in order to support a fast moving vehicle,” he says. “Yes, we want to make money. Yes, we want to have a sustainable company. But ultimately we want to create a company where others can have the same opportunities as us.”

Zweig recently joined the advisory panel of CPA Ontario’s inaugural Community of Interest, Emerging Leaders, and as he helps steer this new community, we decided to catch up with him to find out more about his innovative, office-less concept.

Josh Zweig on...

On going beyond the sexiness of working remotely
“A lot of people focus on the remote aspect, because that’s the sexy part, that we can be anywhere in the world. I’ve been doing work on a bus in the desert somewhere in Israel and in Sweden north of the Arctic Circle. But that’s not the part that helps our customers. Yes, our core function is accounting — taxes and notice to readers and the things that the average CPA would do. But the added value is the focus on technology and process. If you’re a business and you want to set up an online store and have a dashboard where you can see sales and automate payroll, things of that nature, there is this huge gap in the market for guidance on how to do that. A web developer is going to say, ‘I don’t know, ask your accountant.’ And your accountant is going to say, ‘I don’t know, I just do taxes.’ That’s the gap that we fill — understanding the technology and how to apply it for our customers.”

On building trust in an online world
“How do you develop trust in an online world? That was the initial challenge. At the beginning, I reached out to online tutoring companies. I saw tutoring as a parallel industry to accounting because they’re both done traditionally face to face. I mean, how is a parent going to trust someone their eight-year-old is meeting online? A CEO of a large online tutoring company was willing to talk to me, and what he said was, ‘You have to find that which drives value in a different way.’ And that stuck with me. He used this example of a promotion they did during a major standard exam. That exam time is the busiest time for tutors, so maybe parents could only get their regular tutor once a week. The promotion allowed parents to get instant access to a tutor online for as much as they wanted. In the online world there was this added benefit of convenience and access. So yes, with LiveCA, you don’t have to drive to your accountant, and that’s cool. But the point is that you can’t get this at a traditional firm. You can’t access you accountant at any time, you can’t get advice about the systems and the technology. And for us, that’s why people come.”

On the power of the CPA brand
“The CPA brand is so core to what we do. Those three letters were what created legitimacy in the beginning. Having the CPA behind us was the thing that said you can trust these guys, they’re a CPA firm. I think that giving people that comfort was integral when we started up, and I think it continues to be integral with the customers we’re working with today.”

 

 

On striking a balance between work and home life
“People think that one of the challenges in an online environment is: How do you know people are working? Well, a lot of the research points to the reverse, which is when you don’t have a boundary between work and home life, it’s easy to work all the time. So I think it’s important, as a leader, to show people how to create those boundaries, to show that it’s possible to live in different countries or pick up and take a work-cation and be able to both work and enjoy the environment you’re in. And on the flip side: understanding when to work hard. Don’t get me wrong, we still work hard. But it’s on our own terms. You do have to be diligent and structured in your approach to work. So I think being a leader involves finding balance between those two extremes and making that an example for others.”

On creating an environment that cultivates dynamic people
"Part of what we’re trying to do is create an environment where people look at work not as something done from nine to five and then you do the rest of your life, but that it’s intertwined with the rest of your life. Work becomes fulfilling, something you’re proud of, something that is part of your personality. Working remotely helps serve that. If you want to learn this other skill, like another language, you can. That helps you become more dynamic as a person and, I think, a lot better at what you do."

On building something that lasts and inspires
“In the start-up and tech world, there’s a lot of this pump-and-dump concept. You start a company, you make sure that it’s running and working, and then you sell it and exit. Once you celebrate the exit you go somewhere else, and you’re called a serial entrepreneur. That might be great for some people, but what I think is important, and what I think is fulfilling, is to create something sustainable. I want LiveCA to be a model that other people can look at and go, ‘Wow, I would love to work for that company,’ not just because LiveCA’s so great, but because it creates this alternative to work and, perhaps, inspires other companies to do the same.”