Building a Team of Experts

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By Mike DuBose


Many entrepreneurs believe in seeking expert assistance only when something goes wrong or blows up—then it is time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again! Small business owners frequently fail to see the value of preventive maintenance and often won’t invest money in experts to get it right the first time. But who is an expert? Webster’s dictionary defines it as “a person who has special skills or knowledge in some particular area or field.” I define an expert as one who knows more than I do!


You will need a core group of experts to start and organize your business. These experts will be needed as your business evolves for short-term projects, ongoing activities, preventing threats to the business, and when a crisis occurs. They may be used individually on some activities or as a team for others. For example, we recently gathered our insurance agent, lawyer, and accountant together to discuss our business structures, operating agreements, trusts, liabilities, threats, succession planning, and special issues as a group. Everyone was in the room at the same time to ensure that the road we were about to travel was safe!


Most fields have experts with different specializations within the industry. For example, in technology, you may have a computer networking engineer, webpage designer, computer equipment or hardware specialist, Internet expert, programmer, wiring designer, and software specialist, to name a few. Then, you could have experts within these subfields, like a software specialist who has experience in programs like Goldmine, Microsoft BCM, etc. It is rare to find one expert who knows every sector of his or her field. Beware of individuals who profess to be all-in-one experts.


Among the different experts, quality of work, experience, customer service, punctuality, organizational skills, costs, and communication skills will vary. For example, one of our consultants is friendly, very knowledgeable, produces excellent products, and is on the cutting edge in his field. However, his follow-up is terrible! We generally have to call him several times over a three-month period to check on the status of work that should have taken a few weeks. What good is excellent knowledge if you have to beg for the results and then pay top dollar?


Let’s look at the team of experts you will need for your business. You can establish an independent contractual relationship with each where you only use them “as needed” and pay a set cost for each project. Be cautious about paying someone on an hourly basis without limits on the time spent.


· Small Business Consultant: Whether this is a paid professional, another business owner, or a volunteer like those you can find through SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), you need a wise small business expert who can listen to your strategies, thoughts, and ideas and react as an unbiased person. Ideally, this should be a person who has developed a small business (it’s particularly beneficial if you can find someone who specializes in your area) from the ground up that resulted in a successful venture. As Small Business columnist Steven D. Strauss notes, “You would be hard-pressed to find better, more pertinent information than that from these small business owners who are already doing what you dream of doing.”[1] If I had my choice, I would like to have someone who has also taken a business out of business (professional terminology for an entrepreneur who has gone through business failure firsthand like I did)! Paid consultants range from $50-$100 per hour (and up).

· Attorney: The ideal choice is an attorney who is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and has a Juris Doctor or law degree (JD). This person is a lawyer and accountant all wrapped up into one. You will pay a good bit for these dual-degreed lawyers (usually $200 or more per hour), but many of these specialists know their stuff from an accounting, estate planning, and tax perspective and combine this with legal knowledge. Many small business issues like corporate structures overlap with the legal and accounting fields. I generally use this more expensive attorney for special issues like estate planning, contracts, company operating agreements, and tax-related legal advice. For property, title, promissory notes and loans, and banking legal matters, I use an inexpensive attorney who specializes in these areas. Thus, we have two lawyers with different specialties for our companies. You can find good lawyers by checking with accountants, other lawyers, and small business owners or by getting a referral from the state bar association. Be careful when selecting your lawyers. You want an attorney who specializes in small businesses and even then there are specialties within the field. You would not want a lawyer who specializes in divorce to defend you in a business lawsuit, so ask the attorney what percentage of his practice is with small businesses and find one who has the experience you need! We use Alex Weatherly, JD, CPA, with Moses, Koon, & Brackett law firm.[2]

· Certified Public Accountant: A CPA will be needed to assist you with setting up the corporate and financial structures, completing tax reports, quarterly tax payments, advising you on tax issues, developing your accounting structure, and preparing business projections. I recommend that you use an accountant to help you with bookkeeping structure early on in your business development so that revenues and expense accounting codes match his or her recommendations and software. At the end of the year, your revenues and expenses will be organized around the accountant’s system and you can e-mail him or her your bookkeeping files or send a CD with the final company data. This saves you time and, with fewer billable accountant hours, money. Look for an accountant who knows small business tax codes and IRS regulations and who can explain issues to you in a clear, understandable way. Ask your accountant what percentage of his or her business is with small businesses. Each accountant will also have varying degrees of aggressiveness in saving you money. I prefer a competent CPA who is in the middle of the road. I always tell my accountant, “I want to be a little aggressive, but honest, ethical, legal, and above all, to not go to jail!” Beware of accountants who come up with all kinds of schemes and aggressive, questionable tax shelters. In addition, beware of the IRS! Plan your accounting system and tax practices as if being audited by our friends at the IRS, since an audit is inevitable. “Make sure your receipts are organized, your cancelled checks and credit card receipts are in order, and that all logs and other records are ready,” Strauss recommends. “Having your ducks in a row builds credibility.”[3] And yes, you can do your accounting yourself by using bookkeeping software such as QuickBooks or business tax accounting software like TaxCut, TurboTax, etc. I did my own business taxes for about ten years and some of the new small business software does an excellent job in guiding you through the tax return process. But for my money, I recommend hiring an expert. We use Frank Thomas, CPA, with Kirkland, Thomas, Watson and Dyches in Columbia, S.C.[4] He can quote the IRS regulations by memory and he does a wonderful job in guiding, warning, and supporting me. He is always looking down the road at our companies’ big picture while keeping the ox out of the ditch as we move forward. Good accountants run about $100 or more per hour.

· Graphic Designer: This person can help design your logo, business cards, graphics for your webpage, advertisements, brochures, etc. As an alternative, you can use the graphic artist from the business where you have your work printed. Many entrepreneurs try to tackle this area themselves and the results look like it. You need to project a first-class image through professional graphics work since it reflects who you are as a company and the quality of work you do. You may be able to find a graphic design student (as Strauss recommends[5]) who will produce quality work for a lower rate than a professional. Graphic artists range from $50-$100 an hour.

· Marketing Consultant: Your business needs someone to guide how it invests marketing dollars in the most appropriate media outlets. This may be a marketing firm or an independent consultant. I taught myself a good bit about marketing by reviewing others’ work and by reading marketing books (you can read my chapter in this book about marketing and advertising). However, in the beginning, you need a professional to guide you. Be careful about listening to salespeople! Once you become oriented for a while with the expert and learn what works, you can assume your own marketing, as I have. Some of the media will provide free graphics work if you purchase advertisements from them. I used to develop a hard copy, make an appointment with the graphics artist through my sales rep, and then travel to the newspaper or magazine to develop the ad with the graphic artist. Now, we work with our own graphic artist contractor and send the file to the media once the work is completed. Marketing and advertising experts vary, but you should be able to secure one for $50-$100 per hour. Firms usually charge according to your budget for marketing and advertising.

· Technical Writer: A technical writer is needed to develop, refine, and structure anything that your business communicates or writes. This may include menus, curricula, articles, press releases, advertisements, policy manuals, and other important documents. Writing is a reflection of your firm and typos or bad grammar can mean the difference between obtaining a bid or customer and losing them. Ideally, you want a person who has an English or journalism degree and knows how to edit for grammar, punctuation, brevity, and flow. Thus, everything will not only read well, but the content will flow smoothly from one sentence to another and one paragraph to the next. Look for writers at your local high schools (English teachers and senior students in honors English classes), universities (English professors and English majors), and technical writer contractors. Sometimes, you may use a friend or colleague who writes really well. You must coordinate writing with your marketing person since words can have hidden psychological meanings in your advertisements and promotional materials. Everything that the public sees should be proofed by at least two people before the information is released – that’s a rule in our companies. Typos and incorrect grammar can give a bad impression to your customers. Thus, you should proof your work thoroughly, especially the last draft! Technical writers are all over the board, but you can usually obtain one for $25-$75 per hour.

· Computer Technology Consultants: There are a variety of contractors in this area, but the first professional you will need is someone to set up your Internet connection, computer equipment, and software. The complexity of your system depends upon the number of computer users you have in your operation. Sometimes, you may even use consultants like the Geek Squad at Best Buy Stores. Ideally, I want the same professional who is familiar with my computer system to come each time. We have found that generalist computer consultants (those who know a small to moderate amount about technology) are not the consultants you need to carry your firm into the future as it grows, matures, and evolves. The second specialist you will need is someone who can design your website using Dreamweaver software. The graphic artist will work with web designers to provide the graphics and artwork and the webpage designer will set up the website, register it on the Internet, and obtain a carrier to support the website. Webpage designers are expensive and vary a good bit in their pricing, but a good website can be developed for less than $5000. We have our own web design company, DuBose Web Group,[6] which is able to do most development in-house. However, be careful that you select a web designer who can develop a website that is not only attractive, colorful, and user-friendly, but is also coded properly so that search engines can find your site when key words are entered by potential customers. Once you have your website, be sure to include it in all other marketing materials, as it is a “sitting goldmine” that can provide customers with a lot more information.[7] As your company grows, you will move towards a central computer server and networked stations. At this point, you will need the skills of a computer network engineer. Be careful about using different specialists who may not communicate or work well together. Otherwise, you will have the equipment professional saying that it is a software problem, the software expert saying the problem is with the Internet host, and the Internet provider saying it is a wiring problem! Get my drift? If there is a problem with my computer system that is not being solved, I want to have one company who can combine the knowledge of different experts to solve it. I also want a system designed around my needs.

· Insurance and Fringe Benefits Provider: Your business will need a variety of insurance and fringe benefits. This includes staff-related insurance or fringe benefits (medical, prescription, life, disability, vision, dental, 401k, etc.) and company-focused coverage (liability, general coverage, fire, theft, etc.). You could end up with several different companies that specialize in different areas, but we prefer using one or two independent agents who can obtain quotes from different insurance companies versus working with five or more agents. We use an excellent company called Administaff[8], which provides a wide range of coverage for our employees, and a second agent who provides the company liability insurance and general coverage (we will talk about fringe benefits in another chapter). Going with Administaff was one of the best decisions I have ever made because it lumped my organizations, which have about 60 full-time employees, with Administaff’s 80,000 employees. Thus, I was able to obtain better benefits for our staff for about what I was paying before. The best part of the deal is that the coverage is with one company and they coordinate everything!

· Bookkeeper: I recommend that you employ an experienced small business bookkeeper who knows QuickBooks accounting software. This position could be given to a part-time staff member or a contractor. Make sure that this person works with your accountant to set up the correct accounting codes. Be very cautious when hiring a bookkeeper and make sure you set up cross checks and audits—I have heard too many horror stories where bookkeepers ran off with the business assets! You can employ a contractual bookkeeper for about $35 an hour, although we have an in-house professional for this.

· Banker: I have done a good bit of business with bankers over the years and what is very frustrating is that most bankers use the local bank branch as a stepping stone to larger jobs. Every six months, I walk into my bank and see a new branch manager who knows nothing about me. I have to start the whole process of educating him or her about my business and needs all over again. Thus, a trusting relationship is never built. Look for a bank manager at a local branch who has been there for more than five years and build a relationship with them so they know your business and you. A trusting relationship is critical when you need to borrow money, obtain better banking interest rates, or reduce fees. We use Ashley Houser with Bank Meridian in Columbia, S.C.[9] and have followed him regardless of which bank he is with. The best part about Ashley is that he does not charge me anything other than the blood he draws before the loan!

· Human Resource Professional: In today’s complex world that is filled with people who will sue you at the drop of a hat, you want to have access to a very competent human resource (HR) professional to help you design policies and procedures that comply with the hundreds of employment laws on the books. There have been many laws passed to protect employees. I have gone to court and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) over complaints that consumed hundreds of hours. Between discrimination and sexual harassment complaints, you can find yourself and your company faced with hefty fines or being forced to re-hire an incompetent employee that you terminated. It’s best to set up your human resource system the right way from the beginning. We use Diane Eckweiler of Administaff (a great professional) and have worked with JoAnn Moss of Human Resource Dynamics,[10] another great HR consultant. And the neat thing is that Diana’s excellent services are part of the Administaff package.


This is the team of experts I suggest assembling before you take your company to the next level. These professionals will provide invaluable expertise as you organize your company. Of course, there are other experts that you will consult from time to time, but these will be the key professionals you will need.


Finding the Experts


We recommend that you use competent, experienced professionals who charge reasonable prices. The general rule is that the larger and more prestigious firm you go with, the more you will pay. However, you usually get what you pay for. Over the last 15 years, I have had three different sprinkler systems installed at my home. I got a good deal on the first two systems. These “blue light specials” were installed by workers who did not specialize in installing sprinkler systems but did it on the side. I got a deal on them, but neither worked! The third company was higher-priced, but they got the job done in a quality way, and the third system actually works. Had I used competent specialists in the beginning, I would have saved a lot of money, headaches, and stress down the road. However, the better the consultant, the more business they will have—and according to the laws of supply and demand, the higher the costs will be to you.


To identify competent professionals, ask other business owners, managers, friends, and colleagues which experts they use, how much they charge, how to work with them, and if they have had any problems. Of course, another option is to look in the Yellow Pages, but you really don’t know what you are getting without feedback from people who have used the services advertised. At my businesses, we got so frustrated with the varying quality levels of the contractors we employ that we developed a Quality Vendors Guide of good contractors and posted it on our website.[11] A third option is to advertise the positions in the “professional” section of your local newspaper’s classified ads. However, classified advertising costs have skyrocketed in price and you can easily drop $500-$1,000 on one ad. Another (less expensive) option is to advertise through employment sites such as and for about $250. We have also found that colleges and universities sometimes offer free advertising through specialty schools (i.e., the school of computer technology may know of a good computer consultant looking for work). Check references thoroughly as if you were examining a new full-time employee and go beyond what the contractors provide to you since they will only refer you to their most positive customers.


Negotiating with Contractors


I recommend that you interview at least two contractors when you are in the market for a consultant, selecting the most qualified. Check references thoroughly! Clearly define your expectations or deliverables in detail, negotiate a set price for the service instead of paying an hourly rate, and always have something in writing that spells out the details of your agreement (we will further discuss both of these points in our chapter on negotiations).


Working with Experts


My general rule is that I clearly state what my expectations and deliverables are up front in writing. I also try to do some of the legwork so that my lawyer is not charging $200 an hour for mundane work my staff or I could perform. For example, I will begin to develop a contract based upon my past experience and research I have conducted on the Internet (the stuff you can find there is amazing—like contract models that would have cost me thousands)! I have a technical writer tighten up the contract as much as possible before giving it to the lawyer so he or she has something to work with instead of creating something from scratch that results in a big bill. Instead of having my lawyer set up a Limited Liability Company (LLC) for me, I would go on-line, download the forms from the Secretary of State’s website, and then deliver the completed forms to the Secretary of State’s office. Then, I would have the attorney develop my operating agreement from a good draft I had prepared in advance.


Many of these experts are very busy and you are usually one of many clients. It is your responsibility to keep your work on target and to monitor consultants’ progress. Otherwise, the squeaky wheel may get greased, and that is usually the one who hollers the loudest! Your project could easily be placed on the back burner while more profitable or difficult clients get most of the consultant’s attention.


While I am all about saving money, “it takes money to make money” in the small business world. It is better to build the right structure up front with the right experts than try to reassemble Humpty Dumpty once a crisis has already occurred. This way, you will not have to say (with regret) at some point down the road, “I wish I had done that!”


Suggested Reading:


The Small Business Bible by Steven D. Strauss


What No One Ever Tells You About Starting Your Own Business by Jan Norman


Steven D. Strauss, The Small Business Bible(Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005) 11.

Strauss 173.

Strauss 91.

Strauss 199.