In Conversation with Jennifer Brazer of Complete Controller

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Describe your business in a few words?

Complete Controller provides cloud-based bookkeeping services, record keeping, and performance reporting to small business owners, busy households, and trusts. We give our customers and their CPAs access to our platform where their QuickBooks, chosen payroll processor, integrated apps, financial documents and business services are all hosted securely for total transparency. Then we give them a mobile app filled with tools for real-time action and interaction with their finances. And finally we provide an expert accounting team to handle all of their needs, on time, and on budget.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

I was working as a consultant in an hours-for-dollars capacity and I wanted to break free from that limited model where my hours were my inventory and I could only charge as much as the market would bear. I had to come up with a way to deliver my services virtually, so I didn’t have to do the work myself, and using a value-based subscription model to ensure I would always get paid. With three teenagers at home and me barely making ends meet, what did I have to lose! So I took the leap.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

I had worked from the age of 13. Had my first baby girl at 19 and went to night school for years. No ivy league advanced education here! But I always had the entrepreneurial bug and had fun starting little businesses on the side. At one point I was selling vodka infusion kits – the parties we had – you can imagine. I also had a business plan writing company during the dot-com bubble of the late 90s and that taught me a lot about new and innovative structures for business. It was that experience that showed me how to break free of traditional model rigidity and build something unique, just the way I wanted it to be.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Oh yes, it was second nature for me to enjoy something and want to bring it to others, or see a need and want to find a way to fill it. The company that owns Complete Controller, Make Meaning Corporation, started out producing T-shirts for my daughter’s high school Make-A-Wish club to sell as fundraisers. I never do anything halfway and once I saw what a great success it was, I couldn’t stop at that one shirt design, I went on to secure permission to promote several non-profit organizations in our ‘What did your shirt do?’ campaign. The plan was to market them to high school clubs as a proven fundraiser idea…but the bills were piling up and I had mouths to feed.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

At first I targeted my current customers to convert from the hours-for-dollars model to the Complete Controller one. Then I focused on my local community. Back in 2007 when I launched, working virtually really wasn’t a ‘thing’ so it was a hard sell. I had a website with a video and some info, but it became clear early on that it was going to be a grind. Then I found my golden ticket. I realized that my customer’s CPAs and other expert professional team members could be my worst critics or my strongest advocates. I had experienced both and preferred the latter. So I went about aligning myself with those CPA/Experts and teaching them all about what we do. In doing this, I became an extension of them and with their referral, our service was an easy sell. Sometimes marketing is like throwing noodles at the wall. You have to throw lots of noodles and watch them fall to the floor before you find one that sticks. Once you find that noodle, duplicate it all day every day!

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

My biggest mistake was thinking that just because someone had pedigree – letters after their name – that they would be able to lead. Somehow I had in my mind that valuable knowledge and leadership skills went hand in hand. If you know a lot, you can lead a team by teaching them a lot, so they can know a lot too, right? Uh, NO. My mistake created a barrier between me and my accounting team that crippled our ability to innovate and grow. Here I was, the visionary, wanting to do exciting things with the company – and my team wanted the same. But the person I had chosen to lead did not share my passion or my vision and she began to erode team morale to the point where I almost had a mutiny on my hands! Today I have someone leading the team who has worked at every level of the accounting track in our company, she is knowledgeable but not in a ‘preaching from the pulpit’ sort of way – she’s more of a ‘get in the trenches’ person. The team trusts her, they enjoy her leadership, and they are flourishing!

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

I would have to say that my new book, From Cubicle to Cloud, is one of my proudest business accomplishments. It is my way of giving back to the entrepreneurial community after so many years of leaning on it. I guess that’s what we do – support each other by sharing experience and knowledge.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

Long ago I stopped hiring for the accounting team, mainly because I’m a bit of a push over and because we have created a process for hiring that is based on skills testing and communication, rather than my gut. As for executive staff, I like to have them take the Clifton Strengths Finder test. The premise is that it is more beneficial to recognize and build on a team’s strengths than it is to point out and correct their weaknesses. The test determines what core strengths a person has and allows managers to hire based on the strengths they value and desire on their team. I highly recommend it.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

It has been heartbreaking to work hand in hand with small businesses during COVID. So many of them have been customers for years and we have watched them put their hopes, dreams, and life-savings into their businesses, only to see them permanently close their doors in 2020. One silver lining on the grey cloud was our accountants’ gratitude that we had a virtual business and they did not need to wonder if their job would succumb to the impact of office closures. For us it was business as usual, and hearing them express the sense of security that brought them and their families was priceless.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

We demand that our vendors are nimble innovators and we intend to be the same. While we were in the cloud long before it became popular, we are now looking to the next frontier in service platforms, the smart phone. Our goal is to provide our platform within a fully web based solution with the same security and authentication our customers currently enjoy on our cloud, but less restriction and more friendly for the on-the-go entrepreneur, which is (let’s face it) all of us, isn’t it?

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

This too shall pass. Didn’t 2020 feel like a year of waiting? It was nice to have the scheduled cleared of travel and focus on projects that needed attention. Meanwhile, by the end of the year it started to feel a bit stagnant and ready to be over. Behind the scenes, I believe many entrepreneurs broke the mold in 2020. They started new ventures that were more nimble, more virtual, less traditional, and innovation will be good for the business landscape in the long run. We needed something to get us off the line with an (albeit forced) embrace of technology which is only going to be more and more prominent in our business and household lives. We need to be familiar with technology, leverage the tools, and educate ourselves about the risks. If we were only thinking about virtualizing before 2020, we are definitely on the path now…and so are the kids. Imagine how they will leapfrog us in 10 years. This is the beginning of a new chapter in business and education.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

You will learn as much (if not more) from your failures as you will from your successes. Especially if you are doing something that other people aren’t doing – you will need to accept that failure is necessary to teach you what won’t work, where the gaps are, or why you missed out. Every time I have been put on the spot, had to learn something on the fly because I didn’t know, or just got chewed out for some mistake; on the other side was something I was able to accomplish or improve because of that experience. Business is all about turning burdens into blessings. So, when you are going through it, just know that it is making you stronger, wiser, and more lethal as a businesswoman. Don’t shy away or get discouraged – learn something.

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

I’m an introvert, so it hasn’t been as tough on me as it has for people who need people to energize them. Having dogs and a spouse has been a lifesaver. I can’t wait to get back to game night with friends, coffee dates and lunches with colleagues, playing in the river in the summertime. Thankfully, I had to dedicate some chunks of time to editing, reading my audiobook, and playing with ideas for marketing. Otherwise I might have taken up knitting, Legos, or video games…and with my obsessive personality, that could have been bad for everyone.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

Our entire business model is built around work/life balance. In this 24/7 world, you have to have balance and boundaries, especially when working virtually. One of the ways we teach our accountants to manage the customer relationship without sacrificing balance, is quick communication to build trust. The more often you can get back to someone quickly, even if you don’t yet have the answer they need, and let them know what to expect, you will build trust. Every hour that passes with a request unanswered erodes trust. All it takes to keep that strong trust bond is to set the boundary by letting them know when they can expect you to have their answer. They will feel special that you replied even when away, and you will have the space you need to do the things you planned. It also helps to cross-train so another member of your team can pick up the ball on those occasions when time is of the essence, and you don’t have any.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

When I started this business I put my entire savings into it and by the time I was two years in I had about $40k in personal debt. It took me a minute to find my stride and acknowledge the things I wasn’t good at, so I could fill those gaps with people who were good at them. Everyone’s journey is different and when you read people’s stories of success, don’t forget that most of them have chapters that are filled with blood, sweat and tears. Plenty of tears. Don’t let that s*^#t stop you!

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Take some time without your phone first thing. Coffee, dogs, and sunshine are great replacements for me, you pick yours.
  • Remember that desperation breeds ingenuity. Don’t be afraid of a challenge, it might be the springboard you need to take your vision to the next level.
  • Listen to your inner knowing. When you are wondering what path to take, what decision to make, stop and listen. If you can’t hear anything, wait.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

It means giving back, mentorship, empowerment. It means if I can do it you can too, even better. It means relying on others’ experience to build something uniquely yours. It means you are not alone.

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