Finding the right accountant for your startup can be especially challenging if you don’t know the right questions to ask. As someone who has worked with hundreds of startups, here is a framework to use when interviewing potential accounting partners. These questions can prove invaluable as you navigate the process of hiring your inaugural startup accountant.
How well do you know startup accounting?
First, ask how well they adapt general accounting concepts and their approach specifically to startups. You want to avoid firms that take a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach for all businesses. The needs of a pre-revenue startup are very different from a Series B company with sights on an IPO. Make sure they can speak to the difference and can tailor their processes accordingly.
Next, probe into actual experience with startups at your current and next stage. Look for evidence they have hands-on experience (and success) with pre-seed, seed, series A and B stages, and (perhaps) beyond. You want assurance they can scale with your startup. There is nothing worse than having to swap out your partner once-a-year because they can’t adapt as you grow. Ask for references from startups they’ve worked with.
Finally, bring up an actual accounting or financial challenge you are currently facing at your startup. Assess their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Even if they can’t fully solve the issue on the first call, evaluate how they ask good questions and think through potential solutions. You want someone who seems motivated by these kinds of challenges.
What does onboarding entail?
Moving on from subject matter expertise, it’s time to assess how organized they are and how fast they move. Ask for a clear, detailed timeline and onboarding plan. It should outline steps for a quick, smooth transition into your business, whether they are taking work off your plate or another contractor/firm. If they can’t provide a specific framework, that’s an indication they may not have onboarding dialed in and that they are still learning on the job.
Seek opinions on software choices based on your specific budget and needs. Beware partners who immediately push overpriced, complex solutions like NetSuite when a simpler option like QuickBooks or Xero may work fine. The key is balancing power, ease of use, and cost.
Who is running my account?
Gain an understanding of their staffing model and how they handle absences or transitions. Turnover is inevitable – people go on vacation, parental leave, or even quit. You want a partner with proactive continuity planning. Ask how they prepare for and handle transitions in a way that minimizes disruption. Look for a detailed “knowledge transfer” process.
Importantly, make sure you connect with an actual accountant, finance team member, or the actual account manager that will perform your day-to-day work, not just a sales rep. You want to vet the person you’ll be interacting with regularly. Assess their knowledge, communication skills, and problem-solving abilities.
A few more suggestions when hiring a startup accountant:
- Ask how they prefer to communicate with clients. Do they rely heavily on email, phone, or services like Slack? Make sure it aligns with your preferences.
- Understand their billing model. Do they charge hourly, fixed monthly fees, or project-based fees? Request sample invoices.
- Inquire about add-on services like financial modeling, dashboards, or part-time CFO services. But don’t overbuy in the early stages.
- Ask what sets them apart. Why do clients love working with them? Listen for genuine passion and commitment.
Finding the right accounting partner is all about fit. You want someone eager to understand your startup’s specific needs, with the experience, adaptability and systems to support you through each stage of growth. Focus less on credentials, more on problem-solving skills and startup savvy. With the right questions, you can find the perfect match.
And if you are debating whether to hire an accountant or CFO, fractional or full-time, here’s a Forbes article giving some of the pros and cons of the CFO at a startup.