Brandon Houk – 2014 40 Under 40 Honoree
Sep. 08, 2014
Brandon Houk, CPA (inactive) – 30
Director of Accountant Programs
What are the key areas of your firm that have seen the greatest change/challenge in workflow over the past few years? (Or, what are the key challenges you see firms facing?)
Avalara strives on an ongoing basis to determine how best to grow quickly and intelligently. We offer products and services which businesses find attractive and necessary – the great opportunity now is to chart a course that most effectively and efficiently scales across businesses and industries of all sizes and types, and continue to develop the right strategies to accomplish this goal.
To what extent have you and your practice/company embraced cloud computing?
Avalara is a software company and all our solutions are cloud-based. We have created a solution to accommodate the sales tax complexity of Fortune 500 companies but the very same solution is delivered to the tiniest brick and mortar storefront. The cloud enables us to manage all of this sophistication for everyone and to deliver our software so easily that our pricing scales merely by how much of our service is consumed by the business. In other words, our clients pay according to how many tax decisions we make, how many returns we file, how many exemption certificates we manage.
In what ways have you contributed to your firm/company to make it a better place?
I think most positive results begin with a positive attitude and I take pride in bringing up the people around me on a daily basis. If I can ensure a strong community around me we all will take more pride in getting things done together which is more fun and more efficient. The value of a culture rooted in positive attitude goes beyond the value of the strategic programs I’m developing, even though that is important also.
Strategically, my role is to develop the programs for engaging and building partnerships with the accounting profession as a whole. Sales tax compliance is inherently an accounting process and only through collaboration and cooperation with accountants will we be able to simplify sales tax for everyone. The opportunity is to continue developing programs that add demonstrable value for every practice and every business.
In what ways do you participate in either the professional community or your local community to help others?
Avalara is a huge part of the community on Bainbridge Island – it’s an important part of our company culture to be involved in local events like blood drives, and other causes that are near and dear to us. Recently we had 100 people participate en masse in the ALS ice bucket challenge as a company. I’m also fortunate to belong to a strong neighborhood community in Seattle for which I acted as a deputy treasurer during last year’s budget season.
What major changes do you foresee in the accounting profession of the near future (3-5 years)?
Technology is a disruptor to every industry, but I really think cloud accounting solutions are shifting how accountants can engage with clients in a profound way. There has been a lot of talk about the end of data entry and clerical work which might be directionally true as accountants have to focus their value around value creation rather than process completion.
The other major change is simply the demographic change within the profession. Of course, the turnover of baby boomers will be replaced by technology-adopting accountants from Gen Y. All this leads toward accountants becoming more focused value-creators and allowing technology to take care of the remedial compliance and other processes.
How do you see yourself participating in shaping the future of the accounting profession?
Avalara has a chance to fundamentally change the way every accountant performs sales tax compliance, and I am at the helm of the strategy for how we do so. Like all technologies we are disrupting the status quo, but in our case we have a unique position to determine exactly how. We believe accountants are the most significant partner channel for enabling us to scale, and we believe that only by providing value to accountants will we be successful in gaining partnership.
I continually strive to understand the engagement model between accountant and client across the spectrum of the profession, because I believe the answer is to do our best to provide an accountant every option so they can make the decision as to how and when Avalara is involved. We are asking ourselves the same questions that Paychex, Intuit and others asked when they realized they are a part of the accounting profession and had to define an engagement model that included accountants. The difference between then and now is that we are a SaaS company and have the flexibility to consider how a cloud technology changes the rules of engagement as well.
What is your career philosophy?
Guiding my effort and direction in my career is the balance of personal development, intellectual challenge and belief in an altruistic benefit of my role and my company’s value to the accounting, tax and business communities. I believe that if we can help businesses better manage their compliance processes then they will provide better service and be more successful – which is good for economies and communities in general. Simultaneously, state and local governments may receive their revenues more efficiently which allows them to put resources to use more efficiently and provide better services for their residents.
Not including your current employer, what company do you most admire and why?
Boeing Commercial Airlines comes to mind first. I was a cost accounting intern for a year working near the factories where they build the 737 in Renton, Washington. The internship itself was such an amazing experience because I was encouraged to take tours of their facilities and visit with so many interesting people throughout the company. I developed a great appreciation for everyone I worked with. There is a huge sense of pride everyone takes in creating a marvel of human engineering like a commercial aircraft, but I also bought into the idea that people across the world share far more similarity than difference and being face to face with one another is what helps us realize this bond.
Describe one person who has been an important mentor to you and how that person helped change your life.
About 3 months after I started my career as a staff accountant at Washington Mutual Bank we hired a new controller whose name was Glen Dawes. In those same 3 months, I found myself on a team in which there had been 100% turnover and I was suddenly trying to figure out how to do everything as we struggled to staff up. Glen taught me how simple the professional world actually is: that if we are working for the same company we are all trying to make the company successful – and how to get buy-in from those around you to achieve corporate goals.
Glen was a sort of gun-slinging controller who did a tremendous job improving process and mitigating risk. He did this by challenging the status quo and asking “is this in the best interest of our company and shareholders?” Glen was instrumental in shaping my perspective regarding my role within an organization, and I still follow that example today.
Read more about this year’s 40 Under 40 Honorees.