For a complete list of this year's SBC 50 businesses, see 'The SBC 50,' December 2001 SBC.
Carolyn Sechler Associates
Location: Phoenix, Ariz.
Principal: Carolyn Sechler
Business: Accounting firm
Tech: Uses instant messaging, chat rooms, and other telecommuting technology to maintain a 'virtual' company.
Seven years ago, Carolyn Sechler's accounting firm was targeted for acquisition. She was one of the partners and co-founders but decided she wouldn't stick with the company once it was sold. About the same time, she wrote an article for an accounting journal explaining why, as she puts it, 'I didn't think there was a need for bricks and mortar in accounting.' By now, most would admit Sechler has proved her point.
Sechler decided to start her own company, which now has 4 full-time staff members and 10 part-time contractors, and together they serve about 300 clients. All her employees work from their homes; some in Arizona, but others in places as far off as Alabama, North Carolina, Hawaii, and Victoria, Canada. They work the hours that suit their lifestyle best, and Sechler doesn't ask questions as long as they get their work done.
Established tech companies and start-ups have recently begun trumpeting expensive 'online collaboration' tools, but Sechler and her staff collaborate through technology that's essentially free - and they've been doing so for years. Most correspondence occurs via e-mail, through a Yahoo group, or via the instant-messaging system called ICQ. 'It's a wonderful tool,' she says. 'It's our water cooler. We're chatting throughout the day.'
Sechler simply won't consider hiring someone who isn't savvy enough to work her way. 'It's a lifestyle choice,' she says. 'I've attracted people who think the same way I do.' She feels the same about clients. 'We have a profile of a client who's appropriate for us,' she says. 'We teach the clients, You may call and I may not be here. It doesn't mean I don't love you.'' Her team regularly discuss problem clients, and she has no qualms about shifting responsibility for an account or 'firing' clients altogether.
In recent years, she says, clients have become more understanding. Some have even sought advice about how to create telework programs of their own. Sechler warns them that if they want to work in new ways, they need to learn to manage in new ways as well. When she first tried out her plan, she had her assistant drive to her house every day. 'I had this idea that I shouldn't be answering the phones,' she says. 'Then I thought, That's stupid!' Is the world going to end if someone doesn't answer the phone and say, She's not here right now'?'
She still believes business owners should constantly be challenging their own presumptions and expectations. 'Be willing to reexamine the rules constantly,' she says. 'On a continuing basis, ask yourself: does this still make sense?'