Caleb writes his way to better professional relationships
While Caleb Newquist no longer works in accounting, he is very busy being around it all the time. He’s the Founding Editor of Going Concern, easily the most talked about website about he accounting profession. Caleb is also the head of content for Accountingfly and the Founder of Yarn, a creative firm that serves the accounting profession.
I talk with Caleb about how his hobby became his passion, then his work, and now his job. And the friendships he’s developed since working from home have all stemmed from him talking about this.
Caleb graduated from a BBA at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and later a master’s in accounting from Colorado State University. He worked public accounting for 6 years before starting Going Concern.
Other pictures of Caleb
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John: Welcome to Episode 15 of the Green Apple Podcast. It’s not often that I run across an accountant who’s also good with words but that’s exactly what my guest, Caleb Newquist, is known for. But before we get into that let me just say thank you so much to everyone who’s taken my research survey. If you haven’t, it’s super short. So please just take 60 seconds. Go to GreenApplePodcast.com, hit the big green button and you’re on your way. You’ll be done before you know it.
Okay, now onto Caleb Newquist. He’s the Founding Editor of Going Concern, Head of Content for AccountingFly and the Founder of Yarn, a creative firm that serves the accounting profession. He writes blogs, edits, produces but mostly he reads a lot. And prior to all that, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly six years after earning a BBA at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and later a Master’s in Accounting from Colorado State University. He now lives in Denver with his wife and two cats. And now he’s here with me today. So thank you, Caleb, for being on the Green Apple Podcast.
Caleb: Yeah, no problem. Happy to be here.
John: That’s what everybody says.
Caleb: Yeah, okay. So you know what, John. You’re really messing up my afternoon, man. It’s totally torpedoing my day.
John: Finally. All right. This is just like when I worked in accounting. This is perfect. It’s like I’m auditing you. That’s exactly what’s happening now.
Caleb: I love a good audit.
John: Right, right. So why don’t we catch up? I gave a little bit of an introduction. Obviously your background in public accounting lends itself perfectly to all of that.
Caleb: It’s been over six years that Going Concern’s been on the web —
John: That’s impressive.
Caleb: — which is longer than my entire accounting career now.
John: I’ve been doing speaking for over ten years. May of ’05 was ten years. And that was longer than doing accounting. And that’s a weird thing when that teeter totter tips. Now it’s no longer an experiment. This is my real job now.
Caleb: What’s weird is I still have people that have known me for years, over a decade or more, I still get calls every once in a while from people who want me to help them with their taxes. You know I haven’t been an accountant for a better part of this decade, right?
John: Even when I was accountant, do not call me for tax advice. I mean comedians all the time. And I’m like, “Were you paid in cash? Then it didn’t happen. Leave me alone.”
Caleb: It’s just so weird.
John: Yeah, it’s hilarious. A lot of times what I actually say when people ask me tax questions, I say, “Well, what do you think it is?” And then they’re like, “Well, I don’t know.” “Well, then neither do I.”
Caleb: Would you like your tax return done poorly or imperfectly? Because that I could do.
John: Right. Full disclosure. I got a D+ in tax. So it’s like, “Now ask me the question.” That’s funny. That’s really funny. So I guess something that I really like to ask everybody about is — because you seem similar to me where people are like, “Oh, you don’t seem like the typical accountant.”
Caleb: That’s right.
John: So how did you even get into accounting?
Caleb: It’s going to sound weird but I really loved accounting when I was in high school. I first got exposed to it in high school in my junior high school. My teacher’s name was Mr. Trampy. He was also the wrestling coach and the track coach. There’s no way in hell that he’s listening to this but he really did set me on the path towards going into accounting.
John: He made it look so easy.
Caleb: Yeah, right. And plus I sucked at math. I got into calculus my senior year and I was abhorrent at calculus. And so I was good enough at accounting that I figured, “Well, I like numbers enough that I can do accounting but I don’t like them so much that I would do a bunch of math.”
John: I can do an integral or think graphic.
Caleb: Yeah, right. Yeah, fractions weren’t so bad, long division was fine. But calculus? Oh, God. No way. I went into my undergrad studies firmly convinced that I was going to be an accountant, and I made that happen. Same with going to graduate school. I went to graduate school here in Colorado up in Fort Collins at Colorado State, got my Master’s, got my CPA. Everything I set out to do in the accounting field I managed to do more or less within my goals. But then yeah, it was about a six-year career which is longer than most people, I think.
John: Right, that is true.
Caleb: I think most people bail the industry after two or three years. It was nearly six years altogether that I was a CPA.
John: Yeah, all as an associate. No. I’m just kidding.
Caleb: Yes, I was passed over numerous times for, and for whatever reason, they kept me on board.
John: Right. That’s so great. So was all six years with the same firm?
Caleb: No. I actually started my career with a small firm here in the Denver area. It was an interesting firm. When I think about that small firm that I started with, they really had a nice niche practice even back then. All the rage now you see at every conference, every blog or publication that covers the industry says, “Oh, you need a niche, you need a niche, you need a niche.” These guys had a niche 20 years ago.
And it was a small firm so I got to do tax returns and I got to go on audits. All of my friends from grad school got into big firms. I had total FOMO. I had severe Big Four FOMO. I chased down an opportunity with KPMG after a couple years at this small firm and then I was at KPMG for about three and a half years. Half of that was in the Denver office and about half of that was in the New York office.
John: Oh, okay. Nice. Very cool, very cool. Enough of the accounting talk, right?
John: So obviously you’re very busy with juggling three things at once. But when you were in the accounting world what was it that was your hobby or passion, what you couldn’t wait to do when you had time off or what have you?
Caleb: I would say writing is probably the hobby that I would — I guess that what I’m going to talk about. Eventually it became blogging which I guess is different than just pure writing. I remember being at that small firm and asking one of the senior managers or the guy that had been around a long time, I had asked him about writing for professional journals and things like that. He just seemed like the kind of guy that would maybe be interested in that stuff. I was like a first year or second year associate. I just didn’t know anything. He was good about maybe expressing a little bit of interest but then nothing ever came of it.
Now that I think about it, it probably came out of just a reading hobby. I’ve always been a reader since I was even a little kid. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand, right? So even after going to KPMG after the gig at the small firm I found that writing documentation was the memorandum — so we’re writing memorandums about complex stuff. It’s the thing I enjoyed most about my job.
John: Oh, that’s interesting.
Caleb: You get an interesting or complex accounting topic. And your job as an auditor is to document your understanding and what you did to test these things and yada-yada-yada. So I actually really enjoyed that stuff. Early on in my career at KPMG I was looking into ways to get into accounting in the advisory practice. They had some kind of analytical, really rules, bookie kind of advisory group that I really wanted to get into. That never happened. Dead end. Not even close.
What ended happening was when I was in New York — I was in a coffee shop. I was living in Brooklyn at the time. And I came across this coffee shop and I came across this little flyer for a writing group in Brooklyn. I was living in kind of the Kensington area, Flatbush area. This group just met in Park Slope. So it was a short ride on the train.
So I was going to that writing group for a while. That inspired me to start a couple of blogs because all my family’s from the Midwest so the blogs are an easy way for them to keep up with me while I was living out East. One blog was primarily just that stuff, just writing about my experiences living in New York.
John: Have you been mugged yet? What’s going on?
Caleb: Right. Everybody wanted to know what the adventures are like. And I’m just like, “Well, right now I’m taking all my laundry to a Chinese Laundromat. And I don’t know how they get 50 pounds of clothes into that one small bag but they do it and it’s amazing.”
John: Trust me, it’s an adventure, it’s an adventure.
Caleb: It’s an adventure to live in New York City. That is your average adventure living —
John: My subway train was delayed for ten minutes because someone was sick on the train in front of it. I don’t know what’s going on. People were booing a sick person. I don’t know. Welcome to New York.
Caleb: That’s right, that’s right. So what ended up happening was the summer of — it was probably the summer of ’08 — I was having a rough time at KPMG. My life at KPMG was not going so well. My girlfriend at the time suggested that I start writing about it, start blogging about it as an outlet to maybe just deal with some of the frustration I was having.
John: Just mix up the letters of the firm so it’s a different one.
Caleb: Right. Back then I wasn’t writing about the firm itself. I was just writing about life within the firm. When you work in a big office like that there’s just lots of people around that you don’t know after, you’re encountering each other in all these weird places like the kitchen or the hallway or elevator or just anywhere. You don’t know each others so you don’t speak to each other. And it’s just strange.
John: It’s super awkward because then you seem them like 15 minutes later and it’s like —
Caleb: Yeah, it’s so incredibly awkward. That bugged me all the time. I would write about things like that. So that was the beginning of my irreverent take on corporate life. And so I did that a lot. I started blogging almost every day. Back then the financial crisis starting. That was the year that Eliot Spitzer had to resign as governor. Oh, my gosh.
John: Oh, wow. That’s exciting.
Caleb: As far as news in New York City at the time, it was an incredible time to be there. I was using GoogleReader and I was putting all these links to sites that I followed and I was doing all this reading and I would write and react to things. It was fun. It was great. I loved it. It became so fun and I loved it so much that I just started doing it every day. I was spending billable hours reading and blogging at the office.
I shared my blog with a few coworkers aside from my family. I shared it with a few coworkers but it wasn’t like I was this super widely read blog. I started on Google’s Blogger. I’d put a blogroll. Blogroll is one of those artifacts of the mid 2000s. I come across a blogroll every once in a while. It was very basic. And like I said, I was doing it for fun because I love reading stuff and I love writing about it in my own way, taking stylistic cues from sites like Dealbreaker and Daily Intel and some of the stuff I was reading at the time.
John: Nice. So what would you say might be one of the coolest things that you’ve gotten to do or most rewarding things I guess?
Caleb: I think just the creation of a community on the web that is just for this profession. It’s a phenomenon in a way, right? I say that with all the seriousness that I can muster. I don’t take myself that seriously but when I meet accountants and they talk about how much they like Going Concern and how well-regarded it is or how well-known it is or whatever it is they have to say about it, the fact that that’s even a thing that people know and discuss, that is mind-blowing to me.
John: Absolutely, absolutely.
Caleb: I have a story that I think you’ll like. My wife’s and I went to a wedding last fall before we were married. It was close friends of hers. So we’re at the rehearsal dinner. The family was from her high school days. And so there are a lot of her friends from high school in Northwestern Pennsylvania there. And there’s a young guy who works at EY. He was a little but younger than her but she knew him. She bumped into him and were talking, whatever.
And she said, “What do you these days?” And he’s like, “Oh, I work for an accounting firm.” And she’s like, “Who do you work for? Anyone I would’ve heard of?” And he’s like, “Well, I work for this firm down in Florida now but back in the day I worked at EY.” And she said, “Oh, have you ever heard of a site called Going Concern?” And he’s like, “Yeah, of course. Everybody knows Going Concern.” And she says, “My boyfriend over there, Caleb, he’s the guy who created that.” He’s like, “That’s Caleb of Going Concern?” She brought him over. I don’t even know how to describe it.
John: You’re signing autographs all of a sudden.
Caleb: Maybe not autographs necessarily.
John: I know the feeling. It’s a weird thing.
Caleb: I can’t even think of a good way to articulate it. But it was someone really unapproachable. Think of your biggest celebrity crush, whoever that might be. And somebody’s like, “Hey, would you like to meet so and so?” you’ll be like, “I don’t know. Yes.”
John: “I didn’t even know this was an option.”
Caleb: “What? I’m going to meet this person? This is really getting all of a sudden.”
John: “The Caleb Newquist?”
Caleb: Right. And I’ve had people say those things to me. It’s a really surreal thing.
John: That is very surreal.
Caleb: I don’t really revel in it. I don’t have this Trump-esque ego where he’s just like, “I am the best. I am the best. I did this thing. I am the best. I am better than everyone.” I really don’t take myself that seriously. And so those kinds of encounters always just blow me away.
John: But the cool thing is you worked really, really, really hard to get to that point. And so what those people are just telling you is thank you. And it validates all those hours that you spent by yourself borderline losing your mind. And it’s like, “Oh, yeah. People are reading this.”
Caleb: You know my story better than you led on, John.
John: Well, it’s a similar story to doing my comedy where being on The Bob and Tom Show or my CDs on SiriusXM I’ll get an email out of nowhere from weather it’s someone I know or don’t know. “Hey, we just heard you on the radio. Thanks for making us laugh.” It’s like, “Wow. I haven’t even met these people ever in my life.” And it’s just a cool thing to know that you’re making other people’s lives better and it’s a cool feeling and it is certainly very rewarding. But that first time it’s super awkward because you’re like, “I’m just me. I’m not anybody.” Yeah but are kind of.
Caleb: I have a story about the first time that happened. I was back in Denver and I was with my best friend who is also named Caleb. And Caleb and I were at a United Way fundraising thing. If anyone’s listening who’s in Big Four you know what’s that about.
John: It’s for jeans day. You got to donate.
Caleb: So we’re at this event at a bar in the lower downtown area in Denver. Caleb and I were just going unwind and get some food. Everybody was wearing nametags, right? I don’t wear nametags. I hate nametags. I don’t like to wear them. I cannot express to you my disdain for nametags enough, I just can’t.
And I met the guy who’s in charge of the event. He’s like, “Oh, you got to wear a nametag. You have to wear a nametag. How are people going to know who you are?” I don’t want anyone knowing who I am.
John: It’s safer that way for everybody involved.
Caleb: Right. I surrendered. I took a nametag. And so I kind of forgot about it. I’m walking around and then we’re getting in line for food. And this young guy just catches a glimpse or whatever and he sees my nametag and he says, “Are you the Caleb Newquist of Going Concern?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” He said, “I love that website.” He did that thing where people crouch down because they are about to burst with excitement. He totally did that thing. And my buddy was looking at me. He knew about the website and everything and he knew it was popular. It was one of those things when the kid was done gushing and he went off to do whatever else he had to do. Caleb looks to me and he’s like, “That was weird.”
John: It’s like you want to pull that kid aside and tell him the bad stories about Caleb Newquist and just be like, “Look, he’s not that great. Let me tell you what he did on the way over here.”
Caleb: Yeah, no kidding.
John: Tripping on ladies and all kinds of stuff.
Caleb: That was my first obscure celebrity experience and it was weird, it was really weird.
John: That is very funny. Something that I sometimes struggle with myself is how much do you think it is on the organization to create an environment where you could share versus it’s on you as an individual to just step up and be like, “Here’s what I like to do” at a conversation over lunch or something like that.
Caleb: That’s a really interesting thing to think about. Work environments are such strange places. I think part of the reason that people don’t necessarily develop strong relationships at work is because people don’t necessarily know many personal things about their coworkers. And I’m not saying that’s normal. In fact I just read an article today that was talking about as people get older friendships fall by the wayside because people get married and have families and it’s harder to get together. And so it’s natural to build relationships with people at your job. But I don’t think it’s really that natural. I felt like you were friends by association.
John: You’re forced to hang out with these people so might as well make the best of it.
Caleb: Right. There wasn’t a natural acquaintance progressing into friendship kind of thing. I work from home now. And so if I want to make new friends I got to get out there, man.
John: That is tough.
Caleb: It’s totally different. But you know what. I think I’ve enjoyed it so much more. The relationships I’ve built since I’ve been working home alone, I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of that. When I was making these new friendships I talked about my work. My job became my work became my passion. And so it was just easy for me to naturally open up to people about what I do because, number one, it was unusual. It’s still unusual.
John: That you can do it for a living. Yeah, it is very new.
Caleb: Yeah, that I don’t eat out of a dumpster, that I write on the internet, that I have clean clothes and that I have a relationship with another person. Not so much anymore but in the early days people are just like, “Oh, do you have another job?”
John: “What do you do for a real job?” It’s like, “Oh, I wish I had a real job because then I could mail it in three days a week like everybody else.”
Caleb: That’s right.
John: That’s an interesting point though that you brought up about you were sort of forced to be together and that the natural stance is a defensive stance rather than think, “Hey, I bet I have a lot in common with some of these people.” But it’s scary to reach over that fence or the cubicle wall, if you will, and meet them.
Caleb: I was just thinking. I think what public accounting does have though because people work on teams and they work together on engagements or projects or whatever, I think there is a natural progression for you to get to know people personally. And when I think about the people that are still my friends today that I met in those firms, it is because we have common interests whether it’s cycling or reading or sports interest, whatever it is, those kinds of hobbies. The people that I connected with the most are the people that I have common interests with. And I think about people that I don’t talk to. Maybe we had some common interest but obviously not to the degree that I would call that an active friendship writer.
John: Right. Or they never even said what their interests were so you’ll never know.
Caleb: Yeah, right. It was strange. When I think about various people, I really don’t know what the person’s interested in.
John: Yeah. And the sad thing is then they’re almost forgettable. I’ll talk to some people that I used to work with and that I’m friends with because we shared interest and we’re open. And whether it’s even a common interest or not, at least I know who that person is. And so I’ll to them and they’ll be like, “Oh, you remember so and so?” I’m like, “No, I don’t.” It’s so sad because that person was completely forgettable. They didn’t even exist in my world anymore. That’s so sad to me that other people are like that. And you don’t want to be one of the forgotten ones. You want people to remember you, I would think, unless you’re the no nametag weirdo. But by no nametag you’re the no- nametag guy. So people still remember you.
It’s so weird to me. I think back and I’m like, “I don’t even remember who that person is. Oh, yeah. I guess I sort of remember where they sat or whatever.” It’s so surreal to me. Unless you do it yourself, then no one’s going to remember you for who you really are.
Caleb: Yeah. I remember going to trainings. Big firms have these national trainings. So when I was at KPMG I was always in the asset management group. Those were the kinds of clients I served. So a lot of times you would see the same people at trainings. And I remember a woman at this training. And the common icebreaker at these trainings was if you weren’t an accountant or if you weren’t an auditor, whatever, what would you be doing. And there’s this woman who I don’t even remember her name now but what I do remember about her is that I went to several trainings where she was in there and we were acquainted. But every time she said, “I would be a dog walker.” I just remember that about her.
For the most part, I don’t really remember anyone else. People would say just the most awful things. “Well, if I wasn’t an auditor I’d probably be a corporate lawyer or something like that.” Oh, my God.
John: “If I wasn’t an auditor I’d be in tax.” Really? Way to stretch your mind there, pal. I’m going to go to the fifth floor instead of the sixth floor. That’s what my dream is. Good Lord. I guess the more that it does stand out as a unique thing the more that you will be remembered but you don’t even have to stand out for a weird thing necessarily.
Caleb: Dog walking is not that weird.
John: Yeah, but as far as the answers that are around that room, dog walker does stand out because it’s a something that you wouldn’t expect an accountant to say. I think that something too that some people struggle with is, “Well, everybody does my hobby or it’s boring. I just run 5Ks or whatever.” No. That’s your thing. Right now no one knows anything about you. I like to paint or whatever it is, that’s boring. No, it’s not. It’s straight up not. This is what you love to do. And you need to slowly share it in an appropriate way.
A lot of really good insights and I feel like we could possibly hang out but then I have my 17 rapid fire questions that I’d like to run you through to see if you’re somebody that I could legit hang out with.
Caleb: I think this is probably a fair test. I think you’re right.
John: It’s what all accounting firms should be doing when they interview but unfortunately they’re asking you what kind of tree you would be or how to do a cash flow statement which I would’ve never gotten hired if that was one of the questions.
Caleb: Right. Oh, man. Cash flows. They’re nice to look at. As far as financial statements go, they are probably the most interesting.
John: Yes. It’s interesting to me because I don’t know what’s going on. It’s kind of like a snow globe or a ship in a bottle. How’s that in there? It’s interesting. So here we go, rapid fire. Number one, Star Wars or Star Trek?
Caleb: Star Wars.
John: Sudoku or crossword puzzle?
John: Your favorite band?
John: Cats or dogs?
Caleb: Right now cats.
John: Right now cats. Is that your wife telling you that?
Caleb: Yeah. I grew up with dogs but we have two great cats in our house.
John: There you go. Balance sheet or income statement?
Caleb: Balance sheet.
John: All right. Boxers or briefs?
Caleb: Boxer briefs.
John: Oh, look at you getting all hybrid on me. Your favorite number?
John: Eight? Where did that one come from?
Caleb: I don’t know. It looks like a snowman.
John: It does. Favorite sports team?
Caleb: Nebraska Cornhuskers football team.
John: Right click or left click?
Caleb: Probably right click.
John: Yeah, you seem more like a right click kind of guy.
Caleb: Yeah, right click.
John: PC or Mac?
Caleb: Mac but I’m running a PC right now.
John: I think they’re on the way to get you.
Caleb: I don’t know. I have to say though, if you were to ask me the Mac guy or John Hodgman I would totally take John Hodgman every time. I don’t even know the Mac guy’s name but I know who John Hodgman is.
John: That’s so funny. Movie that makes you cry?
Caleb: Movie that makes me cry. It goes back a ways but my very first experience at the movie theater that I can remember was Return of the Jedi with my dad. And when Darth Vader died I cried.
John: Wow. Look at you. Not knowing that you were rooting for the wrong team?
Caleb: Yeah, but I’ve had people validate my crying because they said it was a sad scene.
John: Yeah, it certainly was and especially when you’re a kid.
Caleb: But I do like a good villain. I like a good villain.
John: Yeah, because then the good guys aren’t as good if there’s no villain for sure. All right. Your favorite color?
John: What about least favorite vegetable?
Caleb: Least favorite vegetable.
John: All of them.
Caleb: No. I’m a big vegetable person that’s why it’s a little bit hard. I’ve started giving up green peppers. So I’d say green peppers.
John: All right. Favorite ice cream flavor?
Caleb: There’s a lemon crunch at the ice cream shop in our neighborhood that is unbelievable.
John: Wow. What’s the crunch?
Caleb: It’s cookie so it’s like lemon cookie.
John: Oh, man. That sounds really good. I’m getting on a plane now.
Caleb: Yeah, you should come.
John: That sounds awesome. Favorite actor or actress?
Caleb: Favorite actor or actress. I really like Jeff Bridges.
John: Oh, yeah. He’s really good. Definitely. Pens or pencils?
Caleb: Without a doubt, pens.
John: The favorite thing you own?
Caleb: This is hard. It’s a tie between my motorcycle and a vintage 10 speed bicycle.
John: Nice. So either way it’s —
Caleb: Two wheels.
John: And what’s your motorcycle?
Caleb: Oh, it’s an ’85 Honda. What do they call those? The UJM, the Universal Japanese Motorcycle. It’s an ’85 Honda.
John: Like in Top Gun? Is that what he was riding? I’m not even sure.
Caleb: I somehow think he’s had something much better than that.
John: And your bicycle?
Caleb: It’s called a Viscount. It’s actually an English bike. They don’t make them anymore. I bought it for just $200 off a guy in my old neighborhood. Yeah, it’s a great bike. I’ll never get rid of it. Most bicycle people they want to talk about that bike. I really don’t know that much about it.
John: I just know how much it cost me and it’s a cool bike.
Caleb: Yeah, right.
John: That’s great. Well, thank you so much, Caleb. I really appreciate you taking time to be here.
Caleb: It was a lot of fun, John. Thanks.
John: I really hope you enjoyed hearing what Caleb had to share, some really, really good stuff. Visit GreenApplePodcast.com to see links to Caleb including Going Concern and see some pictures of Caleb in action. From there you can also let me know if you or someone you know might be a good guest for a future episode. The best way to make this podcast great is to help by sharing it with your friends. And if you’re listening on iTunes or Stitcher, please grade and leave a quick review. And as a thank you, email me and I’ll send you a free digital download of my comedy album currently in rotation on SiriusXM Radio. I’m so excited for you to go out and be a green apple.