Are you at square one and don’t know what to do? Learn from this entrepreneur how to take your life experience and turn it into an amazing business. Christine Dahl is an international expert in tax law and owner of Dahl International Tax Law. In this interview, she’ll reveal her secret to growing her business from nothing to where it is today, using the “Work the System” method. So if you are stuck at the beginning of growing your business – this episode is a must-see.
Josh Fonger: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Work The System podcast, where entrepreneurs make more and work less using systems. And I'm your host, Josh Fonger. And today we have a special guest. We have Christine Dahl. Christine is an American lawyer living in The Hague who helps individuals and small businesses understand and comply with U.S. income tax and other financial reporting obligations. Christine was actually a previous kind of mind, and so they were to interview her and find out what she did, how she grew a business and really just check in on her progress. So, Christine, let's start with your story. How did you get into being an attorney and what brought you to where you are right now with your business?
Christine Dahl: [00:00:36] Well, thank you, Josh.. I'm really, really very pleased to be here with you today. I graduated from University of Miami in nineteen eighty six and I went to law school because I saw a trial on TV when I was in high school. And I was so fascinated by how people present their case in the courtroom that I wanted to learn more about that. So I became a public defender in federal court for geees, 15 years and took a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and argued it successfully. And then I was selected to serve as the senior war crimes prosecutor. And that's what brought me to The Hague in 2006. So I did that for a little while, actually for eight years. Seems you know how you count in dog years. Some things seem like they take a lot longer. But after I finished my post with that, I needed to reinvent myself because I had just turned 50 and I now had twenty five years of legal experience and finding a new job at that with that level experience and a background in government service seemed like an insurmountable challenge. So I drew on the things that I love, which is helping people solve problems and my skills really good with numbers and spreadsheets. And I understand financial crimes. I understand human nature. So I created my international tax practice and as soon as I got my first client, I got more. And your Work The system method. was recommended to me by a colleague because I said, look, I am inventing this all by myself and I need to figure out how to make a business work. I'm creating it out of thin air. And I remember asking you for an organizational chart. What what are parts of the business? Because I was kind of institutionalized, so to speak, after working in public service. You know, you have a structure and you show up, they give you work. And there are all the forms already invented. And normally they have systems that work. And I had a clean slate.
Josh Fonger: [00:02:58] I remember that, years ago, just started from scratch. But you're pretty sharp, so I knew you'd be successful because your because you're back on your mind and your willingness to build structure did a really good job for the program. So let's start from the beginning. So you start a company and then what was it like the first couple years? And what did you what do you built?
Christine Dahl: [00:03:20] Well, I had the kind of starters dilemma, do I do everything myself? Do I spend money that I don't have yet or I'm not confident I'm going to get? And so I built a flexible working arrangement where I was able to bring on staff who wanted to work part time and work flex hours so that they could be available for their families. I created an internship program for law students so that they could come in and learn about what it's like to work in a law office environment. And so that kept my costs very low. And then we got a huge engagement and I needed more people quick. And as I think I did a lot of public speaking in the beginning and wrote down things as we did them. So I've tried to create templates. I went through a lot of entrepreneurs will buy an online course. And I actually did all the exercises in Work the System. I mean, all the exercises and I have to say that one of the most. Challenging and ultimate well, a couple of. There's three that I would point back to that I think made the most difference. One was the first one where you have to create the vision of the firm. What does your firm stand for? And I remember writing it when I was out at my husband's family's house in the middle of the woods. And I was inventing things and it seemed so impossible to just describe something that didn't exist yet that I was going to create this successful international law practice. And I was gonna have staff and offices around the world. And I was going to clients around the world. And like I was making this stuff is like fiction is writing fiction. And I made it happen. So that idea of. Of creating that image. That vision that you want to work towards. I thought was really, really effective because when you know where you're going. It helps keep you on track. The other thing is the time and money writing exercise. It made me really value how much I want to give to other people. You know how much because I come from the public service background where you're not charging for your services. Maybe you're working with people with disadvantage, economic background. And so making money can take on. You know this. Should I be charging for this? Am I charging too much? Am I worth what I'm charging? And I realized if I'm able to. Provide a great deal if I'm able to solve big problems successfully and meet my own needs. I can then help more people. So that was one of the ideas of my growth strategy. Looking at how valuable my time is and how valuable the skills that I can bring are to helping people feel, feel better about solving a big tax problem.
Josh Fonger: [00:06:41] Very good. What was the third one? So you had the strategy, and you had the time money was always a third big thing that you'd learned?
Christine Dahl: [00:06:49] Documenting how you want things done. With having a student training program. I had a lot of turnover of staff because they would come in for three months and they'd finish their internship and then they'd go and it took a couple of years to finally settle on what systems, software systems I want to use. But having the instructions there to help them and make the orientation consistent, help the client experience being consistently good has helped me scale because I think the other thing that happens is when you're starting out and you're solo, you want to do everything yourself. I've had to learn how to really specifically say this is what done looks like. This is what I want. To be able to do that assertively as opposed to, oh, it's OK. And then go around fixing kind of the co-dependent entrepreneur. But so actually having systems, having principles, having things right now where people can find them and then having the commitment to keeping them alive and fresh so that they're relevant to the work we're doing.
Josh Fonger: [00:08:05] Yeah, I noticed, I remembered that when when the program is you're one of the students who actually really did the worksheets, really did the procedures. Then I actually remember and it was a good year and a half ago you sent me this email and said basically, you you went from zero people in your team to fifteen people in your team in three different countries and international. I think, you probably say it never would've happened if you didn't put some some structure in place. I mean, it would probably fallen apart pretty quick.
Christine Dahl: [00:08:33] Well, it would look like chaos. And now I'm seeing I've gotten to the point where I have more clients. I can't keep track of everything myself, so now I need really good lists and systems and I have some permanent staff now, so it's feeling a little bit less like a toddler and more like a real a real thing. And I want to be able to scale. So to be able to scale. I need to have things working well enough and clearly enough that people don't have to check with me about how to do something.
Josh Fonger: [00:09:07] I wanted to get a little bit about this idea of internships because of my clients will try this and it's not always easy to do. But looking back, was it was it the right decision? Do you think that that was what you wish you would have gone right to full time, or do you think you were happy doing the part time intern on board and then they leave in three to six months, then on board again? Was that, did that work for you?
Christine Dahl: [00:09:32] It has worked very well. And then I. Selected and hired a woman, a junior lawyer who successfully completed an internship, and she works remotely for the office now and that's been a terrific success because she's really talented and responsible and it's a really good fit. I mean, the question when you have a training program is that you. They're not widgets that you can let sit in the other room and wind them up. And they they need care and feeding and attention and feedback. And I have taught at university and law school level for many years, and I like that part. You know, I like to help inspire people. I want to create more entrepreneurs. I want people to appreciate how exciting it is to be in charge of yourself. And to enjoy that kind of freedom. And so when they come work with me, I can tell them this story and I can help them see what their role is. And they get in client contact and they get to do real stuff. And so I find that really, really great. My my challenge has been finding people who are very qualified in international tax and that's been my focus for the last six months has been interviewing and trialling people. And so now I'm getting pretty close to making another hiring decision.
[00:11:08] Wow, that's great. Yeah, that's an area of law. And most people don't have well, almost no one has the same little experience you have to find someone high level is key. And this is interesting because a lot of clients I work with, they're gonna go through the same growth that you do, where you bring on a lower level intern level staff at first gonna grow a few of them. And it's like an interview process. It was a long interview process. The internship process. And they go to a certain maturity and they say, you know what? I just need a really high level person now to come in. Who actually has a lot of experience to kind of help you. Grow the business, I'm not sure that's where you're at. But that, that a very familiar story. For a lot of my clients.
Christine Dahl: [00:11:46] Well, I had I had some other staff two years ago, one person I thought an accountant who is on staff, and I thought she would be able to grow with the firm. And she took a leave of absence and ultimately decided not to return. And that made me really question, you know. How I wanted to grow. What kind of environment I wanted to create. How much bigger I wanted. I wanted the firm to get. Is it a firm? Is it a business? Is it just me? What? Because learning how to manage when you when you start to have a lot of staff, you have to change. You take on another job. And so now I have to plan their work. Supervise it. Give them feedback and hold meetings. And and there's a whole nother layer of systems that you need for effective delegation so that it doesn't look like abdication. And know I want really high quality products. So I need to make sure the right people are in the right positions.
Josh Fonger: [00:12:51] Mm hmm.
Christine Dahl: [00:12:52] I think the growth curve, I think in part it depends on the personality of the founders and what their vision is. I had kind of a dip in our growth because I thought I wanted to do more business consulting. And so my I got involved in that and I got a little bit distracted from taking care of what the core needs of the firm were in terms of. Figuring out how to scale basically, and my business coach said this year. Look, you know, get it. Get your systems in place, systems in place so you can scale to a million dollars. And I know what it takes because we had one year where that was our gross revenue. And I know what kind of cases I need to have. And then I know how many people I need to push out that kind of work. I think when you're doing service where people can hit the wall pretty quickly in terms of they just can't put any more hours into it. And so then you have choice. You raise your prices or you hire people or you accept the ceiling on your income generation and your ability to serve people.
Josh Fonger: [00:14:09] Hmm. Yeah, very true. That's those are those the ceilings you go to decide. Sounds like over the few years of your business, you've been able to kind of hit those ceiling a few times, then decide, you know, go back to your vision, maybe tweak the vision and then renew your strength in terms of getting some growth again, which is cool. So...
Christine Dahl: [00:14:28] I'm seeing that there's more that there's more there's a more diverse market than I saw first, because now I in addition to serving American expats, I now help foreign investors who have business interests in the United States. And that's also a super narrow, well-defined niche as an American lawyer. And I'm accessible to them because I'm overseas. So they have the benefit of somebody in their own time zone.
Josh Fonger: [00:14:55] So what you know, as it is you wrap up here, what kind of recommendations would you give to other entrepreneurs, small business owner who is maybe they've hit the ceiling maybe once or twice before and they don't have anything documented yet, they're working too many hours? I mean, what what kind of was the paradigm shift for you that made you realize, OK; need to make a shift here? Any recommendations?
Christine Dahl: [00:15:15] I think that documenting what; well, part of it is take some time off. You know, whether it's just that afternoon to rest and refresh yourself and renew because you can woad yourself up in a stress ball like a cartoon character is wedged into discomfort by feeling overtired and and stressed. And you can re regain your equilibrium by giving yourself some time off.
Josh Fonger: [00:15:45] Mm hmm.
Christine Dahl: [00:15:46] You know, if you have an idiot for a boss and you work for yourself. Now you've created your own monster, so. So the advice would be there some easy ways to document things, which is you can use loom to record yourself doing something. There's some great software that will record your keystrokes as you're doing something. And so it's like slow down. So I have a little placard that tells myself without. And I record it. I give it to somebody to transcribe it and make steps. Then they try to follow it themselves. And we work on it and we document something. And I've found software that helps me build templates for repetitive correspondence. I do a whole lot of automation. So Zappia is my best friend. So and Process Street. So you figure out how you want it done and then you connect all the little pieces of software. So if I want to take in a new client, I click a button and it puts them in my bookkeeping system. It opens a new file on my project management itself, sends them a welcome letter. It creates their folders for their secure storage, and then it creates a template through our workflow and kicks off our stuff. I mean, it's super cool. And that's the power of automation and the power systems, because you can't automate stuff unless you can diagram where you want it to go and why.
Josh Fonger: [00:17:16] Yeah, that's great. Yeah. Great softwares. And so you're sharp enough to figure out how to put them all together, which is which is which the skill in it of itself. Well that's cool.
Christine Dahl: [00:17:26] Yeah.
Josh Fonger: [00:17:26] Oh that's great. Well, so that's good. Final advice. Anything else that you want to leave the audience with. It's like that's the main thing you want to say is automation; where people find you? If they want to find out more about, you know, they're involved with international tax. Where should they go?
Christine Dahl: [00:17:42] They can come see me at Dahl Tax law, D-A-H-L, like the author Rowland Dahl. And I also help people with their business systems, now. I can help them look at their workflow and what level they're at and what areas of their business that they want to be working on so that they can enjoy the freedom of being an entrepreneur.
Josh Fonger: [00:18:03] Mm hmm. Well cool, very good. Well, Christine, with your advice about taking some time off. I know it's Friday afternoon there. So enjoy your weekend.
Christine Dahl: [00:18:12] Thank you very much. It's so nice. I really I'm really, really, really enjoyed our work together with one of the best investments I made in my business.
Josh Fonger: [00:18:22] Good. Appreciate that. Thank you, Christine. Yeah, it was fun. And you one of students where I knew once I saw the amount of work you're cranking out, I knew we'll give it some time. She'll have a nice big team and a great business and, you know, literally from no employees to where you are now?
Christine Dahl: [00:18:36] Yeah. Yeah.
Josh Fonger: [00:18:38] So congratulations.
Christine Dahl: [00:18:40] I remember listening to the webinar. Go to meeting, sitting in the dark, waiting in the car for my son to finish his violin lessons. It's like, okay, listen, a tune into Josh and he's going to he's going to give me the good news on how to get stuff done.
Josh Fonger: [00:18:55] Oh, good. Well, I'm glad that you stuck with it and you kept your vision there. It's hard to do that. But once you have it, you know where to go and what to build. Oh, very good. And.
Christine Dahl: [00:19:06] Thanks so much.
Josh Fonger: [00:19:07] Yeah. And thanks, everybody, for joining us today in the podcast. Tune in next week. I'm another guest. Like Christina, their previous client or business expert, maybe I'll be sharing some some things from the field. But either way tune in next week and we'll see then. Thanks again, Christine.
Christine Dahl: [00:19:23] All right. Great. Thanks a lot.