At Hinge we have been studying Visible Experts, people who have attained high visibility and expertise in their industry, creating a personal brand that is recognizable industry-wide. We study them because we want to understand how they attained that status and what we can learn from them. This profile focuses on Blake Christian, a Visible Expert for corporate tax planning.

Even before the advent of the Internet, Blake Christian had already discovered the advantages of content marketing. Thanks to his long-running Q&A column in his city newspaper, The Long Beach Telegram, he had become known locally as “The Tax Man.” So when the vast world of online promotion opened up, The Tax Man was in a prime position to beat the curve and make himself known to a much broader audience.

“When you talk about content marketing to CPAs, you often get blank stares,” Christian observes. “We tend to be slow adaptors to technology. Add to that the fact that many of the established accounting firms are afraid to experiment—they don’t want to make mistakes.” Christian knows the landscape well, as he gained his expertise on this very terrain. After five-and-a-half years as a tax partner at KPMG followed by a stint as tax director for a Fortune 500 corporation, he went on to become partner at Holthouse Carlin & Van Trigt (HCVT). HCVT, a 37-partner strong accounting firm, has been on the Inside Public Accounting’s “Best of the Best” list for ten years running. There, Christian handles partnership and individual tax compliance and planning, as well as the design and implementation of executive compensation plans.

The Knowledge-Sharing Business

But that is not all there is to Blake Christian: he is also very active independently as a writer, blogger, and public speaker. This he manages through his personal website, which is full of information and resources on tax credits and tax planning, along with links to his social media accounts and his blog. “I’ll check out trending topics in my field and then write something relevant for my blog and get 500 hits,” he says. “In the tax industry, being first to market is important, so being able to get it out fast is critical.” He also writes a monthly CPA Insider column for AICPA, which reaches an 80K readership. This synergy between his work at HCVT and his personal work is a prime example of what Hinge has discovered in its research into Visible Experts: that far from competing with each other, an expert’s brand and that of his firm should work in tandem.    

Christian’s secret lies in generating his own opportunities. In his columns, he has moved out of strict technical writing into exploring best practices, goal setting, and SEO, among other topics. In his public speaking, in addition to speaking on tax issues, he does not shy away from broader economic topics, often teaming up with experts from other fields to produce a multi-disciplinary seminar or webinar. In total, Christian estimates that he invests 20% of his content marketing on speaking engagements, with a further 30% on social media.The other half of Christian’s promotional time is devoted to writing. It is time well spent: “I continue to get calls on articles I wrote four or five years ago,” Christian notes. “They stay out there forever.” Moreover, the leads he generates through content marketing tend to be much more valuable than those coming from other sources. And yes, Christian also has a book in the works.

Empathy Through Communication

Christian’s communication skills are not only important online and at the podium, but also one-on-one, with each of his individual clients. “Boil it down to one word: the difference between a successful CPA and a mediocre one is empathy.”

Empathy requires knowing what and how to communicate, and Visible Experts are communicators par excellence. Not only that, but they are teachers, boiling complex subjects down to comprehensible language, making it accessible, inspiring, and motivating. As C

hristian explains, “During the initial client intake, be respectful of your client’s time—so no questionnaires. The same goes for the billing process. Put yourself in their shoes. Is it clear what value we are providing? Let’s hit it head on and make it very clear to them.”

Leveraging Experience

Although he may step outside of the box when speaking at a seminar, Christian has created a clear niche for his professional activity: holistic tax planning for businesses with 20M-200M in revenue, as well as individuals with high net worth. Such specialization brings with it a number of benefits, helping Visible Experts differentiate within their profession while at the same time allowing them to dominate an area in depth. And the deeper and more focused one’s knowledge, the easier it is to monetize.

“At this point in my career, it’s important for me to leverage my experience,” Christian notes. “I’d rather have 80% of my audience be referral sources and only 20% business owners. If the audience member is a banker, and if I resonate with them, they might take my name back to 10 or 15 of their clients.” This resonates with Hinge’s research, which found that fast-track Visible Experts are more than twice as likely both to focus on a target market, and to do so earlier in their careers. The Tax Man has indeed found his niche—and it has taken him national.  

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