Almost any tax preparer or accountant will tell you that gathering mounds of client documents, analyzing them and calculating their taxes can take hours. Just ask Bria Johnson.
“The issue that a lot of tax pros face is difficulty with the client intake process. Every single client has a lot of information; the W-2s, the 1099s, a house or dependents,” says Johnson.
Taking in all that information takes time. But not only that, tax preparers these days often struggle to gain access to clients’ third-party apps like QuickBooks.
So, Johnson, who has a master’s degree in information systems and data analytics from Auburn University, and her fellow alumni, Tevin Harrell, Olumuyiwa Aladebumoye, Jordan Ward and Justin Robinson, developed a software platform that uses artificial intelligence to make tax preparation faster and more efficient.
The Wiz Group, headquartered in Birmingham, is the startup that produces the SmartWiz AI platform. The platform is made specifically for tax professionals and takes tax return preparation down from four hours to as little as 20 minutes, says Johnson, who is head of growth for The Wiz Group.
The startup recently won $150,000 from the 2023 Google for Startups Black Founders Fund. The fund provides cash awards without requiring company founders to relinquish equity. The winners also get hands-on support that helps the minority entrepreneurs build and grow their companies.
“That was super huge for us and for our business because we were able to pour a lot of that money into resources for our product and engineering teams,” Johnson says.
The story of SmartWiz began at Auburn University, where the five partners met on campus.
Aladebumoye says his journey started after he joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Auburn, along with Harrell, Ward and Robinson.
“That fraternity is where we learned to work together. We weren’t the typical frat guys because we treated everything like business,” he says.
“We were looking at budgets before throwing events, and marketing events or figuring out strategic ways to get the campus to an event or the entire state. So, that’s initially how we started out,” Aladebumoye says.
Then, Harrell, The Wiz Group’s CEO who came from a family of tax preparers, got the opportunity to operate his own tax preparation office and called on Aladebumoye, Ward and Robinson to help him. Their first customers were friends and family, Aladebumoye says.
That is how Johnson met the four, she says, enlisting their services after the former Auburn women’s basketball player launched her own clothing line.
“I was already an entrepreneur, and I saw what the guys were doing, and they saw what I was doing on campus, and we came together because they did my taxes,” she says.
Before long, Johnson joined the group and learned how to prepare tax returns as well.
In 2015, Aladebumoye graduated from Auburn and he, Harrell and the other partners continued growing the business, then called TaxxWiz.
But making the tax prep business grow meant the five partners all worked their “day jobs” and did taxes at night in the Birmingham office during tax season.
Aladebumoye and Harrell, at the time, both worked at the Honda manufacturing plant in Lincoln during the day. Aladebumoye managed electrical infrastructure at the plant, he says.
“Every tax season it was us going to a 9-to-5. But for me and Tevin, it was more like six-to-three because we had to be at the plant by 6 a.m., leave by 3 p.m., and then drive to the tax office, work at the tax office until midnight. Get home around 1 a.m., and then wake up at 4 a.m. to do it all over again,” he says.
“We learned how to get more efficient when we learned how to put systems in place to help us go faster and build things a little bit better. We found our way, but initially we were heads down. Stay up late. Figure it out,” he says.
Eventually, the entrepreneurs had more customers than they could handle and began turning people away.
Consequently, they attended an Internal Revenue Service forum, hoping to see if anyone there knew of a software program that could help them work faster. Turns out, no one they talked to knew of such a software program, Johnson says.
“What ended up happening was we decided, since they keep telling us no, there’s not a way for them to build software that can incorporate the things we knew we needed as tax professionals, we said, well, let’s build our own. We’re engineers. How difficult could it be?” she says.
So, they built the software.
SmartWiz, formally branded as TaxxWiz, is an all-in-one tax software product that uses AI technology to increase customer service efficiency and speed up the tax prep time.
By 2020, the five started the arduous process of applying for IRS approval of their software platform. They won that approval in 2022, Johnson says.
Also in 2022, the startup won the early-seed stage prize of $50,000 in the Alabama Launchpad Cycle 2 competition — an early-stage seed fund investor and a program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.
The five later rebranded their software as SmartWiz, and in 2023 they won $150,000 in developmental funds from Google.
“Right now, we’re in a funding phase that’s a mix between pre-seed and seed,” says Aladebumoye, an MBA who is the startup’s chief operating officer.
Aladebumoye says that although their latest round of funding has ended, they are interested in forming relationships with anyone interested in investing in the business.
“After next tax season is when we plan on reevaluating where we stand and if we want to take on new investors,” Aladebumoye says.
The Wiz Group’s co-founders Ward and Robinson are the company’s head of product and head of partnerships, respectively, and the co-founders are currently overseeing a network of tax professionals who are undergoing training and are using SmartWiz.
They have also released the second version of their software platform, Johnson says.
Furthermore, Aladebumoye says the company is preparing to roll out WizWorld Marketplace, an online platform listing top recommended tax professionals who use the SmartWiz software. Customers could then choose a tax professional who uses the SmartWiz technology and who best fits their needs.
Aladebumoye jokingly describes his job as “the interrogator,” spending much of his time monitoring the business’ key performance indicators.
“A lot of my role is making sure that every single part of the business is doing what it needs to from product development to go-to-market to, ‘Hey, are our sales hitting the metrics?’” he says.
But in addition to producing the software, the five will soon operate The Tax Academy that will offer a self-paced course to teach people the skills needed to become tax preparers to earn extra money or start their own business.
“Our company is a B Corporation, so we have an obligation to serve our communities, and we’re just as much a for-profit as we are for impact,” Johnson says. “We’re huge on giving back, and we’re super excited to launch our academy for this upcoming tax season.”
Aladebumoye adds, “We want to pour back into other individuals and see people become successful at whatever it is they want to do.”
Gail Allyn Short and Joe De Sciose are Birmingham-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Business Alabama.