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Harbert College of Business alumna Bria Johnson (center) and fellow Auburn graduates
created SmartWiz tax prep software, which recently received a Google for Startups
Black Founders prize.
It’s 2018 and a group of five Auburn University students huddles in a friend’s basement to prepare taxes — and they hate it.
“We realized real quick that all of the existing tax processing systems suck,” said Harbert College of Business alumna Bria Johnson (’18 and ’19). “We were young and still in college at the time. College students are not trying to wait in a tax prep office, sign stuff on a clipboard or fax things over. We knew there had to be a more efficient, faster way to do it virtually.”
Thus the idea for SmartWiz, formerly known as TaxxWiz, was born. The five friends would spend the next eight years working on the Birmingham-based Fintech startup, creating a tax preparation software for tax professionals that would take the tedious process of collecting information from clients and completing tax returns from an hours-long process to about 20 minutes.
This July, Google for Startups Black Founders Fund awarded SmartWiz a $150,000 prize to continue developing its product. The equity-free funds also come with sales and fundraising training, Google mentors for technical support and development, mental health coaching and up to $100,000 in Google Cloud credits.
So how does an Auburn alumni startup go from side gig to rising star backed by Google?
Tevin Harrell (Engineering ’16) recruited a few friends at Auburn to help his tax preparation business that he ran out of his father’s basement. The group of friends included four Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers and Johnson, an Auburn basketball player known for her personal connections with pretty much everyone on campus and having a knack for information systems. She was in charge of growth — as a former tax client and popular figure on campus, she spread the word that her friends could help their peers with tax prep.
Johnson parlayed her business expertise and personal connections as an Auburn basketball
player to help grow the startup company.
Not liking the outdated, slow methods available for tax preparation at the time, they began designing software using artificial intelligence (AI) and integration with other business and money management applications.
“Nobody likes doing taxes. We don’t even like it. We built the product because the method of doing taxes at the time was so terrible,” Johnson says. “Emailing documents back and forth, uploading to different apps, having to scan or fax — our technology completely eliminates all of that by putting it on one platform. We thought: let’s figure out a way to make it virtual. Why not create a world where it’s super easy to get your taxes done?”
Three of the five co-founders — Harrell, Olumuyiwa Aladebumoye, and Jordan Ward — earned degrees from the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. Justin Robinson hailed from the College of Sciences and Mathematics and Johnson was earning her Master of Business Administration in Information Systems from Harbert College. They decided to build a prototype for a virtual tax preparation platform that would connect with existing apps to minimize client errors and communication and complete tax returns in just 20 minutes. The result: an online software system for tax professionals they called TaxxWiz.
“We had this prototype, and then boom. The pandemic happened, and suddenly every tax professional needed a way to be virtual,” Johnson says.
Knowing they had a great product with the potential to serve every taxpayer and tax preparation professional in the country, they went through the tedious two-year process of making TaxxWiz one of only 15 IRS-approved software programs in the world.
“We built this to serve a specific need of the small mom and pop tax professionals who are completing 90% of the U.S. taxes,” Johnson explains. “We made a software that is fun, it’s sexy. It’s so easy that you can put it in a novice’s hand and they’ll know how to use it after about a week.”
The next step in their process was to continue raising seed money and finding mentors to help them develop their product. The statistics on startup success speak for themselves: nearly 90% of all startups fail in the first year due to lack of funding and momentum. The friends and business partners were determined to succeed.
They applied for and were awarded $50,000 in early seed money from Alabama Launchpad in August 2022. In addition to the funds, they benefited from mentorship from other Alabama entrepreneurs.
That fall, they received another boost via non-profit Black Ambition, founded by recording artist Pharrell Williams. The prize aims to close the opportunity and wealth gap through entrepreneurship and invest capital in startups founded by Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs.
“It’s amazing that Pharrell Williams supports Black entrepreneurs like us,” Johnson says. “It was a huge catalyst leading us up to this point.”
In spring 2023, the five founders temporarily moved to an L.A. rental house to participate in a three-month TechStars Los Angeles Accelerator residency. Living and working together, they pounded out new ideas and started to shift SmartWiz beyond its already successful beta model.
“We were building our product and our company with some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley,” Johnson says. Since its inception in 2006, TechStars has funded $24.7 billion across more than 3,700 start-up companies. Just a few companies that came through the coveted, prestigious incubator that are now valued over $1 billion include Uber, Owlet Baby Care and PillPack, a full-service online pharmacy.
“We now have access and resources from these types of companies, and it’s really changed the game for us. It let us know that we’re on the right path,” Johnson says.
On the heels of TechStar, Google for Startups Black Founders Fund announced SmartWiz as one of its winners in July.
“[The Google award] is really going to change the trajectory of our company. Not just
because of the $150,000, but because of the relationships that come with it. We have
access to Google AI specialists and Google SEO specialists for digital marketing purposes.
They will be on our team for six months for free."
With this type of support and momentum, SmartWiz is poised to supersede its growth goals with investors and accelerate their product development.
“Since TechStars, it feels like every 60 days we’re making some huge announcement,” Johnson says. “They completely shifted our mindset into what it looks like to implement new AI technology into what we’re doing. We want to keep up the momentum we have as a company while continuing to be in a space where we’re always learning and growing.”
In this new phase with SmartWiz, they are focused on building out the product and selling it to consumers.
Secrets to success
Johnson, now head of growth at SmartWiz, attributes their success to their friendship, faith, community and confidence in their brand.
“We actually like each other,” she laughs. “Being a Black woman working with all Black men, I love the fact that I'm working with men who are committed to their families. They have a different level of respect for ﬁnding harmony in our lives and building our business. We all value the idea of work-life balance. We hold each other accountable about everything, even making sure that we eliminate the stressors in our lives through working out or taking a break. Whatever gets us there.”
As business partners, they drive each other to perform and have built a culture of support, encouragement and accountability to one another and to their collective faith. It is the foundation they continuously return to on their entrepreneurial journey, drawing from it when things get hard and as they encounter opportunity.
“We’re a God-led company and pray together before we make big decisions,” Johnson says. “We know we have to put the product first, but ultimately we genuinely care about each other’s growth and best interests. So, it’s easy to work together and call each other out. That vulnerability and faith with each other is what makes us special.”
The SmartWiz team also believes in and is grateful for the community support it has received throughout its entrepreneurial journey so far.
“You may have a good idea, but it’s another thing to put that idea out there and see what feedback you get,” Johnson says.
Without the mentorship they have received from the business community in Birmingham, the network of professionals they met through the Black Ambition Prize, TechStars and now Google for Startups, the company would not have the success and trajectory it is on today.
“At the end of the day, you’re not going to make money if people don’t love what you do and believe in you,” Johnson explains. “You have to be your brand. People are going to buy into you before they ever buy your product.”
The give back theory
SmartWiz knows the value of creating opportunity and connection — it’s one of the main factors of the team’s success. As a company, they created The Give Back Theory.
“We believe in a world where the more you give, the more fulfilled you are and the more purpose your life gains. Whether that's giving our time, our money, our resources or whatever the case may be, we're really big on pouring back into the next generation of entrepreneurs,” Johnson says.
The root of Johnson’s belief started when she was a student and learned about the Tiger Cage Business Idea Competition — an annual business pitch event to help support Auburn University students with innovative early stage products or ideas. Students compete for startup capital while having the support of mentors from Auburn alumni active in business and entrepreneurial professions.
“I was a broke college student with an e-commerce brand selling T-shirts, and the director of the Tiger Cage invited me into his office and gave me tangibles about my business,” Johnson says. “The Tiger Cage was the first time I heard about equity and entrepreneurs talking about business and seed money. Fast-forward to seven years later, and I’m in an incubator at a very, very high level talking about how to get millions of dollars for our company.”
Johnson (center) served as a judge at the 2023 Tiger Cage pitch competition at Auburn.
Johnson returns to volunteer her time to the Tiger Cage and is a proud mentor to Auburn student entrepreneurs.
“I want AU to be THE place where students come to learn entrepreneurship and business,” Johnson says. “Our student entrepreneurs come from all different colleges — business, engineering, biomedical — and that speaks to how rich and diverse our university is.”
SmartWiz, true to form, will have a big announcement coming up in the next few months, but for now, its founders are looking forward to what Johnson hopes will be a killer tax season. Beyond the tax prep software, they are actively recruiting new faces into tax entrepreneurship through their Tax Academy.
In addition, SmartWiz engineers are working on improving the product to include AI automation. They aim to demystify what AI can do for tax professionals.
“We believe in a world where we create more tax entrepreneurs and support current tax professionals. Our goal is to create a massive community of people who understand AI automation, modern technology in a super simplified way,” Johnson explains. “We’re super nerdy, we're super techy, but we speak tech in anybody’s language.”
Perhaps that’s SmartWiz’s startup superpower. Its entire brand and mission is to take a tedious tax prep task and make it simple, accessible and possibly even fun.
SmartWiz co-founder Bria Johnson earned two degrees from the Harbert College of Business. For more information about Harbert's degree programs, visit: https://harbert.auburn.edu/degrees-programs/index.html.