“It’s hard to approach someone" — a  prospective employer, for example — and say, ‘I want to be an owner,’” confessed Brett Spencer, a 23-year-old masters student in financial planning from Texas Tech University. 

Spencer was one of dozens of his classmates, all wearing bright red Texas Tech polo shirts, at a “speed mentoring” event at the FPA Experience annual conference Thursday in San Diego.

The speed mentoring session, a play on “speed dating” events, came billed as a “community building conversation.” It offered prospective planners a chance to ask tough and touchy questions of seasoned professionals who proved more than willing to share their insights. Students at the tables were asked to rotate to different tables, manned by different planners, every 15 minutes. But most stayed rooted, deep in conversation, right where they first sat down.

Glenn Woody, a 30-plus year veteran financial planner with the gray hair to prove it, leaned forward to respond to Spencer's concerns. Woody told a story about two financial planners he knows who took a prospective hire to lunch at a restaurant where they asked the younger man about his long terms plans.

“He said, ‘I want to be an equity owner,’” Woody said. His boldness worked.  “They walked away and said, ‘I think we found the right person for the job.’ You can’t teach entrepreneurship. It takes a fire in the belly.” In other words: sometimes it pays to admit you want the top job.

“Owning and managing a practice takes a whole different set of skills than just being a financial planner,” Woody explained. “I’ve been over $100,000 in debt twice and once I came in to work for payroll and I didn’t have the money. Someone up there must have been looking out for me because I made that payroll after all.”

Woody, the founder of Glenn Woody Financial Consultants in Costa Mesa, Calif., said he plunged into debt the second time around after switching from a commission- to fee-based practice. “I went cold turkey from up-front commissions to fees,” Woody said. “In the long run, I make a lot more money if the service I provide is useful. The risk in that is on me.”

Spencer and his classmates Brian Schaeffer, 23, and Aldo Castaneda, 24, said they weren’t deterred by Woody’s hard knocks message.

“I was kind of like, ‘Wow,’” Spencer said, “but I feel every business owner has stories like that. I’ll take that risk.”

“I’m not deterred by it,” Schaeffer said. “It’s nice to be aware of it.”