Solo RIA: Lessons From Year 1
A little over a year ago, I left a firm of 12 employees and became a solopreneur in a fee-only planning practice, branded to focus on teachers, primarily in Illinois.
In the six months of planning before my launch and all the way through, I had to learn that any business decision I made could bring joy or heartache, and I would be the one to enjoy or fix it. If a tech problem occurred, it would be me on the phone to tech support. If a client handed me a stack of paperwork, I would be clearing my afternoon to ensure it was organized and scanned.
While I knew all this before starting, it became a reality when a client handed me a bag of papers during an initial meeting. She was concerned about letting her records out of sight so because my week was booked solid with meetings, I had to work outside of business hours to get everything scanned and get the files back to her in a couple of days. My family time was disrupted, but I had no one else to do the job.
Yet I learned a good lesson: Nothing was more important than calming the nerves of new clients. Going above and beyond their expectations helped them to trust me more quickly and become advocates for my firm.
Here are some of the other problems Ive faced and lessons Ive learned in my first year of running my own RIA as well as, I hope, a few ideas that may help others planning to go down the path that I have taken.
1. STAY FLEXIBLE
Most of my clients are still working, and they need to work during the day. So rather than trying to squeeze in meetings during the late afternoon, I run a majority of my meetings at night at my clients homes.
From the feedback Ive received, this has been well received. Most clients have their financial conversations at home when Im not around, so they appreciate being able to stay in the same venue.
I wasnt aiming to do this when I started my practice, but it saves me from having to pay office rent and puts my clients at ease.
2. PLAN YOUR TIME
During the first two months, my to-do list felt like a never-ending treadmill, and the first few clients came quicker than I expected. It felt very haphazard, and there wasnt much organization to it.
Luckily, I was able to work with an intern during my first few months. He was a business student who wanted exposure to how a business is run and how financial planning happens. While I taught him what I knew, he helped relieve me of chores and helped plan various business tasks for the next year. Im still using the blogging schedule he put in place.
As he left and I found myself looking into a full calendar year of opportunity, I knew that I had to be intentional about how the upcoming year would look and how much it would cost. Before Jan. 1, I planned out what marketing projects I was going to tackle, how much each would cost and what planning I would need to do beforehand.
Now I try to plan six to 12 months ahead, developing business and financial goals as well as step-by-step guidelines. My big objective for this year, for instance, is to attend and exhibit at three teacher conferences, with the goal of finding speaking arrangements and new client leads.
3. EXPECT TO HUSTLE
I still shake my head in disbelief at how things initially fell into place. A month before I left my previous firm, a fellow planner offered me a part-time work-at-home position as an online personal finance expert in a chat-room environment.
On my third day of being self-employed, I received another offer of freelance work, and these two projects covered 85% of the salary I had just lost. As the year has evolved, these have tapered off, but I would not have made it through the first year if they had not been in place.
With two children in full-time day care and my RIA income not enough to cover my familys needs, I have had to seek out other projects. These have involved promoted posts on my blog, consulting with other advisors, consulting with technology start-ups that are looking to attract advisor attention and doing cross-promotional work with other firms.
At the stage of life that my family is in, its all about making sure we have enough money to meet our monthly obligations. Growing my practice comes second.
4. KNOW YOUR EMOTIONS
Before I started my firm, I asked many people what I should expect. No one mentioned the emotional turmoil that running a business can cause. Even though I am a proud introvert and love spending time alone with my thoughts, it can get lonely without office mates to turn to.
There have been a handful of fellow planners whom I feel comfortable calling and Ive had a wonderful mentor through my first year, but even their help doesnt stop the negative emotions. Ive been driven to tears many times throughout the last 12 months.
And the positive emotions can be just as powerful. The feeling of taking a client from an initial conversation to signing a contract is like none Ive felt before.
To ride the roller coaster, however, try to find a network not necessarily of other advisors to support you.
5. HAVE A TECH PLAN
It is shocking how many pieces of technology a small financial practice can use. From hardware (computers, printers, phones) to software (CRM, financial planning, account aggregation, data gathering, portfolio design) to social media, choosing the products to use can be a challenge.
Finding a CRM that fit me has been a burden. Not only are the choices overwhelming, but I still cant find one that meets my every need. I went from Redtail to Salesforce to XLR8 (a Salesforce overlay) to Less Annoying CRM. I thought I would need a big system to help with the work that I do, but after a while I realized that I only needed a contact database that can help track clients, projects and work flows. That helped me cut spending from $50-plus a month down to $10 monthly.
Im happy for now, but I still hope there is a better solution.
6. PREPARE YOUR SPOUSE
When I used to get frustrated at work, I could come home, vent to my wife and then relax. Now that the frustrations have changed in nature, however, bringing those discussions home doesnt seem to work anymore. When both spouses are W-2 employees, they can talk to each other and feel understood, but the challenges of a business owner are often misunderstood when both parties dont experience them.
My wife has given me some great insight into how I can approach things, but I know shell never truly understand what its like.
For support, Ive been lucky enough to have a business-owner mentor through my first year to hear my concerns and help with the specific problems we face.
7. APPRECIATE THE FREEDOM
It is very easy to get caught up in all of the client work, operational tasks and marketing initiatives that are involved in growing a small company. Its also inspiring to dream of what your company may become.
Many times in the past year, I have worked more than I wanted to or made an impossibly long to-do list. Yet I left a corporate 9-to-5 existence to design a company around the lifestyle I wanted not in the future, but now, as well. In the summer, I work only four days a week, and I take more vacation time than when I worked for a company, so I can spend extra time with my family.
I dont want to look back and realize that I built a great company but missed out on spending time with my kids. I would be very content with a smaller company and less money but a fulfilled family life.
Presumably, you too started your own company for a reason. Stay true to it.
Dave Grant, a Financial Planning columnist, is the founder of Finance for Teachers, a planning firm, and Fee Only Consulting, in Cary, Ill. He is also the founder of NAPFA Genesis, a networking group for young fee-only planners. Follow him on Twitter at @davegrant82.