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Farewell, mahogany desk: Planners take their meetings online

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CHICAGO — When financial advisor Sophia Bera contemplated launching her virtual-only planning firm, she says people thought she was crazy.

“I got a lot of pushback from financial planners for launching a virtual firm and not having an office and not having a mahogany desk,” said Sophia Bera, founder of RIA Gen Y Planning, on a panel at the NAPFA Fall Conference.

Skeptics take note: Bera and fellow panelists, financial advisors Anjali Jariwala and Kaya Ladejobi, who all charge either monthly retainers or annual fees, argue that opening a virtual firm was a fantastic business decision.

“I'm virtual — completely virtual,” says Jariwala, founder of Fit Advisors. “I have clients in 25 states now, so I do not meet anyone in person and that's intentional. I have a 3-year-old child. I have very limited time, so I've built a practice around that.”

Bera wanted to fit her business around her travel schedule.

“I can't plan my life out more than six months in advance — I don't know where I'll be living in six months,” she says, adding: “It's a funny thing — [my clients] love it. They're like: hey, where are you today? Oh, Mexico City? That's cool.”

Bera says many of her clients are also world travelers and many are first-generation immigrants or are married to someone who is. They are already used to communicating halfway across the world via video.

Ladejobi, founder of Earn Into Wealth Strategies, isn’t exclusively virtual. She makes it a point to meet in-person with clients once a year, and always at the first meeting.

“That first meeting is typically very emotional,” she says, particularly when the discussion turns to why an individual is not meeting their financial goals.

“People can really share and be vulnerable — and [in person] you can't hang up on your advisor.”

Still, all of Ladejobi’s consultation calls before a client joins the firm are via a 45-minute video chat.

“I'm already sort of setting expectations with the clients to understand that this is our primary way of meeting, so you have to be comfortable getting on the video and meeting in that way,” she says.

When running a virtual firm, digital features, such as a website, become especially important.

“I had a travel blogger launch my first website,” Bera says. “I didn't want it to look anything like a financial planners’ website. I didn’t want to have a compass or a lighthouse or be navy blue. Two empty Adirondack chairs is the most chilling image of retirement to me. Why is nobody in them?”

When creating content for a website, write about things that are searchable, and address what people really have questions about, Bera suggested, noting that her most popular blog post was about whether you should contribute to a 401(k) or Roth IRA.

When looking to go virtual, advisors need to understand that it might take some retinkering and flexibility, according to Jariwala. If at a firm already, it’s important to ask to try something new and show how it will be appealing to a different kind of demographic.

“I think if you're doing this, it's still very new. You just have to be willing to push boundaries,” she said.

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