Twelve months ago, I thought my entrepreneurial journey might be over. I was two months away from closing my RIA due to client attrition and low funds. It seemed the sensible option. I even had a safety net in the form of unsolicited job offers.

But in the year that followed, things not only improved, they accelerated to a level that I couldn’t have imagined.

'I WAS GOING BROKE'
For four years, my focus had been on teachers in Illinois who were nearing retirement. But while my potential audience was large, my actual client numbers didn’t provide enough income. I loved serving teachers, but I was going broke. After long and hard reflection, I decided to leave this niche and rebrand my RIA to focus on people nearing retirement in the suburbs of Chicago. The result? My target market grew significantly and my expertise and services became available to a broader market.

Columnist Dave Grant is the founder of planning firm Retirement Matters.
Columnist Dave Grant is the founder of planning firm Retirement Matters.

This move has been a blessing. In the first week, I met a prospect who runs her own business, was 62 and looking to move assets from Morgan Stanley. I went into the meeting feeling apprehensive. I held my breath waiting to be found out as the teacher specialist and not the business owner expert. When I asked how she found me, the response was “online, and seeing who was in Barrington [the town where my office is located].” She’s now a client and paying almost a five-figure ongoing annual planning and investment management fee.

It continued to happen. People would find me via a local internet search. They didn’t seem to mind that teachers had once been my specialty. It led me to believe that personality is a crucial part of choosing a financial planner. Prospects assume you have the expertise and want you to listen to them, understand their concerns and offer guidance.

As the volume of meetings increased, so did the caliber of prospects. Local executives and successful business owners were talking to me and signing up for services. Even raising my prices by 50% didn’t deter them. And, my attempts at managing the flow didn’t stop five comprehensive planning clients signing up within a two-week period.

The move away from the teacher niche was, and continues to be, working well.

A DRAMATIC SWITCH IN FOCUS
Not surprisingly, I didn’t do this alone. Once clients understood my new brand and ideal client, they sent referrals who needed conversations about retirement.

It occurred to me that I was moving from a niche to a specialty practice. Often mistakenly interchanged, a niche is a specific problem you solve for people, while a specialty can be a certain demographic of people you serve. Previously, my focus was teachers navigating retirement and I had been unable convert prospects as I needed.

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By moving to a specialized practice of pre-retirees — who had a multitude of problems that needed discussion—it was easier for those around me to refer potential clients. My target client base had widened without becoming as broad as “anyone who can pay”.

While other advisors and a CPA sent me clients, surprisingly, many weren’t a good fit. Referrals remain integral to my success, but most new clients found me through online searches and professional networks. It will be interesting to see how this trend progresses and if clarifying my target clients with COIs can tighten up the caliber of referrals.

One relationship, fostered over Twitter, is with a marketer. Throughout 2016, I followed his career. As he started building a content company, I contacted him to offer my writing services. While I reached out from a place of desperation, little did I know he had landed some institutional contracts that were far larger than he and his team had expected at this stage in the company’s growth. By building a relationship — initially online — and then offering to help in someone’s perceived time of need, I landed a well-paid, six-month writing contract.

The lesson? Yes, relationships are key to building long-term business success. But so is a willingness to help without an expectation of anything in return.

‘A TWING OF SADNESS’
In the summer, my family spends time at a family lake house located six hours away from our home. This year we decided to spend two weeks at the lake, and I challenged myself to step away from work and allow myself time to think. I realized that felt as though I was living two professional lives. I had built a brand as a teacher-specialist but was now moving into the generalized retirement-planning space. I had built two websites and was now maintaining content on both. It was becoming burdensome.

After some reflection, I decided to sell the brand and all of the assets of Finance for Teachers to fellow advisor Jeff Rose of Alliance Wealth Management and the blog Good Financial Cents. Jeff’s practice is in Illinois so the content was relevant to him, as were the potential client leads that came with various press mentions. I have confidence Jeff will transition the site and content into one that suits his needs, while also continuing to educate Illinois teachers. But, there was a twinge of sadness as we finalized the sale. Yet, excitement at how much time this would free up to work on other things.

THE ANXIETY OF SUCCESS
I’ve experienced many emotions in the past 12 months. I started off in a low place, often feeling panicked that time would run out and my spirit would be defeated. But each new client brought confidence that I could take into the next prospect meeting, into raising my fees and eventually adding premium services. Seeing things grow brought a huge sense of relief and pride.

But I didn’t expect to feel anxiety and fear when things started to go well.

Before this rebranding journey, I reverse-engineered my personal income goals so I could relieve the pressure I was feeling. In my ideal world, I would be working 30-40 hours a week and earn $75,000 after business expenses.

As I write this, I’m working 20-25 hours a week and my gross income for 2017 will be close to $80,000 after expenses. This was an increase from earning $35,000 in 2016. The rest of my time is spent brainstorming business ideas, spending four to five mornings a week in the gym, indulging my creativity in landscape design, or exploring other areas of interest.

But this seemingly ideal scenario has created feelings of unrest. I’m concerned that my income will drop to prior levels, as about 50% of my income is based on writing work and one-time financial planning fees. I am frequently embarrassed when people talk about how hard their job is — even my wife.

I wonder if it seems like I’m not fully committed to building my business. I keep having to remind myself that it’s not the hours, but the results that matter, and if I can achieve my goals in less time, that should be celebrated. Reaching my income goal has not made me happy like I thought it would, but I hope once I see it’s sustainable, that my fears will subside. If this anxiety doesn’t clear, it probably something that needs to be explored.

Dave Grant

Dave Grant

Dave Grant, a Financial Planning columnist, is founder of Retirement Matters, a planning firm, in Cary, Illinois. He is also the founder of NAPFA Genesis, a networking group for young fee-only planners.