How I Saved My Prac­tice

Two months away from the likely close of his RIA firm, Dave Grant changed to a spe­cialty prac­tice from a niche ap­proach. It worked, he says.

Financial Planning - - CONTENT - By Dave Grant

Two months away from the likely close of his RIA, a colum­nist changed to a spe­cialty prac­tice from a niche ap­proach. It worked.

TWELVE MONTHS AGO, I THOUGHT MY en­tre­pre­neur­ial jour­ney might be over. I was two months away from clos­ing my RIA be­cause of client at­tri­tion and low funds. It seemed the sen­si­ble op­tion. I 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 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.

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

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

As the num­ber 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 hurt. My at­tempts at manag­ing the flow didn’t stop five com­pre­hen­sive plan­ning clients from sign­ing up within a two-week pe­riod.

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

I loved serv­ing teach­ers, but I was go­ing broke. Re­brand­ing to fo­cus on peo­ple in lo­cal sub­urbs near­ing re­tire­ment greatly ex­panded the tar­get mar­ket.

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. A niche cen­ters on a spe­cific prob­lem you solve for peo­ple, while a spe­cialty can be a de­mo­graphic of peo­ple you serve. Pre­vi­ously, my fo­cus was teach­ers nav­i­gat­ing re­tire­ment and I was un­able to con­vert prospects as I needed.

By mov­ing to a spe­cial­ized prac­tice of

pre-re­tirees — with a mul­ti­tude of prob­lems that need 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, 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.

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 well­paid 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 TWINGE OF SAD­NESS

In the sum­mer, my fam­ily spends time at a fam­ily lake house 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 I was liv­ing two pro­fes­sional lives. I had built a brand as a teacher spe­cial­ist but was now mov­ing into the gen­eral re­tire­ment-plan­ning space. I had built two web­sites and was main­tain­ing con­tent on both. It was be­com­ing bur­den­some.

After 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.

There was a twinge of sad­ness as we fi­nal­ized the sale, but it was com­bined with ex­cite­ment at how much time this would free me 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. 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 re­verseengi­neered my per­sonal in­come goals so I could re­lieve the pres­sure I was feel­ing. In my ideal world, I would be work­ing 30 to 40 hours a week and earn $75,000 after business ex­penses.

As I write this, I’m work­ing 20 to 25 hours a week and my in­come for 2017 will be close to $80,000 after ex­penses. This com­pares with earn­ings of $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 and ex­plor­ing other in­ter­ests.

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 oth­ers talk about how hard their job is — even my wife.

I won­der if it seems as if I’m not fully com­mit­ted to build­ing my business. I keep re­mind­ing my­self that it’s not the hours, but rather the re­sults, that mat­ter, If I can achieve my goals in less time, that should be cel­e­brated. Reach­ing my in­come goal has not made me as happy as I thought it would. I hope that once I see it’s sus­tain­able, my fears will sub­side.

I didn’t ex­pect to feel anx­i­ety and fear when things started go­ing well. I won­der if it seems as if I’m not fully com­mit­ted to build­ing my business.

Dave Grant, a Fi­nan­cial Plan­ning colum­nist, is founder of the plan­ning firm Re­tire­ment Mat­ters in Cary, Illi­nois. He is also the founder of NAPFA Gen­e­sis, a net­work­ing group for young fee-only plan­ners. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @dav­e­g­rant82.

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