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What It's Like (To Start a Firm)

I started writing this piece because of someone who you’ve seen linked here before, Meg Bartelt. We were having an amazing conversation under a tree in Hana, talking about what it’s like to be in this moment for me. At the time of writing this, I’m both terrified and excited. It’s been that way since I left my last job. It’s about to be over, things have started moving for my firm in a big way, but I didn’t want to miss capturing this emotion. Starting a financial planning firm from scratch is hard and we aren’t talking about it enough. So here I am, talking about it, because that’s probably the best way to convey the feeling.

“Then you really might know what it’s like…” - What It’s Like by Everlast

Entrepreneurship and self-drive has been something bubbling under the surface for me for a long time. I sold knives during the summer following my freshman year of college, eager to be in control of my income. I sought out an RA job when I discovered that slinging blades wasn't for me. I liked it enough, but disliked the hours. I then participated in an MLM, much to the chagrin of my friends, a few years later. It was all to see what I could build for myself. The latter did not work out, so I got to taste failure, but it left me knowing what it took to get myself to work on my own. So I don’t think it was to anyone’s surprise when I started Open World Financial Life Planning. Granted, this is a real thing I’m building, not a manufactured version of entrepreneurship.

The first few months of starting my firm were a mix of excitement and frustration. There was a ton of ‘creative energy’ flowing through me. I had a strong desire to design, to build, to produce. That’s where the YouTube channel and the Podcast started. I had tons of time and nothing to do with it, so cranking out content was a way to distract myself. That’s where the frustration set in, between trying to manage the transition of some clients and the state regulatory board not approving my firm in a timely fashion, I just wanted to be able to announce my business to the world. I had tons of videos produced (they were bad, but they existed) and I wanted to post them!

Over time that excitement gave way to something entirely different. It only took about two weeks after registration. I would call it dread. Have you ever played a strategy game (anything from Monopoly to Civilization) and seen your loss before it happened? You can see how your opponent is about to win, but they would need to really mess up for you to not lose. That’s the feeling. Okay, so now I’m registered, but I have no idea how to get clients from scratch.

I tempered this feeling and ignored it with action. I began going to some networking events. Three or so a week. I also taught ‘lunch and learns’ at the coworking space I was now a part of. Both were fulfilling, because I was meeting new people, and I had some immediate results in the form of interest. It took a few months (January, and I launched in August), but I started bringing on some clients. That was a huge relief. Phew. I really can do this, with or without Steve.

At my previous firm I was benefitting hugely from the reputation and clout of my mentor, and I now no longer had that cushion, but I was proving to myself that it was possible to do it on my own. That was exciting. All the while, however, I was watching my bank account trickle downward. The start-up expenses for my firm were not great (I measured them about at $1,100/mo, pretty lean), but my cost of living was high for the area. Two cars we’d bought when we had two incomes now seemed like they were eating me alive. That trickle caused anxiety, especially when clients stopped showing up for a while.

In 2019, from May to October, I brought on zero new clients. Talk about anxiety. After talking with other firm owners and being on the other side, I can tell you that this is entirely normal as a phase of growth, but it still terrified me. What if I fail? I had an inheritance, and I’m burning through it every month…

I have since described this feeling as having a 10lb weight on your chest at all times, and when you need to spend a few hundred dollars on something, it goes up to 20lbs. If there’s one lesson I would have you take from this, do not let that emotion come home. I did. It’s been difficult to talk to my wife about money in the past as we have entirely different money stories, and the minor panic made it even worse. I know for a while I made her feel every ounce of my anxiety, and that was not fair to her. She’s her own person with her own problems to deal with.

Then I went to XYPN Live in October and some magic happened (not the trading card game, I was the only one who played that was there…) I focused entirely on being better at planning and blocked out the real world for a few days, and as if by dumb luck, I had three emails for booked potential client appointments on my way out of the conference. I did not make calls, they all just showed up. It was an immense feeling of relief.

I would go on to bring in 4 clients from October to December of 2019, which made me feel over the moon. 9 new clients in 2019, short of my goal, but still growth of over 200% from what I had coming into the year.

That success has continued by the way. I brought on two clients this January, and have three potential new clients in February. It’s been great. I also have a new planner starting with me this month...someone who just showed up in my life and wanted to work the same way I did. We’ll announce him to the world soon, when he’s good and ready.

Don’t think that all this good fortune has changed the feelings though. Feelings aren’t logical. I know that things are looking up from here, but I’m still afraid of another client drought. I don’t think I will ever be fully free of that fear. It’s just less potent now.

Starting a financial planning firm is a rollercoaster. You will experience some pretty low lows. They will feel paralyzing, anxious, and full of self-doubt. The trade-off is that you will experience the highest highs you’ve ever had in your life. The list includes being featured in an article highlighting you as a person and a professional, changing the lives of your clients, having someone say to you “You’re amazing.” and actually mean it.

So do it, whatever that thing is for you. Just be prepared for the emotions. Be comfortable feeling them, to the extent that you can be. Make sure you have some amazing people in your corner too, pushing you to be better. I would not have made it this far without any one of these people.

My List:

-Rebecca Bloom

-Steve Brody

-Jon Bloom

-Sally Bloom

-’The Friend Group’

-Colin Overweg

-Dwight Detloff

-Isaiah Douglass

-Michael Mustian

-Mike Zung

-Zhi Li

-Taylor Deardoff

-Meg Bartelt

-The Entirety of the Kinder 5-Day Group

And plenty of other people in my life who challenge me to think differently, act more, and do better.

“You know where it ends, yo, it usually depends on where you start…” - What It’s Like by Everlast

Tags: Life Planning, Financial Life Planning, Nerd Finance, Ian Bloom, RIA, Firm Ownership