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Becoming an Independent Financial Advisor

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Starting your own business is scary business (pun wholly intended). When you work for yourself, everything depends on you: when you work, where you work; when you eat, if you eat. It can be a great psychological and caloric burden.The first year after financial planner Meg Bartelt started Flow Financial Planning was hard – "like, not-diagnosed-but-I-swear-it-was-a-nervous-breakdown hard," she says. Now three-and-a-half years in she reports that while becoming an independent financial advisor was stressful, it was also gratifying."One thing that became obvious very quickly was that being an advisor at another person's firm is entirely different from being the advisor in my own firm, where I am in charge of not only being the lead advisor, but also running the business," she says. "I now had two full time jobs: financial planner and business owner, and I'd only been trained in one."There's a lot of on-the-ground learning involved in becoming an independent financial advisor, but preparation can help minimize the stress and maximize the gratification.Steps to Become an Independent Financial Advisor: Have a financial cushion. Create a financial advisor business plan. Contact custodians and get legal counsel. Figure out where you'll get your clients. Recruit staff members. Build a support network.Have a Financial CushionBefore you take the leap to independence, "plan out how much revenue you need to live on and how much 'ramp time' you have with what you've saved so far," says Katie Burke, co-founder of Equita Financial Network.Bartelt suggests having two to three years' worth of living expenses covered, either through savings or a partner who also has an income. Even if you don't need all of it, just knowing it's there can be "a tremendous stress relief," she says. Financial Advisor Business Plan"Having a business plan is critical to your success as an independent advisor," says Eric Clarke, CEO of Orion. "A good business plan will really hone in on your value proposition and identify your specific niche."A financial advisor business plan may not resemble a traditional business plan, given the number of moving parts involved in the transition, says Rob Bartenstein, CEO of Kestra Private Wealth Services. According to Bartenstein, a financial advisor business plan should include: Mapping of assets from one platform to another. The infrastructure elements related to opening the office. Systems training for the entire team. Tech installation. Integration and testing. Review of the team's personal finances and preparation for income interruption. Acquisition of health care. Clarke suggests putting hard math into if you have the scale to go out on your own, too, before becoming an independent advisor. If you have less than $100 million in assets, his advice is to join an existing firm. "You need $100 million in terms of sustaining your business, and that level of assets lets you qualify as an SEC investment advisor, bypassing the hassle of registering in each state where your clients reside," he says."Make sure to think through how you plan to serve your clients while also running the business," says Bridget Venus Grimes, co-founder of Equita Financial Network. "It's also important to know that having your own RIA is not only expensive, but it also takes up a lot of your time — time away from clients, and time away from your family."Contact Custodians and Get Legal Counsel"Process wise, advisors should contact custodians right away to see what resources they can provide," Clarke says. You'll also want "competent legal counsel who has done this before." Experienced legal counsel can help you with your Form ADV to register with the SEC and state securities authorities, get your investment advisory agreements in place and navigate the transition to independence without violating your current firm's rules, he says.Finding and Retaining ClientsOne of the biggest pitfalls Bartenstein sees for financial advisors starting their own business is not pursuing their existing clients enough during the transition. "As a departing advisor, you have to be prepared to share your vision, help clients understand what's in it for them, and diligently work to communicate," he says. To do this, "work with partners who have experience with moves like yours, from firms like yours, and who have a demonstrated track record of helping people succeed."That said, maintaining client relationships from your old firm isn't the only way forward. Bartelt started from scratch when she began Flow Financial Planning because she knew she wanted to target a different demographic, namely women in their early-to-mid career in tech. It made the first year slow but "ultimately was a blessing because I could grow a refined group of clients from the start," she says.Staffing Your Financial Planning FirmStaffing can also be a challenge for advisors starting their own financial planning firm. The problem the team at TD Ameritrade Institutional uncovered in a recent survey of more than 2,000 advisors, students, career-changers and university program directors was that many job seekers don't even know the RIA career exists. "Only 37% of students and 44% of career changers (surveyed) knew what an RIA job was, which demonstrates how crucial it is to increase visibility," says Kate Healy, managing director of Generation Next at TD Ameritrade Institutional. "Some of the ways to do this include becoming an ambassador, connecting with local university program directors, signing up to be an adjunct professor, joining networking groups and introducing the profession to students early on."She also suggests offering internships, diversifying your hiring program and encouraging candidates from different educational backgrounds to apply. "Some of the best RIAs didn't study finance so try to think outside the box and consider candidates with majors like sociology and education," she says.Independent but Not AloneBecoming an independent advisor can be the most rewarding career move you make, but it can also be the most daunting. The good news is you needn't do it alone.Many advisors feel "they need to stay at their firms to preserve their network of clients and peers," Clarke says. But there's a whole other network of support available to independent financial advisors through industry associations and conferences.For Bartelt, joining the XY Planning Network (XYPN), an organization of fee-only financial advisors specializing in Generation X and Generation Y clients, was essential. "I never considered myself an entrepreneur so starting my own business didn't particularly appeal to me, and when I decided to do it anyways, it scared the pants off of me," she says. "XYPN stepped in to mostly fill in the holes of what I needed to do, and to help me do it."Your support network can be industry associations or individual coaches and friends who allow you to share best practices."When you decide to go solo, you likely won't have the daily comradery you may be used to at a larger firm, at least not right away," Burke says. "So, having other like-minded planners to reach out to is important for your sanity; you can tap into their expertise for advice on everything from client cases, to running your business, to managing family and business."

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