Leighann Miko launched her firm, Equalis Financial, about a year ago. Since then, she’s had tremendous success. Leighann has been named one of Investment News’s 40 Under 40, and works to promote diversity within the financial planning industry through her role as an FPA member.
In the final part of this two-part series, we talk about some of the struggles that Leighann has encountered more recently in her career. In spite of the challenges she’s faced, they ultimately led to her launching Equalis Financial.
We love that Leighann is totally open about her experiences – she has so much wisdom to offer new CFP®s!
“There’s no easy fix to some of these problems – sometimes you’ve just got to go through it.”
What You’ll Learn:
- The struggles Leighann faced when starting her own RIA.
- How to care for yourself as an entrepreneur.
- How to embrace the roller coaster that is owning your own practice.
Leighann: At the one year mark of us working together, I really was starting to come to the hard realization that maybe this was a mistake, maybe I bit off more than I could chew, and I should have done some more due diligence ahead of time. I realized there was a ton of miscommunication between the two of us. I was starting to see the ugly truth that we just were not on the same page at that point. That’s a harsh realization after a year of working towards something and essentially having nothing to show for it.
Hannah: When you said that you weren’t on the same page with her, was that just about the retirement and things like that? Or was it more than that, like the practice and how she approached her work with clients, or … ?
Leighann: All of that. A big part of it was that nothing was happening in terms of the succession and the buy-out. But it was also, you know, you don’t see the inner workings of someone’s company until you actually get in there. You don’t see how they work with clients, what their relationship is like, the services they offer, how they deal with things, until you’re in it. I realized that we were coming at from two different perspectives, and we just weren’t on the same page, which made me realize that it was going to be a little tricky once I started working with her clients for the … That transition was going to be tricky because I did things differently. I provided services differently. I communicated differently. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing compared to the way she did it, it was different no less. I was concerned that that may affect the relationship I had with the clients moving forward.
Hannah: Did clients know that you were going to be the succession plan?
Leighann: It was never announced. I think most of them figured out what was going on. I mean, she was older. She was in her 60s. Here I was a young person coming in. It was never officially announced to them, but I think they picked up and they realized, “Okay, we see what’s happening here. You’re introducing us to this new person that’s with the firm. We get it.” But again, it was never made official.
Hannah: This is so interesting to me. You just decide that this isn’t working out. What were those conversations like with her?
Leighann: Intense. In one word, intense. Because we were coming at it from such different angles, it was hard, again, to get back on that same page. The way I was seeing things going or not going versus the way she was seeing things going or not going. There were quite a few conversations where she had these expectations of me that she never actually conveyed to me, so I was obviously not meeting them, and vice versa. It was just that lack of communication that just, hey, this is what she was expecting of me. Here I am failing at this objective because I didn’t know it existed kind of thing.
Hannah: What are example of that, if you don’t mind sharing?
Leighann: One thing that was expected of me was to bring in a certain amount of new assets under management over a period of time. I didn’t find out there was a number until, I think, 10 months, 11 months, in. By that point, it was a goal that she had set that I would bring in X number of new accounts with X number of dollars within 15 months. There we are at the 10 or 11 month mark, and I haven’t done anything because I didn’t know that was what she was expecting of me. That in conjunction with some contradictory statements that were made in the past, it was just, again, the miscommunication, the lack of understanding, the fact that all of these conversations were either in person … Well, mostly in person … and there was actually nothing in writing, no official anything, was really the undoing at the end.
Hannah: Was it just due from the beginning, do you think? I mean, looking back, for a new advisor entering into a situation like that, what would be your advice to them?
Leighann: Get things in writing. Always get things in writing. I don’t know that it was necessarily doomed from the start. I think the intentions were there. I think we both wholeheartedly thought that things were going to go differently. I would say probably around the six month mark is when the red flags and the spidey senses started to go off in my head, where I started to really question whether this was going to actually happen and if it was a good idea. But I figured, at that point, I had spent six months making virtually no money and working my butt off, and committed to this, that I was not going to give in and just throw in the towel. I wanted to move forward and see what was going to happen. At the end of the day, it didn’t happen. But I would rather say that I gave it 100% effort and went through with it, than just throwing in the towel halfway through.
Hannah: Yeah. I mean, that makes a lot of sense. What was your mindset at that point, looking forward to your future?
Leighann: That was a very trying, manic couple of days. I’d come to the understanding and accepted the fact there was a good chance that this was going to fall apart before it got anywhere at that point. I resolved myself to the fact that there was a good chance it was going to happen, and that it was okay if we parted ways, it would be okay. I would go on my own way. In one of my very lengthy emails to her trying to figure out what was going on, I said that to her. I said, “If you don’t see this working, please let’s have a conversation about it so I can get my ducks in a row and move on and do what I need to do.” I knew that was a distinct possibility.
That still didn’t prepare me for the conversation where it ultimately everything imploded. It was a Friday morning, and just like every quarter for the past four quarters, I showed up. We were going to do our quarterly planning set up, review the last quarter, set up our projections and our tasks and whatnot for the coming quarter. With no sign of anything, even sending me emails in the days prior having to do with client matters, I didn’t suspect anything. What I got was a 20 minute talking to of how she wanted to go a different direction, and this wasn’t what she was looking for, among some other things that I probably should not discuss. Was handed a piece of paper that said this is my 30 days to wrap up all my outstanding affairs affiliated with her company. That was that. That was Friday morning at 9:00 A.M. I basically spent the weekend, like I said, manic. One minute laughing myself hysterical of what just happened. Then the next minute crying, frantically trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
Hannah: Oh, my goodness. It’s such a reality of this business. I wish it wasn’t. You know what I mean?
Leighann: I do know. I do.
Hannah: Okay, so let’s look back at that time. Because that was a year ago, right?
Leighann: Yeah, that was almost a year ago to the day. It was October, I want to say, 7th or 9th of 2016.
Hannah: You’re a year removed from that. What do you wish you would have known at that time?
Leighann: A good question. I mean, obviously, I wish I had a crystal ball to tell me what was going to happen. But we all know that’s not reality. I guess I wish I had known more about how that process works of buying a firm and the succession planning. I wish I had understood who was responsible for what, and what the process looks like, and how it goes, and ways that I could have aided in the process. I mean, I even called the firm that she was planning to use to do the evaluation, and spoke with them to try and get their perspective on what I should do as the buyer. That’s how far I went to figure out, “How can we make this happen? What is stalling? What’s going on? How do I aid this process?” I wish I had been more informed on that aspect of it.
What’s funny is that in the time since then, I have seen so many webinars and so many FPA meetings centered around this exact topic. Like, “Where were you two years ago? I really could have used this guidance.” That’s probably the number one thing I wish I had known.
Hannah: Did you still go into work for those 30 days?
Leighann: I had to. I had outstanding plans that I was working on. I had outstanding work I was taking care of. In the time I was working there, I did bring on a few financial planning clients. For all of those clients that were technically my clients, I basically spoke with them all over the phone, explained in very simple terms what was going on. They all had options as to what they were going to do moving forward. I laid it all out to them. Then spent the next 30 days finishing up what I could, and closing out any open engagements, and tying up loose ends. I was able to get it all done and wash my hands of it, and finally get that new start that I needed.
Hannah: You were able to take your clients. Were you thinking of starting your own firm at this point? Or was it just more of you were just so overwhelmed with everything that was happening?
Leighann: The conversation where everything unfolded was a Friday morning. Like I said, I spent that weekend manic, trying to figure out what I was going to do. On the one hand, I could start my own firm. On the other hand, I could go work for someone else. Having known what I know about myself in terms of how I work with people and what a control freak I am, I realized that probably not my best bet because I had likely get fired for the first time in my life. I’m in my early 30s, I’m pretty set in my ways. Like I said, stuck in my ways and a little unwilling to change certain things. I’m very confident in what I believe. I knew that does not make for a good employee.
Recognizing that, I was like, “Well, the only other real option is to start my own firm. But do I have both the mental, emotional wherewithal and the financial means to do this? What does this mean for me financially? Because I’ve the last year basically living just above the poverty line. What is that going to mean? How many months can I afford to do this any longer? What’s that point where I have to throw in the towel, and is it worth it? Did I have the confidence at the time to put myself out there?”
Monday morning rolled around, and I ended up talking with three of her clients that I had grown really close to, and was working very closely with. They knew what was going on. She had emailed all of her clients I was working with to very implicitly state I was no longer with the firm. That’s all it was, no anything.
I spoke with them all. They had actually reached out to me after. I had sent a very nice email saying it was wonderful working with them and wished them well. Actually, three of them called me in the next two days. They were all so encouraging and so wonderful. Just encouraging me to keep doing what I was doing, and praising me and our work together. That was the confidence booster that I need to say, “Okay, clearly I’m doing something right here if the three of them went out of their way to call me and tell me how much they enjoyed working with me, and how much they benefited from it. Like clearly, I’ve got something here.” That really was the deciding factor in getting everything going.
Hannah: Wow. Because that was one of the things I was wondering about as you were talking. Because I know you had mentioned this before that how confidence, like there is a confidence issue to get in front of clients and to take over that lead advisor. These clients who reached out to you, that was really what it took? Or were there other things that added to your confidence along the way?
Leighann: I mean, I think over that year that we worked together, there was a lot of client facing work done. I think the accumulation of working with all of those clients and really starting to get out in front of the clients. I had a year to build up that confidence and really figure out my communication side with clients, and how I was going to interact with them, and tweaking that and making sure that I was taking into consideration personality types and adjusting my methodology for communicating with them based on that. I had a good amount of time to do that. By the time this all rolled around and they called me … No one, obviously, had given me feedback saying, “You’re doing really great at this.” To hear them say that was like that was what I needed, that, “You’re doing great. You should keep doing this.”
Hannah: You finished up these 30 days. Do you have a good sense that you’re going to be your own firm at this point?
Leighann: I do, yeah, so I totally get sidetracked. That Friday everything happened, Monday, Tuesday, are the days they call me. That Wednesday, I started drafting all of my documents. I signed up for my IARD account. I started drafting my ADV, getting all of that stuff together, my U4, gathering all the documents, everything I was going to need to submit to the state. Then it was just a rat race to how quickly I could get it done.
Hannah: How long did that take you?
Leighann: Too long. Unfortunately, given that I had my business plan all set and ready to go, and I was working diligently and doing everything I could as fast as I could, the good all state of California had recently gone on a hiring frenzy in the California Department of Business Oversight, who handles California Registered Advisors. I was saddled with a guy who had been on the job for two weeks. That process was just a nightmare because he had no idea what he was doing. The only way to get information back from him was to pester him via email, and then he would actually do it. It ended up what should have been probably a four week process, ended up taking about 10 weeks. It was just a bunch of nonsense that didn’t need to happen. I was at the mercy of the CBO. There was nothing I could do but just say, “Okay, any time you’re ready to get things done here.”
Hannah: You have no income coming in at this point. Did you pick up a side job, or were you just 100% all in on this?
Leighann: That happened the beginning of October. I had enough money to get me through October. Then I made that phone call that I swore to myself as a 33 year old woman that I would never make. I called up Mom, and I said, “Hey Mom, you know that offer you extend to me pretty much every day to move back in with you? I’m going to take you up on it finally.”
Leighann: A couple week later, I actually moved back in with my Mom. I thought, “If I’m going to give my clients sound advice and request of them to compromise certain things when they need to meet an objective, I’ve got to take my own advice. I can’t sit here and say, ‘Do this,’ and then be irresponsible with my own financial life.” It didn’t sit right with me.
Hannah: That’s a hard thing for somebody to do is to go back and move in with their parents. I think this is reflecting more on me than anything else. What did people around you think? You have other planners. You have this network that you’ve built out. Were they aware of what was happening?
Leighann: For the most part, yeah, at that point. I had become a little bit of a recluse. I wasn’t as socially engaged, both professionally and personally at that point, just because I was dealing with so much. By nature, I’m a relatively … Like I said, I’m an introverted person and I do very much value quiet time. Going through the stress of all this, I kept to myself a little bit. When I did engage with friends and other colleagues and trusted professionals, and explained to them, to them, it was like, “Oh done. No brainer. Of course.” They were all just like, “Well, be thankful that you actually have someone who’s willing to let you move in with them and not pay rent,” and all of this jazz. It was support all around. I never encountered one ounce of negativity or questioning or anything. Everyone was so supportive and so understanding, and so great, which obviously made the process go that much smoother mentally and financially, all of those things. It worked out really well.
Hannah: When did you officially open your doors for your new company?
Leighann: Officially January 2, 2017.
Hannah: Okay, so was this, this moment of just euphoria, like you finally have a company set up now?
Leighann: It was pure elation. I got the go ahead from the state. My website was active and live. Everything was in place. I just was counting down the days until I got that first client. It was crickets, crickets for a bit. I started to get a little scared there, not going to lie. I was a little paranoid as January went by, and then February went by, and nothing.
Hannah: That’s such a hard place to be. You’re not bringing in any money. You have this whole business plan put together. Were you doing marketing at this point?
Leighann: I wasn’t doing marketing per se. I had listings on all the NAFPA, FPA, CFP. I was going to FPA meetings and looking into joining other networking groups. I was reaching out to all of my contacts, clients I had worked with in the past, friends, family, everyone. I started to get some inquiries, which was great. But what I didn’t necessarily account for mentally was that time period between when someone first contacts you and when they ultimately end up deciding to be a client. It’s not as if they contact me on a Tuesday, and on a Wednesday, we’re signing a contract. Though that actually has happened before, but that’s not how it usually happens. What are the statistics, 3% of people are ready to sign on the dotted line right away? Everyone else, it could be at any point.
Hannah: Did the clients from the firm where you were working at before, did they join you?
Leighann: Not exactly. To date, I’ve worked with four clients that I worked with at the previous firm. They were all clients that I had worked with in a limited capacity then, and again, in a limited capacity now. They were all looking for a refresh on their budgeting and cash flow projections, or a refresh on their investment analysis kind of thing. Those were very limited scope engagements that were a one time deal.
Hannah: Let’s talk about these two months. Can you talk more about what that experience was like?
Leighann: You know, as much as I enjoy rollercoasters, and I really do. I find them very fun. This rollercoaster hasn’t been as much fun. To be honest with you, it’s been everything from left me in the fetal position crying to nearly vomiting out of fear. That’s not a really good place to be mentally, but at the end of the day, I’ve never been happier. Honestly, I’ve never been happier than I am right now. I would not change a thing. Looking back on everything that’s happened over the past couple of years has led me to this point. I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons. I’m happy.
Hannah: So many questions about this. During those times … Because I think this is the real side of being an entrepreneur. That you said vomiting in fear and crying in the fetal position. That’s pretty strong emotions. That is what it is. I heard somebody, “You have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows sometimes in the same day.” How do you deal with that from a self care perspective? How do you handle that?
Leighann: I don’t even know. I wish I had some sort of magical like this is what I do, and it cures me right away kind of thing. It’s more or less, I think it depends on the state of affairs at the moment. What’s going on in my life in that moment. For me, I have four nieces and nephews, ranging in age from one to seven at this point. They are just little balls of smiles. Typically, when you’re having a really rough day, looking at a kid smiling and laughing and giggling is really wonderful for the psyche. On those hard days, I literally would just go over to my brother’s house, sit down with the kids, and say, “Get my mind off of things.” Then we would play with their dolls or their GI Joes or whatever it was that month.
Hannah: Oh, that’s great. I love that. Well, and I love the realization that there’s no easy fix to some of these problems. Sometimes you just got to go through it.
Leighann: Yeah, and I have a really hard time shutting my brain off. There’s no, “I go into the office at nine. I leave at five. When I flip that light switch off, my brain goes off with it.” It’s a 24/7 thought process. It doesn’t just shut off. It’s constantly looking at, “How can I make things better? Oh, I got to do this for this client.” Because it never leaves you. It’s always there. To this day, I still struggle with how to separate work and my clients from my life, so it’s not bogging me down and stopping me from enjoying just the things that give me joy. It’s been a really tricky process of figuring out what that looks like. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
Hannah: Please do. We’ll have a whole another podcast on that. Let’s talk about … You do have clients. We know that from the beginning. When did you start getting clients? How did clients start coming to you? What has that been like?
Leighann: Again, that rollercoaster. I signed my very first client, signed their contract on February 28th. Then March just turned into some sort of sick twisted joke. I ended up signing, I think, nine clients that month.
Leighann: I know. Yeah, it was an onslaught. It was just madness at that point. Part of it, I worked with a client at the previous firm who sought me out, and so somewhat unrelated to her, but when I opened my doors, I sent an email to all my folks. I had just let them know what was going on. She was, unbeknownst to me, plastered it all over her Facebook. She is an entrepreneur herself and a wedding photographer, so she had a ton of reach on her Facebook. I think three of her friends and/or previous clients reached out to me almost immediately. That caught me off guard because I had no idea she’d even done that. I was like, “Hey, where’d you get my information?” They were like, “Oh, so and so.” I was like, “Really?” I am forever indebted to her, and her and her husband, who are such amazing people.
Between them and then again, to my great surprise, I joined NAFPA through XYPN, they say, “Okay, you can join this.” I thought, “Well, it’s a benefit provided through my membership in XYPN. I’m going to do it. It’s free. Why not?” I started getting flooded with inquiries from NAFPA. I was getting probably one a week, which again, I did not anticipate. I had no idea because I had been a member of FPA and been on the CFP board search engine. I would get maybe one every two months. I thought, “Well, that’s probably what’s going to happen here.” No, quite the opposite.
Hannah: Wow. Have you gotten clients from the NAFPA website?
Leighann: I don’t know the exact numbers. I should actually look at that. I’ve gotten at least six clients. I would say at least six clients from NAFPA.
Hannah: Wow. How many clients are you servicing now?
Leighann: Year-to-date, I have 32 clients, some of which were just a project one-time deal. Then some of which are ongoing financial planning and/or investment management. 32 more than I thought I’d have.
Hannah: That’s so impressive. Especially considering your first client signed on February 28th of this year. We’re recording this at the end of October 2017. That’s really impressive. Well done.
Leighann: Thank you. Yeah, it surprised me as well.
Hannah: Let’s talk about how you structured your company, that business plan that you started how many years ago in your CFP courses. Does your practice reflect that business plan?
Leighann: For the most part, it does. The business plan definitely takes more of a bigger picture view. It essentially is lined up as my ideal practice as I see it when it’s ideal or optimal working. It’s basically set up as if I’m completely successful, and I’ve gotten to a certain point, and can implement some of these things, and projects and programs that I want to implement. It like that ideal scenario, not necessarily the beginning stages. I know some folks have said, “You know, you create a business plan based on where you want to be at the beginning.” For me, it was like, “Well, no, I’m going to create a business plan for the ideal business structure,” meaning multiple people involved, different types of programs that I’m offering. It’s like more of what I’m striving to get to than that first step.
Hannah: Let’s talk about your niche because you have a special niche. Can you share what that is, and how that became your niche?
Leighann: I’ve long been the underdog my entire life. I think that’s really what’s led me to focus on underserved communities. It’s primarily the LGBTQ community and young professionals with a side order of single women, either widows or divorcees. These communities have long been ignored for the most part until recently. As we see this NextGen wave of advisors coming in and realizing they are these demographics that just aren’t getting serviced. There aren’t enough advisors out there who are focusing on them for one reason or another, young professionals in particular. Because if you look at the typical advisor, they’ve got that $500,000 minimum, or they won’t talk to you kind of thing.
Young professionals, unless they’ve inherited money or the next tech startup wiz, just don’t have those assets, but they need the guidance. Having been an underdog my entire life, I thought, “It would be perfect for me to work with clients who have been the underdog as well. People that have been thrown to the wayside and said, ‘No, you don’t have what we want. We don’t want to work with you because you don’t have X Y or Z, or because we don’t understand you,” those kinds of situations.
Hannah: You designed your firm knowing who you wanted to serve, is that right?
Leighann: Yes, absolutely.
Hannah: How are you uniquely serving them where other firms don’t?
Leighann: You know, since marriage is now legal for anyone regardless of whether they’re marrying a man or a woman, whatever, it’s definitely taken that unique planning element out of the equation, which is great. A lot of people, when this happened, said, “Oh, well there’s no need for advisors with specialize in working with the LGBTQ community because they essentially have all the same rights and everything as straight folks. You don’t need all these fancy planning techniques anymore.” At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily just about having the deeper understanding of what those special planning techniques may be in order to level the playing field with the heterosexual counterparts. It’s the walking into someone’s office and wondering whether they’re going to judge you or accept your life and who your partner is. It’s wondering if saying my husband, if you’re a man, is okay, or if that’s going to set off red flags for someone, or whether they’re going to treat you equally.
It’s that common ground that they come to me and they understand you are not going to judge me. You have experienced much of the same things I have experienced all my life as a member of the LGBTQ community, and you understand where I’m at, where I’m coming from, what my needs are, what my experience is. To me, that’s more important. I think that as far as the LGBTQ clients I have, it’s the same thing. It’s that they knew I wasn’t going to look at them and go, “I’m sorry, you’re what now?” when a woman introduced her wife and not her sister.
Hannah: Right. On your website, on your homepage, which I love your website. People should definitely go check that out. The first sentence on your homepage, it just struck me as very deliberate. I feel like there’s a story behind it. Maybe that’s the whole way you approach everything. It says bold as, “Hello. We’re Equalis Financial and we have the financial help you’re looking for. Focused whole-heartedly on the principle of equality, we’re an independent, fee-only firm …” I love that phrase “Focused whole-heartedly on the principle of equality.” Can you talk more to that? What’s really behind that?
Leighann: As a member of the LGBTQ community, I came out of the closet 20 years ago this month actually. I’ve experienced 20 years of what it’s like to be a non-heterosexual person in this world. Seeing and experience the discrimination, and the looks, and the questioning, and the different types of attitudes across the board. I also have a lot of friends whose families are not from the U.S., who are culturally different. For me, my biggest thing is leveling the playing field. I want everyone to have the same start. I want everyone to have the same access. There’s no reason why Tom and Nancy should have a headstart or access to services that Jim and Bob don’t have access to.
The name of my firm, Equalis, is a play on the Latin word, aequalis, which is Latin for equal. My mission is to provide that equality. I want everyone to be on the same playing field and to recognize that despite our differences, we all deserve the same treatment, the same access to information, the same access to resources, and the same everything. There’s no reason why it should be any different for any one person.
Hannah: Oh, I love it so much. I love how powerful that is and how … On your website, it’s the first thing that you’re leading with. That’s so cool to me.
Leighann: Thank you.
Hannah: Looking at your firm, do you have minimums? How do you structure that?
Leighann: I don’t have any minimums. Unlike most advisors, especially in the LA area, where there’s a lot of big money here, and people have a certain expectation of what an advisor is going to look like and present themselves and their office and all that jazz, I do the exact opposite of that. So, no minimums, I don’t keep a traditional office space. That’s, in large part, due to a lot of research. Even my own experience with clients is that people are more inclined to effect positive change when they’re in an environment that they’re comfortable in. Sitting in a conference room with super bright, white halogen lights and this massive table and white walls, usually is not their comfort zone. It does not reduce stress. We all know most folks, when they talk about money, it tends to stress them out. One thing what couples fight most over, money. The idea is that I want to reduce those stressors. I want them to be comfortable because I know that it’s going to help them to make better decisions.
Hannah: That’s really neat. Do you have an office where you meet clients at?
Leighann: I don’t. It’s funny because in the age of technology, you would think that clients would want to meet remotely, and we can do FaceTime or any number of online resources do these things. I find that clients don’t necessarily want that. What I offer is I say, “Hey, I will meet you in a place you’re most comfortable with.” Whether that’s their house, their office, or a local coffee shop, those three places are where they tend to go most. I travel to them.
Hannah: Your clients are choosing to meet with you in person instead of virtually, is that right?
Leighann: It is. It’s funny because we would think with people, especially my clients in their 20s and 30s that are more comfortable with technology, that they would be totally fine and into meeting remotely because then you can sit there in your pajamas. You don’t have to leave, whatever. It just tends to be easier. I find that they still want to poke me, so to speak, to make sure I’m real. They want to have that physical interaction to make sure I’m not a robot, and to just have that more … It’s a more intimate vibe when you meet with someone, and you’re sitting there in their living room, and they’re telling you this how they grew up with money, and this is how they value money, and this is what’s important to them. They would rather do that to your face than sitting on a computer looking at you. I’ve accepted that. At this point, I essentially cater to that if they want to do that then. I honestly like meeting in person as well, so it’s probably a little bit of me being insistent upon that as well.
Hannah: How are your clients paying you right now?
Leighann: Right now I have probably close to two dozen clients that are on an ongoing retainer type planning relationship. They all pay me via AdvicePay. That’s the new payment processor that allows advisors to collect payment from clients. I do have some of my old school clients who prefer to pay via check. I usually will only accept that if it’s for a one-time payment. If it’s for a recurring, ongoing planning, I’m adamant that they use AdvicePay.
Hannah: Do you have a minimum fee for clients?
Leighann: I don’t necessarily have a minimum necessarily. I like to keep it at least at $1,200 a year because if you break that down hourly, it makes the most sense. Then it starts basically at 100. Then I think my highest fee I’m charging is 250 a month. 100 to 250 is the range. Usually, they’ll fall somewhere in that range.
Hannah: Are you managing assets as well?
Leighann: I am managing assets. It’s not as much of a focus. It’s the non-sales-y person in me, in that I do have quite a few clients who have assets, mostly at Vanguard, that are just sitting there hanging out in Vanguard funds, who I gave the option of doing investment management for. They ultimately ended up choosing to just doing the ongoing planning. I always give them the choice. I lay out all of the options. I explain the pros and cons to each, the costs to each, and let them decide what’s in their best interest. As long as I feel like I’ve educated them on all of their options and what it means for them, I’m okay with whatever they choose. I try not to push them into one or the other because, again, don’t want to be that cheesy sales person. At this point, I have just a handful of clients who I manage assets for. Year-to-date, I’ve got a million dollars on the books, and another 1.4 under contract that I’m transitioning over to TD Ameritrade.
Hannah: That’s great, especially with getting your first client not that long ago. That’s really impressive.
Leighann: I’m going to keep saying, it keeps surprising me.
Hannah: Okay, so let’s look to the future. What do you have planned? What do you envision going forward?
Leighann: Because I’ve been so focused on this year, and because I had such a large shift and unexpected amount of clients sign with me this year, I honestly haven’t been able to do a lot of forward business planning. I’m focusing right now, 90% of it is on my current clients and making sure that I’m taking care of them, servicing them, and that their needs are met. Then once I feel like I’ve been able to get on top of that, I’ll probably switch focus. I’ve actually made the decision recently that I’m not going to take on anymore clients in November or December, so I can make sure that come January 1st, I’m all caught up, all clients are in a good space, and then 2018 will start fresh and go from there. I have some targets that I’ve set, ideal numbers and it’d be nice to hit them, but I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself in terms of meetings numbers.
Hannah: Right, numbers that are hypothetical.
Leighann: Exactly. Again, because I feel like based on what other advisors have showed me of what they’re doing, I feel like I’m a little ahead of the curve in my first year. Again, that helps me to not put so much pressure on myself for a year or two.
Hannah: Looking to the new planners, what have been … Touch on the value of your network. I’m sure your network has quite a few new planners in it as well. What are, I don’t want to say issues, but what some things that you would caution new planners about?
Leighann: The number one thing I hear from some new planners, and even a secondhand comment from other advisors who’ve spoken to new planners, is that recent graduates feel a little emboldened by technology and resources on the market to feel and think that they can open their own practice relatively soon after graduating from college. To me, that would be a huge mistake. I say that because I had eight and a half years of experience behind me of learning every facet of the business.
If you come out of school, and you’re in early 20s, and you think that, “Yeah, there’s this resource here that’ll help me do it. I should totally do it,” don’t. I think it’s incredibly important to … I don’t want to be that person, that older person that says, “Pay your dues. Put in the time,” because that’s not necessarily what it is. I think it’s really important to learn from the generation of planners before you. From my experience again, it’s learn what you don’t want to do, but learn what you do want to do as well. I think it’s really important to gain that experience. It’s invaluable. It’ll help you from avoiding certain mistakes that you may make had you not had that experience.
Hannah: That’s great. What would be your advice for new planners? I hit it on a little bit, but for somebody starting out or thinking about financial planning as a career, what would you tell them?
Leighann: I think the first bit of advice is to obtain the CFP, go through the coursework. If anything, especially if you are a career transitioner, go through the coursework. Yeah, it’ll cost you maybe a couple thousand dollars out of pocket to go through the courses. But what it’ll do is give you that high level overview of what the industry is all about. If at the end of it, it’s not something you see yourself doing, well you just educated yourself and spent a few bucks, but you’re no worse off.
I think getting the CFP designation is hands down the most important thing. A lot of these colleges actually have joint programs now, where it’s your undergraduate degree in combination with all of the courses required to sit for the CFP examination, which I think is fantastic. If only they had had that when I was in college, that would have been wonderful, but it exists now. For college students to go through and have that fundamental knowledge and understanding of what it is, is really great. I think the experience requirement obviously before being able to use the CFP marks is very necessary, but I think having that is really important. It really is the gold standard for proving your credibility and your knowledge.
Hannah: When you took the CFP exam, where did you take that in your career, and what was your experience around that?
Leighann: I had a fun, roundabout path with my CFP journey. I started taking the online courses through the College for Financial Planning right after I graduated from college, which was mistake number one. I didn’t let myself breathe after school, after school, after school. I should have given myself more time. What I also realized was that I needed something a little more structured. I didn’t have the self discipline to take an online course. What that made me realize was that there was no way I was going to retain the information, and I was undoubtedly going to fail the exam if this is the path I kept taking.
I decided to enroll in the UCLA Personal Financial Planning certificate program, which again was an in-person deal with other classmates, so it forced me to be there every week, and to pay attention, and to have this structure around it, which was really helpful for me. Not everyone needs that, but I definitely needed it. I think it’s important to recognize that in yourself if you’re the same type of person.
I went through that and I finished my last course in the winter of 2011. That was actually before the practicum course was required by the CFP board. UCLA just added it in there, which I thought was great. They were a little ahead of the curve. Because it wasn’t required, I was actually able to register and sit for the November 2011 exam, which I did despite being incredibly unprepared. That was also back in the days where the exam was on paper, and it was over two days and 10 hours. It was a nightmare. I’ve never been more uncomfortable in any sort of environment than that. It was just sitting there with 100 other people, listening to two hours of instructions every day. It was terrible. Thank god it caught up with modern technology and you can do it on the computer now, because that was terrible.
Needless to say, I failed. I did not pass it that first time around. I knew it going in that I wasn’t prepared. I had again resolved myself to another reality that I wasn’t going to pass. By the time I’d realized that, it was too late to reschedule or get a refund. I ultimately looked at it as a very expensive practice test. It set me up to say, “Okay, this is what it’s like. These are what the questions are like,” which I thought again, I was trying to turn it into a positive like, “Yes, you failed, but you can now take the experience. You know what the test is like. You know what the environment is like. Use that to your advantage for when you take it the next time.”
Hannah: When did you retake the exam then?
Leighann: Well, several years later. My original intention, obviously, was to take it within six months. For one reason or another, I made an impulsive decision to apply to grad school and got in. Then realized that there was no way that I could work full time at 40 hours a week, take two graduate level courses per semester, and study for the CFP exam. I decided that I would put the CFP exam off until I had finished graduate school. That worked out pretty well.
Six months after graduation, I tackled that beast once again. Fortunately this time, I came out the victor and actually passed it. Again, despite my feeling of failure as I went into it. Sometimes I wish I could get the video from the Prometrics Center that records above you to make sure you’re not cheating. Because to see my reaction to that screen. By this time, technology was on computers. To see that screen that actually popped up and said, “You passed,” I’m pretty sure I nearly fell out of the chair.
A lot of things came together. Fortunately, I was literally going to have to question whether this really was the path for me if I didn’t pass that second time around.
Hannah: Any other pieces of advice or thoughts that you have for new planners?
Leighann: If school is your thing, I think getting an advanced degree is probably a good idea. Again, a lot of programs nowadays, they integrate the CFP curriculum into Master’s programs if your undergraduate degree did not include it. It’s another way, especially for younger students or younger advisors, to really boost your marketability and add value for your clients.
Something I looked into because I was a younger woman and I realized that I also looked like I was probably eight years younger than I am. I had this fear that no one was going to take me seriously. I thought, “Well, if I get a Master’s degree, that’ll give me some credibility. It will give me a little more influence with these future employers and even clients.” I just said, “This is probably going to be better for me in the long run.”
I got my Master’s in taxation, which let me tell you what a ball of fun that was. The reason that made sense to me was because I had throughout the years looked into getting my MBA, which is the go-to advanced business degree. But it didn’t make sense because how is an MBA going to help my financial planning clients? Whereas, the Master’s in Tax really helps me to do advanced planning strategies, doing analysis and whatnot. I thought, “That really provides a value to my clients. Whereas, an MBA or anything else really wouldn’t have that effect.”
Hannah: Are you glad that you did that?
Leighann: I’m incredibly glad. It’s been really helpful. Again, there’s been several instances where someone will make a comment about having my Tax degree or Master’s. They’ll say, “Wow, yeah, no, this makes things way better. I really trust you. I think you do have a knowledge.” It’s been a bit of a confidence booster for me knowing that this advanced degree that I got is helping give my clients confidence in me. For me, personally, it’s definitely helped. To this day … I’ll be 34 in December … most people still think I’m in my early 20s. Whatever advantage I can have in that front, I’m going to take.
Hannah: That’s great. Well, anything else, or any other things you want to mention before we jump off?
Leighann: Yeah, a few other resources, like I mentioned earlier. Joining the FPA is a really, really, really wonderful thing to do because you’re able to make connections and maybe not necessarily people who’ll get you clients or lead to clients, but people who can give advice, people who have been around the industry for a while who you can run ideas by, bounce ideas off of.
Also, the continuing education component of it is always great. They have opportunities like the diversity scholarship, of which I was a recipient of in 2012, which was amazing. They paid for me to go the FPA annual conference. That was my foray into the conferences. It was a mind blowing experience, something that … the FPA conference is a fantastic conference that I think everyone should go to at least once if not more.
Then getting involved in the board of directors and giving back to the profession. Again, casting a wider net in terms of your network. You really have to put yourself out there. For me especially, as uncomfortable and as foreign as it was, I’m still reaping the rewards to this day for putting myself out there in 2000, what was it, 10. I think it’s really important to do that.
Then in terms of resources that exist, New Planner Recruiting is a fantastic company. Caleb Brown, who runs New Planner Recruiting, is such a phenomenal human. His mission is to connect or bridge that gap between new planners and advisory firms. He’s done such a great job of building this community, and working with advisors, and helping them to understand the value of hiring recent college graduates. Where most people will just go, “No. I don’t want to train someone, and spend all this money to do it.”
They focus on candidates with zero to five years of experience, and help place them with firms who have a great culture and are trying to cultivate the next generation of planners. Even though I was never able to use his service, he was always a really great source of information. I really encourage any new planner to go check out their website. I believe it’s NewPlannerRecruiting.com. They’re constantly posting jobs or opportunities across the country, as well as they have a newsletter and what not that they send out that’s always got really cool bits of information, tips, tricks, ideas, things to boost your marketability and whatnot. I think it’s incredibly helpful. I really love what they’re doing there, so check them out.
Hannah: Absolutely. They have so many great resources even just on their website.
Leighann: Yeah, absolutely.
Hannah: Awesome. Anything else?
Leighann: I guess that last thing I would say is because technology is at the forefront of financial advising at this point, and there’s so many different offerings, and it’s important to know. One thing I always tried to do was download all of the free trials of every software. That way, when you go into an interview with company X, and they use XYZ, CRM or what have you, you can say, “Yes, I’ve seen that software. I know what it does.” You can familiarize yourself with these softwares. I really think that’ll give you a leg up in an interview if you can say confidently that yes, you know this software. You’ve used it. You’re comfortable with it. You can learn it really quickly. Again, it’s free.
Hannah: That free is a really good word.
Leighann: Yes, free. Just do the trials. Don’t get crazy. Well, some will offer some for a trial, a week, two weeks, whatever. Just get an idea of it, understand what it is, so you can have that advantage.