Welcome back to the 140th episode of Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today’s podcast is Adam Cmejla. Adam is the founder of Integrated Planning & Wealth Management, an independent RIA based in Carmel, Indiana that oversees approximately $45 million in assets under advisement for nearly 100 financial planning clients.
What’s unique about Adam, though, is the incredible transformation his practice has gone through over the past 2 years, as a shift in mindset has led him to grow revenue by nearly 80% over what he had built the first 10 years cumulatively by both raising his financial planning fees and going all-in on a niche of serving optometrists.
In this episode, we talk in depth about how Adam’s marketing process has evolved over the years, from starting out at Waddell & Reed where he immersed himself in local networking groups like BNI and Indianapolis Rainmakers, to beginning to shift his focus towards working with VDOCs, veterinarians, doctors, optometrists, and chiropractors, by focusing his marketing on white coat professions and launching a podcast, to further narrowing down his focus to just serve optometrists after realizing it’s actually easier to market it and grow his firm as the target clientele narrows, which in turn has led him from charging as little as $400 a year for financial planning for his legacy clients, to charging $595 per month plus $1,000 upfront or over $8,000 a year in planning fees for his ideal target client.
We also talk about the mindset shifts that Adam went through to reinvent his practice over the past 2 years after hitting the wall from his first 10. From moving away to setting his value in terms of the time he spends on clients and instead looking more directly to what his clients say they value the most, which wasn’t the depth of his financial planning data analysis, the steps he took to raise his financial planning fees by as much as 100% to 300% over the past year to fix legacy clients that were being undercharged, and the way he balanced bringing in new ideal clients along with raising fees on existing clients as a way to overcome his own fears that clients might terminate him for the fee increases, even though in the end, virtually none of them did.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Adam shares his top advice to fellow financial planners. If you’re really wondering if you should raise your fees, the answer is already yes. How the transformation of his advisory firm enabled a transformation with his wife and children by allowing the entire family to reallocate the time they spend together, and how Adam has institutionalized the processes and workflows he’s developed in Redtail CRM to the point that he’s now also beginning to consult other advisors on how they can adapt and implement the same efficiencies in their own advisory firms.
So whether you’re interested in learning why narrowing your focus can help grow your advisory business, ways to systematize your business processes, or why the answer to the question, “Should I raise my fees?” is almost always, “yes,” then we how you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast.
What You’ll Learn In This Podcast Episode
- A View Into Adam’s Business And The History That Led Him Where He Is Today [00:06:04]
- Developing Client Relationships Early In His Career As A Financial Advisor [00:17:26]
- Adam’s Decision To Focus On The Optometry Niche [00:21:47]
- Connecting With Optometrists And “Cultivating Golden Geese” [00:27:56]
- The Mindset Shift Adam Needed To Narrow His Original Focus [00:49:27]
- How Adam Assesses (And Reminds Himself Of) The Value His Clients Place On Him [00:56:33]
- How Podcasting And Coaching Led Adam To Align With His Ideal Vision [01:10:10]
- How Adam’s New Business Model And Fee Schedule Grew Revenue By Nearly 80% [01:17:50]
- The Importance Of Having A Sense Of Community [01:37:44]
- Advice For Young Advisors: On Fees And Niches [01:43:57]
- Helping Other Advisors Systematize Their Practices [01:46:27]
- The Meaning Of Success For Adam – Proactive And Cognitive Awareness [01:51:51]
Resources Featured In This Episode:
- Adam Cmejla
- Integrated Planning & Wealth Management
- Integrated Consulting & Advisory Solutions
- 20 / 20 Money Podcast
- Limitless Adviser Coaching Program
- Cambridge Investment Research
- Fear-Setting by Tim Ferriss
- Rainmakers Indianapolis
- BNI (Business Networking International)
- Redtail CRM
- eMoney Advisor
- From Selling To Serving by Lou Cassara
Welcome, Adam Cmejla, to the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Adam: Thank you, Michael. It is a pleasure and privilege to share in this conversation with you.
Michael: I’m excited to have you on the podcast today because you’ve had this interesting journey through the industry that a lot of us have had, where you started out in a large firm, bounced around to another firm, took two or three stops before you found the balancing point that worked for you, and now, over the past few years, you’ve gone all into a niche – a niche of niche of niches. I know you live in the world of optometrists, and not even just optometrists, but optometrists that are evaluating roll-up aggregator sales, because there’s a version of roll-ups in the optometry business the same way there is in the RIA business right now. Private equity will do this in pretty much any vertical they can find.
And you just ended out building into this super-specific domain, right down to a homepage that has glasses with a clear view through them, that says “Helping optometrists plan life on purpose.” I just love it. Like, if you are an optometrist with life and financial questions, this just speaks to you in a way that everybody else’s walks-on-the-beach-lighthouse and Adirondack chairs imagery doesn’t quite connect.
So I’m really excited to talk about this journey of what you’ve gone through, bouncing around different firms, bouncing around different business models, eventually trying to find a niche, and figuring out what you wanted to build the firm into. It’s sort of the challenge and journey that I think we all go through over the first 5 or 10 years of the business. So I appreciate you joining us on the podcast today just to talk about this journey and how you ended out talking to optometrists, and considering private equity roll-up deals as a focus of your business.
Adam: Yeah. Well, and the keyword, I think, in what you were just saying is that it truly has been that. It’s been a journey. I call myself kind of an accidental advisor. Maybe we can get into the backstory a little bit because it is relevant, not only professionally where I am right now in the business or businesses that I have, but also the personal journey that I’ve gone through and the personal lessons that I’ve taken from this journey in financial services. So for this opportunity and privilege to share it, and hopefully give other advisors who listen that may find themselves in a similar situation or a variation in the theme, I appreciate the platform.
Michael: Well, absolutely. So I think to start, I’d love to just talk a bit more about the advisory firm. Just tell us about your firm, what you do, who you do it for. Obviously, I kind of cued it up a little bit, but for everyone who just wants to get up to speed, how do you describe Integrated Planning & Wealth Management?
A View Into Adam’s Business And The History That Led Him Where He Is Today [00:06:04]
Adam: Yeah. So we’ll start from the current state and kind of work our way back. So currently, we are a fee-only RIA. We went fee-only back in February of 2017 when the RIA officially launched. I guess we technically adopted the word “fee-only” in September of 2018 when my insurance license finally lapsed. On a side note, I have never worked so hard to have insurance companies stop paying me trails on commissions. It’s an amazing process that either I’m just really messing something up or…I can’t believe the number of emails that I and my team have had to send to a couple of the insurance companies to quite literally say, “Look, stop paying me. I don’t want this $43.53 of trails that you’re trying to pay me.” But again, a sidebar conversation.
Michael: Like, you couldn’t get them to stop the payments.
Adam: No, no. We had to get…I can’t even explain exactly. Thankfully, I have a wonderful practice manager that has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting behind the scenes on my behalf. But yeah, the fee-only thing was actually a hard process to try and solidify. So 2017 is when the RIA started, and we currently serve, ironically enough, it’s right at 100 households. I guess by traditional definitions, our profession/industry has always kind of gravitated towards this AUM number. And I don’t entirely define my business as just AUM. But for those that want to use that as a benchmark, we currently have just over $45 million in both discretionary and non-discretionary assets under management. And that includes the personal client side of things as well as some retirement plans that we have for some of our business owners.
From the beginning of my profession and my journey in financial services, I’ve always adopted financial planning, so a much higher increase of our revenue is being derived from financial planning fees as well. From a revenue standpoint, the $45 million or so doesn’t translate to your industry average 1% or anything like that. We are on pace, for 2019, to do about $110,000 in financial planning fees, which is actually up from $41,000 in 2018 and actually 2017, when I was going back and looking at our numbers in prep for our conversation. Because we have experienced a significant amount of growth over the last two years or so, I kind of wanted to get that breakdown and just make sure that I was clear on my numbers.
We’ve had pretty significant growth on the financial planning fees, and that’s a direct correlation to how I have, in the last probably eight to nine months, just become laser-focused and specific on the niche that we’re serving, and made sure that our fee structure and pricing schedule accordingly matched that clientele. So all-in right now, 2019 from a revenue standpoint, we’ll be on pace to do about $400,000, and I think we’re at an EBOC of about 57%. That’s kind of a snapshot of the practice right now. Interestingly enough, as I’ve gone through this process, we have actually pared down that client list by about 15 households in the last 6 months. And we can kind of get into that a little bit more on just how the practice has evolved.
Prior to launching as an RIA, I was with Cambridge Investment Research, an independent broker-dealer. I was dually registered from 2011 until 2017, and before that, I got into the business, to begin the journey, in, of all times, April of 2008.
Adam: Yeah! I spent four years with Waddell & Reed, then transitioned my practice to Cambridge Investment Research, and then here we are as an RIA. I would argue that 2008, April 2008, was the absolute best time to “get” into this business and get into financial planning.
Michael: I’ve got to ask, why do you say that? Because I think most people would go the opposite direction like, “Joined the industry, and a third of the jobs were gone in six months.”
Adam: I had the extreme privilege of being both ignorant and naive. I say that really just from a place of authenticity, because…and to back up even further, which is going to set the table, I think, for some of our conversation later on here, I went to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (Go Phoenix!), and graduated pre-med with chemistry, and also with a business administration minor. The reason I picked up the business minor was because by the time I was working my way through the pre-med degree, I realized that I didn’t want to go on to medical school, but I was too far in that major to change course. So all right, let’s finish up the major, let’s pick up the minor. Maybe I can do something in life sciences with a business twist on it.
And that’s actually what I found myself doing while I was in college, which is where I met my wife – we met as undergrads. After we graduated, she ended up choosing to go to IU Optometry School, so she had another four years of education down in Bloomington, Indiana, at IU. While she was going to optometry school, in May of 2007 I started working for Baxter Pharmaceutical Solutions as a Quality Assurance Associate, working hand-in-hand with engineers doing batch reviews. I was basically going through inches of documents and reams of paper, quite literally making sure that every “i” was dotted, every “t” was crossed, everything was within threshold, and that every standard operating procedure was followed.
Michael: Someone’s got to do QA.
Adam: Someone has to do QA. And if it went wrong, then it was, “All right, let’s do a root cause analysis. Let’s make sure that we understand. Let’s not just mask the symptom, let’s cure the disease.” That was kind of our philosophy and approach to make sure that it didn’t happen again.
I did that for about four months before I wanted to put a pencil in my year. It was a great job, but it just didn’t fit my personality and my mindset. I’m a third-generation business owner and I knew just with the taste of business in college that I wanted to do something. I wanted to own my own business eventually. I just didn’t quite know what that was going to be. And I just started…I always had kind of a closet passion for personal finance, not really investing; I think that’s the key differentiator there. I loved personal finance. I loved understanding how money worked. I had made some mistakes in college and high school, and when I was younger, with money. I’ve seen it happen in my family. I’ve seen success with money in my family. And I just kind of had this itch that personal finance is fun.
Then I started to combine that interest with not really being satisfied and content in my job at Baxter. I started looking around and thinking, “Okay, what can I do with an interest in finance?” And lo and behold, just down the street from the apartment we were renting was your friendly neighborhood Edward Jones office. So I quite literally just dropped in and said, “So what does it mean to be a financial advisor?” And lo and behold, the guy that was there was also a branch manager/recruiter – I don’t know if they wear two different hats.
Michael: Well, of course, everybody else was out knocking on doors that day. The only person who was there was the branch manager.
Adam: Well, I got two interviews in with them before they said, “Before you come in for your…” Was it two or one? I don’t remember. It was one of the next interviews in the process where they said a precursor, “By the time you come in the next time, we want you to have 30 names on paper of people that you’ve gone and knocked on the door.” I never showed back up; I never showed up. Like, “Nope, not me. Not me.” Which is interesting because they gave me that opportunity. I didn’t have sales experience. I didn’t have a finance degree. I didn’t have a marketing degree. I wasn’t from the area – we had just moved from Wisconsin where all of our family was. So I didn’t have a single other person that I knew in like a 300-mile radius.
Michael: Well, you know in retrospect now, why they were willing to do that, right?
Adam: Oh, yeah, let’s throw them against the wall and see who sticks.
Michael: Well, and the day you apply for the job, they get 30 qualified prospects.
Adam: Yeah, exactly.
Michael: You can’t buy a marketing list for that cheap.
Adam: Exactly, exactly. And so that didn’t last long. And then just by chance, I had my resume posted, I don’t even remember what site it was, but I got a call from a recruiter about this food processing quality control job, up in Indianapolis. And I said, “I appreciate the call. Thanks for looking out, but I’m actually looking at getting involved in financial services. Do you have any firms that are looking to add people in financial services?” And he said, “You know what? One of my good friends is an advisor for this firm called Waddell & Reed. I think they have an Indy office. You should give them a call.” And he gave me the name and contact info. I reached out and I connected with their office.
The managing principal at the time, by every measure of the imagination, should not have given me a chance. Again, I had no sales experience, and I didn’t know anybody. I knew the difference between a stock and a bond, but not a whole lot else, let’s be honest. And again, against all odds and without all kinds of prerequisites, to his credit, and I’m forever grateful for him for that opportunity, he saw something in me and affectionately gave me a desk, a phone, and chair, and I studied for my 7, 66, life and health, and was activated in April of ’08.
Why I say it was a good time to join the profession at that time is because I was just licensed. I didn’t have a client base to serve. I didn’t have clients calling. They affectionately gave me their orphan accounts, which I always thought was such a loving name for accounts that had been abandoned in branch or in offices, right? And I started practicing and getting comfortable on the phone and hearing a lot of, “I can’t believe you’re the fifth advisor in five months that has called me. Stop calling me.” Like, “Oh, this is awesome. What did I sign up for?” But just started through that process.
I learned very early on that I love to talk to people, and I love to just sit and understand and listen to what it is that they had to say. Because at that time, I didn’t really know what it was that I was going to be doing. As an advisor, it was about going out, meeting people. I had a branch manager that was going to be sitting with me in appointments to try and understand the situation. But I had this thirst for knowledge, and so at that time, while I was out talking to people and networking (I joke with people that I drank more coffee and had more after-hour drinks than anybody probably should in their first 12 months), I just spent time building up my network and listening and reading and consuming as much as I could about this awesome thing called financial planning. That’s how I slowly but surely started building up the relationships that I was serving at that time.
It was good because I had people to talk to when advisors that were in the business didn’t have anything to tell their clients, didn’t have a service model in place, weren’t returning phone calls, whatever. It was that opportunity for clients to just say, “Someone will listen to me, someone will talk to me, I’ll take a meeting with Adam.” And that was kind of the journey that got the momentum going for me to survive those first couple of years in the business, because that’s quite literally what it was. It was survival.
Developing Client Relationships Early In His Career As A Financial Advisor [00:17:26]
Michael: So talk to us a little bit more about what were you actually doing to get clients early on. This is, as you know, the point when so many of us fail or can’t survive or can’t get through. Was it just heavy calling on orphan leads and you actually got some orphan leads that worked? Was that just part of a broader picture? How were you actually doing business development as you got going in that environment?
Adam: For me at that time, I did have a few successful, I guess you would say conversions, if you will, of orphan accounts that agreed to meet with me. We struck up a good conversation, had a good rapport, and I ended up serving them in an ongoing capacity as their advisor. But I can pretty much narrow it down to two things at that time, because I didn’t have a niche, I didn’t have a focus. I was networking. I was a member of BNI, and there was a local organization called Rainmakers. If there were more than three people getting together to network and build relationships and talk, I was there. I also did events, and I would couple the two together. So I would meet as many people as I could at these networking events that were for either BNI or Rainmakers, or whatever it was that was going on, ribbon-cutting ceremonies at the Chamber of Commerce. Wherever I could meet people and connect with someone. And then I would organize events.
Waddell & Reed had a good program where they would subsidize a part of client events back in the day. Now, I don’t know if they still do that, but they saw that other advisors had success doing that. They would basically reimburse you a certain dollar amount per person per event that you did. So I did everything from wine tastings to events at amusement parks. We rented out a theater one time. You name it, we did it. It’s almost therapeutic to go back and talk about this because it’s been so long since I’ve actually revisited that portion of the business. But it was a combination of networking and doing events and seminars.
Michael: Okay. And on any topic or topics in particular?
Adam: In the beginning, I had what I would call a “specifically generic” niche back in that time. Because even then I saw the benefit of trying to focus in on something. I just didn’t go all-in on it at that time like I have now with optometrists. So in the beginning, it was with dentists and pharmacists. Still to this day, one of my most wonderful clients that I work with, she’s an absolute rock star, and she would be what we would call a connector. She was with CVS at the time. I ended up meeting, of all places along with another advisor I tagged along with, her branch manager at a recruiting fair. CVS was there, and that’s when we got connected to Amy. She was just a rainmaker for me when we started working with her. She allowed us to do events for her team and for the other leadership at CVS. We did intern events. So it was a specifically generic niche. I’ve worked with pharmacists, I worked with dentists, and I ended up connecting with a physician.
So that whole white coat theme kind of stuck with me, with my wife in optometry school. I did a few events with optometrists. But as I think I’ve heard other advisors on your show say, there were times where hey, it worked so well, I stopped doing it. Because you get sidetracked, right? You do an event and then you have a lot of people to talk to. And I was just solo at the time; I didn’t have an assistant. My first hire didn’t come until, I think it was just under four years into the business. So I was doing everything, wearing every hat.
So we know the traditional rollercoaster of advisors, right? We spend all kinds of time prospecting, then we find out we have all these great people to talk to. We end up bringing on a couple of them as awesome clients, you do great work for them onboarding, but then your marketing momentum just completely comes to a halt. I felt that that was amplified for me because I was trying to do that same cycle in the optometry space, in the dentistry space, in the pharmacy space. I never really built up a consistent, sustainable, and repeatable process in one of those markets, which was probably the biggest lesson that I learned going through that, and which has started to pay significant dividends in the optometry space, even since doing that just within the last eight months or so.
Adam’s Decision To Focus On The Optometry Niche [00:21:47]
Michael: Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon to me that I have this conversation with a lot of advisors who are kind of thinking about niches, wondering about niches, looking at going to specialize in one and basically saying, “Can I pick more than one?” Either maybe they’re not sure which one they want to pick yet, so they sort of want to try two, or there’s this mental idea of cosmic diversification, like, “I’m less risky if I’m dabbling in a whole bunch of these at once instead of solely being reliant on one.”
But the challenge that I find that always comes up is some version of what you’re saying here. At some point, you get this awesome invitation to go and speak at a local pharmacist’s event, where you can show off what you’re doing and have a great opportunity to network, and then two days later, you get another phone call, and someone from the optometry association wants you to speak at a local chapter meeting, and it’s at the same time. At some point, you have to pick one of their events over the other, and for whichever one you skip out on, you’ll start losing momentum in that niche, because there was a thing and you didn’t show up for it.
And if you keep going through that cycle, one of two things happens: either next time you do the other event to make up for the one that you missed the first time and now you have a 50% show up rate at both events, which means you’re not going to get momentum at either because you’re a person who just only occasionally shows up, so you don’t really build the same level of likability and trust by being fully engaged on an ongoing basis; or you end out going towards one that’s tending to work a little better for you and getting better results. At some point, you end out fully focused in one anyways because you’re only going to the one that’s kind of creating the multiplier effects on an ongoing basis. I’ve heard so many that try to straddle some kind of niche and fall into some version of exactly what we’re saying here; you just can’t get momentum when you spread across a whole bunch of different directions at once.
Adam: Not unless you have a huge team that’s able to do that. And that’s what I thought that I could do, right? I thought that, “All right, let me time block out my calendar, and Mondays are going to be focused on pharmacists, and Tuesdays are going to be focused on dentists.”
Michael: Oh, so you had a whole system planned.
Adam: I tried. Well, yeah, my life has been about systems. That’s something that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid on very early on in the practice, both as it pertains to the business development side of things as well as the client service side. I thought that I could systematize this. But one thing that you can’t systematize or synthesize are more hours in the day. And I just realized that for every new thing… There was a paradigm shift in my mindset as to how I started thinking about things, in the framing of which I was understanding the variables in my life at the time.
So we’re all pleasers, right? We like to please people. We like to be liked and have our opinions and our thoughts heard. And I started to realize that for every new thing that I was saying yes to, something in my life was inadvertently being told no. That didn’t really resonate with me until I started to look at – probably from 2013, ’14, ’15, ’16, ’17 – that time. I was just kind of creeping along. I had a little bit of growth, but not a lot because I could never really get that momentum. I could never really get to that tipping point in any one of these markets because I was trying to be a master of the ones. I was trying to have a client in this niche and have a client in that niche. Or maybe not master of the ones but master of the fours. Because I thought that my niche could be “white coat” professionals. And I thought that I could create this brand, this resource that could serve white coats, whether you’re an optometrist, a dentist, a pharmacist, or a physician.
What I realized when I started going through that was that there are a lot of advisors out there, when we look at their websites and we talk to them, who say, “I work with dentists and I work with physicians” and things like that. From a practical planning standpoint, yes, there are a lot of things that overlap. There’s that acronym that we’ve heard in the business called VDOC, veterinary, dentistry, optometry, and chiropractic, that have a similar type of business structure and similar types of planning needs. Once they become a client, I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s a fairly systematizable and scalable client experience. From a marketing standpoint, I realized that optometrists and dentists aren’t playing in the same sandbox, and if I have to be playing in both sandboxes, I just can’t. I didn’t have the financial resources or wherewithal to hire someone to be where I couldn’t be, because they came from a place of scarcity. I thought that I needed to be everywhere, just in case someone says yes, great, now let me talk to them.
That’s been a whole journey that I’ve gone through in an accelerated manner in the last 18 months or so, which we’ll talk about, I think. But I’m telling listeners, if you’re even contemplating going into a niche, going into it with the abundance mindset – it’s an interesting dichotomy. Because what I have found is that the more specific and targeted your message is, and the narrower your niche is, the greater the impact and the greater the reach, and the more you attract the right type of people.
The beautiful thing about that – you talked about my website – when you go to my website, you’re going to know in two seconds whether you’re in the right place or not. So it’s self-selection that’s helped me become really, really efficient with my time, where I don’t have to have that first discovery call with someone, because, by the time they’re on the phone with me, they know whether they’re an optometrist or not. And it’s not a matter of, “Hey, we’re thinking about working with Adam,” it’s, “We’ve read his stuff, we know who he is, we’ve seen his website, we’ve listened to his podcast. I’m pretty sure we want to work with Adam, we’re just trying to figure out what the next steps are.”
Connecting With Optometrists And “Cultivating Golden Geese” [00:27:56]
Michael: You said so much really powerful stuff there – that realization that all the things you’re saying “yes” to means there are also a whole bunch of things you’re saying “no” to, and, that eventually, that over-divides your time or splits it up. And just the recognition that you can have a wide range of different clients, even if you’re, as you put it, white-coat focused on VDOC, vets, docs, optometrists, chiropractic, they might have some similar business and planning needs, they might not be that different when they show up in your office, or at least a lot of it is similar, but the marketing to them is completely different because they are at different places. They show up in different places. You have to show up at different places if you want to meet them and connect with them. At some point, if you try to make the messaging generic enough to appeal to all of them, it doesn’t appeal to any of them.
Adam: Exactly. That was exactly it. That’s the realization that I had probably into the third quarter or so of 2018, because I was just spinning my wheels. I started the podcast. I had originally called it “The Dose.” I got three or four episodes in before I realized that this just wasn’t going to work. I can talk about, and it’s one of my favorite phrases to use, I can talk specifically generic about cash balance plans or the difference between cross-tested and new comparability 401(k)s, but as soon as I start talking about how this would fit into a dentistry practice, now I’ve alienated every optometrist, every pharmacist, or every physician that’s listening. From a podcasting standpoint, from a content creation standpoint, consistency is key. So I operate under the principle that I want to make sure I’m creating content that is consistently interesting to my niche audience.
I was very focused when I went into optometry on trying to be an inch wide and a mile deep. I know that my content, my brand that I’m building, and what I’m putting out there for the world to consume is going to alienate 99.4% of the general public, but for the 0.6% that find it, that’s all they need. It just speaks directly to them. And compounded on the fact that I’m married to an optometrist – I joke with people that I’m the closest that one can be to optometry without actually having OD at the end of their name. My wife lovingly acknowledges it, that I’m basically using her as a marketing piece in a game of chess. She’s helped me and acknowledges that, and we’ve leveraged that. It’s been a great additional differentiating factor for helping me get involved in the optometry space, and this whole focus I’ve had on trying to cultivate golden geese instead of finding golden eggs.
Michael: All right, wait, explain that further. That’s a great line, “I’m trying to cultivate golden geese instead of finding golden eggs.”
Adam: So leverage and scalability are two words that I’ve always tried to capture and to understand how can I apply these two philosophies in my life? From a marketing standpoint, I thought, “Okay, I can kind of do one of two things here.” If we look at it from both ends of the spectrum, on one end of the spectrum I can have my assistant pull a list of all the optometry practices in the Greater Indiana area and I can start knocking on doors. I can do local events. I can try and find all these “golden eggs”, my ideal clients, my niche client that I want to work with. Or, I can find the relationship that already are nurturing those relationships, cultivate that relationship or find that medium through which I know my ideal clients are already consuming, and I can try and leverage that relationship to share information and education that will help them make educated and informed decisions when it comes to financial matters.
And that was my approach. Right now I have a monthly standing column in “Review of Optometric Business” that I think has been going on for four years now. I write for two other national optometry publications, and the podcast is cross-promoted in all of those. In my bio of every article there is a link to my landing page where you can download a free e-book, which then gets put into my marketing funnel and my marketing engine. I use ActiveCampaign, a combination of ActiveCampaign, Thrive Leads, and Gravity Forms on my website to capture that information. But it’s being pushed out there. It’s being promoted by the platform that’s already built.
The online publications, optometrists are already consuming the information on these platforms. And the fact that I can share my information, again, purely from an informational approach, with the readership, brings a certain level of credibility to the table. That, combined with them being gracious enough to promote the podcast and put links to it in their articles, has been the single biggest driver of new potential relationships in the last eight months.
Michael: Interesting. Interesting. So I’m fascinated by this dynamic. Again, I think it so perfectly illustrates what happens when you start going after niches and focusing. Like, you’re writing for optometry business publications, in which I’m going to bet you’re basically the only financial advisor who goes after them, or maybe there’s one or two other people who have similarly blended to this niche. But you’re not competing against 300,000 other financial advisors. There maybe is another one and you wave to him or her at conferences or something. So you can open the door.
You’re writing in publications that they see, in things that are very specific to their businesses and financial world, which then cross-references your podcast, which is not coincidentally called “20/20 Money,” because they’ve got 20/20 vision. The first time I heard it, I thought it was just a reference to the year 2020, like planning over the next year or two, and then I realized, “Oh, wait, he’s in the optometry niche. That’s a vision joke. I get it.” But obviously, for your listeners, for your target market, well, that’s natural. When they see 20/20, their first thought is going to be like, “Oh, cool, it’s a podcast for us.”
Adam: Exactly. It’s that instant connection that they have. The show art that I had created, which was, I think I paid a freelancer on Fiverr, fiverr.com, right? For any listeners that aren’t familiar with that. I think I paid $70 for that cover art. Best $70 I’ve spent on graphic design ever, I think, because it’s a picture that has my headshot, and then there’s a phoropter with a pair of glasses and you’re looking at a dollar sign. And there’s that instant affinity. There’s that instant connection of, “He gets it.” The title of the column that I have in one of the articles is “Refract Your Finances to 20/20 Clarity.”
Michael: And even when you glance at the episodes, it’s things like “Buying and Growing a Successful Rural Optometry Practice” and “The Path to Multidisciplinary Success” and “Why Doesn’t Your Young OD Want to Buy Your Practice?” The optometrist’s version of succession planning. Glad to know it happens in every industry with trouble, right? But just things that, if you’re an optometrist, this is your world, you are their people, and any other financial advisor they meet and talk to is going to be talking about long-term retirement savings and 529 college education plans and split tests and profit-sharing plans. Which may have some technical relevance, but you’re literally speaking their language right down to the name of the podcast.
Adam: Well, it goes back to something that I learned a long time ago, and it was additionally amplified on your conversation with Carl Richards. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And what I heard Carl say in your conversation with him was that people don’t care about your solutions, they care about their problems. When I thought about how I was going to create content, the last thing that an optometrist needs or, for lack of a better word, that they care about, is how to make backdoor Roth IRA contributions.
Michael: Even though it’s technically a legit strategy for them; they often are high income and probably actually could do it, but it’s not what they’re up at night about.
Adam: No, it’s not. And, so how can I drive interest in me? Because I’m not even going to have the opportunity or privilege to share with them what I know and how I can help them unless I first demonstrate and start building that currency of trust with them that says, “Hey, I get it. I understand your profession. I know that these topics are a high concern for you. And guess what I’ve done? I’ve gone out and found SMEs – subject matter experts. I’ve gone out and found successful ODs that have done it before. I’ve gone out and found resources that can help you solve this problem.” Again, free of charge, right? The platform is there for anybody to consume.
And my goal with that is the currency that they’re exchanging is not necessarily a currency of money, but it’s a currency of time for them to listen, which I hope inherently builds up the currency of trust so that when something does come up in their life, personally or professionally, that impacts their finances, I’m coming to mind first, last, and always. Because at the end of the day, it wasn’t about the traditional assets under management. It wasn’t about, “How can I help them with their old rollovers?” Because that’s not their core concern. That’s not what it is that keeps them up at night.
Michael: And then I’m struck as well by the actual funnel that you start to build off of this. It sounds like you do articles in these trade publications, and the articles either mention that you’ve got a podcast, so you’re not even necessarily bringing them to you right away, “Just go listen to my podcast over here. If you like that, you’re going to come down the road eventually, it’ll just be a little longer”; or you’re sending them to some kind of landing page, a separate page that’s just for, “Hey, you read my article, now get this e-book!”?
Adam: Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a separate landing page on our website. Right now we only have three of them. And I’m trying to… again, there’s the ever-pressing question of trying to invent more hours in a day… but I’m trying to create more content to put on our website. I just recently finished recording an on-demand webinar that we’re going to host on the website where people can go ahead and view the webinar. Again, the currency that they have to exchange is not a dollar amount but a visit to the classic landing page, where you provide your name and email address, which then gets put into our system, into our content funnel, and then they can watch the webinar on their time as they see it.
Because as we’ve all realized, in life, our time is our greatest commodity. We all only have 168 hours in a week. And I learned that I can leverage my time by having something living omnipresent online and giving them that privilege of consuming it when it fits their schedule. So I don’t have to do evening appointments, I don’t have to do weekend workshops or seminars for ODs that want to consume this information, because it lives evergreen on our website, where they can consume it at their pace and on their schedule.
Michael: And so the idea is that people who come to your website and want to learn more about you, you’ll just have a webinar there like, “Watch this webinar and learn more about me,” or is it a more specific educational thing you plan to do for them?
Adam: It’s an educational thing. So, the one that we’re getting ready to publish is a variation on the e-book that we have, Top Five Tips to Financial Freedom for Optometrists. It has top planning mistakes that optometrists make and how to avoid them, and so it covers understanding your P&L, and understanding a lot of things on the practice management side. I had to have this realization myself that, for a lot of the topics that I’m talking about on the podcast, I’m not the expert on. I tell ODs when they come on board, “There’s a very big gray area between a practice management consultant and what I’m doing.” And I tell them once the revenue hits the top line, now that’s my sandbox. What is invigorating more than I can ever remember in this business lately, ever since doing this, is having more of the business consulting conversations with ODs about how to leverage their time, how to grow their practice, how to take more time off, when to hire that associate, and when to sell their practice.
So there are financial related issues, but those conversations don’t happen unless the practice management challenges get solved. I can’t opine on a podcast by myself in a solo forum on how to understand your cost of goods sold, and that for typical cost of goods in an optometry practice, the industry standards are about 25%. I know that. I’m not going to be the one coming into your optical, but unless you get that under control, the ripple down effect on your P&L and the net amount that you have to work with and thus we have to plan with is reduced. So it’s in our, the OD and my, best interest to help them get on the practice management side of things, and get those ideas and concepts taken care of so that we can be more effective and efficient on the financial planning topics.
Michael: I love it. I love it. I’m struck as well by the conversation you had and the framing you had around the golden geese, trying to find relationships you can nurture that will pay more dividends rather than just going out to hunt for one client, one opportunity at a time. I’ve actually found something similar in a lot of the niche marketing work that I’ve done over the years. I call it the multiplier effect. I think it’s very similar, that at some point, you get these questions like, “Hey, if I get another client who’s not in my niche, am I supposed to turn them away?”
And what I found ends out happening is, the deeper you go into some niche and specialization, at some point, it’s not even just about the business opportunities in that space, it’s that as you become known in that space and you work with more people in that space who tell others, you don’t just get referred by one person, you get referred by seven people who you’ve all worked with in this community, and it begins to produce a multiplier effect where the value of the next client in your niche is not the same as the value of the next client not in your niche, even if their dollars or revenue or what they’re going to pay you are the same. Because a one-off client is still only ever a one-off client, even if they’re a profitable one. And the next client that’s actually in your niche is a client that then can refer others in your niche, can be the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh person who recommends you in the niche, which can seal the deal for a very high profile client who you weren’t going to get without a whole bunch of good recommendations and referrals.
And that phenomenon, as you talked about, that everything you say yes to means something else that you’re saying no to – at some point, the new client you say yes to who isn’t in your niche is time you won’t spend with a new niche client or doing a niche marketing event or doing something else that deepens you in the community, and you lose the multiplier effects when you spend time outside your niche.
Adam: Well, that relationship is bringing multiple different sets of currency to the table, or different sets of equity. They’re bringing their traditional from a planning sense, right? They’re bringing their financial equity to the table of assets to manage or the bare-bones financial planning things that we all know.
But then to your point, there’s the relationship equity, there’s the influence equity, there’s all of these different spokes that come out from that relationship, it’s unlike someone that has a “marketing” niche… Ron Carson talks about passion prospecting. And my biggest differentiation or my biggest disconnect that I have with that is, from a marketing standpoint, passion prospecting works because yes, you’re surrounding yourself and assuming that your passion has profitable clients. Okay, yes, you can leverage your time by being around potential relationships. But where I feel like my approach is a more efficient one is that not only on the marketing side am I hanging out and being asked to present and being asked to speak, I’m also attending as many optometry conferences as I am advisory conferences in 2019. And that scale will tip more towards optometry in 2020.
So on the marketing side of things, I’m doing the same thing as passion prospecting, but where I feel I have the additional edge from an efficiency, profitability, and a time-in-the-practice side. Once they become a client, the technical knowledge that I have to know and, what you talked about, to leverage a team – that’s why I’m in the process of hiring my first associate advisor right now. The technical knowledge that he or she and I will have to have – there are only so many different ways you can set up an optometry practice. All the numbers are a variation on a theme between X and Y, and so we need to know a few things really, really, really well.
As opposed to a passion prospector, you might meet someone that works at Boeing. You might meet a freelancer. You might meet a real estate agent. You might meet, a “master of the ones”. So now you would have to go out and learn all new benefits, all kinds of different benefit packages, all different types of comp packages, all these different technical things that you really don’t know what you’re signing up for. I don’t have to worry about that, because I know that an optometry practice for one full-time equivalent probably does between $600,000 and $700,000 in revenue. I know what the profit margins are, and therefore I know what the 401(k) is going to look like. And it just ripple effects from there, which makes the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting of planning much more – again, back to the system side of things – much more scalable, repeatable, and predictable.
Michael: Yeah, it’s one of the lamentations I hear so often from firms around financial planning, like doing the real hands-on advice work of financial planning is that it’s so time-intensive, it’s impossible to scale. You have to hire all these people. It’s very costly. To me, the piece that they miss is the point that you just made, which is the reason why planning work is so inefficient for so many firms is because we keep trying to do this, “I’m everything for everyone.” Just give me any client who walks in, I can figure out how to analyze their situation and I’ll look up whatever I need to know. I’ll bring the expertise to the table and I’ll give them recommendations that improve their financial life.
That may be true, that you can do that and that that is valuable, but the distinction in a practice like yours where you focus in this niche is you don’t have to do basically any research for the next 1, 5, 10, 20, or 50 clients who come in because you know how their businesses work and the practices work and what the standard numbers are and what the standard strategies are, and all the stuff that most of us I think just take for granted. Every new client you work with has a couple of hours of researchy things that you’ve got to look up that’s unique about their situation. You don’t have that time. You do on like the first one or two or three clients who have that problem, and then you’ve seen it a bunch and you’ve learned it and you know it cold, and now you’re off and underway again.
And so that efficiency effect, one of the biggest aspects of scaling financial planning that you seem to be living so well is, the more focused you get on who you serve, the easier it becomes to scale, because you’re actually giving largely the same advice with the same systems to the same set of clients. And obviously, individual client circumstances still vary to some extent, but the variability is the last 5% or 10% of the margin because you already know 90% of it cold that anybody else would have to spend hours to learn just to get halfway to where you already are.
Adam: Yeah. And the biggest variable in that equation is the spouse of the OD. I would say, I don’t want to say a coin flip, but it is kind of that, of whether or not the spouse actually does work outside the home or…I shouldn’t say a lot of times, but there are certainly a number of occasions where the spouse is working in the practice, either from a planning standpoint of just putting them on the payroll to make additional 401(k) contributions and maybe participate in a profit-sharing contribution, or they actually are working as the practice manager or they’re a stay-at-home spouse.
That’s the only other variable that does come into play a little bit. But that’s something that comes down the road after we’re involved in planning, because the reason that they’re reaching out in the very beginning is because of a pain point that they feel in their practice, and by the time we get to that planning point, we already have the relationship equity and the trust with the client that it’s not like we’re solving some major key concern for something that we don’t know anything about right away.
The Mindset Shift Adam Needed To Narrow His Original Focus [00:49:27]
Michael: So talk to us more about focusing on this niche. You said that it had been out there, you were doing the white coat thing and had a broad VDOC focus, then started shifting more directly to optometrists because you felt like you weren’t getting momentum where you were. But then you said you had this big explosion of growth and focus in the niche over the past year or two. So what is it that’s driving this shift, where you were already almost 10 years in the business and then suddenly decide, “Okay, I’ve been doing this for 10 years, but year 11 is totally the year of the optometrist?”
Adam: Well, I will certainly get to the methods of how that happened. We’ve already talked about some of the methods, but none of the methods would have happened if I wouldn’t have first understood the mindset shift that needed to happen for me very personally, which then gave way to the professional mindset shift. And what I mean by that is my client base up to this point, up to about the last year or so… I joke with advisors and with my coach, right? I’m part of the Limitless Adviser Coaching Program, and Stephanie Bogan and I have had this conversation about how I was kind of running a “dysfunctionally functional” practice. So it was humming along, and it was okay. I had a good client base. Every single one of my clients I love and I serve them near and dearly, and we have a great chemistry and a great rapport. But I was still just kind of spinning my wheels as far as the trajectory of where I knew that I wanted to be in my practice versus where I kept finding myself showing up.
It took a certain level of courage to get to the point of having confidence to, in essence, “burn the ships” and say no to pretty much every new relationship that didn’t have OD after their name. And that only came by way of working with the coaching program and really peeling back the layers of the onion on me and how I understood where my true value was in clients. You talked about the amount of research that advisors will put into plan design and plan creation and plan presentation, and that was me to a tee. I would pine for hours over a client’s case trying to again, back to my quality control days, make sure that the Monte Carlo analysis was just perfect.
Michael: Oh, I hadn’t even thought about that. Using financial planning software with a background in doing QA, QC, our software must drive you nuts.
Adam: So I have a love-hate relationship with eMoney. And I do. I love eMoney for the horsepower behind it, but I’ve done this more times than I care to admit – I would spend hours on eMoney and I would be on the phone with support to try and figure out why for my 35-year-old client in year 75 of their cash flow analysis, there was some spike in their tax bill. It’s embarrassing for me to think about the amount of intellectual energy and hours that I spent trying to do that. When I really think back and reflect on it now, the reason that I was doing that was because I was putting value on the numbers and the data in the plan, as opposed to the effect of the relationship and the output of the relationship and what the client actually cared about.
Not once can I think back to one of those cases that I did where when sitting with the client, they’ve said, “Boy, you know what? I’m really happy that my tax bill, when I’m 73, will be as low as it is right now, because the planning that we’ve done, boy, you’ve sure had an impact on that.” I’m being somewhat facetious and kind of speaking in hyperbole there, but it spoke to the underlying absence of value that I was connecting or not connecting to what it was that I was doing for clients and what they wanted me to do. And when I connect that disconnect in my mind of how I was thinking about my practice, I was realizing that the result of that thinking manifested itself in the health of my practice. Once I really went through that process of understanding my value and being clear and confident and capable of what I could do for clients and the impact that I could have, that’s when I basically, for lack of a better word, Michael, kind of just reinvented my practice in late 2017 and really put a lot of momentum behind that in 2018. And we haven’t really taken our foot off the gas here in 2019 either.
So going through that process and getting clear on that is what has allowed me to have the courage, and now confidence to be all-in optometry. And again, the interesting thing that I didn’t see coming through that was just this incredible dichotomy of the more narrow I’ve become, the more opportunities both in direct potential and existing client relationships, as well as opportunities to do speaking engagements, opportunities to present at optometry schools and write for additional publications.
Michael: So can you frame up just a little bit more about what exactly the mindset shift was for you? As you look at where you are or how you’re looking at now versus where you were, what was the essence of what changed in your head?
Adam: I think the biggest thing for me was that I grew up in a blue-collar household. And in my experience growing up, my interpretation of the amount of money that you made was a direct correlation to the number of hours worked and the amount of effort put into that. And that manifested itself in my actions, both behind the scenes with existing clients or new clients, back to my example of doing the incredible amount of data entry into eMoney and things like that, as well…
Michael: Right, like, the more hours I spend on this plan, the more I’m validating that it’s worth the thousands of dollars I’m going to charge.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. And what I feel really bad about is that I would manifest it into the number of client appointments that I would have. I would schedule client appointments more than necessarily needed, or have longer appointments with clients as a way to validate the fee that they were paying. And when we talk about that fee schedule, I had some clients that were paying on an annual basis back then what their monthly subscription is right now, their monthly financial planning subscription.
How Adam Assesses (And Reminds Himself Of) The Value His Clients Place On Him [00:56:33]
I tell people that I’ve been successful up until this point, in spite of myself. In all honesty, it’s through the work that you’ve done in this podcast and the relationships that I’ve connected with through your work and in this profession that have allowed me to become clear on what I was doing for clients. And the biggest way that I started to get that was by actually asking clients – a novel approach, right? – actually asking them, “What is it that I do for you that you see value in?” And so I went back to our clients and I basically surveyed them. I asked them, “What are the values and qualities that you see in me? How have I demonstrated those values and qualities to you? And how would you basically sum up our relationship?”
Michael: Oh, wait, wait. Say those questions again. I’m struck by this. So you ask them?
Adam: “What are the values and qualities that you see in me?” And I received or I learned about these three questions through a book that was written by Lou Cassara called “From Selling to Serving.” The book just really resonated with me. He’s primarily in the insurance field; I believe he is with MassMutual right now. He built in that sandbox, in the insurance sandbox, a phenomenally successful business. He’s also started a coaching program around that and his premise of “from selling to serving” – there’s a lot of what we talk about as advisors around this shift we’ve had in the planning profession and on the investment side of things of going from “product sales” to now planning and professional service.
And it was this idea of, “How do I connect with someone and build a relationship?” And, “How do I show up in someone’s life? How do I measure that?” Because we don’t know how we show up in someone’s life unless we ask them. When we think about it, like people hang out with like people and associate with like people, well, your values are going to be a reflection of the people that are in your life. Because if you don’t share the same set of core values that they do, they’re not going to associate with you. So if you first ask them that question of, “What are the values and qualities that you see in me?” Which underlying to that question, you’re understanding, “What are their core values?”
Michael: Oh, because instead of saying, “Dear client, what are your core values?” you ask them, “What are the values and qualities you see in me?” Because they’ll answer the ones that resonate with them naturally.
Adam: Correct. Correct. And then it’s a matter of understanding, “Okay, how have I demonstrated this to you? How have I shown up in your life?” Right? You may be able to see these things. Well, that’s fine. That’s great that you see that I’m trustworthy. I wasn’t mind-blown by some value that I didn’t think I already had. The biggest takeaway was, “How have I done that? How have I shown up in your life? How have I demonstrated that?” And it wasn’t, “You’re trustworthy because you gave me an 85-page financial plan.” It wasn’t, “You act with a great sense of integrity because your performance reports are nicely collated and colorful.” Right? It was the intangibles of the relationship and how I interacted with them, the conversations, the questions that I asked that really connected with me.
And then what I started to do, I took the answers to that and then I just started proactively keeping an ear out for victories that I would have with clients. Little emails that I would get. Little notes that I would get. In our conference room, I have a thank you board that has kind of a collage, and it’s in one of our videos that’s on our website, that is just a collection of every thank-you note that we’ve ever received from anybody that I’ve done work for, whether it be a client or a partner that I’ve done a presentation for. Because…what’s the phrase? “Our mind is a wonderful servant but a horrible master.” And the message that I was telling myself, the conversation that I was having between my ears was, “You’re a human biology graduate. You’d never owned a stock before you got into this business, at the time didn’t have the CFP, why should someone pay you thousands of dollars a year to take advice from you?”
And until I started getting that feedback, as soon as I started having those thoughts, I would go back and read, I call it my wins. I have a notebook in Notion. I’m starting to use Notion now. I used to use Evernote. So I have a “My Wins” page in Notion that I review multiple times per week. I have an affirmations page, and I have a visualizations page. Because just like we take a shower every day to wash off the dirt from yesterday physically, I believe that we have to take a mental shower every day as well, to wash off the dirt from yesterday. While I can’t say that I do it every single day, it is multiple times per week that I’m going back and revisiting those lists, because I have the blessed curse, I guess you could say, of these negative conversations that continue to come up in my mind. And I wonder…it’s like I’m trying to just reprogram my mind, right? Our minds are a computer. So I’m trying to rewrite that program. I’ve made a lot of progress over the last 18 months. And it’s worked so far, so I’m just going to continue to do it.
Michael: It’s fascinating. So in essence, you took the feedback from these questions of, “What are the values and qualities you see in me and how have I demonstrated this to you?” and created these “My Wins” and affirmations pages. And whenever that self-doubt moment shows up, because everybody has them from time to time, some of us more often than others, you would go back and look at those pages to remind yourself what actual people who pay you thousands of dollars said they like about you. They help to bolster your courage a little, like, “Oh, this is why I do what I do, I charge what I charge, and I’m really worth it.”
Adam: The most recent example (when I say recent, it was actually sometime in 2018, something along those lines) was with one of my bigger relationships. I charge separately for financial planning and investment management as two separate services, two separate fee schedules. And when we were going through the advisory contract and financial planning engagement, their financial planning fee was $4,500, and they had a little over $3 million, which at our breakpoint was 50 basis points. And when I was presenting the all-in fee, it came out to $23,000 I think it was, something along those lines. And I’ll tell you, Michael, I was a nervous wreck going into that conversation, because still in my mind, I had this impostor syndrome feeling of, “Don’t you know? It’s just me. I’m not that big of a deal, or I don’t feel like I’m that big of a deal, but I’m going to present to you a $24,000 annual fee.” And I’ll never forget their response. They looked at each other and they said, “Oh, that’s a bargain.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I didn’t exactly say that, but obviously poker face on and just all business and went and signed everything, and happiest clients today.
And that’s where one of my biggest journeys and one of the biggest places that I’ve made growth has been in understanding and being clear on the value that I deliver and that it’s not up to me to decide where my value is. We’re transparent in fee schedules. Clients on the financial planning side are quite literally either writing a check or we’re debiting the account through AdvicePay on a monthly or quarterly basis. If they didn’t see value, guess what? They’d leave.
Michael: Yeah, it’s not that hard. You just go in and cancel your fee and it stops automatically rebilling. Yep.
Adam: Yeah. And again, the work with Limitless has really helped me bridge the gap to this pool that my mind has been in for so long to where it actually can be. That’s what’s been so fascinating about the journey that I’ve been on. Which hasn’t come without its challenges, obviously, but it’s been fun to go through it up until this point. And I’m really excited about what’s going to happen here in, ironically enough, 2020.
Michael: I love the statement that you made, that, “It’s not up to me to decide where my value is.” Because I see this a lot as well in our advisor world, that either we want to sort of point to a particular thing like, “This is my value. This is what I’m doing that’s valuable. You have to buy and value this.” And sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t.
But I think sometimes we tend to miss the fact that clients view our fees, what we charge, and what we do through their lens and not ours. For you, I’m going to imagine pitching for a $23,000 client is one of the bigger, highest-fee clients that you’d have. That’s a big client for most people. But from the client’s lens, like, “Well, actually, we’ve talked to several advisors and you seem to be the best and you’re the cheapest, so we’re psyched.” Right? Like, we get caught in our head like, “What on earth am I going to do per hour to justify this $23,000?” And the client is looking at it saying, “I think you can help solve my pain point. And I think you’re actually a better deal than anybody else. So I’m excited to move forward.”
Adam: Here’s what’s interesting about that, though, they weren’t even shopping, they were do-it-yourselfers.
Adam: But they fell into the traditional…and this is where, again, I think advisors, myself included, need to be reminded that what we know…there’s so much delta and there’s such a disparity between what we know as advisors compared to what 99% of the general public knows about proper and sound financial planning and investment management. This client when they first started working with me said, “We’d like to be a little bit more conservative, so are you going to use just like an S&P index fund for our portfolio?” And any advisor, when you say the word “conservative” and “S&P index fund,” that’s not a thing. Their perception of what they thought was going to be right and good for them, it was about, again, understanding what their problems are, not necessarily what our solutions were going to be.
Michael: So what was the trigger for them…do you have any idea even in retrospect? What was their pain point so bad that $23,000 was a bargain to solve?
Adam: He had retired. He was a physician and had just closed his practice down, and his son was already a client of mine. He got the connection and the introduction from their son. It was one of those things where they just wanted to make sure about things as they transitioned into retirement. As we’ve probably had most clients say, and I’ve had clients say to me as well, that you look at your portfolio a whole lot differently when you depend on it for your paycheck. They wanted to make sure that they understood that the cost of making the wrong decision right now in retirement was amplified. And when that income went away, when he stopped practicing, I think that was the tipping point into saying, “You know what? We just don’t want to do this on our own. We want someone to do it on our behalf. We want to enjoy life.”
From a service standpoint, again, this is where the disconnect happens with advisors all the time and where I personally operate as well. I wake up almost every day and come into the office – some would call this a fault; I maybe call it fuel – I come into the office every day almost scared, dare I say petrified, that every client is going to fire me because I’m not doing enough from a service standpoint. And then I remember the feedback that the son gave me when we got together after we onboarded his parents. Before he and I even got into a conversation, he said, “Adam, I’ve just got to say, my parents absolutely loved you. They could not believe that you took the time to get on the phone with them, with their previous financial institution and help them with their transfer over to TD Ameritrade. They were so impressed by you doing that.” And of course, in the conversation, I’m saying, “Yeah, well, no problem.” But in my mind, I’m thinking…
Michael: Twenty-three thousand dollars for the fact that you picked up the phone to call the former institution and help them not have an awkward conversation with a customer service rep.
Adam: But here’s the interesting thing about that – what we think as advisors of where the service standard is, for every advisor that’s listening to this podcast, we want to do the right thing for clients. We operate with an incredible sense of integrity and level of compassion and care for our clients. But from their perspective, the service bar based off of what they’ve experienced, at least in my own specific situation with this client, it’s not even on the same playing field. Because if, for them, blowing their mind was making a call to their previous custodian to transfer funds, okay.
How Podcasting And Coaching Led Adam To Align With His Ideal Vision [01:10:10]
Michael: So I get the mindset shift around rethinking what your value and where your value is, and what your value in the eyes of the client is, instead of the number of hours you put in. What was the shift for you to go from, “All right, I’m going to try to do this VDOC thing and we’ll be a little bit more niche-oriented,” into, “I’m so completely all-in on optometrists.” I think you actually used the words “I’m burning the ships,” right? Like, “We’re torching everything so you can’t go back. We’re all in on this thing.”
So what drove that piece of the shift for you? Was it just the sheer frustration of doing it the way you were doing it, and not getting the results you wanted, that made you say, “Screw it, I’m just going all in,” or was there something else around what’s driven this as a shift for you?
Adam: It was a combination of two things. One of them was when I launched the podcast. When I launched “The Dose” back in September of ’18, I started to realize really early on that creating good content was going to be difficult. And so I kept trying to play in that sandbox. I didn’t really expand my mind to thinking, “What if I did this?”
I keep referencing Limitless because it’s just been such an impactful program for me personally and professionally. We do two retreats per year, and the second one in September is around marketing. When we were at the marketing retreat, I don’t even think they realized that they were doing this, or if they did, they were really, really good. But both Stephanie and Matthew Jarvis, who longtime listeners of the show will remember from episode seven, were using me as examples when we were talking about niches. They would say, “Adam is working with optometrists.” And in my mind, my initial reflex was to say, “Yeah, and dentists and pharmacists.”
Michael: Like, “Don’t forget all the other niches. Someone in the room might know someone who’s a physician who will think I won’t take them because you only said optometrists. You’ve got to say physicians, too.”
Adam: That’s exactly the thing. It was that scarcity mindset. I kept thinking, “I don’t want to miss out on an opportunity.” So I kept initially having that knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, no, no, I also work with pharmacists and dentists and physicians.” And they, again, whether they were doing it intentionally or not, I’m so grateful and indebted to them for doing that, because as they kept saying that, they probably said it four or five times over the course of those two days just in random examples. And in between that time, I just got to thinking, “What if I did that? What if I went all-in on optometry? What would that start to look like?” And I started to give myself permission.
I think that’s one of the biggest breakthroughs that I personally realize, and that other advisors need to realize as well, is that it’s okay to just start thinking outside the box. It’s okay to give yourself permission to ask questions like, “What if I did it this way instead of that way?” It’s okay to kill some sacred cows if it means getting your practice more in alignment with this ideal vision of what you have for your personal life. Because so often our professional life slowly but surely starts eating its way into our personal life. And that’s where I was. I was at this point where I was continuing to do the same thing over and over.
We’ve all heard that definition of insanity. One of the phrases that I’ve absolutely loved and that has empowered me is, “No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it.” And I just started to give myself permission to think, “What if? What if I did this? What if I did that? What if I went all-in on optometry?” From there, the floodgates just opened up. I started to realize…as soon as I started thinking about content creation and marketing efforts and initiatives, both in-person and digitally, from a pure optometry standpoint, I leveraged up. I just went all in, like I said, I burned the ships. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in coming up on 12 years in the business.
Michael: There’s a striking point, too, that just as human beings, I think our brains just naturally want to try to categorize the world into how we see things so that we can explain them, talk about them, and refer to them. To me, there’s something really striking about the story you’re telling of being at Limitless when you were specializing in optometrists, doctors, vets, and chiropractors, and you’re doing the whole VDOC thing, and they just kept saying “optometrists”. That to me, is kind of part of the point that, right or wrong, we want to put people into boxes, just as we think about them and categorize them in our heads. It happens all the time with clients. If the first thing you ever helped a client with was an insurance issue, you’re their insurance person. And if the first thing you ever helped them with was a rollover, you’re their rollover person.
And even with clients, it often takes a lot of work on an ongoing basis to continuously remind clients that what you do is broader than the one thing that they came in for originally, because they tend to just put you in that bucket in their heads and then sit there. And so when you are in the world of comprehensive advice, it’s kind of a pain in the butt sometimes to get bucketed because you’re always trying to pull clients back to see, “But I do all these other things, too.”
Michael: But there’s also a way that you leverage that, which is, look, if everybody just finds it really easy to think of you as the optometrist guy, just be the optometrist guy. It makes it easier for everyone.
Adam: It really does. Yeah, it really does. Another one of my favorite quotes that I’ve learned, and this one I pulled from Tim Ferriss in one of his famous TED Talks, is, “Instead of doing goal-setting, do some fear-setting exercises.” I think it’s a 12- or 13-minute TED Talk. And in that he quotes Seneca the Younger, the famous stoic philosopher. And his quote is, “We suffer more in our imagination than in reality.”
In my imagination, the suffering that I am doing in my own practice right now and the state of what it was from a profitability standpoint and a number of hours working… I was working in my practice and making what I was making all while wanting nothing more than to grow it to the point where my wife, who I wouldn’t be in this practice if it wasn’t for her in the beginning, basically helping to subsidize the personal side of our lifestyle and our expenses until I could get the practice up to where it was self-sustaining and starting to provide a little paycheck. Yet she was working in an environment that was, by all accounts, toxic. And it was frustrating me that I couldn’t figure out the recipe to grow my income substantially to replace an optometrist salary, which for my wife was a six-figure income. So it wasn’t like we had to replace a $30,000 entry-level-type…
Michael: Right, just get two of those big clients and you’re square.
Adam: Yeah, it was a little bit more than that. So I was suffering in my own reality, but I was also suffering in my own imagination as well. And however it happened, the confluence of those events didn’t push me to the next level until I gave myself permission to just say, “What if?”
How Adam’s New Business Model And Fee Schedule Grew Revenue By Nearly 80% [01:17:50]
Michael: So what does the business model actually look like at this point? You’ve mentioned separate fees for planning from investments, and you’d said at one point that you were trying to further refine the model as you go deeper and deeper into the optometrist niche. So what’s the actual business model at this point that you’re finding works for this clientele that you’re serving?
Adam: So I’ve made peace with the fact that I basically have a legacy business model and a new client business model. And net new client obviously is for new ODs going forward. On the legacy side of things, 2018 was a period of transition in bringing our existing client base more in alignment with the value that we were delivering from a service standpoint, and getting that revenue more in alignment with what we were doing from a planning perspective. So I had clients on all different kinds of fee schedules. My biggest mistake, the number one biggest mistake when I reflect back on the decisions that I made and the pricing of my services back in the last, call it eight years of my life, it was the fee that I charged was what I thought the client could afford, versus what I believed the value being delivered was.
I had some clients because I was operating from a premise of scarcity… I use the example when I talk with advisors about this journey. I use the example of how I was like a nomad walking in the desert, and every now and then I just happened upon a picnic basket full of food and water. I had better well eat because I didn’t really know when the next one was going to come along. So even if it was 40% of something, it was better than 100% of nothing. Because of that, I compromised so many conditions of what I wanted my business to look like, and it was…the metaphor that gets thrown out there, death by a thousand cuts. It wasn’t death by a thousand cuts, but with every new client that I brought on with an inconsistent fee schedule, it was creating more and more disparity between the business that I’ve envisioned having versus what it was growing into.
And so 2018 was about becoming clear on working through and defining what that service model should look like, what the various service model would look like, and then raising fees, not on the AUM side of things, because I’ve always had a consistent fee schedule in that. That fee schedule is 125 basis points on the first half-million, 1% on half a million to $1 million, 75 on $1 million to $3 million, and then anything over $3 million is at 50 bps. So that had always been consistent.
It was on the financial planning fee side of things where I had some clients that were still paying $400 a year for planning. Because, you talked about the expectation that was set in the very beginning, right? That was the expectation. That was how they encountered me, how they started working with me. And because I never reset that expectation, that’s what they just continued to experience. So I finally got to the point of becoming courageous enough, which bred the confidence to have the fee-raising conversations. And on average, we raised fees 100% on planning clients. And our biggest increase…
Michael: Whoah, that’s a big number right there. “On average, we raised our fees 100%.”
Adam: And on a couple of our clients, I think our biggest fee increases were a 300-some-percent increase. I had been charging someone like $1,500 a year, and we raised it up to $4,500 on a planning fee. They also had AUM with us, but it was on the planning fee that we went from $1,500 to $4,500.
That was an interesting conversation, but it was one that I was convicted in what I wanted my practice to look like. I was finally at peace with knowing that on the business development side of things, I had a sustainable, repeatable, and scalable process. If I ended up losing some client relationships because of this fee increase, would I be devastated personally? Devastated may be the wrong word, but I would be hurt from an emotional and personal standpoint because of the personal connection I had with those clients. But I was okay doing that once I did the math. For our new optometrists that come on board, if you’re a practice owner and we’re working on both the business and practice, it’s $595 a month with $1,000 upfront. So it comes out to about $8,100 a year for ongoing financial planning, and then if there are assets under management or retirement plans, that would be a completely separate fee schedule.
Going forward with that, I knew when I did the math, all right, so if I have one new OD client that never moves over a single dollar with me and I have in the first year $8,100 worth of revenue, I can afford to “lose” X number of lower-tier clients. And I just started getting into this mindset and this rhythm of, for every new OD client that I brought on, I’d go to my list of clients and I’d find the bottom tier, it’s like, “Okay, time to line up conversations with this client, this client, this client, this client, this client.” Because I knew in the worst-case scenario, I’d be revenue-neutral at the end of it.
Through this entire process, both by my own accord in having the conversations with them and quite literally saying, “Look, your financial plan right now is kind of on autopilot. I don’t think you need to pay me; my new fee schedule is $3,300 per year on basic financial planning, so $275 a month.” And, “We’ve done all the heavy lifting. You’re a couple of young, decent-earning individuals. Fund your Roths. We’ve got the insurance in place. Your financial plan is in place. I think you’re better off allocating what you would pay me in funding your Roths or funding your 529s.” Because these were individuals that had been paying $400, $500, $600 a year, and I personally just didn’t feel right in doing that at my fee schedule.
Now, if they wanted to work with an advisor, I had other relationships lined up. I would refer them to xyplanningnetwork.com to find another advisor that might be more in alignment with their economics. But I can count on one hand the number of relationships that ended up where either they left me or we mutually just agreed to part ways, which in part is why I’ve seen almost 80% growth in revenue since 2017 through 2019.
Michael: I love this framing of how you got firm with the new clients in your niche, “Here’s what I’m going to do. Here’s what I’m going to charge. It’s $595 a month plus $1,000 upfront,” and get really firm with that. This trade-off effect, “For every new good client I get that’s in my niche, I’m going to go back to a handful of the old ones and either we’ll rightsize them or I get fired, but at worst, I’m revenue-neutral, and at best, they stay with me with the fee that’s commensurate with my value. And then I win on both.” But that you paired them together to get comfortable with these conversations.
Adam: I had to play games with myself, because if I operated purely from the mindset that I had been sitting in this entire time, nothing else would have changed. I became self-aware enough to realize that I needed to change the recipe. I needed to change the script. For me, that was reframing the way in which I thought about not the client relationship – and that was the hardest part in going through this. I had one client, I feel bad saying this, she was in tears when I told her what the new fee schedule was. I don’t want to say she hung up on me, but there weren’t a whole lot of pleasantries or small talk after that conversation. She ended up calling back 5 or 10 minutes later and just said, “I apologize, I cut the conversation short. I was just really hurt by what you’re doing in your business and how that affects me.” And she understood.
I think that was one of the biggest surprises when I was having these conversations with my existing clients. Because let’s face it, I’m making it no secret to the world that my firm is where you’re going to go if you’re an optometrist. Existing clients are seeing this when they come to our website to log into their Orion portal or eMoney or upload something to us through ShareFile. I’ve had to run two parallel sets of communications: one with our existing clients to let them know, “This is the forward direction of the practice, but it’s not going to come at a compromise to the service that we’re going to deliver,” while also making sure from a proactive standpoint for new clients or potential relationships, that if you’re an OD, this is where you need to be. (That kind of rhymes. I’ve never really thought about that.)
Michael: So how did you roll out the news and have this conversation with people? Fee increase conversations are hard for everyone.
Adam: They were. They were.
Michael: How did you end out breaking the news? Did you send them a letter, do phone calls, wait for their annual review meetings? What did you do? How did you frame it? Again, it’s not like you’re just raising them by 100 bucks a month or $1,000 in a year, which is still a pretty material number for a lot of people. You’re doing 100% to 300% fee increases. So how were you actually introducing this conversation?
Adam: I did it all on the premise of the annual review, with a few exceptions. If they called in and needed to see me outside of their normal review schedule, we would put it on the schedule during that time. But through the process of reinventing the service model, we adopted what has had a significant impact, not only on our efficiency in the practice, but also just in my ability to have a better balance and quality of life and time off from the practice. We grouped all of our clients into basically three what we call “blitz months” for reviews, where we do client reviews in February, June, and October. We would just look at who was above the line and below the line. Anybody who was below the line, whenever they were coming up for a review, we would make sure to add that to the conversation. I had it in-person sitting across from the client. I went back and forth on, “Should I send them a letter? Should I preempt them to what’s coming?”
Michael: Prepare them versus dropping the bomb in person?
Adam: Yeah. And I opted to not do that. I don’t really know…I’m trying to think of why. What was the coping mechanism behind the scenes of why I didn’t do that? But I put it on the schedule, and on the agenda that we would send them. The closest that I did was put it on the agenda. I forget exactly how we phrased it. It was something along the lines of “New financial planning fee” or “Sign new financial planning engagement.” But there wasn’t any mention of “Discuss new financial planning fee increase.”
What it came to be was basically me having the conversation towards the end of the meeting. We would basically just say, “Look, we’ve had to come to some understandings of where our fee is in relationship to the market as well as the cost of doing business. And as our practice has grown, so have our financial obligations and our expenses. Because of that, we are addressing a fee increase across the board for all of our financial planning clients. Your previous fee of X is now going to be Y. We certainly don’t expect you to make that commitment at this time. I understand that I didn’t give you any precursor to that. We’re going to assume that you’re going to continue working with us. It’d be our privilege and pleasure to continue to serve you at the capacity. But I certainly understand and I want to welcome any questions or discussions now or after the fact if you no longer want to continue working with me, and we will do everything that we can to help you transition to a new relationship, to a new advisor.” That was kind of a variation on the themes.
Michael: That’s pretty gentle.
Michael: Matter of fact, but just, “Here’s where we are and…”
Adam: Yeah. I only had one client that ended up…most of them actually just committed in the appointment, which surprised me. Most of them were just, “Oh, okay.”
Michael: Technically, when your average fee increase is 100%, you could have lost half of them and it actually still would have gone okay, mathematically at least.
Adam: Exactly. But that’s the interesting part is that when we think about percents, there’s no context around that percent, right? When I say percent, I’m talking about…I had some clients that were paying $1,000 a year and I increased their fee up to $3,300 or $1,800 or $2,800, right? That’s where I say we’ve kind of had that legacy planning increase where I didn’t want to go to every client that was paying $1,000 and say, “It’s $1,000, it’s now going to be $4,500.” So I do have this vision over the next year of stepping that up periodically for our existing clients.
Michael: So there’ll be a few that are going to get nudged again?
Adam: Correct, correct.
Michael: And I’m struck as well of just the core model as it is for optometrists at $595 a month with $1,000 upfront. A lot of the advisors that we see out there right now doing monthly fees are $100, $200, or $300 a month. Schwab’s got their Intelligent Portfolios premium at $30 a month and you get access to a CFP. How do you talk to clients about $595 a month, $8,000 or I guess $7,200 a year annually recurringly? That’s a healthy number, to put it mildly.
Adam: I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, but I haven’t had to.
Michael: Which I guess is part of the point. Like, relative to their income and their business…
Adam: And that’s part of it.
Michael: …this is a straightforward line item expense to reinvest in themselves and their business. And relative to their income, it’s not a big deal.
Adam: Yeah. I have one practice that I’m working with. I know we could go down the rabbit hole of well, should I change my fee schedule to 1% of gross receipts in their optometry practice or something along those lines, or 1% of net income to the practice, or some, “this plus this”… I just don’t want to deal with that. I know the metrics of my practice, the relationships that I’m working with, the new ODs that I’m bringing on. For me to have a wildly successful practice that does everything for me personally and professionally that I want to have, I need 50 optometrists. That builds me a practice that is more wildly successful than I ever thought possible on an efficiency level that largely has been built because of the systems that we’ve put in place here. So I’m not going to try and reinvent a fee schedule that I don’t need to reinvent. So the fee is the fee.
Michael: Yeah. Well, and from a practical perspective, if an optometrist comes in and their practice is only doing $200,000 of revenue, this is going to be a painful fee for them.
Michael: When your typical successful optometrist at capacity is doing $600,000-plus of revenue, your fee is about 1% to 1.5% of their income, which is a very manageable number. We see lots of advisors that are just fine at 1% to 2%. Some that get up to about 2.5% before the number is so big relative to the client’s income, they start to balk a little. So it makes a lot of sense to me in that category that you don’t have to go in and say, “I charge you 1% to 1.5% of your income or the gross receipts of your practice,” you just put a number out there that says, “I charge $595 a month.” And guess what? People for whom that is a really high percentage won’t say yes. People for whom that’s a manageable percentage will say yes.
Adam: Yep. And that’s where simplicity has been the ultimate sophistication for me lately is that I’ve really tried to take things in the practice and systematize them and scale them and make them so that I don’t have to worry about them. Since coming on board with AdvicePay, we do all of our financial planning fees minus a very few, when I say few, I think three, exceptions. Everything is done through AdvicePay on either a monthly or quarterly basis. So it’s great from a predictability of future cash flow. We’re not subject to market swings. Now, our revenue, we still do AUM and things like that. But it’s been a nice diversifier in income stream. And it’s where it fits the business model of the clients we’re serving.
Michael: Right, they pay all their business bills on a monthly basis? You’re just in their monthly flow.
Adam: Yeah. And their liquidity, you’ve had other guests on that serve business owners, they’re not liquid. All of their capital goes either back into their practice or in their 401(k) or profit-sharing plan or cash balance plan in their practice. It’s not like they have all of this liquidity. We just brought on a great client that has…I talked about the influence, the relationship equity influence, he’s a very, very, very prominent name in the optometry space, but he doesn’t have a single dollar of investible assets outside of his retirement plan. So if I was on a traditional AUM model, it wouldn’t work. And I would lose out on a huge opportunity to A) serve him and help him with his core planning needs, but B) have the additional benefits that could come down line of having someone like that in the client family.
Michael: So out of curiosity, I am wondering, for this new sort of focus model for the optometrist, you’ve got your set financial planning fee schedule. You did say that you treat the planning separate from the investments, and that the AUM stuff is on its own. So is it still the same AUM fee schedule you’ve had all along, 125 bps up to $500,000 and then $1 million and then the breakpoints from there, or are you doing a separate lower fee schedule on investments because you’ve gone up on the planning side? What does that look like now as a blended model for the new ODs going forward?
Adam: For new ODs going forward, I haven’t changed that pricing schedule. I’ve toyed with it. And Stephanie would probably, if she was here, just punch me in the arm and say, “That’s your own limiting belief.” If they’re willing to pay, it’s up to them to see value.
Michael: They’re already finding the value in what you’re charging, why are you charging differently?
Adam: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So as of right now, I’m not making any adjustments to the AUM fee schedule. What I may do going forward is, and again, what I’ve been thinking about is maybe getting towards some aggressive breakpoint down the road, anything over $1 million or something like that, just because again, we run a very basic investment management process. It’s nothing that’s proprietary; I’m not glued to trading screens or anything like that. It’s not where we’re spending a lot of our time and energy with clients, but it still does provide a lot of value. Case in point to the client that said, “Well, I’d like to be conservative, so can I be in the S&P 500?” It’s still about helping them avoid mistakes that they would otherwise make in the absence of us providing guidance, but no, I don’t see reinventing that anytime soon.
The Importance Of Having A Sense Of Community [01:37:44]
Michael: So what surprised you the most about trying to build your own advisory business? You’re 10-plus, almost 12 years in now.
Adam: Probably the one thing that I didn’t comprehend enough when I left Waddell & Reed back in 2011 was the sense of community that I needed. We’re on this island as entrepreneurs, as practice owners. Even if you do have a team around you that is working with you and serving you and your clients, there’s no substitute for having a community of other advisors. That was one of the things I didn’t understand would impact me as much as it would.
Not having that was probably the byproduct me not having an outlet to share a lot of the challenges and struggles and obstacles I was feeling between the years. And that’s where finding – I joke with people, I don’t even want to call it a program because it’s not a program to me – finding my family, finding my community, my tribe within Limitless has been so important. I would not be here at this place in my practice, in my life, with my wife being able to stay at home with our two little girls and have that major accomplishment. And being able to provide that benefit…that wouldn’t have happened without having that family around me. That was probably the hardest part, trying to do it on your own without a family behind you.
Michael: It’s one of those interesting effects that I think is underappreciated or overcriticized or whatever in the independent world. One of the things the large firm employee environment always had was just a community, a branch, all these other advisors and people that were there who you could go out and share drinks with after a crappy cold calling day, or whatever it was when you started out of the gate. That in the independent environment, even in large independent broker-dealers, I know you were at Cambridge for a while, you’ve got other advisors, there’s a national conference, there are some opportunities to connect with the other advisors, but it’s not the same as when you’re in a large firm employee environment with just a whole bunch of fellow advisors in a branch location, right where you are.
A lot of advisors, I think, underestimate how important it is that you have some pathway to find your community, to find an outlet, to find support with peers, or you just kind of get stuck in your own four walls, or as you were saying, you get stuck in your head in all this stuff that goes on between your ears that has no outlet when you’re on your own.
Adam: Well, and that motion creates emotion, right? When you’re around other advisors, when you’re being able to bounce ideas off one another, sharing successes, commiserate in challenges and, dare I say, failures that you encounter along the way; when you’re able to share that and have your family around to help you shoulder that, and then reflect with you and learn from that and then use that as…right? You can either use it as fuel or fertilizer. If you use it as fuel to rebound and project forward, knowing that you have a group of people behind you that are cheering you on and helping you through, that is certainly a lot easier to do than trying to do it on your own. Not saying that it can’t be done on your own, just for me personally, it was much more beneficial to have people around me.
Michael: So what was the low point for you?
Adam: Which one? I don’t necessarily think that I can point it to one specific day. It was probably a period of time that I would say mid-2017…2016/2017, when I was just kind of spinning my wheels in my practice. What I was really frustrated with and just could not figure out, what I alluded to earlier, was that I wasn’t really making progress. I was busy, but I wasn’t growing.
All the while that I’m doing this and can’t figure out how to get to that next level in my practice and get that momentum back, my wife is having to go to a job that she can’t stand. When we were talking about her, when we finally got to the point of her quitting and staying at home with our little girl, she said something that neither of us will ever forget. She said, “I can’t believe that a company that I can’t stand is getting the best of me and the people that I love are getting the worst of me.” Because she would come home just exhausted. Her record I think was 53 patients in one day. Now, that was pre-ops, post-ops, exams. But that’s a huge caseload for any OD, any clinician for that matter. I was so frustrated and mad at myself that I couldn’t get out of my own way. Because of that, she’s having to go to work at a job like that to help support our family, pay down her student loans, etc. So that was probably the low period. Maybe not a point, but just a valley that I was in.
Michael: And so that has to be transformative now that you go through this change, revenue is up 80% in 2 years. It’s up enough that you actually can get to the point where she can take the time and not need to do that work anymore.
Adam: Yeah, it’s hard for me to not get emotional thinking about it and talking about it, because teamwork makes the dream work, right? Cliché phrase alert. But I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now without her love and support. And to be able to reciprocate that and give her… it’s not like she’s never going to practice again… but to give her that freedom and flexibility to practice because she wants to in an environment that fulfills her like my business is now fulfilling me is one of the best gifts that I’ve been able to give her and thus our family. And it’s going to be exciting to see where we go as a family forward, in part because of the trajectory of both of our businesses and professions.
Advice For Young Advisors: On Fees And Niches [01:43:57]
Michael: So what advice would you give young advisors coming in and starting a firm today? What do you know now that you could have told Waddell & Reed you from 10 years ago?
Adam: Oh, there’s so much. I think the two pieces of advice that I would give, that I would say, is whatever you think your fee should be, double it. As a new advisor, if you think, “Oh, I’m only going to charge…” I come in contact with advisors that are adopting the monthly model and they’re charging, like you said, $50 or $75 or $100 a month.
And again, it all depends on their business model, what they want and things like that. But I wonder…my first question to those advisors is kind of like what I realized with myself. Are you charging that because that’s what you think your clients can afford or are you charging that because that’s what you truly believe your value is? If it’s what they can afford and it’s your ideal client that you want to work with, then more power to you, Godspeed. But if it’s the former, if you’re charging it because it’s what you think they can afford and you’re scared to charge more because of the value that you know you deliver to that client, then you’re inhibiting the latent potential within yourself and within your practice. So set your fee. Whatever they are right now, if you’re truly wondering, “Should I increase my fees,” the answer is yes.
And then back to the first part of our conversation, niche, niche, niche, niche, niche, niche, niche. I wish that I would have done this. I wish that I would have had this breakthrough. And Stephanie and Matt in our conversations, I wish that they would have so eloquently, again, whether intentional or unintentional, I wish I would have gotten that nudge years ago. Because I had the momentum. I was already writing for the optometry publications four years ago. It was just kind of pedaling along. I wish I would have gone all-in. So find that niche and double down.
Michael: And then double your practice in two years.
Michael: Results not guaranteed; your performance may vary.
Adam: Yeah, right.
Michael: So what comes next for you? What are you working on from here?
Adam: So I’ve really kind of adopted this philosophy of trying to leverage my time. I have 168 written on a sticky note on my desk.
Michael: One hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week.
Helping Other Advisors Systematize Their Practices [01:46:27]
Adam: Yeah, exactly. And so I’m really trying to be intentional and dedicated with my time. I have found kind of a closet passion in working with other advisors in helping them systematize their practice. And I find I get a lot of energy in working with them. And that’s specifically within Redtail as our CRM. Back to my process days and my standard operating procedure days at Baxter, I always gravitated towards having a process. I remember when I first opened my first account at Waddell & Reed, I was looking for the SOP. I was looking for the procedure manual. Like, how do you open an account? Well, you get the form? Where do I get the form? Well, it’s on the internet.
Michael: Where on the internet? What’s the login?
Adam: How do I get on the internet? Exactly. I just didn’t…I knew…the A, was get the client, Z was service the client, but I did not have a B to Y. And so from my early adoptions into Redtail CRM, we just started building out workflows for every single process. We have I think 68 workflows now, that took my dad to Canada at the beginning of July, just a month or so ago. It’s a very calming feeling when you know that everybody in your office knows who’s responsible for doing what, when it needs to get done, and for which client is in a system. There are no cracks. There’s a net around everything. And stuff is getting done when it needs to get done. And everything is in one system.
I started presenting that to advisors, quite honestly, by accident at a Cambridge practice management session one time. This was back in 2013, I think. We did a whiteboarding session on how to workflow a client appointment. And they’re trying to draw it out on a whiteboard and I’m just in the back holding my head and just thinking, “No, no, no, no, no.” Finally, I just said, “Look, can I show you what I built?” I pulled up Redtail on the fly and showed them what we had built. I had a line of advisors afterwards saying, “That’s really cool. Can I have that?” I said, “Yes.” I had one advisor afterwards say, “Dude, this is awesome. You should charge for this.” And I said, “That’s a pretty good idea. I think I might.”
Michael: Okay then.
Adam: And Integrated Consulting & Advisory Solutions was born in 2014. I’ve spent a portion of my weeks since that time working with advisors and firms around the country helping them implement our system into their practice. I tell advisors, “Instead of a blank canvas of trying to create workflows, we’re going to give you the paint-by-numbers. You’re still going to have to customize it a little bit to your firm, because your service model is slightly different than ours. You have a different custodian. But you’re going to have the paint-by-numbers of everything that you’re going to need to prospect, onboard, and service a client relationship.”
And what has empowered me in doing that, it comes back to that sense of community that I talked about, it invigorates me to help other advisors get to that point of efficiency and effectiveness in their service model, and realize some of the freedoms and flexibility that I’ve been able to see in my practice, because I’m confident in knowing that my team is on everything that needs to get done. I know what I need to do, they know what they need to do, and lather, rinse, repeat.
Michael: And so that’s Integrated Consulting & Advisory, as opposed to Integrated Planning & Wealth, which is the advisory firm.
Michael: So I guess this is specifically for advisors on Redtail who can leverage these Redtail workflows that you’ve built?
Adam: Correct. Yeah, Redtail has been gracious enough to let me play in their sandbox. My philosophy is, look, I want to help advisors leverage all aspects of technology. I’ve implemented an incredible…what I feel to be a pretty decent amount of technology in my practice on all aspects of it. I’ve seen the benefits specifically within the CRM and the systems that we’ve built in there. And workflows are no exception to that. I’ve just found that a lot of advisors and their teams struggle with workflows, specifically just dedicating the time necessary to build them. It’s just something that I’ve had a closet passion for that has kind of birthed this additional little passion project of mine.
Michael: Very cool. Well, so we’ll have a link out to it as well for any advisors who are interested. This is episode 140, so if you go to kitces.com/140, we’ll have a link out to Adam’s Integrated Consulting & Advisory if you’re struggling with your workflow building, as I know a lot of us do. More power to folks like you that come in with that mindset. I think for a lot of us, that is not how our brains are wired, as you experienced seeing a bunch of advisors at a whiteboard trying to make a workflow.
Adam: Well, here’s why I did it, just because I know myself well enough to know that if I don’t have a system in place, it’s not if, it’s how many things are going to fall through the cracks. I did it partly because of the training that I had in the pharmaceutical world, always growing up in an environment where you had standard operating procedures. Very early on and quickly being in the absence of that, I knew how important they were. I also knew that if I didn’t have those guardrails, I would compromise client service. Something would be missed. So I knew out of necessity that I needed to have those. They’re written in such a way so that the advisor is involved in as few things as possible that are delegated to team members around them, because an advisor should not be focusing their time on those back-office tasks.
The Meaning Of Success For Adam – Proactive And Cognitive Awareness [01:51:51]
Michael: So as we at wrap up – this is a podcast about success, and one of the themes always is just that that word “success” means different things to different people. And so you’re on this success track with an accelerator now of up 80% in 2 years and doing $400,000 of revenue and a great model in a great niche going forward. So the business is certainly on track, but I’m wondering, how do you define success for yourself at this point?
Adam: I’m shocked that you would ask that question, Michael?
Michael: Have you never heard the podcast before? But it’s got to come from left field.
Adam: Yeah. So I’ve been giving that a lot of thought because again, I anticipated the question coming. I think that the best way I can answer it is to be proactively and cognitively aware of the path that my business is going on, to the extent that it doesn’t compromise the personal conditions I’ve set for myself and my family. We’ve experienced this growth and I’m starting to have more and more relationships reach out and more opportunities; I can see very quickly how that could start creeping its way back into my personal life where I wouldn’t be able to take days off or I’m working at night or have to go in on the weekends or things like that.
So my wife and I with two little girls – we have a five-year-old and an 18-month-old – we only get these experiences once. I want to continue to grow the practice, do great work, and I want new ODs to come because of me and stay because of us. So the focus right now is on building a team within the practice where the clients come on board, but then I have more team members around me to serve the client relationship and do the financial planning stuff that most advisors do.
I want to be more in that finder and binder method of bringing in relationships and doing what I feel like I’m really good at doing and what brings me joy. So that kind of intersection of turning your vocation into a vacation, but again, not at the compromise of personal quality of life.
Michael: And I love how you framed that, that you want to get to a point where they come because of me, because you’re the one out there doing the marketing into the niche and the podcast and the rest, but they stay because of us, and the team that supports the clients.
Adam: They’re clients of the firm. Well, number one, when you look at my last name, it’s horrible for marketing.
Michael: It’s a little rough from a marketing perspective. Yeah.
Adam: But more importantly, I never want it to be about me; I want clients to be clients of the firm. And up to this point, I am the firm from an advisor standpoint, but that’s not the end goal. I want clients to know from the very beginning, you may have found us because of me and my presence in the optometry community, but you’re going to very quickly realize that it’s because of the great team that we have, which is why you’re going to stay.
Michael: I love it. I love it. Well, I think we’ll have to call you back in about five years and see how that trajectory is going, given the growth path that you’re on.
Adam: I’d be honored to share an update at that time.
Michael: Awesome. Well, thank you, Adam Cmejla, for joining us here on the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Adam: And thank you, Michael, sincerely from the bottom of my heart for all the work that you’ve done, all the information that advisors have gained from you. We are truly indebted to you for the work that you’ve done in our profession. So thank you very much.
Michael: My pleasure. Thank you.