Welcome back to the 181st episode of Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today’s podcast is Benjamin Brandt. Benjamin is the founder of Capital City Wealth Management, an independent RIA based in Bismarck, North Dakota that oversees $60 million of assets under management for nearly 80 households. What’s unique about Benjamin, though, is the way he initially developed a focused niche after going out on his own as an independent, and then had to pivot when he discovered that there weren’t enough people in that original niche in his small Midwest town to fill his desired client base.
In this podcast, we talk in-depth about how Benjamin initially selected and established his local niche, the way he optimized his website to maximize local search engine optimization opportunities, how he pivoted to launching a podcast to broaden his reach beyond his local market, the way he adapted his website SEO to draw attention to his new retirement podcast, and the marketing funnel that Benjamin has developed to turn his podcast listeners into email subscribers, into webinar watchers, and eventually into an introductory meeting as a prospective client.
We also talk about how Benjamin is building his advisory firm to fit his own lifestyle goals, the way he runs meeting surges with all of his clients twice a year to maximize his focus and also his time off, the ongoing financial plan update and monitoring process he uses with clients to stay efficient, and why he intends to cap his practice once he achieves his goal of 100 clients and $100 million in assets under management by age 40.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Benjamin shares the 5-10-15 rule he developed to figure out for himself what topics to cover on his podcast, the importance of creating forcing mechanisms for yourself to ensure that you stay focused on really following through to achieve your goals, and why Benjamin believes that the key to long-term success as an advisor is giving yourself permission and the financial foundation to be able to grow slowly so you don’t feel the pressure to take on clients who aren’t a good fit but can be hard to let go of later.
- Benjamin Brandt
- Capital City Wealth Management
- Retirement Starts Today Podcast
- Retirement Podcast Network
- Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University
- Thrivent Financial
- Online Advisor Growth Formula
- Steve Stewart Podcast Editing
- Limitless Adviser Coaching Program
- Jon Guyton Podcast Episode #109
- Advisor Podcast Accelerator
- Launching A Compliance-Ready Podcast To Enhance Your Digital Marketing
Resources Featured In This Episode:
- How Benjamin Originally Established And Selected His Niche [00:04:08]
- The Way He Optimized His Website To Maximize Local SEO Opportunities And Why He Started A Podcast To Reach Beyond His Local Market [00:12:32]
- The Marketing Funnel Benjamin Developed [00:19:15]
- Why He Runs Meeting Surges To Maximize His Focus [00:34:09]
- How Benjamin Uses Tech Tools To Simplify Tax And Retirement Discussions With His Clients [00:57:32]
- How He Is Building His Advisory Firm To Fit His Lifestyle Goals And When He Will Cap His Practice [01:11:33]
- How He Nurtures His Audience To Grow His Business And The Rules He Uses To Develop Podcast And Webinar Content [01:21:27]
- What Benjamin Found Most Surprising On His Journey And What He Believes Is The Key To Long-Term Success [01:28:32]
- Advice For Newer Advisors And What Comes Next for Benjamin [01:38:28]
- How Benjamin Defines Success For Himself [01:44:14]
Michael: Welcome, Benjamin Brandt, to the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Benjamin: Hey, Mike, thanks for having me. First time, long time.
Michael: Excellent, excellent. Really excited to have you on the podcast to talk about just the dynamics of getting clients and growing your firm when you are not in a massive metropolitan area with a zillion people. When we just look out there at advisory firms, we are disproportionately concentrated on the coasts and in major metropolitan areas, and the math is sort of straightforward for what it is, like, more density of people, more households, more opportunities to do business. But you live in a completely different world than that. You are in Bismarck, North Dakota. We were talking a little bit before the show, and I think your population in 100 miles is less than my population in about 3 miles here in the D.C. suburbs.
And so I’m excited to talk about what does it look like when you’re trying to build an advisory business in not necessarily the densest metropolitan areas and just have to figure out those questions like, “Where am I going to focus my business? How am I going to get clients? What am I going to do?” When my problems are not like, “Oh, geez, there’s three estate planning councils in my area, which of the three am I going to go to, to start doing my networking?” So what is it like building a business in Bismarck, North Dakota?
How Benjamin Originally Established And Selected His Niche [00:04:08]
Benjamin: Well, it’s a blast. My office is 33 miles from the geographical center of North America. And Google is my playground. So we have access to every person on the planet, I suppose. But we started our firm very traditionally. We knew we needed a niche. I spent several years with an insurance-focused-type company before this; we can get into that if that’s interesting. But we knew we needed a niche, so we picked retirement income planning. We like to say we teach people how to retire.
Around here, coal and oil are the big industries, along with local government, and they built all these either refineries or coal mining or coal processing plants in the early ’80s. As I was starting the business, I started the business on my 33rd birthday in 2014, my current firm, Capital City Wealth Management, and everybody was 58 years old because they had worked for these coal mines for 30 years. They were knocking on the door of retirement, and they’re middle-class millionaires. And that’s who we said we’re going to build a niche around. The difficulty came when I went to the local coal mining industry conferences and I saw that there was less and less 58-year-olds every single year I went and I said, “I need to figure out where the next thing is. Coal mining is the current thing. What’s the next thing?” And that’s kind of how I fell into podcasting.
Michael: So you have a lot of interesting things there in that evolution that I want to understand and learn more about. So to start, you said out of the gate, “We were starting our firm and knew we needed a niche,” which I don’t necessarily hear a lot of firms say.
Obviously, for people who are regular listeners to the podcast, like, we tend to beat this drum from the “Financial Advisor Success” end. But what was it that led you to say, “Hey, I’m starting an advisory firm, I’ve got to go find a niche,” as opposed to saying, “I’m starting an advisory firm, I’ve got to get anybody in the door I can while I get started, and I’ll figure out my niche later once I get my first base of clients?” What was leading you to say, “I’ve got to get going on this niche right away?”
Benjamin: Part of it was kind of derived out of things I didn’t like from the insurance world. The first time I helped somebody retire, it was probably 2007. And I thought, “I only want to do this. I have no interest anymore in life insurance or long-term care insurance, or…I want to help this person with all the financial planning things and all the handholding that come from learning how to live off of your savings.”
And that’s ultimately what led me to leave the insurance world, is that they kind of wanted to keep you in the generalist world and I kind of wanted to be in the specialist world. I thought, “There’s no point in me having 2,600 clients that are essentially just customers at that point. I just want 100 households, roughly $100 million in assets under management.” Money goes a long way in Bismarck, North Dakota, right? You don’t need a whole ton of it as far as financial advisor getting paid.
And I said, “I just want to do this one thing, and I want to be 1 mile wide and 10 miles deep.” I couldn’t do that in the insurance world with minimum production requirements and new member requirements. It was a fraternal organization. And I said, “I’ve got to go.” So I went and here we are, I guess it’ll be six years here coming up.
Michael: Interesting. So it sounds like part of this was just kind of a personal intellectual stimulation. Like, “I like doing this retirement stuff. I’m enjoying these conversations and working with these clients. They’re making this retirement transition. So I think I’m going to make that my thing.” Is that a fair characterization? As opposed to, “I’ve done a comprehensive analysis of 47 possible niches and have determined that I can maximize my opportunities here.” You went there because just it was interesting and connected with you after you did this for a while?
Benjamin: Right. It grabbed me. I worked with young professionals, which I really liked. I taught quite a few Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University. So kind of coaching people on how to get out of debt. Had a ton of fun doing that. But I said I could do that as a hobby part-time or in the off-hours or whatever.
This is what grabs me the most, is people that have never had an advisor before, have worked for 1 company for 20, 30, 40 years, have accumulated $1 million or $2 million, and they kind of turned that into paychecks for life. They don’t know about Social Security planning or Medicare or estate planning or guardrails or Roth conversions or anything like that. And they just want to collaborate with someone on how to figure this out.
Then once I started doing that, it grabbed me and I said, “This is what the next 40 years of my life are going to look like. I’ve got to do this and only this.”
Michael: So I’m struck as well that you framed that actually a little bit more specifically than just working with retirees. You said like, “People who have worked with 1 company for 20 or 30 years, now transitioning, never had an advisor before and they’re trying to figure this out.” Do you actually try to target yourself that specifically in who you’re going after, or is that just kind of how it’s turned out, that you’ve got that level of specificity in the kinds of retirees that you’re working with?
Benjamin: Well, we certainly attract people that don’t exactly fit that mold from time to time. But when I’m hosting my show, that’s who I’m talking to, I’m talking to a very specific person, an avatar client, who is a real client. And yep, that’s who I talk to.
Generally speaking, they’ve never hired a financial advisor before, and they’ve spent many years at the same company. They’ve amassed their wealth by just saving little bits every two weeks into their retirement plan, and they woke up one morning, and they were a millionaire and were just grinding away. There’s not a lot of inherited wealth, and really no business owners. But that’s just kind of who I speak to on my show; that’s kind of who ends up picking up the phone or logging into our calendar and scheduling appointments.
Michael: Interesting. And so, tell me a little bit more about what the concern or blocking point was for doing this in your area. You said like, you started going to stuff locally, like events and gatherings for coal miners who worked for their company for 20 or 30 years and retiring kind of fit this targeting on a local basis, and that there were fewer and fewer of them over time.
So why were there fewer and fewer? Is that just part of the overall shift in the local industries that are there? There’s just not as much coal mining, not as many employees in that channel as they were before or something else was driving the shift?
Benjamin: Well, it’s certainly happening now. They’re closing down many of the coal mines around here, but they built all the coal mines in the early ’80s. So you went to trade school or tech school, or you’re in some kind of a tertiary program, you’re an accountant or an HR or an engineer around the coal mining process. And they just built all these mines 30, 40 years ago, so guys that started their career 30, 40 years ago are ready to retire. So there’s just kind of this generational tidal wave of people retiring. And it was all happening around 2012 to 2016, probably kind of somewhere in that range.
Michael: Whereas now we’re into the, “Where are the coal miners that were hired 25 years ago after that initial wave?? And the answer is that there aren’t as many because the surge kind of happened 30 years ago and we’ve moved through that surge. So now there just aren’t as many of that next stage of age cohort afterwards because they were really hyper-concentrated in who they were.
Benjamin: Right. It’s like generational hires, that they hired to their max capacity, and they just…they won’t need any more hires, really, other than here and there until everybody retires. So it’s just like this 30-year shift.
Michael: Okay. So you’ve got this focus around retirees making a transition, and suddenly the local market is not as dense and active as it once was. When you’re in Bismarck, North Dakota, that may not give you a whole lot of other choices, because the population density isn’t as high. So just to give people some framing, how dense is Bismarck? What does your local market look like? How much opportunity or how many people are there?
Benjamin: In Bismarck proper, there are probably somewhere between 60,000 to 70,000 people.
Michael: Okay. Whereas I’m thinking like our…I live in a fairly dense county outside of Washington, D.C., like, there’s over a million people in probably a 10-mile radius here.
Benjamin: That’s a lot of people.
Michael: Yeah, it is a lot of people. We’re a little crowded here. But again, I’m sort of thinking through comparisons or saying the framing of the population density for you guys in the whole Bismarck area. You’re at 60,000 or 70,000 people.
The Way He Optimized His Website To Maximize Local SEO Opportunities And Why He Started A Podcast To Reach Beyond His Local Market [00:12:32]
Michael: So you’re getting concerned that there’s not enough of a local market to support this niche you’ve chosen, which I think is a common concern for a lot of people, regardless of what location they’re in, of just, “If I pick this specific thing, what happens if there aren’t enough people in my area that want that thing? Am I going to have a problem with my business because I went too narrow?”
And it sounds like even in something as broad as retirement, it’s focused but it’s not as narrow as some niches that some people choose. You were still feeling this pressure of, “I don’t know if there’s enough in my local market to make this work.” And so where did that take you? What was that thought process, and where did you go as you were having this realization?
Benjamin: Well, in the meantime, I quit the insurance company to focus on this niche more specifically. After about 6 months of starting my firm, maybe it was 12 months, I started to think, “I need to be on Google. I need to be able to be found.”
I thought originally it would need to be like local SEO, where anybody from North Dakota that was retiring could find me through my blog. The blog quickly turned into a podcast because I found out very quickly that I’m not cut out to be a writer – I’m semi-literate if you catch me on a good day – but I can talk forever. So I don’t know why that didn’t jump off the page to me right away.
But I thought, “I need to start a podcast. And that’s how I’m going to be found. I need to somehow figure out how to connect the podcast and Google together and be able to be found in a meaningful way.”
Michael: Interesting. So you started with local SEO, realized that it was, at least in part, a writing game that was not your game. You’d rather talk than write. So, okay, let’s make a podcast since that’s a medium if you like to talk, want to talk to people, or just want to share what’s going on in your own head. And then you had to figure out, “Okay, so how do people find me? How do I link a podcast back to Google, back to search, back to people actually finding their way to my website?” Was that basically the thought process or the dots you were trying to put back together?
Benjamin: Right. And it worked really well, but it wasn’t successful if that kind of makes sense. I bought Jeff Rose’s Online Advisor Growth Formula back in 2015. He taught me how to rank for “North Dakota financial advisor,” and it worked really quickly. But then only about 25 people search for “North Dakota financial advisor” on a monthly basis. So even if you make it to the first page you’re not getting a ton of traffic. And then how many of those 25 are in immediate proximity to retirement with at least $1 million and are delegators and all those sorts of things that we’re looking for, for our firm? So I needed to pivot off of that. And that’s really where the rocket fuel was poured into the podcast, is when I started using those blogging terms for the podcast.
Michael: So you make an interesting point there around doing the local SEO thing, going through the Online Advisor Growth Formula to do it, and it worked but there just literally weren’t enough people searching for “financial advisor North Dakota” just because of the density and population of what’s there in North Dakota. But the strategy worked because you were getting the search results, there just wasn’t enough volume at the top of the funnel to make the math work.
Benjamin: Right. And the volume that it did attract wasn’t…if you’re 25, you might search for “financial advisor North Dakota” or if you’re 35 or 45. We look for people who are approaching 60. So it was sort of a shotgun approach, and really what you need is more of a surgical instrument.
Michael: So then what shifted with the podcast of saying that the goal was literally, “Geez, there just aren’t enough people in North Dakota for me to build the business I want to build, so let’s just do a podcast that has a broader reach, and we’re going to stop going for North Dakota, we’re just going to go for retirees anywhere?” Was that the thought process of what you were pursuing?
Benjamin: That’s part of the thought process. I had fun creating content. I had fun with the podcast. I still have a lot of fun with the podcast. So I knew I wanted to do some marketing that was fun. But I thought, “Being in North Dakota, how can I use these new tricks, these new SEO tricks that I know how to do, how can I use that for podcast? ‘North Dakota financial advisor’ is working, but it’s not working. It’s doing what I’m asking it to do, but it’s not driving the right kind of clients. So how can I use those blogging tricks to drive traffic to the podcast?”
And then it occurred to me that I need to start targeting the term…the specific term “retirement podcast.” So when I would do media hits, I would link “retirement podcast” to my blog, Retirement Starts Today Radio. When I did a guest post or when I started to do work with a developer to work on metadata for the website, it was always retirement podcast, retirement podcast, retirement podcast.
I think at the time it had like 120 queries a month, which is quite a bit bigger than “North Dakota financial advisor,” and it’s much more specific to my niche. Now it’s hundreds a month. And in fact, there’s a whole retirement podcast network that I’m involved in – that was Taylor Schulte’s idea; that is around that idea. So once I started focusing all my SEO efforts on retirement podcast, that’s when everything really started to blow up.
Michael: Interesting. So it’s still really a version of, I’ll call it good old-fashioned search engine optimization, right? Like, I’ve got a thing. I want to make sure that when people search for that thing, I come up in the Google search results. But as opposed to saying, “I want to own the business directly” – I do retirement planning in North Dakota, so I’m going to try to get “retirement planner in North Dakota,” “financial advisor in North Dakota,” etc. – saying instead, “Look, at the end of the day, if I want to reach retirees, some retirees are going to listen to podcasts. So I’m just going to try to own ‘retirement podcast’ as a search term so that when they search for that, they find their way to me and my podcast. And then from there, we’ll figure out later how we actually turn someone who googled ‘retirement podcast’ into someone that actually does business with me as a financial advisor when they’re transitioning into retirement.”
Benjamin: Correct. And it was just lucky for me that “retirement podcast” was a term that was in my weight class, so to speak, with my blog’s authority. If I wanted to try to rank for something like 401(k) rollover, right, I’m up there with like NerdWallet and Investopedia and the Kitces blog, right? That’s way outside of my weight class, and I shouldn’t be in competition with those sites.
But retirement podcast at 120 queries a month back then, that was a weight class I could fight in. So I knew that I could target that term and have some success with it based on other trials and errors of SEO with like “North Dakota financial advisor,” for example.
The Marketing Funnel Benjamin Developed [00:19:15]
Michael: So I’ve got to ask, how do you think about something like 120 queries per month? Because again, I think for a lot of us, when we start talking about focus marketing, there’s always this question of, “Are there enough people? Is there enough opportunity here?”
So, on the one hand, it’s like…heck, popular search terms get like thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions of searches. You’re going after this thing that has 120 queries per month. On the other hand, as you noted, that actually makes it search infrequently enough that you could potentially own that term. And at the end of the day, we only need so many clients. Like if 120 prospects every month actually find their way to me, I’m going to have way more prospects than I can handle.
So it strikes me that there’s an interesting balance there; on the one hand, that’s kind of a fairly narrow, specific sort of search term and thing to go after. And on the other hand, there’s more than enough volume at the end of the day to get some clients. Is that how you approached it? Or what were you thinking about as you were trying to decide what to go after and how to do this?
Benjamin: Well, I was thinking of that 120 number with the idea of like a marketer that markets through nurturing. I was reading Russell Brunson – the ClickFunnels guy. I forget which book it was, but he talks about a value-driven sales funnel. So I looked at that 120-people-per-month and I thought, “Okay, if I can get them to check out my blog, and if I exceed their expectations, I can maybe get them to download an episode. And if I can exceed their expectations, maybe I can get them to join my email list. And if I surpass their expectations, maybe I could get them to a webinar or to subscribe to my show. And then if I exceed their expectations there, then I can get them to schedule an intro call. And if I exceed their expectations, maybe they’ll become a client.”
So it’s just mapping out, I’ve got 120 opportunities per month. How many of those can I graduate up this value-driven sales funnel? Rather than the traditional financial advisor marketing of like, “Hey, I’m a financial advisor, give me your life savings.” Right? If I can line out 5 or 10 or 20 steps where I can prove my worth every single time so that they trust me with a little bit of not money, in this case, but time, it’s reasonable to expect that you could grow an audience doing that. And then eventually people will raise their hands and say, “I want to become a client.”
Michael: And so is that literally like the funnel, as you think about it? Like a search goes to a podcast episode, a podcast episode goes to a podcast subscriber, who gets it every week in iTunes. That hopefully becomes someone who joins your email list. That becomes someone who goes to a webinar. That becomes someone who goes to an intro call. That turns into someone who becomes a client. Is that literally what you try to do in moving people through this marketing funnel, just getting them through those particular steps?
Benjamin: Yeah, that’s exactly what I want people to do. It makes my job a lot easier as an advisor. Because once you finally get somebody on a Zoom call, they’re likely going to agree with most of the things you say, or they wouldn’t have picked up the phone in the first place. But yeah, I saw that there was this…it’s not a set of stairs, it’s a cliff, right? When you meet somebody and then you ask for their life savings, right, that’s too big of a jump. And I don’t have a book and I don’t have any online courses for retirees yet. So I needed to map out like, what value could I offer, either money-wise or timewise? What commitment could I offer that I could exceed their expectations? And I knew I needed like 4 or 5 or 6 or 8 or 10 steps rather than just 1 giant step, which is where most advisors live.
Michael: So you were approaching this with just the assumption, “Hey, if I’m going to turn 120 search queries for something that’s related to me into actual business, I’m going to have to hit them in multiple steps over time.” Like, we’re not turning “retirement podcast” into million-dollar rollovers based on the search for “retirement podcast.” I just want to download an episode and then I just want to become a subscriber and then move to my email list and so on and down the line. And you just assume like, “We’re going to have to move them all the way through this. Not everyone’s going to get through, I just need to make sure that a couple shake out at the end, based on 120 a month at the top coming in.”
Benjamin: Right. Because they’re not Googling “retirement rollover” or “401(k) rollover,” they’re Googling, “retirement podcast.” They’re asking Google, “I want to learn more about this topic.” Right? It’s not, “I need to take action today,” it’s, “I need to take action eventually.” So that’s why I have to create a nurturing sequence, because they might not be ready to retire today, they might be ready to retire in three weeks or three months or three years. So they’re just telling Google, “I want to learn about this,” not, “I’m ready to take action today.” So I’ve got to have a value-driven sales funnel that reflects what I’m anticipating their needs are.
Michael: Interesting, just interesting way to frame it, including recognizing like they’re not searching for action, they’re still searching for information. But if I connect with them well, at some point later, when they’re ready for action, I might actually have a chance at this.
Benjamin: Right. They’re looking for something that Google can’t provide, right? And I’m stealing this from Roger Whitney, shout out to Roger. Google can provide you with knowledge, but it can’t provide you with wisdom. So they’re seeking Google’s knowledge in order to hopefully find wisdom, right? They’re looking to learn more about this thing, retirement podcast.
Michael: I like that. Google can provide them with knowledge, but they’re seeking wisdom. You can provide them wisdom with what you do on the podcast, which becomes enriching for them that starts to take them through this nurturing funnel, this nurturing process.
So help us understand how this works in practice. What do you actually do or what have you done or implemented to literally try to get them through these stages of search podcast, podcast subscriber, email list, webinar, intro call, client? How do you move them through this as a funnel? What do you do?
Benjamin: I knew that this is where I wanted to end up. What you’re seeing is version like 25.0, right? My first step was just to create a podcast. I needed to create some kind of content where I could be found, whether it be in iTunes, which is now Apple Podcasts, or Google or wherever. So I knew I needed to create some content in some way. I knew I needed to have an email list, but I wasn’t ready for that yet. I didn’t have the capacity to write weekly emails, and I didn’t have an email list. So I just knew where I wanted to go.
And I said, “What does version 1.0 look like? 1.0 looks like, you create a show and you do all the editing and everything yourself. Okay, what does version 2.0 look like? Okay, well, it looks like this.” I tried to figure out, “This is where I want to go, I want to be like Jeff Rose or Roger Whitney or Michael Kitces. But I know I can’t arrive there on day one. But what can I do today as a version 1.0, as a deliverable, and then how can I get reps in and figure out what version 2.0 looks like?”
Michael: I like that framing because it doesn’t make the stakes too high upfront, right? I feel like for a lot of us, if we expect too much out of it too early on, then it gets very demotivating if it doesn’t produce those results, and we can kind of lose our momentum. And I mean this in the most positive way, but I feel like you set your expectations for yourself fairly low out of the gate. Like just, “This isn’t my final version that’s going to crush it on my marketing growth. Just what does version 1.0 look like? Like, I’m going to make a show, I’m going to edit it, and I’m going to put it on the internet and we’ll see if some people show up and listen to it.”
Benjamin: Well, that’s the beauty of podcasting, right? Unless you already have an audience or a social media following or something, nobody’s going to hear your first couple shows. Maybe a superfan will go back, all the way back to episode number one, which people tell me they do, which I absolutely cringe when they tell me that, but I guess that’s a compliment.
But nobody’s listening to your first couple shows, right? Your mom’s listening and your sister says she’s listening, but she’s probably not. And that’s about it. So you can be awful out loud and just promise yourself that you’re going to improve with repetition. So podcasting is perfect for that.
Michael: Interesting. So very much approaching it with a learner’s mind, a growth mindset. I’ve heard people frame it similarly in the blogging context, and I think I’ve actually talked about this in our early version as well. Like, for as much traffic and engagement as Nerd’s Eye View has right now, we all start from the same place at square one. Like in the early days, it was like, “Woohoo, giant day, six people showed up on the website and read that thing. And I’m pretty sure all of them are my personal friends or family because I told them I put something on the internet that day.”
But then a few, then half a dozen becomes a dozen, a dozen becomes two dozen and a few people share with some other people who read it and share it with other people. And if you’re creating something that’s valuable, it starts to get out there. And then eventually it starts to compound if you keep producing that value. But recognizing everyone starts at square one zero early on.
Benjamin: Right. I talk to my audience 104 times a year. I’ve got a weekly newsletter and a weekly podcast. If I would have attempted that kind of volume on day one, I would have washed out like 80% of all podcasters do, I would have washed out right away because I didn’t have the reps to have the confidence to know that I could do something like that. I just didn’t have the practice or the systems to do it.
So just figure out what version 1.0 is, do that, and then figure out, “Okay, I know it’s going to take me 25 steps to get there or 50 or 5, or whatever it is, how do I do this step right now, get good at it, and then create the capacity for the next step?”
Michael: So what did you start out at? What did you come out of the gate with that felt reasonable and manageable to you?
Benjamin: I thought that weekly episodes were reasonable and manageable, not because I was looking internally at my own capacity, but because I was looking externally at, “Here’s what all the other famous financial advisor podcasters do, they do weekly shows, so I’ve got to do a weekly show.” So I hit the ground running, and I had published like three weekly episodes in a row. And then because it didn’t have the reps, I immediately ran out of content. And my podcast went cold for like, I don’t know what it was, six weeks or two months or something, which is exactly the opposite of what you want to do, right? The hardest thing to do is to build that momentum back up. Once you’ve got that momentum and people tuning in, you want to keep it going. So I know that now because I messed it up early on. So I messed it up.
And then eventually, I got some reps. I said, “I’m going to do two episodes a month.” And sometimes it was two at a week and sometimes it was three or four weeks cold. I said, “This isn’t working to build the momentum I need, I need to bring on an editor to help hold me accountable.” I brought on Steve Stewart, and we agreed that we were going to do episodes on the 1st and 15th of every month, just like payday, right? It’s a financial show. And we did that for maybe a year and a half.
Then in 2019, I said, “All right, I’m going to go all-in on podcasting. We’re going to do weekly episodes,” because I had, at that point, whatever it was, two years of reps in, and I had some systems built and I had some time cut out of my calendar every week to record. I didn’t have that day one, but after getting so many reps, and you can build that, I said, “We’re going to do every Monday morning.” And here we are 140-something episodes in.
Michael: So there were a couple of striking things to me in there. The first was just this acknowledgment of like, don’t come at this too hard and too quickly upfront, or you will burn out, as I think you framed it well, you haven’t done the reps yet. You haven’t done the exercising yet. You haven’t built the muscle yet. So if you try to come out of the gate running a marathon, you’re just going to collapse after the first few miles. You have to train for it. You have to pace yourself, do the reps, as you put it.
And just reflecting like, you sort of worked in there briefly. Like, “So I hired an editor, Steve Stewart, he supported me on it. He held me accountable. We started doing it twice a month, yadda yadda yadda, 18 months later and we went weekly.” Eighteen months is a long time of just doing two per month and getting them out there. So what was going on at this two per month pace once you started finding a routine for? What were you doing? What were you finding that worked?
Benjamin: Well, I was being very reactive with my schedule. So if your episode is due on the 1st…let’s say it’s due on the 15th and Steve needs three days to look at it, religiously, I would be recording on like the 11th or the 12th. Because I was being reactive with my time. There was always something.
I still struggle with this, by the way, but there was just always something that was a priority over that. And so I looked at my calendar and I said, “I’ve got to carve out a day every single week that I’m not meeting with clients, other than emergencies or something like that,” that happened to be Friday, “And that’s the day I’m going to work on my show.” So it’s just a creative day. And hopefully, the goal is to get a few weeks ahead of myself.
Now, oftentimes, more often than not, I’m not ahead of myself. I’ve taken a lot of steps, including some recently, to try to get back on track for that. But yeah, it’s having either an audience to hold you accountable or having a team behind you, or at least a person to hold you accountable is incredibly helpful.
Michael: And so, how did you find or carve out just the creative day per week to do it in the first place? I feel like that in and of itself is a challenge. Not a lot of us have a spare day lying around like, “Oh, I can totally just not do anything else on Fridays but have some creative time. I’ve got all this spare time.” Was your firm at a point yet where you weren’t so jammed up on time, that it really was feasible for you or were you doing more to lift and reorganize just to get to the point where you could that?
Benjamin: Well, I don’t remember if it was a chicken or an egg kind of a thing, but we also sort of surge appointments, which we’re now in version 3.0 of that. But setting aside the day as, “Okay, I’m not going to meet with clients on Friday, unless it’s an emergency.” Block that off on the calendar. It’s blocked off in Redtail. It’s blocked off at Google. It’s blocked off in Calendly. Nobody can self-schedule. And then the staff knows Fridays are off for being creative.
As we started doing surge appointments, we said, “How can we apply this in other areas?” So we said in December of 20…in September of 2018, we said, “What if we didn’t meet with any clients in December?” And we liked that a lot. Then we thought it was valuable to our clients to be just laser-focused on just one topic at a time. And then we said, “We liked that a lot. So what if in 2019 we did every other month?” So we did like January, March. I think we had two months in a row in September so that we didn’t have to do December. And that worked really well. And the clients seemed to like it, and the staff really seemed to like it. So then in 2020, we’re just meeting with clients in May and November. And so by compartmentalizing this time, it allows you to have free days or focus days or…I think that’s a Strategic Coach thing.
But then also to have days where this is just my creative day because I’m not just taking appointments in a reactive way, I’m being proactive with my time and saying…reaching out to clients ahead of time and saying, “Hey, May is the next time we’re seeing clients, and here’s all the stuff we’re going to talk about, schedule yourself here.” So I think the answer to your question is you’ve got to be proactive with your time. If you’re reactive, you’re always going to be doing things on the deadline.
Why He Runs Meeting Surges To Maximize His Focus [00:34:09]
Michael: So I’m struck by this structuring and what you’re framing here as surge meetings. So I want to actually understand this evolution a little bit more. So it sounds like, so it started almost two years ago, you said, “We’re just going to plan upfront, we are not going to meet with any clients in December of 2018.”
So just let everyone know upfront, “Either schedule your client review meetings in November if you’ve got end-of-year planning or call us January after the New Year, we’re not meeting with anybody in December.” And like, you just kind of out and set it, or, “This is what we’re doing, we’ll see how it goes?”
Benjamin: I don’t think we messaged it to clients that way. But we just looked at our calendar and said, “Who do we meet with in November and December and January?” They’re used to hearing from us those times. But either we’re scrambling at the end of the year to get these Roth conversions done, or we’re scrambling to do this or that.
What if we just get out ahead of ourselves? And in October, we’ll schedule the entire month of November for all those clients that we normally see during those times. Tell the client why this is in their better interest, not just for my own convenience, but why this is good for you, and set those expectations properly. And it worked for everybody.
It worked great for the staff, worked great for me. We weren’t rushing at the end of the year to complete Roth conversions or someone’s open enrollment on their health insurance, whatever it is we’re working on. And it just worked really well. So we repeated it and repeated it and honed it, and now here we are, like I said, version 3.0, just meeting with clients twice a year.
Michael: So I kind of get it on that end, I guess anyone who’s going to have year-end planning, you just let them know like, “Hey, awesome news, we’re going to schedule you in November. So we really have a lead time on your end-of-year planning.” And I don’t think anybody’s really complaining to say like, “Hey, we’re just going to be more proactive with end-of-year planning.” Sounds great for clients. And you just end out with a few more meetings in November or a few more meetings in January for the people that spill over the other direction. But I’m struck, that you said in 2019 you started meeting with all your clients every other month.
So talk to me about what that looks like in practice. I feel like that’s like having a hair-on-fire month, then a quiet month, then another hair-on-fire month, and then another quiet month. If I had no client meetings for a whole month, that would feel like a really quiet month. And then bunching two months’ worth of client meetings into one month feels sort of hair-on-fire on the other end. Is that overstating the case, or is it just the cadence you’re comfortable with? How does this play out when you start putting client meetings every other month in lumps?
Benjamin: Well, the thing that I really liked about it was because we have a tight niche – all of our clients are either on the cusp of retirement or are actively living off of their savings –we’re talking about the same things over and over and over again. So I found myself in an average day, I get to the office at 8:30, whatever, after dropping my kids off at school, and I have some coffee, talk with the staff, see what’s on CNBC, sit down, check my email an hour later, however many tasks went by, check Twitter.
If there’s a compliance article that’s interesting, I’ll read that. Maybe I’ll do some research for the show. Maybe I’ll return a call for a client, then I’ll have a client appointment, then I’ll do this. And I was just…I was reacting all the time, and I was doing 12 different things in a day.
And I thought…through coaching, I went through Matt Jarvis and Stephanie Bogan’s Limitless Adviser program, which I’m still involved in. And they talked about how it takes two hours of attempts to hit your peak focus time. So if you’re just reacting constantly to whatever pops up into your email inbox, you’re going to feel like you’re busy, but you’re not going to be productive.
So they encourage you to apply that to your client appointments. Rather than having five appointments a week every week, what if you had five appointments a day for a specific amount of time? I approached the staff with this idea and they thought that it was too much too quick, so that’s why we decided on December, to evaluate how that felt. If it felt great, then we’ll just do every other month.
So I might not do new client appointments on a surge month. I might not do as much coaching for podcasting in May. I might push compliance tasks to either April or June, rebalancing probably April or June. So I’m going to do one thing until it’s done, then move on to the next thing, just so I can get maximum mental capacity, which is fairly limited in my brain because of other things that are going on in my life, but how can I get maximum efficiency with limited time?
Michael: And is that literally what you do, like five client meetings a day for days or weeks or an entire month?
Benjamin: Yeah, we’ll have roughly 42 appointments this month. I went back to a couple previous years, and I had our staff look at how many appointments did we have between January 1st and June 1st last year? We had 67 appointments including new clients and whatever else. And I said, “67 appointments in 6 months. It feels like 10 appointments a month.” Right? You think you’re busy all the time, but really 10 appointments a month, I could probably do all that in one month. I could probably do all that in three weeks.
When you think about five or six appointments a day, top of the hour, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or whatever it is. I try to not be in the office more than about 25 hours a week. So I’ve got to kind of structure the day appropriately. But yeah, it’s just, I said, “Let me see what I have been doing.” And it was…the number was something like 67. I said, “I can be much more efficient with my time than that.”
Michael: So it doesn’t burn you out to be doing that many meetings that intensively?
Benjamin: It’s exactly the opposite because there’s a finish line. When you’re being reactive with your time, you’re never done. There’s never a point, other than Friday afternoon where you can say, “Oh, I guess I’m done till Monday morning,” there’s never a time when you say, “I’m done with that task,” because tasks just appear and you put out fires constantly.
But if you say, “I’m going to reach out to all 80 of our clients this month. And we’re going to probably connect with two-thirds of them. And we’re going to meet with all of them. It’s going to be something like four or five appointments a day, not meeting on Fridays.” And you’re going to knock out 40 or 50 appointments, and then you’re “done” until either they have an emergency, they need you for something, or you set the expectations, “All right, we’ll talk to you in November.”
Michael: Interesting. And so you can do this grind of five-plus meetings a day on an ongoing basis for several weeks because you know once I get through this, A, just, I’m done with them and I get to breathe, and B, I’m not just done, I’m done for a while. It’s like, I won’t be back to more meetings for another month or another several months now because I surged through them all. So big burst, but then big breather?
Benjamin: Well, it’s better for the client, too, because, again, we’re cheating a little bit because we have a niche that we’re really tight to. But I’m just looking at a review that I had just yesterday. And we talked about, reviewed the client’s guardrails, reviewed their 2019 taxes, asked about if they got a stimulus check or not, talked about some of the charitable tax deductions we’re working on, and then reminded them that RMDs have been waived for the year for…I know he manages his dad’s money as well.
I’m having those five little conversations in basically every single appointment at the top of every hour, Monday through Thursday, with a couple times off for lunch and things like that, staff meetings. So the client gets more out of it because I’m getting these reps of, we’ve got to talk about this, then we’ve got to talk about this, then we’ve got to talk about this. And we’re doing this over Zoom now because of the coronavirus, but we pack every minute of that 45 minutes most of the time.
And I think the client significantly benefits because I am having the exact same conversation, more or less, with the exact same style of client.
Michael: So you make an interesting point there around, when you’ve got a consistent kind of clientele that you’re focusing on in the first place, that, as you framed it, these conversations get more standardized.
They all kind of need a similar thing when you’ve got a similar clientele, which makes surge meetings more manageable because you’re literally just going to keep having the same conversation over and over again with the same people with the same issues that gets really rehearsed and really easy.
And you can template all the stuff that you’re doing because you’re serving a consistent clientele that need a consistent thing. Just it gets efficient, and then why not just do it in a surge all at once.
Benjamin: Right. And when you’re meeting with 5 clients a week, rather than 25 clients a week, you’re getting out of a rhythm, right? So when I was meeting with clients on a non-surge basis, I would have this all…I would have my agenda, right, but then I would be like…because I hadn’t met with a client in maybe a day and a half, I’d be like, “Oh, I forgot to talk to them about, ‘We’re going to do a Roth conversion based on your taxes last year. We’re going to do that in November.’ I didn’t plant that seed. I forgot about it. Missed that planning opportunity.” Or I forgot to review their beneficiaries with them, or I forgot to…you’re reactive, like, “Oh, I wish I would have done that.”
But if you’re meeting with a very similar client at the top of every hour, four or five, six, seven, eight times in a day, maybe not eight, but five or six times in a day, you’re not going to forget that because you’re getting those reps in repetition, repetition.
Michael: And you had mentioned this sort of series of lists of issues that you’re going through with clients right now, like checking their spending guardrails, did they get a stimulus check, reminding them their RMDs are waived.
Is this just literally like, you’ve got a standardized agenda, everybody essentially has an agenda that if not identical, it’s at least mostly the same, because they’re for similar clients with similar issues, and you just repeat the same agenda over and over again?
Benjamin: Yeah, pretty much. I’m cheating a little bit, again, because I have 80 clients. We’re going to stop at 100 clients. I know these people, right? I know them. When they call the office, we don’t have to say, “Who is this?” because we recognize their voice, right? We’re intentionally small because we can do the sort of stuff that is so easy it almost feels like cheating, right? I know Scott, and I know that these are the things we talked about last time. These are the specific pieces that interest him.
It’s 80% like the last appointment and it’s 70% like the next appointment. So in the 15 minutes I have before the appointment, I look through their file. And this takes prep time, of course, before a surge, of course. But then I’d write down, “These are the five things that apply to them.” And four of those are for the next one. And the next guy has two more than that. But like you say, it’s really similar because they’re all living off their savings.
So similar agents, similar income. And yeah, so much of it applies to everyone. That you get those reps in and it becomes really easy, much more efficient use of your time.
Michael: And so I’ve got to ask, like, do you get bored sometimes having the same conversations with a set of clients over and over again?
Benjamin: I really don’t because it’s repetition for me, but it’s new to them. So they’re like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that there was a special carve-out for charitable this year above the standard deduction,” or, “I didn’t know that if you had direct deposit with whatever.”
It’s news to them, right? It’s old hat to you and me, because we have these conversations all the time, but it’s new to them. So you get that affirmation, that feedback all the time. So it’s not boring. It’s very rewarding.
Michael: Interesting. And so the end result of this is, well, as you said now, so you’re doing all client meetings in only two months of the year? Like, everything is getting done in May and November?
Michael: All right. So I guess I have a couple of questions. One, just, how many clients are we talking about? How many clients do you have that you’re servicing and going through with on this process?
Benjamin: We serve 80 households roughly.
Michael: Okay. And what is that in terms of a revenue base or an asset base?
Benjamin: Revenue base is around $500,000, AUM base pre-coronavirus was about $60 million. We have a $1 million asset minimum now, but we have a lot of grandfathered clients.
Michael: Okay. And so with 80 households, what’s the goal for meeting cadence with them? Do you try to meet with them ideally once a year, ideally twice a year? What are you shooting for in terms of how often you meet with them to do this?
Benjamin: We used to have kind of client segmentation tiers, like AAA clients, AA clients, A clients, depending on complexity, depending on a lot of things. But when we wanted to do surges twice a year, we said, “Let’s throw away the tiers. We’re going to offer appointments to every person twice a year and just see how that feels, see what sort of…” knowing that not every single one of those 80 are going to say yes.
Especially clients that have been with you a while, they tend to…anecdotally, of course, they tend to maybe go more towards a once a year. We have to really encourage them to come in twice a year. Because a year, I guess, in retirement can kind of blink by. It seems like they just saw us. So we sort of reverted to say, “We’re going to treat every client exactly the same. We’re going to offer them two appointments a year.” And so like two Thursdays before surge, we’ll send out an email with a Calendly link, “It’s time, we’re meeting everybody in May. Click here.” Send that out Thursday, Thursday, Thursday.
Reviewing every Monday morning staff meeting, who said, “Let’s do it” and who didn’t. And then identifying, we absolutely have to meet with this person, give them a phone call, or this person is fine until November. We’ll just note that they didn’t want to meet in their file. So I had guessed we would hit probably 60%-ish. I think that’s where we’ll end up. We’ve got scheduled appointments roughly in the mid-40s right now out of 80. But I think by the end of May…the last week in May is still pretty open. I think we’ll hit about what we’re shooting for.
Michael: Interesting. And so, again, just it’s intensive. So, what does a typical surge day look like for you in practice, or I guess even a surge week since it sounds like there’s a bit of a weekly cadence to this.
Benjamin: So I carve out some time to go to the gym. The gyms in Bismarck just opened up Monday, May 11th. So I get to the office anywhere from 8:30 to 9:30, depending on what’s going on at home and depending on what’s going on here.
And then we’ll have meetings at the top of the hour until either 2 or 3 or 4, depending upon…I think the latest appointment we’ll set is 3, but just kind of depending on demand. So that’ll be 9, 10, 11, 12, 1, 2. I think we’ve been doing 4 or 5, 6 appointments a day, something like that, trying to get them right at the top of every hour, rather than like 90 minutes between or 30 minutes between.
Just 45 minutes Zoom call, 15 minutes between so you can eat some peanuts or use the bathroom or whatever you’ve got to do. Top of the hour every hour is the goal.
Michael: Okay. So 45-minute calls, 15-minute breather, and on to the next. So I guess two questions. One, do you get to break for food? When’s lunch break or just breather break?
Benjamin: Well, I did have to…after week one in May, I did have to schedule…I had to put in Calendly “lunch” at least once a day. But it really kind of depends.
You know the clients, you know who’s going to want to talk for the full 45 minutes and try to get it the full hour. You know the clients that are just going to be 20 minutes, and you just kind of look at your day and say, “Okay, yeah, I know that Carol is only going to be interested for maybe 30 minutes. So we’ll have lunch then.”
You only have 80 clients. So you know. So you just know who wants to get like 61 minutes out of the 45-minute appointment. Just the benefit of not working with so many clients.
Michael: And so, what’s the plan for…do you have clients who just you get into the issue and it’s like, “Oh, man, this is going to be more than an hour,” or they just don’t get an hour, or if they have really messy things, you’ll do a follow-up? How do you handle the potential that not every client is actually fully resolved in an hour?
Benjamin: I talk fast. I don’t know. The clients that go over an hour, it’s not heavy financial planning. Usually, it’s chitchat. They want to ask about the triplets or they want to know like, how is hockey season? Or they want to…which I’m all up for, right?
I love to talk. So just steering it back and saying, “We’ve got these five things we’ve got to talk about, let’s hammer these, and then we’ll talk about fishing.”
Michael: And are you literally setting and sending an agenda like, “These are the five things we’ll be talking about in our meeting? If that doesn’t work for you, we add something else. Let me know now or forever hold your peace?”
Benjamin: I say, “What’s the number one financial thing on your mind right now” after the chitchat is done. And then if we talk about that for however long it lasts, that’s fine. But again, since all of our clients are so similar income-wise, asset-wise, maybe not asset-wise but income-wise, middle-class millionaires, we’ve got these five things, or maybe it’s three things, or maybe it’s seven things, but I let them know, “We’ve got these things to talk about.”
So if it gets too chatty and we’re running long, I try to steer the conversation back. So I don’t really give them the agenda. I say, “What’s on your mind first? I’ve got these three things to talk about?” But maybe more informal than it should be, but that’s kind of the space we’re at right now.
Michael: Okay. And just the reality is, they’ve already been given the expectation and understanding that like, “This is now our meeting, it’s been scheduled for an hour.” And so they accept an hour because that’s what they’re told for how it works at the end of the day? It sounds like there’s a piece of that as well, just when you tell them it’s an hour, it turns out to be an hour. If you tell them it’s two hours, it’ll turn out to be two hours.
Benjamin: We actually scheduled for 45 minutes. So on Calendly, it says “Ongoing planning. This is your same-annual check-in where we talk about your retirement plan.” And it says 45 minutes. So it’s 3 to 3:45. When it pops up in their calendar, it’s 3 to 3:45. So it gives us a built-in 15 minutes if we have to run long or if we have to whatever. So we’re setting those expectations ahead of time so the client is not surprised by anything, any curveballs coming at them.
Michael: And do you just not end out with any clients who have scenarios that take longer or new clients that you’ve got to do more stuff for because you’re still getting to know them? Or do you handle them outside of these parameters?
Benjamin: So new clients would be outside of those parameters, new clients would be outside of surge. So all of our surge clients are our ongoing planning appointments twice a year, or we’re reviewing their taxes and reviewing their portfolio and reviewing their…whatever it is that we’re looking to do.
On our off-quarters, we’re trying to proactively plant seeds. For example, we did a beneficiary review last year, where on an off-month, we said, “Here are your beneficiaries. We’ve converted the beneficiaries to dollars. And Susie is going to inherit $300,000 and Jimmy is going to inherit $300,000 and Frank is going to inherit $300,000. We want to talk to you in our next appointment about how that feels about them inheriting all this money,” or whatever the numbers are, whatever the situation is. So they know ahead of time, “This is what we’re going to be talking about.” And the conversation generally steers there.
But if you set those expectations properly ahead of time, what you end up with in the appointment just manifests itself because you’ve planted those seeds. So that’s what we try to do. We’re not perfect at that yet, maybe version 5.0 will be better, but that’s where we’ve seen some success. New clients are generally outside of surge. And we’re only looking for 20 more clients. So it’s not like we’re super heavy with onboarding clients all the time.
Michael: Okay. And do you ever get scenarios that just clients want or say they need to meet outside of the window? “Hey, stuff happened in my life. I need to meet with you. I’m sorry, it’s June. Can we meet?” Do they still get that option or just, “You will meet in surge or we can’t meet,” is the deal?
Benjamin: No, we’ll meet with you. No problem. Pick up the phone and give us a call. We’re available. We just know that the most efficient use of our time is doing it this way, just because of trial and error. But anecdotally, I found that if you are proactive with your meetings, that’s going to be…I would bet you hard money, that’d be 80% to 90% of your appointments if you’re proactive.
Michael: Because just the reality is if you’ve really been structured and you’re meeting with them twice a year, and they know you’re meeting with them twice a year, and they know when it’s coming, and they know it’s going to be structured because they know exactly when it’s going to be because you’ve already told them it’s May and November, most of the time, either they don’t have questions, there’s not that much going on, or when they know it’s coming, they just wait until the November meeting, unless it’s really, truly urgent. And at the end of the day, there’s just not that much that really ends up being that urgent.
Benjamin: No. We tell clients, “I’m on call by email pretty much 24/7, so don’t hesitate to reach out, but we’ve got you scheduled for May and November.” I know for an advisor, that sounds kind of crazy. When I first heard it in my head, it was crazy. But try it out, you’ll be really surprised that being proactive is just so much more efficient, and the client gets a lot more out of it at the end of the day, rather than you living in your email inbox and having that be your time to-do list, which I’m still guilty of some of the time.
It’s better for the client, better for your practice to be proactive and say, “We’re going to meet with you twice a year, May and November,” whatever the months are that work for whatever niche you’re serving. And if something comes up, either the staff can handle it right away, or you can meet with them. It’s not against the rules to meet with somebody off-surge. You’ll just find that after you do it for a while, those meetings are very infrequent.
Michael: And so, how do you handle the meeting prep that goes with all these meetings and all this activity?
Benjamin: So for May, we picked May because people…on non-coronavirus years, your taxes are due in April. So we send out, “Here’s the calendar link, here’s the ShareFile link. We want to review your taxes.” We do that a couple weeks ahead of time. And then as those tax returns roll in, I run them through Holistiplan. And again, our clients are somewhat similar income-wise, somewhat similar asset-wise. So I can say, “Okay, Scott’s got $20,000 left before he hits the top of the 22% bracket and he starts to get in trouble with his Medicare premiums.” That’s something we’re going to talk about. Look back 2019, “Oh, we did a $15,000 conversion, okay, well, we’ll probably shoot for that next year.” We’re not doing that now, but we’re planning to see that, this is what we’ll probably talk about in November.
So, you’ve got to get a couple weeks out ahead of yourself. But if everybody’s scheduling around the same time, you’re going to have this natural workflow of, I’ve got two weeks before a surge, tax returns are rolling in, and here’s how I’m processing them. So if you wait until you’re in surge, you’ll find that you’re not having any time and your brain is other places with XYZ service work that a client gave you about, “I’m withholding too much of my federal taxes,” whatever it might be, but you’ve got to get out ahead of yourself a couple weeks. Lay that track out in front of you.
Michael: But again, you make an interesting point, like, outside of coronavirus craziness, like, we’re meeting with our clients in May. We know they’ll all have just gone through tax season in April. So we should be able to get their tax returns. We can ask for the tax returns upfront. We know we’ll be able to drop them in a Holistiplan to do an analysis of them. All this stuff gets structured and set upfront.
So we know what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it. And so when you get into the actual meeting cycle now, it’s gotten a heck of a lot simpler because it’s just, I’ve got like 50 clients meeting, they’ve sent 50 tax returns, I dropped 50 returns into Holistiplan. I do my 50 analyses and I’m off and running.
Benjamin: Right. And then in November, they know that we’re going to probably talk about Roth conversions. We’re probably going to talk about how did…guardrails. We’re going to talk about how does your income feel for 2020? And did it feel like you had too much at the end of the month, not quite enough, how can we tweak that?
You can talk about portfolio reviews anytime you want to. You can fit those into May or fit those into November or both, end of the year Roth conversion, end of the year open enrollment for your health insurance.
Figuring out what your niche is, and then what times of the year really apply. And so for retirement planning, I think it’s taxes and it’s health insurance. And so then May and November made the most sense.
How Benjamin Uses Tech Tools To Simplify Tax And Retirement Discussions With His Clients [00:57:32]
Michael: Okay. Interesting. Interesting. And just talk to us a little bit more about what you’re actually doing with Holistiplan. Because that in and of itself is a newer…I think a newer tool that not a lot of advisors are familiar with.
Benjamin: What I really like about Holistiplan is the tax report. So you upload the return into Holistiplan. You don’t do any data entry, which I really love. Eventually, I want to train my staff to do this. I do it myself now. But you upload the return into Holistiplan and then it just, it reads the PDF. And it prints out a super simple report that says, “Here’s your total income, here’s your total taxes, here’s your marginal rate, here’s your effective rate.” And then it goes through, “Here’s how much room you have before Medicare taxes. Here’s how much room you have in the tax bracket that you’re in.”
And then it’s a whole list of like green, yellow, red of your yellow that you’re going to lose the deductibility of whatever credit or deduction. And it just simplifies it. Rather than a really kind of archaic-looking, intimidating document of like all these numbers, and most people, including myself sometimes, you don’t know what they mean.
Holistiplan converts it back into plain English that says…I’m screen sharing on a Zoom call. “Hey, Scott, you earned $156,000 last year, here’s how much room we have.” And it’s just printed out as a graphic, “Here’s how much room we have in this bracket. Here’s how much room we have before we start to get in trouble with our Medicare premiums. That’s starting to look to me like a $27,000 Roth conversion in November. What are your thoughts about that?” And just let them lead the conversation.
Michael: Okay. And so the appeal for Holistiplan is, as you put it, no data entry, because you just literally upload a PDF of a tax return and it does the analysis, like, it scans the tax return and pulls the numbers and figures out the stuff on its own.
Benjamin: Yep. And depending on your niche, you’re going to know what you’re looking for. So you can tune out the 90% that’s just going to be noise and doesn’t apply to your audience.
Michael: Right. And so, what else do you use for software and tools just for running the business and executing on all this?
Benjamin: We use this crazy new software called Excel spreadsheets. That’s what our guardrails live in. We use it more as a…
Michael: I’ve heard of that one.
Benjamin: It’s an up-and-coming software. We use that for our guardrail. And that’s really just more of a visual aid as a financial planning tool than something that’s like carved into stone tablets, right? And then we use Fidelity’s Retirement Income suite, mostly because it’s free, but we just want to look at the year by year cash flows when we do our upfront planning.
And then we really don’t go…we don’t do annual updates of the plan, other than talking about, how do you feel? And letting clients know when they’re going to have to reduce their income based on market performance. So on an ongoing basis, it’s really just Excel and Holistiplan. And we use like Redtail and Calendly and Acuity Scheduling and some of those things, but as far as like technology goes, we’re pretty limited, mostly out of like…partially out of like frugality and like maybe laziness on my part, but also knowing that I have no interest in showing a client a 92-page eMoney report or…I don’t think there’s a lot of value there. I think focus on the planning, and most of that can be done with visual aids.
Michael: So talk to us about what this guardrail sheet is that you’re creating and giving to people in Excel.
Benjamin: Yeah. So it’s just using Guyton’s guardrails. And it’s saying that we invest for all of our clients in a very similar way, generically 60/40. And Guyton’s research says, basically, that if your initial withdrawal rate increases by 20%, which you can convert that into a portfolio balance, we need to…and if it stays there for 3 months, we’ve got to think about reducing your income.
So it’s all financial planning, it’s saying, “When your portfolio reaches this amount, we’ve got to reduce our income by this amount.” So it takes all the scariness out of it. So let’s say, Michael, we’ve got to reduce you and your wife’s income when your portfolio drops and stays below $1.5 million and you’re at $2 million. So you’ve got $500,000 worth of buffer. If the market misbehaves or if you want to go buy an RV or something or a house on Cape Cod, we know exactly where we’d have to reduce your income based on this research that we’ve outlined, basically.
And so when you and your wife turn on CNBC and it says the Dow has fallen 10% in a day, you just log into your Fidelity account, you say, “Oh, we’re at $1.8 million. And we know we don’t have to reduce to $1.5 million.” And you just go on with your day. So it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. We just set expectations, saying that, on average, a 40-year retirement has 2 to 3 cuts and maybe 6 or 7 raises, and we just…our hope would be the cuts aren’t all in a row, because that would be painful.
But if that happens, we know what the cut is. It’s roughly 10%. So your $7,000 monthly income becomes $6,300. So maybe we outline what that would mean. Oh, instead of three trips, we take two, or whatever that would be. And then it’s just managing expectations and financial planning. The individual investments I guess are important, but it’s significantly less important than the actual behavioral coaching.
Michael: To me, this has been one of the fascinating things about Guyton and Guyton’s guardrails. And we had Jon Guyton on the podcast a few years ago to talk about this and how he does it in practice. So for anyone who’s interested in going back and listening, it was episode 109. So if you go to kitces.com/109, you can go hear Jon talk about this. But the essence, it was just saying like, look, if clients are going to start out with some target spending level, it’s safe for them to spend 5% as long as they stay somewhere between 4% and 6%, and if they start going down the dangerous road, then they’ve got to adjust their spending.
If you set clients up that way, no one ever runs out of money. It’s just a question of either, when do you get a raise or when do you have to take a cut in order to stay in the safe zone? But clients then can figure out exactly where they stand because it’s, as you pointed out, they just know, “If I’ve got to take a spending cut, if my withdrawal rate ever goes above 6% and I spend this much money,” then we can do the math really simply and figure out, when are you going to cross that line?
If you cross that line, you’re going to have to make a spending change. If not, you won’t. And now you can tune out markets. You’ve only got one number to worry about, which is you either did or did not fall below this threshold.
Benjamin: Right. And then the spreadsheet converts it to dollars, right? Because percents mean nothing, which is why no advisor ever quotes their fee, and myself included, in dollar terms, it’s always percent terms. So I would never say to a client, “Well, when you hit 6%, you’ve got to reduce.” Because my clients are really smart. We service a lot of engineers that are related to the oil fields and coal mines. They’re super smart people. But 6% when it’s your money doesn’t mean the same as, “When you drop below $1 million, we need to reduce.”
So you’ve got to have it be like a real number to them. They’ve been focusing on that number on the run up to retirement and then beyond retirement. So come to it, and we’re financial advisors, we deal in percents. They’re normal people. They deal in, “What’s my monthly income going to be? What’s my portfolio balance?” Like, real numbers. If you’re using Guyton’s methods, I would convert it to real numbers. Don’t deal in the worlds of percents.
Michael: And so how do you manage and handle this on an ongoing basis to track like where clients actually stand and how they’re doing relative to these spending targets, or I guess relative to these withdrawal rate calculations?
Benjamin: We just update it whenever we need to. If their spending in retirement is much more dynamic than I think people…retirees realize, right, you’ve got Social Security A, Social Security B, Medicare A, Medicare B. Part-time work A, B, full retirement A, B, pay off house, kid move out. So anytime there’s a big spending change, we’ll probably recalculate their guardrails.
But the actual calculation I think is less important than the client really getting intimate with that number and understanding what that number means and when they need to reduce and how much that is. So it doesn’t change as much as you think it does. We do 60/40 portfolios. It doesn’t really move that much that you need to update it on a daily basis or a monthly basis. So if you’re meeting with them twice a year, you just update the numbers twice a year. And you’ll probably find that it doesn’t move around as much as you think. They go from 5.4 to 5.3, or 5.6, or whatever it is. It doesn’t move as much as you think.
Michael: And so, as you’re doing this in practice, it just means as clients go through their review cycle once a year, you’ve got to…or I guess twice a year, you’ve got to pull out the spreadsheet, grab the client’s current spending, grab the client’s current impound balance, divide A into B to figure out what the rate is and make sure that they’re still within the guardrail parameters?
Benjamin: Right. Yep, that’s exactly it. And if you’re investing with all of your clients, if you’re using model portfolios and people are generally invested the same, you’re going to know that, oh, this person’s in the 3% cash portfolio, that’s down 8.1% this year. You’re doing the same process over and over and over again, so you’re not getting a ton of surprises. Every advisor has like those one or two clients that are serial overspenders, but for most people, it’s a repeatable process.
Michael: And so, how did this go in practice as you went through clients with coronavirus who were operating under the system?
Benjamin: Clients that were overspending are now significantly overspending. I wish I would have started talking about guardrails a lot sooner. I think we’ve been probably talking as long as I’ve been in coaching, so through 2018, but I wish since day one, I would have started talking about guardrails. Because clients need to hear some of these things more than several times to really have it sink home.
But with coronavirus, people know when they have to reduce. And as long as they stay above that number, my hope is, and the confirmation I’m getting from them is it takes a lot of the scariness out of it.
Michael: Interesting. And so this just becomes a thing that you track on an ongoing basis for clients, and just this is part of the dialogues. This is part of how you do planning, as opposed to saying, “We’re going to run an updated eMoney or MoneyGuidePro retirement projections. Just we’re going to look at your ongoing withdrawal rate. And as long as you’re in the zone, then we’re good.”
Benjamin: Right. And if they ask us to rerun their plan, we would. We say that we offer unlimited comprehensive retirement planning, whatever your interpretation of that is. So if they wanted us to run it every year, twice a year, we’re comfortable doing that. But I don’t think that’s necessary. We just use this Excel sheet. We know that we need to… If we want to ensure that we’re never going to run out of income, we have to be willing to reduce slowly over time. And we have those conversations.
If somebody is not a fit for that, we just wouldn’t bring them on as a client, right? Again, we’re not trying to have 10,000 clients. We think we can accurately or efficiently serve 100 households. So we set those expectations ahead of time. Especially if they come to us through the show, we talk about these kinds of things on the show, so they’re already in tune with it, or they wouldn’t have called us in the first place. So I don’t know, maybe it sounds more difficult than it is, but it works pretty well.
Michael: And then talk to us about what you’re doing in terms of retirement projections in the first place. You had mentioned Fidelity’s Retirement Income suite. I don’t know that a lot of advisors are familiar with the tools that Fidelity offers in this area, as opposed to our, I’ll call them our traditional MoneyGuidePro, eMoney Advisor, RightCapital and those kinds of tools.
Benjamin: Yeah, it’s just, so you put in what they’d like their income to be and the retirement date and what assets they have, and it gives you a Monte Carlo analysis, basically. It says, “Here are your income ranges.” It used to give you a specific percent likelihood of success. They took that away, which was kind of a bummer, but they give you average market scenarios, significantly below average market scenarios, and it gives you that, whatever it is, a 40-year projection.
Then we just go through and say here’s what we think your sustainable income rate is. Here’s how it fits into the guardrails. Here are your projection based on this Monte Carlo analysis. Here are a couple of spots where we think we should do Roth conversions. Here’s a couple spots that we think that we’re running into some difficulty with RMDs and risk spiking your income.
So we’re going to be having these kinds of conversations twice a year for the next however long our relationship lasts. So we feel we only really need that software to kick off the relationship. And then monitoring the situation is based on portfolio value and income and whatever other financial planning needs they have. So we don’t really need…I don’t think we need software for that.
Michael: And so you…this is a tool you get as a part of keeping assets with Fidelity as a custodian?
Michael: Okay. And I think you said, and doesn’t have a separate cost, it’s just part of the platform?
Benjamin: I can only assume it’s free to everyone because we’re a teeny tiny speck on Fidelity’s radar, and it’s free to us.
Michael: And so, I guess I’m just curious for all the advisors that may be listening or saying like, “But how can this go into as much depth as what you’re doing or what others are doing in tools like eMoney?” How would you respond?
Benjamin: I’ve got the one-page financial plan, I’ve got the guardrails, I’ve got, “Here’s what we need to work on first.” If I handed you a 70-page financial plan, if you’re not a financial advisor, you’d look at that 70-page financial plan and say, “Oh, my…” There’s complete overwhelm, right? I’ve got the 70-page financial plan, right? I can have one in Fidelity if we have a surplus of paper that we need to get rid of.
But if we have a super analytical client, I could bring that out and show them, but that’s almost nobody. People want to know, can I retire? What kind of income can I have? What’s the likelihood of XYZ happening? What’s the strategy if the market crashes? What are we going to do? And that’s all behavioral stuff, right? That’s all stuff we can actually change by changing our behavior.
So this 70-page financial plan is a bunch of graphs and it’s a bunch of projections. As soon as the tax rates change once, throw it out the window, as soon as the market changes, throw it out the window. So I want to launch the relationship using that so that we can see, “Okay, everything looks great. As long as we do this, this, and this, we should be fine.”
But I want the relationship, the one-on-one relationship, where we have little conversations a couple times a year, and then we’re not going to have to make big changes if we’re just making little course corrections over time. So we don’t need software for that.
How He Is Building His Advisor Firm To Fit His Lifestyle Goals And When He Will Cap His Practice [01:11:33]
Michael: And so help us understand where this is building for you. You’ve mentioned a few times like, you only want about 20 more clients. You’re at 80, you want to get to 100 and then that’s the number. So I guess just talk to us about like, how do you set that goal? Where does that number come from? How did you arrive at this as a goal or an intention?
Benjamin: Well, I don’t want to grow the firm beyond myself. I reserve the right to change my mind at some arbitrary point in the future, but I think that I can service 100 clients, meeting with them a couple times a year, as long as they’re in this tight niche of living off their savings. And I’ve got a show that is pretty big, so I can be really choosy about who we bring on.
If they’re not a hell, yes, they’re, no. A lot of do-it-yourself investors. Somewhere around 70% of our audience and mini-audiences are do-it-yourself investors. So we thought the next 20 that are really great fits, and then we’ll stop at 100.
Again, I’ve got six kids. So I’m not the guy that’s working 80 hours a week. I track my time daily. I try to keep it under between 20 and 30 hours a week in the office. If I have 800 clients, I can’t do that. When I was with the insurance company, they wanted you to have like 1,200 clients. So I had extreme distaste for that. I just want to have an amazing collaborative relationship with 100 people. I don’t want to monitor advisors. I don’t want to deal with all that. I got into this business to serve clients. I’m going to do whatever I can to my schedule to just serve clients. And the firm’s never going to be worth $1 billion or anything like that. So that’s where lifestyle meets practicality, meets capacity.
Michael: Interesting. And so basically you’re fine if it doesn’t turn into a billion-dollar firm. This is just not the goal, not the journey of what you want to build.
Benjamin: No, because, and I’ve heard you say this a million times, Michael, at some point, you’re not a financial advisor anymore, you’re a CEO or you’re a manager, or you’re a something, you’re managing people that aren’t your clients, you’re managing employees. And we’ve got two staff here that do a fantastic job, but I don’t want to manage financial advisors, I want to manage client relationships.
Michael: So you’ve got two staff, I guess just supporting administratively on executing the business and what it does?
Benjamin: Yeah, we’ve got a client relationship manager and an office manager.
Michael: Okay. And the idea is, that’s where it ends.
Michael: And so, do you worry at all of just what happens to the practice if something happens to you or how do you harvest the value out of this, someday eventually you’re going to want to retire, or are these just not things that are concerns for you?
Benjamin: Well, I don’t ever see myself retiring. I’m 38. I figure my original goal, and I set it out in my earlier 30s, by my 40th birthday, which is September of 2021, yeah, September 2021 I’ll be 40. So I thought 100 households, $100 million in assets, above 50% profitability. That goes a long way in Bismarck, North Dakota. And I don’t want any more responsibility than that. I think I can serve 100 clients well. Maybe that means we can… And we’re serving retired clients, right? So I’m sure that affects our ability to sell the company someday.
But that’s a super low priority for me. That doesn’t get me excited at all. So I just want to work until I’m dead and serve these clients. And we’ve got a big show. So there’s just always potentiality for new clients coming in. So as clients pass away, there’s just always…we’re not there yet. We’re not at 100 yet, but beyond 100, I see, or beyond the timeframe of getting that last client, I see that there’s always going to be opportunity somewhere. And maybe technology means we can serve 110 clients or 120. But right now, the goal is 100 clients. And I don’t see going much past that.
Michael: Well, and obviously, just if you do the math, like, 100 clients, $100 million of AUM, running 50%-plus profitability, because you’re running a lean operation, right? When you don’t staff it up with other people, it’s a little more manageable to keep it as a higher-margin business as well. That when you just build it in that direction in the first place, and that’s the goal, you get a lot of room I guess to make the math work.
Benjamin: That’s the plan. We’ll see.
Michael: And at some point, when you’re running $100 million with 50%-plus profitability by the time you’re 40, there probably will still be a reasonable number of dollars that get created by the business, even if you’re not focused on the sale value at the end.
Benjamin: Right. And what do practices sell for? Two or two and a half times, right, forward, or last year’s revenue. So if you just work for two and a half more years, every two and a half years, you just buy the practice from yourself, right? So there’s no reason to ever retire.
Michael: Yep. And again, I guess the only caveat to it is just the practice only grows or is only capable of growing to a certain size, because, as you noted, you do hit capacity, your goal is to get to 100 clients and stop, but the math still adds up to a number that works for you. So that’s fine.
Benjamin: Yeah, and if I get hit by a bus, my firm rolls up to another firm, your old firm. I signed with what’s called PRISM. So because I’m 38, I get that question sometimes, like, “What if something happens to you?” My clients are 60 and I’m not yet 40. But I say, “Yeah, my firm rolls up into this other big firm and everything…you won’t miss a month of income, and everything’s been thought of.”
Michael: So you just approach this as, what happens if something happens to me? I’ve signed an agreement with a larger firm that can be my backstop if something happens to me. And then I spend the rest of my time praying that’s never actually necessary.
Benjamin: Right. And we arrived there just because that question came up a lot. It started because I was so young. But then when I started my firm and I sort of get some gray hair in my beard, the question kept coming. And we figured it wasn’t maybe because of my age, it’s because we’re a one-advisor shop. So there’s no contingency plan that they can see directly. So you’ve got to…when the question comes up, you’ve just got to have an explanation that is suitable.
Michael: And that was the explanation that you found is quite manageable and suitable for clients. Just saying, “I’ve got a continuity plan. If something happens to me, there’s a larger firm that serves as a backstop, but I don’t actually plan on going anywhere. So that probably won’t be necessary or a concern. But just, hey, in case you were concerned, I’ve got this backstop, now can we move forward and do business?”
Benjamin: Right. And now you probably need it legally from a compliance standpoint. I don’t know what North Dakota’s rules are. We’re under $100 million, so we’re under the state of North Dakota, but I’d imagine they just want us to have a contingency plan. So we have one.
Michael: So talk to us again about where the business stands in terms of growth and getting clients. So now that we understand better kind of how you work with clients and how you built the firm, take us back to like, what’s been going on exactly over the past 5 or 6 years of building that’s gotten you to this point where you’re sitting at $60 million-plus under management and closing in on your 100 client goal? How has business development and growth worked in practice as you built out this podcasting muscle and developed it?
Benjamin: A lot of trial and error, but figuring out ways that you can nurture an audience so that you can nurture an audience to the size that if one-tenth of 1% converts per month, that’s more business than you could ever say yes to. And I’m in a mastermind group with Roger Whitney. He talks about growing your orchard. If you go out there all the time and you’re hammering, asking for business all the time, that people are going to smell that on you, right? So you just nurture people.
That’s what we did our Office Hours last month, just nurture the snot out of people and serve them. And I’m not a good salesman. That’s why I left the insurance world, right? Just nurture people. I’m sure there’s lots of coaches that would say I need to learn to be a better salesman, but just nurture people actively and exceed their expectations. I think we’ve talked to like 25 people with at least $1 million. I think something like $40 million-plus in assets so far this year.
So just nurture people, and when they’re ready, they’ll raise their hand. I know that I’m probably…that’s not what most people would say. They’d say, “Learn how to sell,” but that’s just not my strength. So I don’t focus on it.
Michael: So as you just framed this, because I thought it was interesting how you put it, that if you grow an audience that’s large enough, you only need a fraction of a percent of them to ever do business with you. And it’s still more clients than you can actually handle. That’s an interesting way to frame what it is that you’re building and how you’re building it.
Benjamin: Right. In the military, we would call that accuracy by volume.
Michael: I like that, accuracy by volume. So if we’ve got enough people here, then who cares if 70% of our audience are do-it-yourselfers, or who cares if 99% of our audience is do-it-yourselfers? I only need a couple thousand people in total such that a fraction of 1% of them gets me the last 20 clients that I need in order to get there. So I can literally have 99% that aren’t a fit and I’m still going to achieve my goals.
Benjamin: Right. And I didn’t exactly do the math backwards to like figure out how big of an audience I needed. I just knew that if I grow the show to be a large show, then that tiny percentage will be more than enough. And when I talk to financial advisors that are thinking about going to podcasting right now, I actually use other people’s shows as examples of, you don’t want a huge show with low engagement, you want a tiny show that fits a specific niche with hyper-focused engagement.
So if you’re starting a podcast today, I wouldn’t try to be the next Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman, or Michael Kitces, right? Those slots are filled. Find that laser-focused niche and have your goal be engagement, not necessarily new clients to start off with. Foster that engagement then the new clients will come. So grow a laser-focused tiny show, don’t try to grow a massive show.
How He Nurtures His Audience To Grow His Business And The Rules He Uses To Develop Podcast And Webinar Content [01:21:27]
Michael: So how in practice have you tried to do the nurturing that you’ve talked about? Again, you kind of had earlier like, they’re a podcast listener then they’re on the email list. You said, “I do a webinar for them before I do an approach talk.” So, how do you do this in practice? How do you get them from your podcast to an email list and from an email list to a webinar? How does this actually work?
Benjamin: Well, there is…kind of tricky thing about podcasting is there is friction, right, to get them off of that podcast app. So I would use something like Pretty Link, which is just a free WordPress plugin, where you would say something like, “If you want to learn more about this episode or you want to find some free resources, go to retirementstartstoday.com/toolkit” or something like that. That website itself doesn’t exist, but you create the Pretty Link link that they could just type it in and it will redirect them.
So this works really well with free resources, where they would download from you in exchange for their email address. That’s how you get them on your email list. It works really, really well for webinars, where the registration link for Zoom is some convoluted thing that you could never read off on the radio or on the show, you just say, “Go to retirementstartstoday.com/webinar,” and then that just redirects them right to the Zoom page.
So you don’t really even need landing pages or squeeze pages or anything like that anymore. You just use something like Pretty Link or maybe even ConvertKit for your free resources that then handles all of your email addresses. Technology has made it incredibly simple. I’m not a technology guy at all, I don’t think, but there’s a lot of great free tools out there.
Michael: And so is that literally the kind of stuff that you do on the podcast? Every now and then you’ll say like, “Hey, and if you want an additional toolkit on planning out your retirement, go to retirementstartstoday.com/toolkit,” or, “We’re doing a webinar on how to transition to retirement. If you’re interested, go to retirementstartstoday.com/webinar and check it out?” And just literally, that’s what you read off into the podcast from time to time?
Benjamin: Yeah. Sometimes you plant seeds on the podcast, like, “Well, if you’re on our email list, you’re going to get first dibs at registering for this webinar. And we only have 100 seats, because it’s a Zoom webinar,” or whatever it is. So you plant these hints that if you really want first shot at this new content, you’ve got to be on our email list. And for those that aren’t, then you give them the Pretty Link link, and it redirects them. Yeah. So we just…if there’s some new legislation, we create a webinar around it. We’ve done webinars around health insurance and retirement or taxes and retirement, or just living off your savings in a crisis, whatever news presents itself.
Got kind of this rule around content creation. I call it 5-10-15. I just train my brain to hear content in client conversations. So if I hear a piece of…if I hear a question five times, I know that’s a new episode. If I hear a question 10 times, I know that’s a new lead magnet that lives on my website, that people download as a free resource in exchange for their email address. And if I hear a question 15 times, that’s my next webinar. There’s enough energy around that, that I could fill 100-seat webinar room. So I just train my brain to hear that. And if I hear there’s energy around this area, then I could just create content around it.
Michael: All right, wait, say that again. I like that framework. So if the question comes to you five times, that’s a…you said that’s a podcast topic?
Benjamin: Correct. That’s a new episode. Yeah.
Michael: If it comes 10 times, it’s a lead magnet. It’s some kind of giveaway you give on your website to attract attention or to get someone to hand over an email. And if it comes up 15 times, then you’re doing a webinar on it.
Benjamin: Correct. So it’s just kind of measuring the energy that’s around a subject, right? If you hear a question five times, there’s maybe enough energy that someone would listen to an episode. If it’s 10 times, double that, like maybe they would say, “Oh, there’s enough energy around this or enough questions about it” that they’d be willing to give you their email, which is sort of the unwritten agreement that you’re going to be marketed to in the future.
And if there’s enough energy around a topic that you get it 15 times in close proximity, they would be willing to invest 30 minutes or an hour of their time, and potentially a sales pitch at the end, to learn more about this topic.
So if something only has five queries, there’s just not enough energy to do webinar around it. So why would you? Don’t spin your tires, right? Because probably nobody’s going to show up. So just measure the energy around certain topics by just kind of either physically making tally marks, or after you’ve been doing this a while, you can just kind of smell it, just 5, 10, 15, it just measures the energy around and then you can apply appropriate content around whatever velocity is behind that topic.
Michael: Well, and it makes an interesting point as well that I think often gets overlooked by people who haven’t necessarily done content on an ongoing basis, whether you’re blogging or video or podcast or whatever your medium of style is. Still one of the most common questions that I get is, “Well, how do you figure out what to talk about every week or month or however often you do it?” And the answer is always just, I talk about whatever people ask me questions about. It’s not rocket science.
If you’re talking with lots of clients, if you’re talking with the people you serve on an ongoing basis, just literally take whatever they’re asking you questions about. And if a bunch of people are asking it already, then respond on a one-to-many basis with a podcast, lead magnet, a webinar, or whatever it is instead of just answering the same question as a one-off over and over and over again.
Benjamin: Yeah, we’re in the answers business, right? We just don’t frame it that way around content creation. But once you start to do that and train your brain to hear content… You’d be hard-pressed to find an advisor podcaster that’s got more than 50 episodes that doesn’t have an ideas file that’s as thick as a phone book. Once you’ve trained your brain to hear content, you’ll never run out of topics.
Michael: Yeah. We keep a running list of potential topics for the Nerd’s Eye View blog. It’s an Evernote file, there’s probably 300 or 400 topics in there. I can’t write them as fast as the topics come up based on conversations with people of just what they’re asking about, whatever they’re going through that they’re struggling with, write the answer.
Benjamin: Right. But you probably weren’t there day one of your blog, right? You probably were hitting a lot of friction around content until you figured out how to train your brain how to do it. And then here we are 3,000 tabs on the Evernote.
Michael: Yep. Oh, absolutely. Just you get used to. In fact, we ended out with a system very, very similar to what you articulated, which, well, for me, early on, when I didn’t have a big audience, it was just, if I got the question three times, then I was probably doing a blog post on it.
Once was a one-off, twice was a coincidence, three times is a trend. If I got a question three times, then I would look at doing a blog post on it. If I got it 10-plus times, then I was going to try to make it into a presentation. Surprisingly similar to the system and structure that you’d articulated.
Benjamin: I don’t have any new ideas, just new applications, right? So any good idea I’ve ever had, it’s very likely I either stole it outright or repurposed it from somewhere else.
What Benjamin Found Most Surprising On His Journey And What He Believes Is The Key To Long-Term Success [01:28:32]
Michael: Excellent. But I like the framework, just it…as long as you’re talking to people, you just have to get…which we all are because it’s the business we’re in. I think you put it well, you start training your brain to watch for when you’re having those kinds of repeat conversations, because that’s a hint you need to be doing something else with this. And then you do.
So as you look back on this journey and building the business, what surprised you the most about trying to build an advisory business?
Benjamin: What surprised me the most is the need for forcing mechanisms in your life, right? We’ve all got this list of to-do things and like, “Well, wouldn’t it be nice if my website did this?” or, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this happened or that happened?” But the forcing mechanisms that you either intentionally put in your life or that appear are a huge driver of behavior change.
So for me, that was, I thought that I was taking a lot of time off during the summers until I started measuring it, right? That the forcing mechanism of measuring my office hours every single day in a Google Sheet forced me to make decisions around that. It was a really good thing. I started measuring that because we started to do foster care and adoptions and forced me to spend a lot more time out of the office.
So taking advantage of forcing mechanisms where they present themselves, the success of that has been extremely surprising in my life. A lot of big rocks being moved with the help of forcing mechanisms.
Michael: Interesting. Can you give just some other examples of how that’s played out or what those mean to you? You mentioned just, “I started tracking my time. And then once I realized where it was going, I realized I need to start doing something different.” What else has hit you in this regard?
Benjamin: So a forcing mechanism, I don’t want to meet with clients on Friday because I want that to be my creative day. Block it off in the calendar, that takes away the option of people scheduling time that day. I want to do a webinar eventually. Well, pick a date three months from now and announce it to your show and announce it to your email list. And you’re either going to be really embarrassed when that day rolls around, or you’re going to have content because your hand has been forced.
I’d love to learn this new tax planning software, email every single one of your clients with a link to “upload your taxes,” and by the next appointment, you’re probably going to have that software figured out because you’ve forced your hand into doing it. So forcing mechanisms is a total game-changer.
Michael: Interesting. I like that framing, including just, tell your clients you’re going to do something for them and then watch you do it. Watch you do it for yourself because you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of your clients.
Benjamin: Yeah, humiliation is an excellent motivator.
Michael: Well said. Well said. So, what was the low point for you on this journey?
Benjamin: Well, I think the low points probably arrived more in my personal life. Not low points as in like bad things happening to me, but low points as far as like attention being pulled away in other areas. And maybe I’m just naturally optimistic. But as far as the practice goes, I really can’t think of any low points. There’s been a lot of little failures along the way, like stuff I screwed up on my show, or in the blog, or money that I kind of wasted on dumb stuff trying to figure out some of this marketing stuff.
But you forget about that as soon as you have another success, right? Any low points were just overcapacity on maybe a personal level or a family level versus…the practice has been really smooth sailing. Maybe I’m probably just forgetting things that went wrong, but I feel really fortunate about how things turned out.
Michael: What was the worst money waste that you had as you’ve been trying to do this?
Benjamin: I’ve had a lot of really dumb ideas. Like, we used to meet clients through energy conferences. So people that work in the coal mines, or the tertiary jobs around that, or in the oil fields, we would have a booth set up at a conference. And that’s how we would meet people. And I had this idea, “Oh, I’m going to make gift cards for my financial planning services. And we’re going to have…it’s going to be like a little debit card, and it’s going to be $1,000 off our advisory services.” And I handed those out. And then much to my dismay, I found them like on the floor, or you could see them at the bottom of the trash can in the bathroom.
I spent like $500 making these debit cards that would be like gift cards, and I thought people would put them up on their fridge and, “Hey, when I’m retired, I can get $1,000 off this guy’s services.” But I just drew attention to the price without making any mention of value. It makes sense why it was an absolute epic fail, but in my mind, I thought it was just an absolute genius idea. I’ve still got some. If you want $1,000 off my services, I’ll mail you one.
Michael: I feel like…it’s like the financial advisor equivalent of like the calendar from the real estate agent or like the…had a dentist that used to do this with like, give you something you put on your refrigerator as a magnet to remind you that they were there whenever it was you were selling your house or you needed your teeth cleaned, just in the advisor context. Whenever you get around retiring, this coupon is just waiting on your refrigerator.
Benjamin: Well, it’s like my coach, Stephanie Bogan, says, price only matters in the absence of value. I’m not showing you any value in a gift card, but I am showing you the price. So it’s like, it’s the exact opposite effect of what you’d want.
Michael: So as you look back at what you’ve built with the firm and the podcast and this marketing process that you developed, what do you know now that you wish you could go back and tell you from six years ago when you were getting started with this?
Benjamin: Find out what version 1.0 means for you. Don’t get caught up in…you want to think about where you want to be, right, and you want to set goals, but you don’t need to start with that in mind. One, you’re going to wash out, or two, you’re just going to delay your launch indefinitely, because you’re never going to get there.
I wish I would have told myself to start really slow, like one episode a month or two episodes…an episode a quarter, I don’t know, something that underpromise, overdeliver. Something I could easily have the capacity for it, and then improve over time, rather than, I tried to do everything all at once, and I just ended up kind of throwing money into a woodchipper and throwing time into a woodchipper. So I wish I would have said, “Do this. Version 1.0, launch a podcast. Then version 2.0 is, start an email list or have a lead magnet.”
Map out what those 12 steps are and say, “I’m not going to move on to step number two until I feel like I’m confident in step number one.” If I do all 12 steps at once, I’m just spinning my tires, wasting time, and very likely wasting money. So I would have just said, get good at one thing before you move on to the next thing. Don’t do it all at once.
Michael: And was there any I guess other worry or pressure for you of just, “I’ve got a family, I’ve got young children, I’ve got to get my…I’ve got to get the business going, I’ve got to get the income up to a certain level?”
Because I think the most common challenge I hear for advisors that are sort of looking at that path or conversely struggling with trying to go down this road too quickly is, I don’t have time to wait. I don’t have time to do 1.0 for a bunch of months or a year and then do 2.0. And then maybe by 3.0, in a few years, this thing will start getting going. I need clients now.
Was that just not a pressure for you or you just didn’t feel that pressure on yourself?
Benjamin: Well, and I’ve heard you talk about this in the past, too. It doesn’t cost a huge amount of money to run a firm, it’s going to be your own personal expenses that limit your runway. And so we had been teaching Dave Ramsey classes forever, and we had been applying those ourselves. We didn’t have any student loans. We had a small mortgage, no car payments, no credit cards. We did have payroll. I did have to…I suppose this would be a low point. I had to borrow against my IRA and then roll the money back within 60 days a couple times to make payroll in the early years, but I guess I did kind of forget about that.
But I figured out, “Okay, I needed roughly X million dollars in assets by the first year.” I just had confidence that I was going to do that based on relationships I had at the insurance company or skills that I learned or whatever. I never had any doubt that I would be able to do it. At a like a minimum viable product level, it wouldn’t really be…if you’re having 0% profit, you wouldn’t want to hang out there for very long.
So I knew I needed to teach classes at the local college, adult enrichment classes to find clients. I needed to have like…try to meet new people through my current clients. I don’t do that anymore, but I knew that I needed to do something, and I had confidence that one of those somethings was going to work.
Michael: Interesting. And so what else were you doing early on trying to get clients and revenue in the door while the podcast was building? Sounds like you just mentioned a few there that you were experimenting with, classes at the local college and networking meetings. So what were you doing to try to get clients going while the podcast was still building?
Benjamin: The classes at the local college was great. Essentially, the local community college does adult enrichment classes, which I still do because they’re a lot of fun. But they’ll advertise “Living Off Your Savings” series or “Savvy Social Security Planning.” They fill the room for you, you teach them. And you’re standing up at the front of the room with a sport coat on. So you’re the expert, right?
And some of those people might seek you out to be an advisor. You’re not really allowed to overly sell yourself, but people can draw conclusions. There was a few coal mining companies and energy companies in town, so you would learn the ins and outs of their pension plan, the NRECA pension plan, and how the lump sum is calculated and how the pension is calculated. And people would tell their friends that, “This guy knows the details of this plan, you should go talk to him.”
And before it was new school stuff in podcasting. The first half of my firm was built by the old school ways. Because I saw that these people are aging out of the coal mines, I knew I needed to figure out the next thing. Because I live in North Dakota, I needed to get on Google, I needed to create content in some way. I got hooked up with FinCon, got hooked up with Jeff Rose.
I had a really good guess as to what the future looked like. So I just got a couple years ahead of myself while there were still people retiring from the traditional ways and said, “I’ve got to nurture this future thing, whatever it’s going to end up being.”
Advice For Newer Advisors And What Comes Next for Benjamin [01:38:28]
Michael: So, what advice would you give to younger and newer advisors looking to start a firm today and go out on their own?
Benjamin: Be willing to grow slow, because if you take on clients that aren’t a good fit for you, either they’re outside of your niche or they’re heavy in some other area that’s not your main area of expertise, you’re just going to have to undo that damage later on, which is something we did have to do. Taking on people that you just know deep in your soul are not a good fit. So I would say, give yourself permission to grow really slow. We see the averages of like big firms or in your state an RIA is X size on average. Don’t pay attention to that, set your own goals and be willing to grow slow so that you don’t have to undo some mistakes in the future.
Michael: Which I guess goes back to the other point of, and have your own financial house in order with managing debt and managing your own spending so that you’ve got the runway to be able to do that for a longer period of time.
Benjamin: Right. And for me, that was living the Dave Ramsey lifestyle. I drove a 2004 hail-damaged Buick Century until like six months ago. So you just live that lifestyle and eventually, it’ll grow on you, and it’ll become sort of a badge of honor. But that was a great reason why I could launch the firm I had because my personal overhead was super low.
Michael: So what comes next for you? What comes next from here?
Benjamin: Over the next 18 months until my 40th birthday, we’re going to find 20 clients from our podcast, and then we’re going to close our door to new clients. At that point, I would be really interested to create a course for my podcast listeners, the 70% that are do-it-yourself investors. And maybe explore some other things around financial media, other opportunities that might present themselves, maybe syndicated content, or maybe taking some forays into like traditional radio.
There are a lot of shiny things in the world that I’m sort of pushing off until I hit this one big goal. And then just sort of I would have the time capacity, because I’m not prospecting and marketing anymore, to do other interesting things with the show, maybe entertain advertisers, maybe entertain affiliate relationships, or creating a course or creating a private community. And there’s a lot of really fun things that some advisors are doing and some non-advisors that are in similar spaces that I think would be a lot of fun.
Michael: So is that consumer-oriented? Is that other advisor-oriented of what you’re envisioning?
Benjamin: Yeah, both. I’ve been involved with coaching for a couple years. I’m a success coach in Limitless Advisers now. It’s a big-time, above-the-line activity for me to talk to other advisors about content creation and lifestyle practices and surging.
I can see myself doing something down the road that’s more in-depth with financial advisors. I also see myself definitely creating classes for my audience. I did a survey of my audience last summer and 90% said that they would be willing to buy a course from me as long as it was reasonably priced. That would be a pretty big distraction right now.
I do have my course for advisors, Advisor Podcast Accelerator, where I teach all the stuff about SEO marketing and things like that for podcasting, which was a big thrill to me to make. But that’s all after I hit this one big goal. So that’s kind of what I envision the future to be like after this is done.
Michael: And for folks that are listening, we’ll put a link in the show notes out as well for the Podcast Accelerator program that Benjamin built if you’re curious to actually go this route and try it out yourself.
To me, I’m just fascinated by all the different ways that we’re able to build. We were doing another webinar recently and someone kind of said if your goal is a lifestyle practice where you don’t necessarily want to build not only a giant team and infrastructure, but you don’t necessarily want to build like a big, giant marketing apparatus because you’re not necessarily trying to grow indefinitely, what do you do for marketing as a lifestyle practice? And the answer I ended out saying is, well, you pick something that’s lifestyle marketing. Like, you do something that’s a reflection of you that you enjoy because then it’s not really going to feel like marketing, you’re just doing a thing that you happen to be personally interested in, and you set it up in a way that happens to drive some business opportunity and growth.
So I feel like you’ve found that pathway of lifestyle marketing yourself, like, “I want to be focused into a niche and I like talking to people, but I don’t really like doing writing. So I’m not going to do a blog, I’m going to do a podcast,” and then you just went after it.
Benjamin: I think that answer is going to be podcasting for a lot of financial advisors, especially with the things that Google has planned for podcasting. iTunes used to have an 80% market share in podcasts. It’s something closer to 50/50 with Google now. And Google has the goal of doubling their podcast audience over the next few years.
So if you think it’s…there’s a million podcasts in Apple Podcasts, if you think it’s too late to start, Google’s about to double the audience for shows. So you have not missed the financial advisor podcast boat if you’re curious.
Michael: It’s a good point to make. All of us poor Android users are finally going to get our podcast day now.
Benjamin: Well, Android has an 80% global market share, and their podcasting app is native now. It’s not even an app anymore. So if you ask your phone, “Recommend for me…” If you ask Google, “Okay, Google, recommend for me a retirement podcast,” you’ll see my show comes up on a carousel. And you can click on that.
It doesn’t take you to…in most cases, that doesn’t take you to Google Play where you have to download the app, you’re automatically in there, which is a big way that Google grew YouTube, and they’re going to grow…it’s pretty sneaky. It’s almost diabolical.
That’s how they’re going to grow podcasting, is going to be tricking people through SEO, through what they serve up to you in their search engine rank page to become a podcast subscriber.
How Benjamin Defines Success For Himself [01:44:14]
Michael: So as we wrap up, this is a podcast about success, and one of the themes always is just that even the word “success” means different things to different people. So you’re building and well on your way to that kind of endpoint of the lifestyle practice that you want to build, 8 years in to get to $100 million, 100 clients. So I think you’re still checking the successful business box by age 40. But how do you define success for yourself at this point?
Benjamin: So for me, it would be, be a fantastic dad, be a fantastic husband, be a fantastic financial advisor, and keep all those things in balance.
If I focus way too much on the firm, my relationship with my wife and my relationship with my six kids is going to go downhill. If I focus completely on the family and neglect the practice, that’s going to go downhill. So I want to consume everything that life has to offer me, but I want to do it in balance. So that means eating reasonably well and exercising reasonably well and spending lots of time out of the office, and then a few times per year spending a lot of time in the office.
But success for me means living that life in balance, or at least actively attempting to and improving over time.
Michael: I love it. I love it. Well, I’ll be curious to bring you back in a few years and hear what that life looks like and is evolving towards once you hit your 100 client target and go on to what I feel like is going to be the next stage of the journey for you.
Benjamin: Can’t wait.
Michael: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Benjamin, for joining us on the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Benjamin: The pleasure’s all mine.