Welcome back to the 235th episode of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today's podcast is Georgia Lee Hussey. Georgia is the Founder and CEO of Modernist Financial, an RIA in Portland, Oregon that offers deep financial planning services to 46 affluent households for a combination of retainer and AUM fees with a $17,500 minimum fee just to get started.
What's unique about Georgia, though, is how she actively seeks to align her own personal values with the values of her advisory firm, the values of the clients that she serves, and the impact that she creates not only for the community she lives in, but on the broader financial services industry as well.
In this episode, we talk in depth about how Georgia went through the rigorous process to qualify as a Certified B Corporation in order to create a structure that would keep herself and her firm accountable for its decisions and actions, Georgia’s “conscious capitalism” approach that prioritizing having a positive impact and running a profitable business are not, contrary to popular belief, two mutually exclusive goals, and why Georgia's clients, more often than not, view her not just as someone to whom they can delegate to, but as someone who can hold them accountable and to be more intentional with their money and financial decisions.
We also talk about Georgia’s planning process itself, which leverages the Money Quotient framework across a series of five onboarding meetings, why Georgia engages in two full-day retreats with new clients specifically to give them the space and time to discover their goals, envision what they want their lives to look like, and figure out how to align their financial decisions with those goals, how Georgia proactively discusses politics in her client meetings as a way to broaden the discussion around how the financial decisions that we make affect the world around us (and as a means of helping her clients gain better clarity around their own relationship with money), and why Georgia’s favorite part of the entire planning cycle is in helping her clients actually implement her recommendations, which can take some clients up to three years to complete because of the depth of the firm’s planning recommendations.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Georgia shares her own background as an artist coming into the financial services industry and how her own involvement with opening and running community events translated directly into generating business as an advisor, how Georgia’s first two jobs in the industry helped her figure out the sort of business she wanted to build and to prove to herself that clients would pay what she felt her time was worth as an advisor, and how that, although being the CEO of a successful advisory firm can sometimes be lonely, Georgia has found fulfillment and satisfaction by building a community of entrepreneurs and business leaders with shared experiences.
So whether you’re interested in learning about Georgia’s focus on having a positive impact both in her community as well as the financial advice industry, how she incorporates the Money Quotient framework into her planning process, or how she’s intentionally building her business to align with her values, then we hope you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast, with Georgia Lee Hussey.
Resources Featured In This Episode:
- Georgia Lee Hussey
- Modernist Financial
- Modernist's News
- Careers At Modernist
- The Modernist Manifesto
- Becoming B Corp Certified As A Financial Advisory Firm
- Money Quotient
- First Step Cash Management
- Entrepreneur's Organization Accelerator
- Scaling Up by Verne Harnish
- Dare To Lead by Brene Brown
- Gretchen Jones of Weird Specialty
- Buckingham Strategic Partners
Michael: Welcome, Georgia Lee Hussey, to the "Financial Advisor Success" podcast.
Georgia: Thank you, I'm excited to be here.
Michael: I'm really looking forward to the discussion today. I know we had first connected many years ago when you had reached out to me and said, "Hey, have you heard that there's this thing where RIAs are forming B Corporations?" And being the tax nerd that I am, I was like, "Oh, that's really cool, I'm familiar with C Corps and S Corps, how does this work from a tax perspective?" And you're like, "No, no, no, it means something completely different," and then proceeded to very kindly educate me on certified B Corporations and ultimately did a wonderful guest post for "Nerd's Eye View" on B Corporations and just what it means to build a business that takes all the different stakeholders into account.
And I know in the year since, you've grown this a lot further in the context of your own business and I guess just these ideas of how do we align our impact in the world or what we do in the world of values, financial planning, the broader financial services industry, and we sit at the intersection of a lot of different stuff in the world these days between money and values and planning and an industry that doesn't always have the most wholesome values sometimes. And I know you're doing a lot of work in the space, you're living it. And so, I'm excited to talk about what does it mean when you start building an advisory firm and really trying to align your advisory firm to your own values and approach and then putting that back out in the world to clients. I think we talked about that sometimes, you're building values-based firms and doing values-based financial planning but just my impression is when you do this, what you're talking about is very different than what the rest of us are sometimes talking about in building our firms align to values.
What Georgia Means When Aiming To Align Her Values With How Her Firm Operates As A Business [05:06]
Georgia: Yeah, I think there's so much room for growth and opportunity in who we can be as business people in this industry, how we can operate in the world, the way we can behave, and the kinds of results and vision and values that we can welcome into our business practices. Because, as planners, you got to have a vision to be able to know where you're going, and I think that vision can be more audacious, more inclusive, more equitable, while also driving a strong bottom line and a strong business in and of itself that has the potential to have long term impact. It's a fun, creative project.
Michael: And I think it's an interesting dynamic as well that you sort of noted that balance of there's what we do around impact and I think at least for some people in the industry, we sort of equate like you can have a highly profitable firm that works with affluent people or you can serve the masses but then you may or may not be able to do it profitably or make much or any money at all. And I know you draw those lines differently, that you take a lot of focus on the impact the firm is having but you also do work with some fairly affluent clients in and of itself. And so, I guess just helps us understand how do you think about just the vision of the firm for what you're trying to build? Or as you said, "We get to vision these things how we want," so how do you envision the business?
Georgia: Yeah, it's an interesting question and certainly has been iterative over time. And originally, I got into the business because I felt like my creative community was lacking in representation in the financial industry and this is 11 years ago now. I realized that nobody had taught us about how to manage money and think about money, which morphed into, "Oh, maybe I can serve creative professionals after I got my CFP," and then it became, "Well..." There was this little election you may have heard of in 2016, in which I really rethought and got a lot more serious about my values and my behaviors in the world. And I thought, "You know, what I really want to do, what is truly a core gut drive for me is to help people take their financial decision-making and put it within their political framework."
It's one of the reasons I love Portland, Oregon, right? Where, as a city, we are sweetly earnest about the ways in which we make financial and lifestyle decisions around our values. And I feel the same intention can be applied to the way that we live in the world as financial beings, which has a lot of sort of required structuring around it. And then this was in part driven by my desire if I was going to be a business owner, which was not my original intent, but as a business owner, I knew if I was going to operate in the world of capitalism, I had to operate from a more conscious version of capitalism.
And so, this is really...now when I think about where the firm is going, I think about how can we drive systemic shifts in the way we orient ourselves around money through the work we do as a company as well as the work we do with clients, and tax policy is a really fun place to have that conversation as an example. But ultimately, I want to help the industry evolve to be more responsible for its behavior and I also want to be able to model and have other people model for me ways that we can be more responsible in the way that we utilize our wealth, whether that's social capital, creative energy, intellect, actual money, time, etc.
Michael: So, help me understand a little bit more of this evolution as it started. You said you were coming to this from a creative community that didn't have representation in the industry, no one was teaching about money. So, what was your background? So, I'm thinking this was not a business and econ major who came to financial services.
Georgia: No, indeed, not. So, I went to a very small liberal arts college called Sarah Lawrence College, no grades, no requirements, no math or PE...no, I think I did have a PE requirement and I got it from walking or something, I don't know. And so, really, a mind that's trained to critical thinking through the concentrations I chose in installation sculpture and creative writing. And my creative practices, especially my sculpture work was a lot about understanding what is the meaning of labor and how do we define gender and how do those two things connect to each other? So, that's my background.
I tried for about 10 years to be a professional artist and at some point, I realized that I was not going to make it. The friends I had who were making it were either came from a resourced family and were able to have the support they needed to, basically, have a job that is not remunerative in American capitalism, or they were willing to be so poor that they could still make art. And my own background is such that I didn't come from a lot of financial stability, so in my late 20s, I realized that I really needed financial stability for my own emotional stability. And so, that's when I did what many people think is the...well, I would say what a strong money story or mythology out there that the most practical and responsible thing you can do is buy a house if you want to make adult decisions. And I happened to buy a house in 2006, which if you put that on a timeline along with the mortgage crisis, it gives you a little context for what I was experiencing.
Michael: So, you bought a house and then you were locked in it.
Georgia: Exactly. I had two mortgages, my second had an 11.5% ARM, and I did not know what an ARM was. So, that financial...you could call it a mistake but, of course, as a highly educated white woman, even though I was an artist by trade, I was able to have a day job that could support that purchase, but I quickly realized that through the process of making that financial mistake, I learned all the ways in which I knew nothing about money. I didn't know how to budget, I didn't know what investing was, I didn't understand interest rates, I didn't understand compound interest, there was a real dearth of knowledge. And then I started looking around at my friend group and a lot of my community were very successful creatives of one kind or another and I realized they knew nothing.
And if anything, there was a driving force of shame around money and that, of course, produced behaviors of either pushing the money away or spending it all or whatever the story might be for that person. And I was like, "Oh, we're in trouble, y’all. If we want to have a stable financial community...a stable financial base for our creative community, we've got to get our arms around how to hold, invest, grow money from a place of generosity but also stewardship." And so, that's when I decided to sell the house and pay for my CFP education with a very small proceeds.
Michael: Interesting. And I'm presuming then that, as you noted, there is this dynamic around the creative community that it sounds like sort of two options, either you come from money, at least enough money that this career can sustain at low income, or you're good with just having very little money and living the starving artist's lifestyle and very, very few in between. So, I just imagine in practice, that you end out with sort of a rather polarized two extremes sort of approach to money and to wealth in that community with not much in between because those are the journeys they live and the kind of the stories that they're embedded in.
Georgia: Yeah, I think it's the first spectrum of money stories I became conscious of, this idea that if I'm at one side of the spectrum, “If I'm successful, I am a sellout, I've lost my creative integrity.” Or on the other side of the spectrum, “I have my creative integrity and I am poor and I don't have health care and I may not know how I'm going to feed myself in the next week.” And as you say, there's not a lot of room in between those spaces. And so, I see that folks that I've known, this is not our focus anymore, creatives, so there's a very strong Venn diagram...a very strong overlap in the Venn diagram between creatives and progressive, but there is this feeling that if somebody inherits money or they get a book deal or record deal, which was what I was watching happen around me, is that people would get rid of the money as quickly as they could. They would either buy a house or they'd spend it all or just...
Michael: Because in the creative community, making money or too much money is associated with selling out and losing your creative integrity, so the only way you restore your integrity is to purge the money.
Georgia: Exactly, exactly. Of course, totally unconscious, I don't think that is what people would tell you they're doing but that's what we see again and again and that became such an interesting space to work in. And then I started thinking about, well, what was I told so that I believe that, “Oh, I'm creative, I'm not good at math?" Even though I'm excellent at math and I was in AP math in high school, I still had this story and then I would self-correct myself and I would say, "Oh, no, I'm good at math." But that was the story I'm used to say, or, "I'm not good with money," right? "Creatives aren't supposed to be good with money," the black sheep of the family who's an artist is not good with money. And that is such an intense trope in American culture, it's sort of everywhere you look once you start looking.
Michael: So, you're living in the community and saying like, "Wait, I am good at math, in fact, I think I actually want to learn more about this money and math stuff and help other people in my community," and that's literally what pulled you into the financial services world? Just adopting that mission, "Hey, I got to do something that pays the bills better, so let's try this finance thing?"
Georgia: Yeah. Well, at first, I was like, "Maybe there are money coaches," then I found...I was reading at the time "Get Rich Slowly," which was the blog I was reading to figure out how to get myself out of the mess of this mortgage and I found out that there was this thing called a Certified Financial Planner. But I didn't go into the industry first, I actually stayed in my day job, my sales job to complete the funding of my CFP program, which was fascinating because I knew nothing about the financial industry when I was taking my CFP. I didn't know what a bond was, didn't know what a capital gain was, it was completely...my joke is that I was learning ancient Greek at 1,000 miles an hour.
Michael: And so, you were doing this essentially as a career changer on the side while still working...I was going to say a side hustle, but I guess it's your main hustle because getting your CFP marks was your side hustle?
How Georgia Transitioned Into The Financial Advice Industry [16:21]
Michael: And so, as you decided then that you wanted to make a shift into the industry, how did you actually get going? Did you finish the whole CFP program before you started looking for work?
Georgia: Yeah, I did. Well, I finished the CFP program, took the exam, and barely didn't pass. I mean, if I could have just bumped up that bar graph on the insurance section, I would have passed, which I was actually quite proud of. And then...
Michael: And you're coming at it completely cold as a non-NAFI creative.
Georgia: Yeah, and I literally knew...I mean, I just didn't know anything about the structures or history or anything, I found it fascinating. The benefit of that...again, another thing that seems like a negative but ended up being a very strong positive is I needed to study for it again. So, at that point, I had a little bit of savings and I ended up quitting my job about two months before I sat for the exam the second time and I just committed myself to studying 8 to 10 hours a day every day...or 5 days a week, in order to be able to pass. And I did not only passed but the glory of that experience was, Michael, that I was able to truly root myself in the conceptual frameworks that all the subject areas of the financial planning process are grounded in. And so, I think it is really what makes me a good planner is this conceptual rigor that I was able to apply on top of the regurgitation that I was really applying in the first round.
Michael: And so, second exam passes and goes okay. And so, then what? Then you're like, "Okay, I've quit my bar job and I passed my exam, I guess it's time to try to find a job in the industry doing this?"
Georgia: Yeah, so I did a little hourly planning and my first client is still my client, which is really sweet. And it was 2011 by the time I had my marks...well, I had passed, I didn't have my marks yet. And, of course, firms like Modernist...well, there were no firms like Modernist, but the small boutique firms weren't hiring because we were, as you say, in the depths of an economic recession, especially hard hit in an RIA.
Michael: Yep, right, advisory world got just flushed in 2008-2009, a lot of firms were still so shell shocked, they were not enthusiastically hiring yet in 2010 and into 2011.
Georgia: So, I ended up being recruited by a big wirehouse, which again, I would say could be framed as a mistake but also was such an amazing education. First of all, it was 1973 there, and they had not dealt with a lot of women, especially highly educated, creative women. So, it was a funny experience to go into a space and realize that all the advisors except for three were women. I mean, all the advisors were male and there were three women out of, I think, 45 advisors, and a huge difference. All of the support staff, though, were women. There were no people of color except for a couple of people who were basically behind closed doors. Again, this is how racism and sexism operates, it's not explicit, it's just how things happen to roll out. And then there was the...there was nobody who was out as queer and I was like, "This is statistically impossible," as I looked around, and that was actually really helpful for me because I grew up in cultures of creative queer, strong women. And I didn't really believe that that world existed and then I got to work in it for two and a half years, which was fascinating.
Michael: So, what is that like? I mean, do you arrive and like, "Oh, okay, I didn't realize the industry I was getting into. Nevermind, just going to walk myself back over my creative community?" I mean, did you think about just walking away and saying, "This isn't the right industry at all?" Or did you look at this and say like, "Okay, I'm liking this, I'm just going to have to find a different place to do it in the future?" I mean, how were you handling this as you got in and were seeing what you had gotten into?
Georgia: Yeah, I mean, what's funny is I made weird feminist performance art. So, in some ways, I started to treat my day job as a little bit of a performance art practice and I felt a little bit like a spy because I was like, "Oh, this world, this thing I've heard about or read about, I'm actually experiencing what dominant culture looks like or dominant/regressive culture looks like." And I knew that I would eventually have to leave because not only was there a culture mismatch (understatement of the year) but also a business model mismatch. I did my best to run my practice within that firm, fee-only, and I was basically able to pull that off and I had the benefit of really seeing how the business practices operated.
And that was really helpful for me, I got to see some things I didn't love and did not want to reproduce as my career moves forward, but I also saw some great stuff like what does a really great tech stack look like? What does an operations process that is thorough and efficient look like? What does an investment committee do? Things like this that would have been hard to learn if I had started out doing hourly or retainer-based practice. So, I'm really grateful for learning those enterprise lessons, enterprise-scale lessons, and then pulling that forward, I've always thought about, "Okay, how could we do this more efficiently to scale, etc.?"
Michael: So, as you went in, were you still envisioning you might stay in the long run? Or was it as soon as you got in of like, "All right, I'm going to do my time here but I'm going to be going on to something else after this?" How did you approach it? Because I know there are advisors who've gone in and decided relatively quickly, wirehouse or whatever it is, like, "Oh, this is not the firm that I want to be at," and some stay and some don't and some really struggle with how long to stay. So, how did you approach it?
Georgia: Yeah, lawyers. So, I definitely got some advice before I signed the documents because I really wanted to understand what they owned of me and what they didn't. And so, that was on the front end and then the same on the back end.
Michael: So, you had a lawyer review the employment agreements going in?
Georgia: The employment agreements, yeah.
Michael: So, what did you glean from that?
Georgia: Well, I learned that there's such a high rate of people failing out of those programs, that in some ways, they're a little hard to enforce. And honestly, if I had stayed there much longer, I probably would have failed out economically just because of the way their compensation structures worked and I wasn't willing to sell the things that would have produced the incentives, etc., to make me a meaningful long term employee of that organization. But I planned the whole thing and I had really complex spreadsheets to trying to figure out how I could, again, build the work I was doing and the client building I was in the process of around the model I actually wanted to be in. So, it was a lot of forward-thinking but I was there for a good two and a half years, and again, I learned a lot and I'm really grateful for those lessons. And then on the way out, I, again, had a lawyer who made sure that I was doing everything exactly the way I should.
The Vision Of The Sort Of Business Georgia Wanted To Build Early On [23:57]
Michael: And so, I guess even within that environment, or especially within that environment, what was the business you were trying to build? It sounds like you had a pretty clear sense in your head of what you wanted it to look like upfront. So, what did you want it to look like?
Georgia: Yeah, so fee-only, of course. Well, at least for me, that was my minimum. Most of the decisions that I make and now we make in terms of the firm is, how can we hold the highest standard in the way that we behave? And being fee-only, getting my CFP marks in place because I had to get experience to be able to have those marks so that was really helpful, and financial planning and actually practicing financial planning. And in the middle of all that, I had the experience of being introduced to the Money Quotient tools and I became a Money Quotient practitioner almost the minute I was in a meeting...or in a conference where Amy Mullen was talking, who I know has been on your podcast and is brilliant, was talking.
And I did one of the tools, the personal insights about money tool, which I remember how incredibly deeply that tool impacted me emotionally and in terms of clarity about my own behavior and I thought, "Well, this is clearly what I need to be doing." And so, I worked with the compliance department for like...I think it took me nine months to get the Money Quotient tools approved by compliance because they literally couldn't figure out why I wanted to know the questions that we were asking, like, "Why do you want to know what people's relationship with money is?" And I remember having that moment of like... beat-beat-beat... "Because we give advice about money?"
Michael: So, what was the plan for what came next? How did you exit out of that environment?
Georgia: Yeah, I got headhunted by a small firm in town, and a lot of my attraction there was the fact that I really needed to start charging flat fees for financial planning, I needed to be able to charge hourly or some kind of fee and the structures that that wirehouse had in place at the time were really cumbersome and didn't really make sense and made it very hard to...it was not a business model structured for that kind of compensation. And so, that firm was open to doing financial planning fees, and so I went to that firm and my clients all followed me, which was very nice, and that was really the first space in which...I was an independent contractor for the firm, so sort of multi-siloed advisor practice, and it was interesting to be able to have the opportunity to really craft my processes and to really ask for what I thought I was worth also and to see if people would pay it. And what I found really quickly all my growth in the year that I was at that firm was in financial planning fees, it wasn't really an AUM, in large part because I think I was trying on how that model worked, how the compensation worked, how much time does it really take, etc., and really being able to dig very deep into the Money Quotient work without the cumbersome compliance process.
Michael: So, I guess helped me understand, as you started doing this, what were you charging? What were you doing for it? And where were the clients coming from? Who were you working with? I mean, just to survive two and a half years in the wirehouse environment is quite a long time, in and of itself. So, where are the clients coming from and what are you doing for them at this point?
Georgia: Yeah. Well, one of the interesting things is that as I journeyed into my practice, I realized that being a good artist is basically the same thing as running a good practice. Being community-minded is really helpful, it's also how you get shows and press and all those things. Being oriented around volunteer work is an important way to show up in the community and also to get your name out there. So, I really just leaned into things I'd already been doing as an artist and I ran underground galleries and stuff like that too, so I had this background of community engagement so I just really kept doing that work. So, there was a lot of word of mouth and then my focus at that time, my niche, if you will, was creative professionals.
So, there aren't a lot of people that creative professionals want to talk to in the financial industry, they don't trust them, for good reason, and their brand is usually terrible, so there's like a general lack of competition, I would say, certainly in the Portland market at that point, though, thankfully, there's now some really fabulous businesses, it's so exciting to see how different things are than they were 10 years ago. Yeah, so that's how I got clients and then I honestly can't quite remember what I used to charge. I think it was like...I don't think I had a minimum at first and I tried on a $3,500 fee and then because I've always done time tracking, I quickly became aware of how much money I was losing.
And then I think I went to $5,000 and then I set an AUM minimum because I realized there was some correlation between having built some assets and a desire to make the behavioral change that financial planning invites. And by the time I'd basically proven to myself that people would pay for financial planning support, at that point, I realized that this firm, though lovely and great community impact, was not the place for me to stay and that I really had to start my own practice if I wanted...or my own firm, if I wanted to live my values and my vision as thoroughly as I thought was possible.
Michael: I'm struck by how you framed that. You were proving to yourself that people would pay for this financial planning advice and financial planning support because that was part of the journey for you is like, "If I really charge these fees, do people really show up and pay them?"
Georgia: Yeah, and this is a great example of a money story. I mean, as a woman and as a creative, I'm really not supposed to ask for what I'm worth, there are a lot of subconscious and very explicit messages that I've received. So, I had to do that internal work to realize that, "Here's the value of the work I do, here's how much work I do, I know we do that now, we do that work very thoroughly, and I deserve to be paid what I'm worth and what I'm worth is running a firm in which all of my employees are paid a living wage and then some, have great health benefits, etc." And that's not cheap as well as being able to do the really time-intensive accountability focus kind of financial planning that I think is super fun.
So, that really was the path to where we are now where we have a $1 million minimum, which quite honestly is still not enough to pay for the first couple of years of financial planning the way we do it. We do a flat fee of $17,500 if somebody doesn't have the assets because we have a fair number of folks with high cash flow businesses but they haven't built the assets yet. And it really took me getting clear about the fact that the thing I do with my life, my vocation is worth money, it is worth a reasonable amount of money and I don't need to be, per our earlier conversation, a starving artist in order to practice this vocation.
What Eventually Led Georgia To Launch Her Own Firm [31:37]
Michael: So, help me understand then what came next. So, it sounds like you were making the decision, "I'm just going to have to launch my own firm and go my own direction on this," so I guess what was it that was bringing you to that conclusion, and then how did you go about trying to start something?
Georgia: Yeah, I mean, I think there was some...all throughout my practice, up until that point, there was an explicit message that I could not charge realistic fees for the work that I wanted to do and there was a supporting message that people don't want to talk about their feelings, they don't want to go into the depths, they don't want to do the work deeply, yada-yada. And so, I think your point earlier is a good one, I had to prove to myself that those things weren't true. And once I had proven to myself that people did want to do the work, that they did want the support, that they were interested in a more meaningful and intentional relationship with their money, then I realized, "Well, I don't see anybody else doing this in Portland, Oregon, it looks like I'm kind of stuck, I've got to start my own firm."
It felt like it was a bit of a cliff, it was either start my own practice or go out of the business entirely because I felt too hemmed in by the limited horizons that I felt the industry was providing to me within the models that I could see available, and so I knew there was a better way, I knew we could do this work with more intention. And it's one of the reasons why Kitces and all the things that you've done in your blog and all the work that you all do, it's so helpful for me as a practitioner is that I get to see all the research and all the ideas and all this potential that we can do things in a better, more intentional, more thorough, more professional, insert your adjective.
Michael: So, how did you go about it? I mean, how did you exactly left the world and starting an IRA from scratch and hanging your shingle, so how did you go about starting an IRA from scratch?
Georgia: I mean, again, I'm an artist, so how many times have I decided to start a gallery in the middle...you know, I used to run this little hilarious gallery out of a surplus warehouse I worked in. It's just like, "Well, I guess we're going to start a gallery," and then you just figure out like, "We need a space and we need lights and we need marketing and we need relationships and we need artists and we need Julio Gallo wine for the opening and we need..." It's the same practice of being entrepreneurs just figuring out, "Okay, where are the practice areas that need to be considered? Who are the vendors I need to hire?" And giant spreadsheets, many, many, many spreadsheets, trying to figure out whether and how I was going to pull this off.
And I also was really driven...and that seems silly but it actually really is an important part of Modernist is I was very much driven by the brand, the fact that I cannot bear other people's brands anymore because they felt so surface level and not really deep creative work and that's so much of who I am as a human and as an intellectual. And so, the desire to control my brand and my message became essential. So, I actually started with hiring a creative brand agency to help me figure out what were some naming...what was the name going to be and then what was the brand messaging, and I worked with a vendor to help me come up with my manifesto for the firm. And it really...again, because we're planners, vision and values.
Michael: There's a manifesto.
Georgia: Yeah, you gotta love manifestoes.
Michael: All right, how's the manifesto work?
Georgia: Oh, the manifesto is on our website, highly recommend...I think we'll put it in the show notes.
Michael: Okay, yeah, we'll definitely put a link out to the manifesto.
Georgia: Yeah. And the manifesto is so interesting, I spent hours and hours and hours working on that damn manifesto and now we use it at the beginning of every single innovation meeting that we have if we're working on a project for the firm, whether it's how we're running a new operation system or how we're going to put out our new year's mailer. Grounding in who we intend to be is such an essential part of the way I want the company to run and how I want us to behave. And so, once we had some of the...what I will call brand elements, but to me are also more about the founding documents, the founding identity that we wanted to work from, then it was finding an office and hiring an architect and doing all the things so that when I opened, I was really just moving my book from one firm to another and we just had a much prettier place to hang out together.
Michael: And I guess that was part of the question as well, so you had some clients and revenue at this point that you were going to be able to bring with you that, I guess, the firm you were at at that point would allow you to take with you?
Georgia: I mean, one of the benefits of that model they were running of sort of siloed advisors was that I was an independent contractor with that firm.
Georgia: So, it wasn't that different than having a third-party asset manager and having a compliance firm, I just had more vendors to deal with but those vendors were actually accountable to me instead of me being accountable to them in some odd way.
Michael: So, what was the base of clients by the time you started? Was there some critical mass level of clients or revenue for you to decide like, "Yeah, I think I can go hang my shingle and do this?"
Georgia: Yeah, I mean, I definitely ran, as I say, a lot of spreadsheets to trying to figure out what the answer to that one is, but I think I started the firm with 10 million under management and then another 60,000 recurring in financial planning fees, something like that. I had one staff member full-time who came with me from the previous firm and was totally excited to help revolutionize the industry as we saw it at the moment. And then, that's when we started having interns, etc., to help us get some of the work that needed doing done. So, it was definitely very shoestring at the beginning, I had a loan from a family member, which it would have been impossible without that support. Again, another benefit of my racial identity and education background is having access to capital.
Michael: And so, when you got launched, was it just going right in with like, "We're going to $1 million minimum and minimum fees of $17,500?" Like, was that part of the original vision? Did it evolve to that over time?
Georgia: Yeah, it's definitely evolved. I'm going to have to go back into my brain. Once we adjust the business model, it's hard, I sort of delete it from my brain a bit. But I think we had a $500,000 or $750,000 minimum, I can't quite remember which one, and I think our annual...our minimum planning fee was $10 grand at the time, something like that. Probably $750 and $10,000 because we've always charged a little higher fee on the lower AUM amounts, just because there's so much work for that money. And then, as we lived into the model fully in the ways of the financial planning, and so because we practice Money Quotient, we also practice one of their modules called the First Step which is a cash flow planning and structure. Are you familiar with it?
Georgia: I am obsessed.
Michael: Maybe for people who don't know it well, can you kind of talk through the First Step?
Georgia: Yeah, I am so obsessed with the First Step, every single client we have uses it. It is a way of organizing one's spending into three buckets. They call them static, control, and dynamic. I also explain them to clients as passed agreements to pay bills, present lifestyle choices, and future spending for needs and wants. And it's a planning tool that's basically a glorified spreadsheet but ultimately, it drives a structuring of client's checking and savings accounts to help automate transfers in their accounts to fund basically past bills, present spending, and future savings for wants and needs. It takes a lot of time to implement with clients and it's a big part of our onboarding process, that usually takes us three to four months to get it implemented with a client. We do like bi-weekly phone calls to help them be an accountability partner to structure it and then implement it. But what's amazing is after that, it just sort of runs with small adjustments once or twice a year and I can't think of any other cash flow planning tool or structure that has that little maintenance required.
How Georgia's Onboarding Process Works [40:16]
Michael: So, can you just walk us through a little bit more? I mean, how does this work? I mean what do you do or actually set up with clients?
Georgia: So the process looks like this. We onboard a new client, there's a four...there's a five meeting process for onboarding, and then the first implementation after investments is cash flow. There's a one and a half hour cash flow planning meeting where we really dig into how much are you spending, what are your bills, etc., and help them start to populate the software. We don't populate it for them, we have them populate it because they really do need to have the agency and self-efficacy to own their cash flow is theirs, so I think it's one of the ways to avoid a paternalistic approach to financial planning. And so, we start to figure out what their spending is, and then over the next, as I say, bi-weekly calls for as long as it takes, we help them clarify and finalize their cash flow so that their income actually equals their expenses and savings and then...
Michael: So, just helping them literally track and figure out where their money is going in the first place.
Georgia: Exactly, exactly. It's really just a planning tool, it's not meant where you're looking back at the past to categorize a bunch of stuff. I honestly don't really care what's happened in the past, what I'm interested in is the behavior right now, so how many times do you get...I mean, this is, again, a pre-pandemic kind of language, right? "How many times do you go to lunch? How many times do you go to coffee? When you go to coffee, how much money do you spend? When you go to the grocery store, how often do you go? How much do you spend when you go to the grocery store?" Just backing into some of the behaviors, the financial behaviors that we engage in. So, we create the plan and then we help them make a choice, where do they want to bank? Do they want to stay where they are or do they want to consider a move? Once they choose the bank, then we help them clarify which accounts they need to open, what they're going to name the accounts, then we help them set up automatic transfers for those accounts, monthly to the savings accounts for the future, weekly for their lifestyle spending, and then bills just get paid out of the main account. And then we work on sustaining the process and also observation, so the last phase is actually the most interesting phase, it's where people get to observe their behavior. I sort of think of First Step as this sort of sneaky awareness and mindfulness tool. “Because I get paid every week for my lifestyle spending, if I have a really hard day on a Tuesday at the office and I've been working...I've had a 13-hour day and I'm exhausted and I have the desire to, I don't know, buy a lipstick or a new dress online, I don't get paid again until Thursday. So, I may make that choice but I'll be out of money until Thursday. So, it helps create a shorter timeframe for me to observe my own behavior. I'm not saying that it's not okay for me to buy a dress or lipstick or a fancy dinner out, whatever the need is, but I'm more likely to be aware that I'm making this spending choice as a reaction to how I feel.”
Michael: And so, that's the function of having these multiple buckets in the first place. So, there's a main account where you pay your main ongoing bills, so your mortgage, rent, and so forth. You've got a second account that is for long-term savings, the retirements, or...
Georgia: Car repairs, house repairs, travel, charity.
Michael: And then there's a third account in the middle that is the lifestyle account, the ongoing spending that aren't the big, normal standard monthly bills that come out of the main account and the lifestyle account is where people do their ongoing lifestyle level of spending. But because you funded weekly, essentially, everybody gets themselves trained into lifestyle spending on a weekly cycle.
Georgia: Exactly, so you can't...if somebody decides they really want to buy a CSA for half a cow, you might not be able to pay for that out of your lifestyle spending every week but you probably have some kind of like house savings account where you've got money set aside for those bigger irregular expenses. So, it also create the sense of...so the only change I would make to your description there, Michael, is that the future spending, the savings spending is multiple savings accounts and they all have a name, so it's House, Car, Charity, Travel. If there's multiple people in the family, there's probably like a Partner 1, Partner 2, or Child account, might even be a pet account.
Michael: And so, in the banking context, literally, you may have seven different bank accounts at the bank.
Georgia: Yeah, most people end up having three checking accounts, one for bills, one for lifestyle spending and another for lifestyle spending if there's two partners in the relationship, and then savings accounts...I don't know, I think I have 10 savings accounts in my own personal.
What Services That Georgia’s Firm Offers To Their Clients [45:08]
Michael: So, help me put this in the overall context, so just the services that the firm offers at this point, just when you've got this million-dollar minimum or, I guess, ultimately a $17,500 minimum planning fee, what are you doing for a minimum of $17,500 a year? I mean, if I say, "Hey, Georgia, your firm sounds cool, I need me some financial advice, I want to get started with you," what happens? How does this work?
Georgia: Yeah, it's a good question. So, the onboarding process, as I said, is five meetings. There's a welcome meeting, which is, "Here's our online file management tool and here's the information we need," yada-yada. And then there's two...go ahead.
Michael: I'd like to ask you, what is the online file management tool of choice?
Georgia: Oh, we use Box.
Georgia: Yeah, it works well.
Michael: So, so meeting number one is, "Welcome, here's how you..." It sound like this is sort of the, "Here's how you interact with us, so here's our file management, the email addresses, the people you contact to do things with the team."
Michael: And is that a...well, I guess, at least pre-pandemic, is that an in-person meeting? Is that a virtual meeting?
Georgia: That's a good question. Normally, we usually actually did that one virtually if it was appropriate. I think at some time, it flexes for the person. So, I find that our older clients still much prefer to be in person even if they're bringing their laptop to the office, so it really depends on the client's needs. Normally, we do that one virtually because the person needs to be on the computer anyway in order to access the links and portals and all that stuff that we're going to be reviewing. So, that's usually about an hour and a half, sometimes a little shorter depending on how much information we have in the beginning of the process. Then we do two retreats and what they are is they're generally on Fridays from 11:00 to 4:00, there's two meetings in the morning, the first retreat is a goal discovery meeting and they got a fair amount of prep for that and it's basically all Money Quotient-driven.
They have a bunch of tools, they need to fill out...each individually need to fill out, and we review those tools, we talk about the big picture, that's where basically all the financial planning goals are coming from. And then they have lunch, either we have it delivered or in the world in which we can do this again, they go to some lovely local restaurant and then come back, so they get a break from me, really, and team and get to look at something else. And then in the afternoon, we do data discovery, which is verifying the planning assumptions that we're moving forward with. "So, you mentioned that you'd like to be able to retire at any time, I heard about three years. Is that right when you'd like to be able to retire? Oh, it's 10 years? Do you want to work a little bit? Sure, what does that look like? Tell me when." Yada-yada.
So, just really digging in with open-ended but somewhat specific questions about what are my planning assumptions that we're operating from. And then they go away for a month and they come back and we have another retreat and in the morning is a plan recommendations meeting in which we've built a narrative of where they want to be in the next five years based on the plan or the conversations we've had. "So, Ezra and Irma are happily living in their dream house and they feel like they've built a relationship that founded on open communication," yada-yada, so the language is in the past tense.
Michael: So, this is Georgia the creative writer coming back to us again. Okay, okay.
Georgia: My very expensive creative writing education finally pays off.
Michael: Fantastic, fantastic. Somewhere, a college professor is so thrilled that it's turned out this way.
Georgia: Exactly. But also there's a lot of research that Money Quotient has pulled forward that it is easier to implement our goals and values and vision if we have a story to tell ourselves, or stories in which we've given ourselves permission to live a bigger...a life that is more who we want to be as opposed to maybe what the world has told us we can't be. So, we have a narrative and then we have basically a summary of the financial plan like most people do, probably key values, we've heard transitions to address, concerns to address, and goals to achieve. And then we break all those things down into who's going to do what, when we're going to do it, insurance needs, the basics of planning.
Michael: It was an interesting framework, though. So, key values, transitions to address, concerns to address, and goals you're trying to achieve. And so, that's basically the framework for...we'll call it the plan presentation?
Georgia: Yeah. And then there's about six more pages of detail on those things, so cash flow planning, who is this going to include, what kind of results are we trying to achieve, what is the intent of this process, basically, and then a timeline. And in that meeting, we say, "Okay, we're already clarifying our goals, we're already figuring out...we're figuring out investment recommendations, we're figuring out X, Y, and Z, we're going to have a tax planning meeting in three months. So, here's what we've got left, insurance, estate, charity often are three sort of neglected siblings of the planning process, when do we want to do that given we're going to be doing these other things? Do you want it this year, later this year, next year? When do you feel like you have the capacity as a client to take on that work?" With our support, of course, but clients do have to do some work to get things implemented. So, yeah, that's what it looks like. And then there's also summaries of the scenarios that we've built for them, a recommended scenario based on what we heard and usually, an alternative scenario or two, based on what we think some of the primary levers of the financial plan are, whether it's retirement date, earnings if they are going to sell a business or sell a piece of property, the big levers we have to pull in the plan.
Michael: And so, out of curiosity, are you still using...I'll call it traditional financial planning software to do some of this analysis work?
Georgia: Yeah, we use MoneyGuidePro, and I've done some...I've tried to present MoneyGuidePro to clients but honestly, it's so foreign to them and it's not that well designed for lay people. I find it better too...I do a lot scribbling on paper and we also produce a summary in the financial planning document of the scenarios because I find that it just is really overwhelming to look at financial planning documents. We provide to them in the follow-up, we give them a full 130-page report if they are so interested. Some are, some don't care, up to them.
Michael: But the driver of the plan for you, I guess, is a half a dozen page document that you're producing yourself in Word.
Georgia: Yeah, basically.
Michael: And so, is that kind of the whole...like welcome meeting, retreat number one where we do goal discovery and data discovery with a break for lunch, a second retreat where you're presenting the plan recommendations, is there other stuff that comes in that meeting or is that just a whole afternoon for all the recommendations?
Georgia: Yeah, no, in the afternoon is when we also do investment recommendations. It depends on the client, if it's somebody who has high cash flow but not a lot of assets, we may actually just dive right into cash flow planning at that point. It really depends on what's most on fire for the clients, and so that's where we...what the afternoon time is spent focused on. All of our work is about, “How do we invite and include into the financial planning process?” It's our first core value, and then how do we invest in people in that invitation. So, very education-oriented, demystifying investing or financial planning for that matter, making sure that everybody actually understands what inflation is or compound growth because sometimes, depending on how we've been socialized, we may sort of nod along but not really understand what it means as a conceptual framework and planning.
Where Georgia’s “Retreat” Framework Came From [52:56]
Michael: So, I'm just curious why these five-hour retreats? The fact that you're doing them as five-hour meetings to calling them retreats, where did that come from? Where did that approach come from?
Georgia: Yeah, a lot of our clients are in their 40s and 50s with very high-intensity businesses or careers and children, so trying to get their attention is not super easy and trying to get their focus is also not easy. And having somebody fly in from another meeting, literally or figuratively, land in the meeting...we often start our meetings with a small meditation as well just so people can arrive with us and it became a way for especially couples, but individuals too to really commit to making space for their own self-discovery. What do they really want? Because, again, I find that...and I think this is my own identity, I find that it's really easy to parrot what we think we're supposed to say to a financial planner, but making...or any person in authority, but making the space to dig into "What do I want?" and being able to verbalize that both for myself and then for my planner is a really...it needs some space and some ease.
And so, we try doing them individually but we couldn't get the depth or the focus that we wanted. Sometimes it doesn't work for everyone based on their calendars but I see it as an investment often in couples too because the Money Quotient work is so lovely, and for couples, they usually just never talked about this stuff in the same way that we are. And so, it's an opportunity for building intimacy, communication skills, I don't know, I think there's a lot of value in that investment.
Michael: Interesting. So, it is very conscious. It’s calling it a retreat because you're actually trying to put some busy business executive into a mindset of like, "No, you're off from work today, you're taking a personal retreat, treat it that way. Unplug, be here, be present for this meeting." And you're doing it in a big old chunk like this because the reality is it's hard enough to get them away, you ain't getting them for two meetings over the span of a couple of weeks, so we're going to get them for one big old meeting all at once and just have them make that part of their mental commitment around the process.
Georgia: Right. And they get an hour, an hour and a half in the middle of the day and in pre-pandemic, we would send them to a lovely little Bistro in town, we'd pick up the bill, they got to just have glass wine or whatever was their jam and be able to just talk about what they were talking about, you know? And say, "Oh, I noticed that, I never noticed that about you," or, "That's so interesting," or, "I actually don't agree with you about this thing." They can have their own processing time, it's also I think an essential element. So, I think some of the things we're pointing to here, Michael, is why we have a high minimum. This is a very labor-intensive process and a new client costs us 60 to 80 hours in the first year and I'm telling you, $17,500 is not covering that cost. Year 2, we're starting to make our money back.
And then ongoing, we sort of think of it as a seasonal approach to planning where you do investment review in the springtime when the world is growing and things are blooming, it seems like an appropriate time. And then in the summer and early fall, we do tax planning with every client CPA or tax advisor, which is a really fun and essential meeting where I basically drive the agenda and ask a bunch of questions and try and get the CPA to be focused on the client's actual long-term goals, not the short term tax bill. And then in this fall, we do financial planning review because this is a sort of natural time, post-Labor Day, to think about what has the year been like, what have we learned, and what do we want to take into the next annual cycle? And we aim to have that done...usually have those done by Thanksgiving if we can, depending on what happens in our calendar.
Michael: And then is there a winter piece as well?
Georgia: Winter is sort of...usually, it's end-of-year cleanup for tax planning and preparing for the next season. Or that's often when people was like, "Oh, they want to come back in for a cash flow review that's off-cycle," a lot of people will want to do like a January cash flow meeting where they just look at their First Step and we make adjustments together and think through priorities, stuff like that.
Michael: Interesting. So, it's kind of a structured service calendar approach, like investment review in the spring, tax review in the summer, financial planning review in the fall, you clean up cash flow and whatever else in the winter and repeat again. But as opposed to, I don't know, just doing a quarterly or months or whatever it is, you just, "We do it with seasons."
Georgia: Yes. If I can make our whole calendar lunar, I would but I'm not quite there yet.
Michael: Interesting. So, I guess, did we fully wrap up the initial process, though? Like welcome meeting, retreat number one with its goal discovery and data discovery, retreat number two with its plan recommendations in the morning and investment recommendations in the afternoon. Is that usually the conclusion of the planning process, at which point you're moving into this ongoing seasonal approach? Or were there actually other meetings in the upfronts as well?
Georgia: Yeah, there's other meetings. So, the next one normally is cash flow and that's really...I don't know, as I said, like two to four months of an initial meeting, and then the follow on calls until we get the cash flow implemented and tweaked till it's basically working without much intervention. So, that's the next one, and then...
Michael: Which is essentially having them start to track their spending, get a handle on their spending...
Georgia: Structure their spending.
Michael: Structure their spending, get them trained into First Step, and see how they're doing for a while before you actually on their way.
Georgia: Which then gives us the very important information of are the assumptions of our financial plan actually legitimate? Because my joke is if you look at my driver's license, I would rather people think that I'm five foot five than five foot four or five foot three.
Michael: We have a real tendency in the world to round a lot of things up.
Georgia: Exactly, or down depending on what you want.
Michael: Or down if it's more convenient, yeah. Height rounds up, weight rounds down, yep.
Georgia: Yeah. So, we need to, in my mind, the cash flow...I honestly don't know how to do financial planning without doing cash flow planning because otherwise, it's just a bunch of guesses and if people are off by $20,000 or $40,000 a year depending on what the nut spending is, that has a huge impact on their, let's say, withdrawal rate, etc. So, Marty Kurtz actually developed this structure, and the Planning Center and Money Quotient owned the intellectual property together and run the property together. But from what I know, he started this because he was really struggling with how to talk about cash flow planning with his clients and understand how to have a shared language and structure that was replicable but also solved these problems like, "Where does the money go? And can we afford to do this thing that we think..." "I don't know, don't point at your partner or spouse and complain about how they always want to spend money, let's just actually find out if the plan says there's money for this spending.
Michael: And I guess worth reflecting is you sort of mentioned it as a side, but the cash flow stage is a multi-month stage just assumed going in to get a handle on what's going on with it.
Georgia: Yeah. We have a client right now who's an older couple and really cash flow planning is, in my mind, where the good ideas and the macro and the 30,000 foot of financial planning gets very real very fast. Because we start to realize what their overhead is, we get to realize there's actually debt problems that weren't really clear before or there is a family member that we weren't really aware of, they needed this much support. So, it helps us reveal these planning opportunities but it also helps the client be the driver of the new behavior and the awareness, and so it is a multistage process.
So, in my dream situation is that I get to show up with the clients in the way that they need us to show up in that moment. And then to finish the thought, insurance, estate planning, charitable giving, all get put into place, and also conversations with loved ones like, "Do we need to bring in a financial therapist for some intergenerational conversations that need to start happening?" Those things tend to be...depending on the client, estate planning might come first before cash flow, I don't know, it really depends on their needs, but we want to make sure all that stuff gets dealt with in the first year, year and a half, two years, but we're always going to drive from what the client is interested in implementing.
Michael: So, I'm just struck as you're describing that and I just sort of work it in...and that insurance, estate, charity, by the time you're getting at all that, it's end of Year 1, maybe even getting in the Year 2. So, it may outright take clients more than a full year just to get through the whole process with you.
Georgia: Yeah, and that's why I think the implementation phase, which is basically investments, cash flow, insurance, estate and charitable, and then family conversations, those all happen at the rate that they want. So, some people, it's going to take three years to get through all that because they just either don't want to, they don't prioritize it, I need to help them understand why it's important, whatever, I'm not going to tell people what to do. But we need to make sure it gets done or at least if it doesn't, they understand what the ramifications are if it's not done. And what happens is after the first year, they get put into the seasonal cycle and these outstanding topics are part of our housekeeping section of our agenda where we say, "Okay, you said you were open to an introduction to this estate lawyer that we talked about, would you like us to make that introduction now? Do you feel like you have the space to do that work?"
And they will say yes or no, I will just say whether I want to be in that meeting or not depending on the complexity of the situation, etc. So, I think what I've realized is I like helping people implement. I think it's fun, I think it's interesting, and I think it's where all the devil is literally in the details or the angels, depending on your perspective. So, we've really really built a process here that is very time-intensive but also means that the clients actually do what we think needs doing or tell us that they don't want to do it, but we don't just hand them a thing to implement and say, "Go with God."
The Larger Impact That Georgia Seeks As An Owner Of An Advisory Business [1:03:27]
Michael: And so, now help me again to understand where did clients come from that are buying this and paying a minimum $17,500 a year?
Georgia: I mean, I don't think that's that much for the clients we work with. I mean, if you think about what...
Michael: But where are those people come from? And I get it, if you're 100-millionaire, it's like, "Hey, we blow that in a weekend," so, of course, $17,500 is not...
Georgia: Well, I mean, but people pay for lawyers and accountants and architects and I think the clients who we have want to hire a professional to both delegate to as well as hold them accountable to the people they want to be. Like I hire a personal trainer and I'm sure I spend not quite that much but half that with her because I want to be fit, and honestly, I'm not going to do it on my own. So, I think that's the kind of person who's really attracted to us and they're the kind of people who want to have a more intentional relationship with their money and they have the luxury of paying for that. But I will also say, I look at our fees and I compare them to other firms that I know were doing intensive financial planning work and we're on par with them. So, I don't know if it's...I think it's about the service model.
Michael: I like that framing that clients who both want to delegate and want someone to hold them accountable to the person they want to be. It's a very loaded way to frame that but I bet that's the point, that's a very powerful way to frame who seeks it out.
Georgia: Yeah. Well, and I think to spin the conversation a little bit, what I'm interested is in how are we doing the same kind of work as an industry. So, for example, I'm a CFP and I own a B Corp, right? There's ways in which I'm actively asking for accountability as a company. I house my company in a LEED-certified building, which is a way of ensuring that your building is ecologically sustainable, I nourish my employees and my clients and myself with USDA Organic food, but I'm very interested in accountability. If I'm serious about my values, how do I hold myself to maintaining those values but also not making it so laborious that I can't live up to that vision of myself, if that makes sense? And so, that's where I feel like we're pivoting right now as a company is how do we do this work for our clients? Great, I feel like we've got that down. Now, how do we do this work as a company? And great, now how do we do this work as companies together? How do we hold ourselves accountable to engaging in a more intentional way of moving in the world? Is that interesting to you?
Michael: Yeah, it is. I mean, it strikes me not unlike the nature of the services and the clients that you serve itself. There are, I think, advisors who would be drawn to that mission and advisors who are like, "Yeah, you be you, I'm just going to do my thing over here and serve my clients and doing whatever I'm doing this business for." I suppose that's always the challenge for the landscape and the system in the aggregate, right? Just human beings are wonderfully varied and come at the world from all of their different perspectives, cool things happen when we find alignment with groups of people that come together that all want the same thing and believe the same thing and you can make that happen as a group, as a team, as a community to pursue it.
Georgia: Yeah, and so I think it's a...you know, for me, I'm in this work because I like to see that when I bring up the question of reparations in a tax planning meeting when a client is selling a piece of real estate, that client thinks about, "Why do I own this piece of real estate? Why do I have the capacity to own this piece of real estate? Now I'm going to sell this real estate and make a pile of money on it, and do my values politically or as an anti-racist mean that I would be interested in taking, let's say, 3% of that and giving that to organizations that are impacting racial wealth inequality, specifically around homeownership?" And I find that practicing work in that way...as a B Corp, it's kind of a question we're asking all the time, but asking that question of clients I think is really interesting and it's why we are boldly progressive and it's why I don't shy away from talking about politics because money, to me, is deeply political. And this, I think, is the interesting place I want to hang out because the firm is going to do fine, these businesses, RIAs are profitable, generally.
Michael: It's a good business to be in.
Georgia: Yeah, recurring revenue is very nice and I feel like we more than earn our fees, quite honestly. And so, this question of how are we building a world that we want to have existing in the world, how do we build permission to both enjoy today but also invest in our common future is a question that I'm really interested in answering as a firm but also as an industry, or at least whoever in the industry is interested in having that conversation.
Michael: And I guess I just got to ask you, you don't get clients that are put off or thrown off when you take a conversation like, "Hey, you're selling that piece of real estate, have you considered contributing 3% back to an organization supporting anti-racism in the community?" It's just like that's a...as I'm sure you're aware, that can be a very loaded conversation for some people, for some clients, and so is that not a concern, that it's just part of the conversation? If that's not your worldview, you're probably not a client in the first place so it kind of works for who you're serving? How do you...?
Georgia: I think it's the latter. I mean, honestly, if that's not interesting, you probably wouldn't be down with the work we're doing. We explicitly talk about being anti-racist...or attempting to be anti-racist because I think it is a lifelong practice, being open to the many ways in which no matter what our hue or heritage or background we come from, we're trying to take responsibility for the way we impact our neighbors, whoever they may be. And so, I will ask that question specifically of people who I know are very engaged in anti-racism work, but I will approach that question, maybe less explicitly, a little more softly but...actually, explicitly, I will approach it and say, "I don't know if you saw that part of our newsletter where we're talking about the history of homeownership in America and redlining, it's super interesting, you might be interested in learning more about that." It's, to me, about opening a door, not shaming somebody into making a choice, right?
And I think that is a nuanced skill, certainly one that I'm not perfect at but something I'm really trying to do because I do believe that real estate is a deeply problematic asset class, as is the stock market, as is tax policy. But for tax policy, what would it look like if we changed our language from tax burden to collective support? This is a question I keep asking. CPAs would roll their eyes at me but then I asked them, I'm like, "Well, how much would this client have been paying in taxes before the 2017 tax bill?" It's a number, we know what that number is, I asked every CPA to answer that question in 2018 and every client was saving money and a lot of those clients turned around and gave that money away because they just didn't know what the number was. And so, I just think it's an opportunity to ask questions about how the structures we operate in align or do not align with what we value in the world.
Michael: And so, I guess, I'm just wondering even at a more fundamental level, just how do you reconcile that to an industry that I think, by and large, trying to train people like, "You don't have political conversations with the client." Things you don't bring up in client meetings because you don't know where they're going to be and you don't want to get fired by pissing them off accidentally, like you don't start talking religion, you don't start talking politics is like sort of an...maybe it's a spoken taboo but I think it's mostly an unspoken taboo in our industry of just there are places you don't take the conversations because they can be potential client landmines. And I'm struck that you are so far at the other end of that spectrum, so I'm just trying to reconcile that or process that or even just think about how do we handle this as advisors that you are comfortable taking a conversation at an intersection of money and politics that most of us feel like we're basically trained like you don't...like, not only do we not do that, you're not supposed to do that. It's like, "Here lies danger."
Georgia: Totally. Well, I think this comes back to money stories, right? The money story is that, A, we're not really supposed to talk about money, period. So, I think that, in some ways, oddly drives...
Michael: The story of money is that you don't talk about money.
Georgia: Right, and that actually oddly drives the ways I've seen some people practice their work, I'm like, "Well, actually, you kind of have to talk about money in this work." And to me, especially the Money Quotient work is about helping people become clearer in themselves about building internal agency around how they use their money and I'm really driven by that because I am a queer female-identified creative person who was basically told I was not allowed to do any of those things. And I've seen it play out enough times with folks who are not supposed to have internal agency around their money, that to me, it feels like I don't honestly know how to do this work without having these conversations about, "What do you want?" Now, if somebody says to me that they want to...I don't know, I can't imagine somebody that I would just not be down...well, they want to support some organization that is removing reproductive rights for women, I would be like, "You know what, I like you, you're a nice person, but I really feel like you should find a firm that is going to be a better fit for you because I'm never going to get down with that plan." That’s my values, I can't live in dissonance with that. And so, that is really the question to me, Michael, is how are the ways we're running our companies and the way we're talking to clients impacting the stories that they themselves are telling themselves about who they can be in relationship to taxes? If we tell them that the best way to act in a relationship to tax is to pay as little as possible, but what does that mean for my local schools? What does that mean for my local parks? And that's the question that I'm like, "What could we do?" So that I'm not telling them what to think but how do we just shift the conversation from having one specific way of being talked about to being a nuanced way that's specific to each person.
What Surprised Georgia About Building Her Advisory Business And The Low Point On Her Journey [1:14:13]
Michael: So, is there anything that's...what surprised you the most in between...I'm sure there was a vision in your head of how this was going to go when you started building the business in this direction a number of years ago, you've now lived it over the past six years of building it. So, has it played out the way that you've expected? Has it been different?
Georgia: Yeah, I think it's different, clearly, because everything is changing and because our third value is innovate and iterate and I'm a big believer in...they are separate practices, you innovate and then you iterate on an innovation but they are our practices and they are ways of moving in the world and moving in business. So, that iteration to me is very essential, if it wasn't different, I would be worried, I guess. But what I found is...you know, today is the anniversary of George Floyd's death. I will never practice this work in the same way again, I simply can't. Now, what does that mean for me and what does that mean for my client? Totally different things, but I have to move for my own emotional and moral certainty and...well, self-kindness, really. I really need to move from a place where I'm trying to understand the way that the small decisions I'm making add up with all the decisions people make that are similar to mine to create systemic problems so that it's much clear, the anti-racist work is much more clear.
And that's my background too, I am a southern white woman, those things are real, and I'm highly educated, I have a lot of privilege and I'm trying to understand what that means and also how I can unwind...how we can unwind some of that and be generous with it. But again, clients don't need to do it exactly the way that I do, but they probably want to be down about me bringing up questions around collective support and nonprofits. Like, we're working with the Oregon Community Foundation to put out a report that they have on the opportunity gap for kids in Oregon, which is primarily racially driven, and about availability of infrastructure in neighborhoods, it's fascinating to see what is actually driving the opportunity gap. And that can help clients then move into our next event, which is going to be a conversation about, "Is there a responsibility associated with wealth? And if yes, what could it be in the future?" And that's the kind of thing where I'm just like, "I don't know what your answer is but I'm really down with asking the question."
Michael: So, what was the low point for you on this journey?
Georgia: I think the pandemic has been really hard. I definitely got tired at the end of last year and I ended up hiring a couple of executive coaches to just try...and as I say, I like to hire accountability partners so I was like, "Let's see if we can launch me out of this hole." I think that's been a down point. I didn't expect business ownership to be quite so lonely. And so, I very intentionally, about three or four years ago, started building a lot of community around myself of folks who are also entrepreneurs or leaders in some way because it's a fun life but it's lonely out there, so I think those are important. You know, I didn't have a great childhood, it was unstable and not super safe, so I spend a lot of my energy and money on therapy and couples therapy and personal training and I do silent meditation retreats. And so, I try to spend a lot of time on self-care but that doesn't mean there aren't days where I don't get out of bed and I just read fantasy novels all day. So, does that answer your question?
Michael: Yeah, I'm curious to hear more about just what you did, as you put, to build a community around yourself because business ownership can be lonely. What did you do?
Georgia: Yeah. So, early on, I joined Entrepreneurs' Organization, their Accelerator Program, and that was a great help. And then...
Michael: Is that like a local...?
Georgia: It's actually an international program, in Portland, we just happen to have a very active chapter. Oregon is a very...Portland specifically, but Oregon, in general, is a very small business-oriented generous kind of state and city, so it's kind of easy to build community here because everybody sort of volunteering for everybody else's organizations and nonprofits and so on.
Michael: And what was the program and the organization called?
Georgia: Yeah, it's called Entrepreneurs' Organization. There's a global program that's for folks who have $1 million in revenue or more, I'm not there yet. And then they have an accelerator program which is for firms who have over $250,000 in revenue, and it's basically using Scaling Up that...I can't remember his name.
Michael: Verne Harnish's.
Georgia: Yes, exactly, using that structure to learn about how do you run a business. It's cool, I sort of took what I needed and left the rest but it was really fun to be in a business accelerator situation with folks who owned an HR company or a temp agency or an electrical company or things that were super different than an RIA and that was very supportive of my development. So, that was important. I started hiring coaches back when I was at the wirehouse, so I've always had some kind of executive coach on and off. I have a new one who's amazing, who's really helping me move into this sort of the place I want to be in the company and where I want the company to go for the next 15 years. Her name is Gretchen...
Michael: Anyone you want to recommend that people can call if they want to hire an executive coach?
Georgia: Yeah, if you're really into how do we disrupt the future, her name is Gretchen Jones, her company is Weird Specialty. She's lovely, super smart, super geeky liberal arts person like I am, so we get to dig deep into what is the meaning of collectivism when we think about building team culture, so stuff like that, really nerdy. And then I was asked to join a women's leadership group in town that goes rafting once a year, it's sort of aligned with the river nonprofit here, and now there's like 34 of us of some of the tops female CEOs in Oregon and leaders, elected officials, and nonprofit leaders and EDs. And I can't tell you how helpful it's been to just be around other people who are leading, especially in the pandemic. I think having people to share your experience and know that it's super normal to be overwhelmed or sad or scared or lonely but also a badass and a pioneer, the complicated realities of being a human.
What Georgia Wishes She Knew Earlier In Her Journey And The Advice She’d Give To Newer Advisors [1:22:39]
Michael: So, anything you wish you'd done differently? If you could go back and talk to you from six years ago when you were getting ready to go launch the firm, is there anything that you would tell yourself now in retrospect?
Georgia: Yeah, that's a good question. I think I would have started with the leadership skills earlier. I just thought I needed to be an entrepreneur and run a company and then I was like, "I've never been a boss before." Okay, now, I'm a boss, "Oh, wait, I actually don't know how to do that." And I have some instincts but maybe they're not all that helpful or all of them aren't that helpful, so I think the leadership piece is what I wish I'd invested a little more in in the beginning.
Michael: Any particular tools or resources? Is there something you found since then that was particularly helpful in figuring this stuff out?
Georgia: That's a great question. I like Brene Brown's work. I mean, she can be a little cliche written but I do find those cliches helpful. So, I like her "Dare to Lead" work and there's a great workbook that I worked through with some previous employees that was really interesting because it's all tool-based and really helpful when we're working within a team. I invested in HR and equity work maybe about three or four years ago. We have a firm that we work with as a vendor in that area and we started sending all of our employees to an anti-racism training called "Reframing Racism." And it's really fun to think about the systemic structures around race and then eventually, of course, gender and class and all these other things as a way to inform the work we do with clients. So, I think, I wish I'd gotten woken up a little bit earlier around the anti-racism work but it's a lifelong process to get on that path for me.
Michael: So, what advice would you give newer advisors looking to become a financial planner and join the industry now?
Georgia: Gosh, it's so different. I mean, I think there are places like my firm that you can work now but there just weren't as many smaller firms around that were growing. I think one thing is being really clear about what you want to be doing. If somebody wants to work...if somebody wanted to work with me, they need to be super entrepreneurial and creative and collaborative and iterative, it's a really different kind of firm, right? Because we're still scaling and growing and very future-oriented, right, while also being extremely detail-oriented. Now, that's one thing, but if you want like a 40-hour workweek and not a lot of other commitments around the work or you want a more explicit career path, then maybe a sort of midsize firm might be a better fit. So, I don't know, I tried on two other firms before I started my own, so I think there's a lot of value in trying to figure out what the institution can do to serve your needs and vice versa, like what can you really bring your individual talents and wisdom to that seems like it's what will be supportive of their growth?
Michael: Yeah. One of the themes we often talk about on the podcast is just that it takes most people three jobs before they find the fit and the structure they like. We do our first thing, wherever wonderfully random place we happen to enter the industry, we learn some things, we find some things we don't like. The second job is usually the polar opposite of the first, like whatever I hate the most about the first job is what I make sure I'm not going to do in the second one, so we find the opposite extreme, right? You went from a large structured wirehouse to a small independent firm. And then by the time you've seen the polar opposite extremes, by the third transition, you actually decide what you wanted to be and those are the ones I usually find that people end up sticking with for a very long time.
Georgia: Yeah, that's a very interesting observation. I've never thought of that but I can definitely relate.
What Modernist Financial Looks Like Today, What Comes Next, And What Success Means To Georgia [1:24:49]
Michael: So, what does the firm look like at this point? Just the structure or how many clients you serving and what does the team look like?
Georgia: Yeah, yeah. So, we have 46 clients right now...or households right now. There's me, I have an executive assistant, a director of operations/associate financial planner who came on as a director of operations and is now obsessed with financial planning and starting in her master's after a year and a half, which is awesome, and came from aerospace, which was interesting. Another associate financial planner and then we have a part-time marketing person, and then, of course, we use Buckingham as our back office and investment management as well, so I sort of think of them as an extension of the firm.
Michael: So, just from the structure, all the financial planning is internal, all the investment management is outsourced?
Georgia: Mm-hmm. And then we're growing, so we're going to be hiring for a head of operations role so that my colleague can fully focus on her master's and associate work, and then we're looking for another client service specialist role to help us structure and sustain the planning that we're putting in place. So, I just have this feeling with our growth at this point that we're likely to keep adding a couple of people every year just to keep up. And my goal is to have as much support and creative thinkers around me to make my job fun, so we're probably running a less profitable business than other firms would run but it's what I find fun and satisfying.
Michael: And so, what comes next for you?
Georgia: Well, my goal is by 2035, I'm working part-time and going back to art school. So, it's building this next phase of the business so that it's not as reliant on me and that we've got G2 and G3 building up. I would like to build an evergreen company that can exist past me and to multiple generations and as we know, that takes quite a bit of focus and planning on the front end but I think that's the primary focus. And then I'm really interested in how the work we would do with clients around understanding the structural and values-based decision-making like tax policy or charitable giving or where they bank, ESG investing, all that good stuff, what does that mean for how we do financial planning as an industry and then what does that mean for what kind of tax policy or other policy changes that we can advocate for as a company. So, I think that advocacy piece is going to be more and more important for me personally, for my driver.
Michael: So, as we wrap up, this is a podcast around success and one of the themes that always comes up is just the word success means very different things to different people, it sometimes changes for us through stages of our lives. And so, you're on this wonderful trajectory for growing the successful business and building a team and building it to last, but how do you define success for yourself at this point?
Georgia: I think success for me looks like a life of intentional relationships, meaningful work. I'm very focused on moving through the world with awareness and causing less harm as I do move through this world. I think kindness is a really...if I can live a life of kindness and awareness, I will feel like that's a success. And, of course, I want to be financially stable as well, which I feel like I'm clearly on...I feel like I'm on that path building a company like this. But it's about...especially post-pandemic, I realize how important relationships are and time with others and experiences, and I'm even less interested in stuff than I ever was before.
Michael: Very cool. Well, thank you so much, Georgia, for joining us on the "Financial Advisor Success" podcast.
Georgia: Oh, well, it's a pleasure and I'm so grateful for all the work that you and your team are doing in the industry. It's really a bright light on the horizon for me and has been through my whole career, so I'm very grateful for that.
Michael: Our pleasure. Thank you, thank you.<h
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