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Flow Turns 3

Flow FP's Block Woman celebrates 3 years of Flow Financial Planning!

Today is Flow’s third anniversary. Hallelujah.

I am occasionally the introspective sort. And occasionally others benefit from those introspections, so I thought I’d publish said introspections on the last three years. Here’s my two-year retrospective.

First, Some Context.

Flow is a virtual, fee-only financial-planning firm that specializes in women in their early-to-mid-career in tech. By all measures, it’s doing well. Not, I might point out, hitting-it-out-of-the-park/rockstar/ninja/superstar/pick-your-unhelpful-idiom success. To wit:

  • I did not have $250k in revenue in year 1 (or 2…or 3).
  • I do not have a battalion of other advisors under me.
  • I have not been featured on the cover of industry publications
  • My number of social media followers (pick your platform!) are all sub-1000.
  • Newsletter subscribers only just passed 500

But I am:

  • Paying all my family’s bills, even saving a bit again
  • Working only 40 hours/week (thinking about it more like 60)
  • Doing things the way I think they should be done and connecting with people I want to connect with
  • Learning a hell of a lot
  • Working in a career I’m actually passionate about
  • Helping people along the way. Clients, other women in tech, and fellow or aspiring financial planners
  • Wearing jeans and fleece to the office every day
  • Cursing more than I’d otherwise be permitted to

The One Thing That Hasn’t Changed: I Still Need A Lot of Support and Replenishment.

I still have all the support people in my life that I had at last year’s anniversary, but now I’ve added a personal therapist! So, now I have:

  • A supportive husband and helpfully distracting daughters
  • A marriage counselor
  • A business coach
  • A personal therapist
  • Not to mention study groups of various sorts

I’ve also been putting in more effort to get together regularly with girlfriends who, frankly, don’t really give a rip about financial planning. It’s a good, healthy challenge to have to talk about something other than finances or running my firm.

I still exercise almost every morning and take the dog on a glorious and/or very soggy hike most weekends.

Full disclosure: I still have days (once a month? I assume it’s at least part thanks to these damned female hormones) when everything feels hopeless and overwhelming and oh-my-god what am I doing.

What I Need from My Professional Community Evidently Does Change.

Three years is enough time to gain some amount of 10,000-foot perspective. And from that perspective, I observe that what I need from my professional community evolves.

Three years ago, I started out with a “launcher group” with other planners also launching their firms. After 6 months or so, that no longer gave me what I needed, and it disbanded. A while later, I joined a study group of other advisors who were about to hire their first employee. That gave me what I needed for about a year. And then it didn’t.

Now I’m in a few groups:

  • A technical study group. I formed a study group around stock compensation last summer, and we meet weekly to grow our knowledge of All Things Stock Compensation.
  • A business study group. Earlier this year I joined a group of advisors, all at the same stage in business growth, being led by J.D. Bruce of Abacus Wealth Partners. I hope this will help turn me into a crack business owner.
  • My tribe. After cycling through a few peer groups, I realized that, as much as I liked all the people in those groups, I hadn’t yet found my “tribe.” I was really craving communion with other planners who were intellectually, culturally, values-wise, and hell, maybe even humor-wise aligned with me. I like to observe that, together, we’re a classic joke: “So, a Jewish guy, a black man, and a middle-aged woman walk into a bar…” You make me better, Zach and Brian.

My Clients Are My Best Teachers.

How should I structure my processes?

What should my meetings look like?

What deliverables should I have?

What’s the next step in my education as a financial planner?

When I first began my firm, I didn’t know the answer to most of these questions. I have learned to change things or take on new projects only when I could clearly see that it would improve how I worked with my clients.

This is liberating. I’m not wasting nearly as much time (note I didn’t say “I’m no longer wasting any time”) obsessing over processes, deliverables, tech tools, continuing education, study groups, yada yada yada.

I Became an Employer. And That is Surprisingly Important to Me.

I hired some part-time, 1099 work (wassup, Sarah) starting about 1.5 years in. Then in March 2018, Janice started working with me, part-time, to help with administrative stuff. And one year later, more or less as planned, I asked her to become a full-time salaried Client Services Associate. She accepted.

I am the first to admit (and beat you over the head with the fact that) I’m new at being an employer and manager, and I’m sure I’m making mistakes left and right. But I’m trying to err on the side of openness about pretty much everything.

Doing right by Janice in terms of honoring her needs and compensating her fairly is very high on my list of priorities.

People Appreciate (like, Really Appreciate) Honesty.

The sub-heading to this is not “Don’t lie to people.” I don’t think we tend to just lie to people. But we often don’t come right out and say what’s on our mind, which would ultimately be helpful to the other person in the conversation. Maybe this is equivalent to saying, be authentic, or be true to yourself. (Except that I am dreadfully sick of this push for “authenticity.”)

Many members of my professional community have expressed appreciation for my openness about how damn hard this entrepreneurial journey is. All my emotional face plants.

I’ve helped many a prospective client by telling them straight up that I don’t have the knowledge that would benefit them or that my fee is likely too high for them. And then I point them at a planner or service that would be more appropriate. Insta-gratitude.

Good Writing is Rare, and Thankfully Still Well Rewarded.

Liberal arts education for the win! I’m sure my first career as a technical writer contributes something, too.

I often think of a quip from the late Dick Wagner’s last book, Financial Planning 3.0, in which he calls financial planning the “ultimate liberal arts profession.” You need all the analytical stuff, sure, but also history and good writing and public speaking and psychology and all that other rot.

I have found it so gratifying to be able to engage people—be they prospective clients, clients, or colleagues—in the message I want to share. People like reading my writing. I like writing the writing. And it has helped me indescribably in building this business, especially a virtual business that relies entirely on content marketing to fill its prospect funnel.

I am additionally gratified that my experience can help put to bed any mistaken stereotypes about how all you need is technical or analytical skills to succeed in this profession. Good communication is essential.

Turns Out, I’m Really Good At This.

Sure, imposter syndrome never goes away (and if you don’t suffer from it to some extent, I am Immediately Suspicious of you). But after three years of working specifically with women in tech, I realize, “Hey, I’m damn good at this job. Look at me! I know shit!”

I can understand a new client’s RSU agreement in just a few minutes. I can hook a client up with an estate planning attorney or insurance broker or career coach whether they live in the Bay Area, Seattle, or New York. I know to ask about career paths, performance-review cycles, trading windows, and 401(k) matching policies. And it almost always gives a client an ah-ha! moment.

I’m not only good at serving women in tech, but I’m also good at marketing and sales. Coulda blown me over when I realized that. I’m good at writing blogs and connecting with my target market and giving them value and developing trust. And my prospect funnel is evidence of that.

At the same time, I’m well aware of just how much more I have to learn. I’d love to become a Registered Life Planner some day. I’d love to get more nerdy on taxes. It just doesn’t make me feel all that bad anymore that I don’t already know everything. In time, sweet child. In time.

I Have Yet to Take a Real Vacation.

This is maybe the most disappointing part of my journey: I cannot leave the work behind. Sometimes I end up doing significant work while “on vacation.” Sometimes it’s uselessly checking email or social media.

This summer my family and I are spending one week in a lake cabin with my dad in Wolfeboro, NH, a town my family has been visiting since the 1930s. That place means a lot to me.

So perhaps this summer, this trip, more than three years after launching my business, I will somehow be able to check my phone only once a day to see if anything caught on fire, and if not, turn it back off and let Janice and the universe take care of everything else.

I think that’s the closest we get to “real vacation” in these modern times, no?

Growth is Hard.

I am both delighted and stressed out to report that I could probably grow arbitrarily quickly at this point given the amount of demand from women in tech. Currently, my firm limits growth to one new client per month. I just don’t see how I can grow more quickly than that, keep my 40 hours/week, and provide the kind of service I want to for existing and new clients.

I have this itch to grow faster. And from a demand perspective, I could. But how? Partner with someone? Hire another advisor? Just cap out at 50 or so clients for me and Janice and spend the rest of my time doing something larger for the women-in-tech community, like speaking or writing a book or or or?

It’s something I’m struggling with mightily Right Now. And frankly, all the possibilities of growing beyond Just Me And Janice terrify me.

That said, a bit from Manisha Thakor’s (shout out to my Wellesley sisters) interview on Michael Kitces podcast stuck with me: she talked about an intimidating task as something she “can’t not do.” [my emphasis] And I feel that way about growing my business.


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Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Meg Bartelt, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.

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