Q43 – How to run the business side of your own RIA?

Also available as podcast (Episode #43)

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How To Run The Business Side Of Your Own RIA?

Having your own RIA involves identifying and utilizing various solution providers to assist you in successfully running your practice.  These solution providers often include compliance consultants, technology vendors, marketing experts, TAMP solutions, etc.  In each such instance, these providers help by guiding you along a proven process for how to achieve the desired objectives they each individually help you solve for. Often overlooked is the important process of running the actual small business side of your own firm.  Hiring/mentoring employees, establishing policies and procedures, creating efficient workflows, etc are all key to running a successful RIA firm.  In today’s episode we are joined by guest, Andrea Schlapia of Ironstone who is the expert on guiding RIAs on how to successfully navigate the business side of running their own firm.

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Want to learn even more by better understanding what a transition to the RIA model might look like for your own practice?  I encourage you to schedule a Discovery call, and I’d be happy to begin that conversation with you.

Show Notes:

Andrea Schlapia (LinkedIn)

Ironstone (website)

Fundamental 4 Assessment (link)

Full Transcript:

How can I prepare for the actual running the business part of having my own firm?

That is today’s question on the Transition To RIA question and answer series. It is question #43.

Brad:  Hi. I’m Brad Wales with Transition To RIA. And on today’s question, we’re going to talk about a very important part of running your own firm. If you go down the RIA model path in whatever direction that might be, the reality is you are still going to be a small business owner, and you’re going to have new responsibilities for running that business that you most likely did not have before.

What I mean by that is, part of discovering how to run your own RIA is how do I manage compliance, how do I handle my marketing, etc.

For each of those things there’s a process how to do it, and there’s people that help you with how to do that. We talk a lot on my videos about how you handle that with compliance, how you handle it with marketing, how you handle that with technology. But a big part of running your firm is how do I actually run the business from an operational standpoint?

I’m going to have employees. I need policies and procedures in place. How do I actually handle that?

That’s no different than those other items. There’s a process to how to do it successfully and there are people that can help you manage all that. And so that’s why I’m excited on today’s video. You can see for anyone watching, a wonderful guest, Andrea Schlapia with Ironstone is joining us today. Andrea, thanks for coming on.

Andrea: Hey, thank you for inviting me, Brad. I’m looking forward to this collaboration.

Brad: Absolutely. I’ll turn it over to Andrea in just a second to give more background on her and her firm. But I would just give a little plug of how Andrea and I know each other. It’s probably been 10 years or so now. I’ve seen Andrea countless times, which unfortunately not in the last 12 months with the pandemic, but at industry conferences, and then other events along the way.

How I first met Andrea, and she doesn’t know I’m pointing out this story, is sitting in one of her presentations at one of these conferences, probably ten years ago.

Besides the fact Andrea is a great speaker, I was really impressed because it was jam-packed with not just content, but actionable takeaways. Here’s things you can go back and implement today.

Then at the very end of the presentation, as well as other ones in the years that followed, Andrea said, “Hey, if anyone wants to come up, I’ve got plenty of them here, they’re for free, a USB memory stick with all kinds of templates and resources.”

She wasn’t selling them. She wasn’t putting out some sales pitch. It was simply genuine content and helping advisors. A lot of people came up and got those memory sticks.

I’m sure a lot of those folks turned into clients of hers, because they saw the value and how she is there to help advisors. So I think that’s very telling, Andrea, of the kind of person you are, and how you help advisors.

So, I’m super excited to have you on here today. We’ll dive into some questions, but if you could start with a little background on yourself and your firm, I think that would be helpful.

Andrea: Absolutely. Well, again, I appreciate the collaboration. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m impressed that you remembered that thumb drive experience. So, yes, we are consistent still today of giving those out. Not in the last year, but that is absolutely something that we love doing.

I have been in the industry a little over 25 years. It’s frightening to say the number gets higher and higher every year. I got to sit in the advisor chair, and I ultimately was given the opportunity by my mentor to start training new advisors that came in, and I fell in love with that side. It changed my entire career path to more of a practice management focus.

I had the opportunity to then work at three different mutual fund firms. Dreyfus, Prudential, DWS Investments, which is Deutsche Bank, as you know. I was the value-add practice management person that came along with the wholesalers when they would come in the door with the bag, wanting you to do business with them. And so it was all practice management-focused.

But in 2002 and 2008, practice management isn’t that awesome. So those were downsizing years for me. I got to experience that two times over my lifespan, and by the same exact boss. That was a groundhog day.

Brad: Oh, no.

Andrea: Yes. It’s a good story for another time, but 2002, 2008, same boss, laid me off. And that was the catalyst for Ironstone.

So why not start a small business consulting firm in December of 2008? I am happy to say we have been going strong ever since. We’re 12 years old, going into our 13th year at the end of this year, and we get the privilege to work with advisors and teams.

We don’t just work with the advisors. I think that’s a real differentiator for us and what’s important to us. We wanna work with the whole, entire team, because we see so much more traction and implementation success by working with all of the players.

We get to help them to run the business, exactly your topic today, what we’re going over. I’m going to talk to you about the Fundamental 4, we’ll dive into that, and what that is, and it’s a blueprint to really help take away all of the uncertainty around how to run your business.

So it’s four fundamentals. There’s eight subcategories underneath each, so there’s really 32 line items that you can look at to really monitor, measure your practice to take away all of the challenges of where to focus. So it’s a matter of prioritizing those and putting them into place.

Brad: That’s great. I’m looking forward to diving into the questions, which I’m sure you’ll be referencing your Fundamental 4 because, again, this topic is nothing to be fearful of. It’s, “Hey, you need a process, you need to know how to do it, and you need the items on it. And once you take those steps, it’s absolutely doable.” So I think that’s great.

Until someone maybe gets that comfort and gets that help – I know you primarily work with independent advisors – but presumably you’ve also engaged some advisors before they’ve made that move. A lot of my audience are folks that are on the path to independence.

What are the biggest fears, if that’s maybe the best word, that you hear from advisors that are not yet in that independent world, but they say, “Oh gosh, if I were to start my own…” and as far as that running the business, what do you think the biggest fears you’ve come across, and maybe how you’ve helped people address those?

Andrea: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the fear is ultimately the unknown, especially if they’re coming more from a wirehouse perspective, and they haven’t been in that maybe the hybrid model, or they’re coming from a bank channel…and considering independence because they haven’t really had to run any aspect of the practice because it had a branch manager, or an operations manager doing that for them.

I think that’s where you see the biggest fears. When people are in that hybrid model, they have a little bit of a taste of the independence. So it’s not so much of the unknown, but how much more will I have to take on.

So when people start thinking about independence though, they start thinking about hiring team members and employees, and how I’ve never done that. I’ve never had to manage people. I don’t really want to manage people.

And I had to think about process and systems because that’s what we’ve been given. And we’re following a process from, again, a wire, a bank, an insurance, even some of the processes in some of the hybrid custodians that we work with.

So, from that perspective, it’s just not knowing what to expect, and that…enter the Fundamental 4. It’s really helping to take all of that away to look at the different layers of what it takes to run a business.

And then we can match that up with the custodians and what processes they are using. What do they do when they are moving into independence. So, we really, to your point, we really do cater to the independent firm, but we are really catering to those that have the independent mindset and wanting to move to independence if they’re not already there.

Brad: For the folks that do make that move, and do get assistance and processes in place, they realize maybe those aren’t big issues after all and, oh, maybe it’s actually other areas that I need to focus more time on.

If you could, contrast what it is people fear going into it, and then when you see them on the other side, do you see it evolve to different focus areas they want to look into?

Andrea: I think what they’re fearful of is really the whole operational aspect of it because now, I’ll say, it’s kind of the wild west, right? You can have as many process and systems as you want, but when you move into independence, there’s more opportunity to customize everything to the way you want to do it.

That’s the depth and breadth of what you can customize, because they’re going, “Oh, okay, I can do it exactly the way that’s going to fit our client base, and the way that we love to do this, and the experience that we want to give to our clients versus having restrictions on that they may have to follow.”

That’s a happy surprise that we observe that advisors have. And I think, still the pain point is all around the human element side of things of really having to dig deep into the hiring process, and really getting into that and knowing how to do it to get the right team and the right people on the bus.

Not only recruiting them, but motivating, managing them, and helping them to move up the ladder, and really have a career path. I think that is somewhat overwhelming in their transition over, because they don’t have a branch manager, they don’t have an HR support team behind them anymore.

That’s a huge aha moment other than, “Hey, we can customize everything. We can really do whatever we want to do.” It’s just the time intensity around practice management.

If I can plant the seed for your listeners of, if you will dedicate three hours a week to practice management, and then dedicate a day, I know that might make some people fall out of their chair when I say a whole day, but the people that we see that have the highest rate of success, implementation success all around practice management, is they’re willing to devote one day a month, and we call it a development day, so that they can focus on the business itself and doing that together as a team.

So, again, 1 day a month, 12 days out of the year. Out of 365, you can find those days. Your business will be better for it, without question.

Brad: You’re going off of experience on that. This is not just theory, this is 10-plus years of actually seeing what works and what doesn’t work.

I often try to put things in perspective so I think that’s helpful that, you know, you think, “Oh, gosh, a whole day,” but then when you say 12 days out of 365, you’ll say, okay, we can find that. I think that’s a great way to look at it.

When advisors do realize – whether before they’ve made the move, or after they made the move – okay, I could use some improvement in these areas, what do you think the main motivator is?

Is it, hey, I’m wasting too much money on something? Or, I’m trying to do X, Y, Z, there’s got to be a better way do it? Or, this is taking up too much of my time? Or I have extra stress I don’t want to have?

What are the main motivators you’ve seen that nudges people into saying, “Okay, let’s actually take some steps to try to improve these things?”

Andrea: You already answered the question because it is all of the above. The drivers are, the primary business owner is wearing too many hats. And they really want to impact more lives in their client base. And, therefore, they’re really having to give the opportunity to people to elevate in their practice, and so it’s getting clearer on roles and responsibility, and really having a better workflow, not reinventing the wheel every single time.

Again, getting the right people on the bus, making a very customized, unique experience that they haven’t been able to give before, and just a different way to work.

We’re working with already successful businesses. It’s now just the opportunity to create something that maybe they couldn’t have when they were not independent. And so it’s really again…I know I keep going back to that Fundamental 4.

That was ultimately born out of all of the times that I was at those mutual fund firms because walking in every single day to a wire, to an independent, to an insurance, to a bank, all the channels across and seeing the same exact challenges.

This is even before Ironstone, of getting to see what worked, what didn’t work, what the pain points were. So that really is the whole 25 years of collecting and where Ironstone’s Fundamental 4 came from, of seeing the repetition and consistency of what the pain points were for advisor offices and practices. So it is all of the above. It’s I want to have a stronger team. I want a better client experience. We want to do it as efficiently as possible.

Brad: I think all advisors could relate to a lot of these items. Do you see it vary from size of firm? Does a small firm have the same challenge as a large firm?

The example I could see is, an advisor with say $80 million, do they think, “Oh, only a firm with a billion really needs help with these sorts of things?” Or, do you see generally the range of challenges run the gamut from smaller firms to larger firms?

Is it really all that different or is it just more amplified the larger you get?

Andrea: It is more amplified, Brad, because, you know, when you’re in that $1 billion, you have more team players so you have more moving parts. It’s still all of Fundamental 4 items of, “Okay, what’s your workflow? What are your process and systems?”

It doesn’t matter if you are a 2-person team or a 20-person team, you still have to have workflow. You still have to have clarity of who’s doing what. You still have to have clarity of, what are our goals and objectives for the next 12 months? That is the same regardless of the size of the firm. There’s just more moving parts.

Brad: I want to dive further into your Fundamental 4 of exactly how that works. But, a question before that – and maybe the answer is right there in the Fundamental 4 and we jumped into that – what do you say to that perhaps wirehouse advisor, who could be a fantastic advisor of 25 years, wonderful…nothing we can teach them about being an advisor, but, again, being a small business owner is a different path.

What do you say to that, perhaps, wirehouse advisor that says, “Well, if I go independent, I’m going to spend too much time running the business and not as much time on what I really like doing, like managing money, working with clients.”

I’m sure you’ve heard that type of line many times over the years. What do you tell that advisor that says, “I don’t want to spend too much time doing all that?”

Andrea: It’s a great question. It’s a valid question. But I’m curious and want to know more of what they think it takes to run the business. What are those actual items that they’re concerned that they’re going to spend the time on? Because, again, that goes back to set it and forget it, the development day, being able to outline – I’m going to start picking up props here in a second with white board and flip charts and markers. That’s the whole experience of the development day to really sit down and be able to figure out what is it that we want to do.

If you spend that development day to really outline it, and then beta test it, and put it into place, that’s going to make you more efficient. So you don’t have to keep looking at how to run the business if you focus on putting the process and systems together.

Yes, it is time intensive. I’m not going to say that it’s not because it is. If you just avoid it and don’t want to focus on it, to put together your process, systems, who’s on the bus, your strategic plan, business plan, it’s going to be forever having to be thought of.

Now I will say, back to your other question of what’s the difference between the $1 billion practice versus the smaller 2, 3, 4-person team, which still could be a billion-dollar practice at that size. But with the smaller teams everybody is having to wear different hats. The larger teams, you can have a literal lane that you potentially can stand because you have more manpower on that larger team, you have more resources so, yes, it’s easier. And what we find with the larger teams, the number one hire that they are doing is, for lack of a better term, I’m going to say a COO, a chief operating officer, so an operations manager, an office manager, somebody that’s really running the house.

When you get to that level of practice, billion-dollar up, that’s where we see that additional role that’s really crucial. So that the CEO, business owner, advisor can focus on total business development, client facing, external focus, if you will, versus that COO, office manager. The office manager is focusing internally and running the house. Managing all of the elements that it takes to avoid that challenge of, “I’m going to be overloaded with trying to think of running every aspect of the practice.”

Brad: For someone that’s already perhaps in the RIA model, some of this is resonating and it’s like, well, I could certainly improve in certain areas. And then there’s also the advisor that recognizes, “Hey, I’m going to want to have a plan for this. I’m not yet independent. I’m working through all these steps of going independent. But I’m going to want to have a plan for this ahead of time.”

That’s two different kinds of client profiles. I know you work with both. When an advisor says, “Hey, I could use some help. I could use some good processes here,” – again, this is like anything else, you just have to put a process in place and have a good way to go about doing it.

If an advisor calls you up, and says, “Andrea, I saw you on Brad’s video, I saw you at a conference, here are my challenges….how can you help me?” What does that engagement look like? What’s that first conversation? How do you progress with them to know if you can even help them?

What does that look like if someone were to reach out to you to say, “Hey, I need some help here?”

Andrea: Well, I love the question first of all because it’s everybody’s question of like, “Okay, what happens next?” Right? We wanna explore. Because just as much as there are consultants and coaches in the industry and everybody’s, you know, great in that space, that we can name all of the top ones, the most important part is are we a good fit for you?

It’s not just about our resources, but are we a good fit for each other? So we want to explore with advisors what’s working, what’s not working. What’s their learning style. What coaches have they worked with previously? What’s worked and what hasn’t worked in those relationships?

And where it often lies most is why now? What was the catalyst for this shift or change or consideration to move to independence or just even what is the catalyst of why you’re thinking about practice management now?

To give you an example, I had gone to a conference – and again this was like two years ago – and the advisor had the similar experience with you, with the whole thumb drive. Literally last week called and he goes, “I’m ready.” Now, this has been two years ago, mind you.

And I said, “Okay, what changed? What’s happening? What’s going on?” He has multiple locations now. He has more players now. He feels out of sorts now because there’s more moving parts. And he’s like, “We don’t have enough workflow that’s consistent. There are a lot of inefficiencies. I’m not sure who’s doing what anymore. Everybody has their title and everybody’s got their lane, but I feel like stuff is falling through the cracks and I can’t sleep at night anymore.” That is a typical conversation.

And so I want to explore it with you to see if we’re even the right fit. The beauty of Ironstone is some people call us the hub because when we look at the Fundamental 4 graphic, and I will send that to you, Brad, so you have that and can share it with your audience, but when you look at that, we align ourselves with strategic partners just like you, right?

Somebody can fit in each of our Fundamental 4 areas. If we’re not the right fit for them, we want to send them to where they will be the right fit because truly, my number one focus is what’s going to be in that best interest of that advisor and that team.

I was just working with another team. We did a whole analysis of their practice. There’s a lot of moving parts. They are the billion-dollar firm. And we can help them and are helping them, but happen to know somebody that’s back in the market that happens to be in the COO lane. So we introduced them, made a connection, and guess what? I became the recruiter by accident for that colleague of mine, and they hired him because they really need a COO.

Did that change our engagement? Absolutely. Do I feel good about that? Absolutely. Because I know that they got what they actually needed.

Brad: I think you told me once that as you dissect the areas that maybe could be improved on, that it often brings to light areas that perhaps the advisor or the teams hadn’t even considered. So I assume that the Fundamental 4 is not just kind of a guide book, but it’s also a discovery tool as well to say, “Hey, what opportunities do we have here?” Is that how you generally describe it or how do you position that?

Andrea: Yeah, absolutely. It’s the blueprint, and it helps us to outline where we’re going to work, how we’re going to work together.

We start with the practice analysis using the Fundamental 4. And remember, I said I want to work with the whole, entire team? Whether that’s two people or 20-plus, whatever the number is, we want to have everybody in that practice analysis experience. It’s asking you questions all around the Fundamental 4 items of what’s working or what’s not working about this particular element?

It’s a SWOT analysis. It’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. So that’s part of our Fundamental 4, and scoring of all those 32 line items that are inside of that blueprint, but we also have a SWOT portion of it.

We then compile all of that data into a report card. In that report card, we’re going to provide you with a road map after our findings and say, “Hey, here’s what we uncovered and discovered, here’s the patterns.”

Remember when I said about, in the mutual fund days, it was easy to see patterns, no matter where I walked into. It’s the same experience from that whole, entire team, we’re looking for patterns and consistencies of what’s working and what’s not working so that we can lay out a roadmap and recommendations for what a 12-month time frame looks like.

Whatever the engagement is after that, it’s really to-be-determined because if you’re really great implementers, you may not need us as your accountability partner and guide. Versus, you want somebody to be with you along the whole way to be determined by all of that assessment.

Brad: I’m glad you mentioned the 12 months, which I know is just one example. Take that previous real-life example, the advisor that now has multiple locations, teams spread out and it’s starting to cause unnecessary stress and things aren’t as efficient. When someone like that comes to you, I presume they ask, “How long is this going to take to fix?”

That’s a tough question to ask because, I’m sure, these scenarios are all over the place and people would love you to somehow magically come in and in three hours with a team and all problems are solved. That’s not the case.

So someone comes in and does like your services, does need your help, what are they looking at from an engagement standpoint? And is it even finite or do some people work with you on a continuous basis because they know their firm’s going to be evolving continuously?

Andrea: Well, the primary thing I will say is we never want to make somebody co-dependent upon us. That’s why we love giving resources away. That’s why we give true, real world application, something that you could take and utilize immediately. That’s our whole purpose is to give you tools, templates, and resources so that you don’t have to think of what that looks like or is. We’re going to give you an actual thing, and then you take it, take what you like, dump the rest is a statement that I will always say.

The timeline absolutely depends upon everybody’s unique situation. I can’t say it’s a cookie cutter, oh, it’s always 12 months. What I will say though is we’re very privileged to get to work with the teams that we do. Whether they’ve started with us in a project and maybe they just say, you know, we just need help with performance feedback system, or we need help with a compensation structure, or segmentation service metrics, or new client on-boarding, or job descriptions and roles and responsibilities.

We can pull any one of those items off of our Fundamental 4 to work in more of a project aspect which could be anywhere from three to four months.

If you want to really look at the whole, entire practice, that’s where we get into the 12-month type of engagement. Folks that stay in that, stay in it anywhere from one to three years. And why that range of time is because how well did they implement? The one-year folks are laser-focused on this. They’re committed to the development days. They’re committed to the practice management focus on a week-to-week basis, and they just knocked it out of the park. They like to then go on more of an as-needed, “Hey, let me just check in with you when we need you,” and we love that.

So, I would say, nobody’s really ever gone away from us entirely over these 12-plus years, which is, again, I’m very humbled and excited to say that. But they just change how they want to work with us.

We run assessments, too, from pre-hire, Myers-Briggs and PXT Select pre-hire and after hire. So some people just work with us and utilize those assessments, so not everybody is in a full project engagement of coaching. It just really depends.

That goes back to your question of what happens if somebody wants to explore this with us? That’s exactly it. Let’s explore. Let’s put 30 minutes, an hour on the calendar. I want to hear your story, and what’s going on in your practice.

Then I know I can direct you either internally in Ironstone or, again, we have a lineup of strategic partners. Much like you, Brad, when I’m listening to folks and you’re a great fit because they have more in-depth questions on the transition, you are the first person I think of.

Brad: I appreciate that! I certainly want to reciprocate because again, with 10-plus years of seeing it firsthand, I know how much value you bring to advisors.

A fun story on that, which occurred to me as you were talking about repeat clients of yours. I remember, again, back to these presentations you’d give, that there were people in the audience that were either your current clients or past clients that are still coming back to you, wanting to digest everything you have to say. I know this because they would stand up and reference it when they asked a question from the audience.

I think that’s a testament that they obviously found value in what you do. Because here they are, not just circling back to you in general, but sitting through probably their third (or more) presentation of yours they’ve watched. I think that’s fantastic and, like I said, a good testament of the value of your offering.

I think this has been very helpful for any existing independent advisor team to hopefully get their wheels thinking of….“Are there any ways we can do stuff better?”

I would encourage everyone, don’t wait till it reaches that pain point. But instead where there is opportunity to make things more efficient. Whether that ultimately drives a better bottom line for your firm, or provide you with more time to do activities you prefer to spend your time on, whether that’s inside or outside of the business, I think that’s great.

And then for any advisors that are thinking about going independent, which is a large part of my audience, is to be ready for this part of running the business, is having this kind of support.

If you’re going down the RIA model, you’re ultimately building out a team of service providers around you that are going to help you with these different areas whether it’s compliance or marketing or something else. I would encourage everyone to put this practice management piece into one of those slices that you will want to manage. You will want to work with people that can really help you put in good processes to handle that.

So, with that, Andrea, for people that want to get a hold of you, want to learn more about your offering, what’s the best way for them to do so?

Andrea: Absolutely. So you can find us online, ironstonehq.com. So, ironstonehq.com. And, guess what, there is a practice analysis that all of your listeners can take right online, absolutely zero dollars. It’s going to lead you through the Fundamental 4. There’s a big orange button on the home screen. You can access some of our videos. We’re not video-heavy like you are, sir. So I aspire to be you in video production.

Brad: I don’t know if it’s (lots of videos) a good thing, but it’s a thing. I don’t know.

Andrea: No, it’s a good thing. So, yeah, you can find us right online. It’ll lead you to all of our social links from our website. We’re online on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, all that good stuff.

But go try out the practice analysis. It’s going to lead you through the Fundamental 4, which is, again, strategic planning, business development, operational effectiveness, and human element. Those are your four fundamentals that’ll help you stay focused on your business. And you’ll get a report from the website. You may or may not like it, but it’s going to point out and help you out.

Brad: Perfect. We will link to all of that in the show notes so I appreciate you making those resources available.

To wrap up, as a parting note, I would point out that when I launched my firm – it’s a little different capacity from what I do versus an advisor launching an advisory firm – but when I first launched my firm, Andrea reached out to me. I just want to say thank you for that. She proactively reached out to tell me congratulations and to provide encouragement. That was very nice, and I certainly appreciate that.

But then Andrea also graciously gave me a lot of tips on how I can maybe do things better to run my business. And it’s interesting exercise, because afterwards I was looking at all of the notes I took, and I was thinking… “How did I not think of this, or how did I not already realize this would be a good way to do it?”

It’s a reminder that sometimes you need a third-party viewpoint looking at you or an expert that’s done this countless times before. There’s little resources and tools you brought to my attention that I hadn’t even thought of. And some of it, I’m like… “man, how could I not have thought of this?” Well, it’s because I’m trying to juggle a million different things just like any small business owner is doing.

I saw it firsthand and so I appreciate you helping me with that. I can absolutely express from personal experience how you can help folks, and that’s why I wanted to have you on the show. So thank you for that, and I appreciate your time on the show today.

Andrea: Absolutely. Thanks, Brad.

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