Many ingredients go into a financial advisory firm’s recipe for success. And building an advisory firm from scratch goes far beyond a standard business plan. An outline of your goals will help direct your steps, but knowing the specific costs to expect will improve your success rate.
Having a realistic view of what it takes to start an independent firm and make it through the first year in business should be a part of every business plan, regardless of your experience level. Remember that there are many business models financial advisors can ascribe to (joining another firm, etc.) and still be the boss.
That said, here is a breakdown of the startup and first-year expenses of launching an independent firm. Whether you are a career changer starting a new firm, breaking away from a different business model or considering leaving a private firm to put up your own shingle, this practical guide can help you:
- Lay the foundation.
- Prepare for startup costs.
- Break down startup costs.
- Calculate first-year expenses.
Lay the Foundation
Imagine for a moment that your advisory practice is the shell of a plane, sitting in a hanger. To get the plane ready for flight, you’ll need to add certain parts to ensure it will fly when the time is right. Most of those parts aren’t free, and they represent your startup costs.
Understand that your own vision of success should ultimately guide your choices. You want to consider your ideal life, the services you plan to offer and the type of firm you’re building in relationship to what you should spend. Incur expenses that make the most sense when building the initial version of your vision for your advisory business.
Those interested in launching a firm often ask, “How long will it take for me to become profitable?” That sage question has a lot to do with how much time and energy you put in on the front end to build your practice, whether you’re bringing clients over from another firm, and the ratio of business expenses to income.
The short answer: You can anticipate at least two to three years to get a good run rate, which is your financial performance based on current financial information as a predictor of future performance. Your run rate assumes that current conditions will continue and is helpful in formulating performance estimates for businesses that have been operating for short periods of time. For some, it takes longer to get a decent run rate; for others, it takes less time. The bottom line is that you can expect at least two to three years before things really take off.
Prepare for Startup Costs
Now that the foundation is laid, you must differentiate “startup costs” from “first-year business expenses.” Startup costs refer to anything you need to get started (building your advisory business plane in the hanger). First-year business expenses refer to everything after the startup phase of building and launching. It’s the point where your business is now flying.
Full disclosure: Your exact costs will vary by the path of business ownership you take and the services you provide. And as you consider total business expenses, don’t forget about personal expenses. It may take a while for your business to generate any revenue (let alone profits), so there’s no shame in having a side gig to keep you afloat for a while. Bonus if you have a second income to support you while you build.
Break Down Startup Costs
Your initial startup costs can run between $10,000 and $15,000, depending on how much you are doing yourself versus outsourcing. They include:
- Local business license
- Legal formation paperwork
- Attorneys (general, securities, and business development counsel, familiar with broker/protocol agreements, if applicable)
- Compliance, state or SEC registration
- FINRA IARD account
- E&O and RIA insurance agent (errors and omissions insurance plus business liability policies)
- Business bank account
- Branding and marketing assistance
- IT consultant
- Internet service
- Website hosting, domain names and maintenance
- Website design and development
- Startup RIA business consultant
- Professional memberships (FPA, NAPFA)
- Industry-specific membership platforms (XYPN, Garrett Planning Network)
- E-calendar scheduler
- Phone system or cellphone plan
- Certification renewals for CFP (TM), CFA, ChFC
- Digital marketing design software (Canva)
- Email newsletter management (Mailchimp, MailerLite)
- Email (Outlook)
- Payroll/invoicing systems (RIAs must use general ledger accounting to include all assets, liabilities, owner’s equity, income and expenses) (QuickBooks)
- Dedicated computer
- Screens, camera, keyboard, mouse, scanner/printer/copier
Some of the startup costs mentioned may become recurring expenses as well, so keep that in mind. For example, liability insurance, E&O and compliance will become annual expenses, beyond the startup period. A big chunk of your expenses will be your technology stack, but don’t go overboard there. Investing in the right technology makes a world of difference, but advisors in general tend to overspend on tech.
Your tech will evolve as your firm grows, and some of the tools out there offer free basic versions, which will be fine as you are getting started. In the beginning, think in terms of the minimum you need to get up and running.
Meanwhile, focus on bringing in new clients to support your growth. Make investments in other business growth activities once you’ve achieved proof of concept. For example, save some of that spending for building a rock-solid marketing strategy or industry-specific business coaching to help you avoid newbie mistakes or expensive redos.
Calculate First-Year Expenses
First-year expenses can run between $20,000 and $30,000, depending on how much you can do yourself versus outsourcing. Remember that some of your startup costs will also be recurring in year one and beyond. First-year expenses can include:
- CRM (customer relationship management software)
- Compliance, ADV updates, audits
- Custodian fees
- Financial planning software
- Portfolio management software
- Tax-planning software
- TAMP (turnkey asset management platform)
- Office supplies
- Project management software
- Data collection
- Time tracking
- Password manager
- E-signature software
- Video conferencing
- File/document management
- Arching software
- Business coaches
- Office space (if working from home is not ideal)
- Professional development (networking groups, such as Business Network International)
Some of your startup and first-year expenses may be bundled if you join membership-based platforms like the XY Planning Network or the Garrett Planning Network. Depending on whether you’re fee-only or fee-based, you can plug into other networks for help with back-office, compliance, and some marketing and technology needs.
There are quite a few options out there, so network with colleagues and professional groups or industry-specific coaches and consultants to find sources of information. This list is not exhaustive, but it will give you a realistic checklist of the expenses you can expect as you build your business. The better your grip is on expenses, the more you’ll be prepared for the first year your advisory business “plane” starts flying.