5 Challenges for Self-Employed Finance Professionals

How to overcome the unexpected while avoiding common errors

Self-employment is very nearly a universal goal across most industries. While not practical in fields like commercial aviation or nuclear engineering, self-employment is certainly an option for financial professionals. Many brokers and investment managers understand quite clearly how much of their revenue they must "share" with their employers, and dream of the freedom and income-generating possibilities that go with independence.

Before taking the leap, though, would-be self-employed financial professionals should consider the following five challenges that go with the do-it-yourself approach.

Key Takeaways

  • Don’t rely on family and friends as your only clients while getting started.
  • In many cases, taking existing clients to your new firm is unethical and may land you in some trouble.
  • To be successful you’ll need to be a motivated self-starter.
  • Going solo can be a lonely existence with many late nights.
  • Would-be self-employed financial professionals shouldn’t underestimate the costs of the resources needed and the time involved to set them up.

1. Friends and Family Shouldn't Be Customers

Many would-be solo financial pros build their business plans around the assumption that they will manage the funds of their family and friends and use this as the starting point for their business (and to tide them over). More often, though, this business never materializes and the end result is not only a lot of hard feelings but a business plan that is undermined at its foundation.

A lot of people are uncomfortable talking about their financial situation with family members or friends, and this cuts both ways in this context. Many entrepreneurs are reluctant to ask their friends and family for business, and just as many (if not more) friends and family members are resistant to give the entrepreneur that level of access and information regarding their personal financial situation.

It's great to have a rich relative who believes in you (it certainly helped Warren Buffett back in the day) or wealthy friends who are willing to help you get started, but these are the exceptions. At best, you may be able to manage a portion of their funds, but you should not expect to feed yourself on the management of the funds of your friends and family.

2. Your Current Clients Shouldn't Be Your Future Clients

Whatever sort of new investment business you're contemplating (brokerage, investment management, advisory services, etc.) carefully check the provisions of the employment agreement with your current employer, as well as relevant industry, regulatory, and association rules regarding the solicitation of existing customers upon switching jobs. In many cases, approaching existing clients of your firm and soliciting them to move their business to you is explicitly forbidden.

It's not unheard of for companies to work out transition agreements with employees who wish to go independent, with the entrepreneur often having to agree to a profit-sharing arrangement. Existing customers can, of course, switch their business to you if they so choose, but you cannot solicit them. Sometimes even informing them of your departure is not allowed.

What that means is that the large business you've built at your current firm may be largely off-limits if you wish to venture out on your own—or at least off-limits for a period of time (usually measured in years).

Simply going out on your own and poaching customers is a bad idea. For starters, you may be in violation of a contract or civil/securities law in doing so and expose yourself to significant financial consequences. Second, nobody likes poachers—for all of the criticism that the financial services industry has taken over the years, it is still a business where reputation counts for a lot, and ruining your reputation from the get-go is inadvisable.

3. There's No One There to Push You

There is an image of the independent financial professional as an ambitious and motivated self-starter. That's certainly true, but it tends to apply to the more successful ones. Although it is hard to gather statistics, it isn't a stretch to claim that financial professionals who don't put in the work, don't see the same returns on the investment they made to "go it alone."

One of the hardest parts of transitioning to self-employment for many people is also the part that made it so attractive—there is nobody else telling you what to do. If you want to knock off early and go play golf instead of continuing to call prospective clients or work on your marketing pitch, nobody will stop you. You will need to find the right balance for both your career and mental health. The flip side of this is overworking, as there is no one there to tell you to slow down, either.

Many independent professionals overwork themselves for fear of failure. Understanding how to manage yourself, especially if you are experiencing losses, is key to long-term survival in the industry.

4. It Can Be Lonely

It's common to the point of being a cliché to talk about managers and supervisors who live easy off of the work done by their subordinates. This is particularly true on Wall Street, where senior analysts and bankers may leave at noon on Friday to play golf. But the first-year employees are stuck in the bowels of the firm assembling pitch books until 11 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night.

Many new entrepreneurs are surprised to learn just how much work goes into running a business. Much of this is invisible in a large firm with multiple branches—the accounting, HR, legal, compliance and other functions may not even be done on-site or in-country. When it's your business, though, it all has to get done, ultimately, by you. This can result in many late nights or weekends spent attending to tasks that aren't even why you got into the business in the first place.

This can lead you to become something of a recluse or hermit—not necessarily by choice, but because you have to get the work done. If you value a job where you can just "unplug" at 5 or 6 p.m. every night, going independent may not be for you.

5. You Lose Resources and Brand Name

One of the biggest surprises that independent financial professionals discover is how expensive it is to replicate the resources they are accustomed to when working for a larger firm, such as information sources like Bloomberg and FactSet. While these data sources are invaluable for competing as an independent financial professional, they cost tens of thousands of dollars each year and can represent significant upfront costs for the newly independent professional.

If you are working at a large establishment, get the licenses and certifications you can while working there, as the company will often foot the bill. Jumping ship immediately after receiving them, however, is considered bad form.

Not only can large firms like Merrill and Edward Jones negotiate more competitive rates for seat licenses, but they have more options in paying for those resources. Not so with the lone independent. There is virtually no negotiating leverage there to speak of, and customers are not going to pay higher fees just because your expenses are harder to leverage. This is also the case when setting up systems for clearing, custody, and so on, which can take time.

Expenses like rent, support staff, back-office functions, IT, and info services all add up, and they're not too hard to quantify if you ask the right questions. What can be more challenging, though, is factoring in the cost and value of the reputation of working for a known brand. Think of it this way: If you deal with a "bad rep" at a nationally known firm, there's at least some chance of getting legal and financial satisfaction through the arbitration process.

Dealing with an independent, though, can bring to mind images of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff and the prospect of somebody taking your money and running to the Cayman Islands. That difference in client confidence may be difficult to quantify, but it does show up as a real "cost" when it comes to establishing your own business and your reputation as an independent.

What Is an Advantage of Being an Independent Entrepreneur?

One of the main advantages of being an entrepreneur is that you are able to make almost every decision. There is nobody really telling you what to do, or how to do it, and that kind of control and freedom is one of the main reasons people end up starting their own businesses. Something important to remember though is if something doesn't work out, there is no one else to blame.

What Is the Highest Paid Job in Finance?

The highest paying jobs in finance are portfolio managers and CEOs. Sometimes, these can be the same and will offer astronomical salaries and, if the manager takes a percentage of profits, can see take-home pay in the tens of millions. Salary.com states that the average investment portfolio manager has a base salary of $134,098, the reality is that their take-home is much higher due to yearly bonuses and enormous performance incentive payouts.

Is Starting a Business Worth It?

Starting a business is something that almost all successful entrepreneurs will say was the best thing they ever did, while those who fail will say it was the worst decision of their life. Realistic expectations, adequate preparation, and an ability to deal with unforeseen problems are immensely helpful when starting a business. It is normal to not be 100% prepared, but starting a business with no prep work done is almost always a recipe for failure.

The Bottom Line

Done right—which means careful and detailed planning backed by significant resources to get you through the startup and initial months—working independently can be a great life. There is no shortage of challenges or hassles, but the rewards flow all to you, and you can decide the sort of business you want to operate. Understanding not only the requirements and challenges of the business but your own particular strengths and weaknesses, as well as your ability to respond to unexpected challenges.

Article Sources
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  2. Vox. "How Mike Bloomberg Made His Billions: a Computer System You’ve Probably Never Seen.”

  3. Salary.com. "Investment Portfolio Manager."