I started my financial advisory business in 1987. I was a successful but frustrated investment banker with an MBA and experience in insurance and finance, plus the combination of ambition, confidence and naïveté inherent to entrepreneurs. I worked long hours, usually seven days a week.

I'd spent years being passed up for promotions by my male counterparts in a corporate financial world still dominated by men, and years closing profitable investment banking deals successfully without receiving a bonus -- because while I was profitable, my division was not. The final straw that put me on the fast track to entrepreneurship was when my investment banking job sent me from Chicago to New Orleans for a week on such short notice that I wasn't able to reach my husband until I'd already landed in New Orleans.

What I Knew
I knew I needed a change, and I knew that if I was going to work this hard, it would need to be for something that was mine. Not knowing what that change was, I attended a franchise show in Chicago to explore ideas. While I considered franchises as different from finance as owning a muffin shop, I'd always been drawn to financial planning. At the show, I found a financial planning franchise, which I purchased using a home equity line of credit. I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into -- at the time, the concept of financial planning had not yet taken off.

What I Didn't Know 

Armed with my insurance, finance and investment banking background as well as an MBA, I was confident I'd bring in business. I didn't know that setting up the business and hanging up a sign with my credentials wouldn't necessarily make the phone ring -- I didn't know how to market the business. While I had a heavy finance background, I had never put an individual portfolio together for a client. And I had no idea I'd go two full years with no income.

The franchise provided a business plan, model and materials, but I didn't realize until I was going through training how heavily insurance-oriented the model was, and with my strong investment background, I felt limited by this approach. I also hadn't realized how limited the marketing methods offered by the franchise were.

I left the franchise in 1994 to become an independent representative of LPL Financial, under the name Retirement Planning Strategies.

How I Learned and Built My Business
Determined to make my business work, I resolved never to accept that I didn't know how to or could not do something. I immersed myself in research, never saying "I don't know" to clients but rather, "I'll put some recommendations together for you." Google didn't exist yet, and my office and home were quickly taken over by stacks of reference books. I started studying for my Certified Financial Planner professional designation, which I obtained in 1990. I reached out to all my former contacts to ask questions. I learned everything I could, and as I built my network by reaching out for help, my network helped spread the word about my business.

While I didn't know how to market my business, I knew I was effective at giving presentations. I contacted a marketing company that offered slide presentations and marketing ideas and sent out stacks of letters to corporate HR departments, offering to give pre-retirement workshops for their employees. One of only two responses I received was from Illinois Bell Telephone, now AT&T. The company soon scheduled me for a series of workshops, and I secured 10 financial planning appointments at my very first presentation. 

Those initial retirement workshops at Illinois Bell were followed by mass layoffs. Employees under the then-retirement age of 59½ were offered lump sums to retire at a time when anything other than a pension was a foreign concept. Financial planning workshops presented ways to invest by taking advantage of a fairly new tax code to make those lump sums last through retirement. Prior to attending a workshop, many of these individuals did not know whether they'd be able to retire without a pension. The business I earned at these workshops launched my business into profitability. It had taken five years.

How It Evolved
Today, while my business is still focused on helping those nearing retirement, it's also focused on helping those -- particularly women -- who are divorcing, recently widowed or going through other life transitions. I realized years ago that I was increasingly working with clients I wished had hired me before completing divorce proceedings, because I could have improved their financial situation with some planning before their divorces. I wanted to help this demographic make better financial plans, so I set out to get my Certified Divorce Financial Analyst designation.

Similarly, after moving to Florida in 1998, I suddenly had many widows contact me for financial planning help. Both the divorcées and the widows had similar issues: How much do I need? How much can I spend? How long will my money last? Recognizing this niche, I developed workshops to help these individuals understand the issues and many variables that went into the planning process for their new situation. These workshops helped clients identify the questions they needed to get answers for.

I invited only small groups of women clients to these workshops, yet found that almost all of the invitees wanted to invite friends and family. The workshops filled up immediately and, again, my business grew from giving workshops and helping educate people about the "how" and "why" of financial planning for their situation, rather than trying to sell them something.

In 2003, I changed the name of my business to Carole Peck Financial Center, to reflect a "centered" approach to helping clients with their financial planning, not just retirement.

Recognizing niches and seizing opportunities to better serve my clients have always been the stepping stones of my business's growth. Recently, after living in Florida for 12 years while continuing to serve my Chicago-based clients, I reopened a Chicago office to manage the growing demand.

Advice for Entrepreneurs

  1. Research before you leap. Too many people rush into starting a business based on a passion or hobby. Just because you love something doesn't necessarily mean you'll love the business aspects of it. Research what's involved, then intern and work under someone else for a while -- not only to glean as much knowledge as possible, but to see if you like it. If I had interned at a brokerage office before starting my business, I likely would have learned the marketing side of the business that took me years to develop on my own.
     
  2. Have a solid business plan. Not only do you need a business plan, you also need someone who is not connected to your business to review it, poke holes in it and grill you as to how you plan to accomplish your goals. These individuals may help you to foresee obstacles and then find ways overcome them.
     
  3. Hire good people. In my earlier years, I thought the 12- to 15-hour days I put in meant that I could handle everything myself. I learned that trying to do it all yourself often results in misplaced focus. Instead of focusing on the most important aspects of my business, such as prospecting and meeting clients, I often found myself setting up phone systems or other infrastructure. In hindsight, I see that I should have hired experts to set up the technological aspects of my business. This would have freed up my time to do what I do best.
     
  4. Enlist professional support. While we entrepreneurs typically love to talk about our trials and tribulations, our friends and spouses are often not the right outlets for this, nor are they often in the best position to offer advice. It's important to find professional acquaintances with whom you can brainstorm, get support and ideas, and talk about issues in your industry. Find a local organization of individuals with similar businesses to network with.
     
  5. Never stop learning. In today's world, staying in business means recognizing trends and being willing to adapt and constantly stretch past your comfort level to keep up with changing marketplaces. To survive, businesses can rarely continue at status quo. Make time for that conference, class or new designation -- you won't regret it.

Carole J.A. Peck is president ofCarole Peck Financial Center. She is a certified financial planning practitioner, and helping others with financial planning is her passion in life. Peck has offices in Park Ridge, Ill., and Bonita Springs, Fla.