Jon Jones has a few thoughts about what work-life balance means. During a long phone interview, the sound of lapping lake water can be heard over the talk of client goals and financial freedom. It’s the same glacier-fed lake in Washington state, Lake Chelan, where he met his wife at age 17. (He’s now 45.)
It might seem perverse that, a few years ago, just as the company he founded, Brighton Jones in Seattle, had hit $2.5 billion in assets under management, Jones launched a new program in which employees could start taking extended sabbaticals after 10 years—and then took the first one himself, lighting out for a year with his family, including four kids, on a 35-country backpacking tour.
Strange, but not, since the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment is a subject as dear to Jones’s heart as tax planning. His firm has taken the subject to heart, too. It’s a place where emotional intelligence and mindfulness are discussed with intensity, where fun and philanthropy and meditation are serious topics of discussion. Where there’s a “chief fun officer.” Where clients’ assets are discussed as instruments to realize their true desires and retirement plans are known as “vocational freedom analyses.”
The result is a firm with a very touchy feely, even crunchy granola approach to life and finances, but the founders defy professional stereotypes. Jones and co-CEO Charles Brighton have accounting backgrounds.
Their RIA firm reflects the values of its clientele—which, especially in the beginning, was made up of young tech entrepreneurs in Seattle, one of the cradles of the tech industry. To young tech millionaires in their 20s and 30s, old age and retirement are abstract and alien subjects. They want money to serve their lifestyles. Have impact.
That attitude has informed the growth of Brighton Jones in many ways, from its approach to planning and cash management to staff management and philanthropic outreach. (Local charities come in frequently.)
“We really focus around not deferring gratification because you never know when you may die,” Jones says. “My father passed away when I was 3. I’ve always had this perspective of you never know when you may die. So let’s have a good balance of saving some money as we go but living life and trying to figure out what that balance is.”
In some cases that might be getting clients to spend more money rather than save it. Or perhaps keep working, as long as they love working.
Whatever it is, it has drawn a client base of 1,200 people and some $3.5 billion in assets under management and $4.5 billion under advisement.
A Little Dream, A Little Luck
Brighton and Jones took a big leap of faith 16 years ago, leaving cushy accounting jobs at Deloitte & Touche to launch a holistic planning firm from scratch. They didn’t go to a bank for help. To save money, they opened their first office in a funky part of Seattle, the Capitol Hill area. They were ensconced not among financial services firms but in an industrial-style brick office over a tuxedo and costume shop, next to an LGBT bookstore. Jones had a new baby; Brighton had one on the way.
“We were risking everything,” says Brighton.
“It was credit card debt for the first couple of months. … Anybody who could fog a mirror was a potential client.”
It was part pluck, part luck, but the firm was in the right place at the right time—Seattle in the middle of a tech maelstrom, full of young entrepreneurs with all sorts of incentive stock options, restricted stock, deferred comp and other benefits they were either too green or too busy to manage, smart as they were. Wide open targets for a couple of tax guys.
“A lot of that stuff is tax-driven,” says Jones. Wirehouses wouldn’t have the CPAs on hand to help clients understand the tax ramifications of the benefits. Jones and Brighton started to make cold calls (or send e-mails using suffixes they figured out). The pitch was that the firm could be a personal CFO to young tech whiz kids, just like the ultra-wealthy had.
Jones and Brighton don’t run down their old firm, Deloitte, where they were planners in an accounting office. But they didn’t like billing clients by the hour.
“It leads to being more reactive than proactive,” Jones says, adding it’s hard to plumb somebody’s soul if the meter is running. For meaningful discussions about real goals—“I’ll have to bill you or I’ll have to eat the hours,” he continues.
Brighton Jones went for retainers instead. That way they could have talks and no transactions. It also meant, of course, that client relationships would not be profitable for long dry spells. “It’s easier to provide advice as things come up. So the first year or two of a client relationship is just not very profitable,” Jones says.
The two partners had the right complementary skills to start a business together. Jones was an outgoing, life-of-the party, heart-on-his-sleeve type. Brighton was more subdued, pragmatic and technical. Jones is more likely to get a big idea and want to reinvest money in the business. Brighton is more likely to want to take it out.