Seasoned financial planning professionals, all of whom started their firms in less-than-stellar times for the market, recommend several tactics to achieve success but say the most important one is finding a niche client base and building your practice from there.

"The best way to develop a client base is to find a niche," says Barry Glassman of Glassman Wealth Services in McLean, Va. He started his firm in 2009 as the market was still recovering from its September 2008 meltdown. "I developed a niche among lawyers and law firms. I began writing a syndicated financial planning column for law publications."

Without meeting a lot of lawyers, he became known within that community and within six months of starting out on his own--albeit with some clients from his previous firm--Glassman had more than $300 million of assets under management.

Another advisor who overcame trouble was Brad Stark, who with his partner, Seth Streeter, launched Mission Wealth Management LLC two months before the tech bubble burst in 2000. That was followed the next year by 9/11.
Stark says he was helped by a pipeline of CPAs who used his services. He and his associates at the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based firm added to that initial client group with other sources for new business.

"We now have multiple pipelines of business," Stark says. "Initially it was CPAs, and we were part of some national referral programs, but we also ran special events for our clients and had outreach programs to CIOs, attorneys and other professionals."

Stark also stresses the need to never let up on marketing. "If you stop your marketing efforts because you've become too successful, you'll hit a slowdown six to nine months later and it'll take you a year to get back up and running the way you were," he says. "You don't ever want to lose that momentum."

Jerry McQueen of McQueen, Ball & Associates in Bethlehem, Pa., began his business in 1981 just as a recession was settling in. He says his niche centered on corporate compensation, stock options, deferred compensation and qualified plans. "I used my background as a CPA to get in and get clients," he explains.

McQueen did research. After finding Fortune 500 companies in his area, he approached them and asked if he could educate their executives on tax issues, deferred compensation and ways to integrate company benefits with their own individualized planning.

"There were a lot of years when I didn't make a lot of money," he recalls. "I'm a fee-only wealth advisor. But I used my background as a CPA to put together a package for executives." Today, his firm has 17 employees and more than $1 billion in assets under management.

For McQueen, having a specialty was a huge help in that it enabled him to provide a targeted service to his clients. "Ultimately, service is everything," he says. "If you can find the things that are most important to your clients, make sure you can provide that to them."

--Richard J. Skelly