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Kitces & Carl Ep 120: Is It Really Harder To Scale A Small RIA Today Or Are Firms Just Navigating The Growth Treadmill

A recent McKinsey report surveying growth in the wealth management industry predicted that the struggles of small RIA firms would increase as larger firms continue to grow and overshadow the industry… again. Although the messaging that smaller RIAs must scale to survive has been offered many times before over the past few decades, many smaller lifestyle firms and solo RIA practices have thrived in their preference to stay small. Yet, despite that many smaller firms have enjoyed success, scaling the business remain to be challenging prospects for those aiming to grow.

In our 120th episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and client communication expert Carl Richards discuss the challenges that small to mid-size RIAs face when trying to scale and grow and how the pressures of competing with larger firms can affect those endeavors.

Even when smaller RIAs didn’t have access to many of the resources that help advisory firms operate and grow decades ago, they were still successful because many of them learned how to leverage their relevance by intimately and impactfully understanding and addressing their clients’ unique financial challenges. And for many firms, this specificity and relevance has been amplified by homing in on a particular client niche, allowing them to focus on very specific types of problems that their clients face. Yet, while cultivating impactful relationships with clients has always been a powerful means of maintaining a firm’s relevance and success, many business owners are challenged with growing their firm, even with the boon of abundant technology and platform solutions available today that make it easier than ever before for small firms and solo advisors to be successful.

As while a business grows, there are more employees, clients, and operational logistics that come with growth that the firm must manage. And as these elements of growing a firm increase, problems also increase, and more solutions are inevitably needed to solve for those problems. Some firm owners believe the solution to address these problems is to add resources and grow further until they reach some attainable point they imagine where all their problems will become manageable and their growth can be capped, allowing them finally to maintain their firm at a comfortable equilibrium level. The reality is, though, that as a firm continues to grow, new problems will always arise and it is very rare for a firm to address with growth, to the extent that at some point they no longer need to grow! Which suggests that identifying a firm’s expectations for success is what’s most critical, as a firm who wants to stay small needs to define what success means to them in terms other than growth – whether that means they earn more revenue per client, develop a more focused niche, or enjoy a shorter workweek.

Ultimately, the key point is that despite surveys that may foreshadow the demise of the small lifestyle practice, small (and mid-size) RIAs are not going away anytime soon. Small firms who want to stay small can increase their success by finding more impactful and/or efficient ways to remain relevant to their clientele and provide meaningful financial planning services. And smaller firms who truly want to grow have more options than ever before that will help them succeed – from choosing the right platform, merging their business, or acquiring other businesses to help them grow and scale more efficiently and effectively. In the end, understanding which path to success a firm owner wants to pursue can help them decide whether scaling for growth is really the solution that will give them the best options for solving the issues they face today, or whether they need to remove themselves from the constant cycle of growth objectives and identify the real objectives that represent a successful future for the firm!

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