How to Start an RIA (A Guide to Going Independent)

The process of becoming a registered independent advisor can be daunting. Here’s what you should know as you start your own advisory practice.

Congrats, you’ve decided to start your own RIA! This exciting step can grant you the freedom to create a practice that better aligns with your vision, for both your business and your clients. Whether your goal is to provide personalized investment management or to expand your client base and increase profitability, we’ve got the details to help you get started. In this guide, we’ll cover how long it can take to get set up, key questions to determine if you’re truly ready, and the three phases of launching your firm.

How long does it take to start an RIA?

While it can take a few months to register as an RIA, the bulk of the transition work will take longer. We recommend allowing four to six months for implementing your plan to transition to an independent RIA. This process, however, could take more or less time depending on the complexity of your firm.

Are you ready to go independent?

At the outset, we recommend taking a thoughtful approach to answering the following questions:

1. How will your current job influence your transition to independence?
2. Are you prepared to cover the costs of launching and running your new firm?
3. Are you committed to the time requirements for starting a new firm?

The next three sections in this article provide a more detailed roadmap, broken down into three phases, to fully assess your readiness to make the transition to being an independent RIA. We’ll review how to leave your current job, along with the steps involved in starting a successful firm.

Please note that this content is meant to serve as general guidance, and is not legal advice.

Phase 1: Leaving your job and laying the groundwork

This first phase is all about building the foundation for your success. As a new business owner, you have a critical advantage: your desire to leave your current role and venture into your own firm. This motivation will give you a head start and can lead to a shorter gap between your last paycheck and your new firm’s first client invoice.

Obtain legal counsel and tax guidance
Throughout the entire transition process, your legal counsel can help provide guidance on specific subject matter. From reviewing your non-compete agreements with your current employer to helping you set up your business entity, your attorney will help protect your interests.

If hiring an attorney for certain steps, such as establishing a legal entity, is too expensive, you may want to consider leveraging affordable services such as LegalZoom. Additionally, having access to a tax advisor early on will be convenient for addressing your tax-related questions.

Consult with other RIAs who have taken this path
Gaining insight from peers who have started their own RIA can help boost your confidence and better plan ahead for unexpected issues. If possible, speaking to RIAs who transitioned from your current firm can provide even greater insight. (Read how Jason Hamilton, founder of Keep It Simple Financial Planning, launched and built his $40 million firm.)

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Obtain necessary certifications

You’ll most likely need a Series 65, or similar license from FINRA, to work as an Investment Advisor Representative. However, some states may waive the Series 65 if you hold another designation such as a CFP® or CFA.

Find your office space

It’s best to think about your office space early on to avoid potential delays later in the process. Before selecting your office space, whether it be a home office, coworking space, or a standalone physical office, remember to examine your firm’s needs. To help determine what is best for your firm, consider your own work preferences, potential growth for your team, and your clients’ desired working style.

Budget for personal income and spending

As you transition from your current employer to building your own firm, you’ll most likely experience a decrease in income until you rebuild your book of business. Make sure to plan ahead for personal and business expenses.

Identify prospective clients

While you likely can’t tell your clients that you’re leaving your existing job or starting your own firm, you can start planning. Think carefully about the types of clients you’d like to work with at your new firm. It may be helpful to select a niche you would like to serve.

One way to identify a niche is by segmenting prospective clients based on factors such as their profession, age, and interests. By targeting clients who align with your existing book of business or your new firm’s vision, you can more effectively reach your ideal customers.

Create a business plan
A business plan will serve as a guide for your firm and should, at the very least, explain your target market, outline the unique services you will offer, define your strategies for reaching your key audience, and establish metrics to evaluate the success of your plan.

Additional areas to consider including in your business plan are financial projections, competitive analysis, risk management, and a tech stack strategy.

Plan your business branding
It’s important to choose your firm’s name early on, as you will need it for obtaining a website, registering your business, and developing a marketing plan. Consider whether you want to use your personal name in the firm’s name or choose a new, branded name. Be sure to conduct thorough research on your preferred name to avoid any potential trademark conflicts.

If you are a small firm and you are the face of the brand, your personal name can work well. However, opting for a branded name may be a strategic choice if you have a smaller niche in mind, plan to grow into a larger firm, or desire to differentiate yourself from competitors.

Use your current job’s benefits
While you are still employed, plan to take advantage of all the employee benefits you will miss when you are self-employed. You will have to replace some benefits, like health insurance, but some you may outright lose unless you can afford to pay for them.

Maximize your current benefits by fully utilizing your healthcare plan, participating in employee-sponsored training, and acquiring certifications covered by your employer.

Phase 2: Starting your business and getting your first client

This phase is when the heavy lifting to get your firm up and running kicks in. From legally registering your firm to launching your first marketing campaign, you’ll end this phase with your first few clients, ready to grow.

Register your business entity
You’ll need to formally create a company by registering in the state where you are located or in a favorable state such as Delaware. RIAs commonly choose to establish their business as either a corporation or a limited liability company (LLC). However, your attorney and tax advisor can help determine the best option for your firm.

Set up a business bank account and credit card
To set up your bank account, you’ll need to get your EIN from the IRS website. With your EIN, you can go to the bank of your choice and open a business bank account and credit card. While we can’t recommend a bank, a good starting point would be your own personal bank or seeking a referral from a trusted small business. One tip: Avoid fees whenever you can. It’s worth shopping around for a bank account if your current options impose high fees.

Select an RIA compliance consultant
You’ll need a Chief Compliance Officer for your firm. You can serve in the role yourself, hire internally, or outsource the function to a consultant. Outsourcing can help manage risk and save time upfront during your firm’s registration. A compliance consultant can streamline the registration process with the SEC or state authorities.

We recommend working with RIA in a Box, a preferred partner in the Betterment for Advisors’ RIA Tech Suite for new firms.

Register your firm with the SEC or state regulators
Depending on which state your firm is in and your starting AUM, you may have to register with the SEC or your state regulatory authority. Typically, if your RIA manages more than $110 million in AUM, it is required to register with the SEC. If your AUM is between $100 million and $110 million you may still be eligible to register with the SEC, depending on your state's rules. And if your RIA manages up to $100 million in AUM (or up to $110 million in some cases), it generally needs to be registered with the state securities regulators where you operate or have clients.

It's important to note that states have their own specific regulations, so consult with your attorney or compliance consultant to make sure you register correctly and file all necessary forms and documents.

Obtain relevant insurance
You’ll want to obtain insurance to protect your firm against common risks. Common types of insurance include directors and officers liability, professional indemnity, errors & omissions (E&O), fiduciary liability, cyber liability, employment practices liability, and health/dental/vision insurance.

The larger and more complex your firm becomes, the more insurance you may need.

Choose an RIA custodian
There are many custodian options available for your firm to choose from. If you select Betterment for Advisors, you’ll have access to a vertically integrated solution that allows you to

  • Custody assets
  • Build and manage custom model portfolios
  • Open new client accounts in minutes
  • Control billing
  • Streamline your practice’s back-office operations with cutting-edge features

Within portfolio management at Betterment for Advisors, utilize automated trading, rebalancing, tax-loss harvesting, asset location, and more.

Set up your tech stack
Your tech stack will include many different and often integrated softwares. The four essential pieces of software for RIAs are wealth management, financial planning, CRM, and compliance. In addition, you may also require other tools for tasks such as accounting and invoicing, file management, email marketing, and video conferencing.

Create a website and email address
While you can use online tools to create your own website, it may be more efficient and produce better results to hire a small, affordable web design agency. In addition to logo and website design, agencies can also provide help with setting up email accounts using Google or Microsoft, if needed.

Create a marketing plan and launch your firm
Launching your firm is a one-time opportunity, making it crucial to thoroughly plan your marketing strategy for both your current network and your desired target audience. You can leverage a marketing agency, hire freelancers, or choose to market yourself if you have the necessary skills and resources.

As part of this initial go-to-market campaign, you’ll also want to incorporate a plan to message your current clients and introduce them to your new firm. Consult with your attorney on all marketing communications to ensure you are compliant.

Phase 3: Establishing yourself in your first year

Now that you’ve launched your new RIA, your first year is about establishing your firm as a leader within your financial planning niche.

Establish your client pipeline
Now is the time to implement your marketing strategy to grow your pipeline. Common marketing activities include networking, sharing thought leadership content on a blog or social media, attending events, and utilizing email marketing.

Additionally, implementing a robust sales process, can help you move prospects from cold leads to warm opportunities and eventually, active clients.

Establish your client experience
The initial experience your clients have with your firm is critical. First impressions help drive future client retention and referrals. Ensure that your onboarding processes for new clients are clear and enjoyable, while also building trust both as an advisor and (more importantly) as a person.

As a client’s tenure with your firm increases, it’s important to strategize tactics such as video calls, in-person meetings, newsletters, performance reports, and webinars to continue to build a strong client relationship.

Establish your operations
As a business owner, your operations will need to be evaluated on an ongoing basis. After implementing your tech stack, the next step is to establish processes to efficiently run your business. During your first year, it is beneficial to have monthly or quarterly process reviews to ensure that you are maximizing the potential of your tech stack. Besides managing daily business operations, it is important to plan for accounting tasks, tax filing, and other reporting requirements.

Your firm’s long-term success

It takes confidence and leadership to start an independent RIA. It’s very hard work. But it can be truly rewarding, and we’re here to support you.

Betterment for Advisors is ready to be your end-to-end custodian, supporting your firm with our cutting-edge technology. We’re here to help you grow—you have a dedicated relationship manager who pairs with our operations and customer service teams to help scale your practice. Our platform streamlines onboarding, billing, portfolio management, and reporting to help you deliver a high-quality, personalized client experience.

Ready to learn more? Get a demo today.

If you're curious about how Betterment can help you grow your practice, schedule a demo with us today.