23rd February 2021

Building a firm that can run without you for an extended period of time is the mark of having a business, versus a self-employed job. But for many business owners, it’s a goal that never comes to fruition.

Not so for Jon Jones of Brighton Jones. In 2013, Jon packed up his family and they spent a year traveling the world and visiting 35 countries, and his business actually grew while he was gone.

Here are three keys to building a getaway business.

First: Get the right people and processes in place.  

Taking off for a year was not a spur of the moment decision for Jon. He meticulously planned for several years and systematically put the key players in place so his job would essentially be redundant. In fact, for about eight years leading up to the trip, Jon focused on the nitty gritty details of building a self-managing company. He hired specialists, defined and implemented processes, upgraded technology to help support the processes, created a wealth management scorecard, and, in the last year, started prepping the team for his absence.

Jon gave special attention to a top priority he called “get-keep.”

“I created a framework to say, ‘I’m not going to leave our business until I know we have at least one person that I’ve hired that is just thinking about the strategy around getting people, keeping people, getting clients and keeping clients. As long as I had a really solid COO who was overseeing all of operations, I felt fine about taking off for a year. From the strategic standpoint, I felt like having somebody in charge of ‘get keep’ was super important, and still is.”

And when he left for the trip, Jon made it clear that the team was empowered to make decisions without him.

“I unplugged, really forced all of our management team to make decisions around all the different parts of the businesses, including technology, finance and accounting, all the operations groups, so there wouldn’t be a backstop on making decisions and executing around the business.”

The way Jon went about preparing Brighton Jones for his trip shows how important it is to have the right people working with you, in the right jobs, as well as processes in place that keep your practice growing. If YOU are your whole practice, then it’s going to be impossible to get away and build a real business.

Second: Be clear on your service model.

Jon’s firm delivers a “personal CFO” experience and takes a “total balance sheet approach to managing the client’s life plan versus a fee for investment management.” In other words, the way he measures his business is aligned with the service he delivers—and they are extremely clear on what that service is.

If you have any hope of taking an extended leave of absence from your business, you must be very clear on your service model, your pricing must be aligned with that model, and everybody on your team must toe the line to that service model.

Third: Compensate your team to drive the results you want.

Figuring out how to compensate your team to drive the results you want is part art, part science, part trial and error. There’s no “one right way” to do it and some of the variation between firms is due to the culture you are trying to build.

For example, Ross Levin of Accredited Investors says, “We look at all the different surveys that are out there for comp, and what we’ve decided to do is pay people what we think is what people would get from salary plus bonus in other organizations.”

In other words, at Accredited Investors, the team gets paid a market rate compensation package in the form of a salary with no extra incentives. The result is the team is focused on doing what needs to be done rather than focusing on what they get paid the most money to do.

By contrast, at Jon’s firm, they do offer incentives. Take the business development team as an example.

“The way we compensate our business development group is, if their primary role is lead generation, then their primary source of compensation is going to be from getting people to the top of the funnel,” said Jon. And there are variations on this.

“If you’re in sales facilitation, you probably have a bigger base and a smaller incentive piece. And if you’re in a lead generation role, you probably have a higher incentive piece than the base, but your upside is probably a lot higher,” said Jon.

In terms of raw dollars, “We pay out 50% of all new business revenues on the business side. In other words, if last year, from client referrals and self gen and other parts of the business, we had roughly $4 million in new client revenues, we’ll pay out around $2 million of that in compensation to the business development team. A million of that was probably in the form of a base comp, and the other million was variable.”

Whether you adopt a comp model like Ross Levin’s or one closer to Jon’s, it must be aligned to drive the results you want and the culture you are building. Knowing that your comp plan will drive the results you desire is a big step toward creating a self-managing company.

Making it happen.

Jon’s company had about $18 million in revenue when he left for a year. If your revenue is less than $5 million, then taking off for a year will be more difficult. However, taking off for a month or a few months is totally doable.

By following the ideas outlined above, you can step away from your business, enjoy life, and know that your clients/customers are being taken care of.