As part of my series about the “How to Navigate and Succeed in the Modern World of Finance,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sten Morgan, CFP, ChFC, a leading voice in the financial services industry and one of the most accomplished young advisors in the country. He founded Legacy Investment Planning by age 25 and was named a “40 under 40” advisor by Investment News at age 30. As president of Legacy, he strives to effect positive change in the industry, coach and support other advisors, and bring true value and vision to his clients.
Sten’s creative and proactive approach to financial planning and consulting is disrupting the financial advice space. In addition, he helps other advisors become more fulfilled and successful in their work. In 7 Mindsets of Success: What You Really Need to Do to Achieve Rapid, Top-Level Success (Morgan James Publishing, February 2017), he shares tips and advice for building a successful business, including the seven mindsets that helped him become a top financial advisor with his own firm at such a young age. He speaks at schools and conferences, teaching these same principles to budding entrepreneurs and experienced financial advisors alike.
Sten is one of the youngest advisors ever named to the Chairman’s Council. In addition, he was named a 30 under 30 advisor for millennials making a transformation in their industries by Think Advisor, and he has also received the 30 in their 30’s award for nonprofit leaders in Tennessee. Passionate about giving back to his community, Sten was a founding board member of Tucker’s House, a 501 ©(3) non-profit organization that partners with the families of children with disabilities to make their homes safe and accessible.
A Certified Financial Planner and a Chartered Financial Consultant, Sten graduated with a Bachelor of Science in finance and economics from Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. He lives with his wife and three children in Franklin, Tenn., where he enjoys traveling and golfing in his free time. For more information, please visit www.stenmorgan.com.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in a small town outside of Eugene, Oregon. We moved a lot growing up and money was always tight. My mom is an amazing woman and raised 4 children essentially on her own. As a result of the constant change and struggle, I developed unhealthy mindsets as a child that dictated my view of the world and myself.
I had multiple father figures enter and exit my life which led me to trust very few people and develop a belief that I was not capable or worthy of high-level success. Someday I wanted to earn enough money to help my mom and sisters and hopefully pay my bills without stress each month. I know, not an extremely high bar.
While I was in college, I took stock of the path I was on and decided to challenge my established mindsets. I wanted to learn about other people that overcame adversity and how they did it. I realized I was capable of more and had the ability to help my family if I was willing to embrace the discomfort that was necessary. The realization was the easy part, making it happen would be the test.
My young mind believed that the lack of money led to most issues, so I aggressively studied finance and economics to gain an edge. This path led me towards financial planning and consulting, and I started my own company at 25 years old. Growth and change are still hard but changing my unhealthy mindsets set me on a new path.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I started my company in Nashville, TN where I had only lived for a brief time and had no established network. This is usually not a recipe for success when starting a financial planning firm. Looking back, I am glad I did not know better.
I received a call from a friend that mentioned he knew a guy in West Virginia that may need some help retiring. I checked my schedule, which I knew was wide open and said I would be happy to speak with him. After an initial call I agreed to meet him at his house, over 8 hours away. I laugh looking back that I did not even hesitate, but I should have. Was my time better spent cultivating a client 20 minute down the road or one 8 hours away? That is an obvious answer now but at the time I was just working harder, not smarter.
After an 8-hour ride in my less than reliable car, I had a 2-hour meeting and then drove 8 hours back in one day. It was rough. I have since learned there are creative ways to make sure clients seek you out as opposed to drive across the country chasing less than warm leads.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
“Getting Naked” by Patrick Lencioni was very impactful for my career. I joke when I speak to make sure you select business books before you search for that title.
The idea that you should give away your best ideas up front and start consulting the client from the first meeting flipped my approach upside down. The industry had taught me to talk about products and my firm and eventually get to advice after they committed to something. I realized I needed to prove my value up front and earn trust before asking the client to make a big decision. This led to a new business vertical for my firm that increased profits by over 35%.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am passionate about helping as many people as possible avoid uninformed financial decision that eventually turn into regret. I am working on a digital financial wellness solution that would bring unbiased education to everyone. Money is the leading cause of stress in many people’s lives and they don’t know what questions to ask and when they are being sold something. Our solution will pull back the curtain and help millions of people make better choices.
Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the central focus of our discussion. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My purpose was to help as many people as possible avoid financial decisions they would later regret. I felt the financial service industry was more of a product sales engine than a source for unbiased financial guidance. I wanted to shake the industry. This purpose drove me to build a new type of firm that grew rapidly based on our unique commitment to creative financial advice.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Think Differently. I have trained myself to constantly question why we are doing certain things within our companies. Just because something has worked in the past does not mean we should keep doing it and settle for average results. Are you emotionally connected to a particular process or strategy? Do you have a culture of creativity that will lead to new ideas and keep you at the front of the pack? These questions along with others help keep me in the right mindset.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Early in my career I realized that I am the product that clients are paying for. Not a stock, bond, mutual fund, or insurance policy. Therefore, I heavily invested in developing my skillset and becoming a thought leader in the industry.
I then created content that would help tell my story for me. I wrote books, created videos, and documented client examples so I could empower other professional to refer our services. You can’t tell your story verbally and hope that someone communicates it clearly for you around a table with their friends. Take the effort out of the process, provide them with a compelling resource that they can simply forward to clients, colleagues, or friends.
If a fellow CEO would ask you for advice about whether to bootstrap or to look for VC capital, how would you help them weigh the pros and cons of that decision?
50% of a $50M company is better than 100% of a $1M company. That being said, it is not hard to find companies that regret involving VC capital in their growth plan.
If you have a proven business model that is working and allows for scale and duplication, there could be a strong argument for VC funds. But keep in mind, VC firms are looking for an exit at some point. Most do not want to hold a company in their portfolio for 10+ years. If your plan is to scale the company and exit in 5 years, VC capital could be for you. If you plan to build a legacy business to pass to your children, you may want to look for other capital strategies.
What measure do you use to determine the value of a company? What advice would you give to other leaders about how to get an optimal evaluation of their business?
EBITA is a great true measure of a business. While this measure does not factor in line items such as intellectual property, goodwill, etc., it is a good place to start.
When I consult companies, I show them the difference between a company that is used as an ATM machine for the owners and a company that is driving metrics to increase their value. You need to research your industry to find companies that sold for a high multiple and others that sold for low multiples. What can you learn from them? What key factors drove the high price of one company and the low price of another? The more information you can gather the better. You don’t want to wait until you are about to sell your company and learn there are a lot of things you wished you knew sooner.
What would you advise to a founder who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
I would tell the founder to question everything he has done to this point. What works for a company with $1M of revenue will not work for a company with $50M of revenue. Here are a few key points I would discuss with the founder:
- How many roles are you filling in your company and do you need to fire yourself from any roles?
- Research companies that are 1 or two growth stages ahead of you in your industry. If you are feeling bold, ask the owner of that company out to lunch.
- Be willing to question everything that brought you to this point. Don’t have unnecessary loyalty to any process, employee, or strategy.
What are the most common finance mistakes you have seen other businesses make? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Nearly every company I meet has an owner(s) with passion and an idea, but unfortunately a successful company requires much more than that. Even the best idea without execution will forever remain an idea.
The most common financial mistake I see with lack of financial strategy and awareness. They don’t understand the numbers of their business. How much is the full investment in a new employee including all of their benefits? Many make decisions off base pay and don’t factor in all the other items. They don’t do this on purpose, they just don’t know what they don’t know. My firm has helped hundreds of companies recognize opportunities and avoid pitfalls in regard to their financial strategy. We help business avoid the “Wish I knew that sooner” feeling that we all dread.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to succeed in the modern finance industry? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Learn to pursue discomfort. This is a competitive industry, and the landscape is always shifting. What worked today will not yield exciting results tomorrow. Learning how to lean into hard things and pursue discomfort will keep you at the front of the pack. This principle did not come easy to me. I experienced a lot of discomfort growing up, so my goal was to get comfortable as fast as possible. Great things do not happen when you are comfortable, so I decided to start setting discomfort goals to keep growing towards my full potential.
- Gain Perspective as fast as possible. Regret is a powerful thing and while the odds are high that you will have some in your life, most of it can be avoided. Seek perspective and learn from others to accelerate your learning curve and avoid pitfalls. You can interview other professionals, read books, or listen to podcasts. The key rule: you must be doing something to challenge your mindset.
- Learn to quantify the value of your ideas to others. I believe that people will focus on solving big problems, not small ones. When I meet with a perspective client, it is my responsibility to show them why they need to make a change now and not later. For example, if I have a tax strategy for a client that will save them $10,000 that will get their interest. But will it move them to action. However, if I tell them that this strategy will save them $100,000 over the next 10 years that becomes a big problem. Every client has a lot of problems on their radar, it is up to you to make sure they know which ones they should focus on first.
- You are the product. I was close to quitting this industry early in my career. As I learned more about the world of finance it felt more like a product sales machine instead of an unbiased source of advice. The goal was to find a problem and sell a product to solve it. While that was not true in many firms, it is what I was observing at 22 years old. When I started my own firm, I realized that I was truly what clients were buying. They don’t care if widget A or widget B solve their problem, as long as they trust me, and it does in fact solve their problem. Focus on developing yourself as a professional so you can overwhelm your client with value. Most financial plans I see are still product based, so if you can give unbiased, creative strategies to clients, you will not run into much competition.
- Abundance mentality. Depending on your personal story this could be easier or harder for you. My family did not have extra money growing up, so I naturally had a scarcity mentality. I had to overcome that mindset and learn that there is a lot of opportunity in the market and it is up to me to find it. This allowed me to focus on bigger goals because I believed the pool of potential clients was big enough for all advisors to succeed.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Surround yourself with other motivated professionals. You will get burned out much quicker if you are on an island and relying on yourself or your personal team to provide all of the motivation. This is why I am creating the Elite Advisor Network which is launching next year. We connect top financial professionals from around the country to share best practice ideas and push each other to be better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Everyone needs access to good financial advice — especially those who don’t have the money to afford it. I am working to bring unbiased financial education to the masses, so I can help those folks who may have grown up like me — with a single mom who didn’t have access to financial strategy. Everyone deserves financial advice to avoid financial regrets.