Episode 35 Transcript: Carving Out Your Niche in a Crowded Market

Brett Fellows: Welcome Stephanie McCullough to The Retiring Entrepreneur Podcast. We are happy and excited to have you here today.

Stephanie McCullough: Thanks so much, Brett.

Brett Fellows: I wanted to have you on this podcast because you and I had been friends for the last year or so. We met through the advisor growth community, and I think are similar in age. We’ve had children the same age, the same life experiences. But more specifically, although we’re in pretty much the same industry, we work here at this firm, mostly with business owners, but the majority of them are women.

Brett Fellows: And you own your firm, Sofia Financial, and your target market, you specifically work with women as well.

Stephanie McCullough: I do.

Brett Fellows: And that could be, if I’m taking this correctly, they perhaps have divorce, or have life change or retirement. So, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to talk with you and talk about, not only your journey, but your experience working with women, especially for retirement. So, welcome.

Stephanie McCullough: Sounds good. Thank you.

Brett Fellows: So, my first thing that always pops out to me, you are a graduate of Duke University, and you’ve received your master’s in International Economics from Johns Hopkins. So, how in the world did you become an entrepreneur and open your own business? That doesn’t sound like the path?

Stephanie McCullough: Right? I know. It was never the intention, that’s for sure. Kind of stumbled along. Yeah, it was a career changed for me into the financial services industry 24 years ago, almost 25. It’s going to be hard to say 25. But you know what? We were, my husband and I were living in Washington, D.C. I was following the path of someone who has a master’s in International Economics, working in first the US government and international trade, and then for an international company.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: Then we started thinking, “Oh, maybe we want to have kids. And if we have kids, maybe we want to be near those grandparents. Wouldn’t that be convenient?” And the grandparents were both up in the Philadelphia area. Then my husband got a job offer in Philly. And we’re like, “Okay, I guess that’s the universe pointing us that direction.”

Brett Fellows: Yeah, absolutely.

Stephanie McCullough: But there weren’t a lot of international trade jobs in Philadelphia. So, I was kind of casting around for what to do, and I thought, “Maybe I could join my father’s business.” Because he had been a financial advisor, my whole life and longer. And I grew up not wanting to do what he did.

Brett Fellows: Right. Was he more on the brokerage side or the insurance side?

Stephanie McCullough: He started as an insurance guy. And then again kind of became an investment advisor RIA along the way.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: So, he had an interesting firm. And he had done a lot of work with executive compensation, attracting and retaining key people. And out in the real world, I thought, “Oh, my gosh, there’s really a need for that. I get that now.” So, I made this whole pitch to him that I can try to sell his stuff to my contacts. And I think it was one of those, “You had me at hello moments.” Like, one of my kids…

Brett Fellows: So, did he ask you to come into the industry?

Stephanie McCullough: No.

Brett Fellows: Or did you ask him?

Stephanie McCullough: I asked him. Yeah.

Brett Fellows: Was he apprehensive?

Stephanie McCullough: No.

Brett Fellows: No?

Stephanie McCullough: He was like, “Hey, one of my kids is interested. Yay.” I think that’s all I needed to hear.

Brett Fellows: That’s great. And did you dive…? You mentioned start having kids, did you work part-time or by this, were you able to work full-time right when you started?

Stephanie McCullough: I worked full-time the whole time.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah.

Brett Fellows: So, how was that experience working with your father? I mean, my previous life come from a failed family business, not a failed family business, one that had couldn’t… very difficult going from third second generation to the third generation.

Stephanie McCullough: Yes.

Brett Fellows: So, I know what it’s like to work with family. How was your experience with that?

Stephanie McCullough: So, interesting. I would meet people, and they’d say, “Oh, how nice, you work with your dad,” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, you’ve never worked for a family business, have you?” Just makes it complicated, right?

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: Because it’s you go to family dinner, and you’re not just talking to dad, you’re talking to boss owner, person you had a gripe with on Thursday afternoon. And then, so that definitely was complicated. But it was further complicated because my dad’s a natural born sales guy, and has an MBA from Wharton. And he was the only role model I had as a financial adviser. And I kind of thought, “Oh, I’m not like him. Therefore, I can’t do this work.” That was really kind of my crisis early on.

Brett Fellows: Right. And how long did you work with him?

Stephanie McCullough: So, really, even when I started my business, I was still part of his business. So, it was kind of a branch of the firm, but like all the infrastructure was still there.

Brett Fellows: Okay, that makes sense.

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah, yeah.

Brett Fellows: That makes sense.

Stephanie McCullough: But I was really nervous to tell him I wanted to do my own thing.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: And he was like, “Hey, more sales, more clients. Go for it.”

Brett Fellows: Uh-huh. And so, was that in 2011 when you broke off and started?

Stephanie McCullough: Yes.

[07:44] The impetus that inspired Stephanie McCullough to branch out on her own and found Sofia Financial.

Brett Fellows: Okay. And what was the impetus to get you to do that? Why did you want to branch off into your own?

Stephanie McCullough: Well, fortunately for me, the pathway… and I think you and I might have talked about this before. The pathway into becoming a financial adviser is very often, “Go out and sell stuff to everybody you’ve ever met.”

Brett Fellows: Sure, yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: Which I could never have done. I would have lasted like a minute and a half.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: So, fortunately, my dad had these corporate clients, and I was able to be the person who did the enrollment meetings and the educational meetings and the one on one, like explaining the plan to people. And so, it was financial planning without any sales involved. It was perfect for me. And we had a big hospital where I was the main point person. I was meeting with everyone from the CEO to the doctors, to the people who clean the rooms, and with the kind of investment committee who were responsible for the retirement plan.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: So, that was taking most of my time. That was most of my revenue. And then one day in the middle of an annual review meeting, they fired us.

Brett Fellows: Oh, wow.

Stephanie McCullough: They said. “Don’t you know we’re going to have a RFP, we’re going to go with some of the big firms? We don’t need a local advisor anymore.” And I thought, “You could have told me yesterday.”

Brett Fellows: Right.

Stephanie McCullough: “Instead of making me come out here and do the dog and pony show.”

Brett Fellows: That’s a big deal. Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: So, it was really I had had this idea for a long time. Because the majority of employees at a hospital, once you get below the C suite, and the doctors are women. And I have had so many conversations with women who we’re really struggling with this financial stuff. So, I had the idea in the back of my head to do something around having a different conversation about money with money.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: But it was just an idea, until all of a sudden, I had free time and needed revenue. So, that’s when I decided to kind of hang out my shingle and start having this conversation in marketing a different way.

Brett Fellows: Mm-hmm. And so, it was always about women, empowering women and their finances right from the beginning.

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah, for sure.

[09:37] How Stephanie built her brand and positioned herself as a financial planner for women.

Brett Fellows: That’s great. That’s great. And what were some of your constructive steps that were able to build your brand and become big in that target market? How did you get to your success?

Stephanie McCullough: Oh, well, at first I did some market research. I reached out to people I knew and I came up with this big questionnaire, and I asked a bunch of questions. And I talked to some smart people. And I kind of got at their pain points with the financial services industry, one of which was, “I have no idea what I’m paying, and I don’t know what I’m paying for.”

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: Right? Like all that kind of lack of transparency.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: And then a lot of women felt like, “Oh, that’s not for me. The fancy paneling and the flashy cufflinks and people talking about the markets like that doesn’t speak to me.”

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: So, I wanted to make a very approachable brand, and be super transparent about what we were offering. And then I did a heck of a lot of networking with women’s groups.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: That was really… and anytime anybody wanted someone to talk about money, or finances or investments, I raised my hand and would go and speak to the groups for free.

Brett Fellows: Okay. And I think you and I also talked about this, I’ve noticed as an empty nester this year, the amount of free time or time we can put back into our business and our life to do other things is amazing.

Stephanie McCullough: Yes.

Brett Fellows: How does that progress with your children as they got older and were not around the house? Did you find yourself working even more, and now it’s all about work? How has that changed for you?

Stephanie McCullough: Absolutely. And early on, so I started Sofia Financial in 2011, and I would kind of get down on myself, like, “I’m not growing very fast.” And at the same time, I’m like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to never see my children,” right?

Brett Fellows: Right.

Stephanie McCullough: Like, there’s a season for everything. So, 2020, my son was in High School Class of 2020, poor class. They had a rough one. But the fall of 2020, he was off. And now, it was really I didn’t have to rush home and cook dinner for anybody.

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: And all that stuff. So, yeah, this is my time to really go and grow. And I have other friends who are slowing down and like, “No, no, this is…” I mean, I find it exciting.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: Right? What we do is fulfilling. I love all the things you can learn, people I can meet. So, yeah, I find it exciting.

Brett Fellows: And so, what does Sofia look like today? Now if you fast forward from 2011 to 2022, I guess how many clients do you have? What type of team do you have? And ultimately, what’s your role, and how has that changed?

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah. So, the team is we’ve got 2 kind of administrative employees, operations employees who’ve been with us for almost 20 years each. So, I inherited them from my father when he fully retired a couple of years ago.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: So, like 3 years ago. So, they’ve been around a long time, which is great. So, I don’t have to worry a lot about the account paperwork and many movements and all that kind of fun back-office stuff that you know very well. And then there’s another advisor who took over the role of main point person on my father’s clients.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: He’d also been with us like 18 years.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: So, that’s nice too. He’s like the real investment geek and loves all the tax laws and all that stuff.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: The technical stuff.

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: And yeah, I guess I’m owner and CEO. And I still meet with a lot of clients, but also kind of forming the strategy, doing a lot of the thinking about positioning and marketing, and what are we going to invest in, and bringing on new people and all that kind of stuff.

Brett Fellows: That’s great. Back to your dad 3 years ago. So, how did that play out? Was this something where he just shut down? Or is this something that you have purchased, or paying over time? How did that work?

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah, it was interesting. Part of it has to do with the kind of peculiarities of regulation in our industry.

Brett Fellows: Yes, yes.

Stephanie McCullough: So, he had accumulated just very friendly relationships with other advisors over the years. And we were their back office.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: So, we had advisors in North Carolina and Delaware and other people in Pennsylvania. And we were their operations department and their compliance and all that kind of stuff.

Brett Fellows: So, you were what’s known as an OSJ in the industry?

Stephanie McCullough: Yes, in the broker dealer side. And also, we were their RIA.

Brett Fellows: Okay. Gotcha.

Stephanie McCullough: So, they didn’t have to talk to the Securities and Exchange Commission if they came knocking. We did.

Brett Fellows: Yes, yes.

Stephanie McCullough: Yep. So, we wanted to kind of get rid of the part of our business that has to do with commissions and kind of selling products that have certain kinds of, yeah, I guess, commissions on them, broker dealer side.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: Not to get too inside baseball.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: But those other advisors didn’t really want to go the same route. So, at the same time that my father mostly retired, those other advisors said goodbye. And our chief compliance officer who was an in-house person, she retired.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: So, we were kind of a shrunken group, which, you know what? I didn’t mind that, because I felt like we could be more focused, and I could spend my time instead of pleasing those other advisors, really building our business.

Brett Fellows: Sure.

Stephanie McCullough: And so, no, there was not a purchase.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: Because the entity itself kind of changed and morphed.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: And really, at the time, there might have been more overhead than revenue.

Brett Fellows: Yeah, I’m with you. That would make sense why there’s purchase.

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah.

Brett Fellows: Gotcha. And of all the clients that you have now, especially the most, let’s say, the last 5 to 10 years, are they literally all women? Can’t always be women. Of course, we’ll have some men sneak in there every now and again. When you see a new prospect, or what’s the ideal client profile for you now?

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah, I would say about half of my clients are women on their own, divorced, widowed, never married. And half our couples, where either the woman kind of takes the lead in finances, or brought me in to the picture.

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: Or the husband really fully believes that she will outlive him, and they want someone that the wife feels comfortable with. So, that’s kind of what it looks like now. Really, the people that I love working with most, and where I feel like I can provide the most value are women on their own, right? They’ve got no one to talk to about their money. I’ve got a widow who’s got what sounds like a lot of money in her accounts, and yet she’s got a daughter, adult daughter with special needs, and she’s got an expensive living situation where she happens to be. She doesn’t really want to move.

Brett Fellows: Right.

Stephanie McCullough: So, it might not be enough money, even though it seems like a lot. And she can’t really talk to her friends about that, because she might not get much sympathy when they see how much is in her account.

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: So, it’s not just about the investments, it’s all the financial questions that come up and that we have to deal with as people surviving in this economy.

[16:31] How Stephanie McCullough uses content marketing and digital media to attract clients to Sofia Financial.

Brett Fellows: Yeah. I know you have strong presence online. You host or co-host the Takeback Retirement podcast. And you do a lot of videos on Facebook and LinkedIn. Over the last few years, has this base of women been attracted to your brand online? Or are they mostly in the State of Pennsylvania? Where are they coming from now?

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah, I think they are more online. Especially the past 2 years where we haven’t done much in person networking.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: And we were doing zoom long before COVID. So, all of a sudden, people were trying to figure out how to use Zoom and I’m thinking, “What are you talking about? We’ve been using it for years.” I’ve got lots of clients I’ve never met in person. So much of it can be done in the cloud, if we’re talking about documents and softwares, or on Zoom or phone calls.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: So, it has, I think, I do a lot of speaking to women’s groups, so sometimes people might find me that way. I mean, one of my great clients was referred to me by my chiropractor. Like, who knows, right? And another client is the aunt of my daughter’s best friend. Like, you never know.

Brett Fellows: And it sounds like you’re still pretty, quite involved with the clients, even the amount of people that you have. So, what’s a typical week look like for you?

Stephanie McCullough: I’m trying to get better at blocking my time. And I’ve actually started to try to make 1 week per month where I don’t have client meetings where I kind of focus on the administrative and running the business stuff. Which some of it’s not my favorite. But yeah, I mean a couple client meetings, maybe a networking event here or there. Team meeting, for sure, talking to the team. And we’ve got some initiatives for the year that we’re trying to roll out.

Brett Fellows: And you lead all of those and those team meetings?

Stephanie McCullough: I don’t know how much I lead. Maybe I need to be better at the leading part. But I think we have a pretty open and collaborative atmosphere. So, whoever has something that needs to be talked about brings it up. Yeah, I think we have a decent open culture at this point.

[18:46] Stephanie’s plans for scaling Sofia Financial as she takes on new business and approaches capacity.

Brett Fellows: And what happens when you get to a certain ceiling, if you will, where there’s just not enough time for Stephanie in the day and the week? What do you think your role, and how will that change? What will that look like?

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah, that’s a good question.

Brett Fellows: Will you do more management? Will you try to take on more clients? How will that work?

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah. I do think I used to have this idea, maybe 6, 7 years ago of having kind of offices around the country, and they’d be super homey and comfortable, and we’d have a whole team in each office. And then of course, everything’s online. So, we don’t really need a physical presence in different places.

Stephanie McCullough: And I started to realize, like if I get more efficient with processes, and standardizations and templates and that kind of stuff, we can serve more people than we currently do. So, that’s a lot of the stuff we’re working on now. And we do have a new advisor who’s coming on board. She’s great. Lots of experience. So, I want to have a big impact. I want to serve more people. So, we’re definitely working on that. But my dream is also to get to the point where I can take a couple months off a year and go live somewhere fun.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: And the place still runs.

Brett Fellows: Yeah. And you do, as we mentioned before, you do do a lot, you’re very active on social media. Do you like to… would you prefer to speak and be the face of Sofia? Or would you prefer to be meeting with clients day to day?

Stephanie McCullough: I like doing both.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: I really do. I have gotten comfortable with the speaking and the being the face. I never would have believed that. My daughter a few years ago had to do like a TED like talk in school.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: And she was terrified. And I said, “I was terrified too. It was only by consistently doing it that now I’m comfortable.”

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: Someone says, “Can you give a half an hour talk in 10 minutes?” I’ll say, “Yep. No problem,” much to some people’s chagrin, perhaps. But I love the client interactions, right? That’s where the real fulfillment is, talking one on one, hearing people’s stories, tamping down their stress level around money. That’s what it’s all about.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: Getting them comfortable so that that’s no longer something that’s taking up their brain space, and then they can go off and do the things they really want to do and make a difference in the world.

[21:04] The onboarding strategy Stephanie uses to better understand her clients’ money mindset and why working primarily with women often requires a different approach.    

Brett Fellows: Yeah. I was going to ask, what does your typical, I guess, onboarding might be the right way to say it with a new client, specifically, with you’re attracting women who need to be empowered about making the best financial decisions and reducing their stress about money. So, what does an onboarding of a new client in that mindset look like to you?

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah. Well, we have quite a few meetings, and we don’t talk about numbers ‘til meeting number 3.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: There’s no numbers at all. People are like, “Okay, what documents do I have to give you?” Nothing, right? The questions I’m going to ask in the first meeting, you know the answers to, right? “Tell me about the people who are important to you? What makes you happy? What do you worry about the future?” right? All those kinds of questions, trying to get at their values. Because money is just a tool, but I can’t tell you what to do with it until I know what the money is for.

Stephanie McCullough: So, really trying to get that kind of stuff. And then we always dig into the kind of the money relationship, “How was money handled in your family of origin, in your house growing up? What messages did you pick up maybe subconsciously along the way? What role has money played in your career, in your relationships?” Because we’re trying to figure out what the potholes might be to the plan that we come up with…

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: … beforehand, so we can try to think about them ahead. And then we finally try to talk about the numbers.

Brett Fellows: And is there a specific… I guess my question is, what are the most common, let’s say, retirement blunders that you see women can make that could cost them the most amount of money and heartache, I guess? There are some things that stick out?

Stephanie McCullough: Well, in heterosexual relationships, it’s very common, I mean, it’s common in any couple to have a division of labor. “You take care of the grocery shopping and I’ll take care of making the kids doctor’s appointments.”

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: That makes sense, and very often, the male takes care of, if not paying the regular bills, figuring out the investments and doing the longer-term stuff. And that’s fine. And most women end up alone at some point. I saw the stat once that 80% of men died married, and 80% of women die single.

Brett Fellows: Single, yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: Right? So, at one point or another, we’re going to have to know this stuff.

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: So, it’s the ignoring it ‘til it’s a crisis, that’s usually what the problem is. Because maybe it’s widowhood, and now you’re grieving and you have to figure out where the brokerage account is. Like, who wants to deal with that at that point? Even though it felt like drudgery, and maybe not the fun stuff, beforehand, it’s still necessary to at least have an idea of what’s out there. And then, of course, you hear the stories about the husband who wasn’t quite so responsible, and maybe the money disappeared to gambling or to the secretary, or all the crazy stories.

Brett Fellows: And will you guys get as granular as helping them with their budget, helping them with Medicare decisions, helping them with Social Security? Do you cover all of those aspects?

Stephanie McCullough: For sure. Yeah. Because that’s a huge piece of it, right?

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: And even if women aren’t planning to fully retire, most of my clients want to be doing something and having some kind of, making some kind of a difference in their lives, whether for money or not. But yeah, Social Security is a big part of the puzzle. So, looking at your claiming decisions, when you’re going to file and what your various things you might be eligible for, if you’re divorced, or widowed, looking at the different benefits. Medicare is important, right?

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: I mean, my colleague, Kevin has taken special classes on that to really understand the ins and outs of those kinds of filings. And then we have other experts that we call on too, because we don’t pretend to know all of it.

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: But that’s all the pieces that cause people stress, right?

Brett Fellows: Sure.

Stephanie McCullough: So, if we can help figure that out and put the puzzle pieces together, I think that’s a big help.

[24:56] Why Stephanie McCullough believes the financial advice industry is a great place for female entrepreneurs.

Brett Fellows: Yeah, absolutely. And I guess, as you look down the road in the future, I think, what’s your impression? And why do you think the advisory space is such a wonderful business for women?

Stephanie McCullough: You mean, women to be advisors?

Brett Fellows: Yes, yes.

Stephanie McCullough: Oh, my gosh, I think it’s fabulous. And there aren’t enough of us, and it drives me nuts. It’s such a fulfilling career. I think the skills that are really needed are skills that, stereotypically, women excel at. The people skills, the listening, the really having a conversation, and hearing what the other person is saying, and then connecting the dots, right? The lifelong learning that so many women are attracted to. And making a real difference in people’s lives.

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: One of my clients, the first time I met with her, she was dissolved in tears the whole time. And then 3 years later, we got together, and she was stressed about a small thing. And I had to remind her, I’m like, “Do you remember 3 years ago where you were?” right? Like, we really do make a difference. And that is such a satisfying thing. I meet women who say, “Oh, I can’t do what you do. I’m not good at math.” Like, I got calculators. I got computers and programs.

Brett Fellows: I’m not good at math either.

Stephanie McCullough: I do the people stuff, the emotional stuff. Like, I understand the math, but I can’t do it my head. Right?

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: So, I think the problem, I think, is the onboarding opportunities into the profession. That’s…

Brett Fellows: Right.

Stephanie McCullough: … what’s the struggle?

Brett Fellows: Yeah. And who do you rely on when you get stuck, whether it’s dealing with the client or about your business? Who do you go to for advice?

Stephanie McCullough: On the business side, I’ve joined a group called Her Corner, which is a women-owned business accelerator.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: Out of Washington, D.C. So, that’s been really great kind of teaching women about the business side of it, right?

Brett Fellows: How did you find that?

Stephanie McCullough: Oh, networking.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: I went to an event and one of the founders spoke, and I thought, “Ooh, this is a cool group.” And then I followed them for a while and then…

Brett Fellows: That’s neat, yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: … then I joined. So, that’s a great thing. And we have small groups, and you really dig into your financials and your struggles.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: And different topics each month. And then you can really kind of bare your soul and your financial books and get some advice that way. That’s been great.

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: And then professional groups where you and I met. Advisor growth community is great for practice management and content type of questions, right?

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: If a question comes up that I don’t have expertise in, I probably know someone who does. That’s been a wonderful thing. And then sometimes, the perspective you need is outside, is friends and family and people who are more likely to look like my clients, as opposed to my colleagues. Sometimes that’s the input that I look for.

Brett Fellows: Yeah. Do you have a coach, or does that first group would you say act as your coach?

Stephanie McCullough: I do currently have a coach. I’ve had a series have coaches.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: In fact, I mentioned when I first started thinking that I couldn’t do this work because I wasn’t like my father. That’s the first time I worked with a coach in the late 90s, before anybody knew what a coach was.

Brett Fellows: Sure, sure.

Stephanie McCullough: Then we kind of did that career coaching kind of exercise of like, “Well, what else what I want to do?”

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: And we circle back around to like, “Oh, look, here’s all the things about this job that I really love.”

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: So, that was very helpful.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: I worked with a business development coach at one point, because I don’t like sales to this day, but I got more comfortable with it.

Brett Fellows: Good.

[28:26] How Stephanie maintains her focus by working with an ADHD coach.

Stephanie McCullough: And I’m currently working with, believe it or not an ADHD coach.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: Because I am self-diagnosed.

Brett Fellows: Tell me about that.

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah. My kids are both officially diagnosed ADHD.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: And along the way, looking at their struggles, I thought, “Huh, maybe that came from me,” right?

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: Like, because there’s certain things that I struggle with. Organization, and I’m big at starting projects and not as strong at finishing them.

Brett Fellows: Okay.

Stephanie McCullough: So, I met a woman through my networking who is an ADHD coach, and she was…

Brett Fellows: That’s interesting.

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah. One day…

Brett Fellows: I’ve never heard of that.

Stephanie McCullough: Oh, yes, fascinating. She’s got so much knowledge and kind of certifications and stuff in the struggle of ADHD and the kind of neuro… whatever the word is.

Brett Fellows: Did you do like cognitive type of exercises to help you get through what…?

Stephanie McCullough: No, it’s more talking strategies. Like, what do I struggle with, and what helps. And typical to the coaching approach, it’s not her telling me, so much as her asking the right questions and having the aha moments.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: And yeah, it’s been fascinating.

Brett Fellows: Yeah. What do you like to do in your free time?

Stephanie McCullough: So, as a working mom, there wasn’t a lot of free time. So, as an empty nester now the past couple of years, I have taken up ukulele.

Brett Fellows: And that’s fantastic. That cannot be easy.

Stephanie McCullough: Well, I played piano as a kid. And I played cello when I was in middle school. So, I had a little musical info. And I bought my son a ukulele once in middle school, because he decided he wanted to join the ukulele club, and I was all for it. And then he never played, of course. So, I started taking lessons with my daughter’s guitar teacher over Zoom.

Brett Fellows: And the ukulele, I mean, just because it was sitting in your son’s room and nobody used it?

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah.

Brett Fellows: That as opposed to a guitar? Or do you really like the ukulele?

Stephanie McCullough: Also, it’s small and portable and easy to bring places. And there’s only 4 strings, so I thought it might be easier to learn. Yeah.

Brett Fellows: That’s great.

Stephanie McCullough: But mostly because it was there.

Brett Fellows: Yeah. Do you guys get to travel a lot now?

Stephanie McCullough: We’re traveling a bit more. Certainly traveling to see the kids in college. And we have a trip to Italy planned later this year. I’m very excited for that.

Brett Fellows: Great. That’s great.

Stephanie McCullough: Hopefully, fingers crossed.

Brett Fellows: And back to, I guess, your Sofia, and if it’s 15 years from today and we were looking back over those last 15 years, what has to have happened for you to feel happy with your progress professionally?

Stephanie McCullough: Ooh, that’s a big question, isn’t it?

Brett Fellows: It is a big question.

Stephanie McCullough: I mean, I do kind of entertain the idea of selling it at some point. I definitely heard a speaker early on at a conference talking about the difference between a practice and a business. And a financial planning practice is very much all the clients are attached to you. And without you, there’s nothing really there.

Brett Fellows: Correct.

Stephanie McCullough: As opposed to a business that has the structures around it, and someone else could step in and take over. So, I’ve had that in mind the whole time. I haven’t got a heck of a lot farther than that, than just kind of had that in mind for building. But at the same time, I don’t see… I mean, I’ll be 70 in 15 years, so you could do that math. I don’t know that I’ll want to have nothing to do with it.

Brett Fellows: Sure.

Stephanie McCullough: I think that it would be fun to have some kind of role, whether it’s talking to people in some way, still doing the speaking, being a resource. I think that would be fulfilling. But who knows? It’s 15 years from now, who knows what that’s going to end up being?

Brett Fellows: Yeah. And back to your practice, I mean, as you and I both know, do you have a typical retirement plan that everybody in the practice contributes to, whether it’s a simple IRA or a 401(k)?

Stephanie McCullough: Not at the moment. We had one from my father’s. That got discontinued, just because of the way that entities were going. But I think we’re going to start up a new 401(k) this year.

Brett Fellows: But as we know, the true value of your business, much more than we could save on an annualized basis through one of those vehicles would be to capture all of that equity that you’ve put into Sofia.

Stephanie McCullough: Right.

Brett Fellows: So, if you’re able to extract that, that could be a much bigger number for your own retirement.

Brett Fellows: So, that makes sense. That makes sense.

Stephanie McCullough: Yeah, I hope so, right? It’ll be interesting to kind of follow the market and what things are looking like in our industry at that point.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Brett Fellows: And if you have 4 people now and you’re bringing on a fifth, would you be willing to even continue to grow that to kind of a smaller ensemble or small giant, as they say?

Stephanie McCullough: I think so, right? I think we’ll learn a lot with this first person now. Because Kevin is an advisor, but he has legacy clients. So, bringing someone under the Sofia Financial umbrella will be a good exercise and how it could work, how client relationships are shared or divided, or what that looks like.

Brett Fellows: Yes.

Stephanie McCullough: I think we’ll learn a lot, and like we both stub our toes quite a few times, maybe.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: But then we’ll learn how it might go going forward. Or maybe we’ll decide, “Hmm, this is good.”

Brett Fellows: Yeah, keep going. Alright, last 2 questions I have. These, as you can imagine, will be esoteric, and you’ll know 1 of them. But if you could go back and tell the Stephanie McCullough of 2011 some piece of advice, what would you tell her?

Stephanie McCullough: “Don’t worry. It’s going to work. Right? Kind of keep going.” Yeah, I think that’s it. And maybe, “Don’t wait so long to play in traffic,” as somebody we both talks about, right? Like, just put your voice out there. That’s kind of what people are attracted to. Your vibe attracts your tribe. And it is a very… talking about money is very personal. So, you want to be interfacing with someone you feel very comfortable with. And it’s not going to be everybody. And that’s okay. I think I was terrified to offend anyone, turn anyone away, as opposed to kind of being more myself and attracting more strongly those people who would like that. Because none of us can serve everybody. So, that’s fine. If I appeal to 5% of the population, that’s plenty of clients.

Brett Fellows: Yes. That’d be more than enough, more than enough.

Stephanie McCullough: Right?

Brett Fellows: And the other one, Steph, this is one of my favorite questions. This podcast is was derived from retiring entrepreneurs and extracting their business. And that’s because there were a success.

[35:18] Stephanie’s definition of success when it comes to her work and business.

Brett Fellows: So, if I were to ask you, as you look down the future of Sofia Financial and your life, what would your definition of success be to you?

Stephanie McCullough: Ooh, that’s a good one too. I think it’s being able to go to sleep at night feeling that I’ve made a difference, that there aren’t some glaring things I’ve forgotten to do. But also, yeah, I’ve improved the lives of our team members and of clients. And I think that’s more important than… and even probably just maybe listeners to the podcast, or someone who’s heard me speak at an event, I do want to have that broader impact, even farther than people who’ve been able to pay me for something.

Brett Fellows: Yeah.

Stephanie McCullough: And that’s going to be more important to me than whatever number I might get in selling the business.

Brett Fellows: Yeah, that’s great. Well, I love it. Thank you for sharing that.

Stephanie McCullough: Sure.

Brett Fellows: And thank you as well for being on The Retiring Entrepreneur Podcast. And we’ll have your links to your website and to some of your social media pages on the show notes. And I appreciate your time on The Retiring Entrepreneur Podcast. Thank you.

Stephanie McCullough: Thanks, Brett. Thanks for having me.

Brett Fellows: Have a great day.

Stephanie McCullough: You too.

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