Leading disruptor in employer-sponsored retirement plans shows us what cannabis, 401ks and the dodo bird have in common.
Since pensions for retirement have largely gone the way of the dodo bird, 401k and other similar plans have become the norm for employers to offer as an employee benefit. Today, these employer-sponsored retirement plans are the primary means workers use to save for their retirement and represent about $5.3 trillion. Unfortunately, many retirement plan service providers often ignore the needs of entrepreneurs and small business owners that make up 99.7 percent of U.S. employer firms, according to the Small Business Association.
That’s exactly what Kirsten Curry, CEO of Leading Retirement Solutions, set out to address. Retirement plans like 401ks typically offer an entire host of mutual funds, but that’s where it stops. Investors cannot invest their retirement funds in non-traditional investments or in startup ventures for example. For successful business owners and their employees, this limitation is seen as handcuffs that severely limit the flexibility and self-directed investment control they would prefer to have. Kirsten Curry saw a way to fix this and make it easy for businesses of all sizes to offer a much broader range of investment options to owners and employees alike.
She shared six lessons with us that she has learned on her path to developing a thriving business that helps investors saving for retirement have options well beyond mutual funds.
Lesson 1 – Fill gaps in the market
The best way to gain a foothold in any market is to identify a gap that no one is filling. That’s exactly what Leading Retirement Solutions has done. Employers large and small are looking for a better range of options than traditional 401k administrators offer. Anyone that has participated in an employer-sponsored 401k program knows the frustration that comes with the extremely limited nature of investment options and retirement plan solutions.
Way beyond mutual funds
“I began my company working with traditional 401(k) Plans, where the only available investment options were mutual funds,” shares Curry. “It didn’t take long to understand that many of our clients wanted to invest in something other than mutual funds. They wanted to invest in private stocks, agriculture and maritime, real estate, non-traditional medical and cannabis ventures, but they couldn’t do this through their existing 401k programs. There weren’t any options available to make this possible. So, we started helping businesses create 401k plans designed to allow business owners to invest in private stock investments within their retirement plans. Being based in the Northwest, we also saw a huge gap for cannabis businesses. No one would touch them, so we stepped in to help them develop programs for their employees,” continues Curry.
Lesson 2 – Clearly define business relationships
Companies started as partnerships tend to stay in business and get more funding than businesses started by an individual. Unfortunately, somewhere between 50-80 percent of partnerships fail. Creating a partnership that works can be tricky to say the least. At the point where things are just getting started, it’s exciting and everyone is completely bought in, but as time goes on priorities can change and this can spell trouble.
“I founded the company in 2009 with three partners, including myself. I learned a lot of lessons the hard way,” says Curry. “We didn’t have a partnership agreement and we didn’t have financial transparency. Ultimately, this led to a year and a half of litigation. It all could have been avoided. For anyone starting a company with partners, be sure you take the time to develop a partnership agreement and detailed documented guidelines so you can avoid a protracted legal fight.”
This experience hasn’t scared Curry away from partnerships though. She has been running the company on her own since 2013, but she doesn’t rule out having partners in the future.
“There’s an enormous benefit to having partners. I expect I will have partners or some sort of partnership structure in the future. I have really lofty goals for the company. Today, I tap into my team to grow the business. You have someone inside the business to discuss challenges and opportunities with. We work together to develop plans for growth,” explains Curry. “I would definitely form a partnership again, and I would ensure everything was documented upfront and completely transparent for all the partners.”
Lesson 3 – Build a brand
One of the biggest eye-openers for a lot of first-time entrepreneurs is how hard it is to sell. Most entrepreneurs are technicians and have never done sales before. But Curry had a completely different realization. It wasn’t the selling that was difficult, it was the lack of brand recognition that held the company back in the early days.
Selling is easy, branding takes time
“Selling is not hard at all when you have a creative solution to a long-standing problem. The biggest challenge in the beginning was brand recognition,” describes Curry. “If your potential customers don’t know you exist, you don’t have the opportunity to sell to them in the first place. It takes a lot longer to develop brand recognition than most people think. In the beginning the business wasn’t growing. It was a very slow and painful process. After 2-3 years we started seeing momentum build. We put out press releases, spoke at events, participated in social media and, most of all, networked like mad, and that has brought a lot of opportunities our way,” says Curry.
Lesson 4 – Connect with your tribe
It can be lonely running a company on your own. Yet there are ways to curb that army-of-one feeling. Finding and connecting with your peers is one way to accomplish this goal while also getting insights from other business leaders facing similar challenges.
“One of the biggest contributors to my success over the last several years has been my involvement in the Women’s President’s Organization and other similar organizations,” says Curry. “These are not networking groups, but very collegial think tanks made up of people like me that are growing multi-million-dollar organizations. We share organizational strategies from people in our peer group. This has been incredibly beneficial to our growth as a business,” concludes Curry.
Lesson 5 – Embrace technology
Being in a highly regulated industry, like Leading Retirement Solutions works within, means there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Providing investors with a clear view to their investments whenever and wherever they want is crucial. Trying to do this without technology is a recipe for failure.
Make reporting easy
“We use a lot of industry-specific software. One of the biggest challenges is that these software applications don’t talk to each other. We have made a heavy technology commitment. I brought in a technology consultant right from the beginning. We use a proprietary database so we can connect the software and push and pull the data,” explains Curry. “This has allowed us to provide a cutting-edge client experience. Our clients are able to get through the tax reporting process much faster with pre-populated forms that only ask what has changed. Everything is pushed out electronically through the online portal satisfying all the compliance and government reporting that’s required. Most of our competitors do things very archaically, using fillable PDFs and excel files to collect critical data on an ongoing basis and we saw this as an opportunity to make business owners’ lives easier,” says Curry.
Lesson 6 – March up market
Most small businesses aspire to be large businesses one day. There are a number of ways to make this possible. Leading Retirement Solutions started out to help small and emerging businesses create employer-sponsored retirement plans that work for them and their employees. Yet Kirsten saw opportunities to help many more employers and employees get access to non-traditional investment options within their traditional 401k plans.
Finding opportunities when you are starting out
“When you are a young company, smaller companies are willing to take a risk on you. Several years into the business, we realized that it isn’t just small businesses that want flexible investments solutions. Two years ago, we committed to march up market,” says Curry. “We have taken on increasingly complex situations and continue to be hired on for bigger opportunities as a result. Since we are willing to take on organizations, like cannabis businesses, and implement options traditional firms shy away from, partners and clients, across the country have reached out to us to develop a bridge to what we see as the future of retirement plans,” shares Curry.
Kirsten and her team have served more than 1,000 clients in all 50 states which is quite a feat. Disrupting such a well-established and traditional financial industry isn’t for the faint of heart. Thankfully persistent and dedicated professionals like Kirsten and her team are pioneering a new approach to retirement investing that is being welcomed. In a world where only the top VCs get a chance to invest in up and coming companies, Leading Retirement Solutions makes it possible for even small-time investors to get a piece of the action.
Let’s take a moment and review the lessons Kirsten shared with us.
- Fill gaps in the market
- Clearly define business relationships
- Build a brand
- Connect with your tribe
- Embrace technology
- March up market
Kirsten’s decade long journey is far from over, in fact, she sees this as just the beginning for Leading Retirement Solutions. We look forward to seeing everything Kirsten and her team will accomplish over the next decade.
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