As a professional athlete for 12 years, I became the first American woman to medal in both the summer and winter Olympic games, in track and field and bobsledding. Before I started competing professionally, I was a 20-year-old finance major at the University of Miami. But even with my educational background, early on, I still struggled with managing my money in my new career.
I had questions like, "Should I be renting or was I earning enough to buy? How do I save up for taxes if it isn't being taken out of my income?" I had more money than I had been previously living off of so I needed to know how much to save. But I had trouble finding someone to work with who would educate me while helping me to work towards my financial goals.
This quest for my own money knowledge is what eventually led me down the path of becoming a certified financial planner. And when I retired in 2015, as I figured out my next chapter, I decided to launch my own financial planning firm. While learning how to handle my own money, it became so important to me to help others, especially young professionals, do the same thing.
I launched my company Worth Winning in March of 2016, and today, I work with more than 350 clients every year. Here are some of the most valuable lessons about money and entrepreneurship that I learned along the way.
As an athlete, I didn't have a budget. When I was competing, I was making more than I was spending, but it was a false sense of security because I didn't have a concrete savings goal or understanding of what was coming in or going out. And this lack of budget experience influenced the early days of my business.
At first, my passion for the company I was building clouded my judgment when it came to spending, like buying all the latest software without clients to support the tools I was using, or paying to get in front of an audience of athletes that yielded zero clients. So implementing a budget for both my business and personal finances was one of the best decisions I could have made.
I was not great at it initially. It took time to understand how to best categorize my expenses and track my purchases. But maintaining a budget became something that wasn't a chore. It became the foundation of my decision-making process and helped me see in real time how my company was growing into its full potential.
My research showed it would take about $10,000 to get a financial planning firm off the ground. I was fortunate to have savings left from competing, which was a big help in terms of getting started. And as the business grew, every six months, I made sure to broadly review and reflect on my finances and look for areas where I could adjust or pivot to save more.
As entrepreneurs, it's easy to start commingling money. Your business funds should come into a separate business account, not your personal bank account. This includes any initial investments you make in your business. This makes it easier to track your revenue and expenses for taxes. It also makes it easier to see how much you're spending in those first years, especially when not as much is coming in.
Having all the business spending in one place will give you a clearer sense of your company's health.
Another misstep I made was making big plans for funds I had not yet received. For example, I would have three great potential clients in the pipeline and be so confident that they were going to move forward because our conversation went so well. But then they wouldn't end up coming on board and I would have to scramble to rearrange things.
As I started to do business with some larger companies, it meant higher pay, but also more logistics to deal with. Sometimes when I would invoice these clients, it could take months to receive payment, and the scramble would begin again.
Ultimately, I learned that you only have control of funds once they actually hit your account. Tools like You Need a Budget (YNAB) software were a major help in helping me figure out how to make the most of the funds I did have on hand.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
Coming from the world of Olympic sports and having achieved at a high level, I wanted to be the gold medalist in financial planning. I thought it would automatically happen overnight. The truth was I had to retrain my brain. I had to learn, in this new career, how to set realistic goals for myself and define what success meant for me now, and not spend time comparing myself to others.
At first, I didn't have clear earnings goals or a real understanding of how many clients were necessary to both cover my business expenses and start to provide me income I could use for personal expenses.
Looking back, if I had to do it over, I would start smaller, focus on getting two new clients each month, and building from there. Within the last six months, though, even amid the pandemic, my client base has stabilized.
It also took some time to really figure out what my expertise and services were worth. It's still a work in progress. I've had to adjust my pricing several times over the last four years. Sometimes it takes a few setbacks to realize you have to charge more to keep the clients you value.
As an athlete, I had a physiotherapist, coach, agent, and chef on my team. I knew that I couldn't wear all those hats on my own and reach the same level of success. When you're just starting a business, there are times when you need to just roll up your sleeves and take the initiative to keep expenses low and get the work done in order to grow. But you also have to understand when it's time to hire expert help.
The answer isn't the same for everyone, but if the task in question doesn't come naturally or is super time-consuming to learn, that might be the time to pay someone to handle it for you.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
Over the last few years, I've hired a podcast editor, an admin, a paraplanner, a social media person, a graphic designer, and a blogger for my team. Initially, all of them worked on a project or hourly basis. And while they are all still in the same capacity, I have expanded their hours as we have grown.
I hope to have my first full-time employee next year.
As a professional athlete, I was incorporated with a business account that was taxed as an S corp. When I started Worth Winning, I assumed that was the way to go. So I set up an LLC and taxed it as an S corp from the start.
Looking back, this was not the best path.
An S-election is a great feature to help save money on taxes when earnings support that option. But it wasn't right for me when I was just starting out. Business filings are not a one-size-fits-all plan. You need to understand what accounts you need and what destinations are right for the business you're starting.
Being a sole proprietor or just an LLC are other options to consider. If this sounds like Greek to you, do some research or enlist the help of a professional.
As a track and field athlete, I was a big fan of the "I'm responsible for my success and failures" mentality. But when it comes to handling your finances or growing a business, that's not the best way to go. You don't know what you don't know.
Finding mentors to share what works and what doesn't has been invaluable to me as I have grown Worth Winning over the last four years.
Video by Courtney Stith
Today, I belong to a networking mastermind group of eight other financial planners who run a similar business. I have two wonderful industry mentors who have been at this for a long time, and I talk with them regularly about my goals for the company.
I was also blessed to have a supportive significant other when I was getting started. If you have a spouse or partner, discuss with them what you're trying to accomplish and be honest about what the finances will look like in the beginning.
Ultimately, my best advice is, Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
My earliest clients were family and friends. But my first real small win came when a couple I had never met before decided to work with me. Four years later, they are still my clients. It feels good to know they valued my work when the company had a lot less bells and whistles, and that they still trust me as Worth Winning has grown.
Even if you're an expert in your industry, there are things that you don't know when you're starting to run your own business. So as you retrain your brain and throw out old assumptions about success, give yourself a break if things don't go perfectly. And celebrate the wins as they come.
Lauryn Williams, CFP, is a four-time Olympian, three-time Olympic medalist, and the first American woman to medal in both the summer and winter Olympic Games. Her company, Worth Winning, offers virtual services to help young professionals get the answers to the financial questions that matter most to them.
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