Scott Belsky’s “The Messy Middle”: A Must Read for All Breakaway Advisors and Entrepreneurs Alike

February 21, 2019, by Matt Sonnen
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Scott Belsky is an entrepreneur, investor, best-selling author, MBA Harvard graduate, and one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business.  That being said, I had never heard of him until he was doing a promotional tour for “The Messy Middle” last year.  I was struck by his premise that entrepreneurs love to recount stories of the launch of their business, and (hopefully!) the sale of their firm, but they seem to forget about (or choose to ignore) the ever-important “middle.”

He states:

“The volatile terrain of the messy middle of a journey is the real story nobody talks about.  The middle miles of a venture are full of ambiguity, uncertainty, fear, runarounds, crises, disagreements, and endless bouts of the mundane.  Every time you untangle yourself and find your way out of a jam, you’ll fall into another one sooner than you think.  These are the inevitable and seemingly endless dips of the middle that we must endure.”

I immediately thought, “This is the message our breakaway clients need to hear!”  After resigning from their former firm and launching their own uniquely branded RIA, the euphoria of the moment quickly dissipates into several months of treacherous work as they focus on transitioning their clients and re-establishing all accounts at their new custodian.  After the transition is complete and the firm is on stable footing once they’ve realized a full billing cycle, the euphoria of that moment quickly dissipates when the advisor realizes, “Oh wow, I have a business to run now!”

Some of Mr. Belsky’s messaging that resonates so well with advisors-turned-entrepreneurs includes:

  • Success is misattributed to the moments we wish to remember, rather than those we choose to forget
  • When the journey feels gritty and real, your potential becomes more tangible
  • What’s in the middle? Nothing headline-worthy, yet everything important – your war with self-doubt, a roller coaster of incremental successes and failures, bouts of the mundane, and sheer anonymity
  • The dirty little secret that entrepreneurs hate to admit is just how fine the line is between their success and failure
    • The middle makes and breaks you, and ending up on the right side of this line depends on how you manage everything in between
    • It requires immense perseverance, self-awareness, craftsmanship, and strategy (it also requires luck, harvested whenever you encounter it!)
  • The volatile terrain of the messy middle is the real story nobody talks about
    • Left to hack the middle of our journey on our own, we quietly endure the downs and optimize the ups as best we can

Mr. Belsky breaks the book into two main sections: (1) endurance and (2) optimization.  On endurance, he writes, “Rather than sugarcoat the hurt, anguish, and doubt, I have worked to bring these emotions and painful moments to the forefront.”  Advisors need to realize that running a business isn’t for everyone.  How will they market their new firm to attract more ideal clients?  How will they attract and retain (and afford) top talent to their new business?  By addressing these emotions and doubts head on and not hiding from them, Belsky hopes to encourage entrepreneurs to do the same when they face similar times of despair.

He describes optimization as, “All about capitalizing on your strengths and improving every aspect of your team, product, and self.” As the chart below shows, each subsequent milestone for the business needs to be higher than the previous one, and each subsequent low (and there will be many during the entrepreneurial journey!) needs to be controlled so it’s not as low as the last setback.  Understanding endurance and optimization enables these advisor-entrepreneurs to maintain an upward trajectory, albeit a slow one, for their RIA.

For breakaway advisors, the endurance game can come into play after the first market correction or first employee departure at their new firm.  These hindrances can cause advisors to have difficult conversations with their clients or staff and inevitably doubt their newly found mission and firm.  The advisors who can lead these conversations without wavering from their mission are the ones bound for success.  In terms of optimization, advisors who can maximize their people, processes, and culture can lift their firm out of these “WTF happened?!” moments and back on the track toward success.

Mr. Belsky concludes the book with a discussion around finishes and the “final mile” of any journey.  In true entrepreneurial spirit, he states that “the final mile needs to give rise to a new first mile experience in which you, once again, start something because you can’t stop thinking about it, where you’re naïve enough to embrace all possibilities, and when you’ve become empathetic for people suffering a problem that either fascinates or frustrates you.”  This final mile for advisors isn’t always the months, weeks, or days leading up to the sale of their firm to a larger entity; often, it comes prior to that.  It comes after years of tireless hard work when advisors can confidently rest at night knowing that they are delivering upon their mission to each and every one of their clients and can continue to do so to an ever-growing client base.

“The future is created by those who endured and optimized through the messy middle to create it, so for you and the rest of us, stick with it!”  For advisors thinking of breaking away (or for those who recently have started their own RIA), the launch of the new firm is just the beginning!  By staying the course, having faith in the mission, and committing to the long game, advisors can conquer “The Messy Middle.”

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