I quit Merrill Lynch to start my own business. Leaving a 7-figure income and cushy corporate perks was hard, but I don't regret it. (2024)

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Chad Willardson, a 45-year-old entrepreneur, investor, and author in Orange County, California. It has been edited for length and clarity.

In 2011, I left my job at Merrill Lynch after nine years to start Pacific Capital, a wealth management firm for entrepreneurs with at least $10 million to invest.

It was not easy to leave the comfort of my corner office, corporate perks, and awards and recognition at a big Wall Street bank. I was a high performer and earned over $1 million a year by my late 20s.

However the changes in our industry after the Great Recession changed much of our day-to-day work. The bureaucracy and slow-moving corporate mothership eventually frustrated me to the point that I questioned how long I could keep working there.

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At the time, I was being recruited by other top banks

I considered going somewhere like Morgan Stanley, UBS, or Goldman Sachs, which offered major signing bonuses. It would've been a lot of money for me at the time, but trading one corporate Wall Street uniform for another one across the street didn't feel like the right long-term move.

I was tired of wearing a suit and tie and being told what the big company wanted to push on us. It was time for a drastic change. I felt like I needed to take a bigger leap and start my own thing, but I had no idea how to start a business.

I packed up my stuff and walked out with my assistant on a Monday morning. It felt like a major risk as a married 32-year-old with a big mortgage and a growing family. I didn't know how I would make it — I was just determined that I eventually would. My wife was also very nervous, but she believed in me.

I was under a lot of pressure when I started my business

I signed a lease on an office, hired a few employees, and had many expenses with zero revenue. I used my savings, borrowed against my house, and opened up a business credit card — I scrambled to figure it all out.

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I spent all my time contacting potential clients via phone calls, emails, and postcards, walking business to business, and posting on social media — just like I had done in 2003 when I started as a rookie at Merrill Lynch.

The big advantage I found of being on this side of the industry was I could completely design the services around my ideal clients rather than trying to find clients to fit into the box of what a big corporation wanted. I started by targeting entrepreneurs with at least $1 million to invest.

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I was profitable by the middle of 2012. I now have a team of 20 full-time employees and four part-time employees. One major upside of entrepreneurship I underestimated was the opportunity to build a great culture and teamwork within the firm.

There's no such thing as an average workday for me anymore

I quit Merrill Lynch to start my own business. Leaving a 7-figure income and cushy corporate perks was hard, but I don't regret it. (1)

I now have an entrepreneurial coaching business. I also cofounded a sports complex in Southern California in 2019 and a fintech company dedicated to helping kids and teens gain financial education in 2021.

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Every day is unique. I travel a ton, both for work and pleasure, so I work from wherever my family is. I don't go to the office much anymore, though most of my team chooses to go into the office. My team and I also fly all over to see clients and potential clients.

Try to start your entrepreneurial journey as a side hustle before making the full leap

Starting Pacific Capital as a side hustle wasn't possible for me because the securities brokerage business is a very strict industry that almost allows zero other activities besides your full-time employment. But in most situations, starting your business as a side hustle is possible. This approach allows you to validate your business idea, understand your market, and build a customer base with less financial risk.

I also recommend you identify your niche and leverage your current skills and passions to solve a specific set of problems for that niche. My target market is a very small subset of the population, and specializing in this market gives us a very distinct advantage over most financial advisors who are generalists.

Once you have a target market, build your online presence. I've consistently engaged on LinkedIn for years, and it's paid off. I've hired more than a dozen people through LinkedIn and have attracted new business there, too.

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Your people are your most important asset. One of my biggest mistakes was holding on to a toxic employee in a key position for too long because he was very intelligent. I tried to justify the damage to the team culture and chemistry because he was talented. Be very careful with who you hire because that will make or break your future.

I've grown my net worth to over $50 million by taking risks

One key trait of successful entrepreneurs is going all in on opportunities when most people are paralyzed by fear. For example, when real estate was in a downturn from 2007 to 2009, I aggressively borrowed to invest in underpriced properties.

My personal real-estate portfolio grew to include everything from duplexes and apartment complexes to skilled nursing facilities and car washes.

Follow the wise counsel of Warren Buffett: "Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful." My biggest leaps in net worth have always come when I took big chances while others stood still.

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Entrepreneurship is not the only path to success

To become wealthy, you invest your income into assets that will grow in value over time and eventually pay you an income or a large lump sum. You don't have to be an entrepreneur.

What you don't see behind the scenes of entrepreneurship is a ton of failure, doubt, and hard times. There's a reason most businesses fail within the first five years. You must be fully invested and committed to succeed because it will likely take longer, require more sacrifice, and cost more money than expected.

I have zero regrets about leaving Merrill Lynch to become an entrepreneur. Had I stayed at a big Wall Street bank, I never would've been able to start my other businesses. I also don't wish I left sooner because I needed those nine years to learn and prepare. I believe I left at just the right time.

I quit Merrill Lynch to start my own business. Leaving a 7-figure income and cushy corporate perks was hard, but I don't regret it. (2024)

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