Danika B. Waddell, CFP®, CSLP®
President and Founder, Xena Financial Planning
Danika Waddell, CFP®, CSLP®, has always been the person her family and friends came to for financial help—asking questions like how much to put in a 401(k).
“That was always something that came naturally to me.”
Danika, who majored in mathematics with a minor in psychology at Oberlin College, had worked for more than a decade in corporate accounting and finance. But she longed to trade in days with spreadsheets for days helping clients achieve goals. She wanted to find a new career that satisfied her on a deeper level.
“I thought about getting into financial planning for a long time. I had a really good family friend who was a financial planner, so he would always encourage me. I thought, ‘I’m going to ask him questions about the different aspects of the industry.’ But it was about almost 10 years ago that I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready to consider this change.’ I put myself through the CFP classes and looked for a job after I did all of that, so that was kind of my process.”
After completing her certificate in financial planning from the College for Financial Planning, Danika ventured into a financial planning position. Then, she struck out on her own, founding Xena Financial Planning, named after her golden retriever and Labrador mix, Xena.
“I did not set out to start my own firm. I definitely never saw myself as a firm owner. I thought it sounded really intimidating. I liked the idea of having a guaranteed income, I liked the idea of having a structure, so it wasn’t on my radar at all.”
But after realizing that a “secure” job wasn’t as secure as she thought, she decided to make the leap after a crisis she faced at work.
“I realized that I did not ever want to be anybody else’s employee. I need to be in charge of my own future.”
She didn’t see herself or her personality represented in articles outlining the essential skills for entrepreneurs, nor did she fit the criteria laid out by some industry leaders. The self-proclaimed introvert said she dreads networking hours and having to introduce herself to people.
“I heard so many people say you should never start a business unless you’re really driven and you really have all these criteria. I oftentimes did not fit all those things. I thought maybe this is a terrible idea.”
But she didn’t let other people’s limiting beliefs stop her.
“I am so happy that it happened that way because I wouldn’t have ever gotten outside of my comfort zone. I was totally comfortable, totally content, and now that I’m through on the other side of starting my own business and having it be relatively successful, I want everybody to do this. It’s so much better.”
While oftentimes you hear people talk about the “hustle” of being a business owner, that’s not what keeps Danika going.
“I’m not in this for the hustle. That’s not the appeal for me—it’s about connecting with clients and bringing my services to a greater audience.”
She loves seeing her clients, who are mostly women in tech, make progress.
“I’m really inspired by my clients regularly. It’s so exciting to see when people feel engaged in this work. For instance, I started working with a client in December who was getting ready to go through an IPO and felt really unprepared and overwhelmed and didn’t really understand. Within a couple of weeks of getting started, she was sending me messages saying, ‘I’m learning all this new stuff and I’m so excited.’ That just makes me so happy to see somebody feeling excited about the work that we’re doing together and feeling engaged enough to go off and do her own research on the weekend and read up about things, versus coming in and being overwhelmed not knowing where to start. Seeing that kind of progress is incredibly satisfying.”
She also loves forging long-term relationships with her clients.
“When you work with people over time, and you see them reach the goals that they came to you with on day one—like I want to buy a house or I want to start a business—and then actually see those things come to fruition; it’s really powerful.”
She chose to focus on women in technology, noting that working in this sector is like a “puzzle.” One has to sort through the different benefit options and compensation models, and navigate things that are unique in the tech space.
“It’s a really stressful environment. It’s skewed very young, so it’s mostly people under 40 in tech. The older you get, the fewer people there are that are your age. It’s also this really interesting thing that I love talking through with my younger women clients and planning the career coaching around what else they want to do. Some of them, then, are saying that they want to go found a business after their tech career, so I really love having those kinds of conversations with clients.”
One of the reasons Danika has been able to find success as an entrepreneur is the network she’s built through her volunteer work with both FPA and NAPFA and the resources she’s found at XY Planning Network (XYPN). Prior to starting her own firm, she loved being able to walk down the hall and ask a colleague a question. But as a solo business owner, she didn’t have that option.
“I love community; I love working with other people, and I love being able to go across the hall and ask somebody, ‘Hey, have you ever seen this situation before?’ How do you get that if you’re a solo adviser? Where do you go to ask a question? So what happened over the past year is meeting all of these people—whether it’s through XYPN or through my work on the West Region board for NAPFA.”
She can pick up the phone and ask any of those peers she’s met through those entities a question.
“It just really fills that void that I imagined I would feel by working on my own. It’s just incredibly helpful to be able to know that I can still find answers to questions really quickly and easily and have support—even though I don’t have actual coworkers.”
Her advice to other advisers who might want to venture out on their own includes taking advantage of businesses like XYPN, which can connect solo advisers with resources on compliance, technology, CRM programs, and billing software, among other things. These membership benefits save her time as a solo business owner.
“Whether it’s XYPN or something similar, find something that provides a lot of support and a lot of the tools that you’re going to need.”
Another piece of advice is to connect with people and ask questions about fee structures, business models, and niches.
“I did this when I was just getting into the industry—asking people to have coffee with me. I know we all get inundated with those requests, but I do think there are a lot of people out there who do have time and that are still willing to share.”
Danika recently started hosting monthly office hours for aspiring planners to “pay it forward.” Another piece of advice is to read industry publications and listen to podcasts.
“I’m huge on education, so I listen to podcasts and read stuff all the time. Frankly, it’s a little bit too much probably, but I listen to podcasts on my runs and in the car. There are so many great financial adviser podcasts now. A lot of people do interviews with people about their career trajectory—the XYPN podcast is like that—but getting exposure to different structures and different paths is super helpful.”
Another thing that helped Danika elevate her career was getting involved in FPA by serving on her local board.
“I always recommend this to people when they’re getting started in their careers—go get involved in your local FPA chapter.”
The reason? It connects you to people.
“I am not the natural going-to-events-and-networking kind of person, but being involved on the board got me connected to so many different people in this community.”
She ended up serving as board president eventually, and she still gets referrals from that work because of the visibility being a volunteer leader gave her. At the time, she was able to have dinner with the then-FPA CEO and give her input on the organization’s evolution as well as sit down with Kevin Keller of the CFP Board.
“It’s an invaluable experience to participate. I also feel really strongly that it’s all of our responsibilities to work towards moving the industry forward in general. I see being involved as essential.”
Danika is also passionate about increasing diversity in the profession.
“A big part of what I want to do with my business—and the industry in general—is make it more accessible and really foster this sense of inclusion and diversity, both from a client perspective and within the industry. I want to see more diversity among advisers, but I also want to see us reaching diverse clientele. I don’t just want it to be like advisers are diverse, but all of our clients are white, affluent retirees. There are a lot of different angles to it. We’re so much better off when we have different types of people contributing. As an industry, we’re going to be so much stronger when we have different viewpoints and different backgrounds represented. If we’re all homogenous, we just have this same approach and same focus. You don’t really think about things from another angle until you’re forced to. As an industry, it’s so important to have lots of different peoples’ voices.”