How Derek Lawson Built a Killer Network and Set Up for Professional Success (Before Graduating or Becoming a CFP®)

8 min read
July 09, 2014

Many advisors wait until they've earned all their certifications and their practice is up and running before attempting to build a solid network within the profession.

Most of us certainly waited until after we graduated with our university degrees before beginning to build strong relationships with some of the industry's top names.

But not Derek Lawson.

Derek dove, feet first, into the financial planning profession at a very early stage. He incorporated many steps that most planners skip until their first firm is up and running into his journey from the start.

We had a chance to chat with Derek about how he's accomplished so much right out of the gate. Today, we're sharing our interview with you so you can benefit from Derek's insights about and experiences with the financial planning profession, using social media to build a killer network before even completing school, and working to provide the most value to those who need professional financial advice.

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Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

"I attended the University of Iowa to become a Medical Doctor – but after three years of math and sciences, Organic Chemistry got the best of me and I decided to switch to Business and Finance. I always had an interest in Finance, particularly personal finance.

I graduated in May 2011 and married my wife in September 2011 before heading to Kansas City due to jobs.

Once in Kansas City, I met with some financial planners and knew that financial planning was the career I wanted. I went to the CFP® Board website and found that Kansas State had a program that included a Ph.D. program.

I applied for the Master’s program, was accepted and began courses in August 2012.

Sonas Financial Group, Inc., my current firm, took a chance on hiring a young guy in April 2012 to help prepare for and attend client meetings. The firm also wanted help getting more up-to-speed with respect to technology and cloud solutions so I’ve been a big asset in that regard.

As there are only two people at the firm (the owner and myself) my role is quite comprehensive from doing the little things like scanning to helping with practice management, client meetings and even compliance.

I also serve on the FPA’s chapter of Greater Kansas City Board of Directors as a Director-at-Large. Additionally, I just accepted the NAPFA Genesis committee position as their Social Media Strategist."

What are you working to accomplish with your career?

"I took (and passed) the CFP® Exam in March 2014, and will finish the Master’s Degree this coming December.

Ultimately, my heart lies in academics. The pursuit of a Ph.D. is my ultimate goal. Kansas State’s emphasis on Financial Therapy and behavioral finance topics is extremely interesting to me. I really want to understand why we do what we do with our money and hope that I can provide meaningful and valuable research for practitioners to use.

I also have research interests the areas of practice management, client meeting methods, financial literacy, neuroeconomics (which, to me, means studying our brain’s responses to financial topics via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)), educational requirements, and policy for the financial planning profession and the area of financial therapy.

And I want to give back by educating financial planning students to become the next wave of great financial planning practitioners (and hopefully, some academics)!

Beyond that, I’m working on creating further efficiencies of scale within my current firm while promoting those financial planners that are pioneering a new age in the profession by offering virtual client meetings and changing the way in which they are getting paid.

Without pioneers, where would we all be today?"

What hooked you on offering comprehensive financial planning services?

"In my opinion, comprehensive financial planning is where the value is at for our clients.

I didn’t want to sell to earn an income because, to me, that’s a conflict of interest (albeit any form of pay could be construed a 'conflict of interest'). I didn’t want to do just investment management, either, because that’s only one part of the entire financial spectrum of a client’s life.

There's so much more than investments. And is it really fair to try and beat the market year in and year out and call that financial planning? I don’t think so. 

I see a real value in offering comprehensive financial planning to clients. Those that don’t want to do that will have to niche and perhaps become a place to which true financial planners outsource their investment management."

What makes you passionate about helping Gen X and Gen Y individuals, couples, and families?

"I'm a Next Gen person myself. I think many people tend to want to work with those that are usually within ten to 15 years of their own age.

I hate when people say that you can’t work with a young person or a young family because they won’t be profitable. How do these people know? Have they thought about various business models and fee models that can be imposed to charge younger individuals?

Two mottos I live be are: (1) If you don’t try it, you won’t know the outcome and (2) If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.

This drives me to want to work with Gen X and Gen Y clients. I think it is absolutely necessary to help young people from an early age.

By utilizing technology and working on building in extremely efficient workflows into your practice, you can effectively and efficiently serve young people. They need and want the help, and want to be a part of the process.

Understandably, young people don’t always see the need for financial planning because they're young. This challenge helps drive me, too. Perhaps that’s the educator in me but that’s really what I want to do with respect to the client side of my work: be an educator to Millennials."

You've done an excellent job at utilizing social media to grow your network. What convinced you to be on these platforms and engaging with others right off the bat?

"I've always used LinkedIn, and have been on Twitter since October 2012, but I really got going with social media after reading something from Michael Kitces. I saw how he was using social media, primarily Twitter, to engage with other professionals and how that helped to provide credibility to him.

I wanted to mimic that so I actually emailed Michael directly asking questions about the future of the profession, blogging, and social media, among others. I asked how to get started and be relevant.

To that regard, Michael is the reason why I got started using social media. I'm glad I spoke with him when I did because it’s proven extremely valuable to me, personally and professionally."

How did you use social media to interact with established advisors and others in the profession, even before you graduated from university?

"The biggest thing I've done is consistently share the content of others across all the social media platforms I use. I've also used social media as a tool to engage others by commenting on the content they have shared, re-sharing their content, or acknowledging others for commenting on the content I share. Being active and engaging has proven to be valuable."

What social media platforms do you utilize, and why?

"Twitter – This is my favorite because it's my news source these days. You can utilize lists to follow people of certain professions or in my case, academics, practitioners, or friends which make it easier to view the content you want to see at any given point in time.

The ability to retweet is powerful and the fact that the messages are only limited to 140 characters makes it more likely that someone may read what you say. If they like it, they may actually click the link to read the content!

I share personal and professional information here to help people understand that I do care about other things than just finances.

LinkedIn – I've always liked LinkedIn but I don’t share much personal stuff here. I like sharing academic and professional articles and when I do, I add my own commentary as LinkedIn allows for much more than just 140 characters.

The ability to publish posts now is a pretty cool feature, too.

Facebook – It's still the largest social media platform. I do use it more personally than professionally but like to share some content that I think is extremely valuable to Millennials via this platform as most of my friends are on Facebook, and use it daily.

I'm careful to not overshare content on Facebook so as to not alienate my friends, but I try to share at least one really good article a week that is easy to read yet extremely helpful. I usually get some comments and likes and try to respond and thank those who do comment.

Google Plus –I’m not on this as much as I should be. Statista, a statistics portal shows that Google Plus is ahead of LinkedIn and Twitter in terms of number of users. That’s a big reason as to why I should use it more.

I like it and it’s very easy to use. My problem is that it is still kind of my last resort to sharing content. Google Plus also allows for at-length commentary but I don’t like to just copy and paste from LinkedIn so I try to write something a bit different.

With all four of these, it is important to tag others within your posts that you mention as it helps them and may help increase your viewership. Just be careful not to overuse the #hashtag!

I've also started to use Pinterest to pin articles that I think are relevant to academics, practitioners or Millennial clients, having set up various boards to pin to for each of those, respectively. I also use it Pinterest personally by pinning vacation spots, things to do in my hometown of Kansas City, books to read, and much more.

Any user can see that and see what I am interested in beyond just finances yet they can scroll through and see if anything may be applicable to them in the Millennial board I have created

I use Hootsuite to help organize and schedule my posts across all of these social media tools."

How have the relationships you've built, via social media, helped you in your career?

"The co-founder of XY Planning Network asked to feature me on an upcoming blog post! That is one of the neatest and biggest things that I have generated from my social media use to date.

I've also been able to develop relationships with so many financial planners and academics from around the country – all while having only been in this business for just over two years!

I wouldn’t have gone to the FPA NexGen Gathering in 2013, which ultimately led me to go to this year’s Gathering in 2014. Having been active on social media, it felt as if I knew at least half of the attendees before even meeting them face-to-face. It has also opened up the doors for excellent professional volunteering opportunities.

I was asked to be on the Kansas City FPA Board for 2014 to help implement social media into their business practices and was also recently selected to be on the NAPFA Genesis committee as their social media strategist. None of that would have happened had I not started using social media from the onset of my career."

Where can we find you online?

You can find Derek on a variety of platforms -- feel free to connect with him in the following places and say hi!

Derek Lawson


Follow on Twitter
Connect on LinkedIn
Engage on GooglePlus
Check out Derek's pins on Pinterest
Head to Sonas Financial Group

Derek also invited us to email him at or

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