Build Your Wings on the Way Down

Maria Caceres is a recruiter with State Farm Insurance and Financial Services Company.  She’s been with the company for ten years, spending seven years as a claims adjuster and the past three as an agent recruiter.

Before taking the time to answer’s Entrepreneur Exchange’s key interview questions about what it takes to make it in business today and offer her valuable feedback on “all things entrepreneurial,” Maria had this to say about her own journey to becoming a successful business owner:

I started out at State Farm as a claims adjuster.  As an adjuster I investigated accidents and determined liability.  At times I worked with agents that were advocating for their insured and I felt proud to be with a company that always stood by its clients.  When given the opportunity to recruit agents and be instrumental in identifying the Faces of State Farm, I jumped in head first.  Since starting my roles I have introduced many candidates to the insurance and financial services world.  Though the career title of insurance agent is not a “sexy” title, it is one of the most lucrative industries out there, with unlimited earning potential, especially if you are with the right company.

The State Farm Agent opportunity is said to be one of America’s best kept secrets.  State Farm offers three different types of business opportunities.  In all of our opportunities we offer financial incentive programs to grow your business.  Whether you get an existing book of business earning residual income immediately or start a new-market business (which State Farm may subsidize for up to five years), we set you up for success.  The capital investment money that we ask of you is to verify that you are financially in a place that you can invest in growing your business aggressively; it is not compensation for the book of business.  The training/internship program we have is six-to-eight months and is paid.  Training includes licensing, classroom time, self-study time and lastly working in an agent’s office.  In addition to all I have mentioned, we offer signing bonuses, production bonuses, travel incentives, and constant training and support throughout your career as a State Farm Agent.

How does someone know if they have what it takes to own their own business?

For the next couple of questions, I contacted one of my recruits, Stacy Tucker.  She is now a State Farm Agent in Vienna, VA.  This is what she had to say:

I knew I was ready because I have had prior successful ventures and I know I have the personal drive to be successful.  I also recognized that this was an opportunity that offered a comfortable lifestyle.  I had a good friend that was a State Farm Agent and I saw myself doing what he was doing.  What solidified my decision was going through the State Farm Agent process.  State Farm looks for core competencies that are essential in order for someone to be a success.  During the process, I was able to identify some key characteristics in myself that have enabled me to grow and develop in this role.

When I look back at my experience, the core competencies I have demonstrated are:

  • Financial resources
  • An established network (Due to my prior sales experience and involvement within the community, I came into the opportunity with a great network of people.)
  • Self-determination, not easily discouraged always looking for solutions
  • Results-driven
  • The desire to be successful
  • Competitive nature
  • Self-awareness (As a business owner you have to know your strengths and weaknesses.  As you start to build your team you hire a team that compliments your strengths and compensates for your weaknesses.)
  • Lastly, business acumen (Knowing the market, the cost to run the business and production numbers.  At the outset, State Farm has candidates prepare a business proposal that they are required to present, which is very helpful if you have never run a business before…like me.)

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your first six months in business?  How did you meet that challenge?

The biggest challenge is in identifying talent to hire.  Once you have hired the talent, the next challenge becomes how to keep the team engaged and motivated, constantly renewing their passion to achieve a unified vision and mission.  This is an ongoing challenge that all business owners face when leading a team.  State Farm provides tools, specialists and consultants that help in the hiring and training process.

I am a firm believer that there is no need to reinvent the wheel.  In the State Farm-agent community and through the specialists and consultants that State Farm offers at no charge, there are 101 ways, if not thousands of ways to meet these challenges.  It’s simply a matter of identifying which solutions work best for you and your team.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing business owners today and why?  Any suggestions for how to address those challenges?

I already mentioned one of them, which is recruiting top talent.  As to the why I think it’s the greatest challenge, it is a competitive job market.  As a business owner I have to make sure I am offering compensation that is competitive but at the same time I also have to offer a compensation plan that creates the incentive to drive sales.  Sales roles require a different type of person that is not all that common.  One of the programs that State Farm has enabled me to offer an entrepreneur such as myself is the opportunity to work for me for at least a year, full-time, to learn the business and drive results.  Then when the team member feels ready to pursue the agent opportunity for themselves, I am financially compensated, which is a win-win all around and allows us to attract the right talent.  State Farm understands that my office’s success contributes to the company’s overall future success.  This approach is also an awesome tool to encourage “buy in.”

Another challenge is the economy or perceptions about the economy.  State Farm historically has grown during difficult times due to the nature of the insurance industry, and I can say that the insurance industry as a whole is not as affected in the current economy as are other industries.  The fact that State Farm is a mutual company and is conservative in its investment practices has allowed us to remain profitable as well.

What is the single strongest piece of advice you would have for someone just starting out in business for themselves?

Watch your budget.  Develop and or learn “business acumen.”  KNOW YOUR CASH FLOW!

What would you say is the one thing that new business owners forget about or overlook when they’re just planning/starting out?

They overlook the fact that, even though it is their name on the business, it will take a team (as well as a family/support system) to be successful.  State Farm preaches this concept throughout the recruiting process, training and the lifetime of your career with them.  Very early on in the process my recruiter Maria Caceres encouraged me to bring members of my support system to our meetings where we discussed the investment of not only money into the business, but also the time and commitment level involved.  Also, you need to be aware that your passion for business will not be matched by those around you in your personal life.  Therefore, you have to constantly find ways to light the fire for your support system and your team, and you do that by knowing what drives them.

What is it about the business/industry you are in that made it so attractive to you?

There is so much that attracted me to the State Farm Agent opportunity.  I think it’s best to break it into two components:  First, why insurance?  And second, why State Farm?

So let’s start with Why insurance?:

  • The sustainability of the industry itself
  • The residual income from the book of business you get, plus all new productions
  • The ability to genuinely help people (As an insurance agent, I am there for my clients in good and bad times, but always with a helping hand.)
  • As an agent I am always looking for ways to get involved in the community and educate them on financial literacy and/or how to properly insure themselves.

And as for Why State Farm?:

  • No other company offers what State Farm does, starting with the insurance business opportunity to be able to compete for a book of business that is “GIVEN” to you to service and on which you can start earning residuals immediately
  • Depending on market growth and State Farm market share, even if you start with no book of business, State Farm subsidizes your business for up to five years.  State Farm also offers a premium builder program that allows the agent to get up to $135,000 in subsidies.  This money does not have to be paid back
  • A signing bonus of a minimum of $30,000
  • Six to nine months of PAID training
  • Tremendous brand recognition
  • The highest retention rate in the industry
  • Constant and top-notch support, not just specialists and consultants, but everyone from underwriting to our claims department as well
  • A winning formula that does not require you to reinvent the wheel; all I had to do was add my personal touch and I knew I was in for a win.

Lastly, as I researched other companies I decided I wanted to join the winning team.  State Farm is the #1 insurer of homes and autos in the United States.

After the initial start-up phase in business, what obstacles do business owners face as they try to grow their business and remain successful?  Any advice for how to overcome those obstacles?

The constant competition and price wars are obstacles that all business owners face when trying to grow their business.  As an insurance agent you have to differentiate yourself by providing superior customer service.  In my business it is all about building relationships.  How significant those relationships are will determine one’s ability to maintain them.  Also, much like a pop star, you have to almost recreate yourself and be able and willing to adjust your vision to the market you are servicing.

I strive with each and every one of my customers to create a unique experience in keeping with the concept of a “boutique insurance company.”

What did you do before you decided to become your own boss, and how have those skills helped you in your current business?

I had two major careers prior to becoming a State Farm Agent.  First as an executive assistant, I learned by watching how successful people became more successful by forging relationships, building trust and leading teams and always taking time to know or get to know their audience―whether it was someone they managed, a client or their direct superior.  This has helped me when leading my team.  I provide incentives for my team that are unique to their needs and goals.  I do the same for my clients.  By doing this, not only am I growing my business, but it’s also how I foster trust and lasting relationships.

My last role was as a real estate agent.  As a real estate agent I never lost luster even when the downturn in the economy hit the housing marketing.  I must say I was blessed to have been able to keep selling homes even then.  There were many skills that I picked up along the way, including:

  • How to properly build a network.  I strongly believe in the power of referrals.  In my real estate career, I was not only on the lookout for potential customers for myself but also for my network
  • Marketing strategies
  • Sales skills/closing the deal
  • Communication skills
  • Community ties (As a realtor, it was not only about selling a home but also working with non-profits to educate the community on buying a home and what to avoid.).

If you bought into an already existing business opportunity, distributorship, licensee opportunity or small franchise, how and why did you make that choice? 

With the State Farm opportunity you do not buy into an existing book of business, you compete for the book with other candidates that have been approved to compete.  As an approved candidate you can compete for any business opportunity, whether it’s a “traditional” with a book of business, a new market with up to five years of subsidies or as an agency intern.

The agency intern position is when State Farm hires an agent ahead of need.  The agent goes through the training just like other candidates that have been selected but after training, while everyone else is opening up their business, agency interns continue their field training until an agent business opportunity presents itself.  Usually when these positions are offered it is because State Farm is aware of some impending movement within the company.  Also, as a candidate, you can compete for any of the opportunities I mentioned above throughout the United States; State Farm offers a relocation program.  When I became approved there was an intern opportunity in the market area I was interested in, so I applied for that and I got the position.  Mid-way through my training, an agent unexpectedly retired and I then inherited a portion of her book.

So why did I make the choice to become an agency intern?  The number one reason was the marketing area.  Then many other factors come into play, as an agency intern position essentially becomes traditional since you are guaranteed a book of business.

What attracted me to a book of business was:

  • I had the financial resources to be able to hire a team to not only sell and cross-sell, but also to service the book of business
  • The residual income from the book of business helped me with the cost of doing business
  • As mentioned, it involved the prospect of cross-selling existing customers
  • There may already be systems in place to manage the book, but if not, you can always work with your support team or use another fellow-agents system.

What is/are your favorite motto and/or quote when it comes to business?  Any final words of encouragement and/or inspiration for the budding entrepreneur?

“Sometimes you just need to take the leap and build your wings on the way down,” by Kobi Yamada.

My finals words are:

All good things in life are those things that you usually have to work for, and that saying applies to this opportunity.  The State Farm Agent approval and selection process is not easy.  It is designed to encourage prospects to do their research and get the essential information they need to make an informed decision.  As with any relationship there needs to be commitment from both parties and the more you know the better and stronger the commitment will be.

So I challenge you if you’re at all interested in the insurance industry (or even if you’re just interested in starting a business of your own and you have some of the core competencies I mentioned above) to look into this opportunity.  I did, and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.