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5 Silicon Valley Advice Trends

This blog was first published in Robeco Australia’s Insights newsletter, a monthly smorgasbord of advice-related content from one of the world’s leading investment engineering firms. To check out other great content that’s been produced for Robeco since this article first aired, visit this page.

I’ve just got back from a study tour to find out what some of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest fintech startups, advice firms and venture capitalists are doing in the field of advice and technology. Here are five trends it may be useful for you as an adviser to be aware of.

1. Ahead in advice, way behind in tech.

The general sense I got was fintech in the US is significantly advanced. This didn’t come as a surprise given San Francisco’s reign as the world capital of technological innovation.

Whether we’re talking budgeting tools, so-called robo-advice, or the blend between human advisers and robo-advice, the technology platforms I saw blew me away (except the actual banking system).

However, we have a lot to be proud of. Much of the US financial advice proposition remains mired in a pure investment story. Most advisers we met seemed unable to charge anything other than an asset-based fee (typically 1% on ongoing FUA or less). It’s an interesting contrast. They have superior tools to unlock scale and engagement in business systems, whereas we have a superior track record of being able to get clients to pay for advice.

Imagine what the baby would look like.

2. A thousand clients and fifty-dollar advice.

Richard Arnold was one of many standout speakers for me. A long-time Silicon Valley stalwart, he sought to challenge thinking around what a future advice firm would look like. In doing so he gave me a very real sense of how Silicon Valley thinks bigger.

One statement stuck with me. “[The Valley] are building software to eat your world”.

Whereas we may be asking how advice firms can adapt to the changing consumer landscape, he suggested we start habitually asking what would advise could, might and will look like in 20 years.

Given the rate of technological change, will advisers even exist, or will it be adviser’s digital avatars interacting with client avatars?

As an immediate challenge he asked to consider how an advice firm could provide entry-level advice to a thousand clients per adviser at a price point of $50.

It’s an interesting problem. Provided the right technology and service model was employed, it could not only free up advisers from lower value, manual work-arounds and interactions, but also provide a less labour-intensive leadgen opportunities


3. It’s all about the Wellness. Hightower Advisers are America’s largest independent advice firm, and they gave an insight into what an industrial-strength independent firm looks like.

This is no small fry practice, but rather a group that earned $200m+ worth of funding when they launched.

One of the most interesting things to hear from them about was the marketing angle they’re now taking on.

In 2008, they enthusiastically came out punching with messaging like, “Wall Street is broken,” and “Conflicted?” By their own words, they found that even their campaign went too far.

Now their research is telling them that the new value of financial advice will be in representing it as a means of achieving personal wellbeing, as well as financial fitness.

That alone will give confidence to many advisers in Australia who are thinking along similar lines.

4. The message matters more than ever.

One of the most insightful experiences was visiting Yodlee’s fintech startup incubator, and hearing a number of hugely capable, enthusiastic (and young!) entrepreneurs, some with no direct experience of providing financial advice, going after the industry anyway.

What struck home to me is the importance of the message.

We live in a world where the volume of marketing being thrown at consumers every day almost negates any approach other than skimming through information.

This means a convoluted message about the value of advice just isn’t going to get cut-through.

Levanto, one really interesting startup from the Yodlee stable, shared a relevant story of trialing three value propositions.

Their first try was to offer clients a path to financial wellness. They discovered their target clientele didn’t consider themselves financially unwell in the first place. Food for thought for Aussie firms marketing themselves as a solution to problems many clients may not even feel they have.

Their second iteration was to talk about being their client’s personal bookkeeper. Makes sense, but not to their time-poor target market, who research showed perceived a bookkeeper as a resource they needed to give direction to.

The current value proposition – Your Household CFO – worked, speaking to the fact that their target market wants expert direction and financial leadership but in a scalable, modern way.

It casts a light on value propositions in Australia, and asks the question on whether, to survive in the online world, we need to get much, much better at succinctly explaining why advice benefits.

5. Australia isn’t such a small market.

It’s hard not to be awed by the size of the US market. Thirty-three trillion in retail funds (of which US robo-advisers only capture twelve billion – not much at all).

Sure, the American market is big and some of the investment money being thrown at aggregating advisory firms is in the hundreds of millions, funding Australian firms don’t have the luxury of.

However, at least 50% of the investors and firms we spoke were more than aware of the retirement market in Australia, rating it as anything between second to the fifth largest in the world.

With the recent low-key entry of the American robo-adviser FutureAdvisor into Australia, it makes we wonder, how long before we see increasing interest in our industry from overseas?

That final point alone might make more advisers start asking whether their business models are at threat of wider disruption.

However, just as easily you could consider whether the scale plays being implemented in America, transplanted to Australia, could actually be the best thing to happen to the business of advice for quite some time.

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