Revolutionizing wealth management with Jon Stein, Founder & CEO of Betterment

In this fourth episode of Focus on the Founder, Jon Stein, Co-founder & CEO of Betterment joins us to discuss his career journey, experience starting Betterment while in business school and thoughts on wealth management and investing more broadly.

Jon Stein (Founder & CEO, Betterment)

Achieving Personalization At-Scale

Betterment is a robo-advisor platform that provides investment advice and wealth management at a low price point. The wealth management space is fiercely competitive. Startups like Betterment, Wealthfront, and Robinhood as well as incumbents like Vanguard and Schwab have all entered the space, competing to provide personalized, low-cost advice to consumers.

Since Betterment launched in 2010, their assets under management have grown rapidly, reaching almost $12 billion earlier this month. During this conversation, Jon discusses his experiences growing Betterment, and how Betterment has succeeded in such a competitive environment through truly putting the customer first. As always, you can find the full podcast episode on SoundCloudiTunes, and Google Play.


Key Thoughts from Jon on…

The reasons behind founding Betterment:

While working for the First Manhattan Consulting Group, Jon advised some of the world’s largest banks and brokerages. In the process, Jon gained an insider’s perspective on how banks operate and serve their customers. His product-development engagements with banks typically involved working on the key aspects of their products such as default rates and internal transfer pricing. Notably, these larger players paid almost no attention to their customers during the product-development process, as they focused much more on optimizing their data and existing flows, which Jon found perplexing. While working in Australia, Jon encountered user-centric financial products not available in the US at the time, such as the mortgage-offset account which combines a traditional mortgage and deposit account.

These experiences helped frame the problem that Betterment aims to solve — that “the old way of managing money is broken.” Investment management should be held to a higher standard — one which focuses far more on consumers.

Building a team:

Jon committed to starting Betterment before starting his MBA at Columbia Business School. In the early days, building Betterment was a two-fold challenge — building the actual product and navigating the regulatory challenges of being an investment advisor.

Sean Owen, Jon’s roommate at the time, provided much of the early engineering expertise. Sean was a software engineer at Google who studied computer science at Harvard, and built the back-end of Betterment while Jon worked on the front-end. Jon eventually met Eli Broverman during a weekly poker game. Eli, who was then a securities attorney, provided the legal expertise and helped Jon navigate through complex regulatory landscape. Sean and Eli’s skillsets were diverse and congruent with the early challenges that Jon needed to solve.

The fundraising journey:

Betterment launched at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2010, where they competed against 500+ entrants, many of which had already raised some amount of funding. Betterment went on to win the competition, giving him crucial exposure to customers and investors. Immediately following the competition, Betterment signed up 400 new customers, who helped drive Betterment’s initial organic growth by way of referrals. The boost in credibility from the event made it easier to hire new employees, and helped Betterment rapidly grow from what was at the time a four-person team.

Just as important, preparing for the Disrupt presentation helped Jon and his team internalize their story and understand how to best pitch the idea. A month following the TechCrunch competition, Jon was able to raise $3 million from Bessemer Venture Partners.

How Betterment puts customers first:

Since the initial investment from Bessemer, Betterment has secured $275 million in funding and has grown significantly in employee count and AUM. In this period of growth, Jon doubled down on the theme of bringing the voice of the customer into every interaction. This focus has helped Betterment withstand the test of time and compete effectively against a host of startups and incumbents offering similar services.

Private Robo-Advisors in the Wealth-Technology Category

Source: CB Insights

Betterment puts the customer first by:

1. Personalizing advice

Betterment’s vision is to provide excellent financial guidance that is easy to understand and available to everyone. Betterment is unique in that it offers a spectrum of interaction-types: customers who prefer human interaction can receive hybrid-robo solutions through Betterment’s unlimited text messaging and premium telephone access services. By prioritizing the education of their end-user, Betterment offers a suite of solutions to improve consumer-access to financial markets.

2. Building trust

Financial services as an industry has historically had a low NPS. Betterment strives to build trust with its customers as both an ethical obligation and a means of differentiation. In addition to investment advice, Betterment publishes scores of articles helping consumers understand their personal finances, navigate through tax reform, and manage their expenses. Betterment also has no holdings of their own; thus, they eliminate many of the conflicts of interest present in most banks.

3. Combining responsibility with wealth creation

Betterment offers a way for consumers to hold well-diversified portfolios that are also socially responsible through their socially responsible investing (SRI) portfolio. Social responsibility doesn’t just afford Betterment an additional dimension of personalization; it also reflects well on their brand as an ethical investment advisor.

The future of investment management:

In this bull market, massive amounts of capital have been pushed into indices and ETFs, which represent a little over 10% of the global equity market capitalization. In fact, these indices and ETFs, spearheaded by firms like BlackRock and Vanguard, have outperformed an overwhelming majority of hedge funds.

Net flows into U.S.-based passively managed funds and out of active funds in the first half of each year

Source: Bloomberg, ICI

Jon explains that Betterment is here to stay even in increasingly likely bear market scenarios, as the same principles of minimizing cost and managing tax burdens that currently power Betterment’s platform still apply during downturns. Through careful risk-management, alternative investment strategies, and optimizing customer behavior to prevent market panic, Betterment aims not only to protect its customers in bear markets but also provide them competitive returns.

Announcing our new Podcast Series ‘Focus on the Founder’ with our first guest – Ryan Williams of Cadre

Over the years, we’ve heard from our founders here at Matrix that some of the best learning opportunities they’ve had has come from 1:1 conversations with other entrepreneurs. And while there is no shortage of resources for entrepreneurs (including content we have built at Viewpoints and forEntrepreneurs), there are very few public forums where successful founders and operators speak candidly about their career journeys and discuss what has/ has not worked for them as they’ve scaled their businesses.

That is why we are excited to announce ‘Focus on the Founder’ – a podcast series that will do exactly what it sounds like—bring the focus back on the founder. In the coming months, we will be releasing a series of episodes where we ask successful founders and operators questions about their journey into entrepreneurship, how they’ve gone about making critical decisions (e.g. hiring, fundraising, etc.) and what they would do differently looking back.

The initial focus will be on founders and senior execs in FinTech—though this may evolve over time. We will keep the episodes short, informal and frank. The very first episode is with Ryan Williams the CEO and co-founder of Cadre. You can find the podcast episode on SoundCloud, iTunes & Google Play.

In this episode you will learn about…

  • How Ryan went from selling headbands at age 13 to flipping houses in college to launching Cadre. Or as he puts it “Headbands to Houses to High Rises”
  • When the real “Aha” moment came for Ryan that led him to believe that there was a big opportunity in real estate technology
  • What Ryan believes is the single most important characteristic behind the success of companies like Amazon, Airbnb and Fidelity and how Cadre has embraced that characteristic
  • How Ryan works with his investors and the value they have provided to him beyond the obvious capital injection
  • The crucial metrics and KPIs that Cadre tracks and measures
  • What other areas Ryan is excited about and would explore if he were not building Cadre…hint some of them are pretty controversial in the venture world today

Money 2020: 12 lessons from this year’s conference

Earlier this week I attended Money2020 in Las Vegas. In just over 5 years, Money2020 has become the leading industry conference for everything to do with FinTech. It’s a jam-packed but valuable 4 days of expert panels, startup pitches, networking events and keynotes from industry leaders. I was there for just under 24 hours, which meant the experience was even more of a blur. This post is my attempt to capture twelve of the biggest learnings from the conference.

Lesson 1: Money is still the #1 biggest stressor for most Americans, understandably so. Dan Wernikoff from Intuit was one of the keynote speakers Tuesday morning and some of the data points he surfaced on consumer behaviors around money are sobering:

  1. 44% of Americans cannot come up with $400 for an emergency.
  2. 49% of Mint users spend more than they make.
  3. Intuit customers on average paid $1,700 a year in interest.

Lesson 2: Most financial institutions are not adequately meeting the needs of their customers. Despite the potential opportunity created by the high stress around money, banks and other financial institutions really struggle to provide the experience their customers need. This is in part because most financial institutions are product centric not customer centric. The result has been notoriously low NPS scores and a disenchanted end user. Even more alarmingly, most customers of the leading banking brands distrust their banks:

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Lesson 3: Among an already pretty unhappy customer base, millennials are the most disenfranchised of all. As Philippe Dintrans, Chief Digital Officer at Cognizant put it, most financial institutions are totally missing the mark with millennials. That is in part because millennials exhibit fundamentally different behaviors than earlier generations around things like savings. 63% of millennials are focused on saving towards desired life goals (e.g. getting out of student debt, purchasing a home, etc.) as compared to 45% of gen Xers and baby boomers. 55% of gen Xers and baby boomers are focused on developing savings towards retirement, where only 37% of millennials are planning for retirement

Lesson 4: FinTech startups have capitalized on the failures of incumbents by addressing specific pain-points with carefully designed products. The examples are smattered across financial services but a few examples that stand-out:

  • Wealth management was traditionally a confusing and fee-heavy landscape to navigate. Betterment created a beautiful and educational product that reduced fees and enabled a better user experience.
  • Peer-to-peer money transfers traditionally required a manual process that took days and trips to the bank. Venmo made it simple, quick and fun to do P2P payments.
  • SMBs used to have to use clunky check-out payment methods that locked them into a set location and required back-end processing to reconcile the books. Stripe enabled any merchant anywhere to accept payments with ease using an iPad.
  • Applying for, managing and refinancing loans was historically a painful process for most students. SoFi provided students with an easy way to apply for and refinance their loans all with the promise of a lower interest rate.

Lesson 5: Barriers to entry have never been lower to starting a FinTech business. It’s not just that the cost of starting a business in tech has been dramatically reduced (which has been well documented). In FinTech, there are also important industry-specific enablers allowing startups to enter and compete with the incumbents:

  • Insurgents don’t need a large balance sheet to open business. For example, marketplaces like LendingClub and Prosper connect borrowers and lenders without underwriting any of the loans.
  • Regulatory hurdles, for almost every sub-category within FinTech (with the exception of Blockchain / crypto assets), have been removed thanks to early pioneers like PayPal.
  • Platforms and developer tools like Stripe and Shopify have reduced development costs and time-to-market dramatically enabling SMB merchants to sell with the same ease as larger enterprises.

Lesson 6: Large and enduring companies have been and will continue to be built in FinTech. In two decades, PayPal, the “original” FinTech startup has reached a market cap of $84B. By comparison AMEX, which was founded a 167 years ago, has a market cap of $82B. Many more enduring companies will be built in FinTech in the years to come.

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Lesson 7: There is no shortage of venture money. As of today there are 36 FinTech unicorns globally – that number represents 17% of the total share of unicorns. The venture market has realized the breadth of opportunity in FinTech and more money has poured into FinTech than ever before. In 2008, the number of FinTech companies funded was just over 200. In 2016, the number of FinTech companies receiving venture capital exceeded 5,000. In the same time period, venture funding from a dollar perspective climbed from <$1B to close to $60B.

Lesson 8: Great companies are being built across categories. With this increase in FinTech funding, great new companies are being built and entire sub-categories, from payments to insurance, are being served in new ways. Some of the really big winners of today either didn’t exist or were in their infancy 10 years ago. A few examples include publicly traded companies (LendingClub, Square, etc.), unicorns (Stripe, Sofi, GreenSky, CreditKarma, AvidXchange, Gusto, etc,) and several others that are well on their way (Betterment, Affirm, Plaid, etc.)

Lesson 9: Many think that the big area of opportunity for FinTech is in Blockchain/ crypto assets but that may not necessarily be true. Blockchain/ crypto assets are certainly getting all the attention right now but there are plenty of other areas that are just as interesting on both the B2C and B2B sides of the table. Some areas that are particularly exciting include:

  • Consumer: (1) personal financial management, (2) insurance, (3) real estate and (4) investing / wealth management
  • Enterprise: (1) institutional investing, (2) infrastructure apps, (3) SMB tools, (4) commercial insurance and (5) security & fraud detection

Lesson 10: Blockchain – lots of noise but few clear signals. Bitcoin today is trading at $5,500+ per coin and the total market cap of all cryptocurrencies is $170B. ICOs meanwhile have raised $8B in 2017 to-date. In the midst of this some things are clearer than others. What is clear today is that crypto assets have a definite use case as a store of value. What’s less clear is how we get from there to the end goal of software with no central operator, which is the big promise behind blockchain. The big advantage to blockchain, as Adam Ludwin from Chain put it, is “censorship resistance” (access is unfettered and transactions are unstoppable) but we have yet to see killer applications that can cannibalize existing practices.

Lesson 11: It’s not all about the U.S. ~1/3 of today’s FinTech unicorns are outside the U.S. (Asia + Europe). U.S. FinTech companies can likely learn a bit from their peers in other geographies. Behavioral and cultural differences certainly exist but there are a few clear examples of this that came up during one of the payment-focused panels. For example, in China, WeChat is using messaging capability to allow social payments. Stan Chudnovsky, the Head of Product for Facebook’s Messenger, revealed during one of the payments sessions that Facebook is developing this and expects it to be a key use case in the next 18-24 months. But in this space we are certainly followers not leaders.

Lesson 12: The FinTech community grows more vibrant and robust each year. Money 2020 was founded 5 years ago and since its launch then has grown into the leading FinTech conference globally. There are now 11,000+ attendees, more than 1,700 CEOs & Presidents and 85 countries represented. Still a lot of opportunity ahead but the numbers speak clearly to the vibrancy and enthusiasm in the community. Many thanks to the founders of Money2020 Anil Aggarwal, Simran Aggarwal and Jonathan Weiner for another great conference. Looking forward to next year!