If you build your own robo, will clients come?

Advisers can try the do-it-yourself model to compete with automated investment services

Aug 14, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

By Alessandra Malito

As if there weren't already enough options in the robo-adviser movement for financial advisers, now there's yet another: the build-your-own digital platform.

Advisers who want a fully customized option for launching an online automated investment platform — and don't want to use any of the robo-advisers that cater to wealth-management professionals — can create their own, with a little help from the experts.

It's worth considering the option, especially as more and more advisers are slowly but surely adopting a robo-service for their firm. In the 2015 InvestmentNews Technology Study, 3% of the 234 advisers surveyed said they currently offer some sort of robo-advice platform. When asked if they plan to offer automated investment advice in the next six-to-12 months, 11% said yes.

Tradier, a cloud-based, open-source brokerage technology provider, creates white-labeled online investment platforms for advisory firms and other financial-services companies. Dan Raju, chief executive of Tradier, said advisers pick the build-it-yourself option for robos because they want to stand out from everyone else.

"From the trending perspective, there is a lot more of a demand to differentiate themselves in the market, rather than offer traditional run-of-the-mill products," Mr. Raju said.

Tradier charges up to 16 basis points to build a customized white-labeled robo service. Advisers have the option to create it from scratch within a few weeks or choose an ready-built platform they can launch right away.

It also gives advisers a chance to shine a light on what they find to be the most important features of a robo-adviser. Mr. Raju said some clients have focused on the mobile experience, while others may want to target a particular audience, such as baby boomers or a younger crowd.

"It's totally about your brand and your brand value," Mr. Raju said.

For the entrepreneurial adviser, there's an even more microscopic way to build your own robo. Wealthbot.io, a new robo-adviser-building website targeting wealth management firms, has open architecture that provides coding for the ambitious adviser. From there, advisers — or, more likely, their web developers or other IT staff — can build the entire platform from scratch.

Gene Kobilansky, the founder of Wealthbot.io, said such a system offers flexibility and reduces the cost of ownership. With self-built robos, not only are advisers promoting their own brands, they also are wiping away the additional costs they would have to pay to a third-party vendor.

"If you look at the industry right now, a lot of advisers are ... feeling a lot of pressure for every basis point they have to pay to another provider," Mr. Kobilansky said. "They have to add that cost to customers."

Advisers do need to consider the value that a robo-adviser would bring to the practice and how much they should charge. Some choose a flat fee, while others have a tiered pricing structure.

Advisor Software, a digital advice technology provider for advisers, also has an open-architecture program in place, similar to Wealthbot.io. Erik Jepson, chief customer officer at Advisor Software, said the company also builds its own white-label robo-advisers.

Mr. Jepson agreed that there are many reasons advisers would want to build their own robo.

“One problem with white-label solutions is they are kind of ubiquitous. Everyone has the same one,” he said. And “the ones on the market today are pretty expensive.”

Laura Varas, a principal at financial services research firm Hearts & Wallets, said robo-advisers can be categorized by those that provide products, like Betterment and Motif, and those with an advice focus, like Learnvest and FlexScore. The latter type, she said, is more like a store experience where consumers can talk to an employee, whereas the first has become more of a commodity.

"When you say robo and I am an adviser, I'm wondering which kind am I going to offer?" Ms. Varas said. "The types of things people expect from products and stores is totally different."

While the do-it-yourself robo model may be fully customizable, Ms. Varas doesn't believe many advisers will want to pursue that route.

"What it takes to build that is an especially sturdy constitution," Ms. Varas said. "Most advisers would be better off renting it."

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