How One Startup is Digitizing the Business of Finance
The world of personal finance is slowly experiencing an Internet revolution, but many still rely on the old brick-and-mortar shops for advice about investing, mortgages, retirement accounts and other complex financial processes.
Personal Capital, a California-based startup, is seeking to change all that by fusing the worlds of finance and technology.
The Mint-like funds tracker provides services catered to people who manage a wide variety of finances—a mortgage, a retirement fund and so on. And Personal Capital also offers customer-focused financial advice over the phone, via e-mail and through video chat.
I spoke with Personal Capital's CEO, Bill Harris, to talk about how his company is disrupting the entire financial industry and bringing everything online.
Personal Capital's philosophy
Personal Capital, says Harris, isn't meant for the person in their 20s with a basic job, savings account and credit card: "Once you've got complex finances, this is where we can help." The company is going after a "relatively small" group of people that have to pay close attention to their financial lives. So far, the company has 10,000 people representing more than $2 billion in assets; it raised $27 million before launch.
"The mission that we're on now is to revolutionize how financial services are delivered in this country," says Harris. "Financial services are being delivered in a way they've always been delivered for the past 50 years—predominately through physical distribution channels, like brick-and-mortar bank branches, adviser offices, paper processes, things like that."
Harris says the key is to ditch the shops and bring everything to the Internet.
"We have the point of view that this is one of the two industries that be the most fundamentally changed by the Internet," says Harris. "Many industries will be changed, but I think the two most completely revolutionized businesses are media and finance—with both, you can do an entire transaction virtually."
"Amazon still needs little brown trucks to deliver your goods," added Harris. "But with sales and media, entire transactions in both directions can be quicker, easier, less costly, more efficient and at the end of the day, better if they're all electronic."
Harris says his scrappy financial startup can compete with the Charles Schwabs and Bank of Americas of the world for two reasons: the novelty and convenience of the service, and the difficult transition that existing financial institutions must make in order to compete in the digital sphere.
Harris' team offers financial advice that can be delivered over the phone, through e-mail or via a live video chat. If customers use the video chat feature, Personal Capital has a "screen-share" mode, which guarantees an adviser and a customer are both on the same page—literally. The video chat mode also works on the company's iPad app, via Apple's FaceTime.
"Most people need and want an interpersonal relationship, a human-to-human bond to discuss and simplify this, and we do that," says Harris. "We deliver that not by sitting in a shopping mall or some office where you have to make an appointment—we deliver that virtually. If you’re on the Web, the adviser can co-browse and see exactly what you’re seeing, so you’re having a face-to-face relationship while you’re looking at your data from anywhere, at any time."
Moving into the future, Harris' two goals including serving "as many customers as they can," and doing more "actual asset management" for those users. He says he'd love to see 100,000 users with $10 billion in assets on board, then one million users with $100 billion in assets.