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AGE of the APP

AGE of the APP

Mobility is no longer an option-it's fast becoming a business necessity.

Building a web site used to be mission critical for registered reps eager to support current clients and fish for new investors. Today, it's all about the app — bite-size programs residing on smart phones and tablets that can tunnel into financial planning data, contact management systems and any other information reps may want to grab on the go.

With most leading financial services programs offering mobile access, downloading an app for an iPhone, Blackberry or even Android-supported phone is a click away. Performance reporting giant Black Diamond, document firm Laserfiche, and customer relationship management (CRM) company are just a few examples that let advisors access portfolio data, new account forms and contacts from their mobile devices.

But what about designing your own app that connects to several programs from just one icon? A mobile combination of office-based platforms that can grab not just data, but tunnel into any software a rep may need from their mobile device? For financial services firms with deep enough pockets, that time has come. The day when smaller outfits will be able to create versions of their own is just on the horizon.

All kinds of firms, from the Waltham, Mass.- based Pyxis Mobile and the New York-based StoryDesk to the Chennai, India-based Market Simplified, are approaching this up-and-coming industry standard, and even in some cases supporting compliance needs. They all understand that reps are taking their business on the road. They're watching as advisors are leaning more on mobile devices, because clients are gravitating to this space, too.

Access On The Go

ComScore saw a 120 percent jump last year in the number of people accessing financial data, including their brokerage accounts, via a mobile app — up to 10.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2010 from 4.9 million in the fourth quarter of 2009. Reps are following suit, with adoption of tablet computers, including iPads, now at about 40 percent among the more than 250 reps recently surveyed by data aggregator ByAllAccounts. Of these, 48.9 percent said the iPad specifically “helps them be more responsive to clients,” according to the report. Mobility is no longer an option — it's fast becoming a business necessity.

Perhaps there are reps for whom a majority of clients are still comfortable coming into the office for quarterly updates. But unless an advisor works from home, questions and calls about the fluctuating market — and its effect on a client's portfolio — can come at any hour. Being able to pick up a phone, iPad or Touchpad and answer that question from the car, a Jets game, or 30,000 feet in the air is a requirement in today's instant, always-connected business world.

“Traditionally an advisor would have systems available on their desktop to look at specifics and transactions,” says Steven Levy, CEO of Pyxis Mobile, a firm that started by building mobile apps for Palm Pilots. “But advisors are doing more and more business on the road. And while they used to bring a stack of paper, or write questions down and get back to you, now clients want answers on the spot. And advisors want a tool that can do that.”

Pyxis gets that — and also that reps not comfortable with technology don't want to be left out of this new trend. With its drag and drop environment, Pyxis helps users build apps from existing templates, while also supporting firms that want to create a more customized app to better fit their own company's needs. The final product can also work on multiple platforms so that the app appears native to whatever device a rep may use — looking like an iPhone app on the iPhone or a Blackberry app on that tool. Few independent firms have signed up for Pyxis's service, however, says Levy, with price possibly a factor. Templates start at $20,000 for a one-year license, and Levy says it's not uncommon for a firm to pay $60,000 to $70,000 for something more customized.

But Levy says firms are also asking for more — often an iPad app that can aggregate several programs at once, plus bring up real-time information, client data and portfolio specifics all through one icon. For reps willing to work from a more simplified template, Pyxis can get them up and running within two weeks. More customized versions may take up to six months.

App Adoption Growing

Cynthia Stevens, the vice president of marketing at ByAllAccounts, believes that the number of reps looking to integrate iPads with clients is substantial, and for good reason. In its recent survey, the Woburn, Mass. firm found that 50 percent of reps felt the iPad and its applications enhanced client meetings. Among the most popular programs they used on the device were portfolio and stock applications, CRM, and account management platforms. Stevens says reps are clearly eyeing the device as more than a gee-whiz gadget, and as something with more business potential.

“But the key is not adoption,” she says. “It's how useful it is in supporting their business, and how they use it in meetings with clients going forward.”

Levy agrees that the “usefulness” of an app is crucial. For apps built on Pyxis' platform, reps can stay compliant while on the road, having notifications pushed to their mobile device when portfolios are out of compliance. Plus all data queries are run back through the office server, creating an audit trail that complies with regulatory rulings as well. And this is in addition to supporting basic needs — from accessing contacts, grabbing portfolio data and even pulling up needed literature, to opening new accounts when traveling.

Courting Independents

While Pyxis works occasionally with smaller firms, most companies that create apps are aimed at bigger enterprise companies. Until now, Market Simplified fell into this area as well, working primarily with large financial and banking firms to allow access to customer contact details as well as supporting trading on mobile platforms. For the most part, independents have been unable to afford the India-based firm's service, nor have they been the company's focus, says CEO and co-founder, Venkat Rangan.

“Native applications aren't that simple to make,” he says. “They're not really cheap.”

Yet, the company believes that all reps — even independents — need to adopt mobile devices in their business quickly, or risk losing what they say will be the dominant way advisors and clients will access data in the near future. “Mobile data usage growth points to mobile becoming the default point of access in around 3-5 years, if not earlier,” the company recently wrote in a white paper.

With that horizon in mind, Rangan says Market Simplified is planning to offer app templates as a more affordable solution for smaller companies by passing along the benefits of the customized work they've done so far for larger advisories. The plan is to have these up and running within the next six to nine months, says Rangan.

“We are hoping to crack the business model for the smaller advisory,” he says.

Visual Tale

Jordan Stolper believes apps are the perfect tool for registered reps of all sizes — from large firms to smaller shops. But with his firm StoryDesk starting at $39 a month for an app, its price point is much more realistic for independents.

To Stolper, a customized app that can visually explain a client's or prospect's financial future is a logical tool for any advisor.

“Prospects are walking into a meeting where the line keeps climbing to the right,” he says. “That's someone's college savings account, a retirement fund, someone's net worth. So the visuals attached to these ideas are some of the most important in somebody's life.”

StoryDesk's primary focus is crafting customized apps that work as marketing pitches. Its off-the-shelf product, CatalogApp, starts at $39 a month, with more than 300 companies using the template to craft sales brochures for their product lines, says Stolper. Changes to the apps are simple to make, and included in the price. But financial firms tend to gravitate to more customized versions which start at $10,000, says Stolper; they include a Los Angeles-based asset firm with approximately 400 reps as well as a Dallas firm with 40 advisors, which StoryDesk is in talks with now.

While StoryDesk's platform currently works just on the iPad, the company is building an Android version, as well as a way for users to leave a copy of their customized app behind with prospective clients, so they can read, interact and play with it on their own.

“This is a way for a sophisticated financial advisor to walk into a living room or office and have a really interactive and intimate experience with a prospect,” says Stolper.

Mobility: The New Norm

While Timothy Welsh doesn't work directly with investors, he believes that iPad use among reps is rising and likely to continue. As the CEO of Larkspur, Calif. firm, Nexus Strategy LLC, Welsh advises reps on how to market and competitively position their firms, and says he's seen firms start to give iPads to their reps as business tools in working with investors.

While Welsh believes that few small independents are going to want to build an iPad app from scratch for themselves, he knows they're going to continue to adopt mobility in the way they run and conduct their business — just as he himself now leans mostly on his iPhone and MacBook Pro for work. Still, if a parent company or broker/dealer has customized an app for a rep's use, they're very likely to adopt these tools, especially as clients continue to gravitate toward a mobile environment and reps look for any edge in reaching them.

“It's really an evolutionary change,” he says. “I won't call out and say everyone will be running their business through mobile access, but the majority of people will. Ultimately, like in any industry, you become a dinosaur if you don't change, and that same trend is going to happen in the advisory world.”

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