Here we go again.
When Business Insider broke the news earlier this week that Range, a self-proclaimed “startup that’s training to give financial advice,” received $12 million in Series A venture capital funding led by Google’s AI-focused venture fund, I felt a familiar sense of déjà vu.
Having lived and worked inside two startups, served as an analyst studying both digital wealth startups and legacy firms simultaneously for a couple years, and as a journalist studying all of it for the last 23 years, I’ve seen, heard and worked for companies before proclaiming they were going to replace financial advisors, just like Range’s co-founder and CEO Fahad Hassan is quoted as saying in the story.
“We’re trying to make that wealth advisor a computer … and that will happen, it's just a matter of when, not if."
Tell me you haven’t heard that before.
Yet, here you all still are.
And of course, I needed to dig into this and know more.
According to the article, Range launched in 2021 and has hired several financial advisors to help train their AI model to ultimately replace advisors.
More detail could be found on the company’s About Us page and “letter from the co-founders” on its website.
“After getting married a few years ago, I found myself spending a lot of time dealing with a new challenge: Financial planning with a partner.
I spent the next two years doing what millions of people do; we updated a massive spreadsheet sporadically and emailed each other updates.
Our numbers quickly became stale, planning was hard, and we spent half the time getting on the same page. Plus we weren’t even sure if our calculations were correct!
Fed up, I started searching for a way to better "adult" with my finances.
After months of trying dozens of tools, I enlisted David, a brilliant engineer and friend to help me solve this problem.
Although highly engaged in his job at Amazon, he decided to leave his thrilling corporate work environment to help build a system, not just for me—but everyone who needed help managing their finances.
Since starting Range in 2021 through user interviews, research, and lots of testing we learned what was missing beyond a basic financial monitoring tool: Financial Planning.
Our users weren’t just looking to plug in some numbers and leave, but they wanted a platform to help them, their family members, and others, holistically guide them on a multi-decade journey. The problem we quickly uncovered, was the cost.
99% of Americans don’t have a financial planner—they are too expensive or have crazy investment minimums. Financial planning shouldn’t be reserved for the rich, it should be accessible to everyone.
Join us as we make this dream a reality for millions of people looking for more than a budget!
Fahad & David”
Oh, where to begin? Have these guys been living under a rock for the past decade? There have been alternatives to using spreadsheets since at least 2007, when Mint.com arrived.
And I suspect many hourly financial planners, or those who specialize in planning without being fee-based financial advisors, will take issue with much in the above too.
Now here’s where that déjà vu really set in.
In the “About” section of Range’s press release announcing the funding, the company states it intends to help in “democratizing access” to families in need of help with their finances.
No one can copyright those words, but I first saw them when I joined Wealthfront back in 2013 and it remains part of their mission and that of another incumbent robo advisor, Betterment.
Remember how they were supposed to replace financial advisors?
While many advisors still love to hate on those two firms, they did pioneer low-cost, fee-based investing (and now offer lots of other services, from financial planning to tax-loss harvesting to banking-like cash accounts).
Range on the other hand, currently offers investment services, tax planning, retirement planning, estate planning, insurance optimization and education planning services.
It works by taking the questions clients or prospects have for advisors or other forms of structured and unstructured data from them and feeding it into machine learning algorithms or applying generative AI to the process.
While it has no investment minimums, Range charges $4,800 for an annual platinum membership/$600 per quarter or $2,400 for an annual premium membership with no free trial.
"Why is there no free trial? We make an investment in our members to give them an exceptional service experience from day one,” according to the Range website.
And with the new funding, the company will “grow the product and engineering teams to accelerate offerings to Range's customers. Range plans to integrate their wealth management tools with various AI technologies to automate aspects of wealth and tax planning,” according to the company press release.
Range is not alone in doing this. In fact, the AI for financial advice field is growing quite crowded and will be the subject of an upcoming feature on WealthManagement.com. One of the most promising firms I’ve talked to for it intends to be a force multiplier for advisors.
In other words, rather than replacing the advisor, as Range would like to do, this other startup would help advisors handle three times the number of clients by the end of this year. Within in a few years it expects to ratchet that up by many times.
How? By allowing AI to answer a lot of questions and perform a lot of functions, like generating meeting summaries and converting them into action items (many of which it will be able to then do itself) and take over client communications (with advisor customization and oversight) as just a couple of examples.
The idea here being advisors can bring their own costs down, raise their productivity and in turn be able to serve many more clients better.
Not replace advisors but help them be more efficient. Much like many of the fintech tools you’re already using today.
What bothers me most is the apparent lack of attention to history among many venture capitalists and startup founders.
They do not take hard looks at what came before and because of it use a lot of capital reinventing the wheel before ever getting to the hard problems to solve. All too many of them fail too quickly.
My hope for Range is that it will not all be for naught; that their mission to replace advisors with AI can somehow meet in the middle with other AI intended to serve advisors and in turn better serve more clients. Synergy.
I have my doubts.