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launchpad-labs-wealthstack-edge.jpg Photo by Edin Chavez Photography Inc

At WealthStack, Smaller Tech Firms Inspire, While Some 'Experts' Need a History Lesson

Our technology columnist shares some of what inspired—and irritated—him at this year’s WealthStack conference.

I have been to a lot of large consumer technology conferences over the years, beginning with my tenure on the staff at PC Magazine in the early days of the tech boom. Most of them impressed me with the glitz and high-end production values, as well as exhibit halls brimming with cutting-edge technology and crowds of smart, well-dressed people.

By contrast, many of the advisor conferences I have attended over the past 16 years or so, as my professional focus narrowed to financial tech, just did not compare. That is, until I attended the Wealth Management EDGE conference at The Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood Beach, Fla., last week, the event associated with this publication, The event pulls together two legacy events, Inside ETFs and WealthStack, with a newer offering, RIA Edge, which focuses on providing workshops, research, roundtables and curated events for decision-makers at fast-growing RIAs.

In its third iteration, a lot of things came together, and I was taken aback by the many advisors and vendors coming up to me, thanking and congratulating us on pulling it off.

They remarked on shifts in the physical layout of the event they liked, how well the program flowed, and the quality of speakers and content that resonated beyond shallow observations or performative self-congratulations from the stage. This was, at heart, a conference truly for financial advisors, with full-blown investment and technology tracks baked in.

That is as it should be, I suppose, given that the publication’s parent company, Informa PLC, is a global events company with a lot of expertise and talent when it comes to putting on a show. They are very good at it.

WealthStack LaunchPad Labs

Even so, I’m partial to my corner of this three-legged stool: the WealthStack track.

Sure, there was a lot of glitz and glamor, and plenty of big-name speakers and large incumbent firms participating.

But as an observer of the changes in technology in the advisor space over the past 16 years, what gave me the most hope for the future was a smaller contribution to the program that holds, I think, a lot of promise. 

WealthStack Director Shannon Rosic and I cooked up the idea of what became LaunchPad Labs several months ago. She brought it to fruition, and in a corner of the exhibit hall were 10 up-and-coming advice tech startups. These are firms that may have smaller budgets to travel to events but deserve a space in any discussion of advisor technology.

There were a few there that have some name recognition, like Bento Engine, FP Alpha, Fabric, and Income Lab. Others will be new to many advisors.

One of the newer names there was Finology Software, which has been in closed beta phase with plans to launch later this summer.

I chatted at length with its founder and CEO, Alex Bottom, and got a demo of the technology he created to help advisors integrate student loans into financial plans—think doctors and lawyers or corporate executives with MBAs: all high earners, good long-term clients, but with high student loan liabilities. Finology helps streamline the loans into financial plans, creates automated data feeds for federal income–driven repayment plans and tracks progress when completing specialized forms for things like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Why do I find this inspiring?

Alex and his small team of developers have created technology that both helps solve a burdensome societal problem and allows advisors to build better practices specializing in working with HENRYs (short for high earners, not rich yet).

A lot of midsize- to larger firms have little interest in engaging with young, debt-ridden, as-yet-asset-light lawyers, doctors and MBAs. There are plenty of younger advisors who see their potential as loyal long-term clients but—until now—lacked the tools or specialized expertise to help with the complexities and processes that come with student debt in a high-earner’s plan.

I find it inspirational that we have reached a time when a small team can build, within a couple of years, technology that will soon likely be integrated with other parts of the advisor tech ecosystem and, in turn, create opportunities for advisors to work with underserved clients.

On the other side of the client’s life spectrum, I’ve been irritated for years at how ill-prepared most advisors are when it comes to serving clients with technology designed for retirement income planning.

So, I was glad to spend some time with Johnny Poulsen, co-founder and CEO of Income Lab, which debuted its Retirement Stress Test tool a week ago. I saw a demo of that software as well.

Using many well-designed graphics, most of them interactive, the software intuitively illustrates sources of income and how various hypothetical changes over time can affect it.   

Also found in the Labs was Alan Gurung, who joined the conference after hopping the pond from his startup's headquarters in London.

His generative AI startup, called SIFA (short for super independent financial advisor), is profiled as part of an artificial intelligence package we will be publishing online in the near future.

Gurung’s startup is another example emblematic of this trend I see where small teams can develop sophisticated solutions to automate specific aspects of advisors’ workloads—in this case client communications.

Historical Perspective

I’ll admit that I’m often preoccupied with history in my work as a technology journalist; at times I’m just perturbed by how little focus others give it.

A speaker at the conference—I’ll hold back the name as the statement was well intentioned and there is no need to embarrass them—called for “some sort of integration standard” and implored those in the audience to “come together.”

As evidence of the need, the speaker put up the latest iteration of Kitces’ ever-growing technology vendor map. The speaker was seemingly unaware the “industry” has been aware of a need for standards and integrations, and indeed has been discussing the topic for a long time.

I first wrote about this 13 years ago; yes in 2010, a group of 25 independent advisor software companies had banded together and formed a consortium called Your Silver Bullet LLC to create frameworks and standards for integration.

Interviewed in that story: Orion’s Eric Clarke, Wealthspire partner Greg Friedman (then owner of Friedman Associates and CRM application Junxure) and Dusty Huxford, who had recently sold his portfolio management application dbCAMs to Morningstar.

So, to be clear, the desire for the benefits of integration in the advisory industry is not a new discovery; the topic runs deep. That endeavor failed due to lack of broader support.

But go back to the consumer tech example at the beginning of this column: From digital services to tech conferences, the advice space is a decade behind, but will eventually catch up to, the consumer space. And that includes integrations and standardizations.

For example, chances are good you are reading this on a laptop connected wirelessly to the internet via a WiFi chipset. You have the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry trade association and consortium, and the IEEE 802.11 working group to thank for that, all coming together when competing players decided they had more to gain by sharing standards than they did by creating silos.

Everyone in the advice tech space is aware of the need for a similar reckoning. It’s only a matter of time.

TAGS: Technology
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