Financial Planning Startup Wealthfront Woos Silicon Valley Workers With A Once-Secret Investment Trick

Wealthfront, a Palo Alto-based startup that wants to democratize wealth management, is giving users access to a once-exclusive investment trick called tax loss harvesting that lets them boost their long-term returns.

It sounds wonky, but the strategy basically entails selling poorly performing investments at the end of the year so that they can be written off against gains in a portfolio, reducing an overall tax bill. (There’s a video that explains it below.)

Wealthfront says that this technique can boost after-tax returns by more than 1 percent a year. Over 20 years, that could be more than $50,000 more in returns on a $100,000 portfolio.

“We’ve always wanted to bring what premier endowments and wealth managers do to the masses,” said CEO Andy Rachleff, who also co-founded one of the Valley’s better-known venture firms Benchmark Capital. “Tax-loss harvesting used to be done all manually and it was only available to people with $10 to 20 million.”

Offering tax-loss harvesting is yet another lure for potential customers. Wealthfront, which used to be known as Kaching and was a social investment site, changed strategies over the past few years to offer low-cost, long-term investment management services.

Based on your age and risk tolerance, the site will recommend a certain balance between higher-risk investments like stocks and lower-risk ones like bonds. It takes a lower management fee of around 0.25 percent (instead of the 1 to 1.5% rate a mutual fund might charge.)

They can offer lower-management fees by automatically offering a mix of investments in exchange-traded funds (which have lower fees). Wealthfront doesn’t get any affiliate revenue for recommending certain funds over others, so Rachleff says this makes them relatively unbiased.

Rachleff says assets under management are growing at roughly 15 percent month over month (but he’s not disclosing the raw amount.) He says that the site’s largest accountt is $2.5 million and the smallest is $5,000. The average is around $50,000.

The 20-person startup is focused on growing clientele among Silicon Valley’s “working” class, like engineers and product managers that want to manage their savings or recent windfalls from acquisitions or IPOs.

The thinking is that these types of customers will be more comfortable having another startup manage part of their savings. That’s why Wealthfront has been doing these savvy and very viral infographics on startup compensation.

“If you’re fortunate enough to work for a successful company, we can manage the investment of those proceeds and do it in a really high-quality and low-cost fashion,” Rachleff said.

What is Tax-Loss Harvesting? from Wealthfront on Vimeo.