Betterment keeps growing as fintech competitors rise

Betterment, which Barron’s recently declared the largest independent online financial adviser, is betting that the future of online investing includes a blend of robot and human advisers. And the plan is working, according to chief executive Jon Stein.

However, incumbents like Vanguard have leveraged existing strengths to move in to the market, and other startups like Robinhood have carved out swathes of the fast-growing market. In response, Betterment has launched a series of new high-touch features on the platform, including “advice packages” that its users can buy to receive one-time advice from professional human experts.

In the interview below, Stein shares new details on the company’s growth, its plans to fend off the rise of commission-free trading, an eventual bear market and the many other challenges in the space, and eventually going public.

Gregg Schoenberg: Things have changed a lot for Betterment and the entire sector since we first sat down in early 2017. What are Betterment’s assets under management these days?

Jon Stein: We now have $15.5 billion under management and we’ve crossed 400,000 customers.

GS: Congratulations. Is each billion getting easier to accumulate or harder?

JS: We’ve seen acceleration every year we’ve been in the business. Back in the day, I like to say that it took us a year to get to our first $10 million under management. And then six months to get to $20 million, and three months to get to $30 million. Today, $10 million is a bad day. So the scale is far greater today because assets beget assets.

GS: That’s impressive, but when you look at the competitive environment, there are clearly some other online peers that have managed to build traction, and perhaps the incumbents watch you more closely now. What’s your core reason for optimism that when the dust settles, Betterment emerges better off?

JS: Part of it is our customer obsession and commitment to innovate around what the customer wants in financial services, and part of it is that it’s still very early in the journey for us. Just as Jeff Bezos always talks about his Day One, that’s how I feel about our space. We’ve got a long list of projects that we are working on and there’s so much more for us to do.

It’s about trust, and it’s about who you want to manage your money. Is it somebody whose sole focus is to help you make the most of it? Or somebody who is trying to gamify it or trying to make money off you in ways they’re not telling you about?

GS: But at the same time, you’re aware of Acorns and Robinhood and some others that are also building traction. Robinhood, for example, talks about becoming a full-service financial institution.

JS: I think some of these firms have different philosophies than what we do. I started this company because people were coming to ask me, “What should I do with my money?” It’s a really hard question, but we sought to excel on the three pillars that we think are most important in answering it: performance, convenience and peace of mind. I think that none of the companies you’ve mentioned do a better job than we do.

GS: Okay, but you have to acknowledge that dangling free commissions before a younger investor starting out is enticing, right? I mean, free works. Look at how Google and Facebook have trained a generation of people to expect free.

JS: Free isn’t new, right? There have been free offers for millions of years. I’ll agree with you that it’s powerful, but people are wise to the fact that companies are making money. And if the product that you’re being sold is free, well, you know, you’re the product.

GS: Right.

JS: And probably in ways that are less well aligned with your interests as a customer. We’ve always been transparent about our fee. It’s always been up front. That’s one of the ways we establish peace of mind. Because the only way we make money is that 25 basis point fee that we charge. That’s it. These other companies are selling you data, they’re trading against you—

GS: —You’re referring to selling the order flow?

JS: I’m saying order flow. I’m saying they’re actually selling trade data to other firms who can trade against you. They’re not there principally to make the most of your money. Betterment is. Betterment is a mission-driven company that’s going to make the most of our customer’s money, which is an increasingly unique position.

GS: So you’re really speaking to the issue of trust.

JS: It’s about trust, and it’s about who you want to manage your money. Is it somebody whose sole focus is to help you make the most of it? Or somebody who is trying to gamify it or trying to make money off you in ways they’re not telling you about?

GS: Let’s turn to the incumbents. Recently, your new board member, Donna Wells, said this: “Betterment is directly causing people to ask better informed and pretty uncomfortable questions of the incumbents.” Doesn’t that serve the ends of the Schwabs and Vanguards who have massive marketing and tech budgets? Haven’t you just motivated the behemoths?

JS: [Charles] Schwab is still trying to put everyone into cash and paying nothing on that cash. They’re trying to put all of their customers into their own funds and they make a lot of money off those funds — even though those funds probably aren’t what’s best for the customer. So they’re not acting in their customers’ best interests with the products they’re selling. Vanguard is a great company. We’ve learned a lot from them, but the only funds they’ll put you in on their platform are Vanguard funds. They refuse to look at other funds.

[Editor’s note: A Schwab representative contacted us to share the following about its product: “Cash: We do pay out on our cash; our cash earns around 0.6 percent, and we don’t charge fees on this allocation in a client’s portfolio. Funds: We use a mix of Schwab and third-party funds (ten total fund families from Schwab and other providers including Vanguard, iShares, and PowerShares).”]

GS: But you use Vanguard funds.

JS: Yes, we use a lot of Vanguard funds, but they’re not right for everything. Vanguard is a mutual fund sales company. That’s all they’re doing … selling you mutual funds. So these companies are not thinking about the customer. And none of these incumbents can do that because they have so much to lose from the way that they are doing business today. Also, it’s a big market. There are lots of companies out there. You named a couple of big ones. But if we think more broadly about financial services competition, there are other big firms out there. There’s Raymond James and Edward Jones and there’s Financial Engines, J.P. Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, etc.

GS: Right, and we’ll get back to J.P. and Goldman in a moment, but the competition–

JS: –All of these firms see what we’re doing. And I think our vision probably isn’t as unique as it was eight years ago because we’ve moved the industry forward. We’ve set a standard of what customers should expect. And lots of people are trying to run at that now. But we keep moving the standard down the field. And I think it’s going to get harder and harder for these firms to catch up. Will one or two get there? I wouldn’t be surprised. There are a lot of smart people running these firms. Will all of them get there? No. But it doesn’t worry me that we’ll have competition. There’s always been competition in this space.

GS: Fair enough, but when you talk specifically about Vanguard, whose robo has crossed $100 billion in assets under management, and Schwab’s, which has over $30 billion, what you’re saying is that you’re not fazed because your near-$16 billion is unconflicted.

JS: That’s a big piece. I could also expand on why we’re better than them from a customer perspective. Our mobile and web apps are better than what they produce. We also have higher-performance services; the tax management that we do is better than what anybody else offers. The kinds of reporting and tools that you get are better than anybody else’s. The behavioral guard rails that we have are better, too. So we give you more performance, more convenience, and I believe better peace of mind.

GS: I think that JP and Goldman are especially interesting to touch on. JP’s You Invest, as you know, is dangling free trading out there and Goldman has embraced retail customers through Marcus, buying Clarity Money, etc.

JS: I think it’s great that more and more folks are going after the zero commission model. Because I’ve always thought that commissions should be zero. And that’s going to compete things away, to where there’s no longer a real competitive advantage in having zero commissions. Right? It should just be the way it is. But ultimately, trading stocks is not a productive activity for most Americans.

GS: Some people like to be self-directed.

JS: There’s a segment that wants to do that because it’s like a hobby. But it’s not actually the way to make the most of your money. I compare the financial system that we’ve built to the healthcare system. Imagine if you had all the drugs on the shelf, and anyone could take as much as they want of anything. It’s all cheap, but there are no doctors. You would never design a healthcare system that way because everyone would basically have to become an expert in managing their own situation. And that’s really expensive for people who are engaged in other careers and have busy lives.

Something like 40% of the 2,000 people that we surveyed thought that the market hadn’t gone up since 2008.

GS: Despite Betterment’s customer-centric attributes, it’s not immune to the competitive realities out there. In fact, Betterment, by virtue of the teaser rates that it offers, is playing the game, too.

JS: Yes, we do have a deal where people get three months free if you refer a customer. That’s always been the No. 1 way that we’ve attracted people. And that’s kept our cost of customer acquisition low, and kept us growing faster and faster, while spending less money each year. And so I think we’ve got a model that continues to generate return. By the way, with all the competition that you’re talking about, we’re still growing more customers at a lower cost than we have in any year ever.

GS: Is there any color you can give me on your customer acquisition costs?

JS: We don’t reveal our customer acquisition costs publicly, but they are a fraction of the numbers that I see quoted publicly. They’re also a fraction of what I see in the financials of the big competitors out there.

GS: If you put Betterment’s name on a stadium, I’m going to call you out on that, Jon. I want to turn to the topic of individual stock trading and specifically, to this recent commercial you’re airing featuring the actress, Maggie Siff.

JS: Yes, they’re filming “Billions” near me.

GS: The commercial, as you know, features your tagline, Outsmart Average.

JS: Yes.

GS: As you also know, her character on “Billions,” Wendy Rhoades, isn’t helping Bobby Axelrod pick a diversified portfolio of low-cost ETFs. So while I understand your view that most people shouldn’t be in individual stocks, aren’t you using the Wendy Rhoades character to send your target market another message?

JS: Well, Maggie is a strong spokesperson, because across a number of different characters, she’s played someone who’s wise, a coach and a leader. This campaign came out of a place of shifting the conversation away from Betterment versus the old way of investing, which conjures up images of boiler-room brokers and all those bad practices that traditional finance is peddling. But the problem with talking about all of the negative things in the industry is that people often don’t want to hear that.

GS: We’ve heard it ad nauseam.

JS: Yes, most people don’t want to hear that they’ve been doing the wrong thing with their money for a long time. But what we discovered is that we can shift away from talking about the industry, and shift the focus on our customers. There are people who are okay with the way things are, and there are people who are constantly striving for more. For example, I’ve got the right credit card for going to restaurants because it gives me 4 percent back. I’ve also got the right one for buying other stuff.

GS: You get 4 percent cash back at restaurants?

JS: Yes, the Uber card gives you 4 percent back on certain restaurants. So I’m an optimizer. When I go on a vacation, I’ll look at a number of sites and figure out exactly what’s the best place to go, and then I’ll book an Airbnb in the best neighborhood. It’s the same when it comes to my money. I want it managed really well and I demand more than whatever the status quo provides. That’s who we serve and that’s what we’re saying in the commercial. It’s about people who demand better than the status quo.

GS: But no individual stocks?

JS: Individual stocks are fine. There’s nothing wrong with managing your money that way. It’s just not the way most people want to manage their money.

GS: Let’s talk about the bear market, which I’m absolutely certain will happen in our lifetimes. As you know, many of Betterment’s customers have never lived through a bear market as an investor. The standard thing to say is that when it comes, the right thing to do is to stay the course, think long-term, etc.

JS: Yes.

I’ve always said, we’re building an institution and building to go public. It’s something that we want to ultimately do. My view is we’ll probably be at least twice as big as we are today before we go out.

GS: What happens when the market headlines get really ugly and people start seeing a sea of red in their Betterment account?

JS: A bear market is bad for everyone in this industry, not just Betterment. And we’ve been preparing for that in a number of ways. One, we have messaging that we’ve tested and have shown can help make those customers stay the course. We’ll also do things like suggest that instead of just pulling all your money out, maybe you want to think about changing your allocation. Take 2008, for example. Betterment wasn’t yet in business, but we saw a lot of people blow themselves up by getting out of the market.

GS: It was very tempting to run for cover.

JS: Actually, we ran a survey of customer attitudes since then and it was shocking to me that something like 40 percent of the 2,000 people that we surveyed thought that the market hadn’t gone up since 2008.

GS: Wow.

JS: Yes, it’s sad. And I think back to our mission, which is to help people make the most of their money and keep them invested. So it’s important to us that we do that throughout the cycle. We’re also preparing for it by thinking about our strategic options.

GS: Can you elaborate?

JS: Just this month, we launched a smart saver account, which gets you a higher yield on your cash. It’s currently paying 1.83 percent net of all of our fees, and it’s actually higher than that if you consider that it’s a tax advantaged account.

GS: So that’s not FDIC-insured then.

JS: It’s not FDIC-insured, but it’s SIPC-insured. Another area that we think is an interesting countercyclical play is our B2B business. Throughout the market cycle, people are contributing to their retirement, which makes our 401k business an attractive place for us to be. Similarly, our Betterment for Advisors business is a good place for us to be investing.

GS: How do you feel about adding life insurance and college savings products?

JS: Actually, many people already are saving for college with Betterment through things like IRAs, which can be used for college. As far as life insurance is concerned, we’re talking to a lot of financial partners about it because we think it’s interesting.

GS: I agree. So last topic: When does Betterment go public?

JS: I’ve always said, we’re building an institution and building to go public. It’s something that we want to ultimately do. My view is we’ll probably be at least twice as big as we are today before we go out. Is that going to take two years or five years? I can’t tell you exactly when it’s going to be because It will depend not just on our scale, but also on the capital markets, and a lot of other factors. But we continue to drive towards it, and I believe we’re in a great position. We’re audited, we have an amazing finance team, we’ve got great risk management, security processes … all of those things that companies that are preparing to IPO ought to be doing.

GS: Well, you appear to be big enough, and you have a great customer base and everybody knows who Betterment is. But as you said, timing matters.

JS: Yes, and they’re probably aren’t enough public companies out there today. But there’s innovation happening around how companies go public, which is needed. I’m also really encouraged by what some of our peers are doing out in the market, and I want us to continue to innovate in financial services, even around our IPO.

GS: On that note, Jon, I wish you and the team great luck.

JS: Thanks very much, Gregg.

This interview has been edited for content, length and clarity.