Attention millennials: Investing your money doesn't have to be the headache that it once seemed, at least according to up-and-comers in the fintech (financial technology) space.
In fact, many startups--including players like LearnVest (recently acquired by Northwestern Mutual for more than $250 million, according to several news reports), Betterment, and Wealthfront, to name a few--are now targeting a traditionally underserved demographic: people between the ages of 18 and 34. These companies meet youngsters at their own stomping grounds--the Web--by offering services online, and often with little-to-no minimum investments or fees.
They're filling a gap in the market that traditional banks have been reluctant to go after, considering that millennials tend to have low credit scores and little money to invest in the first place. Yet new research finds that this younger generation has other, unique attributes that make it a potential goldmine: Millennials are the most educated and diverse generation to date, according to an October 2014 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and they're also likely to be more frugal with their money. This is perhaps due to the fact that they saw their parents go through the housing crisis, or were themselves cast into the job market during the ides of the economic recession.
Enter: WiseBanyan, a two-year-old startup billing itself as "the world's first free financial advisor"--that means no management, trading, or balancing fees. WiseBanyan is a so-called robo advisor, meaning that it offers portfolio management services with little-to-no human interaction. The company, which is based in New York City and helmed by 28-year old co-founder Vicki Zhou, along with 32-year-old co-founder Herbert Moore, aims to encourage young people to start planning as early as possible. There is no minimum investment threshold to meet. A recent graduate, for example, can create a WiseBanyan ETF (exchange-traded fund) with as little as $10. Even that amount can accrue, Zhou explained to Inc., to thousands of dollars over time.
The name WiseBanyan--albeit, initially confusing--was a very intentional branding decision: "The banyan tree is prominent in Southeast Asia and Florida," Zhou explained. "They can grow to incredible size. Over time, the branches turn into roots. We want to help our clients plant their financial seeds, and if we are able to do it properly, they'll be able to grow their roots."
To what extent WiseBanyan itself is profitable, or can become profitable in the future, is unclear. Unlike the traditional financial services model, which prioritizes wealthy clients, WiseBanyan doesn't make money based on the size of a customer's account; instead the startup will charge for additional, a la carte services. Zhou says the company is working on a tax loss harvesting service, which will be a way for users to realize a loss on their (taxable) accounts in order to offset gains in the new fiscal year, but declined to discuss any other paid features in the works or WiseBanyan's financials.
Will the new investment model work? It certainly has skeptics.
"My concern for firms like that is that most of them are pretty much venture capital backed and that's how they're getting started. Long term, how does a firm like that make money?" asks Darrin Courtney, a research director specializing in wealth management at financial research firm CEB TowerGroup. To date, WiseBanyan has raised an undisclosed amount of funding from seven investors, including RenRen, Galvanize Venutres, and Innospring. Courtney doubts whether such firms can continue to exist--at least independently--five to 10 years down the line. He also adds that while robo advisers fill an interesting, niche space for personal finance, sometimes the types of investments that you can make there are limited.
WiseBanyan's CMO, Brian Ramirez, isn't concerned about the lack of investment variation at the company. Clients can't trade individual securities, but that's by design "because we focus on a passive management strategy that has lowered fees as much as possible," Ramirez says. "We instead provide a highly diversified portfolio for each client, and since we have lowered fees as much as possible, more of their money stays invested to earn market returns."
Currently, more than 8,000 customers are using the service (with roughly $30 million in assests under management), a significant portion of which are entrepreneurs, Zhou says. WiseBanyan often works with small-to-medium sized businesses that aren't always capable of offering their workers benefits such as 401Ks, acting as a resource to those employers.
WiseBanyan, in true robo advisor form, does everything online--a series of questions helps determine your risk tolerance and investment choices. If you want to speak with a human about your portfolio, that can be arranged. But before you can even join, you have to get on the wait list.
What do you think: would you trust your money with a robo-advisor?
Editor's note: This post has been updated since it first published to clarify that CEB TowerGroup is a research firm.