Pity the "affluent Americans." With financial futures too complex to be forecast or planned by Quicken or Mint, but with insufficient resources to get top-flight financial planning from a wealth management firm like Goldman Sachs, these (approximately) 15 million households are woefully underserved.
That's the start of the pitch from Personal Capital, a new financial adviser firm with a strong, free online financial management app. The founders I talked with, ex-Intuit execs Bill Harris and Jim Del Favero, told me that most financial planning tools just don't sell. Harris said, "I built a tax planning tool twice. It sold practically zero, both times."
So he's trying to build instead a "complete solution" for the connected, sort-of-high-net-worth consumer: a product that gives Mint-like ease of use and information, but with a focus on giving these users grown-up insight. In particular, Personal Capital shows you your investment allocation across all your accounts, so you can see if you're, for example, too heavily invested in U.S. stocks vs. emerging market stocks, bonds, currencies, and so on.
It'll also show you what fees you are paying for your funds (this I found to be the most eye-opening part of the service). And, like Mint and other financial apps, it will show you your cash positions, upcoming bills, and balances in all your accounts. But it's not a budget planner, per se. It's more a cash flow and income-and-expense monitor.
It's a good tool, but users should keep in mind that it's also a front-end for the company's money-making business, which is a financial advice service. Harris said Personal Capital's fees will be low, about half what traditional, non-teched-out advisers charge. And that the strong Web-based financial monitoring app will make communication between customer and adviser more effective and efficient.
Certainly the customer-acquisition engine is efficient. I got a call from a local adviser hours after I signed on to the app. Had I known that the phone number would be used for marketing as well as authentication, I might have thought twice about signing up.
Harris said that one of his advisers can handle about 200 paying customers. He has 10 licensed investor advisers so far, and plans to grow that to "hundreds" in five years, with the goal of putting $10 billion of assets under management.
Personal Capital takes the freemium model to an extreme, since the cost of the service it provides (and, to be fair, the potential value as well) is very high. The free app is pretty good, too. I'm not sure I'd wade into it if I wasn't seriously considering hiring an investment adviser; but if I was, as a technological consumer I'd probably be more comfortable with this Web-mediated relationship than with a lower-tech solution.
The company has a library of videos on the product.
- Product quality: Three out of five stars. The free financial app is solid and useful. Good but not Earth-shaking.
- Business quality: Five of five. This product doesn't have to be the next Mint to be a killer customer acquisition vehicle for the investment adviser side of the house.