Alexandria: Sean, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. I am so excited our listeners get to hear from you and learn more about YCharts.
Sean: Oh I’m more excited on my end. Thank you for having me on.
Alexandria: So I think we should just go right ahead because I am really excited about just the month of February. We are talking about all things fintech and I know this is just the space where you guys are really thriving but before we really talk about YCharts and your position there, I want to get a little bit … have at least the listeners know a little bit more about Sean. So if you could start with maybe how you got into finance or what your first job was starting out.
Sean: Yeah, I graduated from undergraduate with a finance degree and I realized I knew nothing about technology so my first job out of school I actually threw myself in over my head and became a software developer at what’s now Accenture. Since then, it’s been a 30 year career that has always centered around software and always, well predominately around financial services and helping the financial services space arm up with technology.
Alexandria: What about software was it that made you go there? Maybe might have just been that was the job that available but how did you get towards that space, you starting off?
Sean: I don’t know if I should be completely candid about this because I think the day before my interview, I may have gone out drinking with my friends in college and I don’t know that I exactly knew that I was interviewing for a computer programming job. I think I thought I was going to be a financial analyst and I guess enough years have passed that I will forgive myself for whatever shenanigans I might have been up to before that interview, but it was comical. I kind of found myself in a room where I thought I was going to be applying my finance degree and I ended up getting handed a book that showed me how to program computers and I checked with my dad who’s always been a key mentor to me and I said, “Dad, I don’t know if I’m supposed to be here.” And he said, “Well, you are where you are. Make the best of it and see how you do,” and that became my career which continued going and getting another finance degree but always sticking around software or financial services and strategy and company leadership.
Alexandria: Thanks for actually being candid about that because I know there’s a lot of listeners like, “Oh, that’s how I got my first job.” They’re thinking that too. You never really quite know how you got to the first job but, hey, it’s a starting point and that’s what’s important.
Sean: There’s a quote that’s always resonated with me from Dwight Eisenhower that was, “No battle was ever won without a plan, but then again no battle was ever won according to plan,” and I think that for me, that’s been the story of not only my career but also the way I try to play the head coach is have a plan but don’t be so rigid in your adherence to a plan that you don’t understand that things change and opportunities and doors open up and be ready to pounce on them.
Alexandria: And that’s true, especially for just getting into the finance space. This applies to all backgrounds but you might have all the plans of I’m going to become this successful person doing X, Y, and Z and you have everything down to where you’re going to apply first, where you’re going to school at, what kind of grades, what you’re going to be involved with and I know a lot of high schoolers even kind of having to deal with that kind of pressure, planning everything out and being fluid is probably the biggest thing, right? It’s like that plan may go a totally different direction but you’ll still hit that end point of success that you’re truly looking for.
Sean: Yep, there are different ways to get to end points. Some of them are straight line but most often they’re not and as long as you keep an eye on what that end point is, where you want to get to and we’ve all got our own story but I knew where I wanted to get to was I wanted to play the head coach and leader of technology companies.
Alexandria: So you started off with more of learning the technology space, how did finance really get integrated into that for you?
Sean: I was naturally put on financial services clients. Somebody in management above me said, “Hey, the guys now got his technical chops and he’s got a background in finance, let’s put him on banking and related clients, insurance related clients,” so that’s kind of how I was able to dovetail these two passions of mine, technology and finance and make a career of it.
Alexandria: I knew I was looking up on the LinkedIn profile and I noticed that you went to Stanford and I’m living in California and I was like, “Yay, another Californian.”
Sean: Oh, yeah. My wife has not forgiven me since then from moving … she was my girlfriend at the time, but my first startup experience, I left sunny San Francisco where I had gotten my degree and was working at this point as a strategy consultant and I took a job back in cold Chicago to really begin my startup career so I love California and I’m hoping my wife doesn’t listen in on this podcast because she’ll probably remind me that at some point we need to move back there.
Alexandria: Yeah, if I meet her I’ll remind her.
Sean: You won’t be meeting her and you won’t be getting any holiday cards from us next year.
Alexandria: Oh no, not the holiday cards. I love the holidays. Well, I’m really glad that we got to get a little more insight as to just how you really learned or at least jumped into the space of fintech and I want to fast forward us because I know a lot of our listeners are really interested to hear more about where you are today but maybe you can share just a little bit about how do YCharts even come to existence? How did it become a company for you?
Sean: First thing I’d say is YCharts proceeded my tenure. YCharts was founded in 2010. I joined board in 2016 so to answer your question, YCharts came into existence because the founders who had backgrounds in data and working at places like google had said, there’s a real need in the financial services space to turn data into insights and one of the best ways to turn data into insights is through pictures and hence a company was founded with the word charts in the name and I sometimes liken a bit comically, it’s almost as if Jeff Bezos when he formed amazon.com had named his company online books. Amazon gave him the broad remit to attack any market he wanted to. We have the word charts in our name, that is one of the things we do very best but that’s actually one of about 10 things that we do in the wealth management space.
Alexandria: I do have to share a little bit because I did get a chance to really learn a little more about YCharts and one of the things that I found really fascinating, just to your point about data to insights through pictures, I’m such a visual learner and it was so cool to be able to see a lot of information, be able to dissect into a small picture, right? And be able to grasp all that concept, all the concepts in one snapshot, and it tells such an interesting story about whatever data you’re trying to actually convey and so it makes me think, “Wow, no wonder this company’s so successful because that’s what it’s providing to its clients or the advisors to then provide to their clients.” And I think that that’s such a really cool thing that you guys are doing and what makes you also very unique in that space because so many people look at data and they’re like, “It’s information. It’s numbers,” and it’s over spill with how much of it can you provide to somebody.
Sean: Yeah, it’s interesting. I view YCharts in a way that we are a prospect and client communication company that masks itself as an investment research platform. To explain that, we’ve got some great tools that bring together data and easy to use technology and a terrific customer support group to help people ultimately make better investment decisions but that doesn’t really matter if you’re not using investment performance or insights you derive to share your perspectives with the prospective client, with an investment team, with the current client to explain why they should not jump into bitcoin or why they should decrease their exposure to the middle east. Only when great investment insights can be used to communicate did you really make a difference in anybody’s life so I agree with you completely and the thing that’s really, really fun for me on a personal level is I get to, when I’m off of work hours, I have a lot of curiosities and I use our platform nightly to answer curious questions I’ve got.
Sean: Hey, what happened? I just saw Pier One Imports is borderline bankrupt and I just saw this and on my train ride in this morning, I quickly saw an article, quickly pulled up a chart and then was able to tweet out on my own what that fall from grace looked like to me and communicate that to those who follow and enjoy seeing my posts. I agree with what you’re saying.
Alexandria: One of the things I actually am going to make sure I put in the show notes for our listeners is one of the articles I read a couple months back about how Ezekiel Elliott is like a low volatility ETF and I was like … just reading the headline like that, you’re like what? It’s intriguing, especially for our football fans, especially right now during playoffs and with the Superbowl coming up, I think it’s just so interesting that you can communicate stories and information that way. I think it’s so –
Sean: And just to give you a couple more recent examples and I tell you these examples only to say I have a fundamental belief that advisors aren’t doing enough to justify their fees and I think a better prospect than client communications is absolutely a pivotal step in addressing this disconnect. So an example of some things that are curiosities that I have that I communicate, anecdotally I think advisors should be doing the same thing, a couple things. We did an analysis on what are the impact of Trump’s tariff tweets on the SMP 500. We did another analysis to say, “Hey, when a company like Boeing runs into it’s 737 max airplane crisis, what can we learn from other crises?” When Chipotle had its E. Coli scare and several other corporate crises, what can we learn about crises that help us see whether those are short, medium and long term investment opportunities and so we use our own software to say, “Hey, Mr. Ms. Advisor, you probably have some customers or prospects who are very interested in the FAANG stocks.” You know, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google.
Sean: it’s not very hard to go create a quick chart to show how they preformed over one, three, five, seven, and nine year time horizon and blast that out and those at the other side of your communications say, “Wow, thank you. You made me smarter today. That’s of value to me.”
Alexandria: Let’s say this, that’s way more interesting probably also to a client to receive something that’s informational but using pictures and charts than just … like maybe an article that’s full of information and full of numbers. That can be very interesting and receptive to a client.
Sean: I agree and we … you okay if I expand a little bit on what I see as advisor communication deficits right now?
Alexandria: Of course, yeah. Actually, that transitions us, next thing we were going to talk about so that’s perfect. Please, let’s go –
Sean: And I’m sorry to jump into it, I’m just so passionate about what I see as an almost a looming time bomb and it’s centered around this … if somebody’s going to pay you a half a percentage point, up to a percentage point and a quarter, for managing their nest egg, the old model of send out a quarterly statement or monthly statements and maybe a steak dinner once a year and that is the handshake you have for that relationship, I think those days are really numbered and I think the real problem is being masked right now because we’re in the eleventh year of a fantastic bull market and so when everybody’s looking at their statements and saying, “Oh, this is going up and to the right,” they’re not spending a whole lot of time scrutinizing, “Well, how am I feeling about my advisor relationship?”
Sean: And we were picking up enough on this general communication scarcity or deficit that we actually did a survey in the market approaching 700 respondents to our survey which was asking people who are advised, so the clients of wealth advisors. It was asking them how are you feeling about communication and we were really shocked to find out the results which I guess I’d summarize by saying communication is inadequate. It’s happening infrequently and it’s not sufficient and the consequence of that poor communication where I don’t feel known, I don’t feel like I’m getting personalize treatment. Consequence of that is my business with the advisor may be in jeopardy, number one, number two is I’m not feeling very good about my current financial plan and number three is I’m not going to refer my advisor to my friends and family. And so long and short is I just think there’s a massive opportunity for those forward looking advisors to really, before we see a recession and before we see robos and model portfolios able to replicate what advisors do for a living, I think this is a massive opportunity to really step up communications and that’s what we’re spending a lot of time talking to the market about right now.
Alexandria: Thanks for sharing all that information. I know a lot of people, you’re listening and you’re like, “Uh, where do we get to reread some of this client information,” so I’m going to make sure that we put the client communication survey that YCharts has put out in the show notes so that way people can really references these numbers and this feedback that you guys were receiving from clients. But in addition to basically clients saying that advisors are not communicating enough, what other things came out of this study that really showed value for the clients that were giving the feedback to you guys?
Sean: Well number one is the world changing. Those that are receiving the bulk of the massive wealth transfer, the millennials and some of the younger generations, they’re not like their mother and father. They like to be communicated with through different platforms. So a paper statement and an email, that’s old school stuff and the generations that say that’s the only way I want to be communicated with, they’re aging and they’re starting to pass down their nest egg to others who are saying, “Hey, I like social media. I actually like texting.” And again, there’s some regulatory things that are in the way of advisors addressing all of these interesting areas but social media, text messaging, regular updates for me, not once a month or once a quarter, regular updates for me, periodic updates when something happens in the market like the yield curve spread inversion or a trauma associated with geo-political factors like, you got to tell me more. Tell me on an ad hoc basis, sometimes broadcast that to all your prospects, sometimes give me a very personalized thing but either way, communicate with me more, communicate through the channels that work best for me.
Alexandria: That is a true point because even being a millennial myself, I always think … bring up the example of when people ask, “So, where do you get your news from?” And you maybe think that some of the baby boomers or more seasonal people, they watch the news on TV and I think of myself like I don’t even have cable in my home. Where I get news from is Instagram or twitter or the feeds that I have with a different app so if I’m working with an advisor that is constantly maybe only connected to the news outlets through the television, then we might be just not seeing eye to eye and I could see where that point is of communication is very different for the two of us because we just use different things and it’s not necessarily like you’re getting different information, we’ll both be hearing about the impact of Trump the same way possibly, but it is just that I’m going to be more open to maybe getting some type of communication from my advisor that’s quick information, right? A way to digest the information in a quick way without having to spend 30 minutes to an hour trying to learn about the one thing that has changed for the day.
Sean: Yep. I saw a really stark example of this. My family took a little sunny vacation over the holidays and I watched my 11 and my 13 year old kids and the tools and approaches they took to communicating and they were so vastly different than what my wife and I use which is dramatically different than what my parents use but my kids use their phone to do everything, whether it’s to remember something is notes on a phone or it’s a picture to instant access to any data or any question they want to address to using QR codes to learn more about things and it was just another reminder for me that if you’re thinking stays stagnant in how you communicate with your spouse, with your family, with your work colleagues or with your customers, you run risks to your relationships and if you’re an advisor and you’re planning on retiring in the next three to five years, you’re probably okay using your historically proven methods, but if you’re going to be in business for five years or longer, you better rethink the way you’re looking at communications.
Alexandria: And even to your point about different communication styles, I think this is a great part for us to talk about … you guys did this survey and it really talked and brought home the impact of communication with clients. Maybe talk to the resolutions that YCharts is providing for their users and their clients with the software.
Sean: I think we basically have a couple recommendations. We have three recommendations, some of which we’re able to help advisors about, others of which we just … call it free consulting.
Sean: We think number one is the forward looking advisors need to be real clear on what their go forward value proposition is. Forget communication for now. What is your value prop? Is your value prop that I’m going to beat the market in returns and I’m an active investor? Is your value prop that I add in to other services life coaching. Is your value prop that I handle specific market niches, I handle divorced customers or widows or professional athletes or accountants. What is your niche? Number one is what’s your value prop and be true to that and look for clients that meet that value prop.
Sean: Number two is once you’ve got your value prop nailed down, commit to better communications and the way we ask advisors to think about better communications is to envision … and again, we can post it in your show notes, envision a two by two matrix where one dimension of the two by two is are you communicating broadly to everyone or a lot of people or are you communicating narrowly in a very personalized way? One dimension is what’s the breadth of who you’re communicating to and the other dimension is what’s the cadence or frequency? Is it schedule? Do I do this once a month. I do this once a week, I do this once a quarter. Or is it ad hoc? I only do this when I have a prospect meeting tomorrow or when there was a market disruption. And we encourage advisors to think about their strategy to communicate in a broadcast way to ad hoc events and example of that one is hey, what is the impact of the Chinese tariffs on the SMP 500? You may want to broadcast that to all of your prospects and customers.
Sean: So have a framework and then once you have a framework in mind and a cadence of how and when you want to communicate, come talk to us and we would love to help you more efficiently and more effectively do those things. And just to give you a quick example, I said that we are a prospective client communication framework that masquerades as an investment research platform, if your real goal is in one of those quadrants, hey I want to put out a quarterly market perspectives on what’s gone on at the macroeconomic level. We creat a PowerPoint template once a quarter that our clients white label. They all say, “Hey, I’m too busy to go find out what happened to the jobs reports, what happened to housing starts, what happened to funds flows.” We put those things together, white label it, pass it on to our advisors, they put their logo on it, add any commentary, delete any commentary, delete any slides and the effort to create the quarterly perspectives, I think we’ve brought down from 18 man hours to 45 minutes and that’s the kind of way we can help but we ask people to come talk to us with an idea in mind on how they want to improve their own prospective client communications.
Alexandria: Man, this … I’m over here taking lots of notes. Gotta be like, okay that was … it’s really good and it’s just really interesting to see where you guys are really making a mark in the space for advisors to be better. So often we’re checking in and we’re worried about this and it’s just what can we be doing for our clients. It’s really interesting to see how simple this is but yet how important it is to the space for advisors.
Sean: Yeah and the thing we can never forget though is clients come to advisors because they want to get somewhere in life and they have goals and growing their nest egg in a considering risks, considering time horizons and considering milestones, they want to get somewhere so I think we can never forget that at the end of the day, the discussion has to start and end with how can you help me achieve my objectives but along the way on that path, like with any relationship … I know my wife and I, if we went a day without speaking to each other, we would feel not as connected and not as attuned to each other’s needs. It’s no different with a client. Thinking that it’s sufficient to send them a monthly statement and again, reach out to them in October to say can we do a portfolio review and let’s do that over a nice steak, that wouldn’t work in my marriage and that’s not going to work in the future way that advisors need to operate.
Alexandria: You talked a little bit about the companies been around for some time, 2010, that’s crazy. It’s been a decade. Maybe hearing from you now, the current CO, where you see the growth in the next three years for YCharts and what kind of change do you see the company doing?
Sean: I’m a big believer in focus. I’m a big believer in that in every dimension of my life, especially career and we have 4,000 wealth advisors and asset managers and somewhere around 750 billion dollars in assets under management that we support. Those are nice numbers and my kids are wowed at them but boy, that’s a tiny portion of the market honestly. So to answer your question, we’re going to stay focused on really enabling wealth advisors and asset managers to succeed and when we think anyone we can help has been helped, I think we’ll expand into other pursuits but for now it’s really about staying in really good communication with our target market, making sure we understand their lives and their workflows and finding some opportunities that we, at a very reasonable price, can help them be more efficient, generate better investment returns and communicate better. And so short answer to, that I just gave a long answer to, is we’re just going to stay focused and we’ll keep doing that for many more years.
Alexandria: What are you most looking forward to when it comes to technology and more specifically in the finance tech space?
Sean: I think the finance industry is way behind other industries in the way it applies technology to solve business problems. What I’m really excited about is the day, if we just think about the … let’s go back to the advisor workflow. I’m really excited for the day where technology truly enables the workflow of the advisor. How do I best understand a prospect I’m talking to? That has to do with understanding their goals, that has to do with assessing their risk profile, having a perspective on where the market’s going. How do I understand them? And number two is how do I tailor a portfolio on a plan that addresses those needs and goals and then how do I sufficiently monitor and manage risks once somebody is operating on a plan and how do I keep my client enlisted on the journey and understand and be communicated and then full circle. That client’s going to get older, they’re going to have college bills to pay, they may have other obligations they didn’t originally anticipate. How do you keep that life cycle going and how do you make that tech enabled without losing the extremely important point which is it’s hard to entrust your life savings to a machine.
Sean: There’s always going to be the need for relationships and how can we free up, as an industry, how can we free up as much time as possible so that advisors can actually sit and talk and brainstorm and collaborate and commiserate with people rather than spending their time trying to figure out how to make a couple software applications work together or how to download stuff onto a spreadsheet and scramble to put together a proposal tomorrow.
Alexandria: Yeah, I want that to happen now because that’s the part that I want to do the most is talk and communicate and really just build a relationship. It’s kind of weird to say this but it’s like, think if you didn’t have any technology or didn’t have to … your whole job was just to walk into a room to talk to somebody. That would just be crazy, right? It sounds crazy but if everything else could be supported by technology, that could be very much what a future looks like.
Sean: Yeah. It’s not too far in our memories where when we wanted to get from point A to point B, we had a couple choices. We had public transportation, we got the car out of the garage, or we raised our hand for a cab and there was a lot of uncertainty and expense associated with all of those things and maybe discomfort. Now we go punch a few buttons into our uber app and we know where a car is, we understand how much it’s going to cost and we get a consistent or safe-ish ride to where we’re going and it’s that kind of workflow change or the whole thing like Netflix coming about and I don’t have to drive to blockbuster video anymore. I pull up a movie, an ad hoc movie on Netflix, spur of the moment because it felt like the right thing with my kids. I didn’t have to preplan that. I just love if we really think about our workflows and our lives, how can we use technology to just make it more simple so we can spend more time sitting with a blanket and our arms around our wives and kids and less time, let’s get in the car, let’s pick out a movie, oh that movie’s out.
Sean: That’s my goal for the financial services space is let’s keep making advisors, asset managers lives a lot easier.
Alexandria: That’s an awesome goal. That’s a really great goal. This might be a little tied into this too but I think of the young professionals who are maybe sitting at work or listening at home right now to this podcast and thinking I have a really great fintech idea or a good way to help with these workflows that you’re talking about but maybe they’re not sure of what to do first to generate momentum. This is still a very new space in the sense that there’s not a track that you go to when you go to college, necessarily, to learn about fintech. These things are popping up more and more now but not a lot of people have maybe had that so maybe you can provide some advice to that person listening that is interested in doing something very similar.
Sean: Again, I’ve somehow become a 51 year old gray haired individual. I look now and there is no time like the present to make your idea real. Data is commoditized and cheap. There’s platforms like Amazon web services which means you never have to go buy yourself a computer or any kind of server. There’s offshore development teams that are at a very, very reasonable price can be retained to create a prototype. My advice would be go at it. Explore your dreams. You don’t have to start a company. You don’t have to raise a whole bunch of money or deplete your life savings to see if your idea’s real. You have to invest a little bit but there’s never been a time where it’s been so easy to try to make your digital idea become real.
Alexandria: And this is where some of the technologies come into this space to help people kick off startups. That’s basically what you’re sharing.
Sean: Yep. The other thing I would say, I get so passionate about this stuff. I offer my personal advice to anybody who thinks they have an idea and doesn’t know where to start, hit me up on LinkedIn or twitter or whatever. I’d love to help you realize your goals because again, especially if it’s in the financial services space, we have a long way to go and it’s going to take a lot of bright people with a lot of great ideas for us to get where we need to be in 10 years.
Alexandria: So to totally bring this full circle for the day, we’ve really touched on a lot. How you started into the business with your first job and next just really hearing more about YCharts and also really talking about that client communication survey and really just hearing the feedback from the clients, really hearing what advisors could be doing a little bit differently or probing themselves or questioning how could they be better. To kind of tie up the whole podcast today, I have a couple of fun questions for you, Sean, to wrap up the call and then we’ll have the listeners know where you can check for more information and make sure they follow you guys on your social media handles but before we go there, I just wanted to ask quick, fun question. You being a CEO of a company, are there other CEOs that you look up to for advice or try to mirror or get good information from?
Sean: Yes. There’s a combination. I was always inspired by Steve Jobs and I’m inspired by Tim Cook and the aspect of relentless focus on innovation and understanding your customer. That’s one of my biggest sources for inspiration. Other than that, I love to pick anecdotes as I see them when I see wonderful customer service through something like Nordstrom or Marriott hotel, but no, I don’t have any place I regularly go except I’ve been consistently inspired by Apple.
Alexandria: It’s not shocking either. You did go to Stanford so you were right there in the mecca of things.
Sean: Oh yeah. Yes I was.
Alexandria: One of the things that I always like to touch on is what thing that you felt that really helped catapult you in your career. It could be small, it could be also maybe a job position or change but what really helped or what do you feel helped you hone in on your career?
Sean: I’ve always lived by a couple principles that have helped shaped where I’ve wanted to get to in the path I’ve followed and one is always understand the big picture. When I was a very junior level employee, it wasn’t sufficient for me to just know to create code, I wanted to understand how the code was being used and what the person who was using it, what their life was like so always know the big picture. Make sure you are consistently focused on the customer and making the customer success, whatever line of business that you’re in. Always be a hard worker but be enjoyable to work with. Check your ego at the door and make work fun and be humble. And then understand what drivers your boss has and do what you can to make your boss successful. I’ve just always found … and I don’t say that in a way slimy way, I just say your boss hired you and has you working for them for a reason and if you understand how you can make their lives easier, they can probably advance in their career which leaves a seat open for you. Those are kind of always been my big, guiding principles and not hiring jerks and making work enjoyable and stressing culture. I’ve always found that stressful things tend to happen.
Alexandria: Yeah, I definitely agree with your make things enjoyable and then also the culture of a company. I know now people, once we tell them where to find you guys, I follow you guys on social media, Instagram, it was just really cool to see how your guys’ office did the breakfast, the brunch in the morning in the office and what kind of fun activities. You guys are constantly doing activities in the office and I’m just … besides just saying, oh that’s a fun place to work, it really just looks like people enjoy what they do there and they really feel like they’re making an impact.
Sean: I think that’s absolutely true and it’s tremendously rewarding for me, especially since I’m not a spring chicken. It’s really neat for me to see people who are lightning smart, collaborative and like working together and just to see them grow and achieve on a common mission.
Alexandria: Well again, thank you so much, Sean. I want to leave the time for you to share with our listeners where they can find you and contact you, especially if they have that burning idea that they want to share but I’ll let you go ahead and do that.
Sean: Yeah a couple things. First of all, please follow me either LinkedIn or twitter. At twitter, I’m at Sean, S-E-A-N underscore YCharts. I just love sharing what we’re seeing in the market. We’re not a high pressure kind of sales team. We help to build a relationship, hopefully make people a little bit smarter and to the degree that turns into a relationship where people use our software, great. But more importantly is getting to know people so follow me, come visit us at ycharts.com and otherwise feel free to contact me. I’m happy to help any financial services, tech enabled bringer out there to share some war stories with you and see if I can help you out.
Alexandria: Awesome. Thank you so much again, Sean. This was great.
Sean: That was a thrill, thank you.