I’ve gotten a big kick out of the recent BrightScope debate on RIABiz. As Yogi Berra once said: “It’s like Déjà vu all over again.” All the arguments for and against Brightscope’s service have been made in every other industry that has succumbed to transparency. The financial services industry is just one of the last to fall. See: BrightScope sticks to its guns as it responds to outspoken critics of its Advisor Pages .
Listen to the arguments against transparency: The reader won’t understand the newly disclosed information. There’s not enough context for consumers to make the right decision. Vendors will be unfairly hurt if the data is inaccurate. The common thread is the consumer must be stupid.
How do you think car dealers felt when consumers suddenly had access to the true cost of automobiles? Or travel agents when travelers saw they could get a better deal on their own. How about yellow pages advertisers when they saw their businesses get poor ratings on Yelp? The arguments were always the same, but there was no going back.
Delight the customer
I believe a business’s first priority should always be to delight its customer. Companies that delight their customers almost always succeed. This is such an important point that I actually teach a course on the topic at Stanford Graduate School of Business. If transparency helps delight the customer then as vendors we should all embrace it. Will the data sometimes be inaccurate? Sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to provide it. See: Under fire, BrightScope says it will allow advisors to update simple information for free.
A few years ago I attempted to sell my car. For some reason no one was willing to pay anywhere near what Kelly Blue Book said it was worth. I finally learned Carfax claimed I had a lot more mileage on the car than advertised. Carfax gets its mileage data from smog check providers and unfortunately a smog check technician accidentally entered the wrong mileage for my car a few years earlier. When I asked Carfax to correct the mistake, they refused because their policy is to rely on verifiable third parties. I certainly didn’t like the result, but I have to admit it’s the right policy, because only relying on third party verification puts the consumer (in this case the buyer) first. For the same reason Brightscope shouldn’t allow advisors to update mistakes because the only truly reliable source of data is Form ADVs.
If you type Wealthfront into Brightscope, you will find we have $11 million under management because that was the number on our last filed Form ADV. We now have $200 million in assets under management and administration. Am I frustrated I can’t update Brightscope’s database? Sure, but I think they’re doing the right thing for the consumer.
It’s Wealthfront’s responsibility to inform potential clients that our assets grow over time and provide a credible reason why we might display a different number from that found in a public or private database. Our numbers will continually get better on Brightscope. It’s just that they’ll always lag our current success. The same probably applies to you.
Let the consumers work it out
Our engineers are classic Silicon Valley Libertarians. They fight any feature that doesn’t treat the consumer with respect. That’s why we present all the data we can about every manager and let the consumer make her own decision. We faced a decision a couple of years ago whether we should diverge from the mutual fund model and display real time access to a money managers’ holdings.
Many in the industry told us that no money manager would EVER agree to full holdings transparency prior to engaging a client. No good ones at least. Fortunately the good have nothing to fear. Pundits said it would confuse customers, reduce managers’ returns or lead investors to freeload off the managers’ hard work. Well, they were wrong on all accounts. Guess what is the most clicked on link on the Wealthfront money managers’ pages: their current holdings. As I stated in my last column, in Silicon Valley we believe information wants to be free, and you should only pay for convenience. By giving our users access to information otherwise hidden, we trust the intellect of our users.
Companies that embrace transparency usually succeed (because transparency will always ultimately become the norm) and those that fight it will likely lose share. Advisors are welcome to complain about what BrightScope is doing, but if there’s any lesson to be learned from the Internet, it’s that transparency is a freight train that advisors best get on, or they will get rolled over. Plan accordingly.
Andy Rachleff is CEO of Wealthfront, an online investing platform that qualifies and vets registered money managers and recommends them to individual investors.