“I went to their webpage and saw that they were hiring [and] I became obsessed with the company,” Vient says. “I liked that they [at LearnVest] were reaching out to the underserved [and] the idea of blending technology and this new profession I had gotten into was a very sexy idea to me.”
Vient joined the company in May, becoming one of the 100 planners that the company says it plans to bring on -- as both contractors and employees -- by the end of 2013. “We are providing a new [career] path for [planners],” says LearnVest’s 29-year-old founder and CEO, Alexa von Tobel. “You get to work at home, you are not required to sell [and] you get a base salary and bonuses based on customer satisfaction.”
SHIFT IN FOCUS
Founded in 2009 aiming to serve women with online budgeting tools and financial advice, LearnVest attracted $25 million in venture capital over its first two years. Last year it morphed into a mass-market RIA firm -- and in September announced that it would start offering clients planning services from live advisors via email, phone and Skype calls.
An October 2012 SEC filing of Form ADV says the firm had eight employees, including six in advisory functions, and 200 clients. A LearnVest spokeswoman would not disclose the number of planners the firm has hired so far, although she said the firm has added both employees and clients since October. She also said the planning team will be composed of a mix of CFPs and Series 65-licensed advisors. The latter will handle free assessment calls for clients, while only CFPs will write paid financial plans, the company said.
Simple budgeting tools are free through LearnVest’s service called My Money Center, but the company has a variety of paid offerings, all of which have an initial fee plus a $19 monthly charge for continued support. For $69, the Budget Starter option helps clients with budgeting and includes three calls with a planner. For $299, the 5-Year Planner includes a 30-day plan as well as a more comprehensive five-year financial plan and access to classes. At $399, the Portfolio Builder option adds portfolio allocation and risk tolerance assessment.
Outside observers offer mixed opinions about LearnVest’s game plan. While Ric Edelman, founder of Edelman Financial, suggests LearnVest may find it impossible to keep offering unlimited access to planners -- “It’s easy to burn through venture capital cash,” he says -- he is also targeting the same mass audience. Edelman recently launched Edelman Online, a lower-cost online service with a $5,000 minimum investment, which charges $100 for a portfolio allocation.
Other competitors in this space include LPL Financial’s new mass market venture, NestWise, along with startups Betterment and Personal Capital.
And recruiter Mindy Diamond, who specializes in executive search and consulting in the planning field, theorized that LearnVest may only be attracting new and inexperienced planners. “I can see how [the business model] would be an advantage to the would-be planner,” Diamond says, but “from a prospective client’s vantage point, I’m not sure that’s the best thing.”
Clients would be better-served, Diamond says, by more experienced planners who are able to devote substantial time to clients.
In response, the LearnVest spokeswoman says its planners have an average of 10 years in the industry -- there is no limit to the number of sessions clients can schedule with their dedicated planner in a year.
LearnVest’s director of financial planning, Stephany Kirkpatrick, also points to the firm’s venture capital funding as a vote of approval: “They’re confident in our business model,” she says.
MAKING THE JUMP
Before Vient joined LearnVest, she says, she had based her business at her brother’s tax preparation firm in Huntington Beach, Calif. Now, she says, she connects with clients from home and can set her own hours. Whereas she used to meet with many of her clients in person, she says she doesn’t feel hampered by connecting with her LearnVest clients remotely.
“Even though we don’t [always] have the face-to-face time, I feel that my clients feel like they can connect with me at any point in time,” Vient says. “They feel like they can trust me. They know they can email me and I am going to have an email back to them in 24 hours.”