Betterment CEO Jon Stein says he would consider adding an alert to the platfom's app to avoid client confusion if it delays trading,
Betterment CEO Jon Stein says he would consider adding an alert to the platfom's app to avoid client confusion if it delays trading,

Betterment may have cemented its leadership position among independent robo advice platforms with its announcement on Tuesday it has secured $100 million in its latest round of venture capital funding.

"We've always known that challenging the entrenched incumbent services would require a lot of capital," says Betterment CEO Jon Stein. "This amount gets us what we need to very much build out our vision." 

The Series E funding round is based on a new $700 million valuation of Betterment, Stein says. The digital advice provider now counts $3.9 billion in AUM and 150,000 retail clients, and operates three business lines: retail, Betterment for Business for 401(k) plans and Betterment Institutional.

Swedish investment giant Kinnevik is providing $65 million, with the remainder coming from previous VC investors, including Bessemer Venture Partners and Menlo Ventures.

Stein says the firm still has much of its $60 million from its 2015 last round of funding. The newest round will go toward more feature and product development, such as its March addition of financial account aggregation tools, he notes, rather than marketing efforts.

Raising the large amount was necessary, Stein says, to remain competitive against incumbent digital offerings such as Vanguard's Personal Advisor Services, which quickly tallied up $31 billion in AUM in 2015.

"We knew starting this business it was going to be capital intensive,” Stein says. “It's one of the barriers to entry in the financial services space.”

The $100 million in funding was not reflective of a high cash burn rate, Stein says, adding that Betterment’s client acquisition cost was not at the rates experienced by competing digital platforms. (Riskalyze CEO Aaron Klein estimated general robo CAC was $825 for a customer averaging $63 in annual revenue.)

“We are incredibly efficient in how we acquire customers,” Stein says, declining to provide details about the firm’s CAC.

‘BIG ENTRÉE’

The announcement comes as industry expectations run high that robo advisors are positioned to scoop up low-account-balance IRA assets collectively worth billions from full-service wealth management firms as a result of the pending Department of Labor fiduciary rule.

Having launched its 401(k) offering in January, Betterment is well-positioned to provide services to smaller broker-dealers and regional banks unable to meet the standard, says Alois Pirker, research director for Aite Group's Wealth Management practice.

"I think robos in general could make a big entrée into the retirement space," Pirker says. "Betterment has been making plans along those lines already. This seems to be a bet on market segmentation after the rule. We thought the gravy train of VC money had dried up, but that doesn't seem to be the case with Betterment."

Stein says that a fiduciary rule's expected boon to robo firms wasn't a major factor in Kinnevik's decision to invest, but other investment firms are pursuing that theme.

"There are number of firms out there trying to play that angle, and we've spoken to them," Stein says. "They believe the DoL rule will cause disruption and opportunities on the other side of the coin for firms like ours. Our view is that's interesting, but we didn't start this company because the DoL was going to make a rule."

‘LEADING ROBO’

With its new $700 million valuation, Betterment is close to unicorn status — a private startup valued at $1 billion or more. (In its last round of VC funding in Feb. 2015, Betterment was valued at $450 million.) Stein says Betterment still intends to go public, but hasn't set a formal date for an IPO.

Industry observers were surprised by the amount Betterment was able to raise. Though fintech funding is booming — a recent report from KPMG International and CB Insights noting VC investment reaching a record $13.8 billion last year —  much of that largesse was not expected to flow to digital advice platforms. The latest survey of CEOs by industry research firm Tiburon Strategic Partners last week found that the majority thought VC funding to online advice firms would stagnate or grow only modestly this year.

"I am extremely impressed by Betterment and see them as the leading robo," says Chip Roame, Tiburon's managing partner. "I still believe Vanguard, Schwab, and others will raise significantly more AUM, but I think Betterment may be the most successful B2C robo advisor, excluding the major firms and the DC-focused robos like Financial Engines."

The new round of capital almost doubles Betterment's total funding haul to date. Its main competitors among independents, Wealthfront and Personal Capital, have each raised more than $100 million in total through successive rounds. In December, Personal Capital hired New York-based private equity firm Evercore to help them with their Series E fund-raising efforts.

VC FUNDING TO ‘DRY UP’

"I generally believe VC funding for the robos will now dry up," Roame adds. "Betterment may be the exception. The firm has moved more aggressively in many areas consumer advertising, a financial advisors channel, and a DC offering … I think the DoL might be the savior of some of the robos!"  

Morningstar equity analyst Michael Wong, who recently noted the DoL ruling could provide a second wind for robo platforms, suggests the announcement would have a knock-on effect in both fundraising efforts and deals by incumbents to make acquisitions or partner with digital advice providers.

"This could be an interesting inflection point for the robo industry,” Wong says.

Stein says Betterment’s latest round of funding could help other digital firms positioned to partner with broker-dealers. But his firm was going to reach out to those brokers too.

“We are interested in partnering with some of those firms, because we do think there is an opportunity there,” he says. “But it’s not about these small accounts that these brokers can’t serve. It’s about how financial advice is fundamentally shifting to a much more advised model for everyone.”

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