Samantha Vient, a 35-year-old CFP from Southern California, was a couple of years into her career as a planner with the Alliance of Cambridge Advisors Network when she heard about online startup LearnVest.
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 LearnVests 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 LearnVests 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 LearnVests game plan. While Ric Edelman, founder of Edelman Financial, suggests LearnVest may find it impossible to keep offering unlimited access to planners -- Its 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 Financials 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 clients vantage point, Im not sure thats 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.
LearnVests director of financial planning, Stephany Kirkpatrick, also points to the firms venture capital funding as a vote of approval: Theyre confident in our business model, she says.
MAKING THE JUMP
Before Vient joined LearnVest, she says, she had based her business at her brothers 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 doesnt feel hampered by connecting with her LearnVest clients remotely.
Even though we dont [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.
Another thing she likes: tapping the experience of various subject matter experts on the LearnVest team to provide a more robust planning experience.
My goal was never to work with really high-net-worth clients, she says. A lot of [younger]
people in this career ... are driven by work-life balance. We are driven by doing something that is meaningful and that will implement change in this country.
In its hiring process, LearnVest is looking for digital-savvy planners who are comfortable with the firms remote model.
As part of the interview process, says Kirkpatrick, prospects must record a sample video explaining a basic financial concept. They also must write a sample financial plan, to demonstrate their planning process and ability to empathize. The company also conducts interviews and extensive background checks, along with verifying a candidates CFP certification and FINRA record.
Whats really important for us is finding planners who fit really perfectly with the brand, Kirkpatrick says, adding that they must be able to connect well with clients over the phone. We vet [planners] like crazy because they are the most forward part of the brand.
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