|Clients:||Financial advisors and investors serviced by financial advisors|
|Value proposition:||Provider of personalized services to help advisors and investors manage their wealth using their preferred third-party tools|
|The executive team:||John Michel, CEO and Founder
Carlos Simões, CTO and CISO
Theodore Goldman, Vice President of Engineering
Jay Michel, Marketing and Sales Director
Matthew Valkovic, Director of Client Services
CircleBlack is a financial services hub that embraces all of the tools that financial advisors and their investors use daily in a well-designed and sophisticated solution. It is available in several forms convenient for the user (both mobile and desktop) and is presented as an apple among other FinTech companies, mostly due to its emphasis on design and customer service.
To understand the facts about this solution, we conducted an in-person WealthTech Club interview with John Michel, CEO at CircleBlack, in their office in Jersey City, NJ, which is located within a five-minute walk from PATH station.
John has been in wealth management for 30+ years, so he is an industry expert. He worked for Merrill Lynch for 13 years and was part of the origins of what is now known as Merrill Edge. He then ran a performance and measurement startup—Bullrun Financial— which was sold in 2008. He then went to work for Bloomberg and served as president of Bloomberg Wealth:
“We built a product called Bloomberg Black. In 2013, a number of us started the CircleBlack company.”
In this interview, we discussed all the aspects driving the success of CircleBlack today.
Usually, financial tools are broken up and isolated. For both advisors and investors, this causes trouble to integrate their preferred tools with each other. Some platforms allow integration, with a limited circle of partners to choose from. The problem is that this list often doesn’t contain the tools that a particular user wants to utilize. Additionally, the integrations provided are often poor and difficult to use due to their plain design.
The solution is to give users the ability to influence the list of integrations, expand it on demand, and implement a great design so as to use the features to their maximum potential. This is what CircleBlack is all about.
Apple-like financial services hub
CircleBlack is a B2B2C platform with a world-class mobile app. A core purpose of CircleBlack is to facilitate the building of trust between advisors and their clients by providing seamless communication powers, which means enabling clients’ smartphones to be part of their network.
“Clients want to communicate and be communicated with when they want, but conceptually 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
In addition, CircleBlack is a data hub that integrates whatever other technologies the advisor is using.
“Advisors all have different ways of managing their business. For example, if you want [to integrate] Totem, you’ll get Totem on our system; if you want Totem’s competitor Riskalyze, you’ll get Riskalyze on our system. We are allowing advisors to choose the technology stack that works for them, and then [we] empower the data to make sure that all the different applications work.”
According to John, if you actually look at CircleBlack’s interfaces and compare them to the rest of the industry, there is no comparison.
“We think about [the design] much more. It’s like people talk about an Apple [product] being well thought out, well designed, beautiful interface, etc. Anybody that looks at our product says, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’”
Also, CircleBlack makes sure that they provide a great end-user experience. Instead of traditional surveys, they have relationship managers working closely to provide a quick shortcut and gather feedback. And despite having a roadmap, they are always adjusting it based on their clients’ desires and needs.
“Every one of our customers has a relationship manager that they know by name. We’re talking to our clients [and] continually gathering feedback. Then we get a list [of wishes] and prioritize the next quarter on a quarterly basis.”
This strategy has led to the platform’s handling of approximately 60 billion dollars in assets each night, with over 2,000 advisors and approximately 100 firms on board.
Development process inside out
John was not keen to share project-realization details, due to a need to keep users’ data safe. John says that the app processes massive amounts of data and any specification of its inner structure can expose clients’ privacy. Nevertheless, we managed to move past some risk points and get some insider information about CircleBlack.
According to John, the public company utilizes the cloud to provide users with unlimited access to the app. They have a number of different cloud providers and strive to be more distributed, of course, for the matter of safety. For the same reason, they use encryption extensively across the project.
“We [want to] have all the data but we [want to] have it distributed for protection. […] The closer it gets to [personally identifiable information], the more locked doors [people] have to go through to pull [the data] out.”
CircleBlack has a large selection of integrations for advisors to choose from and use as needed. They also pull all the required market data necessary to provide portfolio analytics. Among the popular integrations of the company, John lists MoneyGuidePro, DST, and DAZL; among the custodians, they have everybody integrated except Apex—only because they have not yet found a client that has asked for it. This integration is also the case with CRMs―advisors can integrate Salesforce, Redtail, WealthBox, etc.
CircleBlack is also part of the TD Wealth Veo ecosystem. Also, they have a number of additions around 401k, including the ability to create models and rebalance them.
Regarding integrations overall, they use the following strategy:
“If an advisor finds a tool useful, we’ll integrate it and then it’ll also be available for other advisors.”
For example, they have recently integrated Right Capital, StockVal, and ATA.
“Our view is [that] we will even provide what some people might say are competitors’ applications to some of the core functionality that we provide. [For example, imagine that] you have an iPhone. It has a great camera, but you can also download camera apps that will leverage it in different ways. We have the same strategy, which is [that] we’re a platform, we’re a network, we’ll make it all work.”
All development at CircleBlack is done in the US, mostly by employees that John and his execs hire personally. He claims that this makes a lot of their clients more comfortable because of the data they’re dealing with.
“At the firm, we have an internal rule that we make sure that more than 50% of the employees are engineers.”
One of the benefits of the way we manage software development, John says, is that it provides the ability to have frequent releases, typically weekly.
John says they release features incrementally:
“When we first did the initial CircleBlack release, we referred to it actually as I think .05 and then it eventually got to 1.0. We have never said, ‘Oh, this is CircleBlack 2.0.’ We just keep improving it.”
As for the continuous integration, John says they have specialists who ensure a smooth release process. The typical stages are development; peer review; internal user testing on a staging environment, and then on a production environment with entitlements; beta test; and finally release.
At CircleBlack they have “lunch and learns,” and enlist engineers on sales calls and at client meetings. Instead of hiring experts, they find talent and create an environment that is conducive to their employees’ growth.
“I think we’re glad to get people that have industry experience, but that’s not our focus. Our focus is finding talent and then helping them understand [what] the problems are that we’re trying to solve, and then having them learn [and] grow into the CircleBlack way.”
Also, they use such tools as JIRA, Confluence, and Slack to exchange code, information, and knowledge. Some of the tools, specifically concerning data processing, are built internally. In general, the focus is on robust documentation and on-the-job training, rather than traditional introductory courses.
The biggest challenge, according to John, is finding talent. The company is growing rapidly now and needs young talent to reinforce the team.
“One of the reasons we’re in Jersey City is because it’s easier to get talent from the New York metropolitan area.”
John claims one can never sit still in the wealth-management business. Clients are also pushing what is possible. CircleBlack has a whole feature set to build out and improve the product for that reason.
“Our advisors want to do so much with it. They’re very creative people and we get lots of requests to do interesting stuff. I think those are our biggest challenges, just managing growth at a speed that makes sense.”
The major problem regarding financial well-being is incoherence between solutions. CircleBlack makes it a priority to integrate all parts of the wealth-management process into a single hub that is stylish, handy, and mobile.