WealthTech Insights #51 with John Michel: Companies Should Focus on Value, Not Price

The next interview for WealthTech Club was with John Michel, CEO and founder of CircleBlack—a modern data hub that facilitates communication between advisors and investors. He has an imposing experience in building wealth-management solutions of global impact. Here, he shares with our readers several industry observations that led him to success.

John Michel
CEO at CircleBlack.

John Michel is a financial professional with a powerful track record. Before establishing his own company, he ruled several global projects in wealth management; for instance, he spearheaded development of the Financial Advisor Center and Merrill Edge and was president of Bloomberg Wealth. The introduction of BloombergBlack, which had one of the fastest launches in the industry, can also be credited to John. This product managed to capture over $1.5 billion of assets in less than six months, showing a great demand for technology-delivered wealth-management services.

His work at Bloomberg, John says, greatly influenced the way he thought about and manages the business. Prior to Bloomberg, with a team of talented financial innovators, he built Bullrun Financial—a portfolio-management system for portfolio manager and wealth advisors. After leaving Bloomberg in 2013, he launched CircleBlack—a distinguished data hub with a perfect design and exceptional customer service.

In this interview, we discussed the prospects of mobile wealth management, the value of polishing the product, and how to achieve great results on the spot.

Smartphones talk to the world

John MichelJohn says that clients want to communicate and be communicated with when they want, especially when the question concerns their money. Clarity and approachability are crucial components for building trust between the client and the advisor, so it is vital to try and keep things consumer-facing.

“I believe a lot of consumers understand that 100 is riskier than one. Whatever the company can do to simplify communication is key. Whether that is with a number, letter or even stars, as Morningstar uses, I think it’s going to get more market share versus those who complicate the communications with too much detail.”

In John’s opinion, advisors should provide clients with ways to communicate to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To make that possible, smartphones have to become part of each advisor’s network. According to John, a reasonable cycle for mobile applications refresh is now two years or less.

When asked what is the most popular means for accessing his product—mobile or desktop—John says they do not publicize such statistics. Nevertheless, he confesses that it greatly depends on the client’s age and the company.

“I would say advisors are almost all desktop. As for the clients, it depends on the firm and the age. The younger they are, the more they use the app. However, we have plenty of older people that use the app as well. It’s not that hard if it’s well designed.”

Talent over experience

John says it is now crucial for companies to keep growing rapidly, which is impossible without enlarging the team and hiring new talent. In his view, CircleBlack has benefitted from focusing on finding young and talented people who can grow within the company. This is CircleBlack’s main focus. They are interested in finding the best engineering talent they can find regardless of whether they come right out of a programming school or have recently graduated with a computer science degree:

“It’s better to hire really talented people, have them mentored by other talented people, and grow the company that way.”

The question arises, then, as to how can one measure talent. In John’s opinion, this is a matter for the interview process; he believes that it is crucial to give candidates the freedom to show their thinking and talent before hiring them, and then to continue creating a conducive environment for their growth at later stages.

“That’s the biggest thing, finding the right talent. We try and get the right people and create an environment that’s conducive to that. We encourage our team to think out of the box. We’re always open to new ideas and to different ways of doing things.”

Keep an eye on focus

According to John, the problem with most technology providers is that they try to “boil the ocean.” In his view, it’s better to do some things really well than disperse the effort.

“I think the guys that try and say ‘I have to be everything to everybody’ are [going to] lose. We’re going to see specialization and I think we’re already seeing it.”

Instead of being focused on price to drive value, John says that it is crucial to pay attention to the value proposition first. Companies who do not focus on value will struggle to beat the competition. In John’s opinion, many companies cut price rather than increase value.  Focus is also important.

“If I’m competing in one area, I’m [going to] know everything about that area.  By knowing what I am focused on, I can know how to create value.  I can also track my competition and be focused on continually improving. In focused organizations, the improvement cycles are generally shorter.  In firms that try to be everything, the diversity of effort and lack of focus often creates a much less market responsive result.  If the value is not increasing then to stay competitive one is often forced focused on cutting price to stay competitive.”

Another of John’s observations is that the companies that figure out how to partner with each other will do better overall. He is sure that we’re going to see much more distributed and focused partnering technology than ever before.

CircleBlack John Michel

Wealth transfer and the Prince Charles problem

John is very skeptical about the prospects of massive wealth transfer. In his mind, the wealth is going to transfer at a much slower rate than has been suggested and it is going to transfer to much older people. This is why the best option in his mind is to focus on building a business that is helps advisors and their current clients have a better trusted relationship today without worrying about what clients will inherit after many years.

“This whole wealth-transfer thing is, by the time it transfers, it’s what I would call the Prince Charles problem. He will ultimately be king, but he will ultimately be very old.”

Nevertheless, John admits that it makes total sense to support advisors who are focused on building relationships with younger clients that are building their own wealth.


Based on his vast experience and rationality, John says it is important to value a bird in the hand. Also, he says that the time we’re living in is great for being in business and allows for extensive growth. These insights should help businesses adapt and achieve better results from their endeavors.


Interviewed by Vasyl Soloshchuk, CEO and co-owner at INSART, FinTech & Java engineering company. Vasyl is also the author of WealthTech Club, which conducts research into Fortune and Startup Robo-advisor and Wealth Management companies in terms of the technology ecosystem.

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