Bill Hortz's picture

"The general purpose of the CircleBlack platform is to increase the trusted relationship between the advisor and his or her clients. We focus on that interaction with technology." - John Michel, CircleBlack 

[The Institute for Innovation Development recently talked with John Michel, CEO of CircleBlack, an innovative wealth management platform delivering modern technology that strengthens the bond between advisors and their clients and helps advisors scale their practices. With the growing need for advisors to be able to deliver modern digital wealth management services and address the changing demands and expectations of clients and prospects, we discussed the kind of new services and operational efficiency needed that advisors must have to remain competitive.]

Hortz: What are the competitive advantages you built into your wealth management platform that differentiates it from competing platforms?

Michel: The main benefit that CircleBlack offers over any other platforms similar to us is the ability to generate revenue. For instance, our ability to give all the options (not just the holdings) on client 401(K) plans, without the advisor having to take custody, changes us from technology you are paying for to technology you are making money with.

As a whole, there are many platforms that do parts of what we do - such as performance reporting and billing, client technology - but none that integrate it all. We are an integration hub and will work with any other platforms an advisor or firm has. At CircleBlack, we feel technology should work for the advisor, not the other way around.

Hortz: Can you explain how you are able to make your platform a central hub for advisors? How do you integrate other firm tools like CRM, trading, risk, and planning tools and enable them to communicate with each other in your platform?

Michel: We are open to integrating any platforms being used with APIs. CircleBlack is a single sign-on hub, so once you log in, everything is open and talking to each other. We do not just push out clean aggregated data to these integrated platforms. We also pull data so it reflects both within CircleBlack and all other platforms. It is our job, not the advisor’s job, to make sure all the players are talking to each other.

Hortz: Please tell us more about your targeted content engine and news alerts feature. What are they designed to do and how are they different from similar stand-alone services?

Michel: In order for the advisor or the client to get anything out of these modern communication tools, they must engage with them. What we have found is that clients want content that is relevant to them and they want it from an advisor they have a relationship with. In today's society, newsletters are not always going to get read. What we have created is the ability for the advisor/ firm to send content to clients based on their specific portfolio, even if not everything in the portfolio has been shared with the advisor. When clients get content tailored to them, they engage more with the technology and the firm providing that personalized service. We are able to show who the content was sent to, and if they opened it. We have found that when the client is more engaged with the CircleBlack platform, they add more held-away accounts and, over time, share more as the trust with the advisor grows. We are different from most stand-alone systems in that we actively discover and are looking at a client's whole portfolio and this service is included with everything else we offer.

Hortz: Can you further discuss how your platform makes an advisor’s life easier, increases their revenue, and helps them build trusted client relationships?

Michel: CircleBlack was strategically designed to be an easy-to-access, comprehensive wealth management system for advisors and their clients using world-class account and data aggregation; providing robust and flexible performance reporting on all assets including held-away assets; and delivering automated, personalized, targeted content to clients on any device, including smart phones and tablets. Providing this right mix of vital information and modern tools backed by 5-star technology and integrated throughout the firm’s systems into an efficient time-saving platform, we have found saves considerable time, money and effort for advisors, position advisors to provide advice on all client assets, helps them build long-lasting trusting relationships with their clients, and this translates to increasing firm revenues.

Hortz: What did you learn from your previous BloombergBlack experience that you implemented here at CircleBlack?

Michel: During my time at Bloomberg and at previous companies, I learned that when people focus on the price/value proposition, they often tend to focus too much on price rather than the value aspect. It’s important to focus on both price AND value. At Bloomberg, in particular, if a prospect says the price is too high, they will say, “What value can I add to make it worth it to you?”

Hortz: In your commitment to providing innovative technology solutions for advisors, what areas are your R&D efforts focused on right now?

Michel: The general purpose of the CircleBlack platform is to increase the trusted relationship between the advisor and his or her clients. We focus on that interaction with technology. We have a lot of exciting things in the works. For example, we are adding more capabilities for advisors and clients to share documents on the platform. We are also working to further expand our content targeting systems so that the content that is delivered to clients is both timely and viewed as relevant.

Hortz: To fund your technology development and growth, besides typical sources like VC and angel investors, you received support through a number of different avenues including the State of New Jersey.  Can you tell us about that and give us a lay of the land of other kinds of support available for financial services startups?

Michel: At CircleBlack, we have taken advantage of New Jersey’s Angel Investor Tax Credit Program. This program provides an incentive for investment in NJ emerging technology businesses by giving our investors a 10 percent tax credit against corporation business or gross income taxes.  Another New Jersey program that we have benefitted from is the Technology Business Tax Certificate Transfer (NOL) Program. This year, we plan to participate in the New Jersey R&D Tax Credit program. There is a wealth of information about funding opportunities available on the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s website, http://www.njeda.com. We highly recommend that all entrepreneurs investigate their state’s economic development websites.

Hortz: As a successful serial entrepreneur, what best advice can you offer financial advisors and industry executives on how to navigate their firms in this new operating environment of accelerating business and cultural change?

Michel: The rule remains the same. It’s important to keep identifying client pain points in your target market and find a way to solve those issues. It’s about focusing on the work of building your business with a strong and relevant value proposition that directly addresses changing perceptions, preferences, and needs for your clients and not some sort of future exit strategy.

Previously posted on Harvest Exchange.

The Institute for Innovation Development is an educational and business development catalyst for growth-oriented financial advisors and financial services firms determined to lead their businesses in an operating environment of accelerating business and cultural change. We position our members with the necessary ongoing innovation resources and best practices to drive and facilitate their next-generation growth, differentiation and unique community engagement strategies. The institute was launched with the support and foresight of our founding sponsors - Pershing, Voya Financial, Ultimus Fund Solutions, Fidelity, and Charter Financial Publishing (publisher of  Financial Advisor and Private Wealth magazines). For more information click here.  

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