A free online financial planning service developed by graduates of Wake Forest’s graduate business school was named Best In Show during a national conference in San Francisco.
The Winston-Salem-based company, SimpliFi.net, is the creation of former Babcock School students Bryan Link (MBA '03) and Bill Grizack (MBA '03), who began developing SimpliFi in December 2003 and officially launched the startup in the Demon Incubator in early 2004.
SimpliFi, which offers free long-term financial planning and advice to “regular people,” was one of 57 companies that attended FinovateStartup 2009, an annual conference that showcases innovative financial technology products and services. The online service gives middle- and lower-income consumers access to the kind of professional financial planning and advice that is generally available only to higher earners who work with financial planners.
SimpliFi, a FinovateStartup 2009 news release says, replicates the financial planning process used by 95 percent of Certified Financial Planners. The company is a Registered Investment Advisor with the SEC.
According to Link, the company’s CEO, SimpliFi aims to remove the complexity from financial planning for the average middle-class user, who is typically a 38-year-old woman with an annual household income of $80,000 to $90,000.
“Our perspective on the world is a little more realistic,” Link says of the Web site, which uses an avatar named Sophie to guide people through the financial process.
“If you take a look at the landscape … everybody has Internet access and does online banking, but that’s where it stops for people. Most of the initial efforts to provide Web-based advice to people came out of the investment world. We came at it from a totally different perspective. How do you get those building blocks in place? No one else was trying to do that.”
The idea for the Web site, Link says, was hatched during an international trip for Babcock students to Russia and Scandinavia. Link and Grizack were talking with Joe Stone, a classmate who ran an investment advisory firm. Another friend said he had some money – not a lot – and asked whether the financial adviser could help him. Most of Stone’s clients were managing an average of $350,000 in assets, Link says.
“I told Joe it would be great to figure out a way to do what you do for regular people, and Bill and I thought we could use technology to do that. We assumed other people were doing it and we just didn’t know about it. We did some research and found that no one was doing it in an effective way.”
SimpliFi has just started to aggressively market its product to consumers. To this point, the company has focused most of its attention on gaining licensing agreements with credit unions. But after receiving the award in San Francisco, SimpliFi was featured on numerous Web sites and in a variety of publications, including MarketWatch, InvestmentNews, Barron’s and PC World.
“Given the current economic climate, now more than ever is the time for regular people to start setting long-term goals and planning their financial future,” Link said in the conference news release.
“Currently, less than 5 percent of Americans have a written financial plan, but those with a plan are 250 percent more likely to achieve their financial goals. We believe that everyone, no matter their income or tax bracket, should have access to professional financial planning tools and advice. After providing financial planning technology to some of the largest credit unions in the country, we feel the time is right to provide consumers with the same professional, expert advice.”
SimpliFi offers advice and guidance on a range of financial topics, including long-term savings, debt management, insurance and investments. The company gathers information about where users may be on their financial paths, what their goals are and potential financial trouble spots. It then develops a series of steps for success.
In its first direct-to-consumer offering, SimpliFi has updated its technology with integrated modules for insurance, retirement planning and a top-level spending plan. The company also has incorporated product referrals directly into reports so users can take action and begin improving their finances.
The honor in San Francisco, Link says, was somewhat of a surprise because SimpliFi was not among the original 27 companies selected to present their ventures to the conference. But the attendees voted to give SimpliFi a shot at the stage, and the company made the most of the opportunity.
“We were fortunate to get the chance to present, and it really went well. We didn’t know if we would get to present at all, much less win Best In Show.”