In 2018, Anand Sheth realized he had pushed Microsoft Excel to its limits. The workflow software he envisioned for financial advisors, with all the features he knew they wanted, needed to be built from scratch.
At the time, Sheth, who was previously an operations manager at Ameriprise Financial for 19 years, was the chief operations officer at Confluence Wealth Management Group, a practice affiliated with Ameriprise in San Dimas, Calif. managing more than $500 million.
Knowing Confluence wasn’t the only RIA in need of what he wanted to build, Sheth went out on his own that summer and began working on Pulse360. He pitched the idea to James Hill, who is now chief technology officer at the startup, and the two worked on it all of 2019.
The beta version of Pulse360 debuted in January to a few advisors willing to help Sheth work out any bugs. The plan was to launch the software in April or May of this year and begin touring the country, shopping Pulse360 to financial advisors at industry conferences. Then the pandemic struck.
“It’s been interesting. Challenging in the respect that I was going to launch at conferences this coming May and there are no conferences. I have to try to figure out how to reach financial advisors in a different manner,” Sheth told RIA Intel.
The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus in March led to the fastest-ever bear market and a dramatic slowing of the economy. Businesses were ordered to close, citizens were mandated to stay home, and smaller gatherings were prohibited, let alone large conferences. Many are hoping a return to some semblance of normalcy will happen this fall but in-person conferences throughout 2020 have already been cancelled.
Envestnet cancelled its Advisor Summit in April. The annual Morningstar Investment Conference in June, attended by thousands of financial advisors, has also been cancelled (it is expected to be rescheduled for the fall, although the company has not shared any details about a new date). Last week, Charles Schwab’s custody business that serves more than 7,500 RIAs cancelled all in-person events in 2020, including its annual Impact conference.
Fortunately for Sheth, wealth managers have found their jobs to be largely accomplishable from home and they seem interested as ever in software that will make them more efficient. Pulse360 claims it can make the real-time, remote, and in-person meeting documentation process 10 times more efficient.
Financial advisors can spend hours each week preparing meeting documents, polishing meeting notes, and writing follow-up letters. Pulse360 automates much of those processes, automatically filling in information relevant to a client. Other features are in the works and it already integrates with client relationship management (CRM) systems Redtail, Wealthbox, and Salesforce. It takes minutes to set up and will start at $20 per month.
Sheth was more concerned two weeks ago about launching Pulse360 in a year without conferences. But after just one tweet April 25 about the integration with Wealthbox, 32 advisors signed up to be notified of the launch, even with what he considered to be a lackluster signup page (a better version is coming, he said). The goal was to get 100 advisors at the start and he’s confident he can get there. “I think the message resonated about the hassle-free documentation.”
Outside that group, a few advisors already found Pulse360, scheduled online demonstrations with Sheth, and expressed interest in signing up when it’s live. “I’m not a guy from Silicon Valley who doesn't understand the business. And I was in compliance, as well, so I have that angle. I think that's what's interesting to folks.”
The company even moved up its official launch from mid-May to Monday so that it’s ready for inquiries from RIAs and broker-dealers rethinking their technology platforms. Now is a great time to launch a new product, conferences or not, according to some observers.
Paying for a booth passed by hundreds of advisors does give a company visibility, even amongst a sea of other companies doing the same. But there are other ways to get a product out to market, Tim Welsh, the president of consulting firm Nexus Strategy, said. Welsh, who was previously a director of Business Consulting Services at Schwab Institutional, now helps companies market products to advisors. Pulse360 is not a client of Nexus Strategy.
Companies can “rent” lists of advisor email addresses from some trade publications as well as engage in traditional display advertising, Welsh said. Social media, speaking engagements, and any other means to build a brand help, too, and none depend on conferences.
No matter how they do it, new companies just need customers and a positive run rate, especially to attract investors. Although, not every company is seeking to be acquired. “They need to get points on the board, they need to get sales and revenue as fast as possible,” Welsh said of startups.
And now is as good a time as any, according to Welsh, as RIAs and other wealth managers bringing in lower fees based on assets under management take a closer look at their own balance sheets. “Historically, it takes a bear market to buy software.”
And if a product genuinely improves the service an advisor provides to clients, there’s “never a bad time” to launch it, said Bill Finnegan, the Managing Director of Financial Services Marketing at Seismic, a sales enablement software company used by IBM, American Express, Wayfair, and others.
“Even in today’s environment, I can say unequivocally that financial organizations are making strategic investments in those software products that are improving their client relationships. The need to strengthen relationships with current clients is more important than ever. So, if the product improves the quality of advice advisors are providing to clients, why wouldn’t you launch it now?”