Ryan Anderson recently joined Vestwell as the Senior Vice President of Product & Design. In 2010, Anderson founded New York City based Alchemy50, an award winning product design studio which was later acquired in 2017. During his time there, his clients included DataMinr, Artivest, FolioDynamix (now part of Envestnet ($ENV), United Healthcare, Thomson Reuters and 1 Second Everyday. Anderson also spent time as the Chief Product Officer for Advizr before it was acquired by Orion Advisor Services.
Let me back up a few years to give you the whole story. I led a product design studio in NYC called Alchemy50 for many years, and along the way we worked with a whole host of financial firms – hedge funds, portfolio managers, fintech startups – all different types of people and products. And what started to become important to me, rather than focusing on the institutional stuff, was thinking about how I could better apply my experience to help everyday people. One of the things that came up in the course of my research was how poorly Americans do with their retirement savings and financial planning in general. So when a former client, Advizr, approached me about becoming their full-time product officer, I jumped at the chance. Through their financial planning and ultimately their wellness platform, I could take my expertise and apply it to people in need.
When Advizr got acquired, I thought, ‘Okay, what do I want to do next?’ That’s when Aaron and Jonathan approached me about joining Vestwell. I knew Aaron and Jonathan from FolioDynamix, another former client of Alchemy’s, and Vestwell’s mission was closely aligned with why I went to Advizr in the first place – helping people make better financial decisions. On top of that, I now had access to recordkeeping and payroll information, which is powerful data to have when creating tech that supports financial services.
I think the big challenge is that retirement plans can have a lot of variables. You have different investment vehicles, enrollment requirements, plan designs, and compliance rules to keep track of. That means there are a lot of levers that need to be set up and maintained to give sponsors and advisors the flexibility they need. Furthermore, a big benefit of our offering is that it’s highly automated and digital. Traditional recordkeepers have outdated, manual processes that don’t make things easy for sponsors and participants. Simple is hard, but we’re 100% focused on making retirement easy.
When working with larger enterprises, it’s important that our service can be white-labeled so that everything coming out of the system appears to be coming directly from them. This is also a challenge, as the devil’s in the details. The more you expose, the more complex it gets and the longer it takes to bring that kind of stuff to market.
So I think the biggest challenge is improving on what today’s recordkeeping systems do in a way that is much more flexible and automated – particularly for smaller plans, which is our focus. If we get this right – and we will – then this becomes an extraordinary opportunity.
The first thing that stood out to me was how much more we could do with the user experience. This encompasses a lot of things, like the amount of reporting we give to advisors, improving platform navigation, and increasing platform communications. As part of that, a primary focus of mine will be how we better onboard sponsors and participants onto the platform. We’ve done a solid job here thus far, but I do think we can further improve this area via automation, getting smarter about using data, and working with our operations team to better understand their challenges and how best to address them.
Longer term, it’s all about integrations. So if you think about what makes Vestwell unique, it’s that we’re creating a system with a modern technology stack which allows us to be more flexible and better positioned to integrate with many different providers and services.
If you think about what a product does, it solves a problem for a user. And what we’re trying to solve touches all of our users: sponsors, participants, and advisors. Their problems are all a little bit different while sharing a common thread. As an advisor, there’s a trust element; advisors want to know our platform is reliable and accurate and that it can provide what they need to run their business effectively. And in much of the same way, there’s a trust that we have to build with sponsors, too. If you think about how sponsors and advisors interact, it’s not super frequently and when they do interact it is often to solve a problem. So the better we can create a system for the sponsor that does what they need it to do – like taking care of enrollment, engaging their employees, and submitting contributions – the better it is for the advisor. That stuff has to be rock solid.
With participants, the problem for them is simply saving for retirement. Whether it’s registering for an account, making a contribution change, or taking out a loan against their savings, it needs to be incredibly straightforward – and accessible (mobile). Outside of that, they don’t care about much else.
So while I really look at it as three separate problems, and we treat the experience separately for each, there are common elements. The portals for each should be easy to navigate and do what it’s intended for which means information has to flow across all three seamlessly.
The big problem is – and it’s the reason why I think Vestwell has such a great business model – there’s a lot of old technology in the industry. The incumbents started in the early 80’s and they haven’t evolved much since. You’re now seeing some kernels of new tech, but the pace at which it’s being built just isn’t fast enough, and the cost to do it is prohibitive in many cases. When trying to meld old technology with new systems, it can be expensive and time consuming. So, I think the approach we’re taking where we’ve started from scratch means we get to look at the problems in the industry today and solve those with a better solution through a modern tech stack. If you look across our team, we are all seasoned, enterprise fintech professionals. This is what we do, and all we do. In that, we are allowing retirement plan providers to get back to their core, focusing on their clients, instead of trying to be a technology recordkeeper provider.
I want to help create the modern framework that this 40-year old industry rebuilds its foundation from. Ultimately, I hope that translates into a greater sense of empathy to the problems our users face. I want to help create a system that solves those problems for them.