Welcome back to the 310th episode of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today’s podcast is Natalie Taylor. Natalie is the owner of Natalie Taylor Consulting Services, an independent virtual RIA, and is also the Head of Financial Advice for Monarch Money, a personal financial management tool that helps consumers track their spending and net worth over time.
What’s unique about Natalie, though, is how, during her years of working for a FinTech company, she realized that providing valuable financial advice that is more affordable for the masses ultimately requires collecting only the data, and delivering only the advice, that will provide the greatest amount of impact and value to the client… and filtering out the rest that just isn’t cost-effective advice for the end consumer.
In this episode, we talk in-depth about how, while working for LearnVest, Natalie realized that their financial advisors were much more limited by the constraints of data, time, and fees, than the traditional advisor, which inspired her to develop a framework that focuses on providing only the most impactful financial advice to help clients move forward right now, how while also working at LearnVest, Natalie developed a ‘brand voice guide’ to help all of their advisors communicate advice to clients more consistently, that revolved around 5 principles for advisors to implement during the advice delivery process (including “be the Coach”, “be the Expert”, “be the Cheerleader”, “wide lens/narrow lens”, and “listen and direct”), and how the acquisition of LearnVest by a large financial services company, and the repurposing of its technology tools, ultimately led to Natalie leaving and having to dismantle the advice offering she originally helped build and develop.
We also talk about how, in the early stages of Natalie’s career, she felt that as a young advisor she was not prepared to give advice at the level of an expert and instead switched firms to work with a mentor who recognized her talents and gave her more opportunities to work with higher caliber clients (and really build her confidence with them), how, after leaving LearnVest, Natalie focused on speaking engagements and consulting but reached a crossroads as she recognized she missed the type of direct impact she had for clients in her previous roles that doesn’t come from consulting alone, and how Natalie realized that she did not have to choose between her desire to provide a breadth of impact through a FinTech or a depth of impact with personal financial planning and instead chose to do both, by splitting her time between the launch of her own independent RIA while simultaneously joining a personal financial management tool company, Monarch Money, as the head of financial advice where she could help them systematize advice for the masses.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Natalie shares how working in FinTech and at an RIA helped her understand how important it is to balance between advice that is exact and solutions that may not be as ideal but helps the client actually move forward and take the next positive step, why Natalie believes it is important for newer, younger advisors to not get discouraged by the uncertainty of career paths and instead concentrate on getting clear on what values are important to them and using those values as a filter to find the next steps on their paths, and why Natalie believes the key to her success stems from developing her own personal list of 6 core values that she and her husband use to filter their major family and career decisions… and review each year to ensure the ongoing decisions they are making are still in alignment with what is really most important to them, and can keep propelling them forward in their careers and their lives.
So, whether you’re interested in learning about how Natalie dealt with having to dismantle the FinTech she helped develop, why Natalie ultimately decided to work simultaneously for a FinTech company and her own RIA, or why Natalie focuses her work on the meaningful impact she can provide in her clients’ lives, then we hope you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast, with Natalie Taylor.
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Michael: Welcome, Natalie Taylor, to the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Natalie: Hey, Michael. Thanks so much for having me.
Michael: I appreciate you joining us today and looking forward to a conversation around what I kind of think of as this new emerging sort of career track for maybe a small subset of advisors. For most advisors, we kind of get a couple of choices about how our careers evolve. You can be really good at getting clients and doing business development, and you go build a client base. You can be really good at serving clients but maybe not the best at getting them. And now, there are some jobs for advisors that simply want to be awesome service advisors and work for a firm that’s got a marketing process to bring those clients in to be served. As firms scale, there’s starting to be a growth of centralized financial planning departments, and so people that just want to be super awesome, nerdy financial planning resources that support a bunch of advisors, not even necessarily have to do any client stuff, that’s emerging as an option as well.
But to me, the interesting parallel for this is, over the past 10 years, there’s been this growth of FinTech firms, and FinTech, to me, in its early days was payments companies like Stripe, early days of Bitcoin and blockchain, online brokerage platforms like Robinhood, businesses that were meant to offer products directly to consumers that didn’t necessarily involve advice or advisors. So just most technology has been a little bit more either the pipes and infrastructure of how the financial system runs or something that lets people buy the products that they want to buy because they can just go online and buy it.
But there’s this new emergence of advice- and advisor-oriented technology firms. I even struggle about whether to call them FinTech or tech-enabled advice services. It’s platforms like LearnVest, to me, that I at least think about in that category and others that have come up in recent years.
And so I know you have lived a version in that journey. You spent the first part of your career in the, I guess I’ll call it the ‘traditional advisor realm.’ You spent the past decade of your career in that tech-enabled advisory services, advisor technology side of the business. And so, I’m fascinated to talk about the new things that we can do as we start building these advisor skillsets beyond just going out and getting clients and serving clients. And you’ve lived so much of that over the past decade that I’m just actually really excited to hear what that journey has been like once you said, “I’m not just going to do individual clients anymore. We’re going to be going in this new direction.”
Natalie’s Journey Through The Financial Services Industry [06:38]
Natalie: Yeah. Yeah, that’s so well said, and it is so interesting how things have changed over the last decade in those sort of traditional, you can be a rainmaker, or you can be a service advisor, or maybe you can be a planner to planners. I started in the business working under a rainmaker and thinking, “I’ll be a great Doogie Howser service advisor. I’ll be the real smart one that runs alongside the rainmaker.” And I sort of thought that that’s as much as I could aspire to, because the idea of rainmaking at 23, looking 14, was very overwhelming. And I didn’t know anything yet, and I didn’t want to tell anybody what to do until I knew anything. And so I always saw myself as, “Okay, well, I’ll be the Doogie Howser type, and I will partner with a rainmaker.” And I had a wonderful phenomenal mentor in my first seven years. That was that rainmaker that I got to partner with, and I got to learn and grow and be in front of clients and do all kinds of stuff and learned so many things.
But the move to sort of FinTech or tech-enabled advice was…I don’t want to call it an accident, but it wasn’t some sort of intentional strategy. It was just, I was frustrated that there was no way to help people of my own age. At that time, I was in my late 20s. There was no way to help them profitably in the traditional financial planning firm sort of setup. And I didn’t understand why we couldn’t use tech to do more of what humans were doing. There was work that I was doing in the practice for clients that they didn’t need to pay me to do. They should have these tech tools accessible to them directly, just like TurboTax exists to enable a large swath of people to file their own taxes. I believe that there should be some sort of robo-planner, if you will, that should exist that’s analogous that won’t meet the needs of every client or every person, but for those in their 20s, 30s, and maybe even early 40s, that much of that lift on the financial planning side could be done by technology and not have to be done by humans, which could allow the price point to come down.
And so, in exploring that sort of idea, I found LearnVest. I was googling around about tech advice and advice for 20-year-olds. And that’s how I found LearnVest, and it was very aligned with…what I wanted to build was very aligned with where they were wanting to go. And so that’s how I sort of, by happenstance, ended up in technology. But it wasn’t a strategy. And in those very early days, LearnVest was really the first in that part of FinTech, if you will.
Michael: Yeah. So I want to dig a lot further in the LearnVest soon, but first, just help us understand a little bit more of the early days of your career. Did you start straight out of school? Had you always wanted to be a financial advisor? What was the entree and start in the advisory business for you?
Natalie: Okay. So real talk, I graduated from college in 2003 and found it very challenging to find a job. I’d gone to a good university and had a great GPA, all those things. But it was sort of during that transition to applying for jobs online and not in person, that whole sort of industry was changing, and I found it very difficult to be seen and find a job. And so my older sister’s college roommate was an advisor at Ameriprise, American Express, actually, at the time, American Express Financial Advisors, and said, “Natalie, you should try this. There’s an office in La Jolla near where you live, and you should go in for an info session.” And so that’s how I became a financial advisor.
Michael: Through your older sister’s college roommate.
Michael: Right? Okay. Because you graduated and needed a job.
Natalie: That’s right. I could go back and tell a story that I was a double major in economics and sociology, and financial planning was a perfect fit. But none of that would be true because I took the job that I could get. And in learning there, I was in what they called their P1 channel, their Platform 1 channel, which meant I was an employee making minimum wage. And it was a very sales-oriented culture. There was a whiteboard, and we moved up or down on the whiteboard based on how many new clients we got. And what I realized very quickly is that I really didn’t like the sales aspect, but I was actually good at it. I was at the top of the board. I got 14 clients in my first 4 months as a financial advisor, but…
Michael: Ooh! Doing what?
Natalie: I don’t know, Michael. But I was panicked because people older than me, because I was 23, were looking to me to give them advice, and I took that responsibility really seriously. And it was very uncomfortable for me to feel like I was in a position where I needed to rise to a challenge that I wasn’t prepared to do. And so, I very quickly left the P1 channel and found a phenomenal mentor, a franchise owner of Ameriprise in the P2 channel, and worked for him for seven years. And he was an incredible mentor and created an environment where I could learn and grow. And so that’s kind of how I got started.
Michael: Interesting. So the P2 channel is the more independent channel under, I guess, then American Express, now Ameriprise network system.
Natalie: That’s right, yep. So he could largely run his own business the way he wanted to run it but had access to…he had a payout from Ameriprise, but it was much higher in the P2 channel than the P1 channel and had access to all the home office sort of resources that you would in P1 or P2.
Michael: So, what was the nature of the job, I guess, that you applied to with him as you were transitioning from P1 to P2 and I guess wanted to get away from a role that had so much sales obligations, sales expectations?
Natalie: Yeah. If I remember correctly, I had to step down to paraplanner versus financial advisor as sort of a penalty for going from P1 to P2. I had to be a paraplanner for a year. And so I was, and then we changed my title back to financial advisor. And Neal, my boss, senior partner, and mentor, he was phenomenal at bringing new clients in. He worked by referral. He cared very deeply about our clients. He believed that you could have a successful business and do right by clients. He was a person of deep integrity. And I was a lot more analytical than he was, which was a great fit. So I was able to get deep in the weeds on casework and got exposure to so much and learned so much by doing so much casework. We would have years where we would bring in 40 or 50 new clients, and it was a relatively small practice. We were the only two advisors.
So, I got to see a lot of situations, and I got to learn a lot. I was young, and I think my perspective was I’m supposed to be the smart one and then come up with the answers. And I think about financial planning fundamentally differently now and what my role is as a financial advisor, but it was a tremendous opportunity to learn. And if I can be candid, Neal was a black man, and I was a young woman in an industry full of largely white men. And I think having a mentor who also didn’t look like the crowd was really empowering for me in a way that I don’t think I realized until later in my career. And that was very powerful for me.
Michael: Just tell me more about that. What was empowering? What made it so impactful, or how did that show up for you?
Natalie: Yeah, good question. I looked up to Neal very much and thought so highly of him. And then we’d go to conferences, and we would both just stick out like a sore thumb. And I think for me to look up to him so deeply allowed me to think that I could be worthy of the same sort of position, even though I didn’t look… It meant that being successful and being good at what you do in this industry, specifically, did not have to hinge on the color of my skin or whether I was a man or a woman. And it sounds so simple, but it was really powerful. I remember my best friend’s dad said, “Well, you’ll never make it as a financial advisor because you don’t golf.” And his…
Michael: That’s the deal breaker, golf.
Natalie: Yeah. And his son was a financial advisor with Morgan Stanley and golfed and did quite well for himself. But I think that’s what it was. It’s just that, “Oh, this isn’t part of the mold that I need to fit to be successful or to be worthy in this industry.” And I think that’s what it came down to that was so empowering.
Michael: So I think you said you stayed with Neal for seven years. So was it that similar kind of role just all the way through? He went and got clients, and then you did the planning work and made sure that the clients were well-served.
Natalie: For the most part, yeah. Towards the end, I started bringing in clients as well, but that was never my primary role. I will say that, in that practice, we didn’t really have C and D clients. We only took A clients, and we only kept A clients. And Neal’s perspective on that was that we would just both work together to do as well as we could for every A client. And so there was never an expectation of me as an associate taking C and D clients or…
Michael: Oh, interesting.
Natalie: …anything like that. We worked as a team. And so I was sort of the default head of planning and asset management. So I managed the portfolios, and I wrote all the plans. But I was in client meetings, and not to take notes, Neal would turn to me and say, “Natalie, what do you think we should do, given where the market is?” or “Can you address that question about where we are in the market and what we should be thinking about?” And so that opportunity that he gave me, I don’t think I realized at the time how valuable it was. But I got to be a co-planner and a co-advisor alongside him with our clients, with our A clients, rather than getting kind of relegated to C and D clients and seeing what I could make of it. And that really helped build my confidence. It helped build my communication skills and my knowledge, because when you’re the one in the meeting saying the things, you’ve really got to own that information.
Michael: So, what led him to say, “We’re just not taking on any C and D clients?” It’s such a common model when there’s a second advisor on board and you’re a senior advisor, to say, “Hey, we’re going to let the second advisor cut their teeth to gain a little more experience with these C and D clients that may not be a great fit for my time but a good fit for their time.” What made Neal reject that framework?
Natalie: Yeah, it’s a good question. I don’t know that I can say for sure where he was coming from in making that decision with this 23-year-old woman who looked so young. But I think he saw potential in me. We had talked for many years about me taking over the practice. And I think he wanted to train me and wanted to invest in me, and he saw that to be the best way to invest in me. And I think he saw me as an asset to clients. And I think that was very, very different. But I think he felt like Natalie has the ability to do well in front of clients and solidify those relationships with the firm, and that’s important. And I think he then was able to see, from doing that, that clients… it got to the point where some clients would just request to meet with me, or Neal was out of the office for an entire month because of some family, health things going on, and I just did all the meetings while he was gone. The practice did not slow down. And we closed new business during that time period. And so I think he was also able to see the fruit of what it looks like to really lift someone up. And I also think, from an ego standpoint, he was a very evolved person that he didn’t need to be the smartest person in the room or the star player. I think he was perfectly comfortable lifting me up and helping me to experience what it feels like to be in that lead role as well. And what a gift to start my career that way for the first seven years.
Michael: I have to admit, just hearing that, there’s sort of a somewhat harsh truth statement there about the dynamic, at least relative to what a lot of other advisory firms do. To me, just what I hear in that, essentially, is Neal had so much confidence that you were going to be successful where you needed to be with A clients that he just wanted to put you in front of A clients. And I find for a lot of advisory firms that do that model where we’re going to give the younger, newer advisor the C and D clients, it’s almost explicitly done in the context of, “Well, you’re a newer advisor and you’re still building some experience. So here are some clients you can build your experience with, and maybe their needs aren’t quite as complex. And frankly, if it doesn’t go well, the business is not at risk as much because they weren’t generating as much revenue for the firm.” And there is sort of an implicit, “Well, you don’t know that much yet, so why don’t we let you practice over here in the safe sandbox.” And candidly, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable approach from a business perspective, but to me, a big part of what you’re describing and framing how Neal approached it was, “No, I think Natalie is going to be that good with my clients, so why wouldn’t I just give her that with A clients now and immediately and forever going forward.”
Natalie: Yep. Yeah. And I don’t think it’s a bad model either to say, “Let’s let the associate take a simpler,” I hate saying C and D clients at all, but simpler cases. I don’t think that’s a bad model at all. I think what’s important is that you let an associate own relationships or co-own relationships in a very real way, that they are not just the person prepping for the meeting and taking notes during the meeting, but they’re a real player in the relationship, whatever that looks like, whether they’re fully owning it or co-owning it with a lead advisor. And I think that was really important.
And in my own practice, which is newer, I have a lead advisor who works for me, and she is absolutely phenomenal. And I’ve gotten to do the same thing for her that was done for me and the amount of confidence that I get to have and the way that I get to see the business grow with me not even having met some of our clients, but they are really complex, high level, wonderful A+ clients for us that Cindy completely owns. And I think realizing the lack of ego in that there’s a time period where me, as the rainmaker and the owner, it’s appropriate for me to be the one with the answer for Cindy, for her to come and say, “I have this case. Can you help?” But the model is that we then get to the transition point, which we experienced this year, where I’m coming to her with a problem and I’m letting her solve it, because I’ve invested in her and lifted her up and given her that exposure so that she’s capable of that. And I think it’s just critical, but it’s so incredible to see her thrive.
Michael: Very cool. So you’re going down this wonderful path with Neal and getting all these cool opportunities, but you’re not there anymore. So now, take us back again to what changed, that you had this wonderful role with a wonderful mentor who’s giving you great opportunities with some of the top clients of the firm, but that obviously wasn’t scratching some itch because you’re not there anymore. So what happened?
Natalie: Yeah. I think a couple of things came together that resulted in me leaving. One of them was that my desire to serve people my own age was growing, and not my parent’s age. Our practice served people my parent’s age who are pre-retired, which was great. But I think my innate desire to serve my peers became stronger and stronger.
Michael: So, by then, you’re 7 years in, so you’re coming right up on your 30th birthday and that point where a lot of us, I think, get to as advisors. You’re 7 years in, you’re crossing into your 30s, your friends that are now hitting some of the complexity points that start coming by the time you’re getting into your 30s, your career is growing, you’re making a little more money, there are some complexities starting to arise, you have a friend for a long time who is a financial advisor, and they reach out and say, “Hi, I’ve got some questions. Can I work with you?” And you have to say no.
Natalie: Right. Yeah. Exactly. And feeling like I couldn’t solve for how to do that profitably and sustainably within the model that we were in and realizing that it was more than just…Neal was happy for me to take whatever clients I could bring in, but realizing that sort of the way that it was set up from the start was unsustainable to make a price point and a service model that would work for those kinds of clients. And it was largely meeting a different set of needs that they didn’t really have yet. They didn’t really have a lot of assets to manage yet, but their planning needs were really deep. And so I think that, combined with, honestly, getting pregnant with my first kiddo and a relocation to Santa Barbara as well, I think there was a lot of things that play in that sort of season of life that year where I ultimately made the change to leave Neal’s office and ultimately transition to LearnVest.
Michael: So what was limiting from the business model? It was Neal, we only serve people $0.5-billion minimum. Was it just a sheer assets thing, or was it something broader? And what was limiting?
Natalie: Yeah, good question. I think we had a really sort of distributed practice in terms of revenue stream. So about a third of our revenue came from planning fees, a third of our revenue came from AUM, and then a third of our revenue came from insurance, annuities, some private REITs. And that model worked well, and our A clients, that’s how their fee is split up. They might have a $2,500 or a $3,500 or even a $5,000 planning fee, and then they may have $1 million invested with us at 1%, with actively managed mutual funds underneath. It’s kind of wild to think about now because I do think so differently now. And then they would have, oftentimes, some need for a private REIT or an annuity product with a living benefit, this was the early 2000s, or some sort of life insurance need, although we didn’t do a ton of…we were not a VUL for everybody’s sort of practice, by any means.
But that revenue split, the clients that I wanted to serve, they could maybe try to afford that planning fee, but it was steep, and the carrying costs for us with a client was over $1,000. So we weren’t profitable unless we were charging at least $1,000 as a planning fee. That was a steep price for a 29-year-old or a 30-year-old to pay. And then there was no AUM yet, and there was maybe some 30-year term that they needed, but there were no annuities that a 29-year-old needed or private REITs that they needed. And so that’s what I mean when I say it was very challenging to serve that kind of demographic of client profitably within that sort of framework.
Why Natalie Left Ameriprise To Join LearnVest [27:55]
Michael: And so, how did you land in this realm of saying, “Okay, this isn’t doing it for me. I want to find some other way to do this advice thing and be able to serve people my own age?” So how do you land at a company like LearnVest? Particularly, 10 years ago, this is a new startup or just in the very early days of “robo-advisors.” Betterment and Wealthfront just launched in the mainstream 10 years ago, and LearnVest was even a different thing besides those. Just how do you find your way to that from “I’ve been working at Ameriprise for the past seven years,” not to knock Ameriprise, but thinking of Ameriprise, very traditional financial advisor, financial services, LearnVest, opposite side of the spectrum?
Natalie: Totally. Totally. One Google search can change your life. That’s the answer, is I was, “Is there anything like this out there?” And so I started googling, and I found LearnVest. And they happened to be hiring at the time for part-time remote CFPs, and I had just had my first baby. And I was, “Well, goodness, I could be a part-time remote CFP for them and just sort of dip my toe in the water as I transition to motherhood.” And my life was in flux as I transition to motherhood and as we move from San Diego to Santa Barbara for a career opportunity for my husband. And at the time, Ameriprise had rules around you had to be within a certain number of miles from your primary office, and if you weren’t, you couldn’t be associated with that office anymore. So there were a lot of things that came together. But ultimately, that’s how I started at LearnVest.
And I started as a planner, making $120 for every plan I could deliver. And very quickly, my comp package and my role expanded, but they were just at that very early stages of the RIA and trying to figure out, “How do we do this?” And it was a really cool opportunity for me to be able to be a part of building “How do we do this?” And within five years, we had an RIA with 14,000 clients that were all paying a planning fee. And granted the planning fee was quite low, but that was phenomenal growth for an RIA in five years of getting to exist, from 2012 to closing into early 2018. And the opportunity that quickly opened up for me at LearnVest was really compelling, and that sort of accelerated my momentum into this change.
Michael: So, for those who aren’t familiar just with the industry and the business and what was going on back then, just can you describe what LearnVest was, was doing, particularly, then, when you first showed up, I guess, 2012, 2013 timeframe, and you’re just making this transition?
Natalie: Right, yeah. So LearnVest started as, I would say, a media brand. So lots of content, personal finance content, originally focused for women in their 20s and 30s but quickly expanded to women and men in their 20s and 30s. And back then, it’s only 10 years ago, but it was 10 whole years ago, if you know what I mean, and there weren’t a lot of personal finance brands that had any sort of millennial ear. None of the big players were able to speak to this audience. And we had millions of readers, monthly readers. And so we had found a way to really connect as a brand and provide personal finance content to millennials. And in 2012, LearnVest launched an RIA at a low price point, so it was anywhere from, I think, $299 to $399 upfront and then $19 a month. And you got to work with a planner remotely. So at first, we were a distributed team. We were all working from home from wherever, everywhere from Hawaii to New York.
Michael: Which was very tech-forward in 2012.
Michael: “We’re going to make a firm that has advisors, and they’re not in the office.”
Natalie: That’s right. That’s right, yes. So I know it doesn’t sound so revolutionary now, but at the time, it was quite revolutionary to build the way we were building. And because I was early and because I played every role, I did sales calls, I was an advisor, I was the brand voice manager, I was the director of advice implementation, I ran an advice strategy team that helped inform the tech build that…basically, I ran a team of SMEs for the tech build of the planning software, I got to do all kinds of stuff there. But anyway, that’s what LearnVest was. So it started as a media brand, a content site. We built an RIA. And we were…
Michael: And we’re just trying to do this really low priced, at least relative to industry, really low-priced ongoing planning offering at $300 to $400 upfront and 240 bucks a year, $19 a month.
Natalie: Exactly, exactly. Yep. And we played with the service model and played with pricing, and all that kind of stuff, but yes, that’s the gist of it. And in the course of doing so, because we were a VC-backed tech company, we had resources that a regular RIA would not have, but we were able to really expand our reach. And we expanded into a [email protected] channel as well and had very major players accessing LearnVest for their employees. And again, there are plenty of companies doing that now, Origin, Northstar, etc. There’s several out there. But at the time, that wasn’t really a thing. And so we got to be among the first in that space and really explore it. And I think just the learning curve that we all got to have being there, now, I look around at my cohort of who I worked with at LearnVest, especially in the early days, and where we all are now in the industry, some of us have open practices, some of us are CEOs of FinTech companies. We’ve gone in so many different directions, but that early team and what we were doing, that net new thing that we were working on was really powerful.
Michael: So help us understand a little bit more just what the vision was for this business model and just how it would work. I think, for a lot of advisors today, just the thought of, “We’re going to charge a few hundred dollars a year,” “We’re doing plans for $120 of hard cost,” just feels so distant from where we are to imagine that scaling up. So what was the vision, at least? How was it ideally expected to work to be able to get to the kind of volume and scale that you need?
Natalie: I think the vision was that we would build tech that would take a lot of the lift and that our users who were in their 20s and 30s… So I’ll transition back and forth between users and clients, not to offend anyone, just my brain is half FinTech and half… But at LearnVest, our clients, the vision was that we would build tech that would enable them to self-serve with a lot of the planning work, and the advisors could play, ultimately, a different role, more of a coach. We could do more one-to-many sort of stuff and be able to make it scalable. So I think that was ultimately the vision. I think the tech took longer to build, and then, ultimately, there was an acquisition by Northwestern Mutual, which sort of froze our tech in time. And then there was no… And that was in 2015, May of 2015. So that changed the trajectory of us being able to achieve the things that we wanted to achieve. But I think we were always trying to move towards asking more of the tech so that we could ask less of the human and figure out the happy medium of cost and price point to provide service to a vastly larger number of people.
Michael: So, the vision wasn’t necessarily just, “We’re going to try to scale up a zillion clients per advisor, with these advisors doing financial plans,” and just get them the number of clients that they have to have as clients when you’re charging a couple of hundred dollars per client. I guess, my interpretation of that is it’s almost more, “No, no, no, our goal, eventually, is to build technology that people will pay $19 a month for to get their ongoing financial planning and maybe just ping a human when they need it. And the humans were doing the work until the tech got to the point that the tech could do the work, and then you wouldn’t need the humans as much anymore.”
Natalie: Yeah. I think that’s well said. I think we had the sense the whole time that humans didn’t have to do everything that they were doing. But humans like humans, I think was another learning that we had, was that backing off the human component and dialing up the tech component, not only is it a huge build from a tech perspective but that humans really liked working with humans. And so, finding that right role for humans and the right role for tech was something that we continued to sort of learn and iterate on and never sort of got, I don’t think, to where we…well, I know, never got to the outcome that we were hoping to get to.
Focusing On Impact-Weighted Work To Help Clients Move Forward [37:40]
Michael: So tell us some more about just the learnings that you were finding. So you did have a very high volume of clients for what you were serving, many, many thousands of clients that went into the LearnVest system, which is a way bigger scale in serving folks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s than most advisory firms ever reached, where we topped up at 50 to 100 clients.
Michael: So just would love to hear more, what were you finding that was either working or not working as you were trying to figure out this balance of what should be tech and what should be human?
Natalie: Yeah, that’s a good question. And the model was very different. In the early days, we’re sort of pre-build on the tech side, and so we were asking a lot of a very robust Excel spreadsheet on the planning side. But I initially started at LearnVest working either 20 or 25 hours a week, I can’t remember, when I was a new mom. And I was taking 5 new clients per week, so 20 new clients a month. I was meeting with them, getting their data, building a plan, and then delivering the plan. And I was doing 5 clients a week on 25 hours. So the depth of planning that we were doing was somewhat lighter, but it was still fairly robust for what the clients needed. And I think some of the learnings that we had, some of them more difficult to swallow than others, were things around a start-with-nothing mentality. I had never thought before, as a CFP in private practice, with, I’m not going to say unlimited fee, but a healthy fee, a fee that is thousands of dollars per year, and as much time as I needed and as much data as I could get the client to provide, and when they were paying the fees, they would assume that they would give us everything.
When you start from sort of the opposite mentality of, “How little data and little time and little money does the client have to pay for me to provide as much value as possible?” and it was a really fundamentally kind of flip on its head way to think about things of, “What if we started from nothing? And what does impact-weighted work look like for these clients?” But I think we were doing some pretty good planning work there. It’s just that we were filtering it through an impact filter really heavily of, “Well, do I really need to know that piece of information? And do I really need to spend that much time doing that calculation, or as a quick back-of-the-napkin, all that we need in terms of fidelity to guide the client well in this moment?”
Michael: I’m intrigued just with that label and conceptual framework of impact-weighted work. What’s the smallest increment of stuff we can do that creates a meaningful impact for the client? I’m just thinking practical, do I need every single line item of their budget, or do I just need to be able to get to a quick slice that says, “Your outflows are more than your inflows, we probably need to have a conversation about that?”
Natalie: Yes, exactly. And as an advisor, it took time. It was transformative, and it was really challenging, because I remember, one of our projects once for the advice strategy team was, “If you could only get 12 pieces of data, how good of a financial plan could you write?” And as a CFP, my initial reaction is, “Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t provide any value with 12 pieces of data.” Does last name count? Just sort of totally offended by the question. But in having…
Michael: If that’s literally your constraint, yeah, we’re going to be on a first-name basis because I’m not giving 1 of my 12 pieces of data to get your last name.
Natalie: I’m not even sure if I know your first name.
Michael: “Dear Natalie, here’s your plan.”
Natalie: That’s right. But I think in having to continuously, over the years that I was at LearnVest, have to solve those same sorts of problems with an economy of, again, data, time, and fees, those were very heavy constraints. I think that what emerged was this really clear understanding of how to use that impact filter of what could you do with 12 pieces of data after you get past the offense of the question and have to really dive into that. What could you do? And what would those pieces need to be? And what would the limitations be? And how could we create around those limitations? And it just fundamentally transforms…I don’t know. It transformed the way I see all of what we do as planners to have to think that way. Whereas, even at the time, the concept of directionally correct advice really rubbed me the wrong way. It was just hard to say that out loud. It felt like it was a compromise of, “We’re just trying to get to good enough.” And as a perfectionist, that really felt terrible, and as an analytical person, that really felt terrible.
But I think, even more as I get older and recognized in my work as a planner now, it wasn’t just that it was good enough. It was as good as matters for the set of decisions in front of the client. It gave them everything they needed to be able to make the decisions that were in front of them and that there wasn’t any greater level of fidelity or exact calculations that would have ultimately changed the piece of advice that I gave them, which is “dial up your 401(k) by 3%,” and “put more in your emergency fund,” and “add $100 to your credit paydown,” and “that’s what you’re capable of achieving right now.” And so I think just sort of that realization of, “What do I really need to know to be able to inform the set of decisions that are right in front of the client right now?”
Michael: I’m fascinated by the framing because, to me, this has application far beyond what you happen to be doing in LearnVest. Your time/data/money limitations are perhaps a little bit more severe than the traditional advisory firm. But to me, any firm, any business up and down the line, I would argue very strongly, could draw a lot from that same kind of impact-weighted work sort of filter to say, “Hey, great. If you’re getting thousands of dollars per client, you have a lot more room to do even more cool, super impactful stuff.” But the question still becomes, for whatever you’re doing to earn whatever that fee is, are you doing the most impact-weighted work, or are you doing the stuff that you do because the stuff everybody else does, because it’s just kind of always the way things have been done, and no one’s actually taken a critical look about whether that really, really needs to be done, and whether clients really value it for the amount of time and energy and cost that you spend to create or do or produce that thing?
Natalie: Yep. Yeah, that’s right. And I think the idea of starting with a proverbial blank sheet of paper is really overwhelming when you’re used to starting with the soup-to-nuts CFP, “We do all these things,” 100-page plans. When you go down to say, “Okay, I’m going to start with nothing, and I’m only going to put stuff on this page that has the most impact possible,” limited by those three constraints, time, data, and money, I think the work product that you get out of it is phenomenally better than what you get from, “I’m just going to start with everything and try to pare down.” Because it forces a way of thinking that’s unique to you as an advisor, who you serve. I serve people with equity comp in tech in their 30s and early 40s, with young families who live in really high-cost areas. That’s my niche, that’s who I serve, and so I apply this impact-weighted sort of filter to, “What do they need right now? What do they need most from me in this relationship?”
I started my deliverables with a blank slate and said, “What decision do they need to make in this moment of the process? And what do they need to see visually to support them in making the best decision they can at this moment? What information needs to be juxtaposed?” And then making sure that there’s nothing extra on the page. That’s how I design my deliverables, and that’s how I design the work I do. And I think I’ve done a great job for my niche, but the same can be applied to any niche or any practice. And it’s really fundamentally changed the way that I do pretty much everything.
Michael: Yeah. I still remember a session I was at for an advisor conference. I feel bad, I can’t remember who the speaker was for what was a really impactful session. And he had had kind of a similar discussion that, 10 years ago, the big, big discussion was performance supports for clients and all the firms made really nice output, really nice deliverable investment performance reports for clients, because online portal stuff hadn’t really ramped up yet. And so client reviews would typically have really nice professional-client deliverables. And he facilitated this whole discussion of, “How much time does your firm spend producing all these reports?” And it was firms that are meeting 2 to 4 times a year and 30 to 60 minutes of work each time you make this really nice report. And if you went through the math, it gave us hundreds of hours that a typical firm would spend.
And then his zinger question that he built up to was, when you finish the meeting, how many clients take the report with them? The answer was, basically, no one. They look at it while they’re in the office, but no one would take it with them after the meeting, because they got the information they needed. And another question was, “Well, aren’t you spending hundreds of hours of work to make a deliverable that clients think is so not valuable, they literally don’t even want it at the end of a one-hour meeting?” And to me, it’s a similar vein to what you’re talking about. No one in that room would ever look at it from the lens of how much impact does it really have. Is the impact of this thing worth the hundreds of hours of time our staff puts in to make all these reports for every single client meeting all year long? And the answer and the good filter was, if they don’t even want to take it with them, it could not have been that important to them. There’s probably a way to give them that information in a minuscule fraction of the time if all they really need is something to look at in the meeting to get a number because they don’t even care enough to take it with them.
Natalie: Yeah. That’s really interesting. And it brings up for me, we did…so I spent a long time curating the deliverables that I created, and I actually ran a workshop in early 2021 to share the process and the templates with other advisors. I’ve spent a lot of time on the deliverables, and I do a client survey every year. It’s usually in September or October. So I just ran it for 2022, and I really wanted to focus on the deliverables. And so I asked a lot of questions about, “Are they too short? Are they too long? What do you use them for?” And among the things I asked is “Do you use them for preparing for the meeting? Are they helpful during the meeting?” Because I work with everybody remotely. “And are they helpful after the meeting?” And I just pulled up my stats because I thought it might be interesting to you, 89% told me that they were helpful in preparing for the meeting, 79% told me they were helpful during the meeting, and 68% told me that they’re helpful as a reference after the meeting.
Michael: Interesting. And so, there are a material number of people that find it useful as a reference after the meeting, but the weighting even in that data was much more “This is mostly about preparing for the meeting and then having a memento of what you discussed.” Which just if you think about it as that’s the frame, would you make that report differently?
Michael: Would you prepare it differently?
Natalie: Exactly, yep.
Michael: So, you had a big learning experience in building for this realm in LearnVest to trying to get to this crux of how do we do impact-weighted work, how do we filter down with these constraints of data, time, and fees to try to have maximal impact for or within those constraints. So I hear that as one whole mental framing shift. So curious, what else were learnings or takeaways of either what was working or what didn’t work just as you try to build this high-volume business for lower dollar amount clients?
Natalie: Yeah. I think there are so many learnings there, but I think among them were, at the end, we had, I think, 45 planners, most of them CFPs, and many of them homegrown, barista to CFP sort of stories. One of the things that I think LearnVest did well was bring people into the business in a way that didn’t require any sales or anything, and you got to actually learn financial planning. But how do you have a consistent branded process and experience, a consistent branded client experience across 45 different people giving advice? And it’s something that, as a tech startup and as an online digital brand, we think very much about. I think, in an RIA setting, you think a little less about the brand experience. You want your client experience to be really solid across the board, but you think less about, “Is it aligned with our brand?”
But at LearnVest, we were very brand-forward. And so one of my roles at LearnVest was to be the brand voice manager and to train the planning team on how to effectively not only communicate and connect and advise but to represent the brand in an authentic way that could still feel like you were being yourself. It’s sort of we needed everyone to feel like they were at the ice cream shop and whether they were getting mint chocolate chip or cookies and cream was okay, but it always needed to be an ice cream shop. And so, I think going through the process of figuring out, how do you create a consistent branded experience when the services are largely provided by humans in a way that still allows the humans to be who they are?
Utilizing A ‘Brand Voice Guide’ To Create Consistency In Services And Values Alignment [52:23]
Michael: And so, what was the takeaway of just how did you find that balance? Again, to me, that’s not unique for LearnVest, necessarily. A lot of advisory firms, as they scale up and become multi-advisor, trying to figure out, “How do we make sure the clients have a consistent experience no matter which advisor or firm that you’re not working with?”
Natalie: Yeah. I think what it did is it forced me to codify sort of how I communicated with clients how I felt like our brand needed to be represented with clients, what the experience should look and feel like, things like what are the three words that a client should say about their experience after they get off the call. And what we got down to, like our brand voice guide, we had five principles that I came up with that allowed advisors to embody the brand without necessarily having to use a script. And there were scripts at some points. I never loved us using scripts. I think I have too many bad memories of starting in the industry almost 20 years ago and having to memorize a script and recite it in front my field vice president that I never want to impose a script on anyone ever in my whole life ever again.
So, one of them is, for example, be the cheerleader. So what’s interesting is, as I’ve learned from others, like Meghaan Lurtz, for example, that there were some fundamental things within that “be the cheerleader” concept that are actually backed up by some research. I just didn’t know it at the time. But in be the cheerleader, it was tangible things, like find something that the client has done well already and build momentum from there, which is sort of a gap and the gain sort of concept but that hadn’t been written at that time. And so there were these sort of broader five concepts, be the coach, be the cheerleader, be the expert, wide lens/narrow lens, and listen and direct. Those were sort of our five brand voice…
Michael: Wait, wait, wait. I’m fascinated by these. So be the coach, be the cheerleader.
Natalie: Be the expert.
Michael: Be the expert.
Natalie: Wide lens/narrow lens.
Natalie: And listen and direct. Those were sort of the five things. And then we had very tangible ways that you could embody each of those. So be the cheerleader, one of them was find something that they’re already doing well. Let them know, lift them up, and say, “Hey, you’re doing a great job at that.” And then build on that momentum. For be the expert, it was identifying what you should be the expert on and what you shouldn’t be the expert on. You’re not the expert on what the client feels or who they are or what they want for their life. What you are an expert on are the things like how an IRA works and whether a 401(k) is appropriate for them, etc. And knowing how to communicate as an expert, using language like, “I recommend because,” and “Given that you want to X, Y, Z, I recommend that you blah blah blah.”
So finding ways, listen and direct. We were on the phones with clients. We weren’t even in video calls. But finding ways to truly be a good listener. And again, none of this will blow your mind, but repeating to somebody…if somebody is sharing something personal, repeating back that, “Thank you for sharing that with me,” or repeating back what you heard. If you find that a client is repeating the same thing over and over, it’s likely because they aren’t feeling heard. And so taking the time instead of being frustrated that they keep saying the same thing. Take the time to echo back what you heard and then move them on to a different place. How to direct a call in a way that’s very considerate and respectful, “I’m so glad you’re sharing that with me. That is really helpful context for me to have.” “In order so that we can get there a little later, would you mind if we shifted our focus here?” So those kinds of ways of how to be a good listener and also how to direct a call and sort of stay, I don’t want to say in control, but stay, being able to keep things on track to be able to provide the experience that the client should have.
So it was things like that that were kind of at the root of what we wanted the client to feel when they got off of a call, how do we need to behave in the meeting with a client to be able to elicit those sort of feelings in the client afterwards. And so that was one of the ways that we accomplished that. And, yeah.
Michael: So then, what was be the coach and wide lens/narrow lens? I’m fascinated by these.
Natalie: So wide lens/narrow lens was about knowing when to zoom out with the client and when to zoom in. So one of the sort of points under there was show them the elephant and then show them the first three bites. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. What a weird saying. But that was one of those under wide lens/narrow lens is sometimes somebody needs to be zoomed out and understand the big picture of, “I know that you’re asking me these detailed questions about whether you should quit Spotify or not, but when we zoom out, that’s not going to have a big impact on what we’re ultimately trying to achieve. In the big picture, here are the dynamics that are at play in your financial life, and I think if we focus here, we’ll have more impact. Because we need to think about where are your levers. Where are the most powerful levers that you can pull to get to where you want to go? And those are over here.” So that’s kind of the wide lens idea.
And then the narrow lens idea, because sometimes people are in that big picture thinking, and you need to help direct them towards, “Okay, so let’s talk about what those first three bites would look like. If you want this big vision, if you want this big elephant thing to happen, here’s where you start. The first thing is to enroll in your 401(k) and get your match.” So that’s what the wide lens/narrow lens was. And then, did I miss any of them? Be the coach.
Michael: Be the coach.
Natalie: Be the coach was a lot about what to do when your client inevitably doesn’t do what they were supposed to do. So that one was a lot about saying the truth and helping them understand what didn’t work without being judgmental or shaming and then getting them back on track for using that learning to then figure out how to move forward. So we would always talk about, if you’re ever looking back in a client’s life of why they made a decision they did or why they did something or didn’t do something, that you’re looking back to be the detective and not to be the sheriff. You’re just looking back to understand and say, “Huh, that’s interesting. Because we had talked about spending $300 a week, and you spent $500 a week or $1,000 a week, I wonder if we can work together to figure out where that came from.” And so you’re in a detective mode and not a sheriff mode of, “You did the wrong thing.” “You were supposed to do this, and you did this instead. So do better next time.” So those kinds of things were underneath be the coach.
How Reaching A Crossroads Helped Natalie Find Her Career Purpose [59:41]
Michael: So what ultimately brought this LearnVest journey to an end for you?
Natalie: Ultimately, what brought it to an end for me was it was two and a half years post-acquisition by Northwestern Mutual, and it was becoming increasingly clear that LearnVest tech and marketing and product, and all of the phenomenal teams that we had built in our New York office, because our planning operation was ran through Arizona, but our other stuff was run in New York, that they were shifting focus to building tech, building marketing, building product, etc., for Northwestern Mutual. And they do business in a fundamentally different way. And there was no longer the ability for LearnVest to evolve. LearnVest got, to some extent, frozen in time in 2015. Not that we didn’t still have new clients come our way or that we didn’t have new [email protected] major partners come on between 2015 and 2018. But…
Michael: You couldn’t evolve the offering in the same way because the resources were starting to get shifted internally to Northwestern to build Northwestern-y things, not LearnVest-y things.
Natalie: That’s right, yes. And so, once that writing was clearly on the wall, I think a mutual friend of ours, who was my boss at the time, Stephany Kirkpatrick, we ultimately teamed up, and our final project at the company, we both left afterwards, was to close down LearnVest. So we had to figure out what do we do with the team, we had 70 people, 40 or 45 planners, plus IT and management, and all kinds of stuff out of our Arizona office, what happens to that team, and what happens to the 14,000 clients, and what happens to the [email protected] relationships that we had. And so we spent five months sorting all of that out, and then, in May of 2018, we killed LearnVest.
Natalie: Yeah. I had mixed feelings at the end because, on the one hand, it was the death of a dream that I cared so deeply about, but at the same time, I was sort of glad to see it end because it wasn’t being invested in and the vision wasn’t going to come to fruition. And so it did feel like it should get shut down at that time. And so, yeah. So I left when LearnVest closed. And that was hard. I sort of entered a lost period of, “What do I do now?” I’m half FinTech. I felt like, I don’t know. There’s some character in a movie I’m trying to think of that’s…is it RoboCop that’s half human and half robot?
I felt like, fundamentally, I was a combination of two different things. I had that seven years of planning practice, sort of that vision, and then I had, at that point, close to six years at LearnVest. And it didn’t feel like I could go back to what I was doing before LearnVest, also didn’t know what the path would look like to stay at LearnVest or stay in FinTech, and it was challenging. I think I had a taste of the depth of impact that you can have in private practice, and I really deeply loved that, and I also had a taste of the breadth of impact that you can have in FinTech. I wrote content that millions of people read, and I managed and helped to train a team that served thousands of clients. And I didn’t know how to move forward and satisfy both the breadth side and the depth side of the impact that I wanted to have.
Michael: So where did you ultimately land? What did come next as you wound down at LearnVest?
Natalie: Yeah. So what came next was I started speaking professionally more. It’s something that I had always done as part of my role at LearnVest and even prior, but I focused there a little bit more. So I did some larger speaking engagements. I spoke alongside other speakers like Rachel Hollis and James Clear. I got to speak to 20,000 people, which was totally overwhelming but awesome. And got to do some cool stuff. I said that I was going to write a book, because I thought I would, but it was really just because I had no idea what to do. I just didn’t know how to have impact. And so I was, “You know, I’m going to write a book.” I didn’t write a book. But sort of just, organically, founders and leaders at other FinTech companies started reaching out and saying, “Hey, I’d love to have you consult on this project. Can you write advice methodology for our software build or for our content strategy? Can you do our content strategy? Can you help us with product strategy and figure out what to go and where? Can you help us move our brand to a place that it connects better with women and younger millennials?”
And so I ended up getting to do a lot of consulting for companies, like SoFi and LearnLux and Ellevest and others, which was really fulfilling, and I really enjoyed it. And it was giving me that breadth of impact, but I was still longing for that depth of impact that you get to have when you work one-on-one with clients.
Michael: Interesting. Companies like SoFi, Ellevest, those are very big, high-profile, broad-reach companies unto themselves. I guess, still, the dynamic is, how do I get the deeper impact of individual client work combined with the broad impact of doing cool stuff in technology with this experience, skills that you need, and creating advice methodologies that can be embedded into technology?
Natalie: Exactly. It was kind of, which kid do you like better, Charlie or Wally? And I couldn’t decide. I like them both. I like breadth of impact, and I like depth of impact. And I think the rest of my career will have some flavor of both, and from an hours standpoint, commitment standpoint might go further in one direction and seasons or the other direction and seasons. But I don’t think I’ll ever be completely RIA or completely FinTech ever again.
Michael: So then, how does this sit today? What is the balance and joint existence at this point?
Natalie: I’m kind of half and half right now. So I launched an RIA in February of 2020. I was still doing consulting.
Michael: That was good timing.
Natalie: Yeah. It actually was phenomenal timing. But, yeah, it was weird timing. It was not what I expected. But the work was so deeply meaningful that, honestly, it emotionally buoyed me quite a bit in that first year of COVID, and I’m utterly grateful for that. But I was still consulting and just figured I have enough people coming to me, saying, “Hey, Nat, we’ve worked together,” or “I know you,” or “I know your husband,” or whatever, and I’ve got equity comp, and I’m in tech, and I need some help. And so I was, “Okay, I don’t want to do this the wrong way. I’m going to launch an RIA just so that I cannot be worried compliance-wise that I’m giving advice that I shouldn’t be.” And my big launch of my RIA was I posted on LinkedIn and said, “Hey, I have an RIA. So if you need help, you let me know.” And that was my marketing. And that was it. And then the practice just grew like crazy.
So I had 39 clients in the first year. I’ve never worked full-time in my RIA. I have always been part-time. So I was spending half of my time consulting in FinTech, and then I was spending half of my time serving clients. And I was doing deep-in-the-weeds comprehensive planning. This was the real deal of financial planning.
Michael: Thirty-nine clients in the first year, that’s just a monster growth year, and that’s all from the personal network that you build over the proceeding decade. In the FinTech realm, that meant you could get clients in your network who are in the FinTech realm and needed financial planning advice?
Natalie: Pretty much. I have done some podcast interviews here and there, but they’ve largely come to me and said, “Hey, can I interview you?” or “My friend has a podcast. Can you be a guest? They want to talk about personal finance?” And I’ve done some writing for Business Insider here and there, which I’ve been grateful for. But yeah, largely, it was just from my network. And yeah, it’s funny. At Ameriprise, I think our best year ever, we got 50 new clients in a year, and that was incredible. At LearnVest, I was taking five new clients a week. So then, when I got to the RIA, I was sort of just this mixed bag of expectation of, I don’t know, is 39 clients working part-time a lot or a little? I don’t know, but that’s what I’m doing. That’s just how the numbers sorted out. So it was great.
But by 15 months in, I had to take a waitlist, because I just couldn’t onboard more than 4 new clients a month. And so I’ve been on a waitlist ever since and continued to do consulting work. I actually took a full…not a full-time role. I took an actual W2, “I’m on the team, I have equity in the company” sort of role at Monarch Money in June of 2021. So I’ve been there almost 18 months as head of advice and still run the RIA. And I have another lead advisor. I think I mentioned her before, Cindy. She actually was an advisor at LearnVest as well, so I’ve known her for a long time. And she’s phenomenal, and she takes all new clients. So she’s got 19. We finally got to start taking people from the waitlist in January of this year. And so she’s taken all new clients this year. I haven’t taken any new clients, and she’s at 19 new clients for the year, which is great. So I imagine, by the end of next year, she’ll be full. And we’ll need to figure out how to grow from there.
Michael: So how do you contrast the deep planning work you’re doing now at the RIA with the kind of planning work you were doing at LearnVest?
Natalie: It’s interesting actually watching Cindy’s learning curve, because I had had years of private practice experience before, and Cindy hadn’t. She was homegrown from LearnVest. She did have a significant learning curve in the first year when she was doing paraplanning work for me in terms of doing the deep planning work of reviewing statements and equity comp, and all that kind of stuff. And she did an incredible job in 2020 and 2021 coming up on that learning curve. And then that prepared her in 2022 to start to work with clients directly. And I trust her implicitly. She’s a phenomenal advisor, and I feel proud for clients of the practice to work with Cindy. But it is different, and I think we’re serving a different demographic.
It’s sort of like I went from serving people in their 50s and 60s when I started to serving people in their mostly 20s, maybe early 30s, at LearnVest. And now, I’m in the mid-30s to mid-40s range. And just with the way that tech has…I’m in tech, my husband is also in tech, we’re in this demographic as well of people who live in high-cost areas who have substantial amounts of equity comp, finances are not linear, we have these inflection points that we hit, and we need to make really strategic decisions about what we do with that equity comp in those moments. So it’s interesting. It’s not a whole new world, but I find that what I learned in the first seven years of how to run a practice and then what I unlearned and relearned at LearnVest, it’s all sort of coming together in the practice that I get to run now.
Why Natalie Decided To Join Monarch Money [1:21:01]
Michael: So then, help us understand what you’re doing on the Monarch Money side? Well, I guess, even as a starting point, for those who aren’t familiar, what does Monarch Money do?
Natalie: Yeah, good question. Monarch Money was founded by three guys, Val, Ozzie, and Jon. And Val, who’s our CEO, was the original product manager at Mint.com many, many, many years ago. And I think the short story is sort of that he’s finishing what he never got to finish, what he started at Mint and never got to finish. So at the moment, Monarch Money is a phenomenal budgeting app, never ad-supported, never will be. So it’s a premium product. There’s a monthly cost to it, but it’s a PFM, so a personal financial management tool to track net worth, to track budget, to link all of your accounts, to be able to get as deep in the weeds with your budget as you want, or to have a really high-level understanding of where all your money is going without having to get deep in the weeds but really getting a pretty easy, good snapshot of where things are going.
And I think why I came on board at Monarch is because, ultimately, we want to build that thing, that TurboTax for financial planning, that ability for many millions of people to be able to say, “This account is for this goal, and I want this goal to look this way. And here’s how on track I am. And how do I make decisions between do I pay off debt, do I save this dollar, or do I invest this dollar? And what does that mean for me? And what’s the best choice? And what are my trade-off decisions?” We are trying to build that for consumers to be able to access, which is the mission that I cared about before I joined LearnVest. And so it’s been a real…
Michael: That’s almost the tech that LearnVest never quite fully got to building, to shift out the humans. You’re building now a version of that with Monarch, but they’re starting with the tech and not the humans.
Natalie: Yes, perfectly said, yes.
Michael: So, I have to ask, just you’re framing that, is there an advisor version of this as well? We do have these conversations with clients as well. I know. I know a lot of advisors over the years that always lamented, “I just wish there was an advisor interface for Mint.” I’ll admit, from my end, I always felt like Mint missed a giant opportunity 10 years ago to not build an advisor-paid version. eMoney was charging $200 a month 10 years ago for a PFM portal that was not as good as Mint at the time. If Mint was charging $200 per month per person, I’m pretty sure their economic model would have worked a lot better.
Natalie: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny you asked that. We did not set out, when our founders started Monarch, to say, “We’re going to provide it to advisors,” but we have had such overwhelming demand, just organic demand from advisors wanting to use Monarch for their clients. And so we ran a small advisor beta last year, and we are actually expanding the beta to a broader set of advisors. So I don’t know if we can link to it in the show notes if people are interested in it, but I think it’s monarchmoney.com/advisors to learn more about it. But, yeah. It’s interesting, not only financial advisors, but CPAs and also financial coaches have all been really, really interested in using Monarch for their clients, because they want their clients to have a dashboard, a command center for their money. And Monarch does a beautiful job of that.
Michael: Is it just focused around spending, budgeting cash flow, as Mint was, versus also tracking net worth versus personal capital? Had a lot of traction with this, but they got pretty deep on the investment data and performance reporting as well, because they were attached to any AUM firms that had an interest in it. But which part of this domain is Monarch actually getting into?
Natalie: Yeah, good question. So budgeting and net worth, absolutely. We’re already at a point where Monarch does a phenomenal job of both of those things. We also track investments, although I will say that it’s not as robust as it will be. And what we’re building is the ability to assign your accounts to your actual goals that you care about and be able to organize your financial life in terms of your goals too and not just your net worth and your cash flow and your high-level investment portfolio, which is exciting, because that’s what I get to help build.
Michael: And out of curiosity, what happens for all the people who are already buried in Mint, don’t want to have to start over again?
Natalie: I was one of those too, I have to say. I was a very early adopter of Mint, and I used Mint for so many years. And LearnVest had our own version of Mint, ultimately, of a budgeting PFM. And then I just used both, because I didn’t want to lose my history from Mint. So at Monarch, we built a Mint importer so you can export your data out of Mint and into Monarch to not lose your history, because we had a lot of us on the team, to be candid, we’re in that same position of we had used Mint for almost 15 years or whatever and really didn’t want to lose that tracking. So, yeah.
Michael: And then, actually, you can manage that import. That’s a lot of data to move over if people have been in Mint for a long time.
Natalie: It is. It is a lot to move over, but, yeah. And what we’re finding with Monarch is, because we’ve designed it to be as high level or as detailed with your budgeting as possible, we are, for the most part, framework agnostic. If you want to manage your budget, fixed variable, whatever, that’s fine. If you want to do fixed, flexed, non-monthly, that’s great. We are not YNABers. I think that’s the only thing, is that we don’t…if somebody is a die-hard YNABer and loves being able to sort of spend each dollar of their account into…that’s not really the approach that we take at Monarch. But because we offer a lot of flexibility, it’s just ended up being a tremendous tool. And our designers are phenomenal.
So it’s clean, and it’s beautiful, and we’ve had a lot of really good success with it. And as an advisor myself, I’m really excited for us to expand the advisor beta, which I’ve been wanting and asking for and moving toward for months internally, because it really does make a big difference. And we spend a lot of time on data aggregation of how do we have the best account linking out there. Nothing is going to be perfect, but how can we be the best out there, hands down?
The Surprises And Low Points On Natalie’s Journey [1:19:28]
Michael: So, as you look back on this journey, what surprised you the most about what it takes to build some kind of tech-driven advice offering for young people? You’ve done this now in multiple different iterations. What’s the biggest surprise of just what you’re finding that it takes or works or doesn’t work to solve this?
Natalie: Yeah, that’s such a good question. I think one of the key learnings at LearnVest was that people really don’t know what financial planning is, and that’s for a lot of reasons but largely because our industry allows many people to have the same title who do different things. And it’s very confusing to understand. Is it financial planning products? Is it insurance? Is it advice? And so just the sheer education of what does it mean to do it and then what does it mean to do it digitally, I think that was a really key thing at LearnVest that really was unexpected for me.
And then, I think, in building at Monarch, I think where I’ve come from in the almost 20 years that I’ve been a financial advisor now, is a real understanding of where you need to be exact and where you really don’t and how will the calculations be used. Because when you think about trying to do every calculation exactly for a person’s entire financial life, and you don’t get to curate. In an RIA, you get to curate and say, “I’m taking this person as a client. They make between this and this. They have equity comp that looks like this. Their age is this. They have this many kids.” And you get to curate until, if you want to, a pretty narrow subset of, “Okay, my tools are all set up well. I’ve got my processes.” When you look at creating something that millions of people are going to use, you have millions of different use cases. And so, I think really having clarity on where is the simpler answer and maybe the less exact answer, the right one, not just from a time-to-build standpoint but the right answer, period, I think that’s been a really interesting thing to sort of evolve my thinking on over time.
Michael: So what was the low point for you on this journey?
Natalie: I think there have been several, but I think the low point for me I would probably say is after I left LearnVest and just didn’t know where to go in my career. I didn’t know what I was going to be next. Am I going to be a financial planner at a firm? Am I going to start a firm? Am I going to work in FinTech? Do I go be an advisor at Facet? I had no idea what to do, and it all felt really overwhelming. And that was really a low point for me, but it also caused me to think about things differently. I think, from another perspective, by the time I had left LearnVest, I was making a good income and to kind of just cut everything off completely and say, “Uh.” I think there was an ego check of, “Okay, you have no job, and you’re making nothing, and you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up again,” in my late 30s, at the time.
I think that was a real ego check, but I’m so grateful for it because it allowed me to really shift my thinking into impact. How can I be net helpful? And where can I be net helpful? And if I could… Because I couldn’t see the future. I didn’t have a vision for what I even wanted the future to be. And that was really hard. As much as I squinted, I couldn’t see what was ahead. And so it caused me to say, “Okay, well, how can I be net helpful? And what’s the next step? What’s the next best thing I can do? And if I’m not ready to make a decision because I can’t see the future and I don’t know what decision is right, then what’s the next set of information or the next set of decisions?” And I think having to go through that myself did transform the way that I think about financial planning overall.
When I work with clients, there’s no expectation that I’m giving them the right number and that that number is going to be their freedom number for the rest of their lives, and nothing is ever going to change, and everything is going to go exactly according to plan. Clients know that we’re going to evolve your goals over time. Every Q1, we’re going to say, “Hey, here’s what you’re on track for, but what do you want to shoot for now?”
And ultimately, we’re trying to build resilience and flexibility and mobility and adaptability in their financial life so that they can be ready for whatever is next. Because sometimes we can see what we want for the future, and sometimes we can’t. And I think unless I had walked through that myself, I don’t think I would really be able to embody it in the way that I approach the work, if that makes sense.
Michael: Yeah. Yeah. It’s an interesting frame that when you go through that kind of transition of “I was doing this thing for a long time, and it was going pretty well, but now it’s come to an end, and I’m at a giant crossroads of what to do next,” there is, just for anybody that’s gotten whacked in the face with that at some point, it’s very humbling relative to the traditional financial planning approach of, “Well, you just set your goal when you retire at 50 or 55 or 62 or 65 or whenever it is, and you’re going to diligently save and invest every year over the next X years to get there. And we can run all the math about how to do that.” But when you hit one of those life transition moments that are that life transition-y, I’ve known a lot of advisors that went through that and then kind of came back to the planning process, feeling like, “Wow, we really are making this more exact than it can possibly be, because I had no idea my life was going to take the turn it ended out taking.”
Natalie: Totally. Totally. That’s very well said, and that’s exactly… You could tell a story about my career that, “Oh, it all makes perfect sense,” but it doesn’t. I led with my gut in terms of what is meaningful work for me in this moment and how do I have positive impact. And I have stayed true to those things, all 18, 19 years. But there’s no way I could have imagined that this is where I would have been. And I think one of the biggest surprises of my career is…I sure hope this comes off the right way, Michael, but what I’m capable of. That has been one of the most surprising things.
When I think about what I dreamed of doing someday in those early seven years in Neal’s practice, what I thought success looked like for me and what I was capable of at that time, and then seeing what I’ve gotten to learn and accomplish and grow in and where I am now, I’m just getting started. I’m just learning so much as I go. And I just didn’t see it that way. I thought, “I’m going to learn the things, and then I’m going to do the thing. And then I’m going to be a firm owner. And then that’s as much impact as I can have, and that’s…” I couldn’t see any other path.
And I think, now, I just see so many potential paths. And looking back, it surprises me what I was capable of stepping into. I never would have thought that I would have launched a firm and had so many new clients and been able to attract so many phenomenal clients. I just never would have thought I would have been capable of that. And it’s been fun. It’s fun to learn and grow all the time, the humility of, “Oh, man, I’m just never going to know nearly all of it, and so I’m just going to bask in the learning curve. I’m just going to enjoy the learning curve.”
The Advice Natalie Would Give Her Former Self And Newer, Younger Advisors [1:27:40]
Michael: So is there advisor perspective on this that you know now that you wish you could go back and tell you 10 years ago when you were just getting ready to transition out of Ameriprise and figure out what’s next or what the journey is going to be?
Natalie: Oh, man. I had a real career crossroads when I first became a mom and sort of had somewhat of an identity crisis as I tried to figure out what does my career look like. Because I had one trajectory of success and then abruptly left it and entered this new unknown world of FinTech and thought, “Well, I’ll just dip my toe in, and I’m a nobody.” And I think I would have just told myself that it’s going to be okay, I know that sounds really silly, but that it’ll work out, and that following my gut and following the work that I find most impactful and letting that lead in my career isn’t going to hold me back. It’s going to propel me forward. I think I would have told myself that.
Michael: So what advice would you give to younger, newer advisors just getting started into their careers in the industry today and trying to figure out this path?
Natalie: Oh, gosh, that’s such a good and big question. I think I would say that it’s going to be okay and that, even if you can’t see it yet, what you’re learning right now, what you’re learning about the ways you want to do business and the ways you don’t want to do business and the people that you want to serve and the people that you don’t want to serve, that it’s all going to come together, and it’s all going to propel you forward and help you in ways that you just can’t know yet. You’re not in the place of knowing yet, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work out. And that it’s okay if the future is fuzzy, you just take that next step and focus there and figure out what your filter is for deciding what that next step is. Is it impact? Is it income? Is it…whatever it is, lifestyle, whatever those things are that are important to you. Get clear on what your filter is and just trust your filter and move forward one step at a time. And if you can’t see the future, what you hope the future will be, that that’s okay.
What Success Means To Natalie [1:29:53]
Michael: So as we wrap up, this is a podcast about success, and just one of the themes is often, literally, the word success means different things to different people. And so you’ve had this incredibly successful career in navigating to different firms and now fast launching a growth advisory business while you’re doing cool stuff at Monarch. So the career side is going well. The business side is going well. How do you define success for yourself at this point?
Natalie: Success is my life being in alignment with my values, at the end of the day. One of my values is meaningful work, and so, for me, in a work realm, that means continuing to follow my gut in terms of where can I have impact and using that as a filter and respecting that as a filter for how I make career decisions. My other core values are family, health, community, generosity, adventure. And I think staying true to what those values are and letting those lead the decisions that I’m making in life, whether it’s career or otherwise, I think that’s what success looks like for me.
Michael: I’m struck. That was a very articulated list of values. Is that a process or something you put yourself through for crystalizing those to be able to articulate them that way?
Natalie: Yes. Yes. So way back in my early Ameriprise days, I got exposure to Doug Lennick, who, then, along with Chuck, created the behavioral financial advisor designation and launched Think2Perform. But I got exposed to core values work way, way back, 15+ years ago. And my husband and I have used it all the way along to say, “At the end of the day, what are the things that are most important to us? And how do we make decisions in alignment with those?” And so we use that as a decision-making framework for our careers, for our finances, for the way we spend our time and energy, and they’ve been really clarifying. And every year, as I do with clients now, my husband, Ryan, and I have been doing this for almost 20 years, or maybe 15 years, but every year, we filter through and say, “Let’s reflect on the last year. What was in alignment, and what was out of alignment? Where do we need to drive alignment to these values?” And then we make really real decisions.
In December of 2017, I had a values conversation with Ryan, and we realized that we were one for six. We were in alignment with generosity, because we were making more money than we had ever made before, and we were giving a lot of money away. Outside of that, we had no time or energy for adventure. Our health was suffering. My husband ended up having a heart attack scare in early 2018. We were fundamentally out of alignment. The work was no longer meaningful as LearnVest was sort of frozen in time. And so we made very real changes. I left my job. He actually took a different role at Sonos so that he would be traveling less and be home with the family more. I invested in my health to resolve some issues there. But we’ve made very, very big life decisions based on those values, and it’s just been a game changer for us.
Michael: And how did you come to the value list? How did you set them, figure out what yours were?
Natalie: We used Doug Lennick’s core values card sort, many, many years ago, but that’s how we figured it out. So he’s got a list of 50. And I actually created a version of a values exercise that I use with clients that I sort of curated, and it walks through prompting questions of how to think about what a core value is and how to use them and how to use them in your decision-making framework, which is on my website. But that’s how we did it. We narrowed it down from 50 to 6. I think you’re supposed to do five, but we ended up with six. But that’s how we did it. And they’ve remained pretty darn consistent for the last 15 years.
Michael: Very cool. Very cool. Well, thank you so much, Natalie, for joining us on the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Natalie: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. This was so much fun.
Michael: Absolutely. Thank you.