As mentioned, this week is a little different and, in the first of three interviews with entries in our Nordic Connection Festival during the summer, I interviewed Davyde Wachell, founder and CEO of Responsive AI ...
Tell me about Responsive and what you guys are all about?
We’re an advice-centric FinTech that’s focused on financial advisors with better decisions and actions, that helps them grow customer wealth and loyalty. We do that by performing behavioural analytics on data and providing the advisors with insights in real-time.
So you’re still providing the information to a human?
For the time being, that’s the model we believe in. When you’re talking about advice, you’re talking about decisions that impact assets that matter to people’s lives, and decisions that matter to people’s lives. At this stage, we think that’s just too valuable a process to be left to automation when it comes to the complexities of life and the weight of these decisions.
People need to have that emotional connection. Is that where you’re coming from and do you think that’s going to be sustainable long-term or do you think long-term, the machine will take over?
I think it’s complex and it’s a little bit of the future now and the future later. I think the asset management side and a lot of that wealth management stuff that happens in advice around manufacturing a product, onboarding a client, and distributing it, that can all be done online. I think what’s going to be disintermediated soon is what’s farther up the food chain as far as complex decision making in time. I do think that before humans are removed from the equation, the structure of the business itself around lines of business and the idea of products is going to be disintermediated. There are folks that are saying this, I’m not the first, I think a lot of businesses will focus around customer segments rather than products. The disintermediation will be between lines of business instead of between digital and human. I think human advisors may be one of the last jobs to go as far as AI and the future of work is concerned.
People with that amount of wealth aren’t necessarily putting their money for a purpose other than to manage future life shocks and life events, and that’s a very different focus to just talking about pure investment services.
Absolutely. I think the mandates are longer term, they’re more complex. I don’t think it means that a lot of people don’t want the good things that are coming out of the digital world, but ultimately they want that steady hand, that stewardship of their capital and their future and I don’t think people are ready to hand that stewardship over to automation yet – or ever, for that matter.
What about if you had a nice visualised avatar?
I think that could work down market. I think a digitalised avatar itself isn’t going to be enough to move the needle but if that avatar can serve as a concierge to insights and convenience around certain basic or intermediate propositions, I definitely think so. But again, once you get really up the food chain into complex family situations, people who own businesses, and end of life decisions, I think the avatar is just not going to cut it.
Tell me a bit about how the company came about and how you came into the company…
I am blessed, depending on your disposition, in being a second generation quantitative wealth manager. My father has been one since the early 80’s. I kind of grew up in the business – it was the family farm, as it were. Around the time that a lot of the robo-advisors were sweeping the market, I saw that there was an incredible opportunity to apply what I had learned in the business and bring a change to the marketplace. We started as a robo-advisor around an active asset allocation proposition, and I rapidly realised that I didn’t want to sell asset management and I didn’t want to sell wealth management, so we became a business to business advicetech business. Through that we looked at the marketplace and saw what we thought would be commodified versus what was a more special proposition and we came around the idea of behavioural analytics and expert action. It was a lifelong evolution of understanding the business and moving towards what I thought would be the most valuable application of my particular skillset.
How does the AI piece come into this?
Our Chief Science Officer, Logan Grosenick, runs a behavioural machine lab in New York City at Cornell University and effectively what he does is he does advance personality analysis on human biological data and animal biological data which can be anything from scans of MRIs to scans of rats brains as they run through mazes, and he predicts whether a particular animal will do something, or he predicts the behavioural subtype that animal has. So we’re taking that very specific proprietary hardcore science around understanding animal behaviour through machine learning and we’re applying that to financial data to suss out the events that are indicative of turning points in people’s lives, the events that are indicative of changes in behaviour that would warrant a call from an advisor, and the kinds of personality subtypes that would want certain kinds of advice. We take this proprietary science and we wire it into an advance system that will alert advisors as to what’s going on with their clients and what actions they might take for certain clients. At the most basic level, it could be something as stupid as the client has more cash in their operating account so we should get that deployed into savings or investment. At a much more complex level, we might notice that things have changed internally in the client’s spending behaviour that would be indicative of say, perhaps they’ve had a child or are going through a divorce, and we can get the advisor to have a conversation. The outcome this maximises is that engagement matters for advisors; more engagement means more relationship and it’s also engagements that are relevant to the client and are closely coupled to their lives. We’re able to give the advisor the opportunity to talk about the client’s life as opposed to just assets and news events and we think that’s quite distinct from some of the other next best action propositions that are out there in the market we’ve been hearing about.
The human can be augmented to provide a better service and better advice. Is that where you would say is the real jewel in the crown?
There’s so much to be done of value in the supply chain of asset management from keeping these connections live through automation from stick handling on the day-to-day operations. Businesses like UBS and Morgan Stanley have done incredible work, a lot of things to admire in the platforms they’ve built up, and then on that, I think a lot of the portfolio analytics are overdone. I think we have enough portfolio analytics; there’s enough people out there figuring out ways to correlate and cross-correlate and predict and manage risk or not manage risk in portfolios. What’s hard for these businesses to do is turn around andbring their advisors closer to understanding the lives of their clients. For us, this is a new kind of advice role that is yet to come into the world, so it means leaving the comfort zone and learning how to do the job differently. That’s a challenge for us, it’s a challenge for everybody. We hope that what we’re putting in the market will enable people to start thinking that way and not just make it about the assets.
I kind of summarise that as being that the technology automates the mundane and the human is augmented to provide a differentiated service.
Exactly. As that evolution happens, we have to reinvent the human role as well as what technology’s role is.
Looking at where Responsive AI is going and clients you’re reaching out to, where is your ambition?
It continues to be the same. We think there’s a long road ahead. We think that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Ultimately, we’re building a platform that helps advisors and clients collaborate on understanding client life with data, create plans and strategies to achieve the dreams and needs of the clients and to hold both parties accountable in time to maintain and service those strategies. So, a piece of that is the analytics around detecting things at a point in time, but the other piece is building a framework that keep commitments and keeps people working towards what it is they really want to do. We, in all of our conversations, have not seen anything like this in the market, and we’re going to keep working towards it.
When I look at the Neo bank/challenger bank/FinTech space, there’s thousands of companies out there and at the moment, everyone is questioning sustainability of those companies during the current crisis. What do you think is going to happen?
I think it’s a bit of a summer of discontent for FinTechs – we’re seeing Neo banks operating at a loss, so I think it’s tempting if you’re in a bank to come out of your bunker and charge over to the next trench but I would seriously caution against that. For anybody who has read the Art of War - when you’re weak appear strong, and when you’re strong appear weak. Particularly when you consider that there are very well capitalised businesses that have been doing technology for the better part of two decades and have lived through periods of operating at a loss, so when I look at the battlefield, I see enough instruments on there that if a Google were to buy a Stripe and eToro and then a Neo bank, and then maybe a handful of start-ups that perhaps do analytics or wealth or lending and hash them together, it wouldn’t be long until there was a very aggressive proposition in the market. What I’m really surprised about, and you’ve talked about this as 2020 being the accelerator to 2030, is that a lot of incumbents and startups have slowed down and they’ve retrenched back to risk management waiting and seeing. More than ever, now would be the time to act, to reassemble and to be aggressive because if you’re a follower, you’re not going to be a fast follower because there are faster leaders out there. I’m looking forward to the day when we see banking as a service with advice sitting on top of it, and the ability of a platform like ours to recommend a host of products across the financial services spectrum. I think that’s very possible. We’re happy to collaborate with whoever is going to do that whether it’s a big tech or whether it’s a larger FinTech or a national bank. I’m excited for 2020 when I think there’s going to be a lot of change, as you mentioned, a lot of good things coming to the consumers of financial services.
I keep coming back to “it’s the end of the office, but it’s the opening of opportunity for technology and digitalisation.” This is what we’re seeing and therefore the augmented human with data is going to become something that’s ubiquitous and working from home.
Exactly. As former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien used to say, “we’re just getting warm up.”
Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...