DR 070: Investing Made Easy – An Interview with Betterment Founder Jon Stein

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Jon Stein--BettermentSeveral years ago I met Betterment’s founder and CEO, Jon Stein. At the time, Betterment was just getting started, and we had a chance to talk about what Betterment offered investors. Since then Betterment has grown significantly, with over $500 million under management. To find out what is new and to learn more about Betterment, I asked Jon to be a guest on the Dough Roller Money Podcast.

In this interview, Jon talks about starting Betterment, what it does differently, and how everyday investors can benefit from Betterment’s investment model.

Topics Covered in the Interview

  • How Betterment was started
  • How Betterment works
  • Betterment’s fee structure
  • Why Betterment uses ETFs over mutual funds
  • Rolling over a 401(k) or IRA with Betterment
  • How Betterment constructs its portfolios

Resources Mentioned in the Interview

Transcript of Interview with Jon Stein

Rob: We have Jon Stein on the show today. He is the CEO and founder of Betterment. Jon, welcome to the show.

Jon Stein: Thanks. It’s great to be here, Rob.

Background on Betterment

Rob: Hey, Jon. I appreciate your time today. Let’s just jump right in to it. Why don’t you give everybody a little bit of your background and we’ll then turn to discuss about Betterment?

Jon Stein: I got started in this wanting to help customers make better financial decisions and live better lives as a result. When I was in college, I studied economics and human behavior. We’re looking for ways to apply that. It just happened to be in finance. I never really planned a career on finance, but I learned a lot in the process. I learned about how banks and investments work. I got my CFA on the way. I’ve been doing this for like 15 years now.

While I was working for the big banks, I found that many of them were doing things that weren’t in the best interest of their customers. Probably, it’s no surprise to most of your listeners. They were not well-aligned with their customers’ interests, and I saw many opportunities to make it better.

The name Betterment really came out of that desire to make it better for people. The original idea was to combine to simplicity of ING Direct and the clear value proposition with the smart investing efficiency of Vanguard and to meld those into a product that would be easy to use and would give you great returns net of costs.

That original vision is still true to our company today. We’ve evolved the offerings and become more sophisticated over time with regards to the advice we give and the goals that you can set up on Betterment. We’re now more sophisticated in terms of the tax management we will do for you or the retirement advice we can give you. Overall, our mission of giving people the best possible returns (net of costs and fees) and helping them make better financial decisions remain.

Rob: You said that banks oftentimes didn’t have their interests aligned with their customers. I know that probably resonates with a lot of people listening to this podcast. What might be the reason behind that? Why did it take a Betterment to come in and try to address that issue?

Jon Stein: The financial service industry seems to go through cycles in America. I’m not an expert of history, but I try to read as much as I can because I’m fascinated by it. At times, the financial industry kind of gets away from us and starts getting too big for itself and, in the process, grows out of size compared to the place that these financial services should occupy in the academy.

And people who work in the field can get a little bit lazy and a little complacent. It’s so easy to make money and introduce a new fee. The regulatory environment is fairly lax that there weren’t a lot of strong innovations.

I think it actually took the crisis in 2008 (when I was just working on an early version of Betterment) to wake a lot of people up to the fact that it’s already time for some really serious changes. And within that environment of the crash and the subsequent anger at the most trusted financial and investing institution, Betterment emerged as a new and better solution.

I think that all of the frustration that people felt against the whole financial order is one of the ‘winds at our back’ because we are doing things in a new and different way. Sometimes you just have to go through those cycles to get real innovation and start doing things the better way.

Rob: I’m curious, before you started Betterment, where were you working?

Jon Stein: I was working at a firm called First Manhattan Consulting Group in New York. We consulted to financial institutions all around the country and all over the world. I had clients in Australia, Puerto Rico, the Midwest and everywhere in America.

Rob: You obviously quit that job to start Betterment.

Jon Stein: That’s right. I started working on Betterment even before I went to business school. I worked on Betterment and taught myself to code while I was in business school so I could build the first version of the website so I had something to show the customers and investors. We launched in May of 2010, just a year after I graduated from business school. I went to Columbia here in New York. It’s been a great growth story since then.

Rob: I love those kinds of stories, Jon. Do you remember the first time you sat down on a computer and wrote your first line of code as you’re trying to hack your way through a prototype of Betterment?

Jon Stein: Absolutely I do. We’ve grown a lot as a team now. There are over 50 people working at Betterment today. Back then, it was just me. I’m putting together a Betterment story for the team. It has screenshots of the first version of the site that I wrote. The first thing that I worked on was on the advice tab of the site. We call it the Projection Graph. It shows how your money may grow overtime.

I probably spent two months working on the animation of that graph to get it just right because I thought that it was the most important thing. It was really a showpiece to certain people. “This is what we can do. We can make it simple.”

It also had a slider that lets you move your money between stocks and bonds. At that time, it was a money-market account and a stock basket. That slider was the core for me. I was playing with that and seeing the graph move explained the promise of Betterment and the simplicity of it that you could see not just the potential returns but also the IVA views on that one graph.

That is one of the images that I’m using when I tell the history of Betterment to our team.

Rob: I love that graph and the slider because it shows very easily the impact of your asset allocation choices and time. It also shows the fact that returns aren’t guaranteed. There’s a range that’s based on historical data which may or may not repeat itself.

But that’s great to know that you programmed that yourself. I do that, but on a much smaller scale. I was hacking code today and trying to get some things to work. Of course, I break things more often than I make them work. Fortunately, I’m not investing other people’s money so what I break is not a big deal.

So, when you left the security of a job and you were hacking your code and you were trying to get Betterment up and running, you had to have some fears. I mean, when you think back then, what were the things that kept you awake at night? What were the things you worried about as you started on this adventure?

Jon Stein: Back then, it was just me. I remember asking my family if they thought it was a good idea. They were always supportive but I think they were greatly skeptical of the project. A few of my professors in school were supportive. Some of them are still in our investment committee today.

But more were highly skeptical and said, “Why would you go into this industry? It’s so difficult to start an investment company. Why don’t you do something easier?”

I guess I’ve always relished a challenge. Back then, the thing that I worried about was whether what I would do was a good idea or not. Obviously I was building a product that I wanted. I knew that it would work for me and my investing needs. And I had seven different brokerage accounts. I lost money actively trading.

One of the first stocks I bought was E*Trade. I think I bought it at $20 and got falling down to $0. I realized that I was such an idiot. I know from my economics degree how to invest the correct way. I know from my CFA that I should be indexing and buying passive portfolios. Yet, I was still doing these stupid things, and that’s just human nature. Sometimes, we think we’re smarter than we are.

It was frustrating that no investment account would do all this for me, so I filled it for myself to help me manage my investments better. I started talking to people. I was trying to get a sense of whether or not anyone else wanted this, too. That was my biggest concern on those early days. Would Betterment be an appealing product for people?

It was when I started getting my first partners (I was talking to people in business school) who also wanted the product and when my co-founders joined that I knew that we were on to something. I knew that we could at least get it off the ground. I don’t think I already knew then how successful it would be, but, certainly, I had hopes.

What Betterment Does

Rob: Why don’t you give everyone an overview of Betterment? What does it do? How does it help folks invest their money?

Jon Stein: Customers come to Betterment and tell us about their goals. Based on those goals (e.g. retirement, buying a house, building wealth) and the time horizons attached to those goals, we recommend portfolios. We then manage those portfolios for the customers.

We manage the portfolios for rebalancing, dividend reinvestment, and tax efficiency. We even try to make recommendations about behavior in automating things — like automating deposits into your account.

Or if you’re in retirement and taking income, how much can you safely withdraw from that account? We automate the process. We do all the management for you. We do all of that for an incredibly low fee because it’s all technology-based. It’s all software-based. As a result, it’s very efficient.

Rob: Right. You mentioned that someone can have a goal if they’re already in retirement and they need to generate income. That’s not me; I have not gotten to that point yet. But for someone who is in that situation, they can pick that as a goal in Betterment and Betterment will recommend a portfolio to accomplish that goal?

Jon Stein: That’s right. Betterment will recommend a portfolio for you in retirement based on your age and based on how long you want that portfolio to last and how much money you want to have left at the end of that time period. Based on those inputs, we will calculate and automatically withdraw to your linked bank account a safe amount every single month.

It’s like setting up a paycheck for yourself that comes from your investment. Automatically, we transfer an amount to you. That means that you will never run out of money. That’s pretty unique. It’s the first product of its kind. We think of it as a replacement for an annuity.

The problem with an annuity is that your money is locked up. Often, they’re sold rather than bought, and they come with pretty high fees. Betterment, on the other hand, is really a low-cost way to understand how much you can safely withdraw from your money every month. Further, it’s already automated and you still have access to your cash if you need it. The whole amount remains liquid and available to you just like any Betterment account is.

Rob: I’m just curious, what do you guys view as a safe withdrawal rate?

Jon Stein: It depends on the time horizon and how much money you have. There is a classic four percent rule that has been thrown around a lot. We find that that four percent rule, especially in current market where interest rates are so low, often leads them to run out of money too quickly.

On average and over time, the four percent is about what you can expect to withdraw from a globally diversified portfolio. You may even be able to withdraw a little bit more. The thing is that you want to be dynamic about it, and you want to adjust that amount up and down if market conditions change and if your portfolio gains start to lose its value. That way you can guarantee you won’t run out of money.

By talking to customers, one interesting thing I found out is that most people are happy to adjust their consumption (even in retirement) based on real world events. People know that if the market has crashed and is now just 50 percent of its value from where it was last year, they can tighten their belts a little bit.

They’re okay with that especially if it means that they keep their money invested so it can continue to grow and they can have more money on the table in the future years to come. They just need advice about how much they should spend. Our model is dynamic and changeable over time in response to your conditions and the market conditions.

Rob: If I were in that portfolio with Betterment and the market went down, Betterment may adjust (at least on a percentage basis) what I can take out for the next year. Of course I can choose to take out more if I want to.

Jon Stein: That is right. You don’t have to follow our advice. The advice is there to make it really easy for our customers. We found out that most people do follow the advice given to them. Seventy percent of our customers take our advice, and they stick with it.

Betterment Fees

Rob: Okay. Now, you mentioned fees in keeping your costs down. Why don’t you cover for us what the fees are for folks who use Betterment?

Jon Stein: Our fees are the lowest in the industry. They cover everything, and they’re very transparent. Transparency is one of our core values. They range from 35 basis points or 0.35 percent down to 0.15 percent if you’re managing over $100,000 in your Betterment account.

That is just a fraction of what it would cost to pay an investment advisor. Because this already covers all of your transaction costs, trades, tax integrations and tax managements and rebalancing that we do for you, the fee is cheaper than doing all those things on your own when you pay brokerage commission.

Because we have access to every ETF and we’re not dedicated to a single platform… We’re not using just Vanguard. We’ve got great Vanguard ETFs but in certain cases, Schwab ETFs or iShares ETFs are cheaper and better. Wherever we can, we take costs out of the model to provide you the best and most diversified portfolio at the lowest possible cost.

Rob: Do you see any changes in your fees in the near future?

Jon Stein: No. We don’t have any plans to change the fees today.

Rob: I have one question. I get a lot of emails from folks who want to know whether they should hire an advisor or not. They ask me about the reasonable amount to pay to an advisor. I had one person who emailed me about Dave Ramsey’s Endorsed Local Providers. As far as I can tell, they basically sell A shares with front loads.

My question is this: given low-cost ETFs, mutual funds, and service providers like Betterment (who takes advantage of those low-cost ETFs), why is there still a discussion about paying 5.75% front load on an A share or spending a lot of money on an advisor?

I can understand that if you have $1 billion to manage. You may hire someone to manage the investments of your whole family. I get that. But for the rest of us, for all the normal folks out there, why is this even still a debate?

Jon Stein: I think that that 5.75% that they’re charging provides them with a lot of marketing dollars to sell those products. Unfortunately, a lot of financial services products are sold rather than bought. It is a marketing-heavy industry because the profits have been so big. They can afford to spend a lot on marketing.

We spend very little on marketing. We get 40% of our customers through referrals and word of mouth. We get another 30 percent through the content that we write. We have some writers who talk about financial issues and so on. What we do instead is invest in the product and grow through keeping our costs low. But I think it’s not the typical model.

It surprises me that people can still charge those kinds of fees and loads and get away with it. But, I do think that it’s a shrinking part of the industry. In the future, I think it’s inevitable that almost everyone will be investing either with us or in other companies that provide similar services because it is a much better model.

Keep it Simple

Rob: You also mentioned that when folks invest at Betterment they will pick the percentage they want in stocks and the percentage they want in bonds. At least from the goals that I’ve said, that’s really the only choice that you have to make.

Jon Stein: That’s right. We ask you a few things. We will ask you about the goals that you have. The type of goals determines some of the investment that we recommend. For instance, if your goal is retirement, you’re set on a different advice glide path than if your goal is a major purchase like a home in five years. The term to that goal is important. The type and term are significant.

And you’re right, we will make a recommendation for a portfolio. Ultimately, you have control over the slider between stocks and bonds. If you don’t like our advice or mix, you can become more aggressive or less aggressive.

I say, although that process is simple, straightforward and relatively directed, there are 75 million investors in America and there are 75 million unique portfolios available at Betterment because everybody has different goals. Everybody has slightly different time horizons and needs. Because you have those multiple goals and because we customize a portfolio for each one, everyone’s portfolio allocation is going to be slightly different.

Why ETFs Over Mutual Funds?

Rob: So why does Betterment use Vanguard, iShares and Schwab ETFs versus mutual funds?

Jon Stein: Exchange traded funds or ETFs are simply a great innovation and better than mutual funds. The reason they are better is that, on average, they end up being lower-cost and they have some tax benefits. The reason they cost less is because there is competition.

By the way, exchange traded funds are mutual funds. They are created under the same investment company after 1940 and are regulated in much the same way. The difference is that they are exchange traded. That’s what provides some of the cost benefit – because there is competition.

If you wanted to buy a mutual fund, in the old world you would go to Vanguard and set up pipes. From our end, from a technology perspective, we set up pipes and we figure out a way to get cash into the Vanguard, and then they would put our customers into some funds or something and send us back the amounts once a day. And then if we wanted to buy Fidelity or Schwab funds, we have to build pipes to them to get them money.

With exchange traded funds, we just build pipes to the market, and we can buy any exchange traded fund. Because there is more competition there over different industries – there’s probably a half dozen pretty decent S&P 500 ETFs and because of the competition – the prices have been driven down.

Every year you see that Schwab undercuts Vanguard, so Vanguard lowers its fees. iShares then undercuts Schwab… That competition has really led to a great thing for customers. We, by investing our customers in exchange traded funds exclusively, are really taking advantage of the great innovation in ETFs.

Rollovers with Betterment

Rob: Okay. One thing I was thinking as I was preparing for this interview was you know, a lot of folks may be looking to roll over a 401k to an IRA because maybe they are changing jobs or they are already going to retire. And they have choices to make.

Obviously, Betterment is an option. They can directly invest with a mutual fund. They can also hire an advisor. What do you think should be the factors that folks should think through when they are making that decision? And since there is no doubt that you are fan of Betterment, why is Betterment a good answer for those folks?

Jon Stein: The fundamentals when it comes to this investing question are almost always the same. You want to control the things that you can control, and you want to try to find the best possible net investor return for your assets. The way that you find the best possible net investor return is for you to diversify broadly.

As we know, diversification improves risk-adjusted returns. Further, you also want to keep your costs very low. Thirdly, you want to try to manage your taxes to be as low as possible as well.

We, at Betterment, take care of those things for you automatically. We’re diversifying for you in an appropriate way. We’re keeping your costs as low as possible. And, we’re minimizing your taxes through our sophisticated trading and tax minimization algorithms.

You can do those kinds of things on your own through another service. It’s very difficult to do those things, and it’s very easy to make mistakes. You can’t really do those fundamentals using mutual funds. You don’t have access to the same kind of tax optimization strategies that we do.

As a result, Betterment is a great option for people who are rolling over a 401k to an IRA. By the way, while we’re on IRA, we make it incredibly easy. We have a concierge service where our average roll over time is about six to seven days. The average in the industry is over 30 days. We’ve optimized even the roll over process to make it painless and better than what many customers would expect.

Rob: How would someone actually do that? Is there a phone number that they call at Betterment? If someone wanted to roll over a 401k to a Betterment IRA, what is the first thing that they need to do?

Jon Stein: The first thing that they should do is to sign up for a Betterment account, and right on the homepage of the Betterment site, there is a button that says ‘Roll Over.’ And you can roll over from there. You can also roll over during the sign up process if you choose a roll over account when you’re signing up.

That will start the process, and we will ask you all the necessary questions like, “Who is your 401k provider?” and so on. That enables us to start doing the paperwork on our end so we can coordinate with your provider.

Rob: I’m looking at your site right now. I have not rolled over a 401k recently. I don’t think I have rolled over in a long time. I’m looking through the screens now, and I can see that it’s very easy to do. I don’t need to talk to anyone. I fill out the questionnaire which looks pretty simple and that initiates the whole process. Will someone eventually call me or will it just happen without even a phone call?

Jon Stein: We will send you some emails with some follow-up steps. Ultimately, I think most of the time people end up calling us because there’s usually something that comes up. Rolling over one provider to another is different.

But all these providers that have your 401ks don’t want to make it easy for you to roll your money out. They usually throw out some hurdles. We’ve gotten very good in dealing with those and helping customers get through them.

We have customer service seven days a week. And as always— 365 days a year there’s always somebody here to answer your call and help you with any question in the process.

Rob: Jon, don’t you give your people some time off?

Jon Stein: We’re not all here on Saturdays and Sundays, but some of us are.

Rob: Okay. You can roll over a 401k. Can you also roll over an IRA as well?

Jon Stein: That’s right. You can also rollover an IRA to us. We recommend people to take all of your old IRAs and 401ks and roll them all into one account. It becomes so much easier to manage and it’s actually better for you because you get a better and more appropriate asset allocation that takes in account all of those assets.

Rob: We use the term rollover but are these typically done to a direct transfer, so if I were going to do this, I wouldn’t actually take possession of the money?

Jon Stein: We do both. It’s a little bit technical. There are direct transfers where your institutions send a check to us, and there indirect transfers where you can just withdraw the money to your bank account and then you just push it back to your Betterment account.

Either way, both have ultimately the same end result — you’re moving money to Betterment. Oftentimes for our customers the indirect transfer is actually the easier one because you don’t have to do as much paperwork. You don’t have to ask your provider to send the check and all of that stuff.

You just withdraw and it’s already incredibly easy to do that and to make the deposit back into Betterment and we reconcile everything with the IRS. We tell them that the money has been re-deposited and send them those forms so they know that they are not to charge you the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty because they see that you’ve re-deposited your money into an IRA.

Rob: You have traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. Do you offer SEP IRAs?

Jon Stein: We don’t do SEP. We do traditional and Roth and that covers about 90 percent of cases. SEP is something that is on the roadmap.

Rob: Okay. And you also have taxable accounts, which are what I have with Betterment?

Jon Stein: Yes.

How Betterment Constructs Portfolios

Rob: How about portfolio construction? I assume that you have some kind of committee that is constantly evaluating exactly what stock and bond ETFs to use and what percentage of each kind to use— depending on the goals of your customers?

Jon Stein: That’s right. We have a committee here of CFPs, CFAs, and PhDs from Bowman, Barclays and JP Morgan who put together an optimized portfolio for each time horizon type of goal. All of that thought and research goes to the advice that is available through our website. That is our internal group.

We also have an external group of professors and finance practitioners from some of the biggest money managers, banks and schools who also help in advising us on investment policies. We meet with them a few times a year to review any potential updates or tweaks to the methodology. So they provide a good sounding board for us as well.

Rob: Do those investing decisions change very frequently in terms of the ETFs that you’re using and the percentages?

Jon Stein: No, they don’t change very frequently. The reason is that they don’t have to. The best investment advice is to be broadly diversified globally and not to try and follow trends. All the data suggests that those who chase hot sectors or hot trends tend to underperform in the market on average because they tend to get it wrong. They look at recent data and follow momentum and whatever is going on and those kinds of strategies more often cost you money rather than make you additional money.

Our advice doesn’t change a lot. But from time to time, things come up. Sometimes, certain ETFs are launched and they have lower costs than others and we want to swap those into the portfolio. We do that in a tax efficient way so we’re looking out for our customers’ net returns since we’re looking out for their best interests.

Rob: Do you share how much the amount of assets that you have under management? Is that something that is public information?

Jon Stein: Yes. We are a regulated investment advisor and a broker/dealer. That’s in our form ADV. I can tell you today that we have $550 million under management and we expect to be over $1 billion by the end of the year.

Rob: Wow. Are you going to throw a party when you hit that big billion dollar number?

Jon Stein: We will celebrate because that is a significant milestone.

Rob: Sure, why not? I appreciate your time. We have run through a number of different things for folks. Are there any question I should have asked you? Is there something on the horizon that you can share with us? What have I missed, Jon?

Jon Stein: We talked about the investment and income product that we just launched that is pretty exciting. We just launched a new algorithm called TaxMin that does really intelligent lot selection and selling for our customers.

We put a new blog post to show an example of a customer who made $100,000 withdrawal and with our sophisticated algorithm, was able to save $4,000 in taxes versus what he would have gotten with a normal brokerage which would do FIFO as the typical method for selling. Four thousand dollars on $100,000 is a lot of money.

This is the kind of stuff that we do for everyone. There’s no additional fee for that. It’s just part of your Betterment account. We’re doing even more. We’ve got more to come there. So there’s some pretty exciting stuff…

I guess the other thing to note is that I think we have the most delightful user experience. We spend all the time talking about best returns and how we optimize this and that. To go back to my story, I started the company coming from a place of just seeing customers and their financial institutions not well-aligned.

That customer experience and alignment is really important to me and, so we’ve invested quite a lot of time in making our sign-up process easy, making the statements intelligible and making everything transparent and user-friendly. Those are some of the things that I think, surprises customers when they come to Betterment.

Rob: Yes, it’s a fantastic site to use so I couldn’t agree more on the user experience. I will link to the articles you’ve eluded to in the show notes of this podcast so folks can check those out if they want to.

Jon Stein: That’s great! I will send you those links if you don’t have them.

Rob: That would be great. Just to make sure that we’re on the same page and that I have the right links. Again Jon, I appreciate your time today.

Jon Stein: Thank you so much! It’s great being with you, Rob.

Published or Updated: May 28, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. Kenneth says:

    Rob, I’ve been with Betterment since Sep, 2013. I rolled over an IRA to them and it funded Jan 22, 2014. I’m retiring in 18 months, and will roll over my 401k money on top of my Betterment IRA money. I also have a cash account with them.

    I’m really excited to use their automated monthly withdrawal process during my retirement years. The 4 percent rule comes from the Trinity study which was done in 1998. It’s now 16 years later, and the findings and advice are a little out of date. They are absolutely correct that people understand that as a market goes south significantly, the amount of money withdrawn should decrease. I want it to last forever, or a very long time, so I know this has to be. And when the market turns back up, I’ll get “pay raises”. Betterment – if you are reading this – you might need to factor in some questions to adjust for RMD Required Minimum Distributions as your customers get to 70 1/2,

    • Rob Berger says:

      Kenneth, good point on adjusting withdrawals. I suspect that’s true in any market, and I’m planning our own retirement with enough flexibility to do that.

      • Kenneth says:

        Rob, one of your podcasts was with two ladies from Vanguard. And your show notes included a link to the Vanguard research paper. What I remember from it, is I had an 89% chance of my money lasting 35 years with an initial withdrawal rate of 4.75%, and re-figuring subsequent annual withdrawals on the remaining balance, but with a cap of 5% over the prior year’s withdrawal, and a floor of 2.5% below the prior year’s withdrawal. I remember this so well, because it is what I plan to do.

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