For many people, the prospect of working with a financial advisor can seem daunting, but one Atlanta-based startup is trying to change that.
“Let’s cut out the intimidation and allow everyone to get the financial advice they need and the information they desire the way they want to get it,” Wela CEO and co-founder Matt Reiner says, “and technology is the way they want it today.”
Wela grew out of Wela Strategies, a wealth management advising firm Reiner and his partners started nine years ago – the name is an Old English reference to wealth. Last year Wela became the first in the financial services industry to launch a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence (AI), which significantly increased the company’s growth. The bot is called Benjamin, and it provides users with an online chat-like experience, digitally dispensing personalized financial guidance based on users’ spending habits coupled with financial obligations and goals. The development of Benjamin occurred over four years under the auspices of the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) at Georgia Tech.
Through a free app, users allow Wela to link their various accounts, and Benjamin runs analyses that users can view on computers, tablets and mobile phones. The result is holistic guidance that shows individuals how their financial decisions work together to impact their long-term plan.
Reiner says account security is not an issue because “we have no access to [specific] transactions or personal identification numbers. We never see or store a password or user name, so there’s no identifiable way of hacking the information,” he says.
The majority of the more than 30,000 current Wela users are 32 to 42 years old. “We felt we could deliver the most value to young families because they have a more complex life,” says Reiner, referring to paying down student debt and mortgages, saving for kids’ college and investing for retirement.
However, the financial guidance doesn’t end with Benjamin. Users also have access to human financial advisors in person, or via phone and video chat.
“We’re bringing what we’ve done every day for years to a different medium,” says Reiner. “Now we’re providing the information [we’ve given high-net-worth individuals] to everybody.”
Wela’s unique combination of financial high tech and high touch has earned the company numerous accolades in business and financial industry publications, including Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and American Banker, as well as record growth. Last year it surpassed $1 million in annual recurring revenue, primarily from the human financial advising side of the business, and increased its number of employees to 11.
Looking ahead, Reiner sees Benjamin becoming smarter, more socially friendly and potentially available to other financial services companies to create another revenue stream. He expects voice integration to soon enable users to talk to Benjamin via applications like Apple’s Siri and Google Home. He’s also planning for a spring book launch that he hopes will change people’s view of budgeting and financial planning. Ultimately his and Wela’s goal is to help simplify investing. – Mary Ann DeMuth