“Why shouldn't anyone be able to do anything and everything with their money with a few taps?” asks Bill Harris, CEO of Personal Capital, pulling out his iPad. “Managing your financial life should not be this complicated.”
His company, which launched last September, aims to help people manage their investments better, partly through simplifying the process. This week, their new iPad app debuts, which was the occasion for our meeting.
“We are envisioning how money should be managed in the age of technology,” Harris explains. “With financial services the whole thing can be virtualized. But it hasn't happened yet. Sure everyone has an online banking site, but it is still fundamentally a paper-based system.”
Even though electronic signatures have been legal and legally binding since the 1990s, he adds, “Today, in 2012, more than half the things you have to do with financial services still require you to sign a paper. The world can't seem to let go of wet signatures.”
The essential problem Personal Capital seeks to address is the fragmentation of the typical middle-class person’s financial life. You probably have a bank account over here, an investment account over there, an IRA from this job and another from that job, various credit card accounts, and so on.
“Most people don't know what they've got or what they owe and don't know how to make sense of it,” Harris says.
If you move your accounts over to Personal Capital, the company organizes and depicts your asset allocations as color blocks that vary in size proportionally. There are tools for you to evaluate what might be a more appropriate distribution of risk for somebody in your particular situation.
Within the asset blocks, you can drill down to the level of individual stocks holdings, for example.
This is the free part of the service. Personal capital also offers financial advisors for those with a minimum of $100,000 in assets; it employs a staff of ten advisors to help them. These advisors are available for as much consultation as you desire. The custodian fee for their service will be slightly under one percent, which is less than the industry standard.
The company also tries to reduce other costs by avoiding mutual funds; they can do this by large-scale data analysis to trade stocks and ETFs that track with the major indices without incurring added management fees.
Personal Capital is also launching another new feature this week -- the first stock option tracking tool I’ve seen, which should be quite useful for those whose compensation packages include equity.
To date, the company has attracted 10,000 users with some $2 billion in assets. It is backed with $27 million in funding and has offices in Redwood City as well as San Francisco.