The early growth of robo-advisors since their start in early 2012, coupled with a surge of media coverage, suggested that they could become the future of financial advice for consumers.
However, in the year since established players like Schwab and Vanguard launched ‘competing’ services, a fresh look at the robo-advisor landscape reveals that their growth rates are falling rapidly, to just 1/3rd their levels of one year ago. Their apparent demise: an inability to scale their marketing to sustain growth rates in the face of increasing competition and challenging client acquisition costs, coupled with a similar inability to grow their average account sizes.
In fact, the combination of rising client acquisition costs and declining average revenue per client may be an outright death knell for the direct-to-consumer robo-advisor movement, as they approach the unsustainable crossover point where the lifetime value of a client, cumulatively, is less than the cost to acquire a single client (given that some have a mere average gross revenue per client of just $50/year!). Accordingly, it’s not surprising to see many of the early robo-advisor players pivoting in other directions, using their long runway of available dollars to try to find greater growth traction, with at best one or two that might manage to build a viable brand that survives.
Nonetheless, in the long run we may still look back at this moment as one of significant transition for the industry, not because robo-advisors disrupted human advisors, but because the emergence of robo-advisors was the needed catalyst for the industry to reinvest into the future of financial advisor technology. Already, tech-augmented human advisors are rapidly growing past both their robo-advisor and traditional human advisor peers, and an outright “arms race” of technology is emerging amongst financial advisor custodians and broker-dealers all seeking to be the future platform of choice.
Which means in the end, the direct-to-consumer robo-advisor movement may be dying, with VC funding suggesting Betterment may soon be the last man standing, but the legacy of their technology will continue to be transformative for years to come, just as online brokerage in the late 1990s didn’t disrupt financial advisors but instead became the backbone of how we execute our businesses today!