How a Bold Idea and a Knack for Communicating Helped One Financial Services Entrepreneur
Matt Brown’s first interview out of college was with Shearson Lehman Brothers, back in 1991. He spent two hours in the interviewer’s office just talking, never once about business, and they made him an offer.
“You have the ability to communicate," they said. "We’ll teach you the rest."
And while that may have been in 1991 when the dinosaurs still walked the Earth, don’t fool yourselves. Communication is still key.
His ability to communicate is why he was able to start four businesses, one while still in high school.
Talking to people, understanding their needs, realizing that the current system may be broken and then finding opportunity is all the result of his ability to communicate.
And after 25 years of that, he has discovered four salient truths that keep surfacing along the way.
1. People will gravitate to bold ideas and those that are willing to try them.
“Courage counts for a lot these days,” says Brown, now founder and CEO at his 4th company, the CAIS Group, a financial-products platform for wealth managers.
You need courage to start your own house-painting business in high school. And creating that business was how he learned the value of earning his own money.
You need courage to walk away from a secure job after college. After talking with his Shearson clients, he realized there was a need for a small-business financing division. But when Shearson expressed no interest in starting one, Brown left and did just that with company #2.
Flash forward to the 2007 recession, when Brown began to see a macro trend in the wealth advisory world. Advisors at big firms were subject to onerous regulations and compliance, thanks to the Dodd-Frank Act and so-called Wall Street reforms. They wanted to go out on their own and be independent but were afraid to leave their immediate access to research and investment products, like IPOs, structured products and private equity.
And that’s where Brown saw a need. He wanted to create a platform that offered independent advisors the tools, products and services they needed to be competitive on their own.
So CAIS – Capital Integration Systems -- was developed as a place where independent advisors can come and shop for the high-end integrated investment products their clients need and want without having to be employed by a big bank.
His idea was bold but he was confident that advisors would come.
They did. More than $3 billion is transacted over that platform today.
2. Have the conviction to dismiss the cynics.
Of course challenging the establishment in the midst of a recession might not always appear to be a good idea.
“Ninety-nine times out of a hundreed, it's just a voice," he says. "Don’t listen to it.”
Brown started CAIS in 2009, but in addition to the timing, many critics didn’t think big-bank wealth advisors would actually take the risk and leave their big-firm security blanket behind.
“We were confident because we saw the fragmentation coming," says Brown. "The system was broken back then. Credit and lending had a complete lack of oversight." Wealth managers weren’t generating returns for clients anymore. Yet those big bank fees were still being imposed. Clients had enough.
It was the perfect time for a new system to enter the arena.
“Turns out there is there is great opportunity in crisis,” says Brown.
So ignore the cynics.
3. Individuals develop ideas and teams execute them.
The poet John Donne said, “No man is an island.”
But most entrepreneurs are uber, Type-A personalities who need to oversee the purchase of every K-cup for the coffee room. But that becomes stifling and stalls the growth of the business.
Let it go.
Brown knew he couldn’t create his vision on his own. If he were going to bring investment products to his platform, his firm needed to have gravitas. Enter Mercer Consulting. Brown partnered with Mercer to perform the proper due diligence on all their products as a disinterested third party.
He brought in Fidelity Investments to offer CAIS clients brokerage and account services.
And most recently Envestnet partnered with CAIS to offer its alternative-investment products on the Envestnet platform. More than 43,000 independent advisors can access CAIS through Envestnet’s platform.
.So there is absolutely no conflict of interest. CAIS doesn’t do its own due diligence, doesn’t build or offer its own products, and never touches a client's money. It’s just the platform for independent advisors to come get what they need to properly service their high-net-worth clients without having to be an employee of a big bank.
4. You have to have obligation to the ecosystem or the industry you’re playing in.
“Interconnectivity makes the world a better place,” says Brown.
So drop the ego and level playing field as often as you can.
That means listening to your clients. CAIS is constantly asking its advisors what products they want added to the platform "because it’s not about what we want to offer. It's what our clients want us to offer," says Brown.
And then as long as Mercer approves the product, it’s added.
“And if you can apply your mind to business you can apply it to other things and that same explosive result can happen,” says Brown.
So find a cause or a charity. Help to empower people. Feel a responsibility to our society.
Even if it means letting a teenager paint your house.