With technology powering our everyday lives, we sometimes forget that there are still humans behind the technology. One thing that artificial intelligence hasn’t mastered (yet) is understanding the human psyche and what motivates us. For Joel Bruckenstein, it’s the appreciation for in-person interaction, raising up the next generation, and the sense of community that drives the FinTech ecosystem forward. Mr. Bruckenstein cemented his legacy in the financial advisory space ever since he launched the Technology Tools for Today conference 16 years ago. T3, as it’s affectionately called in the industry, is a leading practice management and technology conference for independent and hybrid financial advisors. It’s the go-to conference in WealthTech to learn about the latest innovations in the space. I was lucky enough to sit down with Mr. Bruckenstein recently and understand the man behind the tech.
Shannon Rosic: Tell me about yourself and when you ultimately fell in love with the FinTech space and financial services industry?
Joel Bruckenstein: I actually started out in foreign exchange in 1980. So I’ve been in financial services one way or another since 1980. I became interested in personal financial planning around ‘95. I started my own business in ‘96/’97, which was a small RIA firm. I’ve worked with individuals, and like everybody else who’s here right now visiting at T3, I was looking to buy technology to support my business. I went to a conference which was very much sponsor-driven and I bought some bad tech. I got angry and I thought, “Why isn’t anybody doing impartial reviews of this? Where are the FinTech consumer reports?” So I decided to do it myself.
That’s obviously a very specific incident that got you involved in the industry. But you’ve been advising in this space for over two decades. Is there something that still surprises you?
One thing that surprises me is that advisors are still slow to adopt new technologies. Another thing that surprises me is that we’re still talking about integration after all these years. And it’s funny; I don’t think that integration hasn’t gotten better. It has. I mean it’s gotten a lot better, but I think expectations rise faster than the technology’s ability to satisfy people.
So would you say the industry still has a little ways to go in terms of adoption and integration, or are you hopeful?
Well, it depends. I think it’s very uneven. For example, we just released a tech survey and we found that a very small percentage of advisors have specific software or service providers that help them with cybersecurity – that scares the hell out of me. Adoption is way, way lower than it should be. When you look at something more mainstream like financial planning software, it depends on what demographic you’re looking at. For example, the adoption is relatively high among fee-only advisors, but it’s much lower amongst wirehouse advisors.
Can you tell us about the inception of T3?
My ex-partner and I were talking one day over dinner and he said, “I kind of feel like writing a book but I don’t want to do all the work. I need a partner. How do you feel about it?” He knew I was the only other person in the organization (which we were both a part of at that time) that was passionate about this. So I just said yes without really thinking, which was probably a very bad idea financially because writing books for financial advisors don’t generate a lot of money. But it did really make us think more deliberately about where the industry was, where it needed to go, and who the good & bad providers were. We learned a lot and it obviously helped our reputation in the field. After releasing the book, people said, “Okay, its technology. This is going to be obsolete before the ink dries.” Which wasn’t really true because half the book was more or less about principles, almost all of which still apply today, but the other half was product-specific. So we decided to start a newsletter; people still wanted more, so we thought, “Why don’t we try doing a conference?” There are a lot of conferences in the industry, but we didn’t feel there was one that really did a service to technology. We just thought it was not getting the attention it deserved. And apparently, we were right.
Why is it so important to keep the community engaged and keep having these conversations?
Firstly, because it really is a community. Secondly, for the most part, no man or no company is an island. In order for the community to really function well, even competitors have to cooperate sometimes. We need some industry standards and we need to be working together to solve the problems that advisors have. We need advisor feedback to really make sure that the software being developed is aligned to advisors’ needs and the people they serve in their interest – this does not happen if you don’t have conversations.
Absolutely. Event planning is one thing, but what are some challenges and successes you have had with T3?
I think the biggest success overall is that we proved there is a community that is interested in this. We’ve raised awareness of how important technology is for running a successful financial planning practice. So I would say that’s the biggest success. Another great success we have had is bringing young, emerging companies that nobody knows about to the attention of advisors, and in certain cases, helping those companies have a voice and become known. Some of them have grown to become substantial companies by just coming to T3.
One aspect I love about T3 that you started doing is student competition. As we witness universities grow their financial planning programs, it is exciting to see that the next generation is so articulate and motivated to be part of this industry. I’m personally very impressed by them and it gives me hope because I know there’s going to be a big exodus of advisors soon. It’s great to see students up on this stage presenting brand new technology.
I have had the chance to chat with some of them and some of the faculty members that are here. The reason we started this is because there are programs at Schwab, TD, and other places which have a lot more money for support than we do, but we felt it was important to do something to let students know that there are other career opportunities other than just being an advisor. There’s a whole ecosystem that supports advisors, so if you’re interested in behavioral finance – and in our case, if you’re interested in FinTech – there’s a place for you where you can still serve advisors & their clients and really make an impact.
What technology trends excite you right now?
I’m excited by the rapid evolution of technology. The passion that the people in our exhibit hall have for technology as well as doing a good job for advisors excites me. Other than that, I think it’s a continuation of some of the same trends that we’ve seen over the last couple of years. One is the focus on the end consumer. How do we make these tasks enjoyable? How do we make it more understandable? How do we make it easier for investors to engage with advisors and really get value from it? In order to do that, you need to have a better advisor experience. Historically, no thought was given to the user-friendliness of the software built for advisors. That’s changing as well because advisors need to be efficient in order to better serve their clients.
Do you have any advice or practical takeaways when it comes to FinTech in 2019? Is there anything else the community should know?
The biggest mistake advisors make is them not really taking the time and dedication that they need to with regard to keeping up with trends. Previously, if you didn’t pay attention for three years in advisor tech, you really weren’t missing much – and if you were, you could catch up. But today, if you miss a year or two, you’re really going to fall behind. So you constantly have to benchmark all your applications and make sure you have the right ones. You have to make sure they’re being used properly. You have to make sure that your staff really understands how they work and what their purpose is, which is to get a real ROI. One of the biggest challenges in the industry is getting the ROI you expect when you buy tech without proper implementation and training of staff.
Do you have a funny or favorite T3 memory?
One of the largest software companies in the world had sent two people to talk about one of their primary products to our audience because they were just coming out with a new version of that software. They were supposed to speak on a Saturday afternoon. There were two of them – a subject matter expert and a sales guy. Apparently, they went out on Friday night to South Beach and the subject matter expert was never heard from again. He never returned to the conference and apparently, he didn’t go back to his office on Monday either! Nobody knew what had happened to him. Then we had the sales guy trying to do the presentation. He didn’t really know the software and half the stuff he was saying was just wrong.
Oh, no. This is like a bad reality show!
It was a very funny thing that happened at T3 about 13 years ago.
Did he ever turn up somewhere?
I mean, I’m sure he eventually turned up somewhere. He wasn’t in the obituaries!
Conferences sometimes get the best of people! Lastly, would you mind sharing a fun fact? Maybe something that people don’t know about you just outside of the FinTech space?
Well, my wife would say that I’m not too much fun at all.
Don’t all wives say that about their husbands though?
I would say I used to scuba dive a lot. I used to love it. We haven’t done it for a long time, but we’re thinking about getting back into it. I’m trying to get my work-life balance figured out!
I hope to see you in scuba gear on stage next year. Well, Joel, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time.