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Experimentation, the Impact of Consumer Trends, and How Tech Will Transform the Advisor Space with Dani Fav‪a‬

In this episode, Jack Sharry talks with Dani Fava, Head of Strategic Development at Envestnet. Envestnet’s mission is to make financial wellness widely accessible.

Having entered the financial tech world in a non-traditional way, Dani encourages others to embrace what makes them unique. After unintentionally impressing a firm with her technical abilities, Dani found herself catapulted into the world of wealth technology, eventually landing at TD Ameritrade where she launched a web-based rebalancing platform. In the process, she realized advisors could use tech to better serve their clients.

Today, Dani lives on the pulse of consumer behavior, following the latest tech trends and predicting how they’ll ultimately impact what clients need from their advisors. Her long-term vision is to develop a connected intelligent system that seamlessly manages a client’s current and future financial wellbeing.

Jack and Dani talk about the importance of experimentation, user experience, and why technological advancements will only help advisors stay indispensable.

What Dani has to say

“Everything we do is intended to give the human advisor more freedom and time to be that coach for their clients. In my view, the advisor space is becoming more irreplaceable because of the use of technology.”

– Dani Fava, Head of Strategic Development at Envestnet

Read the full transcript

Jack Sharry: Hello, everyone. Welcome to our podcast WealthTech on Deck, where we talk with the industry leaders around our industry about the future of digital and human advice. Today we are talking with Dani Fava. Dani is the head of strategic development at Envestnet, a longtime advocate, working with TD Ameritrade, I’m sure she’ll touch on that a little bit. And now at Envestnet. So Dani is a highly regarded industry voice on the topic we’re here to talk about today, which is the future of technology and advice and how they all come together. So Dani, welcome. Good to have you here.

Dani Fava: Thanks so much, Jack. It’s great to be here.

Jack Sharry: We’ll have some fun. So let’s start, why don’t you provide our audience with some perspective on how you got here. You’ve been someone who’s been well known and well regarded in the business for a long time. So a little bit of a highlights tour, brief highlights tour, where you’ve been and how you wound up on this podcast.

Dani Fava: Yeah, the Dani Fava origin story, I would love to tell it and I will try to keep it brief. So I would consider my path to have been non traditional into finance and wealth management. I remember when I was very young, my dad, and I’m on the poor dad’s side of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, my dad used to say, have a saying that, that went “money goes to money,” and he said it often. And I never knew what it meant. I have a firmer understanding now about what he meant. But I just knew this meant that I should be around money. And I majored in finance and went, after college, took my first job at an investment manager in New York City, and I was a Trade Support Specialist. And for those of you who know me, you know, I had my daughter very young. And so I was a young, single, working mom traveling, commuting into Manhattan every day. And what I did was when I got into the office, I had to run a bunch of reports and print out all of these reports for all the traders on the floor. And so how I got into wealth tech was I hacked the system that I used to run these reports. And I pretty much scheduled these jobs to run on their own and print out on their own. And I would be able to spend more time at home with my daughter and come into work later. And no one was the wiser, because all of my reports were done. And the firm that I hacked, called me one day and I was real nervous. I said “Oh no, I’m in trouble.” So they said, you know, “We see that you’ve scheduled these things to run on your own” and, and then they offered me a job. So that’s how I got into, that’s my non traditional path/origin story into financial technology.

Jack Sharry: Gotcha. Gotcha. And a little bit more. How did you wind up at TD and Envestnet? Maybe a little bit more about that?

Dani Fava: Yeah. So at TD Ameritrade, I was hired at TD Ameritrade about 10 years ago to build iRebal. I was kind of a rebalancing and trading specialist and TD Ameritrade had a specific need, they wanted to launch a web based rebalancing platform. And so I started at TD Ameritrade with that job, spent a few years with a great team building and launching iRebal on Veo. And as I launched iRebal, I got to learn so much about the advisor space, about what independent advisors were doing, about what made them special, about all of their inefficiencies. And going through the launch of this rebalancing system, I started to say to myself, “Hey, I have all of these ideas on how we can make advisors better and more efficient and able to serve their clients using technology.” And I kind of really started tugging at my boss to say, “Hey, give me a bigger role I want to be… I want an innovation role, I want to build cool technology to help advisors.” And that boss, who is now one of my best friends, he made that space for me, he made me the director of innovation. They gave me some freedom to go out there and build. And that’s kind of what I’ve been doing since then. And now I’m the head of strategic development at Envestnet doing a lot of the same things.

Jack Sharry: Gotcha. So you’re a real pioneer in this thing we call the confluence of human and digital advice about how to leverage technology to provide a better level of advice.

Dani Fava: That’s what I’m trying to do.

Jack Sharry: That’s great. Talk a little bit about what you’re doing at Envestnet. I know as we’ve talked, your job is to figure out what’s coming 3-5 years out. So talk a little bit about that. What is, what sort of stuff do you look at? What do you think about? Who do you talk to? All that kind of stuff.

Dani Fava: So first, let me start by saying I consider myself extremely fortunate, I have such a fun job. And I’m, you know, learning and doing cool things every day. So, yes, it’s my job to figure out where the industry is going, what the trends are, not only in the advisor space, but also in consumer finance. So I kind of have this theory, that has become more true over the last, I would say, 10 to 15 years that the advisor space is really following the consumer finance trends, right. And I’ll give one quick example that can be debated. But I really think cryptocurrency is going to be the best example of this. We see things that are happening in consumer finance, that are happening in consumer behavior and social behavior, that are then sort of leading into the advisor world and the advisors need to transform what they’re doing because of these new consumer behaviors. Impact investing is another great example of how a consumer or social movement and behavior has kind of made its way into the advisor space in a very meaningful way. So it’s kind of my job to follow those trends, to really keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in society, in consumer behavior. And inside of FinTech, and to be able to kind of foresee how that is going to transform advisor tech and perhaps invent how it should transform advisor tech to a large degree. And, you know, this all kind of ties together very nicely with Envestnet’s mission, which is why I work at Envestnet, by the way, I love their mission. And I’m very aligned personally with what Envestnet is trying to do as a company. And that is to make financial wellness a reality for everyone. How can Envestnet serve the needs of our consumers and enable financial wellness for everyone, every single person out there, it’s a big mission.

Jack Sharry: That’s great and fun. If I could just back up a little bit. So you’re paying attention to trends, consumer trends, advisor trends, I’m sure FinTech trends, you know, those of us that serve that marketplace. How do you do that? Is it conversation? Is it reading? All the above?

Dani Fava: All of the above. It is especially making my compliance department crazy, I’m really good at that. The way that I do that, I pretty much download and try every app I can find that I think will impact social behavior or consumer finance. And that includes things more recently like Clubhouse, and Public, and Rally Rd. Anything cryptocurrency related. I am trying everything out there and trying to figure out how it can enable financial wellness, and how advisors might leverage it in the future. And I have this kind of overarching concept that I’d love to talk about that comes right from our CEO, Bill Crager. And it’s this concept of an intelligent, connected financial life, right. So while I’m traversing all these apps that I’m playing around on, Yodlee insights, which I love, and I’ll talk a little bit about. While, I’m trying, you know, the new features in Mint, or I’m doing some alternative investing using Rally Rd., I’m thinking about this concept of an intelligent, connected financial life. And what that is, is how we have all of these kind of these financial happenings that are going on in our current life. And we have all these sort of plans and dreams about our future life. And, you know, we have all of these separate apps that manage these things that are happening today, we have apps or things we do that manage what’s going to happen in the future. And this whole concept of bringing the two sides together in one place to make this all work seamlessly, as a connected financial life as kind of like the killer app. That’s this concept that I’m always thinking about and circling around that I really think Envestnet is in the best position to solve that.

Jack Sharry: So that’s gonna be a bit challenging. I’m gonna push back a little bit. Envestnet’s bought a lot of stuff, MoneyGuide, and Yodlee, and Tamarack. And the list goes on, all good stuff. And the challenge, of course, is integrating all that and to your point of that killer app, which needs to draw on all the above and a lot more. How do you translate that? That’s got to be a challenge because that, given the success of Envestnet, I’m sure tech resources are at a premium? In fact, I know they are. So how do you translate your bright ideas, which I have no doubt are fabulous. How do you turn that into code and into a user experience?

Dani Fava: Yeah, I mean, I think, Jack, that’s the hardest part, right? And nothing, nothing worth doing is easy. So we expect it to be difficult. And we probably spend, you know, most of every day working on the answer to that question. From my perspective, one of the things that I love to do, and that I think I bring to a larger company is experimentation. Right? I think that is one of the most important things about getting something right, about moving the ball forward, about making progress. And I think it’s one of the things that a lot of people in our industry are really afraid of, especially the bigger brands, right. It’s very hard to be a well known, established company with thousands of customers, millions of customers, and then say, “I’m going to experiment and I might fail.” But I do think it still remains one of the most important things that we can do is get out there, put things together, try, fail, learn, iterate, that is the way that I kind of view my job and it takes a lot of energy for me to kind of combat people on this, you know, “Oh, but what happens if we fail?”and I’m like, “Yes, well, if we fail, we’ll learn and we’ll celebrate the failure. And you know, we’ll try again.” There are certainly things in this industry that make that harder. The press, for example.

Jack Sharry: You don’t want to name names, do you?

Dani Fava: Envestnet creates the space to do this, we’re always thinking and trying, and I really, really believe we’re going to get it right. I really believe we’re going to solve this problem of this intelligent, connected financial life. And I think you’re going to start seeing some really exciting things coming out of Envestnet in the very near future, depending on when this podcast is dropped, maybe. Maybe even in the very recent past.

Jack Sharry: Inquiring minds need to know. So let’s talk a little bit more about that. That’s really interesting, because they certainly picked the right person to figure this stuff out and then advocate within. It sounds like a big part of your role. And then prioritization and budgets and all the rest of that stuff follow. Talk a little bit more about what that sort of experimentation looks like, is that biting off a little proof of concept? Or what does that look like in reality, in terms of trying ideas out?

Dani Fava: Yeah, so the first misconception about experimentation is that you need to have some kind of a technology out there that you’ve built and that works. And I don’t believe that, I believe that experimentation can happen through a lot of conversations, a lot of surveys, voice of the client, it can happen through drawings, wireframes, it can happen through just collaborating over an existing app, you know. It can happen over giving pieces of data in very raw format, to advisors over email, you know, we have a great analytics product and a great analytics dashboard, but the way that that starts is just by providing the data in its raw format to an advisor and then saying, “Look at this data, does it help you?” That is a form of experimentation, and a very low tech form of experimentation at that. Then, you know, the next step is the UX design. And a lot of people ask me, you know, if you’re starting an innovation lab, what’s one of the most crucial pieces that you want to add first? One of my answers is user experience. And I’m very fortunate at Envestnet to work with a great group of UX designers who can kind of listen to an idea and turn out some pretty high fidelity screens pretty quickly. And that’s a form of experimentation, right? We put those in front of advisors, in front of customers, and learn from those. And that, to me, is all of how we iterate and experiment before we ever build. I think that that works well. Another thing that Envestnet is really great at doing is, as you know, we’ve grown through acquisition, I think that will continue to some extent. And we’re really great at sort of partnering with, with other businesses that that sit outside of Envestnet, let’s say, right. So getting something outside of the core company is really important for speed and freedom. And, you know, it’s like the mothership, sometimes because of serving existing clients will sometimes kill new ideas, because something that has no revenue is never going to be more important than something that has a ton of existing revenue. Let’s be honest, right? We’re all running businesses here. So Envestnet is really great about building innovation on the outside so that it can, so that it has the freedom to breathe. You know, all of those things are kind of components to how we do things quickly and how we continue to innovate.

Jack Sharry: So you’re talking a lot about technology and experimentation, trial and error, and all good. Let’s talk about the other side of the equation. That’s the human side. So how do you incorporate that? And obviously, there’s code and all this technology stuff that gets done. How do you factor in that human element? And I’m sure that gets to user experience. And just you’re well connected to advisors. So talk a little bit about how that, you’re making sure that the advisor is taken care of, because it doesn’t get said unless they say it. And then you mentioned earlier that you talk to, you pay attention to what consumers want and need, and are maybe not getting. So maybe talk about that human aspect.

Dani Fava: Yeah, I mean, and this goes to one of my core beliefs and my philosophy on the advisor space in general, I think the advisor space is completely evolving. And advisors are becoming more relationship managers, life coaches, and guidance counselors, really. And everything that we do, everything that we’re automating, everything that we’re building, everything that we’re bringing together, is intended to power the human advisor and is intended to give the human advisor more freedom and time to be that coach for their clients. In my view, the advisor space is becoming more irreplaceable, because of the use of technology, rather than less. I know a lot of people view these technology advancements as threats to advisors, I don’t believe that. I believe that technology right now, especially a lot of the stuff that I’m experimenting with, that I play around with, a lot of the apps that I’m using, the technology is creating and curating and incubating future advisor clients.

Jack Sharry: Advisor as client, you’re saying?

Dani Fava: No, I’m saying tomorrow’s advisors’ clients. Like, I’m more likely to go reach out to an advisor, because I have invested in Bitcoin. And because I have used Rallly Rd. for private placements of securitized assets. I’m more likely to go reach out to an advisor because I failed on Robinhood by myself. Right. So I think that all of these technologies that people are trying and using are making them more likely to reach out to an advisor in the future for help, for complex financial needs, for tax purposes. For everything that these technologies are creating. I think that the advisor space becomes even stronger in the future. And that’s why I really embraced this stuff. And the best thing that we can do for advisors, and we continue to focus on this, at Envestnet as well, is educate them and give them all of the tools that they need to deliver access for their clients to products like this in the future. Just today, we launched a new impact investing education series for advisors, we have all of the tools that an advisor needs to marry their client’s values with their investments. The next thing we had to do was educate them so that they can easily talk to their clients about this and use this technology. To us, it’s all about giving the advisor education and access and making the advisor look good, right? We want to make the human advisor look good to their clients and give them this kind of ease of use. So I’m very, very, very bullish on the human advisor in the future.

Jack Sharry: So let’s talk what it might look like three to five years out, we’re simpatico on the topic of technology’s job is to make the advisor look good, and deliver greater value. I’m biased, as I think, you know, around quantifying the benefits so that the advisors say here’s what I can do for you, and here’s how much more money you’re gonna have. I think that’s part of the future from at least where I sit. So technology then needs to be become easier and easier for them not only to use, but then to share with a client. So that when they’re providing that coaching, counseling, there’s some validation around what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and so on. I expect that to speed up to get more, you know, in place, you know, less input and more output, more wisdom, than the process might suggest. That all said, what does it look like, we go out three to five years? What do you think the future of advice looks like in terms of what that advisor-client interaction looks like?

Dani Fava: I think it looks a lot like what’s happening in social and consumer behavior today. It’s all about access and it’s all about changing behaviors, actually, and it’s going to become a lot more behavioral. So I’m also a user of Noom. You’d think I spend all day staring at my phone, maybe that’s why my neck hurts. So I’m also a user of Nool and, and really what that’s doing is it’s changing my behaviors and my habits to help me live a healthier physical life. And I think the future of financial advice looks a lot like this, where the data, and the access empowers an advisor to help their clients live a healthier financial life. So I see in the future, this moment where no one has to shop for the best financial products anymore, it’s all delivered through the advisor. The advisor can say, “Hey, Dani, don’t spend that money, we’re gonna borrow that money because you’re doing better in the market and here’s the best loan for you.” You don’t have to shop, you don’t have to talk to anyone else. I know what you need, I have access, I, the advisor, have access to the best financial product for you. And I’m going to help you get it easily and seamlessly. You don’t have to shop, you don’t have to compare, I’ve got it at my fingertips. And that is going to go for investments, and loans, and insurance products, and thinking products. Any kind of financial product, the advisor is going to have access to the best thing for you curated at her fingertips. Easy. And then the role of the advisor becomes not only giving you that access, but also helping you change your behaviors to live a healthier financial life, whether that is in spending, or in you know how you’re, how you’re allocating your assets, how you’re handling your income, it’s all going to be behavioral nudges. And it’s all going to be you know, tracked and using data, the same way that a product like like Noom does with your eating habits, let’s say.

Jack Sharry: Well, I couldn’t agree more. And of course, the challenge is what you just described, goes back to something you said when we first got started on this podcast, and that is that everything needs to be interconnected. That your risk and tax and cost and all the other factors, your desire to invest in a particular way, ESG kind of orientation, all that gets factored in. So the best product that might come up, it’s far less, you said this earlier, but just to reconfirm, it’s far less about which product per se, but that’s how you connect all of the products that add up to the best solution. Did I get that right?

Dani Fava: Exactly, exactly. And if you think about it, I hate to make this a pitch for Envestnet, but my goodness is Envestnet in a really great place to be the one to deliver on this considering we have the data, we’ve started really moving along our exchanges. And exchanges are just what you said, Jack, it’s taking all the products, putting them together and giving the advisor access to them. So if you need a loan, I have the best one for you.

Jack Sharry: Why don’t you explain that? Not everyone may know about the exchanges, because I know you have them for insurance, for credit, for… why don’t you explain that a little bit?

Dani Fava: Yes, we do. Yeah, yeah. So we have, Envestnet has created these exchanges. And we’ve done them, you know, outside of the core of Envestnet, which is what I was explaining before, how we get things done quickly and are able to innovate easily. We’ve created an insurance exchange, an advisor credit exchange, which is lending, a trust exchange. And I believe there was another exchange that I, I’m not quite sure if that’s public at the time of this podcast or not. But really what it’s doing is it’s giving advisors, the access and the ability to deliver these solutions for their clients. So I’ll use the credit exchange as an example: If an advisor looks at this dashboard of credit, what they’re seeing is a long list of their clients. And it’s giving you, right up front, what that client qualifies for in terms of all of these different types of loans, whether they’re residential, or securities backed, etc. And it is giving the rates right up front, best rate. And it’s giving the advisor like a one-click sort of print out or email of that loan option for the client. So it’s easy access delivered right from the advisor, and the client never has to interact with you know, you don’t have to send them to the bank, right. You don’t have to go send them to somebody else who wants to dig into their financial picture and who wants to talk to them about their investments. It’s a really fantastic way for the advisor to get access to the best product at the best time for their client. And that’s, you know, credit exchange is just one example. Like I was saying there’s also the insurance exchange and the trust exchange and we really see the future of advice being and the advisor being the facilitator of these financial products that will help their clients’ full financial picture.

Jack Sharry: That’s great. So we’re going to move toward wrapping up I want to ask you a couple questions as we say farewell.

Dani Fava: But I like talking to you so much, Jack.

Jack Sharry: Actually, we could go on. One of the thing we’re trying to do with our podcast is, and actually we’ll have you back because we just scratched the surface on the stuff that you’re working on. But in this crazy environment where we all live, there’s not enough time for anything. So we try to keep it short. But with that in mind, if you were to pick three things that, you’ve touched on a bunch here, what are three takeaways? What, what would you want people to remember from our discussion today that might prove valuable in their, in their daily lives?

Dani Fava: I will say, and I’m going to go all the way back to the beginning of this half hour and say, you know, with my non traditional path of getting into finance and wealthtech, one, not fitting in sometimes is your superpower, right? So doing things differently, not fitting in, having a different perspective is your superpower. It is not something that you should hide. Two, I think experimentation. Experiment as much as you can, build in public, talk about the things you’re doing, let people come disagree with you. Because those disagreements, they just make your idea stronger, right? In the long run. We want, we want those things. And don’t be afraid of failure.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, yeah. And you exemplify all the above and really advance our industry you have and you continue to, sounds like you’re in the perfect spot. So let me ask you one final question before we say farewell for now. And that is, what is something about you that is not part of your day job, but another part of your life that people don’t know about you that they might find interesting?

Dani Fava: I would say surprisingly, and this is sort of opposite from what you would think of me. I just moved. I bought a new house in Pennsylvania and I picked a 220 year old home that is rich with history, still has some of the original woodwork and has all of the paperwork, including handwritten wills, bequeathing the property and the area around it through generations of families. And so I’m kind of a history buff, and I really love to learn about and really immerse myself to the point of living in it. The history of everyone. And that’s surprising, I suppose about me since I’m so tech forward, and I spend a lot of time looking down at my phone.

Jack Sharry: So as I recall, aren’t you from Staten Island?

Dani Fava: I am, yeah.

Jack Sharry: So that, you’ve come a long way.

Dani Fava: Yeah, yeah.

Jack Sharry: As it were.

Dani Fava: You are right. Yeah.

Jack Sharry: Well, just to complete the thought, I too live in a 200 year old plus house.

Dani Fava: Wow. I didn’t know we had that in common, Jack.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, our house was built in 1813. And it was actually, the Continental Army didn’t have money. So they gave a chunk of land to Captain Daniel Draper who led the local militia at Lexington and Concord in Westwood Mass, which is West Dedham way back in the day and west of Boston. And the house across the street is the son’s house. And the house behind us, that was the granddaughter’s house and the property we’re on is now a development but was a farm at one point, a dairy farm. So, goes way back.

Dani Fava: Wow, so cool.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, it’s fun.

Dani Fava: I love it. Yeah, really fun. I’ll send you pictures.

Jack Sharry: Yes, we will do that. So this has been a blast. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and we look forward to the next time, there will be a next time. So thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Dani Fava: Thank you, Jack.