In the Money

Brian Wiley was fed up with his industry. So he decided to reinvent it.

After more than 20 years in financial services, Brian Wiley knew something had to change.

What he didn’t realize — at least initially — is that it was him.

“When I talk to older financial advisors, they tell me our industry is dying,” says Brian, a long-time financial advisor and daily radio show host who has spent most of his career helping people plan their financial future, including retirement.

“I actually think we have an opportunity. The world is changing. You have to change with it.”

For Brian and others in his line of work, change has come in the form of so-called robo-advisors, technology-driven portfolio management tools that use algorithms  — not humans — to make investment recommendations. These tools, including fast-growing startups like Wealthfront and Betterment, are growing their assets under management at a triple-digit clip, leaving professional financial advisors searching for ways to compete with the robo-advisors’ lower fees and comparable returns.

Brian thinks he’s found it with his new product Tree SAAp, a guided do-it-yourself investment program that combines the benefits of technology with the touch of a professional financial advisor.

It works like this: unlike traditional advisors and robo-advisors, who typically recommend your mix of mutual funds, stocks and other investments, then manage the buying and selling of those assets, Tree SAAp (short for strategic allocation app) simply makes detailed buy and sell recommendations based on your goals and risk profile — it’s up to customers to execute the trade.

“I design the allocation and the software applies those allocations to your portfolio with a couple extra clicks of the mouse,” Brian explains. “If customers follow my instruction, portfolio costs will be about 1/10th of what investors will typically pay an advisor.”

Because customers are following recommendations, the service does not fall under the traditional fiduciary rules, making it less expensive for Tree SAAp to serve customers and reducing the amount Brian has to charge in fees to only $199 per year.

This fee savings, Brian says, can really add up over time.

“Fees can be a huge drag on returns,” he says. “Even at a lower rate, if you multiply that out by 10 or 20 years it’s pretty incredible.”

Right now, Tree SAAp requires customers to take the recommended allocation and buy and sell stocks — primarily ETFs or exchanged traded funds, a type of tradeable security that tracks a broader index such as the S&P 500 — in their own TD Ameritrade account.

Brian recognizes this extra level of effort and responsibility means Tree SAAp isn’t for everyone.

“It’s kind of like being a mountain climber going up Mount Everest and hiring a Sherpa,” Brian says. “He’s not doing work for you, but he’s doing it with you to make sure you’re efficient.”

Tree SAAp’s core innovation is taking the proven model of asset allocation recommendation pioneered by Bob Brinker and others, and combining it with technology (and a human touch when necessary) to make it easy enough for even moderately sophisticated investors.

But Brian’s path here wasn’t exactly a straight line.

“I started the wrong way in this business,” he recalls. “I started in the brokerage/insurance model and I felt like I was preying on my friends and family, selling them stuff they didn’t need.”

Discouraged, Brian was on the verge of leaving the industry when, in a last ditch effort for career advice, he reached out to a financial advisor with a radio show in Bakersfield, California, where he lived.

This radio host convinced Brian to stick with it and gave him a role at his company. But Brian’s new boss turned out to be something less than a standup guy and soon ran into business troubles. Within a couple of years, the advisor was run out of town, leaving Brian to take over the radio show and, as it turns out, many of his clients.

Brian spent the next few years running hard, building a full-service financial advisory firm from the ground up with a couple of partners. His secret weapon? A small media empire driven by six television appearances and a radio show each day. He was so busy he even installed a studio right in his office.

“It helped build the firm, but it was extremely stressful,” Brian says. “I always felt like I was over-promising and under-delivering.”

He had enough.

In 2009, Brian sold his business and moved to Idaho to reconnect with his wife and son. He thought he was out of financial services for good.

“I came here and coasted,” Brian says. “I decided that my health and my family were going to be my priority.”

Eventually, bored by his temporary retirement, Brian decided to start fresh. He began hosting a daily radio show here and eventually began advising clients again.

Brian Wiley hosts radio show the Idaho Money Show
Brian Wiley hosts the daily financial radio program Idaho Money Show on the side.

“I started my new firm with new ideas. No sales. No brokerage. I’m advisory only,” he says.

“My practice is built on teaching people how to do it on their own.”

As clients began having success with his financial independence training (FIT for short), Brian began wondering out loud how he could scale it to reach more people. Then, mountain biking one day with a friend he mentioned his conundrum.

This friend, a computer programmer by trade, suggested that software could be the answer. The two teamed up and Tree SAAp was born.

So far growth has exceeded expectations. And while Brian says they are constantly working to improve the system, including an agreement with TD Ameritrade to tie into their system to simplifying the trading element to a one-click process, they have so far accomplished their main goal.

“We don’t want to ever remove the human element,” he says. “But Tree SAAp’s objective is to educate you. The most dangerous thing to Wall Street right now is an educated investor.”

Learn more about Brian Wiley’s Tree SAAp at treesaapp.com.