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Ripe For Disruption: The Asset Management Business

Joseph W Reilly

26 July 2021

Joe Reilly, a longtime contributor to Family Wealth Report, interviews David Teten, the founder of Versatile VC, to share views on disruption in asset management, his research into the field, and where the industry needs to be headed.

Reilly: You have done a lot of research on the asset management industry. Who is your research geared to?
: A few years ago I was at a dinner for partners at many of the major New York venture capital funds. One partner said: “So, what do you all think of AngelList?” Another said: “I think it’s a remnant inventory...the Craigslist of venture capital. I don’t think it’s a threat to established VCs.” But a third partner said: “Isn’t that sort of like Hyatt dismissing AirBnB as a threat they don’t need to take seriously?”

In hindsight, the third partner was right.  

So with that preamble, I think that anyone working at an established asset management firm should understand the threats to their established profit streams. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, wrote: "There are hundreds of startups with a lot of brains and money working on various alternatives to traditional banking "..."They all want to eat our lunch...Every single one of them is going to try."

In addition, I think that fintech entrepreneurs seeking market white space should be working to understand how to take advantage of the market opportunity gaping in front of them.

Lastly, of course, any family office should understand the creative, focused, new service providers which may be helpful to them.

You have described the asset management industry as “somewhat baffling.” Why is that?
Asset management is a highly unusual industry. I can give two examples of how peculiar our industry is, relative to other industries:

The asset management industry collectively plays a near-zero-sum game. By contrast, most industries are positive sum: if you eat a great steak dinner, it doesn’t imply that others have to eat hamburger. In asset management, each new money manager in the liquid markets that is able to generate alpha normally does so at the expense of other money managers who underperform. Your own investment’s value may change because of a change in value of the underlying asset and/or market preferences. However, few investors can impact the value of the underlying asset, except for typically private equity and venture capital investors. And only celebrity investors like George Soros can influence market preferences. 

In fact, it is mathematically impossible for the median investor in a given publicly-traded sector to beat a low-cost index of that sector, after expenses. Money managers playing a positive-sum game include those who focus on well-developed sectors for which indices are not readily available and/or nascent asset classes .

The asset management industry rarely delivers the alpha that it promises. Delivering alpha on a net of fees and costs basis consistently over many years is incredibly difficult. How many other industries collectively fail so consistently to do what they are paid to do? 

Are there macro trends that will force change on the investment management industry?
Investors are much more aware now of new categories of risk. Most recently, COVID-19 taught the world to take the pandemic risk seriously. It is a safe bet that we will see other tail risk events over the next decade: extreme climate events, large scale takedowns of the critical internet infrastructure, electromagnetic pulse attacks, and who knows what else. We have to worry about both black swans, which are unforeseeable risks, and grey rhinos, which are foreseeable risks.

From my point of view as a VC, what gives me comfort is whatever crazy things happen in the world, it’s a safe bet that technology will continue to be more and more important.

What do you find is most disruptive in the industry right now? What do you see changing over the next five years?
I will offer my two highest-confidence predictions: 

Private equity and venture capital investors are going to copy our sisters in the hedge fund world by automating more of our job. When I was single, I registered for dating websites. When I met my now-wife, I realized that any technology that can find me a spouse is a killer app. That’s why 40 million Americans use online dating sites. But, most funds raise capital and source deals the same way people looked for dates 20 years ago: by networking at conferences . Venture capitalists are now eating our own dog food, by using technology and analytics to make better investments, which we can talk about.

The asset management industry will become more diverse, both because many of the current owners of asset management businesses are due to retire in the next decade, and because the money holder class are far more diverse than the money managers who want to work for the money holders. The money manager owner class is disproportionately near retirement age. According to Imprint Group, “one third of assets currently managed are managed by men over the age of 60.” This creates a challenge in talent retention because junior people see their path blocked; succession planning as when their path eventually gets unblocked; and eventually in business continuity. For example, Chris Shumway’s transition out of his hedge fund lead to huge simultaneous redemptions, followed by fire sales, and eventually the closure of a highly successful $8 billion hedge fund. Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of mutual fund AuM and 3 per cent of hedge fund AuM are managed by women, and a similarly small percentage is managed by traditionally underrepresented minorities. This is inconsistent with the fact that women control $14 trillion in assets today, projected to reach $22 trillion by 2020, according to a Family Wealth Advisors Council white paper.

In your research, you use the Clay Christensen framework of “jobs to be done”. Can you explain that?
Professor Clayton Christensen popularized the idea of analyzing a company by looking at the “Jobs to Be Done” needed by its clients. Most money managers think their main job is generating alpha, but they are wrong. According to Amanda Tepper, CEO of Chestnut Advisory Group: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, investment performance alone does not drive asset flows.” 

Disruption theory identifies companies which serve one job particularly well as the most likely source of radical, disruptive growth. So I mapped out in my research the companies that are focusing on just one job for family offices. They often do a terrible job on everything else that an investor may seek.

The paradigmatic example for me is Vanguard. They do one job: deliver average returns at a low price, and they do it really well. When they launched, people mocked them, but they’ve been tremendously successful and of course disruptive to the established players.

A lot of family offices are interested in investing directly into companies, but don’t want to lead rounds. So how can they get invited into rounds?
In order of descending impact:

1, Invest in a fund, and tell them you want as many direct opportunities as possible; 

2, Publicize that you’re value-added in a specific industry, and build relationships with all the VCs in that industry; and 

3, Publicize that you’ll quickly co-invest in rounds led by reputable VCs.

Joining syndicates can work, but it is a hard strategy to execute well without suffering the “winner’s curse,” because the VC industry has so many followers and so few price-setters.

A lot of our readers organize events regularly for family offices. You did the same thing given your role as founder of Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of Greater New York. What are the best ways to attract investors to events?
My top 6 recommendations: 

1, Advertise that the event is strictly gated to family offices, and detail how you curate.

2, Get a lead sponsor which is a single family office. 

3, Offer unusual experiences or speakers. Money can buy almost any product, but not any experience.

4. Design the event to be health-conscious.

5, Discuss sensitive topics not readily obtainable via Google.

6, Moderate aggressively.

You’re an investor in a couple of direct investing platforms like Indiegogo and How can these direct investing platforms attract family offices and other large investors?
The table stakes for all these companies are to execute on the “jobs to be done” that any competent direct-investing platform must provide, as compared with the option of investing in a fund: control; administration; data about the deals; compliance; and of course the traditional benefits of alternatives However, I’ve identified a range of other levers that platforms can use to attract more family offices and other large investors. 

How have you been engaging and giving back to this ecosystem?
My firm, Versatile VC is launching Founders’ Next Move, an invite-only, no-cost community for founders researching their next move. Typically, they’re considering launching a new company; getting a job; angel investing; consulting; and education/self-improvement. I suspect many of your readers would get value from our free career resources. Information is available on the Versatile website.