SimpliFi LLC has decided that the best way to sell its online financial planning software to banking companies may be giving it away to consumers.
Several companies that provide free financial management applications online to consumers have started selling the technology to banks, but SimpliFi, which started selling to banks, is now offering consumers its wares for free online.
Executives say both strategies lead to the same place: using the free offering to create an active base of users and generate name recognition, which can spur demand from paying customers — banks and credit unions.
SimpliFi introduced its financial planning software in 2005 and now has 12 credit union clients and 45,000 end users. Bryan Link, the Clemmons, N.C., company's chief executive, said interest from financial companies has surged since it began offering the software for free online on April 28.
"The visibility that comes along with being direct-to-consumer really helps us in the financial institution channel," he said in an interview last week. "We are getting more calls from financial institutions now asking about our service since we launched the direct-to-consumer version than we did for the past three years combined."
Truliant Federal Credit Union of Winston-Salem began using SimpliFi's software in 2006 to help members set savings and retirement goals and plan their life insurance coverage.
Steven Joiner, the president of Truliances, Truliant's investment and insurance subsidiary, said offering the software online could help SimpliFi attract more bank users.
"They were trying to get banks to begin with, and they didn't get a whole lot of takers," he said. The consumer version will give the technology "traction in the media" and could draw "more attention" to the concept of banks and credit unions providing online financial planning tools.
Giving away the technology is not incompatible with trying to sell it, Joiner said; in fact, the two strategies are complementary.
He views the software as an entry-level product that can spur members to think about their financial needs. The software is not a substitute for a human adviser, he said, and the application has increased interest in Truliant's advisory services.
"We find that by and large, most of our members do not know we are in this business, so this may awaken them to a larger view of what a credit union can do," he said. "Ultimately, a software tool can only go so far. It can give you all you need, and it can give you all the numbers and all the whys and wherefores, but I think it takes the human touch and being face-to-face with someone to actually get people to do what they need to do best, which is plan their financial lives."
Other providers of financial management applications are pursuing dual strategies. In recent years Geezeo Inc. and Wesabe Inc. have introduced Web sites that provide free personal financial management applications. Hoping to create a new source of revenue, this year both companies began marketing white-label versions of their software to banks and credit unions.
"Having a consumer product has helped us out considerably in getting the traction we got" with banks and credit unions, because it gave Geezeo a reputation, said Peter Glyman, a co-founder of the firm. When financial institutions research a financial management technology provider, "what's in their face all the time is what's in the news," and what is in the news is what consumers are already using.
Marc Hedlund, Wesabe's co-founder and CEO, said the free version of his software has shown banks that there is consumer demand for the technology. "Financial institutions are conservative. There's no question that people" at banks "are not looking to be the very first person to do something."
Having a consumer site also increases news coverage, he said. "We get a lot of press that mentions us and drives not only consumers to us, but also potential financial institution customers to us."
Link said offering a free consumer version of SimpliFi's software allows his company to test features that can be offered later to banks and credit unions.
The free consumer version might eventually be able to generate some revenue from referral fees, he said, by recommending specific financial companies where users can open savings or retirement accounts. These features may become available in the fourth quarter, he said. SimpliFi's online version attracted 3,000 users in its first month.
Truliant is one of the five SimpliFi customers that also use Intuit Inc.'s FinanceWorks personal financial management software within its online banking site. Joiner said there is no overlap in what these products do, though offering a product like FinanceWorks can boost enrollment in SimpliFi's product.
Intuit's product is "telling you where you've been, not where you're going," Joiner said. "To some degree, it's forecasting your spending patterns and things like that, but it's not helping you retire or get your kids through college."
SimpliFi is built in such a way that it could use FinanceWorks to get accurate data on a consumer's earnings and savings, which can ease the enrollment process for the financial planning tool, he said. Truliant began offering FinanceWorks this month, and though it plans to establish a connection with SimpliFi, it has not yet done so, he said.
Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group LLC of Boston, said SimpliFi picked a good time to more aggressively drum up interest.
Adding a direct-to-consumer element may have provided a small boost in any environment, he said, but "the biggest reason they're getting the boost in interest from the FIs is there's just been this huge interest in managing your finances, thanks to the economy."
Consumers no longer trust banks as much as they once did, Shevlin said, so banks are responding by evaluating which products and services, including budgeting and planning tools, they can give consumers to improve that relationship.
Another factor is an influx of younger banking customers, he said. "Gen Y-ers are a whole lot more interested and aware and already thinking about investing and savings for retirement than boomers were at that age."
Other online tools that purport to provide financial planning advice "are so overly simplistic it's ridiculous," Shevlin said, and even though "I don't want to put SimpliFi in the same bucket," Truliant is wise to consider SimpliFi's limitations in its strategy. "How many other banks and credit unions can do that, or know to do that? It's a pretty smart recognition on their part."
Mark Schwanhausser, a research analyst for Javelin Strategy and Research of Pleasanton, Calif., said online financial planning tools have some inherent limitations.
"I think their heart's in the right place," but "I just don't think financial planning is something that works well in a self-service model," he said. "There's so much about financial planning that is in hand-holding and in looking at somebody's eyes and seeing where they're saying something and they're not following through … that's hard to do when you're just an interface on a computer."
The Truliant strategy makes a lot of sense in this context, he said. "If you can graduate it, if you can get people started, that's terrific."