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MICHAEL: “Well good afternoon, Joe Duran.”
JOE DURAN: “Hi, how are you doing, Michael?”
MICHAEL: “I’m doing well. I’m looking forward to chatting with you today for the kickoff of a new podcast series we’re experimenting with. Joe Duran, Unfiltered, I think is what we’re going to end up –"
JOE DURAN: “Well, I think it’s you and me, unfiltered, both of us. You did that interview for, I think it was your 100th episode and we got such a massive response, at least on our end, from people who listened to it who really enjoyed your perspective, my perspective, and we’re both so engaged in what’s happening in the industry and engaging with individual advisors and how they compete that it just seemed like a logical idea for you and I to get together, and once a month or so, talk about things that are happening in the industry, innovation, entrepreneurship, and just share ideas that help advisors to win in a really competitive world.”
MICHAEL: “Absolutely, and there’s, to me, sort of this spectrum. There’s this stuff we got to do in our firms just day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, to keep the business running, chugging forward, hopefully in a general growth trajectory, and then there’s that phenomenon that every now and then you have to step out from your four walls, you have to pick your head up and look around at the broader industry and try to get a sense of what else is going on out there and, “What do I need to be cognizant of and thinking about and trying to respond as a business owner, looking at the long term?” And, in my head, I think that that’s where we’re going to try to have some of these conversations. Let’s be mindful of what’s happening in the broader landscape, while we also spend the rest of our days just trying to make our advisory businesses work and serve our clients well.”
JOE DURAN: “What happens for most advisors is they are so busy working in the business all day, they don’t have time to think about working on the business and it’s not just the innovation and the change that’s happening and what the competition is doing, there’s also things like, “How does your role as an advisor -- how does it need to evolve? And how does your role as a leader need to evolve and change how you work with teams and how do you grow in scale?” So, I hope we will get to cover over the course of the next year really interesting topics that while somebody’s at the gym and they’ve downloaded this on the phone, that they’re able to learn something that would be interesting and helpful.”
Chapter 1: Discussion on innovation
MICHAEL: “And, to me, a great place to kick off the discussion is that topic you just raised: “that word ‘innovation.’ It’s a fascinating word for me. I know you live at the center of this, you’re doing InvestmentNews’ Innovation Summit, we try to, I hope, create a few creative and innovative things in our Nerd’s Eye View platform in some of our businesses, but I feel like innovation itself is sort of this strange, fuzzy, word to me. This combination of, “Can you create something new?” and then even, “Can you figure out what to do with it?” To me, the case and point example of fascinating innovation is always that when you actually go back and look, the original digital camera got created by Kodak, the people who made the original analog cameras, and they didn’t know what to do with their own creation. And then 10 years later, a few other people started figuring out how to make digital cameras as well and ultimately destroyed and dismantled the Kodak business with digital competition. It wasn’t even just that they got disrupted by innovation, they actually came up with the first version of it and couldn’t even figure out what to do with it. There’s this two-piece thing that goes with it like in our industry, maybe it was Robo-advisors showed up and said, “We’re going to disrupt the industry,” and well, now we’re six years in and we’re clearly not disrupted. There are 0.05% market share. But they’ve spawned this whole change in the industry. We’re all treating technology differently. So, they made a neat thing, it wasn’t the disruptor they thought it was, but now everybody still wants to adopt this technology.”
JOE DURAN: “It reframes the way the market interacts with each other. I think the way to think about innovation is it’s really just new change. Rather, that innovation is a complicated word because many of us automatically associate technology with innovation, but that’s not always the case. Innovation might be a new way of going to the market. Innovation might be an interesting way to service clients that is different and fresh. I worry about using that word ‘innovation.’ It is the right word to use but it is the one that’s often lumped in with robo and technology, when in fact, that’s one aspect but there are many ways to think about it and I like to think about innovation as change. Something you’re doing new that is different. And most advisors, unfortunately, they will go through one major innovation or technology change or a shift in how they work every two to three years; just one. That’s just not enough in this environment. And that one thing might be a new website, it might be a new positioning statement, it might be that they bring in a new partner, it might be that they change their fee structure, but typically most independent firms, they do one major new thing every two to three years, and that’s simply not enough with the pace of change that’s happening in the competitive environment.”
MICHAEL: “I think that’s a challenging gauntlet to throw down right there, to say, “Hey, you’re changing one major thing in your business every two to three years. It’s not enough,” like I guess the implication, “You’ve got to change something big in your business every year.”
JOE DURAN: “Well, let me frame it a different way, Michael. You think about 10 years ago in our industry and what you to had to do to be competitive 10 years ago. And 10 years ago, you could probably make it by doing an investment portfolio at a reasonable fee. Today, to be competitive, you have to do financial plans, right? You cannot be an independent wealth manager and not be in planning, but 10 years ago, you could probably be all right just wrapping an ETF or mutual fund portfolio for 1%, you were fine. But, today, that’s not true. So, there’s an underlying premise which is, “What was good enough a decade ago is not good enough today,” and if that is true, then what’s good enough today will not be good enough 10 years from now. And so what you all get to decide, we all get to decide, “Where in the change cycle am I going to be? Am I going to be one of the early changers and take advantage of where the market is going or am I going to be dragged along, kicking and screaming at the end, where I no longer have a competitive advantage? I’m simply making a change to just maintain my position because if I don’t, I’m going to lose all my business.” It’s an interesting question about where do you fit in that cycle of innovation and are you early, middle, or late? We all have to evolve or otherwise you don’t have the business, as you see with J.C. Penney and Sears, right?”
MICHAEL: “But, I do have to ask, playing devil’s advocate a little -- Certainly, I think, I completely agree with this 10 year cycle of what we’ve seen, the magnitude that we’ve seen, just doing diversified portfolios on an AUM basis was still pretty different 10 and 15 years ago, not so much today, so now financial and we’re all moving up the line. But, that did take like 10 or 15 years to play out. So, is it enough, if I’m at least proactively changing something every two or three years? Do I have to change something every one year to keep pace on 10 year industry changes?”
JOE DURAN: “It’s enough if you just want to keep up. That’s the truth. If you want to just keep up, that’s probably enough. You will be -- Again, the one thing that you change might be keeping you current but then all the other aspects of your business will be behind. Look at a simple example like CRMs. That’s something that nobody likes to change, right? So, you’re probably going to be quicker to adapt to your client deliverable but leave the CRM thing, and in the meantime, your competitors are using CRMs now to drive their client engagement in a digital way that is far more engaging than something you can do. And so, it depends, you know? It’s very hard if you only change one thing every two to three years. That means that you might only get to your CRM every eight to ten years, and that might be a little bit too slow. So, again, you will be fine. You’ll be alive, you’ll survive, but you’ll be getting dragged along with where the market is going rather than shaping it and then having the competitive advantage.”
MICHAEL: “Well, and I do think you make an interesting point there, that there’s so many different parts of the systems of what we do as advisors. I’ve got an operations component that’s maybe got my CRM system and my portfolio counting and trading systems, I’ve got some sort of business structure overall, I’ve got advisors, I’ve got partners, I’ve got human capital dynamics of the people I hire and develop, I’ve got the deliverables I bring to clients, which is both what I do for them, how I frame it, what technology I use -- planning software and otherwise -- to deliver it, there’s a marketing function about how I go and get new clients and hold the firm out. Even if I’m only changing one -- I’m being proactive enough to change one major thing every few years, by the time I rotate all the way around that entire system, you make a good point, that any one area may not get changed much for 10 years, and 10 years for one area is too long of a change cycle.”
JOE DURAN: “And, honestly, you cannot have a growth company and not have an innovation mindset. We’ve doubled our firm since we started 14 years ago, every three to four years. In 2015, we’re on 10 billion; we’re on 23 billion today. That requires not just change in one area, but you’re having to evolve all aspects of your business because you only need to do something new. You don’t need to do it if you’re not growing because everyone can keep doing the same thing and just kind of evolve slowly. If you are intending to grow, change is a requirement. The challenge is, it’s not that the people on the team don’t want to do things better and evolve, it’s often that the founder, the lead advisor, is far more conservative about making those changes. They actually are the ones holding people back. They’re like, “Well you know, I kind of like how we do it.” I really think the enemy of innovation is good enough that you go, “Well, you know, it’s been good enough,” and the advisor, of course, would rather take home the pay than invest in the business, if it’s not got immediate, fairly tangible return back, and that can be very stagnating for the staff and then the staff don’t feel excited and then they stop innovating and do their regular 9-5 and do what’s necessary and be ‘good enough.’“
“And so, it really starts at the top. You have to be a mindset of, ‘good enough might be good enough for a lot of people, but not for us. And we have a simple expression at our shop, “We will be better every Friday than the Friday before,” as a company, as individuals, and as a department, we will be better every Friday than the Friday before, and that is something that then every department, whether it’s HR or whether it’s technology or anywhere else, they’re going, “What are we doing to improve?” But, that has to start at the top. As you know, a bottleneck is always the top of the bottle and the mindset of the principle really establishes whether you’re going to approach change as an asset or as a liability, and that mindset is really important. Innovation, what I have found and I’m sure you’ve seen this too, Michael, is when you go and speak to an advisor, they either are going to view it as an asset or a liability to have to change. I’ve always viewed it as an asset and therefore I want to do it first because it gives me a competitive advantage. However, most people, I’d say as many as 85-90% of the advisors in the industry, view having to change as a liability, as a cost that they have to go through.”
Chapter 2: Follow The Leader, On The Bleeding Edge
MICHAEL: “Or, I think even just an uncertainty. As you said, I’m going to invest into this thing, I don’t know if it’s going to work out.” There’s plenty of people out there, whether it’s in the business context or virtually any other that says, “Some other poor soul like Joe Duran can be on the bleeding edge and find the 9 failures that lead to the 10th success, I’m just going to see what the 10th success is and then I’ll do that.” I know the B school term for this is ‘being a fast follower.’ I don’t need to be bleeding on the cutting edge, I’m just going to at least make a transition when something new seems to be emerging that has some traction. I’m going to go do that quickly thereafter but I don’t need to be on the bleeding edge of it.”
JOE DURAN: “And that’s usually true, by the way. You are seldom rewarded for being on the bleeding edge. We have always bleeding edge, but I recognize but for most independent advisors, they don’t have the resources of a really big firm with a really big balance sheet, but you still want to be in a mindset that you’re aware of what’s happening so that you can bring those efficiencies as soon as possible. I will say one thing that I’ve noticed: advisors tend to overestimate the cost of change and underestimate the cost of not changing. What I mean by that is they assume that doing nothing comes with no additional cost and that’s kind of like saying that if you have an apartment building and it’s upgrading the sinks and not upgrading the fridges, that doesn’t have a cost, but it does. It means you’re going to get less in rent. It means that the underlying value is diminishing every day. That’s the challenge is that most advisors, the status quo is good enough, they view the cost of making changes as very disruptive and expensive, they usually over estimate it, and they definitely underestimate the cost of doing nothing. Doing nothing means you are becoming less competitive every minute you do nothing, because someone’s out there out-innovating you, and that’s another way of thinking about it. Are you increasing the value, the underlying, raw value of your business or is someone else making you less valuable because they’re becoming more competitive than you are? And that’s, for me, an interesting question that a lot of people simply don’t ask.”
Chapter 3: Comfort Zones
MICHAEL: “To me, for better or worse, we kind of have this -- I was going to say crutch but maybe crutch isn’t the right word for it. We have this comfort zone that we get into as advisors because the industry just has, right or wrong, a phenomenally, some would say ludicrously high, retention rate. Clients have a lot of inertia. A, I hope most of us are serving our clients well, so they stick around, but the truth is we’ve all seen plenty of clients that stick even with bad advisors for an irrationally long time because there’s a lot of inertia out there. And so, I think it leads a lot of us to this point of saying, “I’m serving my clients well, they’re sticking around, why do I need to deal with all this stuff that Joe’s talking about? I may or may not show up in time to at least follow on when a change is coming but I’ve already got high retention rates, no one’s tearing my clients away from me,” -- Even as I look out in the landscape, the firms that struggle with innovation don’t tend to have retention problems until they’re really far behind. They have growth problems. It gets harder to get clients.“
JOE DURAN: “No, no, no, no. No, no, no, absolutely true. That’s exactly -- You’ve got exactly how I feel about it. You do not need to innovate to maintain your clients. Why? Because the average advisor understands their clients better than anyone else and the clients are going to stick with it because nothing has changed about the reason they originally picked the advisor and most clients have picked the advisor because they like the person and because they trust the person, and that person now after a few years understands them really well. Not as well as others might, but they don’t want to bother going through the aggravation of finding somebody new. So, they’re like, “You know what? I trust them, I like them, they know me. That’s a good enough reason to stay.” So there is -- That’s not going to change. They’re not going to fire you. Now, again, you’ve got to be competitive, you’ve got to deliver good service, you’ve got to have a reasonably active -- but, they’re not going to switch up, exactly.”
Chapter 4: Sears v. Amazon: Competitive Comparison
“If you want to grow, then everybody coming in is going to compare you to what is available in the marketplace because they’re not your friends yet, they don’t know if you can be trusted, all they can do is look they way you would if you go to a store and say, “Does this product look better than this product?” And that is when, if you have not invested in the client experience and how you interact with clients -- If you’re not digitally native, if you don’t have the experience that they expect when they look at your competition, you’re not going to grow, and that is where you see firms that do not spend on innovation do not grow. It’s much harder for them to grow because, first, they don’t attract a younger, hungrier advisor because they’re not up to date with what’s available -- In the end, clients themselves, when they’re looking at the universe of choices, they say, “You know, this still looks like a pretty stodgy firm that looks like every other firm. I can’t tell the difference.”
MICHAEL: “Is it fair to say then that there’s this fundamental link between innovation or shall I say need for innovation and desire for growth? If you’re at a good point, you’re not that concerned about growth, you maybe don’t need to be as concerned about innovation. The more focused you are on growth, the more you need to care about the innovation discussion as well, because if you want to keep growing, you can’t just hold onto your clients, you have to be one step ahead of whoever the newest person is who’s doing whatever the newest thing is. You’ve got to always be beating whoever that is, if you want to keep growing, and that’s a constantly changing competitive opponent for whoever is coming in latest, doing the latest new thing that you’ve got to keep pace with.”
JOE DURAN: “Yeah, let’s use a simple example, all right? So, look at a firm like Sears. Sears was, at it’s time, when it first started, a true innovator and a pioneer. They used to send out those catalogues, they were everywhere, they were a massive retailer, everybody shopped at Sears, everybody had Sears products. They then did something also revolutionary 80 years later. “We’re going to create brands that we own but they’re our brands, Craftsman and all the rest, and have those be brands that are part of Sears.” And so they were one of the innovators in that way. What they didn’t do is when the saw Amazon coming and they saw people going retail and they saw Target coming, they never thought about, “Okay, how do we maintain our competitive advantage?” and there were very loyal customers who were used to Sears and they very quickly stopped being loyal to Sears. Now, that’s not going to happen in our business because we’re not a transactional business, which is helpful. But, to grow, in order to evolve, anyone going and looking at Sears or J.C. Penney and comparing them to Amazon and now Wal-Mart, lost. And Wal-Mart is a great example of somebody that saw what Amazon was doing, saw what had happened at Amazon and Sears, and said, “We have to become digital, too. We have to be bionic. We have to be a combination, take advantage of our footprint, naturally, which Amazon doesn’t have, so we can actually curbside pickup, but we’ve got to be really local in the digital -- we’ve got to be on the client’s mobile phones.” And so, you look at a firm like Wal-Mart, they at least understood, “We’re going to have to invest to out-Amazon Amazon, and we’re going to do that by taking advantage of our very large footprint.” There’s no reason J.C. Penney couldn’t have done that or Sears couldn’t have done that. In fact, they’re usually at a more convenient location than Wal-Mart. But, they never thought of it. They never looked at the marketplace and said, “We don’t have some entitlement to this marketplace.” The marketplace evolves.”
Chapter 5: The Success Paradox: How Do We Beat Ourselves?
MICHAEL: “One of the things that struck me when you had joined me on the Financial Advisor Success podcast was you’d made this statement -- you can correct me if I’m mis-recalling it -- something to effect of once a year you sit down with your executive team and essentially pose to them the discussion, “If you just got hired away by a competitor, what would you tell them about how to disrupt and beat United Capital? How do you beat us and then take whatever they say will kill you and then go do it before someone else does it to you?”
JOE DURAN: “Yeah, so we do that about every about two years. It takes it a while to make it all real but we sit down and say, “How do we beat United Capital?” My management team is tossed with, “What things would we do if we were going to compete against our firm to beat it?” And, again, it’s really just applying a mindset, a growth mindset, because again, what happens is most advisors start in the business with a growth mindset but then they get trapped by their own success. They call it the ‘success paradox’ where they say, “All the things that have put me in this place -- the reason that I’m successful is all the things we’ve done to get here and I can’t change that because I’ll be putting that at risk.” However, really innovative firms ask a different question. They say, “Why aren’t I twice as successful? What am I doing wrong to not have been twice as successful?” That leads you to a completely different conclusion. To one answer, you’ll always say, “Well okay, good enough, don’t need to change it.” To the other you’ll say, “My goodness, these are the things that have stopped me from doubling in size, yet again,” and what you’ll realize very quickly is you can’t get to a different place by doing the same thing. That is why, again, if you’re going to grow you have to have a growth mindset and you have to have a mindset that is, “This isn’t good enough. It’s good enough today but it’s not good enough for tomorrow, so let’s make sure we are always pushing ourselves in a disciplined way.” And again, when you’re change, you’ve got to have -- When you grow, you’ve got to be willing to change but you also have to have courage because there are going to be bumps, even if you’re not at the bleeding edge but just behind, and then you’ve got to have the discipline to follow through when you have setbacks and you have to not punish people for making mistakes. Those kinds of things are very hard if you have been in a place where you haven’t really been doing a whole lot of innovation for some time.”
MICHAEL: “So, as we said earlier, I feel like when I look at the advisor landscape, we can kind of divide up in sort of the innovation funnel -- there are a couple of firms that, frankly, are already hyper early adopters. That is their mindset and mentality. They’re going to keep doing their thing. Everybody else kind of follows on at some point, either a little later or a lot later. Some of us are, frankly, not growth oriented, got a good practice, make some good income, going to spend more time with my kids and doing things I want with my spouse, and I’m good. It really is good enough. And then, there’s a group that, I feel like they’re in the middle. “I know I’m not as fast and innovative and active on this stuff as I’d like to be but I’d kind of like to be and, yes, I would like to grow more. I’m not done. I don’t really want to settle where I am here but I’m not really sure what or how I’m supposed to be doing different than what I’m doing now to get to this thing that you’re talking about.”
Chapter 6: The Fin Tech Map
JOE DURAN: “It’s overwhelming. You go to the custodial annual get-togethers and there’s just a huge ballroom filled with technology that all of it looks great but it all kind of looks redundant and what do you do and where do you start?”
MICHAEL: “We got so much stress about that I made this Fintech map that I wanted to create so we could just show, “Here’s all the different options,” and try to help people navigate a little and now I’ve found that a lot of companies are using our Fintech map as an illustration of how ridiculously overwhelming all the choices are. It was meant to be helpful, not a punchline, but it sort of came out that way because that’s the state of where we are right now. “Hey, I want to innovate.” “That sounds great.” “Oh, awesome, 372 choices of software. What the heck am I supposed to do?” So, where do you tell people to start?”
JOE DURAN: “So, here’s the way -- Look, I think you start with the consumer. Everything has to be built around a very simple idea, “Does this make being my client better?” So, that’s the first thing I would do, is to say, “Look, ask yourself,” because that’s where you’re going to get the highest rate of return in any innovation you have. Start with the consumer. Does this make you better at serving them? It’s a lot easier to think of technology as far as reducing costs and operating costs, but in fact, the way I think about it, even with back office innovation, “Does it allow me to spend more time with my clients? Does it serve my clients?” and the first and most important question, “Of what use would this innovation be for my clients and how important is it?” The second is, “Does it serve and help me to answer the question that I’m looking to solve for my clients?” I find this amazing but so few advisors have sat back and said, “What is the problem we’re trying to solve for our clients?” and this will be, I think, one of our next follow on podcasts that we do. It’s a very interesting question because very often advisors have not actually said, “What am I really being paid for? What’s the problem I’m solving?”
Chapter 7: Help Clients Live Richly
MICHAEL: “So can you give me an example of this, just to set some context? Again, we’ve mostly got successful firms, I feel like we’re solving some problems for our clients.”
JOE DURAN: “We are but for most firms, if you’re an investment-centric firm, the problem you’re solving is putting your money to work for you in the best way possible. If you’re a financial planning firm, almost certainly the question you’re answering is, “How do I make sure you don’t run out of money?” That’s the question that almost every financial planner is doing is, “I’m just going to make sure, whatever you choose to do, you don’t run out of money.” The way we’ve approached this, we said, “You know, since everyone’s answering that question, we have to answer it too, but how about we answer a different question which is, ‘How do we make sure you make the most of your money?’” That’s how we came up with this idea of ‘live richly.’ Because, if you are answering a different question than your competition, that’s an innovation. That is something that makes you unique and different.“
“And then, you can from that frame, think about what technologies and systems help us to solve that problem. So, what I’ve found, at least for me, so few advisors are asking themselves, “What problem are we solving?” So, they went from investment planning to doing real financial planning but they didn’t frame or change their lens about, “How should we be doing things differently?” if that’s the question we’re answering. And, for us, United Capital, we help people live richly and we do that by making sure you make the most of your money, which is a different question. That’s how Money Mind and HonestConversations and all these tools we have in FinLife. They are an outcropping of answering a different question than everyone else. So, I think if you have to start, that’s where you start. You say, “What can we do to answer a different question than everyone else is asking and what technology would allow us to do that in a new way?” And if you think about a firm like Betterment, the question they were solving is, “How do we let people invest, index wise, in the cheapest way possible, without any human interaction?” That’s the problem they were solving and they solved it in a very unique way that, again, no one else had thought of answering. So, that is for me, where you start and frankly, everything else reinforces that. And then, every once in a while, you have to ask, “Are we asking the right question? Are we solving the right problem? And do we need to evolve because the marketplace has caught up with us?”
Chapter 8: Blue Ocean, "The Great American Road Trip"
MICHAEL: “It reminds me of the book Blue Ocean Strategy and they talk about the growth and the success of Southwest Airlines, which was a similar phenomenon. When Southwest got started, it was sort of the heyday of airlines. There were a zillion different airlines all doing their different things, all competing against each other, all trying to basically outgrow and out economy of scale each other and the famous founding story of Southwest was that they didn’t want to come in and compete against the rest of the airlines because they weren’t really sure that they could win. They came in and said, “We’re going to compete against the great American road trip.” That was what they were aiming for and they said, “Well, first of all, if you want to compete with the great American road trip, you have to be cost competitive with the cost of a road trip,” not just what other airlines charge but what does it cost to drive your family across country, “and the great American road trip does not go from Dallas to Atlanta with a layover in Chicago, it goes in a straight line. So, if you want to be relevant in competing with the great American road trip and get them there in the similar time, you have to fly there direct.” And that was what led to this system of, “Let’s make all these tiny point-to-point connections to all these different airports that are low cost and fast turn around because we’re not really just trying to compete with other airlines, we’re trying to compete with people not driving,” and that was the market share they capture and they made the airline industry bigger. They didn’t just take away from the pie, they made the pie bigger because they brought in new flyers who weren’t going to fly until flying was actually easier than driving their family cross country and that was what broke them through.”
JOE DURAN: “And that is what all great innovative companies do, right? Where the Steak and Shake that said, “Hey we’re going to do a fast food burger but it’s going to be like a gourmet burger,” or anyone else. All of these great companies, Netflix that said, “We’re going to give you entertainment but you’re going to get it where ever you want, however you want, and you’re never going to have to return movies.” There’s just these companies that learn how to evolve beyond where everyone goes, and that’s not necessarily just technology, it starts with an idea. So, hopefully, this has been really helpful for people and we’ll have a lot of topics over the course of time. I really enjoyed this discussion, Michael.”
MICHAEL: “Likewise, I hope everyone did, as well, and maybe kind of take that away as your item to be thinking about. What problem are you solving for clients? If you put that one fundamental question out there -- You said it great. In the past it was, “How do I make my money work in the best way possible?” that was why we did this diversified asset allocated portfolios. How do I make sure I don’t run out of money? That’s been our traditional financial planning. UCU put your line in the ground to say, “How do we make sure that you make the most out of your money?” which starts thinking in a different question. So, for all the advisors that are out there listening, what’s the question you’re answering?”
JOE DURAN: “Well, thank you and we look forward to having a new one in another month and Michael, thanks, a lot of fun.”
MICHAEL: “Absolutely. Thank you, Joe. I’m looking forward to it.”
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