Ep. 216: Turbo Tax for Annuities: A New Approach to Holistic Wealth Management with Bobby Powell, iPipeline

Come on in and sit back and relax. You’re listening to Episode 216 of the WealthTech Today podcast. I’m your host, Craig Iskowitz, founder of Ezra Group Consulting. This podcast features interviews, news and analysis on the trends and best practices, all about wealth management technology.

My guest for this episode is Bobby Powell, VP of Distribution Sales at iPipeline. Bobby started out in the industry working at LaserApp at back in 2002. He stayed there for 17 years working his way up to VP of Sales and Marketing before iPipeline acquired the company in 2019. So he has been at the same company his entire career we just don’t see that much anymore. Congratulations, Bobby. That’s a commendable stay there, especially the growth that iPipeline is having in the past five years. And of course, the growth LaserApp had in their time as an independent company was quite impressive.

Some of the things we covered in this interview a lot of different topics, mainly around annuities and technology to support that. So with the rapid growth of annuity sales, we talked about advisors technology needs, we talked about a chassis platform and more broker deals and RIAs selecting software to act as a chassis that they can build the rest of their tech stack on top of and then trends in esignature.

But before we get started, let’s talk about tech stacks. At Ezra Group, we’ve seen tech stacks of hundreds of RIAs and let me tell you, most of them are loaded down with tech debt. So you shouldn’t feel too bad about yours. But let’s face it tech debt is like a giant anchor, holding back your business growth. If you want to free your firm for exponential growth, you should run, not walk to our website EzraGroup.com and fill out the Contact Us form. Our experienced team can evaluate your current tech ecosystem, deliver targeted recommendations, optimize your existing systems and operations or run an RFP and help you implement new software to take your firm to the next level. You can take advantage of our free consultation offer by going to EzraGroup.com.

Topics Mentioned

  • Making New Account Opening Easy
  • Demystifying Annuities
  • Like Turbo Tax for Annuities
  • The Evolution of Broker-Dealer Tech Problems
  • Demystifying Annuities Take
  • The Evolution of eSignature

Episode Transcript

Craig: Hi. I’m stoked to introduce my next guest. It is Bobby Powell, VP distribution sales at iPipeline. Bobby, welcome, man. Thanks for being here.

Bobby: Thank you Craig, morning.

Craig: Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening and good night. Where are you calling from?

Bobby: Southern California. So I’m usually the good morning guy on the call.

Craig: It is still morning. That’s right. And I’m in New Jersey, and we’re actually having some nice weather although you probably wouldn’t think so because it’s in the low 50s.

Bobby: Sounds good. It’s not too different from us. I think we’re going to get four more days of rain that are coming this week.

Craig: Well that’s not a bad thing for where you are. Excellent. All right. Let’s jump right in. Can you give us a 30-second elevator pitch for iPipeline?

Making New Account Opening Easy

Bobby: Sure, sure. iPipeline is the platform on which you can process life insurance and wealth management end to end. So we’re the one spot where if you’re a broker dealer or wealth management firm or a BGA, you can process life, annuities, securities of all types, brokerage, advisory business, all in one shot.

Craig: And that is incredibly useful. It’s very difficult to do those things, and more and more large broker dealers, enterprise wealth firms rely on technology like iPipeline to get their business started. That’s the first point of contact that every client has with their wealth management firm is the onboarding.

Bobby: Typically. I mean, that advisor experience too but that client experience is your normal kickoff point. It’s your first your first face with the maybe the broker dealer the organization has with that end customer is oftentimes the tech.

Craig: It’s usually that. That’s a very, very usually the first thing they look at and that’s the time you want to make a good first impression. And what’s surprising to me, at Ezra Group we’ve been in the wealth management space for almost 19 years, but the digital account opening started to become a trend around 2015, 2016. But there are still some enterprise wealth management firms that haven’t switched to digital account opening solutions, and for the life of me can’t imagine why they’re dragging their feet and do they even realize what benefits are missing out on?

Bobby: It’s not simple, right? I mean, it’s it’s a pretty complex thing when you think about wealth management firms and how similar but how different so many wealth management firms are, you’re trying to digitize a business and all of your channels. It’s not as simple as hey, we process advisory business and we custody with Schwab or Fidelity so we’re just going to automate that. You’ve got to automate everything.

Bobby: So you’ve got a lot of different business channels you may do brokerage, advisory, all these other business lines or business channels. that need to be automated and hopefully in in a sense, that is kind of congruent or simple or straightforward for both advisors and clients to interact with. I think for a lot of these firms, it’s not a real simple decision, right? It’s something you have to be dedicated to as a firm, you have to decide this is what we’re going to do. This is what we’re going to jump into because firms have to have a lot of kind of introspective when they get into the process because they have to look at what they do well, what they don’t do well today and if they’re going to change those processes, or keep them so there’s a lot a lot of decisions, I think in the middle there to make it that maybe muddy the waters for some of these firms a little bit. (See Digitizing the Back Office of Wealth Management Firms with David Knoch, Docupace)

Demystifying Annuities

Craig: Indeed. Total US annuity sales. Let’s talk about that. They surged last year to over $300 billion, a 20% increase from the previous year. But annuities are still complex and underutilized, especially in the wealth management space. But more and more firms are offering annuities either by acquisition, acquiring insurance companies or launching their own products. So what recommendations do you have to simplify the overall experience for advisors, offering annuities and for clients in purchasing them?total annuity sales

Bobby: I would say for starters, I think annuities have actually in our space have grown probably considerably more than that. Just looking at our our own customer figures. We have customers that have grown well over 100% in the last two years and their annuity volume, their duty transaction volume. With the change in interest rates, annuities have exploded. I would say that a lot of firms haven’t necessarily been prepared for that explosion, as you could probably imagine. Usually the tip of the spear is usually the tech provider and then everybody else follows so as a tech provider who’s who’s lived in the annuity space a long time, we’ve solved a lot of annuity problems for customers.

Bobby: I think you said before annuities are they’re inherently super complex. You have different regulations. They can be securities and insurance products both, they can be regulated differently. You have lots of different types, lots of different training requirements around them. You have advisors trying to handle the duties you have broker dealers trying to handle annuities. There’s a whole lot going on just in the annuity space in general a lot of things that have to be addressed in order for you to properly support annuities. (see Digitizing Delivery of Annuities for Broker-Dealers with Rich Romano, FIDx)

Bobby: I would say where that starts is with what’s out there already. A lot of the legwork in this space has already been done and most people don’t realize that. So the carriers for for probably, I’m going to say at least 10 years, the carriers have all of the annuity carriers have standardized, how annuities are processed, how they not only create rules, defined rules, but how they make them available to all the broker dealers and all the distributors out there. So there’s already a whole standard set on how annuity should operate. The trick is taking that taking all those rules, taking everything that already exists, and doing what we call democratizing the annuity process and just make it simple for that end user.

Bobby: It’s like TurboTax, right? It’s like you need that simplified approach to annuities that wizard based approach as opposed to being handed a stack of annuity forms and trying to figure out okay, well, is this everything I need? What am I what am I missing? You probably wouldn’t be surprised at what advisors tried to create when they’re handed a stack of annuity forms, they effectively invent their own annuities trying to process an annuity application. So it’s, it can become pretty tricky. So it’s one of those things where relying on what’s already been done kind of standing on the shoulders of giants goes a long way in the annuity space. (See Advisors Hate Annuity Fees with David Stone, RetireOne)

Like Turbo Tax for Annuities

Craig: I like the Turbo Tax analogy. Everyone understands that. You want a wizard to walk you through because not every advisor understands annuities in the same way. So making it easier for them to do this is a good thing.

Bobby: I think too, they look at it in the context of securities. So when I process securities business, securities are relatively simple, at least in terms of execution. Maybe planning is more complex, but the actual execution it’s been relatively simplified, standardized, etc. Annuities it is far more complex you will so if I put myself in the advisors shoes and think about okay, this is how I process my check in app business or my advisory business or my brokerage business. So this is how I think annuities are going to work. It’s probably not going to work that way. In fact, I know it doesn’t work that way, there are a lot more layers to it. So it’s understanding the delta between the two.

Craig: Yeah, exactly. And how does that work and then understanding the Delta and quantifying it and being able to deliver on that is something a lot of firms have tried, but have not been able to deliver on. In 2017, which is already well, five years over five years, iPipeline acquired LaserApp one of the largest providers of form filling, workflow software for advisors. What are some of the trends you’re seeing around these kind of tools, and what are the problems that broker dealers enterprise wealth manager firms are having around this area?

Bobby: Good question. Time has flown and LaserApp has a special place my heart because I started there in 2002. So that was getting my feet wet in the wealth space with IBDs RIAs, registered reps, clearing firms, custodians, etc.

Craig: So you just passed your 20 year anniversary?

Bobby: I did. Yeah. Last year.

Craig: Congratulations!

The Evolution of Broker-Dealer Tech Problems

Bobby: All in wealthtech surprisingly, I always say I was born in wealthtech will I die and in wealthtech. I found my swim lane. But yeah, so in ways the broker dealers and advisors, their problems have or their needs have, have evolved somewhat, and then haven’t evolved at the same time, so the problems that are out there still exist in large part today, the solution providers, the solution sets, the way we solve them have have changed somewhat but thinking back to how, I started right after the.com bubble, right?

Bobby: So you had the market was down firms were not buying technology advisors were buying their own tech and the market picked up and in 2008, with the housing bubble things, broker dealer spending and tech spending in the way technology was used and adopted wavered off again, and then pick back up and stair step back up. What’s been put into the space I would say ebbs and flows over time and the in the waxing and waning of firms ebbs and flows over time. But the needs don’t necessarily change a whole lot. (See 7 Tips for Selling Software to Broker-Dealers)

Bobby: So when you think about how broker dealers are solving problems today, how they’re processing business today, how they’re supporting the different business channels, those business channels haven’t changed. The options haven’t changed how assets get allocated within those different options may change. So there used to be a lot of checking business now there’s a lot more brokerage and advisory business and as of late, there’s a lot more annuity business. But the the business channels that the broker dealers are trying to support haven’t changed a whole lot. Regulation hasn’t changed, or the regulatory landscape I would say hasn’t changed a whole lot, five years ago was DOL and what is old is new again DOL is new again, again. You’re still solving the same regulatory challenges and so forth. But, again, things haven’t changed a whole lot in that regard.

Bobby: Now, tech advancements out have definitely have definitely grown you’ve got a lot more tech out there. It’s interesting because you the same way the industry ebbs and flows or expands and contracts I feel like tech expands and contracts. You have a lot of get a lot of point solutions back in the day that consolidated into platforms, and you have big TAMPs like the Envestnets and Orions of the world and in iPipelines of the world where you have you perform a lot of functions, but the now you also see the regrowth or re innovation of new small point solutions growing and spinning back up again as well. So it’s just this constant, again, ebb and flow of tech in the space and that kind of grows and moves with the space. (See The 3 Biggest Pain Points of Platform Consolidation with Molly Weiss, Envestnet)

Craig: We’re certainly seeing that way things are changing and the way the tech is evolving. I get asked this question a lot. It was I was just at the Tiburon conference and on a panel and someone asked, which do you recommend, build or buy? And do you recommend all in One solutions or point solutions, best of breed? And the answer is, it depends. There’s no right answer to those questions. Because every firm is different. Every firm has different deliverables, or different differentiators and different client bases different products. They’ve started out with different tech they’re in different stages of their growth cycle.

Craig: All things being equal, we recommend to buy an all in one, because you’re the biggest problem we see with firms is integration and data. And the more point solutions you try to integrate, the harder it’s going to be the more it’s going to cost you the more tech people you need. So for most firms, they don’t have that capability in house. So the old ones best of breed, the old ones, buying them, or renting them is usually the best solution. But once you grow a bit and if you feel you’ve got a good tech team and you’re willing to grow your tech team and invest in the technology, then best of breed is out now on the table. And there’s more and more points solutions. If you look at the Kitces-Ezra Group Advisortech Map that Michael I work on, there’s over 440 applications there now they’re rolling by between six and 12 every month it’s a so it’s it’s a smorgasbord for advisors has never been a better time to be advisor if you’d like to using technology.advisortech map

Bobby: I always like to speak to the Kitces map I always like the word of the highlighted, although the ones that are highlighted as pink or whatever color is but this shows you all the new innovative like the newer entrants into the market. I always like seeing what’s new there because I feel like that’s to me is like your KPI or your indicator of there’s growth of something happening in an area when you have that influx of new providers, that’s always exciting to see.

Craig: Yeah.

Bobby: I’d say to you, you’re talking about talking about build versus buy. And one things we talked about a lot internally we before I joined iPipeline, I’d never worked much with wirehouses we always work heavily in the independent space. And that warehouse model is, it almost comes across as ultra simplified when you look at it in terms of a tech stack perspective you look at things work one way they work well they are hyper optimized, but it’s because it’s it’s a simpler way to do it because you don’t have to. You don’t have to account for all of the different everybody being different with with all different kinds of needs and requirements, etc. (See Finding the Cure for Fragmented Data in Legacy Wealth Management Systems)

Bobby: So when you’re talking about buying versus building IBDs and RIAs have, although they have similar needs there’s a vast list of differences too, that can kind of lead them down the buy versus build path. So things aren’t so cut and dried and that’s always been one of the core challenges of of IBDs as long as I’ve been in this space is trying to figure out how much they can handle how much they can how much how much independence they can handle or support and on supporting kind of the costs associated with it. But being independent is has costs associated with it. Supporting all of these various systems and at the same time trying to rationalize or wrangle everything into into something that you can monitor keep your hands on keep a handle on etc. So,

Craig: Yeah, it’s an ongoing process. And we’ve seen a lot of firms struggle when they if they’re, for example, they sell very well in the RIA space and then they want to move into the IBD space or from RIAs to enterprise, any enterprise wealth management firm it’s not easy. It’s something we specialize in helping wealthtech firms do that because it is difficult to know what functionality you need with the enterprise firms, what their sales cycles are like, what their buying decisions are like, it’s very different. So as you of course you know that those spaces are very different. The word when it comes to looking at the LaserApp in general. Have you seen the way firms are using it change over time? (See Making Conscious Technology Decisions with Doug Besso, HighTower)

Bobby: Yeah, I would I could put this in a bit of a broader brushstroke, too is is as as a broker dealer or an or an RIA firm, one of the first things you got to kind of figure out is what is my chassis look like? What is going to what am I going to? What is my start point and then everything else builds on top of it. And when I look at LaserApp versus some of our other offer other offerings or other solutions, when I look at kind of that downmarket wealth space LaserApp is oftentimes the chassis that’s either either the, the IBD are the RIAs, okay, this is kind of the chassis on which I run my business firms will usually get to a certain point where they say, I need a full blown account opening system where I’m onboarding clients, and I’m moving money and doing other things, and I need a fully wizard based fully integrated approach. So they will, I don’t wanna say level up, but they will change their their needs are typically broader. So then they will migrate to that level.

Bobby: I will say that how LaserApp is used today probably hasn’t changed a whole lot in that regard. It has not changed in terms of how it integrates to all the different CRMs and all the data sources and being in it being a solution that integrates basically with everything to support the independent space where I will say is that we’ve we’ve spent a lot of time and effort and energy plugging into the different custodians being able to work directly with them to support the the down market as it changes over time. If you think again, if you think about these different lines of business or channels of business, they get product processed by broker dealers or by RIAs, you have to look at what the simplest way is for them to process their business is it a wizard is it digital forms, or something in between a hybrid of, some type of a hybrid approach. But I will say that kind of looking at LaserApp kind of more as a chassis is has been one of the biggest changes I’ve seen over time is thinking about it more in that in that regard, as opposed to a point tool or point solution. (See How to Build an RIA Tech Stack That Gets Results)

Craig: I would agree and that comes with the the the landscape of being a successful application and building out more functionality as you go over time where you move just so I worked as a form filling app to now where a full workflow solution that as you said, you can build you can be we can build your your applications around and that’s something we also get asked a lot is what is going to be the hub, if you’re an RIA what should be your hub? There’s no right answer to that. It’s sometimes it’s the portfolio management platform if they’re portfolio management. Focus where investing your choosing investments and building models is their core deliverable core differentiator then, that their investment analytics or their portfolio management become their core platform. If they’re more financial planning focused than defense planning application becomes the core platform with the more sales and growth focus on the CRM will be more. So are you seeing that or what are you seeing when it comes to the using laser app as a chassis? What type of applications are they plugging into?

Bobby: I would say it kind of depends too on the size of the firm to me, that’s one of the big markers. So you talked about kind of the profile of Burma where they’re where their focus is, but it’s also where they’re at in their growth trajectory, right. So if I’m a small RIA firm, I may rely very heavily on my custodian to deliver most of my tools to me just because I’m not ready to take on these different pieces yet and maybe my processes are not mature enough yet or whatever else. But but typically a smaller firms that that are maybe still simpler in the in the business, they process, they may rely more heavily on their custodian to provide just whatever whatever their custodian is going to give to them or or kind of subsidized for them. (See How I Built My RIA Tech Stack, with Derek Notman)

Bobby: I think, again, is that as that firm grows, and their needs or their needs are more complex, that’s when we see them settle in and say, okay, am I going to focus on integrations with other parties? Or am I even going to take the next step up where I become the kind of the developer or the creator of my own ecosystem? Am I going to be concerned with with that overall end to end experience for the client? Or am I still just focused internally just on on gaining efficiencies and making things opening accounts very quickly, easily simply, or am I looking to get this all the way out in front of the client to take it to a whole other level? So that’s kind of how we usually kind of look at them as is the size of the firm also, like you said, the the nature of their business.

Bobby: The long and the short of it is is they we connect to a myriad of different solutions out there. CRM is usually your first spot to go because when you’re opening accounts, there’s a lot of information that’s typically in the CRM that you can leverage to open accounts. But then there are other kind of adjacent pieces as well that you may need to incorporate into the process. So again, usually when a customer migrates from let’s say LaserApp, and then jumps up to our IFS platform or our account opening platform. When you get up to that level, that’s usually when you when you incorporate even more downstream integrating parties, workflows, etc. So just again, depends on on how big the client is and where they’re at in their own client or their own advisor journey.

The Evolution of eSignature

Craig: We know that for a fact, every firm is in a different state, and your firm is in a different growth pattern. So how they use their technology is very different. Do you want to talk about esignature a little bit? I know that I believe LaserApp has built their own esignature solution. Why did they do that and what are the benefits from having that in this technology chassis?

Bobby: Sure. If you’ll humor me and let me tell you a real quick story, though, about esignature. Had to be maybe 2007, 2008 I met with American Funds and this is when we were trying to gain esign acceptance in the space and nobody was, firms just weren’t accepting a signature BDs wanted it, nobody was accepting it or very few firms were accepting it. Met with those guys and they said hey, what do we have to do to get you guys to esign enable your forms? And they said we need to see customer demand and it planted a seed in me that we’ve got to go do something about this. (See A $1 Billion RIA Tech Stack – Hollow Brook Wealth Management)

Bobby: So at the time, we were hosting our annual broker dealer conference. So we created the first esign petition. We had 150 broker dealer executives sign the esign petition, and then we took it back to Cap Group, American Funds as well as all the other fund companies, annuity providers, etc to illustrate that demand to get esignatures accepted in the space.

Bobby: Now, granted, it took a number of years after that to get the majority of firms esignable. But I would say the majority of firms today do accept esignatures. Maybe to your point though, although esignatures are accepted, there’s still some lack of clarity. I think when it comes to being a BD or an RIA like who in my downstream accepts esignatures, what’s the best one to use, what sighting methods are approved, am I doing SMS? Am I doing knowledge based authentication? Am I doing a blend of both which esign providers do I use? So there’s a whole lot of variables a whole lot of things to understand with that.

Bobby: I would say in its simplest form, looking at the lines of business you process today whether you’re a BD or an RA we today it simply put at LaserApp every every firm that has their forms on the platform, either elects to support esignatures or not, and they have to do it agnostically. They can’t say yes to DocuSign, no to SignX, yes to AdobeSign, whatever, they throw it across the board. So that’s something that we’ve done a good job of saying have toeing the line on. So once firms approve it they approve it for everybody. So that way you as the consumer, the beauty of the era and say okay, I approve esignatures and then you will inherit esign privileges for all of those firms that have their forms in the platform today. So again, whether they’re clearing firms, custodians, etc. So you will inherit all that you’ll be able to esign, whatever forms you would like in the library that are approved for esignature. (See Advisor Group’s eQuipt is a Quantum Leap in Onboarding Technology)

Craig: It is impressive. And there’s also an issue with a lot of custodians that have their own version of Docusign. And it took a while there, it’s getting better, but there’s still some issues when it comes to one of the some of the bigger custodians forcing their wealth management firm clients to use their version of Docusign. Now there’s some exceptions and then they’ll allow you to do it to request approval to use your own Docusign. But bit of pain if you ask me.

Bobby: 100% agreed. And there are some specific ways to address it. Our support team has, been inadvertently doing a sign support for maybe not inadvertently but they’ve been doing esign support for a lot of years around the various esign providers to help bring clarity to advisors because it is unclear if you if you are dual custody or multi custody. The way each of your custodians handles these signatures is I guarantee you it’s absolutely different between them.

Bobby: One of the things that we’ve done to help mitigate or address that is we’ve structured the system such that not only can you have a different esign method, you can also have even have a different esign vendor per custodian because they are so drastically different so think about it like if I’m a broker dealer and today I work with two different custodians and I do business and all of the lines of business. I may settle on my preferred esign solution and I can mandate that across my rep base, but when they process business at custodian number one custodian number one doesn’t accept an esigning provider. So we can we can allow them to use a different esign provider when they work with custodian number one. Custodian number two may accept it. They may accept our esign provider but they may require a different type of authentication so they may require KBA when I’m SMS, so we allow for that as well.

Bobby: So again, it’s that line from being very extensible, but also trying to keep things simple at the same time. So that I think we’ve struck a pretty good balance there in something that is inherently more complex than it needs to be. Esignatures are supposed to be sampled. They’ve been approved that since 2001, I think or 1999, longer than I’ve been in in the space they signatures that have been accepted.

Craig: We’ve both been in this space quite some time, Bobby, but speaking of time we’ve run out for this episode. Can you please tell the audience where they can find more information about iPipeline?

Bobby: We’ve got a brand new website, iPipeline.com. Very intuitive, very simple, very straightforward, which hopefully resonates with all of our products as well. So love for you guys to come check it out.

Craig: Bobby, thanks so much for being here, man. Appreciate it.

Bobby: Thanks, Craig.



The Wealth Tech Today blog is published by Craig Iskowitz, founder and CEO of Ezra Group, a boutique consulting firm that caters to banks, broker-dealers, RIA’s, asset managers and the leading vendors in the surrounding #fintech space. He can be reached at craig@ezragroupllc.com