Jon Xu and the rest of his soon-to-be cofounders were leading project teams at Microsoft when they first noticed the problem.
It was toward the end of the 2000s. Microsoft was making them all a lot of money. But not all of their Microsoft colleagues were great at navigating the complicated world of stock option vesting schedules, 401(k)s, and all the other stuff that goes into turning money into even more money.
That young-ish crowd was shying away from getting a traditional financial advisor, instead looking for an app that didn’t then even exist.
“None of our friends or colleagues could get a guy to manage their money,” Xu says. “There wasnt really a great solution.”
And so, Xu and his friend and fellow Microsoft employee Bo Lu came up with what he describes as an “awesomely complicated spreadsheet” to automate the process of figuring out how to get the biggest bang for your buck. It was a hit in his social circles.
Realising that he was on to something, Lu decided to go into business for himself. Xu, Jared McFarland, and Clyde Law signed on as cofounders, and in 2010, the San Francisco-based FutureAdvisor was born — an app that helps millenials manage their money.
FutureAdvisor made a big name for itself as an early pioneer in “robo-advising,” the technology of automatically advising on assets to buy and financial decisions to make. Prestigious Silicon Valley institutions like Sequoia Capital and Y Combinator invested $21.5 million in FutureAdvisor over its lifetime.
Now, approaching a year since the acquisition, Xu says that things are going great, and that FutureAdvisor is doing things under the BlackRock umbrella that it could never before.
Life after BlackRock
“We have been, in most cases, getting the best of both worlds,” Xu says.
In many ways, FutureAdvisor is still run like a startup, Xu says, and from its original office. That includes “table stakes” things like ping pong and video games in the office, alongside the occassional retreat to California’s Lake Tahoe resort area. FutureAdvisor’s culture, which again skews younger, remains intact, against the more old-school BlackRock backdrop.
That’s important for attracting top talent, Xu says, but it’s also just a sideshow from the really exciting part of getting to work under BlackRock.
From Xu’s perspective, the really good part is having access to BlackRock’s “awesome toys,” like their tools for data analytics, risk analysis, and testing new features for customers. The whole team has had a lot of fun incorporating them into the FutureAdvisor tool.
“We’re sort of kids in the candy store,” Xu says.
The real thing that makes FutureAdvisor’s status as a startup-within-a-huge-company important, Xu says, is its ability to try new things, “learn quickly,” and report back to the BlackRock mothership. It’s a mindset that BlackRock encourages, Xu says — BlackRock is still run by its founders, and still retains some of those “entrepreneurial roots.”
It actually reminds Xu of the days before Microsoft was founded, working in small groups as part of a bigger one.
“Having worked at Microsoft, it was sort of like that at Microsoft,” Xu says.
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