Founders Talk – Episode #87

Building an investment platform for everyone

with Joe Percoco, Co-CEO of Titan

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This week Adam is joined by Joe Percoco — the Co-CEO of Titan, a premier investment manager for everyone. Titan is an investment company, a media, and a tech company, all rolled into one. Mid last year, they closed a $58 million Series B round led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) at a $450 million valuation. They currently have $750 million in assets managed and more than 35,000 clients.

Why should Titan exist? In Joe’s words, “Wall Street ignores everyday investors, and caters only to the ultra wealthy. This divide doesn’t sit well with us. So, we built Titan.” On today’s show Joe shares the journey, the why’s, the how’s, and the sequencing it might take to get to a $1 trillion of assets managed.

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Joe, welcome to Founders Talk. I’m a big fan of what you’re doing at Titan, I’m a big fan of sticking it to the man, basically, which is kind of I think what you’re trying to do here with Titan, right? I mean, Titan - you were in the game at Goldman Sachs, long history, we’ll go through it all, but you really wanted to open up the idea of investing for everyone… And crypto is a big market you’re launching into now, but just restructuring how I would say the world looks at access to gaining wealth through investment. Would you agree that’s kind of what you’re doing now?

Probably not too far off. Yeah, honestly. It was just pretty eye-opening that there are two entirely different worlds… We almost like use the restaurant analogy here internally - there’s like a back of the restaurant and the front of the restaurant. Once you see both, you just sort of can’t accept that only certain people get access to one. In particular, I’m from a small town in Jersey… So yeah, Titan in a sense was that pirate ship to set out to sea, to go attack the new world sort of thing.

At the risk of doing a terrible job of explaining what Titan is, can you give me kind of just a precursor? It might be going back to how you began, but just help me understand and help the audience understand what Titan is today.

[04:07] Yes, we’re a new-guard investment management platform. So to speak very simply, people will give us their hard-earned savings or capital for us to manage in our investment products. We have four or five… We have a large-cap growth one, focused on identifying blue chip compounders, we have an opportunities one, focused on rising stars. We have a crypto product we just launched, focused on identifying the best crypto assets ripe to outperform, and so we’re going to keep launching new products in different asset classes. Ultimately, what the mutual fund was for the baby boomer generation, we aim to be that for ours.

What’s the problem with access to this kind of wealth-building tooling? Maybe go into this side where – I guess to some of your history really with Goldman Sachs, and just kind of seeing behind the, like you’d said with the restaurant analogy, like getting to go beyond that door where the food comes out. You’ve got to go behind the scenes to build wealth for the ultra-wealthy, I’m sure. What did you see, what did you come back with, and how did that change for you to build what Titan is today?

Yes, so I worked at Goldman. I was also in the hedge fund industry for a bit of time; the thing to do when you come out of Penn - I went to Wharton - is go work at these prestigious investing institutions. And so it was just night and day, quite frankly. When you consider if you’re just a normal investor, and what are the things you’re told to do with your money - there’s usually a long list of things on some financial blog, you’ll probably hear the term diversified ETF, they’ll probably ask you a lot of bespoke questions, you’ll leave with a shoulder shrug, and then maybe you’ll ask your friend or family what I should do, and you’re probably in a hodgepodge of things, different flavored ETFs, maybe you buy a few stocks here and there… And that’s sort of like the core retail experience, is what I’ve described, that I went through personally.

If you’re able to get a ticket in the back of the restaurant, it’s just night and day. You’ve got effectively like a waiter coming up to you saying, “Just sit down. I’m going to get you access into the best of the best; hedge fund vehicles, venture funds, private equity. You tell us – do you want the chef’s tasting menu? Great. If you want to go meet the chef, let’s go behind the scenes.” It’s just an entirely different ballgame.

It’s just so ironic, just like – for example, some of these big institutions, some of these big Ivy League institutions will write economic PhD papers and say, “Here’s how you should invest your money. It’s the academic proof way.” But then if you ask the university itself, the thing that actually has billions of dollars in an endowment. “So are you taking that approach with how you invested that money?” and it’s the exact opposite. They’re putting it in all the elite vehicles. That was just a dichotomy of that I just found it insanely, insanely frustrating.

How do you do it differently then? In a world that seems very gatekeepy, how do you do it differently? How do you get special access? Or how do you go and be the waiter and give access to these special chefs’ menus and whatnot?

Yeah, feel free to slow me down wherever you need to, but… Because of technology, you can actually change certain categories… In particular, like wealth management. Let’s flip the script. Why does someone who creates a business, an elite business, say “I’m going to do it for accredited investors or institutional investors only.” So talk about the supply side, the people who are saying, “I’m going to go to build a business for the back, forget the front.” They’re not irrational. The people in the front have a lot of money, a lot of hard-earned savings, that add up to trillions of assets. So why are they building the business to the back? There’s two primary reasons. One is the cost to serve the incremental customer in the back is way less, i.e. I can go get one $10 million check, or I can go try to manage thousands of $1,000 checks. I’m just going to do the one check, because - great. Obviously, it’s way harder and you have to try to pitch a lot of people to get that one $10 million check. But if you do it, your cost profile is way different. You have one effective customer, instead of 10,000. And then the second is from a legal standpoint, there were easier constructs way back when to just do it for accredited and institutional investors only.

[08:18] So with the advent of the mobile phone, what you can do is basically gather together millions of people at once and enable them to organize and do things. For example, a very colloquial example, a million people at once can go like a Nike shoe drop on Instagram. That’s effectively a million people organizing to do a singular action, which is go heart the latest Nike shoe drop. Imagine half a million people organized at once to produce $10 billion and say, “Hey, Mr. Hedge Fund Portfolio Manager, you currently manage $5 billion. Delete your job. We’re going to pay you as much, but just come do it for regular Americans.”

So with technology, you can organize people en masse at a much lower cost, and create a much better experience. So all this sort of stuff that for right reasons and wrong reasons was locked - let’s call it the back of the restaurant - can finally be unlocked.

Yes, because I mean, how often do you go to a restaurant, despite the style of menu or cost on the menu, can you actually go into the back of the house as a patron? You can’t.

You can’t go back and talk to the chef. Maybe you can tell your waiter, and say, “Hey, can you have the chef come to my table? I want to thank him.” Maybe that’s a possibility, and they’re still coming to the front of house to talk to you, but you’re not going back there to see the secret. You’re not going into the cooler to see how they’ve got the chickens marinating or whatever. You’re not going to get to see the secret sauce of how you build the recipes and how everyone’s just working. It’s locked away. It’s for a certain type of person who can see that, essentially.

Yeah, and it’s so philosophically different. It’s like, the way we approach a normal person and say, “What should we do with your money? We’re going to buy the entire supermarket; every product in the supermarket, good or bad.” That’s effectively what a diversified ETF is. “We’re going to buy every company in the US economy. We’re just going to buy it, and bet that the US grows.” If you are an accredited investor and institution, what they say is like they walk up to you, as you walk into a supermarket, “We’re going to actually try to pick out for you what are the best products that you should own and create that basket instead, and we’re going to do one in the United States. We’re going to create a China basket for you. We’re going to do a Latin America private equity basket.” This just sort of investing acumen for the reasons I mentioned earlier, just was never accessible by everyone. And now, mobile technology is enabling access to many, many different things that historically have been locked off. Our view is that wealth management is one of the last guarded bastions that we can unlock for a lot of people in a way that was historically locked.

Yeah, I’d say even platforms like TikTok seem to spread ideas really well. Do you play in that arena at all? Is that sort of like even social media mobile? I’m sure you’re talking about mobile apps and mobile access, but do you speak to the TikTok audience by any chance? It seems to be a very – at least my perspective, and maybe that’s my usage of TikTok, is just like really about growing my motivational streams and information streams that help me better who I am; not just entertainment with cat videos for example. People think it’s just teenagers on there dancing, and it’s just not. There’s a lot more of information on TikTok. I’m just curious of your perspective on how you leverage that kind of en masse opportunity. Like, that many people, that kind of virality.

It’s critical. Across any business, like in the history of humanity, one of the most important things you need to get right is distribution. It’s sort of like, who cares if you produced the best product in the world, if you cooked the best apple pie? It doesn’t matter. Sort of like if the tree falls in the forest and no one’s around, did it make a sound? Same thing as a business. If you build a good product and you don’t have distribution, do you even have business?

[12:06] So I pay very, very close attention to where audiences are en masse, because that is what’s called distribution. Those are the – what was the town square, what was the OG amphitheater where people came together and discovered services, discovered ideas, debated things, dialogued, that has just shifted online.

So one needs to pay close attention to where are these digital counting squares forming, because those are the best ways to enter dialogue about the products and services you have to offer. A lot of brands are now going beyond just, “Let me pay a TikTok influencer to shout about my brand. How do I build an authentic connection in this digital Town Square in a way where it cuts through the noise and say, “Hey, TikTok community, this isn’t just another ad for you to scroll through. This is an authentic product that could add meaning to your life that’s worth paying for. Click to discover more about it.”

We’re obsessing over that stuff inherently.

It seems so. And the reason why I asked as it seems like the kind of business you’re building is - and correct me where I might be wrong or where I might be right - an investment business, with really smart people behind the scenes that know how to invest and know how to lead funds across the different products you have. You have sort of this media side that can be blossoming for you, and then you also have the technology. Like, you’ve got to have those three things in your business. To share the message, you’ve got to do different research, you’ve got great content out there, so you’re a media business, so to speak… And you want to be able to be authentically connecting to the audience out there, so you want to put these great investment folks behind your products out there, sharing their ideas and sharing how the crypto market’s moving, or how there’s a dip, so buy, or whatever it might be. You want to have that heartbeat mentality. So, investment, media-ish business, and tech business. Is that–

Spot on. I’m going to push it even further, because you’re absolutely right, which is that – let’s use a use case of let’s say like you had $100 million. Where do you put your money? Where do you get your content? What technology are you using? Because you got like the three pillars spot on; you would put your money with some of the world’s best financial vehicles; the content that you get to find out how that money is doing - you’re not going to mainstream TV, to turn it on to see what the S&P 500 did. You will literally call up that person and you’ll say, “Hey, it’s Adam. I have $10 million with you. Please tell me exactly what’s going on and why.” In that phone call exchange, content is produced that’s offline. It’s a black box. It’s just “you-specific”, with you and the portfolio manager, whoever’s the running point on that product, and then the tech is whatever desktop tool you log into to say, “Okay, here are my PDFs,” where he’s communicated a quarterly letter. And what we’re positing is every part of that can be made better.

So notice how the core bridge that I mentioned, that you had access to, that maybe the rest of the world didn’t, was where you put your money and where you get your content from is the same place. Whereas someone, who’s let’s say in like a diversified ETF, or like trading your own stocks - they go to a platform, put their money in it, buy and sell stocks, and they have to go to a different platform to try to piece together what’s going on. Whether one of these news publishing sites, Wall Street Journal, turn on CNBC… And they basically say “Does this CNBC article about COVID driving the markets down 5% apply to my Apple stock here in my brokerage account?” Whereas someone who has a direct line to the portfolio manager can say, “Yo, is this COVID announcement that the Fed just published, is that actually going to affect Apple?” By which I’d call back, “No, Apple’s a compounder. They have pricing power. It maybe will hit some blips, but like in reality, you should just hold on tight”, and you just get access to a whole different world of content. So my core job is to build a product like that, en masse, using technology, for everyone.

[16:07] We didn’t go too deep into your background, which normally we might do in Founders Talk, but we’ve got barely an hour with you today, so I want to kind of laser in. I know of your history and you’ve got some experience in that space, so maybe you’ve met some people, but how did you get to the point where you knew enough to wield these specific toolsets - investment media, tech, mobile? How did you learn to wield that to what you’re doing? How are you doing it?

My mother’s a software engineer. I’ve been watching her write code, and ship products ever since I was young. I accidentally went to the best finance school in the country, and then, I happened to be privileged enough to get exposed to all these different worlds that I’ve been describing. So whereas when I first started Titan, I couldn’t quite articulate the business plan, I knew a lot to be dangerous. I said, “Wait, I know enough about mobile tech. I know all the different dichotomies in investing, and I’ve studied the subject myself for several years. I’m blanking, and I’m getting question marks on why the world works the way it does.” And then pitched Titan to 100 venture capitalists, I got rejected 100 times, and they gave me a lot of the same responses.

At that point, it required a deep moment of courage and thought, where I looked at all the reasons why they said I was wrong, and I said, “I actually think I might be right.” It was a contrarian opinion, where I had to go get data fast. It takes humility to be an entrepreneur. Literally, there’s no intellectual right or wrong; it’s who brings back data. So I tested the hypothesis with a v1 product, one single flagship product in a mobile app, where a manager could send a piece of video content explaining what’s going on. Sooner or later, the product was growing by a million dollars a week. Organically, no marketing. It began to open my eyes that the problem is even bigger than I expected. But to answer your question directly, it was part domain expertise, part leap of faith, in a way.

So you brought back data. So you got told a lot of times–what were some of the most, what was the overarching “This is wrong”? What was the main thing being told to you that made you think “You know what? I think I’m actually right, let me get some data.” What was that response from them?

There was a number of different pieces that they’d mentioned. One was that the end-all-be-all state was all humanity was going to put their capital in just a diversified passive ETF. There are certain players that do that really well, and that’s just intellectually incorrect from a capital market standpoint. To put it differently, if everybody hit Pause and just put their money in a passive ETF, the capital markets would break. The price of Google would then track the exact price of a way worse company; like, literally, markets wouldn’t function.

Because you need the word of mouth, right? Isn’t a lot of investing, a lot of trading done upon like behind the scenes people saying, “Oh, did you hear about this? Did you hear about–?” Like, if it’s passive, there’s nobody talking, right? So if there’s nobody talking, there’s no emotion. Is that what you mean by that?

Yes, sort of. So let’s say like, I ran a bad company and you ran a good company, Adam, and we both went to the NASDAQ and said, “We’re both going to IPO.” You deserve to get your money at a way higher price than I do. If everyone invested passively, we’d both just get the even amount of chips. We both get the same. So capital markets ultimately play judge and jury on companies. “Okay, the good companies - we’re going to give you capital very cheaply, off to the races, huge valuation, stocks up and to the right. Bad companies - we’re going to sell your stock until you prove us wrong. So your stock price is going to drop down, signaling you have stuff to work on.”

If everyone just decided to invest in a passive ETF, everything I just described is non-existent. It’s zero. Everyone gets the same blanket amount of chips. So that was one piece.

[20:04] Another piece was that the end-state humans were that humans won’t want–this was before Robinhood took off. And it’s funny to remember this world, where people were telling me, “Folks don’t care about their money.” They were like, “People want to just put it on autopilot and never think about it.” I was like, “You’re going against a century of data.” Like, just take a look at stock exchanges across the world, take a look at TD Ameritrade and E*TRADE. Just by looking at those businesses, you’d sense a core human trait that’s been around since the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, where we could trade the Dutch East India CO. I’m like, “You’re shorting 400 years of human behavior saying they’re never going to care about their money again.” So they said, “Okay.” But ultimately, you have to have humility and say, “Okay, these people are really smart. They see a lot of companies. Maybe they’re right, but if anything, it just should inspire me to go get data even faster.” Like, if you have arrogance in the room, you could end up getting blindsided.

And you said then the data you went and got was actually shipping a – would you call it an MVP? What would you call it at that point? You said a v1, I think, right?

Yes, MVP. The best data is how people vote with their actions.

Yeah. And so the action was you put up a mobile site out there, you put some sort of business structure in place, enough to attract maybe a friend, I don’t know, somebody, a co-founder to be the fund manager, so to speak, of this flagship initial product, and no marketing, and it grew, you said by a million – at what clip? And this is a million investment, right? These are assets held.

There was a time where we were growing like 15% a week, which means you’re doubling roughly almost every month. At first, it’s a couple hundred thousand. That’s like, “Okay, we’re approaching a million.” Then it’s like, “Holy moly, we’re approaching $10 million.” And then it’s like, “Wow, we’re approaching $50 million.” And like, “Wait, we just crossed $100 million.” And meanwhile, I know of folks, peers, who are in that back of the restaurant world who are struggling to cobble together $5 million checks. Meanwhile, we look down at our mobile app and it’s sort of the little mobile app that could, and it’s just accumulating millions and millions of assets without marketing. What was our takeaway? It was that we’re sitting on a nerve; there was an uncapped nerve.

And the way we would describe it is, there’s a lot of stuff out there with people’s money, like “Come do this, come do that.” People largely try it. “Okay, I’ll download this app. I’ll download that app. My uncle told me to buy this stock, I’ll try it.” But they largely want – they are very protective of their hard-earned savings.” I will take some part of the savings and buy that stock my uncle told me to buy or that my friend told me to buy, but I’m going to keep the majority, I’m going to keep the lion’s share of these earnings over there, in my corporate account for my employer, or my T. Rowe Price account I inherited from my family, because that’s the safe one. That’s the one I can trust. That’s the one I think is super-smart and thoughtful. But I’ll mess around here and there.”

So the nerve we felt we were tapping into was a willingness to move the lion’s share of one’s money for the first time. People are giving us that pool of capital, not the small. So on average, our clients give us north of $20,000 per account. And you took a look at other consumer FinTech apps, usually it’s in the thousands at best, if not a couple hundred bucks. So inherent about a product - if you can nail it, the whole trust base coefficient, it unlocks way bigger outcomes.

What do you think unlocked that larger check writing? Like, if I’m willing to give you not hundreds and thousands, but 20,000-ish on a given account, what was it that you were doing that communicated the safety, and - maybe not de-risking it, but maybe even explaining the risk differently? How do you capture that trust? What did you showcase?

[24:07] We turned a black box industry that had probably been a black box for a century, into an open box. What I mean by that - if you think about the mutual fund, which is the hallmark product of everything I’m describing, it’s finding products. If Adam gives money to mutual funds, the mutual fund will receive it - let’s say it’s a large-cap mutual fund - it will invest it in blue chip stocks. But the issue is that the mutual fund doesn’t talk back to Adam. It’s a black box.

I get prospectuses and stuff like that from whomever. I’m like…

It’s a thick doc you get in the mail, and you immediately go, “Great! Thanks, mail. Into recycling.” [laughter]

Pretty much.

So that’s why I’d say it’s a black box. You maybe go to CNBC to figure out what’s going on. You’ll see, “Okay, I’m down 10% this month. Let me try to figure it out myself.” And then when you’re down, you’re like, “I’m going to re-evaluate this whole product I meant to begin with.” You sell your money out of the mutual fund, and go with whatever some other person recommends. What we’ve at scale solved is the ability for Adam to go call that portfolio manager directly.

So the same technology that LeBron James uses, Kevin Durant says, “Hey, fans. I’m here in the Olympics. Look at me.” You can give those tools to a manager to say, “Hey, Adam. You’re down 3% in your portfolio this month, but don’t worry, that’s just because of noise. FYI, it’s all looking good from an economic standpoint. Hang on tight.” And now we’ve effectively built trust at scale. One single video message can be shipped to a million people at once.

I saw the video of your co-CEO, which I do have questions on as well, and co-founder, Clay Gardner. It was the Q4 update. I haven’t watched the full thing, but it just seemed like an iPhone set vertical. Someone like even TikTok might express, like 0 you know, not a horizontal, but a vertical video.

So very “I just shot this on my iPhone. Here’s an update.” It’s got good lighting. Sure, okay, cool. It’s a little produced in that fact. Like, you care about the aesthetics, but here’s an update on quarter four. Here’s what happened. Here’s why it happened. So that’s the secret sauce, is just communicate… Right? The black box is non-communication.

Yes. The secret sauce is quite simple, which is enable this manager who used to manage their service, a diesel truck piece of technology called mutual fund, give them the same career tools that we give everyone else to communicate with people at scale. Let’s say Adam wanted to create a crypto product on Titan. Here’s the unmasking plan, which is opening up the gates 0 not just our products that we launched on Titan, but giving the tools to anyone who wants to create a financial product. Ditch the mutual fund, ditch the ETF, come use a Tesla.

[28:15] Adam can now say, “Okay, I want to create a crypto product.” Let’s say he wants to go after niche crypto-asset tokens that others haven’t yet seen yet, unlike Bitcoin. It’s like, “Okay, he’s going to create.” He’ll go into the backend of Titan, in the manager portal, say, “Okay, here are the six crypto assets I want to trade on behalf of clients.”

And then when something happens, it’s like, “Okay, I open up the backend Titan app. I want to record a video, because crypto is up 20%. I want to send a message to all my clients.” I swipe, I literally hold my phone, I record it, I swipe, it gets shipped.” It’s like a very, very simple proposition, and for some reason, we’re the only people who were like, “Guys, this whole idea of us accepting black box financial products is pretty bad. We should collectively try to just delete the whole thing.” Just like bad for like four different reasons.

Which is bad for progress, right? If I’m too scared to invest and I keep all my money – let’s say I’ve got more money than the FDIC will even insure in my bank, literal bank, because I’m too scared to invest it in. Too much fear because of this black box or uncertainty in markets, or just, I have to assume and make the market choices myself, and I’m just a podcaster, let’s just say; you know, like, speaking of me. I watch the markets, I pay attention to tech, I’m aware of these things, but I’m not a financial expert by any means. I’d love to have one that walks alongside me in processes, but there’s not really many places I can go to find that where I can trust the scenario.

So for the progress of the world at large, my money just sits; it doesn’t move. And what happens when money doesn’t move? No one wins, right?

Nobody.

The market doesn’t change. The economy doesn’t grow. Things don’t get built. I don’t get to lend that money to an innovator or to a tech entrepreneur who builds the next big thing… Nothing. It just sort of stagnates and stays still. So you’ve enabled the market to sort of get a peek behind the scenes, and I guess that’s okay if you’re making good bets on their behalf, right? So how do you get that part right?

Yes, the piece that you described, which is - ultimately, the creator of a financial product should be able to talk to customers. And then, like mutual funds, there are good ones and bad ones over time.

That’s how we weed out, “Alright, you claim to be good at managing capital, but you’re not. Goodbye.”

Do you have people coming to you then building products on your behalf? Is that a part of the Titan platform that I’m not aware of? I thought that you had your own products…

Correct.

These are founded by you all. And are you saying there’s a separate silo where any normal person that’s not accredited can make their own fund and attract people to put in money? Is that what you’re saying?

Not yet, but that’s the core plan.

Do you think that’s the direction you can go?

If you summarize one of Titans missions, it would be to render the mutual fund obsolete.

So there are factories… If let’s say you wanted to create a product where you say, “Hey, I can manage money for people”, you basically have two options, or three options. You either go create a mutual fund, you go create an ETF, or you go create a hedge fund or other fund vehicle. A mutual fund is a piece of technology, an ETF is a piece technology, a fund vehicle uses a piece of technology called PDF and wires Those are the three factories offered to you. Which one do you pick, Adam? And then Adam is like “Well, they all have clear cons. If I’m institutional, I’ll go with the fund. If I want to go normal Americans, I’ll create an ETF or a mutual fund.” What we’re saying is that menu is sub-optimal. You’re picking between just oldsmobiles. Let’s go add a different factory on that menu.

[31:49] Launch a product on Titan. You can do it more cheaply, you can stand up the product in a 10th of the time, your customers aren’t anonymized, and you can actually communicate back to them. We have a lot of people who currently manage their product off the mutual fund and ETF, reaching out to say, “Hey, can I launch a product on Titan? Can I launch my product on Titan?” Because you guys know your customers, you can talk to them, you can trade faster. There’s none of this red tape. It’s just entirely a holistic, better experience. Because right now, instead, I have an ETF, and then I try to go build an audience on Twitter to solve for that content thing, but you guys just merge it all together.

So that’s the master plan.

Because I guess the future, the direction I see things heading is that you’ve got just a lot of - and I hate to use the word, but “influencers”, essentially, right? If social media is the square we all meet at, you’ve got people they’re congregating and you’ve got certain influencers who have massive appeal to a wide demographic. And it could be people who love squirrels; a very, super niche thing. And maybe they have an investment fund around their knowledge of squirrels. I don’t know. Is that a thing? Can people do that? Is that what you mean, kind of like, it gets ti that niche where if I’m aware of a very micro-chasm of the world - squirrels, ants, insects, like an entomology world, for example - I can pitch products in that space? Like a PetSmart, for example, or whatever it might be?

You could. The next question beyond building a better factory is making sure you drive the thing to the right place.

And that’s where we take a step back. We’re the manufacturer, we will provide driving instructions. But if you choose to create a fund dedicated to your investment in squirrels, your customers in the backseat of the car might decide to get out of the car, and go get in a different line.

Maybe I chose a bad analogy. What I meant was more just like niche. I’m just an influencer in the space, and I’m talking to a niche sector of the world, and I just chose squirrels because, you know, squirrels are shiny objects, and people chase those down.

But just the fact that I might have insights into a very specific world…

Go for it.

…are you saying everyday people can – people that don’t have investment backgrounds can come to Titan eventually in the future, and create their own investment product?

It’s a very interesting question. The answer to this is, it’s sort of like - let me answer indirectly, and it’ll make sense why. Let’s compare it to Airbnb. So you could say like, “In the future, will anyone be able to list their apartment on Airbnb?” To which Airbnb responds, “In theory, yes. But if we have people listing dangerous apartments on Airbnb, the community and the platform will die. So we have to have guidelines and community rules. Your apartment needs to be clean, it needs to be in a safe location, and has to adhere to certain standard of quality that is of the Airbnb platform.”

I call Airbnb a conscious platform. Other platforms, let’s say like Shopify… If you started a Shopify store where you sold ugly snowboards that no one wanted to buy, that’s not Shopify’s problem. That is capitalism at work.

They don’t care, yeah.

Titan needs to be a conscious platform. We can’t let bad actors who just want to do anything, launch investment products, because we’re a fiduciary. We manage the hard-earned savings of people. So we will have a minimum quality standard, we will have minimum guidelines. However, your point on niche, some of the places that need capital the most, are the niche areas.

So for instance, like under-developed urban communities need a lot of real estate development, where you can make significant capital returns. And that’s a win-win for both sides, but there’s a lack of people and all these managers here in New York are going hunting for urban centers that need development. So that could be a really nice place, that would be a massive win for the world that Titan could have on our platform.

I want to take back my analogy on the squirrels, it was a terrible analogy… But it at least got us into the niche markets, which you explained well, so thank you.

I don’t have issues with squirrels. I’m from New York. [laughs] You get used to the squirrels here. They’re fine for me.

I’m just really interested in what you’ve built here. I think it’s interesting. The secret sauce of just communicating back seems just so…

[36:11] Trivial, right?

Very trivial, because it’s like, that should be table stakes, right? That should just be how it works anyways. I don’t understand why–I mean, I guess I do understand why. Greed, probably. Greed and scarcity, right? If you make things scarce, you can drive the price up, you can lock certain people out, and you can essentially be very biased and you can showcase your bias. It can be class bias, essentially; like, if you have enough money, you can play in my park, or come to my house, or whatever it might be. But if you don’t, then you’re not welcome here, and I won’t let you access these markets and make the money that we make. I like the way you pair up this side of the business. It’s really, really interesting.

I want to mention something that was said by Anish, one of your newly founded board members partner at a16z, Andreessen Horowitz, who recently threw a bunch of money at you, $58 million in a series B early this year. Congratulations, by the way. But one thing that Anish talked about was just like this change of psychology from what might be the current day market, essentially, Gen Z, right? That they’re able to embrace more risk. And you’ve got things like you alluded to earlier, if a million people hearted something on Instagram - well, they kind of did that, with GameStop. Like, this whole big thing changed.

So we saw how everyday folk with hundreds or thousands, not tens of thousands, but hundreds and thousands of dollars can really change the way the markets drive. That’s an interesting place. And what you’re giving is this is where we can take more risk. Do you see people being more risky with their money because of the access to the market and the feedback loop for what you give? Because you said $20,000 as an opening account, or on average account balance, versus hundreds or thousands with a Robinhood or something like that? Do you see people taking more risk?

What’s interesting is when you zoom out - you and me living here in the United States may not feel like we see people taking more risks. But when Anish and Andreessen team did a really amazing analysis, when you take a look at on a country basis, and you zoom out, what is the perception of financial risks, the United States is off the chart. So i.e framed simply, other people will think the United States is one of the most risk-seeking countries relative to other people in other countries.

So with us, then alright, let’s double-click in the United States. We already have the pioneer at heart, we’re searching for the next big thing, and that’s sort of like in the blood of living in the United States.

What about this United States generation relative to previous? There’s a variety of factors that do contribute to this generation… I think being marginally risk-on than previous. Again, this is at the margins. It’s not like one generation takes no risk, another generation does. But my generation - a lot has been written about them having a challenging path for financial progress. Another is just having grown up in the era of the financial crisis. So there’s a variety of psychological factors that are having them lean in, versus lean out, towards seeking some of these more aspirational sorts of investing vehicles. There’s a big ESG trend. There’s a lot of people leaning in on a lot of these self-directed brokerages.

So you can see the overarching consumer psychology - again, to generalize; and generalizations have their own pitfalls. But to generalize, we see people leaning in, we see them doing it with a portion of their wallet share, we see them leaving at home a bigger portion of their wallet share. And so the end state is you have somebody who sort of wants to do thing, but doesn’t have the courage to do it entirely. So the question is, what solves for that? And that’s why Anish and co were really excited about us, because they see us as that bridge. But there’s a variety of stuff happening with our generation here.

What generation do you–I can’t tell your age. I’m not sure of your age. So which – are you a Gen Z? Are you Gen X? Are you Gen Y?

I’m a millennial.

Getting old.

My recovery time coming off intramural soccer keeps getting longer and longer; putting up the years now, unfortunately.

I think I’m like a year before Gen X.

There you go.

And people use those terminologies, one, to silo somebody and maybe even judge them to some degree… But it does talk to the psychology, because different things happen in different decades or different timeframes. In 2008 we witnessed another crash; my new son, who’s barely two years old, he’s going to have–or five years old; my five-year-old is going to have a different look on the world because he’s gone through a pandemic. I’ve never gone through a pandemic until I was in my 40s, right? He’s gone through a pandemic when he was five. So he’s going to have a different psychological profile in the future based upon the world and how it works, because of certain events that have happened. I think that’s interesting to look at like that spectrum. Do you see Gen Z being – like, is that where your market is at? I mean, how do you divide the lion’s share of your audience? Is it a wide spectrum? Is it 40s-50s? Is it 20-30s? How do you even divide that market you have?

Our median customer is somewhere between the age of 28 to 33. But we’re seeing pull from two different polls. So we’re seeing older clients who think we’re way cooler than the mutual fund that they currently have, but we’re also seeing it from way younger. So people who identify with the content-rich, open box niche of our platform, they’re just like “Hey, this is like way better than the thing I inherited from our parents.” So, our question mark from a business standpoint is which customer profile type do we build for right now? We’re building for millennials roughly, but we’re going to start targeting younger and younger, so we can be a part of people’s early financial trajectory. But it definitely is a strategic question that a lot of folks have differing opinions on.

I can remember whenever I first entered the “workforce”, and I was offered a 401(k), and I was slightly educated on how I can use my income as a possibility to have retirement… And everyone said, “Well, the earlier you start, the better off you are.” But the fact is what kept me out of the market largely were misinformation. So what do you think about the future of a world where we have access to a Titan where there’s that feedback loop? What do you project as a CEO? What do you project as like your dream for the future for what Titan could enable because you just simply have access to somebody who has your best interest in mind? …not somebody who just shares a prospectus.

Yes. There’s so many different things that could end up changing. One is how early people get invested in a really healthy way. I didn’t invest my first dollar until I was 26. You could make an argument, “That’s 26 years too late.” There’s probably some universal basic income theorists who will say, “Let’s give everyone $1,000 in an investment account, you can’t touch it until you’re 30, and we do that on behalf of you, and look how much it grows by the time you’re 30. You’ll thank us later.”

A second one is just how the ability for everyday people to shape the companies they’re a part of. And what I mean by that is, if you think about like who are the largest share owners of the biggest companies today, so like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, you name it, they’re usually three main entities - BlackRock, State Street, and Vanguard. These are all houses that take a lot of retail money, invest it passively, and then say, “We’re going to be the largest shareholders of all these big companies, but we’re going to sit in the back of the bus. You go do your thing. We’re going to zip up, we’re not going to say anything to the management team, or vote pretty passively. We’ll stay behind the sidelines.”

Imagine if a Titan at scale, when we power trillions of assets, said “We don’t want to sit in the front. We’re not only going to be your largest share owner, we’re going to sit right next to you in the front of the vehicle, and we’ve got a million people watching you. If they have an issue with governance, if they have an issue with how you’re treating diversity, or if they have a problem with how the CEOs thinking strategically, we’re going to have to have a talk.” That talk could equal changing board sheets, shaking up management teams. And again, it goes back to the whole route. Technology enables you to organize people in a way they weren’t able to be previously organized.

So this whole Reddit situation with GameStop and the hedge fund that you saw earlier this year - that was just a brief blip of the potential of organized masses in the capital markets. They were, frankly, a little disorganized. You weren’t quite sure how they could drive the situation for positive change. It was a little bit chaotic. But what was awesome to see was the power of people coming together to shape something such as the stock price, or the market cap of a company they really liked. So there’s just so much here; we can probably have a whole podcast episode talking about what changes could possibly happen. But this is the sort of stuff I think about all day long.

I asked some questions as prep for this conversation, and other conversations, obviously… They really offer a lot of guidance towards the conversation. But one thing you said in regards specifically to being a CEO I thought was pretty interesting - you said the job of a CEO really is just three things. Number one, getting capital; number two, figuring out where capital should go, and then three, deploying said capital. And I asked you that question to dream a little bit, because I can imagine every day you’re plagued with dreams and possibility. How do you take these three things - you get capital, you figure out where to go, and you deploy said capital, what ways are you doing that today? I know you just recently took an investment, it was a series B… Was that right? Series B?

Yeah, Series B.

[49:11] $58 million Series B, not a bad round. What valuation was that, just roughly?

Unicorn status? Okay, so you’re a happy unicorn.

Half. Half.

What are your plans? With that kind of money, with that kind of future, where do you plan to deploy that kind of capital? How do you plan to take Titan into the next year or two?

So you’ve seen them, and it’s a really good push. I’d say it’s the most unpoetic description of my job, capital, capital, capital. You’ll hear other people say, “Find a mission, organize people like a tribe to work towards said mission, and then go execute really hard and work hard.” I just describe it like super unpoetically.

In reality, I definitely don’t shy away from the fact I need to be a steward of other people betting on the fact that I can go create impact, and those other people are people with money who back our company, and people who are saying, “I want to go spend my career at Titan.” I do not take that responsibility lightly. And so as we think about strategic planning, where should we go deploy our time, effort and money, i.e our capital, monetary capital, human capital, strategic capital, largely, and the simple answer is doubling down on everything that got us to this point.

To get to this point in time, we’ve done maybe the third inning worth of a job, across the board - onboarding, investment products we offer, that tripod of experience between client, content and their money, how well our factory is built, our ability to go host other people and open up the gates to the factory… All of those things, we’ve sort of gone a few inches deep, and seen significant traction.

So now with this round, the goal is to really go give the five star experience on each of those, and turn this into an enterprise, not just a fledgling early-stage company. So it comes with a different set of challenges, but in a same flavor as the ones prior.

You already have the meat, so to speak, and you’re just going to season it a bit more. You’re going to concierge all the aspects. I like the tripod analogy of the person, their money…. What was the three things? It was person, money and something else.

There’s the person, [51:24] relationship, experience, and your content…

That’s right.

That interplay.

The end vision is to go build the next Fidelity. Fidelity has about 5 trillion of assets. They’re worth $100 billion, roughly the size of Airbnb. They’re an iconic household brand built for baby boomers. Major question mark on who will do this. Robinhood has argued it will be the E*TRADE of our generation, and maybe it’s going to make an argument that it should be the bank of our generation. But no one has yet to make the argument who will be the investing authority of our generation; who will be the thing you look to when capital markets are good, when capital markets are bad, to shepherd society through the next crisis. The thing that’s being cited on CNBC, the people that are being featured in The Wall Street Journal. That is the enterprise that I sought to build when I was younger. I said, “Hey, there’s nothing like that for us, and myself included. I guess I need to go build it myself, because no one else is building it.”

What is it that keeps you up at night? Do you stay up late at night? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you sleep well? What’s your biggest challenge right now?

One word, which is the word “sequencing”. There’s no question that the next Fidelity will be built. The question is, what is the execution path to get to the other side of the river, that is a compounding, wildly profitable enterprise that will outlast me personally? There’s a path and configuration where you go Stone A, Stone G, Stone B, then stone P, and you make it to the other side of the river, or there’s your A, then B, then G… You sort of see what I’m saying?

Yes. What’s the right path.

[53:06] There’s different strategic approaches. So usually – like, for example, when I’m angel investing in other companies, once I get their mission, I understand where they’re going, it’s like, “Okay, great.” Now, to really test them, I say “Tell me how you’re considering the different sequence in paths.” That answers two things. Do you understand and have the humility to say “The path I’m thinking through is not the only path; there are others.” And then can you show me how you had judgment to say “This is the right path that we should go down, and here are the data points that would make me switch.” So you can learn a lot about an entrepreneur just asking through how they’re thinking about sequencing.

So I guess, to put that bluntly, you’re thinking about what the right path is to move forward to create the next Fidelity.

We’re sanity-checking nonstop, what is the best path? What is the optimal path?

Can you describe your current path or your current hypothesis of what the right sequence is?

Build the factory with your own products being the guinea pig first. When good, open it up so other people can launch their products in your factory. Current path.

Alternative path - go build for the other people first, because they can inform your product development much more accurately. Viable path. Another, just to show you how I can flip both hats. Someone could also say alternative path - unlocks faster growth. Because those people bring with them their audiences, i.e. if you go build for a person who has a mutual fund, and is also a Twitter influencer, overnight, they can bring you 100,000 users. So there’s very clear, interesting reasons why one could go down the alternate path. If anything, the thing that I cycle through late at night is, “Okay, why are we choosing this path? What are the pros and cons? Does the data we’re receiving still confirm we should go down this path? If so, proceed.”

So there’s also these notes you shared with me, and I realize we’ve got about one minute, so I’ll make this super brief. If we’re still on track for that, let me know. But you said, “Speed often matters more than anything else.” I’m wondering if that’s your guiding principle? Because those paths lead to growth, but is it the right growth? That’s what I think everybody as a CEO questions, like “Sure, growth, but at what cost?” Is that the right growth or the right sequence that we should take as a company? Do you adhere to slow and steady wins? Are you more of a speed-often-matters-more-than-anything-else kind of approach, since you said that?

Speed.

That’s really great question, Adam. I’m a speed person. It goes back to the whole idea of you can either maximize the probability of being right, or you can minimize the probability of being wrong. Speed solves for the latter. I’m of the view that everything in my head is a hypothesis. I obviously have ranging convictions about certain things, like tomorrow I know the sky will be blue; high conviction, willing to bet a lot on that.

I’ll bet on that with you.

There we go.

Unless it’s gray skies, then you’re wrong. [laughs]

Other things less so. So right now - and obviously, I think it’s a bit of a stage-dependent answer. Right now, we need to learn very fast, a variety of different things. Hypotheses that we have high conviction on, but nevertheless, we need to get data. So speed really matters. Maybe at a different stage in our journey, as we shift to, “Okay, we’ve gotten a ton of scale”, now we need to convince everyone that has joined our service to give us a high percentage wallet share. From there, we need to focus on high quality, not necessarily high speed.

So the question that applies to a business like ours, at least right now - I’m speed-first, and I think a bunch of the entrepreneurs I respect I think would also shake out speed-first. But the interesting is, does it change as you scale? That’s something that could pose a lot of really interesting debate.

[57:02] Yeah. I like the way you answered that, because there’s no right answer. You’re like, where you’re at, your stage of your company is different than mine. Very different businesses. Slow and steady might win for us, which actually is a guiding principle for us. Slow and steady wins, and if we’re going too fast, like if we can’t keep the main thing we’re doing the main thing we’re doing, slow down and check yourself.

So we’ve got a couple of guiding principles that I often share here on the show, that guide us. But I’m always questioning how accurate those are. Because you may be more speed-first, because you need to. The next Fidelity, as you said, is going to get built. Will it be built by you? And I think speed in evolving and speed in churning through the wrongs and the rights, and determining your sequence, is what’s going to help you become the next Fidelity, if that’s going to happen.

Exactly. And hopefully, if your viewers listened to a number of your different episodes, they can see how all the different folks you interview answer that question.

And then you can create your own little mental model of what you think. Because yeah, it’s really interesting… There’s no right answer, but there are local maximums. What I mean by that is, there’s no singular global maximum. If you think about stats, where it’s like, “Okay, which curve was the highest one?” Everyone go do that.” There’s no, “You have to design your companies on these five values, or else you lose”, but there are a few peaks. It’s like, “Okay, there’s a speed-first flavor. There’s a quality-first flavor.” There’s probably some other flavor. And you need to pick whatever flavor is best for you. But not just that, get to the highest peak of that flavor, i.e. that’s best in class for whatever you need. So… Welcome to stuff I think about late at night.

Well, Joe, thank you so much for sharing your time today. I’m a fan of what you’re doing with Titan. I think it’s admirable to – I said earlier on, stick it to the man; you laughed at that. I don’t know if you really caught that much, but I think that’s what you’re doing. You’re opening up an opportunity for everyday people to have access to high-yielding financial products. Hopefully, building a factory that can enable others to do the same thing you’re doing once you’ve proven the model. I just appreciate you sharing your wisdom and the path you’re taking on your journey. So, thank you.

I appreciate it. I really liked the sequencing of your questions, pun intended.

Thanks, Joe. I appreciate that.

See you.

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