The CEO of investment startup Acorns wants his app to be used by every American with a household income under $100,000

Acorns CEO Noah Kerner says the company has amassed 2.2 million investment accounts in about five years.

caption
Acorns CEO Noah Kerner says the company has amassed 2.2 million investment accounts in about five years.
source
Acorns

    Acorns, the fintech app that allows users to invest their spare change, is witnessing strong growth with more than 2.2 million accounts in the US. Business Insider recently sat down with Noah Kerner, the firm’s CEO, to discuss the firm’s mission, the growth of its editorial content, and his thoughts on finance hype. Kerner said the company is looking to serve every single American with an annual household income under $100,000.

In 2012, father-son duo Walter and Jeff Cruttenden launched Acorns, the savings app that allows users to invest their spare change with the aim of trying to take the anxiety out of saving.

Nearly five years later, the company has amassed more than 2.2 million accounts. In 2014 Noah Kerner, an early investor in the company and three time entrepreneur, was brought on as CEO by the company’s founders. Kerner, a former DJ who once shared a stage with singer Jennifer Lopez, has been turning the company into more than just an investment app.

“Robo-advising is just a piece of our puzzle,” he told Business Insider.

Under Kerner’s leadership, the company rolled out Grow Magazine, a section of the app where users can read stories about finance and investing. It also launched a rewards program called Found Money, which gives its users bonus investment cash when they shop at brand partners like Nike, AirBnB, and Apple

The company has made a string of hires as well, bringing on Jennifer Arceneaux, the head of external relations for Sundance Institute, the organization behind the Sundance Film Festival, and Jennifer Barrett, a former editor at CNBC.

We recently met up with Kerner while he was visiting New York City from California to talk about his vision for the company’s future.

The big goal, says Kerner, is to reach every American who makes less than $100,000 in household income. For context, that’s around 74% of US households, according to the Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Frank Chaparro: How is business?

Noah Kerner: Business is great. We have opened up more than 2.2 million investment accounts in the US. We’re growing at around 100,000 accounts per month. We have a nice percentage of our customers using Found Money. Half of our customers are reading Grow every month.

Chaparro: That’s impressive growth. Who are your customers, and how engaged are they with the app?

Kerner: Our customer is the person whose household income is under $100,000, which is the majority of Americans. We created Acorns from the ground up to serve their best interests. We started with micro-investing, which allows them to invest their spare change. Once they get more engaged they can set recurring investments – $5 a day, $5 a week, for instance – whatever works for them.

And then we rolled out in our second year Grow, which is about helping users grow their knowledge of money and finance. And then we launched Found Money, which is all about helping them earn extra money. But the road map is focused on the thesis of serving Americans whose household income is under $100,000 per year.

Chaparro: How have you been building out Grow Magazine? And what’s its relation to the broader strategy of the company?

man reading newspaper

source
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Kerner: We recently brought on Jennifer Barrett, who was at finance editor at CNBC. She was also at the Wall Street Journal. Grow is professionally produced content that simplifies that which is complex for many people. It’s a media property essentially.

But it is part of the app. Most of our customers really benefit from this education. It’s not just about saving and investing; it is also about credit; it is about borrowing; it is about income. And we provide stories too.

We wrote a piece about seven people who made it from the bottom: Sarah Jessica Parker and Howard Schultz. These people came from nothing and made it. That is central to our big idea that anyone can grow wealth. Most people who have wealth came from nothing or their parents came from nothing. And this idea that anyone can grow wealth is central to what we do. We call our customers the “up-and-comer.” And we are not just a millennial brand, right. Our customers run the gamut from 18 to 98. But the thing they all share in common is income level.

Chaparro: Content seems to be the hot thing for online investing companies these days. I know that Stash and Robinhood, for instance. Both have content users can read on their app. And their target demographic is similar. What specifically differentiates Acorns from the rest?

Kerner: Investing spare change is still unique to us. Our focus on the up-and-comer is unique. The quality of our educational content is unique to us. And we’ve got many unique partnerships that add lots of value to our customers.

Right now, if you become an Airbnb host, Airbnb invests $200 into your Acorns account. Every time you shop with Nike, they invest 5% of the purchase price into your Acorns account. Every time you book a trip with Hotel Tonight, they put $10 into your Acorns account. So you’re slowly accumulating small amounts of money from different places. Some is from your spare change; some is from your shopping. And this isn’t us encouraging people to shop more. Our thought process is shop smart.

We want our users to use the Found Money feature so they can get extra money while they shop, which will be invested in their future. And that’s a powerful idea for our customers, and it is a powerful idea for brands because from their perspective they are increasing loyalty for their brands by investing in their customers’ future. And of course it helps us grow our business.

We’re looking out for the financial best interests of the up-and-comer. Everything connects to that.

You asked how we stand out. I would say we stand out by our mission on top of all that, first and foremost. We’re looking out for the financial best interests of the up-and-comer. Everything connects to that. We stand out from our corporate values. And our core value is to lead with our heart.

It is very important to what we do. We stand out with those features of course. The education is the latest thing. It is very strong content made by professional journalists, that provides the kind of educational content that is vital for our customers’ edification and consumption. And we’re building the road map out from there.

Chaparro: I’ve read criticisms of the app that say its fees aren’t as low as they’re marketed. Folks only investing a small amount of money per month, in some cases, could end up paying more in fees as a percentage than someone with an account balance above $5,000. What’s your response?

Kerner: So for most people, it is a dollar a month. For a dollar a month, for the price, what we offer is a big value. We obviously encourage people to use Acorns to the fullest – take advantage of Found Money, take advantage of the round-ups, automatic rebalancing, dividend reinvestments, dollar-cost averaging. Use the product to the fullest. For a dollar a month it is fantastic.

Acorns charges $1 a month for all accounts with balances below $5,000.

caption
Acorns charges $1 a month for all accounts with balances below $5,000.
source
Acorns

We keep the investment side of it very simple. We do recommend a portfolio to customers once they finish registration. And we diversify it. It is very important. When you talk to people like Warren Buffett, this is the strategy that he recommends as well. And we subscribe to that idea. We think is the right strategy for our customers. Frankly, we think it’s the right strategy for all customers.

There’s this feeling when you come back to the app, and it’s working in the background of life. That feeling, you know – the third day, the seventh day, the 15th day – you come back and you see a balance that has accumulated; it is really encouraging for people. And it starts to get you in the habit of saving and investing, and that encouragement helps people move along on that journey. And it’s because it is such a magical moment for people checking the app.

Chaparro: There’s this question hanging over the investing space regarding apps like Acorns and other online investment startups. Without someone to guide them through the bad times, do you think investors are more prone to pull their money out if there’s a major correction?

Kerner: That’s where the educational content comes into play. We are constantly educating our customers about those kinds of events, so they stick with it. Markets go up and down. The only way you lock in losses is by pulling out. Those kinds of lessons. That’s why we got into this business of content, because we need to prepare our customers for great moments and bad moments.

Chaparro: What are some of your hard goals over the next decade?

We’d like everyone in America who makes under $100,000 to be using Acorns.

Kerner: We would like everyone in America who makes under $100,000 to be using Acorns. We think it is good for everyone in America to be using Acorns. And it is not an artificial cut-off. But we think people who make a lot of income and have a lot of net-worth are pretty well served.

I grew up on 14th Street and Avenue A. I grew up around kids who didn’t come from a lot. I was a competitive tennis player. And so at nights I would play tennis with kids who came from a lot. I went to private high school in New York City and again got to spend time with kids who came from a lot. But the summer of my junior year, I worked as a bank teller working with single moms with four kids making $8 an hour.

After Cornell, I traveled America as a DJ on a tour, and I got to see the way most of Americans lived. And there are great riches on both sides, as far as their personalities. But there is such a powerful sense of disenfranchisement and inequality of wealth that exists in this country. The fact that this exists in a country like America is not right.

And our belief is that we need to equip this group with the tools they need to be financially successful. And we need to help them believe – and this isn’t bulls— – we need to help them believe that anyone can build wealth. And not to focus on this group or that group. Focus on yourself, do the right thing, save, invest, learn, spend responsibly, save for an emergency. For us and me this is a real mission.

Servers for data storage are seen at Advania's Thor Data Center in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland August 7, 2015. REUTERS/Sigtryggur Ari

source
Thomson Reuters

Chaparro: Hype is in no short supply in finance. With AI, cryptocurrencies, machine learning, et cetera, abuzz, how do you stay focused and decide what can have a real impact on your business and what is noise?

Kerner: I wrote a book called “Chasing Cool,” which was formed out of my experiences with corporations and brands that thought in order to create something successful you need to jump on the latest trend or bandwagon.

With cryptocurrencies, you see people integrating it into their product, and everyone is looking at investing in it. People need to hang on a second. Think about what you stand for, what is your product about, and ask yourself if this really fits into it. Think, “Is this really something that makes sense within the context of what we are trying to create and build?” And if it is, then go after it. But don’t do it because it is the new hot thing.

I am a personal believer in having a very crystal clear vision, values, and mission, and sticking to it. We have a 10-year road map. For something to move us off course from what that road map is, it has to be something we really thought through, something that we really believe is significant. It is not going to be something that is a shiny object, of-the-moment-type thing.