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How UBS built its digital financial management service SmartWealth 'like a startup'

Scott Carey | Aug. 11, 2017
How two people within UBS pitched the robo-advice business for seed capital and built a digital wealth management service from scratch in just twelve months.


In November 2015 Shane Williams, a resident technologist at the world's largest wealth manager UBS, entered the Swiss company's head office at 45 Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich and stood in front of the group innovation board.

Williams was pitching for money to build a startup called SmartWealth. The difference is, this was to be a business-within-the-business at UBS, and a means of democratising the sort of investment advice the organisation has been providing to millionaires and billionaires for over a century.

Now the co-head of UBS SmartWealth, Williams told Computerworld UK that he wanted to replicate what he was seeing in the USA with the rise of robo-advice -- essentially entrusting algorithms, instead of a wealth manager, to make and manage investments for you, significantly reducing the sort of fees that has made investing unreachable for most people.

The group innovation board liked the idea, and gave Williams some seed capital to go off and build a minimum viable product, and a team capable of doing it. "We pitched the idea of what we had done that was more than an app. We pitched it as a business, as you would to a venture capitalist, and positioned it as the construct of an entire digital business," he said.

The first step was engaging with London-based design agency ELSE to wireframe the platform. "We designed it from a blank sheet of paper. This is not taking something we already had and trying to fit it into a nice interface," he said. "It is really building it from the ground up and asking what is best in class."

Next Williams built out the team "with marketing, data science, engineering, the UX team". In under a year SmartWealth had gone from a two-man operation to an 80-person business and the SmartWealth service was launched as a minimum viable product in November 2016.

So who is the target market? Building an investment platform that is purely digital allows UBS, and other robo-advisors, to charge drastically lower fees, which means lower barriers for entry for investors. Whereas UBS traditionally wouldn't touch anyone with less than £2 million in worth, SmartWealth is aimed at the "mass affluent" market of professionals with at least £15,000 to invest.

"We wanted to give the offering to as many people as possible, but because of what you get, SmartWealth is a premium service."

Surprisingly enough the client advisors being disrupted by SmartWealth within UBS have been pretty welcoming of the new channel, Williams said. "What they are seeing now is that we are a vehicle for prospects. A chance for people to try UBS before they come in and develop the sort of complex financial needs where they require an advisor."


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