Mark Harman (pictured above) is CEO of i4C, the new kids on the block when it comes to cashflow modelling tools. He talks to Sue Whitbread about the Bath-based firm’s innovative approach as it launches a new brand, website and user interface this month. It is all focused squarely on meeting the demanding needs of today’s financial planning professionals
IFAM: Mark, to start us off, can you talk us briefly through the nature of the services which i4C provides for advisers?
MH: i4C is a cashflow modelling software solution. It provides financial planners and paraplanners with a sophisticated, fully integrated but easy to use web-based tool, enabling the creation of highly effective cashflow plans for clients. It allows all sorts of lifestyle planning around whatever stage the client is at. The tool can accommodate so many different aspects and decisions, addressing various objectives within the planning process and the client’s life. It can address any number of these scenarios simultaneously.
IFAM: With a number of established players in the cashflow modelling field, what’s different about what i4C can deliver?
MH: By way of some background, i4C started life back in 2016, when it was developed for internal use by Epoch Wealth Management, an award-winning firm of financial planners based in Bath. Basically, they found other software on the market to be unwieldy, inflexible or too simplistic so they took the initiative to design something which they felt would better meets financial planners’ needs.
Our system is all based around a “three pillars” principle as I’ll explain now:
- The input process.
To ensure financial planners can carry out a highly effective client health check we’ve developed a really easy input process. Even in the most complex client scenarios, paraplanners or financial planners can manage the input of data within 30 minutes at the most – as long as a decent fact find has been done of course. It is very easy to use and this is all because we’ve invested heavily in developing a simple and clear user interface.
Some financial planners may use the interface as a type of fact find or at a first meeting with clients. Our aim is to evolve it from here and invest further into it. Ultimately we want to get to the stage where the clients can pre-complete the fact find before the first meeting with the financial planner to bring even more meaning to that meeting and increase the chances of engagement and the development of a mutually rewarding, long term relationship thereafter. It also means that financial planners can get up and running on using it very quickly. We know some of the frustrations that can exist when it comes to doing cashflow, but our software helps overcome that as it’s so transparent. We’ve got great reconciliation tools so financial planners and paraplanners can always check exactly what data they’re putting in and which are very intuitive to use – there’s no black box here!
- The decision engine
This sits behind the input process. Some really sophisticated modelling sits around it for tax/investment/protection rules so we can ensure that financial planners have everything they need for a fully integrated planning process. We’ve invested heavily here too, with a team dedicated to honing the decision engine, responding to changes in legislation etc. As time goes on we’ll keep making improvements and making it the very best it can be with all the latest information and details.
These are mainly in graphic or tabular form which a financial planner can use for scenario building or stress testing. As well as being easy to use for the professionals, it’s also been built to make sure it delivers a great user experience for clients. Financial planners can use it through screen share or live at a meeting which is very powerful. I’ve seen planning meetings take place where for most of the time the financial planner and clients are up on their feet, engaging directly with the screen and all the different implications that the scenarios which come up will have for their future.
It all leads to a much more interactive meeting taking place – not the more traditional, static approach probably looking at pieces of paper! We’re all about making sure that the financial planner can deliver a really engaging client experience which is highly compliant too, with its focus on the financial planning process rather than products such as investments or pension plans.
We realise that many financial planners are under a lot of pressure not only from the increasing pressure of regulation, fee pressure from clients, robo advice etc. and also that markets are high too so investment performance is under real scrutiny. We need to make their lives easier.
Talking to firms, a lot of them realise that if they are not using cashflow modelling they see it as a way to re-engineer the advice process to a true financial planning model. If we look at other cashflow tools in the market, there are a lot of good but very complex products around while some are very simple. Firms tell us they want one tool which they can use with absolute consistency across all the planning processes and that’s where we are positioned. Financial planners want simplicity – it has to be easy for all their team to use it if it’s going to become embedded within the advice processes. i4C is feature rich but very easy to use. We don’t compromise either – these aspects are definitely not mutually exclusive. If we are to help planning firms to drive their business forward, these are essential and that’s what we are here to deliver.
We know that we are the new kids on the block here. My recent background is in technology. What we understand, as a technology team, is that what we produce must be scalable and take down all barriers which might be there to slow down uptake. By this, what I mean is that it must work well with all web browsers, all hardware and absolutely will stand up to having lots of users. And that it can reflect legislation and product changes very quickly. We’re committed to a technology stack which can deliver that.
IFAM: How do you help financial planners and paraplanners to actually deliver the financial planning service to their clients?
MH: We know there are some firms which are approaching cashflow modelling with some trepidation and others are more confident. So we have built a knowledge team to help. It is mainly based around senior paraplanners with plenty of experience and who know our system well. They form our team to fulfil two roles;
- To help firms onboard the software
- To build a knowledge bank and provide practical guidance for the user community. This is exciting and went live on 1 June. We’ll have user guides and we’re building a user community site so users can use the community to network with other users to share best practice tips and get more out of the whole process. I don’t think this is replicated elsewhere.
We’ve selected our team because they use cashflow, understand it fully and use the i4C software – it’s central to the process within the firms they’ve worked in.
We’re talking to compliance departments too as this is a potential challenge. Their big issue is to get financial planners to adapt to change. We are therefore helping to build Planner Accreditation Programmes bespoke to firms. This means that, if firms so wish, financial planners and paraplanners have to pass a competence test before they are allowed to use it with clients directly to show that they have achieved that basic level of competence in using it. Compliance departments love it! We also guide the firms’ management teams through it – it’s all about their business of course – we’re just there to help guide them through it and help them understand how to get the most out of the application to satisfy their own business requirements.
IFAM: Which areas of the adviser market are you focusing on? Is it just about looking to convert those financial planners who are not yet using cashflow modelling, or also to appeal to those who are already using other providers to consider moving to your system?
MH: It’s both. We are seeing a lot of firms out there who are assessing cashflow modelling tools for the first time as part of their business proposition. They will often start by using it with just a few HNW clients, rather than bringing it fully on board straight away. We’re talking to them and others who understand the strong business case for integrating the financial planning model into their full client proposition. We’re also talking to existing users of other tools so we will cover all the bases.
IFAM: One of the main problems which financial planning firms tend to complain about with software in general is integration – getting programmes to talk to other platforms and programmes they operate. Is this on your radar?
MH: Yes it is. We’re currently working on a few potential integration partnerships which we’re planning to announce one of these this month. We know that firms want to integrate their CRM with other applications for efficiency and that they want single sign on. Given the amount of information we can capture on i4C, many financial planners are telling us that they want two-way integration so they can push information into and out of the CRM database.
We understand the importance of integration – but it is a long-term process. We also know that some partners are better placed to integrate with than others. So it’s important that in the integrated partnerships we do establish that we all understand up front about capabilities and product road maps. Watch this space though! Whilst integration is a buzz word, the important thing for us is the planning firm and their business processes and making things work as smoothly for them as possible.
IFAM: So what are your plans for the business in future?
MH: We’ve got a great team in place here in Bath. In terms of the technology, as well as i4C application, we’ve also got the decision engine which sits underneath that with a proprietorial platform supporting both.
Basically, it’s a three layered tech stack. So what does that really mean for financial planners? Well, because it’s our own proprietorial platform, it means we can move quickly and build other decision engines on top of it very quickly too – we’re not reliant on another platform to build that. It’s actually a separate asset which feeds our i4C application. It means we can build separate things for other third parties like lawyers and accountants. As an example, some accountants have contacted us recently wanting bespoke tax planning tools.
Having these three distinct assets in place gives a lot of options as a business. First things first though, we are committed to establishing a strong footprint for the business in our primary market which is the financial planning space and proving ourselves as a team here before we make any giant leaps elsewhere.
About Mark Harman
Following a successful period in mobile data technology and security, Mark joined i4C, as CEO in April 2018. With a track record in building teams in the SaaS and data technology sectors at C-level, Mark brings with him a range of experience in executing plans to transition businesses through the most exciting and challenges periods; from start-up, fund-raising, product launches, building channel distribution, overseas expansion, joint ventures, and partnerships.