Jayson Forrest is the managing editor of Money & Life Magazine.
One Perth-based practice has embraced technology by developing its own software - Plutosoft - to improve the efficiency and profitability of its business, while enhancing the overall experience of clients.
There’s an old saying: Good things come in small packages. And the same can be said for Forty Seven Financial Planning – a family-owned practice operating out of the Perth suburb of Innaloo.
Offering financial planning, legal, accounting and mortgage broking services, this fully integrated practice punches well above its weight, as it positions itself to roll-out its own proprietary software – Plutosoft – to the wider profession.
“We really believe that being an integrated group is a point-of-difference for us,” says Vincent Holland, who along with his parents Lindsay and John Holland and Leanne Bogoev, make up the four principals of the business.
“It all starts with a well constructed financial plan, which is the core of what we do. Once the plan is constructed, we assemble a team of experts from within the practice to put the plan into action. This includes an investment specialist for portfolio recommendations, a tax accountant to prepare returns and a lawyer to draw up wills and possibly set up a structure, such as a family trust or SMSF. We’re a one-stop shop.”
But perhaps what makes Forty Seven Financial Planning unique is its proprietary technology platform – Plutosoft.
According to Vincent, Plutosoft – named after the skill, precision and vision behind the recent NASA led New Horizons flyby study of Pluto – is a comprehensive financial planning software and practice management program, which took the business just over three years to develop.
“Plutosoft has enabled us to have a highly systemised practice,” he says. “Our advice documents, which once took us a couple of days to prepare, can now be produced through Plutosoft in less than one hour. It has noticeably transformed the business.
“The system also allows us to do modelling directly in front of clients, which they find informative. This has improved client engagement at meetings.”
The software also provides clients with their own online portal, which they can access to update their information and book appointments to see staff.
“It’s a whole-of-practice software solution,” says Vincent.
But why spend the time and energy developing proprietary software when there are solutions already on the shelf?
For Vincent, it was a no-brainer.
“We firmly believe that to truly grow our business, we needed to have a world class technology solution,” he says. “At the time, we were using existing software, but we weren’t satisfied with it. We searched for more customised software, but there wasn’t a compelling offering we could use.”
In stepped practice principal, Lindsay Holland CFP®. Using her expertise as a software development specialist, the business decided to create its own bespoke software.
However, Vincent admits it was a massive undertaking for the business, requiring considerable planning, including a ‘proof of concept’ process, as well as the actual development. All up, it took the practice just over three years to complete. “That’s one year longer than it took to build the Titanic,” Vincent jokes.
But unlike the Titanic, this software is still afloat today, which is a tribute to the careful planning and processes put in place from the outset.
Plutosoft was developed entirely in-house, from the ground up, to specifically address the various challenges that advice practices are faced with.
The process of developing the software began with the practice principals dissecting the business and mapping all procedures and activities within the office. This enabled the business to identify where the pain points were and what was not running efficiently.
“As an example, the time it was taking us to produce advice documents for clients was unacceptably long. So, we wanted this software to transform our practice and make it significantly more efficient.
“Once we actually defined what our issues were and what we needed the software to resolve, we were then able to develop a scope for change.”
From there, Forty Seven Financial Planning began building its software in modules, starting with the task and workflow management module. Before moving onto the next module for development, each module would first go through a process of refinement and testing, ensuring all glitches were ironed out before being fully implemented within the business.
Other modules subsequently rolled out included portfolio reporting, the client portal, advice production and automation, and finally, the module for financial modelling and forecasting.
The software, now in its completed form, has been running in the business for around 12 months.
Living and working in a highly digital and connected world, software security was a key consideration in the development of Plutosoft. It’s a fact not lost on Vincent.
“Security of data is so important in this day and age,” he says. “Our software is Cloud-based technology and the actual software is built on an Oracle database. All our data is securely stored on an Oracle server in Sydney.
“And our IT specialists who maintain the technology, are using the latest in data security and encryption. As a business, we take the security of our data very seriously.”
This investment in development, functionality and security has paid off for the business, with clients responding favourably to Plutosoft. In fact, when it comes to the online portal, the practice has a 90 per cent conversion rate, with clients logging on to manage their information and book appointments.
“Plutosoft automates almost all of our non-value adding functions, like compliance and administration,” says Vincent. “This means our staff are more engaged with clients, because more of their time is devoted to meaningful value-adding tasks.”
But Vincent emphasises that the successful and rapid uptake of Plutosoft by clients would not have been possible without clear communication.
“When you’re changing systems, you need to clearly communicate what you’re doing and why. So, we ensured that clients were properly notified about the client portal and we clearly explained to them the reasons behind what we were doing. We then stepped them through the process of how to use it.
“Because we maintained clear communication throughout the process, we didn’t experience any issues moving clients onto the portal. In fact, clients have been very positive about the change and far prefer it to our previous system.”
Such has been the success of Plutosoft – having been built by professionals, for professionals – that Forty Seven Financial Planning is now planning to make its software available to the wider profession.
“Plutosoft has worked so well in our own business that we’re now looking to make this software available to other planning practices, which means running it as a separate business to Forty Seven Financial Planning,” Vincent says.
To assist the business realise this objective, it has recently appointed Wynand Kruger to head up the new software business. Wynand’s experience includes leading the development of the point of sale software system for British Airways.
In addition, Lindsay Holland continues as the lead software engineer on Plutosoft, in addition to her role as a CFP® practitioner.
“We’re fortunate to have Lindsay’s expertise. Because she is a planner, she has the unique skill set of knowing what the software needs to deliver as a user. And as a software specialist, Lindsay knows how to actually build, code and create a program that will resolve the issues that planners face in their businesses,” Vincent says. “It’s a very unique skill set to have.”
Technical support and integration specialist, John Bogoev, is the third IT specialist of the software team, with Vincent rounding out the four person team as head of sales and business development for Plutosoft.
Having successfully rolled out Plutosoft, what were some of the key learnings Forty Seven Financial Planning uncovered by travelling down the customised software path?
“Firstly, you need to be very clear about what you’re trying to achieve. That means clearly understanding what the problem is you’re trying to solve and whether technology can actually solve that problem.”
Vincent’s second tip is to never underestimate the enormity of the task involved in building software from scratch. Speaking from experience, he says it’s a massive undertaking.
“We knew from the outset that developing our own custom software was going to be a time consuming process, so we didn’t impose a strict timeframe on ourselves in terms of how long this would take us to develop. It took us just over three years to complete. But it didn’t stop there. With software, you’re always looking to improve and refine what you’ve got.”
However, Vincent concedes that his practice’s situation was somewhat unique in that the business already had the requisite expertise in-house to draw upon.
“For us, this was the right decision to make. By undertaking this process, we’ve learnt that as a business, you can’t be static. You have to be proactive in creating the change you want to see.”
And thirdly, Vincent reiterates that any change requires clear communication to staff and clients, in order to engage all stakeholders involved.
“And don’t forget to ask for feedback,” he says. “That’s always been very important for us. We always ask for feedback from clients, because clients are very honest with their opinions. The feedback we’ve got back from clients has been invaluable in rolling out the software and enhancing it.”
Forty Seven Financial Planning is one of the rare breed of practices that actually ‘walks the talk’ when it comes to software development. And while it’s not without it’s challenges, it does demonstrate that a small practice can innovate in the fintech space.
“There’s been much talk about fintech and ‘robo’ advice being a threat to the profession, but I think that’s a misguided view,” Vincent says. “Clients will value human advisers, as long as the advisers are delivering on their service proposition.”
The key challenge, according to Vincent, is understanding how the profession can actually use technology to work for it and not against it.
“In other words, how can we use technology to enhance our clients’ experiences, and make our practices more efficient and profitable. That’s the key.”