All posts by Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee - backpacking traveler, writer, and business analyst extraordinaire

Roboadvisers: a Primer

According to Business Insider, the term roboadviser was first coined by a reporter in 2002, before really entering into use in 2011 and 2012.  However, the term itself is terrible, because nobody knows what it means!

So in this piece, I’m going to define the roboadvisers, summarize how the various roboadvisers differentiate themselves, compare each roboadviser’s Assets Under Management (AUM), and finally discuss the profitability of the industry.

Definition: If you want to invest money or manage your personal finances, you can hire a portfolio manager or financial adviser to help you.  However, these services are not only costly, but often give bad advice.  To solve this problem, the roboadvisers use computers and algorithms to understand people and give better financial advice.

For instance, let’s say you wanted to invest for retirement.  A simple roboadviser might ask your age, the amount of money you have saved up, and ask how you feel about risky investments.  Based on this information, it would then invest in a portfolio, usually Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs), that matches your investment style.

And while there are a lot of robo-advisers, they all have different business models, and solve different problems.  Here are some interesting factoids:
– Vanguard’s Personal Advisor roboadviser, which only became available to the public in March of 2015, holds $75 billion in AUM – twice as much as all other roboadvisers combined.
– The most well-funded startup, Betterment, raised $205 million in fundraising and has $5 billion in AUM.
– The roboadvisers charge very different fees, from free to 1% of AUM to a monthly fee.

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Business Analysis: Earnest

Several months ago, I was interested in working for Earnest, a startup that offers lower-cost student loans for students who may not have great credit, but have high earnings potential.  I didn’t know anybody at the company, and didn’t want my resume to go into a black hole, so I instead wrote up product report on them, and gifted it to one of the product managers.

It didn’t work – they were looking for more technical PMs.  However, it got me a great conversation.  Several months have passed since then, so I’d like to share this with the world.

Here’s what I did:

  1. I conducted interviews with recent graduates and current students who are Earnest‘s target demographic:
    • I gathered data on brand awareness among current students.
    • I asked recent graduates to test out and walk me through their use of Earnest vs. their current loan servicer.
  2. Using the data I gathered along with my own research, I created a short product analysis of Earnest, highlighting its current challenges of offering competitive interest rates, providing usable tools for understanding debt and making payments, and expanding its brand awareness.
  3. I’ve outlined several proposed solutions to each of the challenges outlined above.

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In Simple Terms, What is FinTech?

FinTech is a term that’s thrown around a lot, but surprisingly few people understand it, so I’m going to define the term and categorize the industry in a simple and easy to understand way.

Simply put, Finance + Technology = FinTech.

While this sounds reasonable, FinTech is a huge field, and covers a lot of different startups. Broadly, FinTech companies can be divided into 5 categories, with each category solving a different problem.
1. Lending
2. Payments
3. Wealth Management and Personal Finance
4. Cryptocurrency
5. Banking

Broadly speaking, for each problem category, FinTech companies can improve a product or service in one of two ways:
A. Make it cheaper and easier to use.
B. Make it available to more people.

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My Personal Rebranding: from Jonathan to Bruce

It’s time to fire up presses again and restart publishing.  I’ve got a couple new articles that I have in mind, but first I want to reflect a bit about my recent personal rebranding, from Jonathan to Bruce.

I’ve got a couple reasons for restarting my writing:

– First, writing lets me think through ideas – to take a lot of thoughts and reflections, organize them, and create a central thesis.  When I talk to others, one of my great strengths is being able to refine ideas: I ask the right questions to get the information I need, combine it with my knowledge, and organize it all together into a central thesis or hypothesis.  But it’s difficult for me to apply process to myself – except through writing.

– Second, writing allows me to establish a published trail, an aura of legitimacy, which is something that I currently lack.  As I continue to look for Product Management roles, I know that I can do the work, but I can’t prove it.  In order to prove it, I need to either point to products that I’ve shipped end to end, or point to a series of published articles that establishes my expertise.

So it’s get to get back onto the writing wagon.  But first, I want to do some personal reflection on some personal rebranding that I’ve gone through recently.

A lot of my older friends and family know me as Jonathan.  Now, I mostly go by Bruce.  It’s a long story.  The short of it is: in elementary school, 5th grade, I was every Asian stereotype: good at math, shy, socially awkward, bowl haircut, talked with a stutter, and had a hard time making friends.  It’s a period that I’ve mostly blocked out of my memory.

But one of my few memories is getting the nickname of Bruce.  I was in the classroom, during a break when everyone was milling around and no teachers were around.  I’m standing around minding my own business, when a bully comes up to me, and starts messing with me.  Scissors were brandished.  I respond by deciding I wanted no part of this, and pull out some martial arts.  I may have punched him in the nose.  And my classmates, seeing the commotion and knowing that my last name is Lee, dubbed me Bruce.

I hated it.  I hated it with a passion.  My name was Jonathan, not Jon, not definitely not John.  And yet, the nickname followed me all through middle school, high school, and even college; a classmate who was sometimes a good friend and sometimes my worst enemy moved in the same circles as me, and always made it a point to call me Bruce.  And the the name stuck, but in what I felt was a mocking way.  After all, I was an skinny, awkward kid, totally different from the real Bruce.

It was only until after college that I finally to escape the Bruce moniker.  But ironically, around that time, I had a mentor who followed and promoted Bruce Lee’s philosophy, to be steadfast and not be unduly influenced by factors outside of his control.  Crucially, I’m here to live my own life and follow my own path, and not to follow somebody else’s expectations.  This resonated with me.

After I left New York City and started traveling the world, I started to go by the name Bruce.  It simply made sense – I was looking to discover myself, to get out of my comfort zone, and become more of the type of person I wanted to be.  Plus, having a shorter name always helps.  So even after finishing my travels and coming back to the USA, I’ve continued to go by Bruce – it’s become part of my identity.

It’s a little complicated still, this personal rebranding.  My legal name is still Jonathan.  I almost always introduce myself as Bruce.  My LinkedIn says Bruce (Jonathan) Lee.  My Facebook, which I rarely use, says Jonathan Lee (Bruce Lee).  I’ve got multiple emails accounts, so that I send out emails “from” both Jonathan and Bruce.  This website obviously still says I’m Jonathan.  Family is sometimes confused when somebody calls me Bruce.

If I were doing a company rebranding, I’d do it all in one go – over one night, the entire company would be rebranded – all logos would be changed, and there would even be a press release.  I’m a bit less decisive, and my personal rebranding is going slowly.  So where does that leave me?

I’m Jonathan.  I’m also Bruce.  But either way, I’m constantly working on being the person I want to be.  And for now, that’s good enough for me.

Travelogue: Port Barton

For my last stop in the Philippines, I stopped by Port Barton, a beach and scuba diving town similar to El Nido, but much less developed, much less touristy.  To use a well-worn cliche, it’s like El Nido from a decade or two ago.  And I stayed here for a couple of days, just relaxing, enjoying the sunsets, and doing not much of anything at all.  It’s that kind of place.
Port Barton - panorama sunset

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Travelogue: El Nido

El Nido is named after the swifts that live on the nearby cliffs, whose nests used to be harvested to make soups.  Nowadays, however, it’s known as more of a tourist destination, with great scuba diving, beaches, and seascapes.  And after suffering through the lack of electricity at Sabang, El Nido is a welcome change, having electricity from 2PM to 6AM – though many places also have backup generators.
El Nido - town view 2

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Travelogue: Sabang and the Underground River

After spending a day or two in Puerto Princesa to get tickets to the Underground River, I hopped on a bus at PP’s ‘market’ bus terminal, and rode three hours to Sabang, home of the Underground River.  Sure, there are also day tours that leave from PP going to the underground river, but why take a tour if you can go yourself?
Sabang -  underground river on boat 2

What I didn’t expect, was for Sabang to be an unexpectedly small town, with barely any internet and electricity only available from 6-10pm.  Still, it was quite a picturesque town, and one with some pretty great sunsets.
Sabang - panorama sunset

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Travelogue: Puerto Princesa

After finishing my exploration of Cebu island, I hopped on a flight and headed over to Palawan, an island on the western edge of the Philippines known for its beauty and lack of infrastructure.  And while there wasn’t terribly much to do here in Puerto Princesa, I enjoyed the ambiance and 24-hour electricity before venturing out to other towns with more natural beauty but less electrical access.
Puerto Princesa - directions sign

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