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這款矢志“劫富濟貧”的炒股APP,如何在七年內成為行業巨擘?

這款矢志“劫富濟貧”的炒股APP,如何在七年內成為行業巨擘?

JEFF JOHN ROBERTS 2020年12月20日
這家創業公司的股票交易應用大獲成功。但羅賓漢能說服更加富有的客戶把大筆錢托付給它嗎?

綠林好漢。聯合創始人弗拉德·特涅夫(左)和拜朱?巴特讓羅賓漢成為當下最熱門的炒股應用,他們也由此成為紙面上的億萬富翁。展望未來,尋找盈利之路或許是一項更大的挑戰。圖片來源:WESAAM AL-BADRY/CONTACT PRESS IMAGES FOR FORTUNE

最近這些時日,像許多首席執行官一樣,弗拉德·特涅夫一直在家辦公。33歲的他身材瘦削,烏黑的頭發一直垂到肩上。特涅夫剛剛參加了一個視頻電話會議,討論他的公司羅賓漢(Robinhood)計劃如何從最近的強勢增長中獲利。是的,這家公司就是那款大紅大紫的同名股票交易應用的開發商。

但這位CEO的心思并沒有全部放在這件事上,他還尋思著如何做好另一個轉變。作為兩個孩子的父親,特涅夫解釋說,他的小兒子正處于自主上廁所訓練的最后階段——鑒于他自身的成長經歷,他覺得這是一個特別有分量的里程碑?!拔沂窃诒<永麃嗛L大的,那時候尿布總是不夠用?!彼貞浀?,“所以,趕緊擺脫紙尿褲的壓力特別大?!?/p>

盡管他現在居住在富足的帕洛阿爾托,但特涅夫還會頻頻提及孩提時代生活,談到經濟困頓和物質貧瘠。所以在他看來,羅賓漢矢志追尋的使命,是幫助投資菜鳥通過購買股票積累財富。

盡管羅賓漢僅僅成立7年之久,但它對這一使命的追求已經深刻地改變了經紀行業。時尚的設計感和強大的功能,讓它成為40歲以下人群的首選投資平臺。根據投資銀行JMP Securities的數據,這家后起之秀擁有1500萬賬戶,與嘉信理財(Charles Schwab)和TD Ameritrade等成立數十年的競爭對手不相上下。僅在2020年前三個季度,它就新增了500萬個賬戶。羅賓漢的迅速崛起迫使現有的公司紛紛效仿它的創新,其中最引人注目的當屬零傭金交易?,F在幾乎所有的經紀商都提供這種服務。它的易用性,以及對股票毫無掩飾的支持,使其成為一種新型投資者的代名詞。盡管這些被戲稱為“羅賓漢交易員”的投資者備受許多金融專業人士的貶損,但這一群體的影響力正在重塑人們的投資模式。

對于特涅夫和35歲的聯合創始人拜朱·巴特來說,長期的成功——包括盈利和上市——取決于引導這些交易者走向富裕。羅賓漢相信,它可以效仿嘉信理財在兩代人之前所做的事情:獲取行業其他公司忽視的年輕客戶,然后隨著這些客戶逐漸成熟,提供更有利可圖的金融服務。

然而,要想讓這一策略奏效,羅賓漢必須證明它自身能夠成熟起來。該公司在技術執行、監管合規和客戶服務方面的種種失誤,不由得讓人懷疑它是否有能力向富裕的客戶提供產品和咨詢服務。還有一些批評人士指責這家總部位于加州門洛帕克的創業公司推動高風險交易?,F在需要接受特涅夫管教的,看來不只是家中那位蹣跚學步的孩童,還包括這樣一家很容易表現得像荷爾蒙分泌紊亂的青少年的公司。

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注冊羅賓漢就像是玩一款慵懶的手機視頻游戲。熱情洋溢的屏幕承諾:“有免費股票等著你入手呢?!绷硪恍庙撁鎰t提供一種名為“羅賓的獎勵”的數字刮刮樂游戲——就我的情況而言,它為我新開設的賬戶存入一只不知名的醫療股票,價值3.24美元。僅僅花了10分鐘,我就能交易股票和股票期權了。與我上一次開設經紀賬戶的經歷相比,這一切堪稱巨大的飛躍。那是五年前的事情,整個過程花費了好幾天,記得還動用了傳真機。不用說,那時也沒有刮刮樂獎賞。

自那時起,我就充分體驗到了羅賓漢用來鼓勵交易的設計心思。一連串消息不請自來,提醒我隨時關注我所持股票的價格走勢。(我頻頻收到關于那只醫療股的提示聲。)一旦我有所行動,滿屏的五彩紙屑就會興高采烈地為我歡呼。

難怪羅賓漢發展得如此迅速,并引發如此狂熱的交易活動。今年第二季度,其用戶交易了近600億股股票,同比增長150%,超過嘉信理財和E*Trade的總和。6月份,這家創業公司的日均收益交易(DART,這是一個廣受關注的指標)首次超越其競爭敵手,平均錄得431萬筆,比第二名TD Ameritrade多出50萬筆。

羅賓漢的主導地位并非僥幸而來。這款應用的風行得益于它在正確的時機部署了正確的技術:2013年,就在智能手機開始變得無處不在之際,羅賓漢正式上線。在斯坦福大學相識的巴特和特涅夫,也吸收了硅谷“設計為王”的精神氣質。兩人為設計羅賓漢界面煞費苦心,經常利用乘坐加州通勤列車Caltrain的間隙自學排版和iOS設計,還邀請無數陌生人試用,然后對這款應用進行微調。他們還使出創業公司慣用的絕招,說服早期客戶向朋友推薦,從而在沒有花錢進行市場營銷的情況下制造了一系列轟動效應。對羅賓漢的發展不無助益的是,巴特和特涅夫在斯坦福結交的圈子有不少未來的硅谷大佬,其中包括Snapchat創始人埃文·斯皮格爾和鮑比·墨菲、Instagram的凱文·斯特羅姆,以及牛虻式媒體人兼風險投資家喬?!た邓固苟?。沒錯,這些人可以充當兩人的非正式智囊團。

羅賓漢還采用了其他經紀商很少嘗試的獲客策略。盡管免傭金交易模式最受關注,但同樣重要的是,它沒有最低投資額方面的要求。這意味著,即使現金很少的客戶也可以立即買入股票。

這種策略不免讓人回想起它的前輩,總部位于舊金山的嘉信理財。在上世紀70年代,這家曾經的后起之秀同樣利用較低的傭金和大眾化營銷活動,讓股票交易走進尋常百姓家。Tiburon戰略顧問公司管理合伙人奇普·羅默指出,彼時的主流券商對嘉信理財不屑一顧。像美林證券這樣的業界巨頭任由嘉信理財吸納大量的小投資者,而他們則專注于迎合資產多得多的“優先級家庭”?!艾F在,嘉信理財的客戶數量是老對手的4倍,因為他們一直在盡可能多地招攬客戶?!绷_默說,“這就是羅賓漢正在做的事情?!?/p>

50年后的今天,這種模式或許正在重演——包括主流券商不屑一顧的態度。接受《財富》采訪時,一些老牌券商高管對羅賓漢開發的應用稱贊有加,但對它能否提供客戶所需的指導表示懷疑?!坝螒蚧臀宀始埿伎赡軙率旨尤?,但投資者對一家經紀商的要求遠不止于此。畢竟,他們把自己的錢托付給你了?!奔涡爬碡斀灰缀徒逃呒壐笨偛冒屠?梅澤爾表示,“一款容易上手的應用僅僅是其中一部分?!?/p>

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在金融市場震蕩空前的2020年,沒有什么比散戶投資者(即用個人賬戶進行交易的投資者)潮水般涌入股市更令人驚訝的了。派杰公司資深券商-股票分析師里奇?雷佩托估計,隨著大量被新冠疫情困在家中的業余人士開始經歷股市沉浮,散戶投資者在交易總量中所占份額已經從長期基線10%-15%升至20%-25%。這種飛躍正是股票日均交易量從2019年的70億股飆升至今年110億股的原因之一。

毫無疑問的是,特涅夫和巴特的公司對這種增長貢獻卓著,以至于“羅賓漢交易員”已經成為那些無視商業基本面而扎堆入市的投資者的貶義代名詞。事實上,羅賓漢用戶在一定程度上助長了像Hertz和J.C. Penney這類破產品牌最近的股價泡沫。不過,羅賓漢堅稱,對其客戶的諷刺描述實屬不公,大多數客戶的目標仍是購買和持有股票——表現得像投資者,而不是交易員。

羅賓漢的客戶比行業標準年輕得多,中位數年齡為31歲:70%是千禧一代或Z世代。他們的種族背景也更加多樣化。根據羅賓漢委托的一項調查,其60%的客戶是白人,低于其他經紀商的78%。19%的用戶是拉丁裔,10%是亞裔,9%是黑人。這些數字接近美國人口整體的族裔構成比例。(在羅賓漢及其競爭對手中,女性客戶的比例仍然偏低,約占三分之一。)

這些年輕的客戶可能在踴躍購買股票,但他們還沒有積累多少財富——至少在羅賓漢還沒有。據投行JMP Securities估算,羅賓漢客戶的平均賬戶余額不到5000美元。羅賓漢拒絕置評這一數字,但如果準確的話,它與競爭對手相差甚遠。例如,嘉信理財的平均賬戶余額為25.5萬美元。不過,羅賓漢的高管表示,他們的年輕客戶有著不同于前幾代人的投資方式,而且隨著這些客戶獲得更多的資產,羅賓漢的工具也可以很好地滿足他們的需求。

以價格較低、維護費用低著稱的指數基金和ETF基金,是2000年代和2010年代投資領域一股至關重要的民主化力量。但羅賓漢的早期支持者、投資網站Stocktwits創始人霍華德·林德松表示,許多年輕的投資者會避開指數基金(因為這些基金可能持有像石油或煙草股票這樣有爭議的資產),而是購買他們信任品牌的股票,比如Netflix和迪士尼。與此同時,特涅夫指出,購買谷歌和亞馬遜等高價股的零碎股份對這一代人特別有吸引力。通過羅賓漢,他們可以安排在每個發薪日自動購買此類藍籌股的部分股份。

這些“點菜”戰術不能像指數基金那樣提供分散投資和防范風險功能。但在零傭金交易的背景下,購買數十只乃至數百只個股來建立投資組合的成本,不再高得令人望而卻步。那些青睞基金和ETF的客戶仍然可以在羅賓漢上購買這些產品。特涅夫表示,無論采用何種方式,他預計更多的客戶會直接將工資自動扣除到羅賓漢賬戶中,就像儲戶繳納個人退休帳戶和401(k)養老金計劃的方式一樣。這有助于羅賓漢在客戶變得更加富裕的時候留住他們,從而使其有機會向這些客戶出售有利可圖的產品和服務。

羅賓漢的高管們對這些產品和服務的具體內容及其出售時間都諱莫如深。但特涅夫告訴《財富》,羅賓漢最終可能會在管理客戶資產方面發揮更積極的作用。事實上,根據2019年發布的一份談論公司未來的企劃書,羅賓漢打算推出個人退休帳戶、抵押貸款,以及財產和人壽保險等金融產品?!盁o論我們將來推出什么產品,它都會融入一個連貫的長期敘事之中?!碧啬蛘f。

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特涅夫和巴特在斯坦福大學的舊識透露說,這兩人身上充滿了書生氣,一點都不粗鄙。特涅夫宣稱,個人財富從來都不是他們創業的主要動機,盡管如果羅賓漢成功上市,兩人很有可能成為億萬富翁?!拔覀兌枷氤蔀槲锢韺W或數學教授?!碧啬蛘f,“我們絕不是為了發財才做這件事的?!保ㄔ诓蓪戇@篇報道期間,巴特正在休陪產假,無法接受采訪。)這對創業者表示,當初推出羅賓漢時,他們深受“占領華爾街運動”的啟發。無需贅言,其公司名稱的原型是一位劫富濟貧的民間英雄。

不過,與許多科技創業前輩一樣,兩位創始人也因為追求高速增長,放棄平民主義原則而飽受批評。就羅賓漢而言,這些批評既指向其游戲化的賭場式設計,還把矛頭對準了它的商業模式。而在期權交易領域,這些因素的結合已經讓這家創業公司處于守勢。

證券備案文件顯示,羅賓漢逾七成的收入來自一種名為“訂單流返點(PFOF)”的流程。在2020年前三個季度,這種方式為該公司創造了4.53億美元的收入。(羅賓漢的其余收入主要來自證券出借和Gold,后者是一項每月5美元的高級服務,其特色包括保證金交易和更詳細的市場數據。)PFOF是指將客戶的交易訂單導流給做市商,以獲取一筆返點收入,而做市商則是通過賺取執行交易時的買賣價差來獲利的。把訂單導流給做市商,也可以幫助客戶在交易中獲得更有利的價格,但這通常是一個非此即彼的命題;如果經紀商獲得一筆PFOF返點收入,客戶就不會獲得價格改善。

盡管存在爭議,但PFOF是一種司空見慣的操作手法。彭博行業研究的市場分析師拉里?塔布指出,正是PFOF返點收入,讓經紀商有了為客戶提供零傭金交易的底氣。不過,當涉及到期權的PFOF時,情況就不那么明朗了。期權合約賦予投資者在未來以固定價格買賣股票的權利。它提供了從股價波動中獲利的另一種方式,但其定價可能復雜得令人發指,所以期權交易通常都是專業人士的領地。做市商為期權交易提供的PFOF返點要高得多,部分原因是這種交易的利潤空間更大。根據派杰公司的數據,與期權相關的返點約占羅賓漢PFOF收入的62%。

并非巧合的是,羅賓漢的應用經常提醒用戶期權是一個交易選項。在我試用期間(盡管是在我注冊時選擇了“我知道我在做什么”之后),在任何股票上點擊“交易”,都會出現一個巨大的“交易期權”按鈕,它出現在平庸乏味的“買進”或“賣出”選項上方。一旦選擇“交易期權”,這款應用就會邀請你選擇“賣權”和“買權”——這是最基本的合約——但也會鼓勵你嘗試一下涉及到多份合約,頗為奇異的“多腿”策略,其名稱包括“跨式”、“勒式”和“鐵鷹”。這些策略聽起來更像是在談論一場職業摔跤比賽。

這些提示讓批評人士頗為惱火。他們說,期權交易是投資菜鳥不應該涉足的游戲,尤其是因為專業人士可以利用新手的經驗不足。在一篇廣為流傳的文章中,美國銀行前期權交易員蘭詹?羅伊解釋了為什么資深人士將業余玩家稱為“肉汁”。他對《財富》表示:“如果你整天交易期權,你肯定會賠錢的?!北?艾弗特是一只利用期權抵御市場波動的投資基金的創始人。他說,成功的期權交易需要復雜的軟件和扎實的數學功力。羅賓漢誘人的界面讓他感到恐慌?!斑@竟然沒有成為一個讓他們陷入麻煩的法律問題,太令人震驚了!”他說。

事實上,由于與期權相關的PFOF操作缺乏透明度,羅賓漢已經被行業組織美國金融業監管局(FINRA)和美國證券交易委員會(SEC)處以罰款。今年6月份,在一位客戶自殺之后,羅賓漢鼓勵期權交易的方式頓時成為各方質疑的焦點。這位客戶留下一張紙條,指責該公司任由他在交易期權期間積累了逾70萬美元債務。(后來有消息稱,這位20歲的年輕人沒有意識到,他在屏幕上看到的負余額比他背負的實際債務高得多。)

羅賓漢已經承諾將徹底整頓其期權平臺,并為交易員提供更好的PFOF披露和更多的教育材料。特涅夫表示,圍繞期權交易的坊間傳聞并不能反映大多數客戶的習慣:只有13%的客戶交易期權,其中不到2%的人會嘗試多腿策略。與羅賓漢相關的其他人則沒有那么多歉意,他們認為這些批評帶有一種自以為高人一等的傲慢態度?!坝唵瘟鞯膹碗s程度令人震驚?!币晃蛔鍪猩毯献骰锇榈母吖鼙硎?,“事情絕不是像你居住在內布拉斯加州的米莉阿姨正在交易看跌和看漲期權那么簡單?!绷_賓漢的早期支持者林德松承認,一些客戶做了錯誤的決定。但他認為,出面阻止他們是一種家長式作風?!澳銜屢粋€小孩去開車或者購買Juul電子煙,但你不會讓一個孩子決定他們要買什么股票?”他問道。

還有另一些公關風波導致羅賓漢聲譽受損,更不用說多次技術故障致使用戶無法在交易高峰期訪問該網站。截至今年7月中旬,美國聯邦貿易委員會(FTC)累計收到了473起針對羅賓漢的投訴,而針對嘉信理財和富達投資的投訴分別為126起和69起,盡管這兩家公司的客戶數量與羅賓漢旗鼓相當。羅賓漢對待客服的方式無疑加劇了這種不滿情緒。不同于派駐大批代理人登門拜訪,逐一解決客戶訴求的傳統經紀商,羅賓漢甚至連一個電話都沒有提供,只是讓客戶通過應用尋求幫助。

特涅夫似乎由衷地信奉這樣一個技術信條:相較于雇傭人力這一過時且昂貴的做法,自動化解決方案更加可取?!按蠖鄶等硕疾幌M码妼で罂蛻糁行牡闹С??!彼f,“他們不想跟客服代表攀談,只是想盡快解決自己的問題?!北M管如此,羅賓漢還是向現實屈服了,開始為亞利桑那州和得克薩斯州的客服中心招聘數百名接線員——這樣做當然也是出于對自身未來抱負的考慮。該公司表示,這些客服代理正在撥打呼出電話,以響應數字求助請求,但它目前仍然沒有公布電話號碼的計劃。

*****

羅賓漢尷尬的青春期并沒有阻止它籌集到非常成熟的資金。繼今年早些時候的兩輪融資后,該公司于9月份宣布在新一輪融資中從Andreessen Horowitz和紅杉資本等知名風險投資公司籌得6.6億美元。迄今為止,羅賓漢共籌集了22億美元,目前估值為117億美元。這些源源不斷的資本投入仿佛是一場豪賭,它賭的是羅賓漢將挑戰甚至超越老牌經紀商。

它也賭的是,特涅夫做好了運營一家上市公司的準備。羅賓漢預計將在未來幾個月內宣布IPO計劃。該公司在11月20日發表聲明稱,巴特將卸任聯席CEO一職,從而讓特涅夫擔任唯一的首席執行官(巴特將繼續留在羅賓漢的董事會,從事產品開發工作。)特涅夫正在閱讀歷史,尋找可供效仿的領導者?!皝啔v山大大帝是一位身先士卒,沖在前線的領導者?!彼麩崆檠笠绲乇硎?,“這種勇氣和膽略具有鼓舞人心的力量,令人心馳神往。當他的將軍們還在那里夸夸其談的時候,亞歷山大已經騎上馬奔向戰場了?!迸c此同時,他自己麾下的將軍陣容現在加入了一些更有經驗的高管,其中包括為亞馬遜效力多年,于2018年出任羅賓漢首席財務官的詹森?沃尼克,以及前SEC專員、現任公司首席律師的丹?加拉格爾。

就目前而言,該團隊勢頭正盛。新冠疫情引發的交易量激增,為所有經紀商做大了蛋糕:TD Ameritrade和E*Trade最近分別錄得創紀錄的季度交易收入(在一定程度上,兩家公司都要感謝PFOF)。即便如此,羅賓漢的進步仍然引人注目:投資者下載其應用的速度是競爭對手的10倍。

不過,令人印象深刻的規模并不足以保證羅賓漢會演變成為另一家富達投資或嘉信理財。這些公司擁有多樣化,并且盈利的收入來源,其中既包括從客戶現金余額賺取的利息,還包括資產管理和銀行服務。此外,他們也在通過整合來豐富其產品陣容:嘉信理財正處于收購TD Ameritrade的最后階段,而E*Trade剛剛被摩根士丹利吞并。

在羅賓漢上打造一套類似的服務需要時間和金錢,而且目前的客戶是否會接受這些服務還不確定。一些市場觀察家懷疑,許多投資者使用羅賓漢來娛樂,只在其活躍的平臺上小額下注,而把大部分財富留在其他地方。羅賓漢小額賬戶的規模增加了這一理論的可信度?!昂芏嗳税阉斪鞫壗浖o商——就像一個用來練手的游戲賬戶?!眲P西·普里莫齊說。他經營的網站Robintrack,專注于收集羅賓漢上最有人氣股票的數據。(羅賓漢在8月份停止與Robintrack共享數據,部分原因是,該網站的用戶包括一些尋求掃描交易模式以從中獲利的對沖基金。)

與此同時,所有經紀商都面臨著財務威脅。券商分析師雷佩托預測,隨著疫情的緩解,交易量將會下降。而作為羅賓漢大動脈的PFOF業務自身,也可能面臨風險。彭博行業研究分析師塔布預計,來自消費者權益倡導者的壓力,將促使SEC要求券商以不同方式顯示包括許多零售交易在內的“零碎股”的價格。這些變化將縮小這類交易的買賣價差,從而損害做市商的利潤率,并減少PFOF業務的收入。塔布表示,這些變化,再加上激烈的競爭,最終甚至可能導致券商重新征收傭金,終結羅賓漢所開創的時代。

羅賓漢首席財務官沃尼克斷然否認了該公司未來可能會收取傭金的說法。但就目前而言,這家公司仍然不愿透露其真實的創收計劃,即使它正在以極快的速度搶奪客戶。

目前還無法確定羅賓漢能否將這些交易員轉變為創利的長期客戶,尤其是考慮到其競爭對手的市場地位和雄厚財力。但斯坦福大學法學院教授、前SEC委員喬·格倫德費斯特認為,這些質疑低估了真正創新者的力量?!鞍凑者@種邏輯,沃爾瑪早已把亞馬遜打得屁滾尿流,哥倫比亞廣播公司(CBS)正在將Netflix按在地上摩擦。而特斯拉已經成為通用汽車的手下敗將?!彼f。

弗拉德·特涅夫現在要做的,就是展現猶如杰夫·貝佐斯、里德·黑斯廷斯和埃隆·馬斯克那般杰出的執行力。(財富中文網)

譯者:任文科

最近這些時日,像許多首席執行官一樣,弗拉德·特涅夫一直在家辦公。33歲的他身材瘦削,烏黑的頭發一直垂到肩上。特涅夫剛剛參加了一個視頻電話會議,討論他的公司羅賓漢(Robinhood)計劃如何從最近的強勢增長中獲利。是的,這家公司就是那款大紅大紫的同名股票交易應用的開發商。

但這位CEO的心思并沒有全部放在這件事上,他還尋思著如何做好另一個轉變。作為兩個孩子的父親,特涅夫解釋說,他的小兒子正處于自主上廁所訓練的最后階段——鑒于他自身的成長經歷,他覺得這是一個特別有分量的里程碑?!拔沂窃诒<永麃嗛L大的,那時候尿布總是不夠用?!彼貞浀?,“所以,趕緊擺脫紙尿褲的壓力特別大?!?/p>

盡管他現在居住在富足的帕洛阿爾托,但特涅夫還會頻頻提及孩提時代生活,談到經濟困頓和物質貧瘠。所以在他看來,羅賓漢矢志追尋的使命,是幫助投資菜鳥通過購買股票積累財富。

盡管羅賓漢僅僅成立7年之久,但它對這一使命的追求已經深刻地改變了經紀行業。時尚的設計感和強大的功能,讓它成為40歲以下人群的首選投資平臺。根據投資銀行JMP Securities的數據,這家后起之秀擁有1500萬賬戶,與嘉信理財(Charles Schwab)和TD Ameritrade等成立數十年的競爭對手不相上下。僅在2020年前三個季度,它就新增了500萬個賬戶。羅賓漢的迅速崛起迫使現有的公司紛紛效仿它的創新,其中最引人注目的當屬零傭金交易?,F在幾乎所有的經紀商都提供這種服務。它的易用性,以及對股票毫無掩飾的支持,使其成為一種新型投資者的代名詞。盡管這些被戲稱為“羅賓漢交易員”的投資者備受許多金融專業人士的貶損,但這一群體的影響力正在重塑人們的投資模式。

對于特涅夫和35歲的聯合創始人拜朱·巴特來說,長期的成功——包括盈利和上市——取決于引導這些交易者走向富裕。羅賓漢相信,它可以效仿嘉信理財在兩代人之前所做的事情:獲取行業其他公司忽視的年輕客戶,然后隨著這些客戶逐漸成熟,提供更有利可圖的金融服務。

然而,要想讓這一策略奏效,羅賓漢必須證明它自身能夠成熟起來。該公司在技術執行、監管合規和客戶服務方面的種種失誤,不由得讓人懷疑它是否有能力向富裕的客戶提供產品和咨詢服務。還有一些批評人士指責這家總部位于加州門洛帕克的創業公司推動高風險交易?,F在需要接受特涅夫管教的,看來不只是家中那位蹣跚學步的孩童,還包括這樣一家很容易表現得像荷爾蒙分泌紊亂的青少年的公司。

*****

注冊羅賓漢就像是玩一款慵懶的手機視頻游戲。熱情洋溢的屏幕承諾:“有免費股票等著你入手呢?!绷硪恍庙撁鎰t提供一種名為“羅賓的獎勵”的數字刮刮樂游戲——就我的情況而言,它為我新開設的賬戶存入一只不知名的醫療股票,價值3.24美元。僅僅花了10分鐘,我就能交易股票和股票期權了。與我上一次開設經紀賬戶的經歷相比,這一切堪稱巨大的飛躍。那是五年前的事情,整個過程花費了好幾天,記得還動用了傳真機。不用說,那時也沒有刮刮樂獎賞。

自那時起,我就充分體驗到了羅賓漢用來鼓勵交易的設計心思。一連串消息不請自來,提醒我隨時關注我所持股票的價格走勢。(我頻頻收到關于那只醫療股的提示聲。)一旦我有所行動,滿屏的五彩紙屑就會興高采烈地為我歡呼。

難怪羅賓漢發展得如此迅速,并引發如此狂熱的交易活動。今年第二季度,其用戶交易了近600億股股票,同比增長150%,超過嘉信理財和E*Trade的總和。6月份,這家創業公司的日均收益交易(DART,這是一個廣受關注的指標)首次超越其競爭敵手,平均錄得431萬筆,比第二名TD Ameritrade多出50萬筆。

羅賓漢的主導地位并非僥幸而來。這款應用的風行得益于它在正確的時機部署了正確的技術:2013年,就在智能手機開始變得無處不在之際,羅賓漢正式上線。在斯坦福大學相識的巴特和特涅夫,也吸收了硅谷“設計為王”的精神氣質。兩人為設計羅賓漢界面煞費苦心,經常利用乘坐加州通勤列車Caltrain的間隙自學排版和iOS設計,還邀請無數陌生人試用,然后對這款應用進行微調。他們還使出創業公司慣用的絕招,說服早期客戶向朋友推薦,從而在沒有花錢進行市場營銷的情況下制造了一系列轟動效應。對羅賓漢的發展不無助益的是,巴特和特涅夫在斯坦福結交的圈子有不少未來的硅谷大佬,其中包括Snapchat創始人埃文·斯皮格爾和鮑比·墨菲、Instagram的凱文·斯特羅姆,以及牛虻式媒體人兼風險投資家喬?!た邓固苟?。沒錯,這些人可以充當兩人的非正式智囊團。

羅賓漢還采用了其他經紀商很少嘗試的獲客策略。盡管免傭金交易模式最受關注,但同樣重要的是,它沒有最低投資額方面的要求。這意味著,即使現金很少的客戶也可以立即買入股票。

這種策略不免讓人回想起它的前輩,總部位于舊金山的嘉信理財。在上世紀70年代,這家曾經的后起之秀同樣利用較低的傭金和大眾化營銷活動,讓股票交易走進尋常百姓家。Tiburon戰略顧問公司管理合伙人奇普·羅默指出,彼時的主流券商對嘉信理財不屑一顧。像美林證券這樣的業界巨頭任由嘉信理財吸納大量的小投資者,而他們則專注于迎合資產多得多的“優先級家庭”?!艾F在,嘉信理財的客戶數量是老對手的4倍,因為他們一直在盡可能多地招攬客戶?!绷_默說,“這就是羅賓漢正在做的事情?!?/p>

50年后的今天,這種模式或許正在重演——包括主流券商不屑一顧的態度。接受《財富》采訪時,一些老牌券商高管對羅賓漢開發的應用稱贊有加,但對它能否提供客戶所需的指導表示懷疑?!坝螒蚧臀宀始埿伎赡軙率旨尤?,但投資者對一家經紀商的要求遠不止于此。畢竟,他們把自己的錢托付給你了?!奔涡爬碡斀灰缀徒逃呒壐笨偛冒屠?梅澤爾表示,“一款容易上手的應用僅僅是其中一部分?!?/p>

*****

在金融市場震蕩空前的2020年,沒有什么比散戶投資者(即用個人賬戶進行交易的投資者)潮水般涌入股市更令人驚訝的了。派杰公司資深券商-股票分析師里奇?雷佩托估計,隨著大量被新冠疫情困在家中的業余人士開始經歷股市沉浮,散戶投資者在交易總量中所占份額已經從長期基線10%-15%升至20%-25%。這種飛躍正是股票日均交易量從2019年的70億股飆升至今年110億股的原因之一。

毫無疑問的是,特涅夫和巴特的公司對這種增長貢獻卓著,以至于“羅賓漢交易員”已經成為那些無視商業基本面而扎堆入市的投資者的貶義代名詞。事實上,羅賓漢用戶在一定程度上助長了像Hertz和J.C. Penney這類破產品牌最近的股價泡沫。不過,羅賓漢堅稱,對其客戶的諷刺描述實屬不公,大多數客戶的目標仍是購買和持有股票——表現得像投資者,而不是交易員。

羅賓漢的客戶比行業標準年輕得多,中位數年齡為31歲:70%是千禧一代或Z世代。他們的種族背景也更加多樣化。根據羅賓漢委托的一項調查,其60%的客戶是白人,低于其他經紀商的78%。19%的用戶是拉丁裔,10%是亞裔,9%是黑人。這些數字接近美國人口整體的族裔構成比例。(在羅賓漢及其競爭對手中,女性客戶的比例仍然偏低,約占三分之一。)

這些年輕的客戶可能在踴躍購買股票,但他們還沒有積累多少財富——至少在羅賓漢還沒有。據投行JMP Securities估算,羅賓漢客戶的平均賬戶余額不到5000美元。羅賓漢拒絕置評這一數字,但如果準確的話,它與競爭對手相差甚遠。例如,嘉信理財的平均賬戶余額為25.5萬美元。不過,羅賓漢的高管表示,他們的年輕客戶有著不同于前幾代人的投資方式,而且隨著這些客戶獲得更多的資產,羅賓漢的工具也可以很好地滿足他們的需求。

以價格較低、維護費用低著稱的指數基金和ETF基金,是2000年代和2010年代投資領域一股至關重要的民主化力量。但羅賓漢的早期支持者、投資網站Stocktwits創始人霍華德·林德松表示,許多年輕的投資者會避開指數基金(因為這些基金可能持有像石油或煙草股票這樣有爭議的資產),而是購買他們信任品牌的股票,比如Netflix和迪士尼。與此同時,特涅夫指出,購買谷歌和亞馬遜等高價股的零碎股份對這一代人特別有吸引力。通過羅賓漢,他們可以安排在每個發薪日自動購買此類藍籌股的部分股份。

這些“點菜”戰術不能像指數基金那樣提供分散投資和防范風險功能。但在零傭金交易的背景下,購買數十只乃至數百只個股來建立投資組合的成本,不再高得令人望而卻步。那些青睞基金和ETF的客戶仍然可以在羅賓漢上購買這些產品。特涅夫表示,無論采用何種方式,他預計更多的客戶會直接將工資自動扣除到羅賓漢賬戶中,就像儲戶繳納個人退休帳戶和401(k)養老金計劃的方式一樣。這有助于羅賓漢在客戶變得更加富裕的時候留住他們,從而使其有機會向這些客戶出售有利可圖的產品和服務。

羅賓漢的高管們對這些產品和服務的具體內容及其出售時間都諱莫如深。但特涅夫告訴《財富》,羅賓漢最終可能會在管理客戶資產方面發揮更積極的作用。事實上,根據2019年發布的一份談論公司未來的企劃書,羅賓漢打算推出個人退休帳戶、抵押貸款,以及財產和人壽保險等金融產品?!盁o論我們將來推出什么產品,它都會融入一個連貫的長期敘事之中?!碧啬蛘f。

*****

特涅夫和巴特在斯坦福大學的舊識透露說,這兩人身上充滿了書生氣,一點都不粗鄙。特涅夫宣稱,個人財富從來都不是他們創業的主要動機,盡管如果羅賓漢成功上市,兩人很有可能成為億萬富翁?!拔覀兌枷氤蔀槲锢韺W或數學教授?!碧啬蛘f,“我們絕不是為了發財才做這件事的?!保ㄔ诓蓪戇@篇報道期間,巴特正在休陪產假,無法接受采訪。)這對創業者表示,當初推出羅賓漢時,他們深受“占領華爾街運動”的啟發。無需贅言,其公司名稱的原型是一位劫富濟貧的民間英雄。

不過,與許多科技創業前輩一樣,兩位創始人也因為追求高速增長,放棄平民主義原則而飽受批評。就羅賓漢而言,這些批評既指向其游戲化的賭場式設計,還把矛頭對準了它的商業模式。而在期權交易領域,這些因素的結合已經讓這家創業公司處于守勢。

證券備案文件顯示,羅賓漢逾七成的收入來自一種名為“訂單流返點(PFOF)”的流程。在2020年前三個季度,這種方式為該公司創造了4.53億美元的收入。(羅賓漢的其余收入主要來自證券出借和Gold,后者是一項每月5美元的高級服務,其特色包括保證金交易和更詳細的市場數據。)PFOF是指將客戶的交易訂單導流給做市商,以獲取一筆返點收入,而做市商則是通過賺取執行交易時的買賣價差來獲利的。把訂單導流給做市商,也可以幫助客戶在交易中獲得更有利的價格,但這通常是一個非此即彼的命題;如果經紀商獲得一筆PFOF返點收入,客戶就不會獲得價格改善。

盡管存在爭議,但PFOF是一種司空見慣的操作手法。彭博行業研究的市場分析師拉里?塔布指出,正是PFOF返點收入,讓經紀商有了為客戶提供零傭金交易的底氣。不過,當涉及到期權的PFOF時,情況就不那么明朗了。期權合約賦予投資者在未來以固定價格買賣股票的權利。它提供了從股價波動中獲利的另一種方式,但其定價可能復雜得令人發指,所以期權交易通常都是專業人士的領地。做市商為期權交易提供的PFOF返點要高得多,部分原因是這種交易的利潤空間更大。根據派杰公司的數據,與期權相關的返點約占羅賓漢PFOF收入的62%。

并非巧合的是,羅賓漢的應用經常提醒用戶期權是一個交易選項。在我試用期間(盡管是在我注冊時選擇了“我知道我在做什么”之后),在任何股票上點擊“交易”,都會出現一個巨大的“交易期權”按鈕,它出現在平庸乏味的“買進”或“賣出”選項上方。一旦選擇“交易期權”,這款應用就會邀請你選擇“賣權”和“買權”——這是最基本的合約——但也會鼓勵你嘗試一下涉及到多份合約,頗為奇異的“多腿”策略,其名稱包括“跨式”、“勒式”和“鐵鷹”。這些策略聽起來更像是在談論一場職業摔跤比賽。

這些提示讓批評人士頗為惱火。他們說,期權交易是投資菜鳥不應該涉足的游戲,尤其是因為專業人士可以利用新手的經驗不足。在一篇廣為流傳的文章中,美國銀行前期權交易員蘭詹?羅伊解釋了為什么資深人士將業余玩家稱為“肉汁”。他對《財富》表示:“如果你整天交易期權,你肯定會賠錢的?!北?艾弗特是一只利用期權抵御市場波動的投資基金的創始人。他說,成功的期權交易需要復雜的軟件和扎實的數學功力。羅賓漢誘人的界面讓他感到恐慌?!斑@竟然沒有成為一個讓他們陷入麻煩的法律問題,太令人震驚了!”他說。

事實上,由于與期權相關的PFOF操作缺乏透明度,羅賓漢已經被行業組織美國金融業監管局(FINRA)和美國證券交易委員會(SEC)處以罰款。今年6月份,在一位客戶自殺之后,羅賓漢鼓勵期權交易的方式頓時成為各方質疑的焦點。這位客戶留下一張紙條,指責該公司任由他在交易期權期間積累了逾70萬美元債務。(后來有消息稱,這位20歲的年輕人沒有意識到,他在屏幕上看到的負余額比他背負的實際債務高得多。)

羅賓漢已經承諾將徹底整頓其期權平臺,并為交易員提供更好的PFOF披露和更多的教育材料。特涅夫表示,圍繞期權交易的坊間傳聞并不能反映大多數客戶的習慣:只有13%的客戶交易期權,其中不到2%的人會嘗試多腿策略。與羅賓漢相關的其他人則沒有那么多歉意,他們認為這些批評帶有一種自以為高人一等的傲慢態度?!坝唵瘟鞯膹碗s程度令人震驚?!币晃蛔鍪猩毯献骰锇榈母吖鼙硎?,“事情絕不是像你居住在內布拉斯加州的米莉阿姨正在交易看跌和看漲期權那么簡單?!绷_賓漢的早期支持者林德松承認,一些客戶做了錯誤的決定。但他認為,出面阻止他們是一種家長式作風?!澳銜屢粋€小孩去開車或者購買Juul電子煙,但你不會讓一個孩子決定他們要買什么股票?”他問道。

還有另一些公關風波導致羅賓漢聲譽受損,更不用說多次技術故障致使用戶無法在交易高峰期訪問該網站。截至今年7月中旬,美國聯邦貿易委員會(FTC)累計收到了473起針對羅賓漢的投訴,而針對嘉信理財和富達投資的投訴分別為126起和69起,盡管這兩家公司的客戶數量與羅賓漢旗鼓相當。羅賓漢對待客服的方式無疑加劇了這種不滿情緒。不同于派駐大批代理人登門拜訪,逐一解決客戶訴求的傳統經紀商,羅賓漢甚至連一個電話都沒有提供,只是讓客戶通過應用尋求幫助。

特涅夫似乎由衷地信奉這樣一個技術信條:相較于雇傭人力這一過時且昂貴的做法,自動化解決方案更加可取?!按蠖鄶等硕疾幌M码妼で罂蛻糁行牡闹С??!彼f,“他們不想跟客服代表攀談,只是想盡快解決自己的問題?!北M管如此,羅賓漢還是向現實屈服了,開始為亞利桑那州和得克薩斯州的客服中心招聘數百名接線員——這樣做當然也是出于對自身未來抱負的考慮。該公司表示,這些客服代理正在撥打呼出電話,以響應數字求助請求,但它目前仍然沒有公布電話號碼的計劃。

*****

羅賓漢尷尬的青春期并沒有阻止它籌集到非常成熟的資金。繼今年早些時候的兩輪融資后,該公司于9月份宣布在新一輪融資中從Andreessen Horowitz和紅杉資本等知名風險投資公司籌得6.6億美元。迄今為止,羅賓漢共籌集了22億美元,目前估值為117億美元。這些源源不斷的資本投入仿佛是一場豪賭,它賭的是羅賓漢將挑戰甚至超越老牌經紀商。

它也賭的是,特涅夫做好了運營一家上市公司的準備。羅賓漢預計將在未來幾個月內宣布IPO計劃。該公司在11月20日發表聲明稱,巴特將卸任聯席CEO一職,從而讓特涅夫擔任唯一的首席執行官(巴特將繼續留在羅賓漢的董事會,從事產品開發工作。)特涅夫正在閱讀歷史,尋找可供效仿的領導者?!皝啔v山大大帝是一位身先士卒,沖在前線的領導者?!彼麩崆檠笠绲乇硎?,“這種勇氣和膽略具有鼓舞人心的力量,令人心馳神往。當他的將軍們還在那里夸夸其談的時候,亞歷山大已經騎上馬奔向戰場了?!迸c此同時,他自己麾下的將軍陣容現在加入了一些更有經驗的高管,其中包括為亞馬遜效力多年,于2018年出任羅賓漢首席財務官的詹森?沃尼克,以及前SEC專員、現任公司首席律師的丹?加拉格爾。

就目前而言,該團隊勢頭正盛。新冠疫情引發的交易量激增,為所有經紀商做大了蛋糕:TD Ameritrade和E*Trade最近分別錄得創紀錄的季度交易收入(在一定程度上,兩家公司都要感謝PFOF)。即便如此,羅賓漢的進步仍然引人注目:投資者下載其應用的速度是競爭對手的10倍。

不過,令人印象深刻的規模并不足以保證羅賓漢會演變成為另一家富達投資或嘉信理財。這些公司擁有多樣化,并且盈利的收入來源,其中既包括從客戶現金余額賺取的利息,還包括資產管理和銀行服務。此外,他們也在通過整合來豐富其產品陣容:嘉信理財正處于收購TD Ameritrade的最后階段,而E*Trade剛剛被摩根士丹利吞并。

在羅賓漢上打造一套類似的服務需要時間和金錢,而且目前的客戶是否會接受這些服務還不確定。一些市場觀察家懷疑,許多投資者使用羅賓漢來娛樂,只在其活躍的平臺上小額下注,而把大部分財富留在其他地方。羅賓漢小額賬戶的規模增加了這一理論的可信度?!昂芏嗳税阉斪鞫壗浖o商——就像一個用來練手的游戲賬戶?!眲P西·普里莫齊說。他經營的網站Robintrack,專注于收集羅賓漢上最有人氣股票的數據。(羅賓漢在8月份停止與Robintrack共享數據,部分原因是,該網站的用戶包括一些尋求掃描交易模式以從中獲利的對沖基金。)

與此同時,所有經紀商都面臨著財務威脅。券商分析師雷佩托預測,隨著疫情的緩解,交易量將會下降。而作為羅賓漢大動脈的PFOF業務自身,也可能面臨風險。彭博行業研究分析師塔布預計,來自消費者權益倡導者的壓力,將促使SEC要求券商以不同方式顯示包括許多零售交易在內的“零碎股”的價格。這些變化將縮小這類交易的買賣價差,從而損害做市商的利潤率,并減少PFOF業務的收入。塔布表示,這些變化,再加上激烈的競爭,最終甚至可能導致券商重新征收傭金,終結羅賓漢所開創的時代。

羅賓漢首席財務官沃尼克斷然否認了該公司未來可能會收取傭金的說法。但就目前而言,這家公司仍然不愿透露其真實的創收計劃,即使它正在以極快的速度搶奪客戶。

目前還無法確定羅賓漢能否將這些交易員轉變為創利的長期客戶,尤其是考慮到其競爭對手的市場地位和雄厚財力。但斯坦福大學法學院教授、前SEC委員喬·格倫德費斯特認為,這些質疑低估了真正創新者的力量?!鞍凑者@種邏輯,沃爾瑪早已把亞馬遜打得屁滾尿流,哥倫比亞廣播公司(CBS)正在將Netflix按在地上摩擦。而特斯拉已經成為通用汽車的手下敗將?!彼f。

弗拉德·特涅夫現在要做的,就是展現猶如杰夫·貝佐斯、里德·黑斯廷斯和埃隆·馬斯克那般杰出的執行力。(財富中文網)

譯者:任文科

VLAD TENEV, like so many CEOs these days, is working from home. A thin 33-year-old with jet-black hair down to his shoulders, Tenev has joined a video call to discuss how his company—Robinhood, maker of the wildly popular eponymous stock-trading app—plans to capitalize on its recent growth.

But he also has other transitions on his mind. A father of two, Tenev explains that his younger child is in the final stages of potty training—a milestone that feels especially significant given Tenev’s own upbringing. “When I grew up, in Bulgaria, there were never enough diapers available,” he recounts. “So there was huge pressure to move on from diapers.”

Though he now lives in tony Palo Alto, Tenev brings up his childhood experience frequently, invoking the economic hardships and deprivations. In his view, Robinhood’s über-capitalist mission is to help neophyte investors build wealth by buying stocks.

Robinhood is only seven years old, but its pursuit of that mission has shaken up the brokerage industry in profound ways. Its sleek app-based features have made it the go-to investing platform for people under 40. The upstart boasts 15 million accounts, according to investment bank JMP Securities, on par with decades-old rivals like Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade; it added 5 million accounts in the first three quarters of 2020 alone. Its rapid rise has forced incumbents to emulate its innovations, most notably zero-commission trading, which virtually all brokers now offer. And its ease of use and unabashed cheerleading for stocks have made it synonymous with a new species of investor dubbed the “Robinhood trader”—a cohort disparaged by many financial pros, but one whose influence is reshaping assumptions about how to invest.

For Tenev and his 35-year-old cofounder, Baiju Bhatt, long-term success—including profitability and a public offering—depends on guiding those traders toward affluence. Robinhood believes it can emulate what Schwab did two generations earlier, acquiring younger customers that the rest of the industry has ignored, then providing more lucrative financial services as those customers mature.

For this strategy to work, however, Robinhood must prove it can attain maturity itself. The company’s stumbles on tech execution, regulatory compliance and customer service have prompted skepticism about its ability to offer products and advice to wealthier clients. Other critics have faulted the Menlo Park, Calif., startup for promoting risky trading. Even as Tenev wrangles toddlers at home, he’ll need to bring discipline to a company prone to behaving like a hormone-addled teenager.

*****

SIGNING UP for Robinhood can feel like navigating a lazy mobile video game. Exuberant screens promise, “There’s free stock waiting.” Others offer a “Robin’s reward” digital scratch-and-win——which in my case deposited $3.24 worth of an obscure health care stock into my new account. Within 10 minutes, I was able to trade stocks and stock options. It’s all a quantum leap from the last time I opened a brokerage account, five years ago. That process took days, involved fax machines, and, needless to say, offered no scratch-and-win prizes.

I’ve since experienced the design nudges that Robinhood uses to encourage trading. Flurries of notifications arrive, unbidden, to alert me to price moves in stocks I own. (I receive frequent pings about that health care stock.) When I do something new, an on-screen confetti shower celebrates my move.

Little wonder, then, that Robinhood has grown so quickly and generated such feverish activity. In the second quarter, its users traded nearly 60 billion shares of stock, a 150% year-over-year increase, eclipsing totals at Schwab and E*Trade. In June, the startup outstripped its rivals for the first time on a widely watched metric called daily average revenue trades, posting an average of 4.31 million, half a million more than runner-up TD Ameritrade.

Robinhood’s dominance is no fluke. It caught on by deploying the right technology at the right time: It launched in 2013, just as smartphones became ubiquitous. Bhatt and Tenev, who met at Stanford University, also absorbed the Silicon Valley ethos that design is king. The pair labored over Robinhood’s interface, teaching themselves typography and iOS design while riding Caltrain commuter rail and fine-tuning the app by asking countless strangers to try it. They also pulled off the startup trick of persuading early customers to refer friends, creating buzz without the expense of a marketing campaign. It didn’t hurt that their Stanford circle featured a who’s who of future Valley moguls, including Snapchat founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom, and media gadfly and venture investor Josh Constine, who could serve as the duo’s informal brain trust.

Robinhood also employed customer-acquisition tactics that other brokerages had seldom tried. Commission-free trading has attracted the most attention but equally important was requiring no minimum investment, which meant customers with very little cash could immediately assemble stock market stakes.

Its strategy is reminiscent of San Francisco– based Charles Schwab, the former upstart that made stock trading accessible to smaller investors in the 1970s with lower commissions and everyman marketing campaigns. Incumbents took a dismissive view of Schwab, says Chip Roame of Tiburon Strategic Advisors; heavyweights like Merrill Lynch let Schwab hoover up small investors while they catered to “priority households” with far more assets. “Now, Schwab has four times as many clients because they grabbed them while they could,” says Roame. “That’s what Robinhood is doing.”

Five decades later, the pattern could be repeating itself—dismissiveness included. In interviews, executives from older brokerages praise Robinhood’s app but express doubt that the company can provide the guidance customers will demand. “Gamification and confetti might get new traders in the door, but investors need a lot more from a firm they trust with their money,” says Barry Metzger, SVP of trading and education at Charles Schwab. “The app is just one part of it."

*****

IN A YEAR of unprecedented financial shocks, few were more surprising than the wave of retail investors—investors trading from personal accounts—that sloshed into stocks in 2020. Piper Sandler’s Rich Repetto, a veteran brokerage-stock analyst, estimates that retail investors’ share of trading has jumped from a longtime baseline of 10%–15% up to 20%– 25%, as amateurs homebound by the pandemic ride the ups and downs in stocks. That leap is one reason the average daily volume of shares traded soared from 7 billion in 2019 to 11 billion this year.

Tenev and Bhatt’s company has undeniably contributed to that increase, so much so that “Robinhood traders” has become disparaging shorthand for investors who pile into stocks without regard for business fundamentals. And indeed, Robinhood users helped fuel recent bubbles in shares of bankrupt brand names like Hertz and J.C. Penney. Still, Robinhood insists that caricatures of its customers are unfair, and that most aim to buy and hold stocks— behaving like investors, rather than traders.

Robinhood customers are younger than the industry norm, with a median age of 31; 70% are millennials or Gen Z. They’re also more ethnically diverse. According to a survey Robinhood commissioned, 60% of their customers are white, compared with 78% at other brokerages. Nineteen percent of Robinhood users are Hispanic, 10% are Asian, and 9% are Black—figures close to the makeup of the U.S. as a whole. (Women remain underrepresented at Robinhood and its rivals, accounting for about a third of customers.)

This young clientele may be buying stocks, but they’re not building much wealth yet—at least not at Robinhood. Investment bank JMP Securities estimates that the average Robinhood account balance is less than $5,000. Robinhood declines to comment on this estimate, but if accurate it’s a far cry from its competitors: The average balance at Schwab, for instance, is $255,000. Still, Robinhood executives say that their young customers have a different approach to investing than earlier generations—and that Robinhood’s tools could suit their needs well as they acquire more assets.

Inexpensive, low-maintenance index funds and ETFs were the democratizing force in investing in the 2000s and 2010s. But Howard Lindzon, an early Robinhood backer and founder of investing site Stocktwits, says that many young investors avoid index funds—which may own controversial assets like oil or tobacco stocks—and instead buy shares of brands they trust, like Netflix and Disney. Tenev, meanwhile, notes that buying fractional shares of pricey stocks like Google and Amazon is particularly appealing to this generation. Through Robinhood, they can arrange to automatically purchase partial shares of such blue chips every payday.

These à la carte tactics don’t offer the diversification and protection against risk that index funds do. But with zero-commission trading, building a portfolio by buying dozens or hundreds of individual stocks is no longer cost-prohibitive. And customers who prefer funds and ETFs can still buy them on Robinhood. Whatever approach they employ, Tenev says he anticipates more customers will direct automatic paycheck deductions into Robinhood accounts, the way savers do with IRAs and 401(k)s. That will keep them in the fold as they grow wealthier, offering Robinhood an opportunity to sell them profitable products and services.

Robinhood executives are tight-lipped about what those products and services will be or when they’ll arrive. But Tenev tells Fortune that Robinhood could eventually take a more active role managing customers’ assets, and a 2019 deck about the company’s future describes plans to offer IRAs, mortgage lending, and property and life insurance. “When you see the products roll out, it will fit into a coherent long-term narrative,” says Tenev.

*****

THOSE WHO KNEW TENEV and Bhatt at Stanford say the pair were more bookish than boorish. Tenev says personal wealth has never been their primary motivation—notwithstanding that they will likely become billionaires if Robinhood goes public. “We both wanted to be physics or math professors,” says Tenev. “You don’t do that because you want money.” (Bhatt was on paternity leave and unavailable for interviews during the reporting of this story.) When they launched Robinhood, the duo said they were inspired by the ideals of Occupy Wall Street; their corporate namesake, of course, is a folk hero who stole from the rich.

Still, like many of their tech-startup forebears, the founders have been criticized for forsaking populist principles in the pursuit of hyper-growth. For Robinhood, that criticism has revolved around both its gamified, casino-like design and its business model. And in the arena of options trading, the combination of those factors has put the startup on the defensive.

Robinhood earns more than 70% of its revenue through a process called “payment for order flow” or PFOF, which generated $453 million for the startup in the first three quarters of 2020, according to securities filings. (The remainder of Robinhood’s revenue comes primarily from lending securities and from Gold, a $5-a-month premium service whose features include margin trading and more-detailed market data.) PFOF involves routing customer trades through market-making firms, in return for a fee; the market makers benefit by earning money on the spread between bid and ask prices when they execute the trades. Routing orders through market makers can also help customers get more favorable prices on their trades, but it’s usually an either/or proposition; if the brokerage gets a PFOF fee, the customers won’t get price improvement.

While controversial, PFOF is commonplace: Larry Tabb, a markets analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, notes that PFOF fees are what allow brokerages to offer free trades in the first place. The situation is murkier, though, when it comes to PFOF for options—contracts that give investors the right to buy or sell shares at a fixed price in the future. Options offer alternative ways to profit from share-price movements, but their pricing can be fiendishly complicated, and trading them is usually the province of professionals. Market makers offer considerably higher PFOF payments for options trades, in part because they generate higher margins—and options-related fees account for 62% of Robinhood’s PFOF revenue, according to Piper Sandler.

Not coincidentally, Robinhood’s app frequently reminds users that options are an option. During my test-drives (albeit after I selected “I know what I’m doing” during sign-up), hitting “trade” on any stock called up a large “Trade Options” button that appeared above the more pedestrian “Buy” or “Sell” choices. Selecting “Trade Options” leads to invitations to select puts and calls—the most basic contracts—but also to try exotic “multi-leg” strategies involving multiple contracts, with names like “straddle,” “strangle,” and “Iron Condor,” tactics that wouldn’t sound out of place at a pro-wrestling match.

These nudges irk critics, who say the options game is one novices shouldn’t play, not least because pros can take advantage of newbies’ inexperience. Ranjan Roy, a former Bank of America options trader, wrote a widely shared essay explaining why veterans refer to amateurs as “the gravy.” “If you trade options all day, you’re going to lose money,” Roy tells Fortune. Benn Eifert, founder of an investment fund that uses options to ride out market volatility, says that successful options trading requires sophisticated software and substantial math proficiency. He expresses dismay over Robinhood’s tempting interface. “It’s totally shocking to me that it’s not a major legal issue for them,” he says.

Robinhood has, in fact, been fined by both industry group FINRA and the SEC for lack of transparency about its PFOF practices around options. And scrutiny of how it encourages options trading has increased in the wake of the June suicide of one of its customers, who left a note blaming the company for letting him accumulate over $700,000 of debt while trading options. (It later emerged that the 20-year-old had failed to understand that the negative balance he saw on-screen was much higher than his actual debt.)

Robinhood has promised to overhaul its options platform and to offer better disclosure about PFOF practices and more educational material for traders. Tenev says that stories about options trading don’t reflect the habits of most customers: Only 13% trade options, and fewer than 2% of those try multi-leg strategies. Others connected to Robinhood are less apologetic, seeing condescension in the criticism. “There’s a shocking level of sophistication in the order flow,” says an executive at one of Robinhood’s market-making partners. “It’s not like it’s Aunt Millie in Nebraska trading puts and calls.” Lindzon, the early Robinhood backer, acknowledges that some customers make bad decisions—but argues that it’s paternalistic to stop them. “You’re going to let a kid drive a car or buy a Juul, but you’re not going to let a kid decide what stock they’re going to buy?” he asks.

Other public relations scrapes have dented Robinhood’s reputation, as have technical meltdowns that left users unable to access the site during peak trading days. By mid-July of this year, Robinhood had been the subject of 473 complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, compared with 126 for Schwab and 69 for Fidelity—which have comparable numbers of customers. The discontent has arguably been aggravated by Robinhood’s approach to customer service. Unlike traditional brokerages, which field armies of agents to hold clients’ hands, Robinhood does not provide customers with even a phone number, leaving them to seek help via the app.

Tenev appears to have internalized the tech credo that automated solutions are preferable to the old-fashioned (and expensive) alternative of hiring humans. “Most people aren’t yearning for a call to customer support,” he says. “They don’t want to talk to an agent. They just want the quickest solution to their problem.” Nonetheless, in a bow to reality and to its own future ambitions, Robinhood is hiring hundreds of agents to staff call centers in Arizona and Texas. The company says these agents are now making outbound calls in response to digital requests for help—but it has no immediate plans to publish a phone number.

*****

ROBINHOOD’S AWKWARD adolescence hasn’t kept it from raising very grownup sums. In September, the company announced it had raised $660 million in a new funding round from prominent venture capital firms including Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital. Following two earlier rounds this year, Robinhood has raised $2.2 billion in total, with a current valuation of $11.7 billion. The gusher of cash amounts to a bet that Robinhood will challenge or even eclipse the old guard.

It is also a bet that Tenev is ready to run a public company. Robinhood is expected to announce an IPO in the coming months, and the company said on Nov. 20 that Bhatt would step down as co-CEO, leaving Tenev as sole chief. (Bhatt will remain on Robinhood’s board and work on product development.) Tenev is reading history to find leaders to emulate. “Alexander the Great was a leader who led from the front,” he enthuses. “That courage and boldness is inspirational. Alexander was on his horse and going to battle while his generals were still talking.” His own supporting cast of generals, meanwhile, now includes more seasoned executives, including Jason Warnick, an Amazon veteran who became CFO in 2018, and Dan Gallagher, a former SEC commissioner who is now Robinhood’s top lawyer.

For now, the team has momentum on its side. The pandemic-driven surge in trading has produced a bigger pie for all brokers: TD Ameritrade and E*Trade recently posted record quarterly trading revenues (each had PFOF in part to thank). Even so, Robinhood’s progress stands out: Investors are downloading its app at a pace 10 times as great as those of rivals.

Still, impressive scale doesn’t guarantee Robinhood will evolve into a Fidelity or Charles Schwab. Those companies’ diverse, profitable revenue streams include asset management and banking services, as well as interest earned from customers’ cash balances. The incumbents are also beefing up their offerings by consolidating: Charles Schwab is in the final stages of acquiring TD Ameritrade, while E*Trade has just been absorbed into Morgan Stanley.

Building a comparable suite of services at Robinhood will take time and money—and it’s no sure thing that current customers will embrace them. Some market-watchers suspect that many investors use Robinhood for entertainment, wagering small amounts on its zippy platform while keeping the bulk of their wealth elsewhere. Robinhood’s small account sizes lend credibility to that theory. “A lot of people use it as a secondary brokerage— like a play account,” says Casey Primozic, who runs a site called Robintrack that compiles data about the most popular stocks on Robinhood. (Robinhood stopped sharing data with Robintrack in August, in part because the site’s users included hedge funds scanning for trading patterns they could profit from.)

Financial threats loom, meanwhile, for all brokers. Repetto, the brokerage analyst, predicts that trading volumes will decline as the pandemic eases. And payment for order flow, Robinhood’s main artery, may itself be at risk. Tabb, the Bloomberg Intelligence analyst, expects that pressure from consumer advocates will lead the SEC to require brokerages to display prices differently for the “odd lots” that include many retail trades. Those changes would narrow the bid-ask spread on such trades—hurting market makers’ margins and leaving less revenue for PFOF. Tabb says that such changes, along with fierce competition, may eventually even lead brokerages to reimpose commissions, undoing the era that Robinhood ushered in.

Warnick, Robinhood’s CFO, flatly rejects the idea that the company might charge commissions. But for now, Robinhood continues to keep its actual revenue-generating plans close to the vest, even as it grabs customers at a breakneck pace.

The likelihood of Robinhood turning those traders into profit-generating, long-term customers seems uncertain—especially given the incumbency and deep pockets of its competitors. But Joe Grundfest, a Stanford Law School professor and former SEC commissioner who knows Tenev and Bhatt, says such skepticism underestimates the power of a true innovator. “By that logic, Walmart should be kicking Amazon’s ass, CBS should be wiping the floor with Netflix, GM should be kicking the corn out of Tesla,” he says.

All Vlad Tenev has to do now is execute like Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, and Elon Musk.

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