“Our technology isn’t the only reason people come and work with us. It’s all about relationships.”
Patrick Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Signal Advisors, knows that the company’s greatest strength is people.
“We’re a tech-enabled insurance distributor that puts humans first,” Patrick said. “Because the future of financial advisors is human.”
Signal Advisors is a venture-backed, Detroit startup that helps independent financial advisors grow their business in various ways—through technology, financing, peer-to-peer coaching, marketing, and more. They just came out of stealth mode in August 2020, and have become the country's fastest-growing annuity distributor.
But whether they’re building world-class software or delivering expert analysis on complex insurance strategies, it's their people that make the difference, Signal Advisors said.
No More Robo
As a tech-enabled company, Signal Advisors is all about innovating and developing cutting-edge technology that offers convenience, efficiency, and a competitive advantage. But that should never come at the expense of people.
“Technology should empower people, not replace them,” said Jake Cohen, co-founder of Signal Advisors.
The personal nature of financial advising also makes human relationships all the more important. When people are talking about the money they’ve been saving over the course of their career, their nest egg, what they have to retire with—that’s a very personal conversation, and people want to have that with another human. That’s why Signal Advisors is automating what can be automated, so that advisors can have more time to sit down with clients, learn about their goals, and make them feel comfortable.
“We want to empower our clients with the right tools and technology to make them the most optimized financial advisors they can be,” Jake said. That way, they can focus on the things that humans do best.”
This people-first mentality is lived out every day at Signal Advisors. Whether they’re working with big clients or small ones, the team makes sure they support “every client, every time.”
“There’s no ranking of humans in order of importance. Every client, every time. We really live that mantra,” Jake said.
Joining The (No) Ranks
While some companies may have an external culture that doesn’t reflect their internal one, Signal Advisors make sure that their people-first mantra is lived out in how they treat their customers and their employees.
Patrick, Jake and CTO and co-founder, Kevin O’Hara, all strive to make Signal Advisors a place where everyone has a say.
“We want people who will bring new ideas,” Kevin said.
And that’s not just something they say. It’s something they practice.
Every two weeks the team gets together for a large brainstorming session.
“It’s like a forum for participating in problem solving. Anyone can—and we hope they do—participate and contribute ideas,” Kevin said.
Kevin recalls a time when the team got together to figure out how to make sure clients always got top-tier service.
“The solutions were driven from the bottom-up, and a team took the initiative to tackle it. And that’s the kind of people we’re looking for—people who want to participate and be active in crafting the company and our culture,” Kevin said.
And that entrepreneurial spirit is a huge part of their culture.
“We want to work with people who want to take ownership and leadership,” Jake said. “People who will come in and be an entrepreneur, who can figure things out. We’re trying to empower everybody to do that.”
The founders said they’re looking for people who are “obsessed with finding a better way.”
That’s entrepreneurship—not settling,” Jake said. “That’s something that drives the team internally. You’re not waiting for someone to tell you to find a better way. You’re just naturally obsessed with finding it. We want that to be freeing for our employees. That they’re free to find a better way and not be overwhelmed by that opportunity.”
Another key aspect of their culture is inclusion and belonging, and part of that starts on day one when the team is onboarding new hires.
Jake said it can be challenging to make people feel like they’re starting a new job at a new company if they’re still working from home. But the Signal Advisors team has a plan.
“It’s important to get Signal into their house when they get started,” Jake said. “We send them some swag, and we’re working on some other cool little things. We want Signal to be a place where everyone feels comfortable working.”
They also have new hires join random meetings, even the ones that lie outside of their team or core responsibilities.
“New hires don’t get any of the benefits from just overhearing things in the office. So we invite them to all kinds of meetings because you can be a fly on the wall so easily in the Zoom world. It helps simulate the office culture of overhearing things that’s going on, getting involved, and that helps new hires learn more about the company and the culture,” Jake said.
It’s a Good Time to Join a Startup
If it sounds like Patrick, Kevin and Jake really know what they’re doing when it comes to building teams and growing a business, that’s because they do.
The three of them have known each other through different circles for many years, and each brings something valuable to the table.
“The three of us all have different backgrounds, but they’re all complementary,” Jake said.
Patrick has been in this industry for his whole career and maybe even his life—even his mom is a financial advisor. Along with knowing the industry inside and out, he’s also built software for financial advisors.
Then you have Kevin, who’s been building technology companies throughout his whole career. His expertise is building world-class, scalable software.
Jake has been investing in high-growth companies, sitting on advisory boards, and learning what it takes to build a high-growth company for many years.
And together, Jake said they make a nice trifecta.
“This isn’t our first venture,” said Kevin. “We’ve all been a part of building other companies in the past and have had success. Patrick, Jake, and I have all started companies that did well and were acquired.”
Which is important for the candidates who have maybe watched Silicon Valley and are skeptical of joining a startup, thinking the founders will quickly run out of money.
“We’re all coming together to bring all of our shared experiences—that’s why we’re so excited about this,” Jake said.
Jake noted that there’s a lot of security in joining founders who know what they’re doing. Plus, you still get that high-growth opportunity.
So this isn’t their first rodeo, but times are weird, right?
Jake, Kevin, and Patrick say now is actually a great time to join a startup with capital.
Many large companies that have lost a large percentage of their customers are focusing on trying to stay afloat.
“Startups are at a huge advantage right now,” Jake said. “For big companies that are just trying to survive, their focus is on weathering the storm, not innovation. And innovation budgets at big companies are always the first to get cut. Then they resort to massive layoffs when business gets bad. It’s a myth that big companies are a ‘safe’ bet.”
Plus, the demand for financial advice has skyrocketed. Because people are concerned about the markets, they’re wondering what to do with their retirement accounts, and how to prepare.
“And because that demand has gone up, Signal’s clients are doing really well. What’s changed for our advisors is how they do business. They’re used to going out, meeting clients, shaking hands, doing seminars. So that has shifted, and we’ve helped them work through that adjustment,” Kevin said.
And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about for Signal Advisors: building the technology—and relationships—that will empower people. And that includes their employees.