Culture and Talent

How Twine, John Hancock’s robo-adviser tool, keeps a startup feel

  • John Hancock acquired startup Guide Financial two years ago to build tech and cultural innovation throughout the company
  • The acquisition helped the legacy company develop a robo-adviser and personal finance app; the challenge is maintaining a balance between autonomy and integration

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How Twine, John Hancock’s robo-adviser tool, keeps a startup feel

For a 155-year-old financial institution, building a digital finance tool that can hold its own among a sea of popular apps isn’t easy.

But John Hancock wants to change that narrative with Twine, its robo-adviser and personal finance tool it released last month.  Twine emphasizes simplicity in its look and feel — a user interface similar to many startup-developed apps out there.
Twine screenshot

“We weren’t going to be a Vanguard, and on the other hand, there are actors like Robinhood — we landed somewhere in the middle,” said Barbara Goose, John Hancock’s chief marketing officer, who joined the company late last year. “The capabilities were like some of the stronger robos out there, but the presentation and engagement was done in a way that engages the millennial audience.”

For John Hancock, which is owned by Canada-based Manulife, the journey involved more than cobbling together an in-house team. John Hancock looked outside, buying San Francisco-based financial services AI startup Guide Financial in 2015. John Hancock isn’t alone among large financial services companies acquiring startups, with some high-profile examples including Northwestern Mutual acquiring Learnvest two years ago, and TIAA buying MyVest last year.

“We took that team and used them as a foundation — we didn’t send people from John Hancock to go out there,” said Steven Dorval, head of advice and innovation, who joined the company two years ago. “We surrounded them with people with subject-matter, legal and compliance expertise — our advantage is that we can bring to the table to a startup something that they would otherwise have to spend money on themselves, and instead they can invest that money into product engineering.”

Twine operates as a separate organizational unit based in San Francisco, while most of John Hancock’s offices are in Boston. The team of around 25 employees includes engineers, product managers, user experience designers and marketing staff. But despite being organizationally separate, Goose said the team stays in contact with the mother ship through travel and video conferencing. Dorval said two things ensure that the Twine team doesn’t clash with headquarters, the fact that senior management gives the team the latitude to work autonomously, and that his role as innovation officer acts as a communication channel between Twine and senior management in Boston.

“We wanted this team to influence the culture of the rest of the company,” he said. “We didn’t have too many instances where there was disagreement; it’s part of my role to work closely in mentoring the team each day and communicating back and being available to the executives to help understand the choices we’re making.”

Dorval said one area which could have caused a disagreement is Twine’s decision to use a different technology stack than the parent company, but he said management gave the team the flexibility to experiment. He adds that while it’s important to conserve a degree of autonomy among the Twine team, going too far off course has its risks.

“A mistake that you could potentially make is that you create a startup and you separately fund it, and then you have this thing set off on an island and there’s no way to bring it back off the island if it’s successful,” he said.

To those who work in the banking technology world, the key challenge in incumbent-startup acquisitions is to retain the “separateness” of the acquired entity while still ensuring that it benefits from the resources of the parent company.

“There are a lot of benefits when you can acquire teams and they have good synergies and understand how to make things happen, as opposed to building the teams yourself,” said Carlos Carvajal, chief marketing officer at Kony, a tech company that works with banks on mobile apps and personal finance tools. “But the hard part is  how do you make it easy for Twine to leverage services from the larger company, without making them get sucked into the processes that would bog them down.”

Photo of Twine San Francisco workspace courtesy of John Hancock 

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