Say’s Byron Sorrells on using technology to give individual investors a voice
- Say uses technology to help investors understand what they own and participate in ownership.
- The company gave Tesla investors with just a few shares the ability to participate in a recent earnings call.
We don't talk a lot about investor communications nowadays. As mutual funds and ETFs own massive amounts of stock, small individual investors are mostly sidelined. Tech company Say is trying to change that. The company's regulated business helps provide a better experience of investor communications. But through the unregulated part of its business, Say is turning investor participation on its head. Investors with just fractional ownership in companies can get their voices heard and their questions answered.
On Tesla's last earnings call, using Say and ahead of institutional analysts, CEO Elon Musk took an 18 year old's question — he owned four shares --about whether Tesla would consider launching an insurance product. To the surprise of others on the call, Tesla hadn't only thought about it but is planning to introduce insurance in the near term. Sometimes, Individual investor participation is magical.
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The following excerpts were edited for clarity.
Why create a new form of investor communications?
The founder of Acorns Jeff Cruttenden experienced the challenge in investor communications when he sent messages to his clients at Acorns. These were first time investors and didn't understand what they owned. When you asked them what they were invested in, they replied Acorns or Stash. But they were invested in ETFs.
When Acorns started sending these communications, people thought they were spam. They didn't understand what it meant to vote. There was just a lack of education around what could have been an awesome moment to introduce this other side of investing. When Jeff and the other co-founders started digging in, they found that there was a business model and you could really flip what was a compliance function on its head into a product and marketing function.
How investor communications work today
I went through the Twitter IPO and got all these mailings, too. When I met Jeff, he referenced these communications and I said, oh, you mean the things I throw away and never look at? When you buy a security, it's that company's regulated responsibility to get you their investment materials. As an owner, you're entitled to get their annual report, a proxy statement, adn the right to vote.
There's this underbelly where brokers are sending out overnight who owns what. There's one big third party, Broadridge, who does most of the heavy lifting. Investors get periodic mailings with reports and the opportunity to vote. There's a regulated fee schedule where the person sending the mailings can charge -- it's not the brokers. Companies don't know who their shareholders are -- the brokers do -- so they pay to reach their investors.
Why investors aren't so plugged in
As much as technology has enabled investing in minutes, it's created a veil between what it means to purchase and own an investment. In the old days, people were proud of their investments and dress up to go to events. There's no ceremony around investment ownership. Berkshire still retains some of this.
Changing earnings calls
Participating in earnings calls has been generally reserved to institutional investors and analysts. With Tesla, we created a way to let anyone at any brokerage to connect in to a call. We verify whether you own stock -- even if it's fractional or via an ETF -- and let you participate. You can ask a question or upvote a question asked by your fellow shareholders.
Tesla's head of IR Matin and CEO Elon decided to take questions from Say for their Q4 2018 and Q1 2019 earnings calls. It's really cool to see that everyday investors can jump on and ask questions. On Tesla's last earnings call, using Say and ahead of institutional analysts, CEO Elon Musk took an 18 year old's question -- he owned four shares -- about whether Tesla would consider launching an insurance product. To the surprise of others on the call, Tesla hadn't only thought about it but is planning to introduce insurance in the near term. A few shares can matter to get noticed.
Empowering owners of ETFs and other funds
We got the data from Thomson and got the composition of investors' holdings Even if you owned a fraction of a fraction of a stock through a fund like Ark or QQQQ, you can participate. Of course, we weight you accordingly -- it's proportional to what you own. It's a new thing for most people. They don't know what's inside their target date fund, for example. Once you break it apart, there's an aha moment for investors as they learn about it.
Market dynamics and the impact on investor communications
Broadridge is very good at what they do. A lot of people don't know about them, but they power a lot of brokerages. There wasn't a lot of incentive to innovate in the space. We're seeing an improvement across the board. Mediant powers Robinhood's investor communications and that experience has gotten a lot better. It's one of those things that took a long time but we're at a tipping point where investor communications have to catch up to where we're at. You can't have a slick investment app like Robinhood, where you're trading crypto next to stocks, with questionable communication that looks like a fax was scanned in and mailed to you.