‘With GameStop, we basically doubled our userbase in just a few days after having 13X’d it the year before’: Public’s Jannick Malling

  • After a year of massive growth, investing app Public faced an incredible opportunity: the GameStop stock trading frenzy.
  • Co-CEO Jannick Malling joins us on the podcast to discuss how he and his team navigated this flood of interest in his firm and where the company is headed in the future.

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‘With GameStop, we basically doubled our userbase in just a few days after having 13X’d it the year before’: Public’s Jannick Malling

On today’s show, we’re going to explore opportunities. These types of opportunities we’ll be talking about don’t come around everyday but when they do, they can be transformative, if you’re able to really step up.

I talk to Jannick Malling, co-CEO and co-founder of investing app, Public. For younger investors, the meme stock rally offered an opportunity to participate, many for the first time, in the stock market. And for Jannick and Public, it offered an even bigger opportunity: to scale rapidly. But this required smart moves – Jannick and team distanced themselves from competitor Robinhood’s revenue model, pay for order flow, which became an important topic as it opened and closed trading windows on popular meme stocks. Jannick recognized the power in this Game Stop moment and shares his thinking that went into strategizing around it.

Last week, Public also released a new generative AI investment research tool called Alpha. It helps people, both newbies and experienced investors, learn more about the investment process and specific investments. Jannick shares his experience working with these new technologies, with a keen eye on how they can be used to service customers, and where they are headed in the future.

Jannick Malling is my guest today on the Tearsheet Podcast.

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The following excerpts were edited for clarity.

Intro to Public

Hey, I'm Jannick Marling. I'm the co-founder and co-CEO of Public.com, which is an investing app where you can buy stocks and ETFs, but also treasuries, crypto, and alternatives. We've fractionalized access to a lot of different asset classes to allow everybody to build a portfolio with all kinds of assets that fit in their investing profile. We do a lot of work to provide a lot of context around those portfolios as well, through content and community. And as of this morning, we offer some AI-powered services as well.

Public’s community base

I would say our users are mostly younger people. We kind of over index on what you would call Millennials. That's the biggest cohort. But what's actually been kind of fascinating since we launched is we've had people from all walks of life, and it's actually much more of a diversified user base than I think many realize. We put some numbers out on this also, and it's much more gender neutral: around 40% of our users are women. And so it's a little bit less the classic, traditional finance guy. 

We've really tried to make Public a company that can open up to the general public at large – hence, the name. And so everything in our product experience, everything in our brand has always over indexed on making it not just accessible, but actually approachable. Those are two similar sounding words, but there's a pretty big difference in the end. 

Users’ investing experience

We are a company that launched by the end of 2019. And so we've had a lot of influx of new people that are completely new to investing – first time investors, we call them. And in the early days, that number was as high as 90%. I think, today, it's a little bit less than that. But you've also had a fascinating past couple of years, where the intersection of mobile and fractional really democratized access, as well as everything that will happen from a macro perspective in this country, as well as the world. 

There was this proliferation. And I think, as a result of that, we've seen that ratio come down a little bit. And so again, to date, it's a much more kind of mixed bag. And that's also as a result of Public having evolved during that time. Last year, for instance, we launched something called Public Premium, which is a premium subscription service where we give all the way down to KPI level data. So if you look at Tesla, you'll see charts of vehicles delivered and look at Uber, you'll see data on driver growth – all those kinds of things, like the most leading indicators. And as we rolled out services like that, we've become, thankfully, also an investing destination for more experienced kinds of investors and traders.

Launching AI-powered Alpha

We've announced on our website a kind of roadmap for Alpha, where you can see our three phases of rollout. Phase one, which we announced today, is to have it be sort of a co-pilot, research assistant, if you will, to help you research investments deeper, faster, and with less friction. I think that's universally something that anybody can benefit from. But if you think about the way that these AI services work, you know how deep you go with it is really up to the individual user. And so that's actually something where from a design paradigm (I kind of grew up with a design background, so I think a lot about this stuff), it naturally kind of unfolds, the deeper you go into the experience.

So you can start from the very top – let's call it a funnel. And then you can ask basic questions. And then maybe that's enough, and you close it down and you go on to potentially take action or not – or you can just keep going. And that's what's so fascinating about this: you can really just keep drilling down, keep having this conversational research approach. 

What's been interesting for Public is we've always had a social graph underpinning our entire community. It's also the place where you can converse with other investors and see what they invest in. We've always believed that the best research happens in dialogue with other people. And we still believe that, except now, we believe that it also happens in dialogue with people that are not really people, but that are AI. It's the same kind of dynamic and behavioral interaction that you have. Because when you have conversation, that's really where you tend to arrive at the most interesting point of analysis and conclusion. So this is a way that not only can you converse with other like-minded investors on Public as you've been able to from day one, but now you can also have that conversation with an AI. We find that to be a super fascinating hybrid approach to investment going forward.

Wrangling GPT

What's kind of interesting, we’re learning as we go. Nobody really knows, right? We just show up every day. This is a totally different paradigm in terms of development. Because at the end of the day, most kinds of features that you build, they have their classic kind of Gantt Chart roadmap. You've got your JIRA tickets, and then you crunch those through, and it's a little bit more fixed in the scope. 

This is literally like a little bit all over the place. Some days, you just see these products, and its ability to converse with you and understand what you're trying to do and help you to do that. And other times you find these almost like – blind spots, we call them – where there's still stuff that it needs to understand here. And so how can we go about this in a different way? It's been a totally different development journey. 

But the great thing is, by building on top of this technology, you sort of guarantee that the underlying trend line is just gonna keep going up to the right. And that's where you realize the power of this, because we'll have a lot of wind in your back, because you don't hear people talking about AI getting worse, right? By design, that’s almost impossible. And so it really only gets better and that's exciting for folks.

3 stage rollout

When we got access to start tinkering around with this stuff, the first thing that happens is your mind kind of explodes and you realize all the different paths that this could take. And you start extrapolating out.  I told the team it's a little bit like investing – compounding is one of the hardest concepts for the human mind to pattern. And so you start to extrapolate out, but even when you extrapolate it out, you always tend to do that linearly and not on a accelerating kind of compounding basis. So we just needed to lock down a scope and also be like, Okay, there's a lot of chatter right now of how all this is going to change our lives. There's enough of that chatter. We didn't want to be the folks that just contribute to that – we wanted to actually build something that's actionable and just define the first phase scope.

At Public we often talk about helping people be better investors in everything that we do. And so we approach things and ask how we can do that. We identified multiple ways, and then we decided to start with a user, when you are researching perspective investments within the app, you have this nice little pull down interaction that actually sparks the conversation. And then, you're off to the races. 

It's been very helpful for us to nail down that scope in order to have something more tangible and actionable and a little bit more constrained – that it can focus on learning and getting a lot better at. Because I think it's a little bit like, if you're an NBA player, you'll likely either want to be the world's best rebounder or three point shooting, boxing out, passing, or whatever it is, versus just being mediocre at everything. That's a little bit similar to how we approached the pacing of this.

Fractionalized real time trading, finding growth

We launched in 2019. We were the first company to fractionalize real time stock trading. That carried a lot of our early growth. I'm talking about really picking a stock, putting in five bucks of Amazon, hitting go, and then you're a fractional owner of that company. That didn't really exist. That innovation was very important for early growth, because just like the feedback loop there, the engagement that that creates makes this a social app. It was a community driven app, it was actually an even more important feature, because I might be able to see what other people are investing in and why. But if I can't action that because a certain asset is outside of my price range due to something as arbitrary as the price per share, that just seemed ridiculous. 

So a lot of our early effort was really around that. And that's where Public Comment came in. That carried a lot of our early growth into COVID, where, obviously, nobody knew at the time what was happening there. But that turned out to be generally a huge kind of buy the dip moment for a lot of folks, especially younger folks that were well within our target demo. 

We grew very fast through 2020 – I think we grew the user base 13x during 2020. So that was wild – every month, you're growing 50% to 100% literally. The company got to look different. The funny thing is, at the end of 2020, Leif, my co founder, and I pulled the team aside to manage expectations for the team a little bit, because at the end of 2020, Biden's gotten elected. He said he was going to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days. You start to see some light at the end of the tunnel. So we tell the whole team don't expect next year to get as crazy – this was probably much like a one off event. 

Enter GameStop

There's a lot of macro business, economic change. We’re like keep our heads down, focus on building products, etc. 30 days later, GameStop happens and all hell breaks loose. I think we then doubled the user base, and just a couple of days from on the back of having just 13X’d the entire past year. That became an obviously huge accelerant for us, as well.

In my other companies, I've experienced something like these moments before, but at a way smaller scale. I started early enough in financial services that I remember 2008. I was working in a company called Saxo Bank at the time, which is a big European player. I remember that from the inside. And so I've seen some of these hectic and horrible days. 

This was different – it was hectic, but it was ultimately fueled by optimism and a sense of community. As a social app, Public was right in the center of that. Everything that was playing out there, as well. And then secondly, we also realized that we've always talked a lot about Public being a company that's aligned with our customer base, that company that ultimately, will be the most trusted kind of platform. 

So from an early onset, we've always talked about this payment for order flow mechanism, which most brokerages use to actually make money, but especially zero-commission kind of brokerages have been relying heavily on that kind of revenue stream. And from the early days, we never really did.

Positioned differently than Robinhood  

If you go all the way back to our 2019 Series A deck and Excel, the folks will tell you that we actually said that we did not plan on keeping payment for order flow forever, because it's been illegal in the UK, Canada, Australia, and a couple of other places. So we never wanted to bank on that being the main revenue stream. We did have this idea of savings, and even a bunch of other ways that we can make money. And then we just pulled that kind of forward very heavily, because 2020 was such a huge scale year. We just poured everything into keeping the lights on as we were growing the user base that fast. 

Scaling trading systems is hard. Scaling a social app can also be hard. We were doing both at the same time. And so that GameStop moment and the payment of order flow thing ended up being very interlinked, because ultimately, the events of GamSstop became how a lot of people became educated at scale around this payment for order flow mechanism, that otherwise, prior to GameStop, had been very difficult to even even explain to people.

Getting social right in investing 

In the early days and through 2020, for instance, I think 90% of our signups were first time investors. And so very quickly for us, social became education, right? That way, you build financial literacy at scale, because the truth is, there's a lot of great books that have been written on investing, but they tend to be 500 pages or more. That's not how people want to learn these days. And so, similarly to how a lot of people learn to meditate by doing 10 minutes of Calm every day or Headspace, for us, social became the thing where you checked in 10 to 15 minutes every day. You built that kind of habit, that behavior, and you learn something new every day. 

And either at a micro level about a company that you owned or general financial literacy about PE ratios and what they actually mean and how they play out in different industries, or even at a macro level of how stimulus is going to change the economy. What social allows us to do is have all these updates happen in real time, have conversations about them, versus just having news where you read an article, and then you come to an end and then you're done. You have to go and do something else. And that's where with social, you can participate, you can ask questions, and then do that alongside other people who either are in the same boat as you as far as having the same level of experience, or learning from people that have a lot more experience. 

I think also specifically around COVID, there was a sense of people coming together, all around the country, all around the world. Tthere was a sort of a microcosm of that that played out in the Public community as well, where people were really in this together and the more experienced folks were more than happy to share their learnings. I think education is really like the main thing that it started us off, and since then, it's become more than just education, although education, still a very big piece of it. Now it’s like real time reactions to market events. 

Earlier this year, we launched US Treasuries, the ability to buy T bills in real time with a few taps of a button. What we realized is as the community had been geeking out on stocks during 2020 and maybe crypto during 2021 -- in 2022 and 2023, they started geeking out on the yield curve. That basically means educating people about the fixed income space, Even more people are learning about it actually for the first time. Learning by scrolling through, kind of like a community of well reasoned people, who provide their perspective on stuff – I think it has just proven to be a much more effective way for people to learn. 

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