Michael Carvin, CEO and co-founder of SmartAdvisor. Michael Carvin, CEO and co-founder of SmartAdvisor.

Years ago, in a meandering conversation on what advisors need to be successful, the successful advisor and author Susan Hirshman caught me up short by telling me that it’s only one thing that advisors want and need to be successful: new, good clients.

SmartAdvisor appears to be a convenient, affordable and efficient way for advisors to meet that need.

A new offering from SmartAsset.com, which provides personal finance tools and education to online consumers through its website and through partnerships with popular financial sites, the genesis of SmartAdvisor came when CEO and co-founder Michael Carvin and his team realized that many of those consumers “wanted to talk to a person” about their finances. “The idea to connect investors on the SmartAsset program came from people asking for it,” Carvin said simply in a March 14 interview.

There are many client referral programs, of course, offered by advisor custodians and broker-dealers, by associations like the Financial Planning Association and NAPFA and by financial publishers and standalone companies.

Carvin sums up SmartAdvisor’s intent this way. “Our goal is to build a fund-raising machine for financial advisors; to build the first white glove local marketing service for advisors.” The platform, he says, allows advisors to “tap into all of that intent that investors have on the web to work with them.”

There are three things that seem to set apart SmartAdvisor from those other referral sites:

1. For one, advisors who sign up for the program don’t need to make a long-term commitment. “They can hit the ‘pause’ button at any time,” says Carvin, and for any reason. “We thought about it this way: if you compel an advisor to sign up for a year, it doesn’t sound like you have a huge amount of confidence” in that referral program.

2. Second, these are not cold leads that the advisor gets, but rather ‘high-intent” leads, as SmartAdvisor calls them. “They opt in” by responding through a “little link on a retirement calculator or on a CNN Money article,” says Carvin, that asks ‘Are you interested in meeting a financial advisor in your neighborhood?’ The prospects then have to answer 20-25 questions about their financial assets and goals, including queries like ‘Do you have kids? How close are you to retirement?’ which Carvin says help “weed out those who don’t want to work with an advisor. Then we get on the phone.”

Those calls to prospective clients are made by SmartAdvisor’s team of ‘concierges,’ who match them with the right advisor. Who is the right advisor? It’s someone who is local (prospects are ‘geo-targeted’ by Zip codes that the advisor chooses, since many clients “don’t want to drive more than 20 minutes” to an advisor’s office, says Carvin) and who already works with a similar kind of client, measured by a range of indicators including investable assets or income or by proximity to retirement.

3. The third differentiator is that the cost seems quite reasonable. There is a one-time fee for each prospect, based on the prospect’s level of investable assets. For prospects with over $1 million the fee is $190; for those with $250,000 to $1 million the fee is $90; for those with from $100,000 to $250,000 in assets, it’s $40. ‘We’ll be unveiling soon an over $5 million” level: “You’d be surprised by the number of people who come onto the platform with more than $5 million in investable assets—just shy of 5%,” says Carvin.

The intent of the pricing, says Carvin, is that an advisor should have “an honest opportunity to convert every lead we provide them,” and one “enormous luxury we have is that we have such a large audience.” How large is that audience? Carvin reports that in January 2018 alone, SmartAsset had 37 million unique visitors.

According to the company, in January investors matched to advisors through the platform had more than $4 billion in investable assets; the average individual investor matched had $750,000 in investable assets.

And who are those advisors using the platform? Carvin says they run the gamut from larger brokerage firms to independents, though he reports that the “strongest traction is at fee-based fiduciaries.”

As with all good startups (SmartAsset.com itself is five years old and venture capital-funded), Carvin and his team saw an opportunity that wasn’t being met efficiently and built a technology platform that brings efficiency to that market. “It’s scattered and disorganized,” he says of the referral market, “and through our partnerships and the large audience that we have on smartasset.com, we organized that audience of people who are online doing research” and are looking to find an advisor. SmartAdvisor created a “structured marketplace where an advisor can meet those people.  We just connected those dots.”