A day in the life of Altruist founder and CEO Jason Wenk is a study in lifestyle management and efficiency.
He calculated long ago that a daily morning shave can add up to 40 lost hours per year, so he chooses instead to use a beard trimmer only once per week. Similarly, he gets just two haircuts per year, choosing to allow his hair to grow long and gathering it into a man-bun, not as a fashion statement but to ensure he doesn’t waste time with hair product and styling.
Almost his entire wardrobe comes from one store, Buck Mason, with matching shirts, slacks and socks, alleviating Wenk of the decision-making time typically involved in putting together even a casual work ensemble.
“Pretty much everything is non-branded and neutral,” he explains, “so you can pick any number of items to put together and be ready within minutes.”
Breakfast is the same smoothie each morning — an all organic, vegan, nutrient-rich combination of protein powder, peanut butter and vegetables.
“It literally gives you every nutrient that you need for the day in one glass,” says Wenk. “I can bring it into my home office and start working. I am wasting no time prepping a meal that requires a lot of clean up. It is fast, it is easy, and we have it down to a science.”
Wenk has been working and running his company from his home office since 2007, long before the remote workforce came into vogue. He would work right through the lunch hour if not for a wife who brings him a bowl of healthful grains and greens.
Indeed, all the foods needed to support his pescatarian diet are home-delivered by Amazon Whole Foods, alleviating Wenk and his family of time-consuming trips to grocery stores.
“It is very easy. We have everything saved in a cart on the website, so we know exactly when we need to reorder,” he explains. “It takes almost no time. The groceries show up, and it is the same exact stuff.”
When the workday ends, Wenk and his wife Kayla relax with a glass of organic low-sugar red wine that is delivered to their home via subscription with Dry Farm Wines. Each delivery contains a combination of red varietals, all of which are as biodynamic and eco-friendly as wines can be.
“There is no thought that goes into anything,” he says. “All these things add up to a lot more time that can be used for more important things. I’m far more interested in freeing up time to go for a walk with my wife and kids than spending an hour getting ready for the day or eating.”
Dinner is less predictable than breakfast and lunch, though equally methodical, as the Wenk family rotates between about a dozen carefully selected entrees, going out to eat only once or twice per week.
“We are very much homebodies.”
His liking for home extends to his exercise regimen. Wenk recently bought the internet-connected Mirror interactive home gym and a package of applications that allow fitness classes to be conducted in the privacy of his home.
“It is not for everybody,” he acknowledges. “Some people go to a live class because they need accountability, they want to be around other people. That is the last thing in the world I ever want to do is go work out with a group of people.”
He does leave the home-front when going on his 10-mile runs, during which his gets some of his best business ideas, with all the positive chemical reactions the rigorous outing entails.
A FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
It’s hard to argue with Wenk’s results. The self-described math geek was hired by Morgan Stanley at age 20 as an investment researcher and asset management systems developer. A notable start for a young man with little more than a two-year stint as a computer science major at Grand Valley State University.
During his time in New York City, he witnessed how underserved the everyday investor was, which motivated him to build FormulaFolios — quantitative, computer-driven investment models based on academic research. The investment models accomplished two objectives: 1) provide the average investor with the same strategies as multibillion-dollar fund managers, and 2) remove emotion from client investing decisions.
Those portfolios were offered by his own RIA, Retirement Wealth Advisors, a precursor to FormulaFolios. Over time, FormulaFolios would develop into a standalone asset manager and go on to rank as a fastest-growing private company by Inc. magazine four years in a row, reaching as high as No. 10 in 2017. During one stretch, FormulaFolios achieved a three-year growth rate of 13,927 percent and managed more than $3.2 billion in assets.
Wenk’s performance was also good enough for him to be named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in June 2018.
“It was a bootstrap company,” he remarks, noting that he seeded the venture with $100,000 in personal cash. Its early success and scalability brought venture capital investors into play, as well, to the tune of $100 million.
Not bad for a boy from a small farm town in west Michigan. Wenk was far from done, though.
It was during his stint at Morgan Stanley that Wenk observed first-hand the staggering wealth divide between the haves and have-nots.
“Once I started to see how the financial system worked, it just seemed to be incredibly unfair, very much stacked against the average person,” he says.
The biggest and most apparent problem Wenk observed was that the best products and services were reserved for $20 million-plus clients. That is when Wenk’s altruistic nerve began to throb. He was also vexed by the winners/losers’ equation. To wit: If the market makes 8 percent or 12 percent, there had to be someone on the other side of those trades. In other words, the person or group that outperforms by 4 percent is counterbalanced by some other person or group that had to share in the underperformance.
“That problem has plagued my memory for 20 years now,” he says. “The proverbial rich keep getting richer, and the divide keeps getting greater. How can we make better advice more accessible so that the efficiency of a capital market doesn’t get manipulated in such a way where someone has to lose for someone else to win?”
The winners/losers issue might be an insuperable problem for even the most beautiful mind, but more investment fanfare for the common man and woman clearly is not, as more independent wealth advisory organizations have made it their aim to specialize in information and product access for the average individual investor.
Wenk’s foray into this vacuum was the founding of Altruist in 2018, which built a digital brokerage platform with commission-free trading. The Altruist mission statement calls for making investing “fair for everyone by allowing people to earn more while paying less.” The road to that goal, in Wenk’s estimation, runs largely through RIAs, which have not had the best tools for delivering on their ethos of serving the financial interests of their clients. One of the ways to assist is by automating the operational aspects of running a firm.
“It might sound crazy in this day and age, but the majority of advisers are still using paper. Some have graduated to DocuSign, but these are not efficient tools to serve clients at scale,” he says. “These operational aspects might take one-third of an adviser’s time. We can drop the time consumed by these tedious tasks by 90 percent or more and make things way more affordable.”
Wenk had the Altruist name in mind well before he ever founded the company, even buying the domain name for its eventual use. It was something he had been informally manifesting for 15 or more years before bringing it to fruition in 2018.
He long felt that many people’s views of the financial services business were negative, and deservedly so. He began working in the registered investment adviser space — which he labels a “small corner of the broader financial services market” — in 2004 and was drawn to the space because of the fiduciary rule, which required that financial advisers put their clients’ interests ahead of their own. He found it curious that only one small segment of the financial services space carried that legal obligation.
“We wanted to build a company that allowed those registered investment advisers to serve more people, and build a company that had a special culture of taking care of our people internally, the advisers that we serve and the customers they serve.”
Wenk acknowledges that numerous turnkey platforms exist for advisers, but argues many require several different software packages that are disconnected and result in considerable spending on the adviser’s part, in some cases costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in various SAAS fees. By contrast, he says, Altruist is a vertically integrated platform that can eliminate an entire coterie of technology vendors, simplifying operations and cutting costs.
“There are lots of companies building these tools, but none of them are very integrated, and every time one gets launched there is a new cost structure,” he says. “I know, because I have had to do it twice before I started this company.”
No individual has made a bigger and more abiding imprint on Wenk’s life than Deborah Kempker, the entrepreneur’s mother, to whom he credits his own work ethic, among other characteristics she imparted. As a single mother, she worked a variety of jobs to support her three children, though the majority of her working life was spent at an aluminum factory where she was repeatedly passed over for promotions in favor of male counterparts — an “injustice” that has stuck with her son ever since.
Wenk remembers his mother (who is alive and well and retired) as a beautiful young woman in her 30s who probably could have taken a selfish path in life, but instead devoted her life to her children, which meant working exceptionally hard to ensure food, housing and other necessities were present.
“She was the hardest working and the most selfless person I have ever met in my life to this day,” he says. “It is such an extraordinary advantage to have a supportive parent. My mother was supportive to a degree that is difficult to explain, but there is nothing I could have said that I wanted to do that she would have said, ‘that is a bad idea, you should be more realistic.’ She was the ultimate go-big person. ‘You want to be an astronaut? You want to be the president? Whatever it is you might want to do, how can we make that happen, how can I support that?’ That has been one of the coolest things to look back at, and that is what I remember the most about my childhood.”
His mother’s support and positivity were put to a severe test when Wenk was in his second year as a computer science major at Grand Valley State University and accidentally impregnated his girlfriend. For any college sophomore it would be a dreaded and fateful call to home, one where parental chastisement was virtually assured.
In Wenk’s case? “In classic mom fashion, she was excited and happy and incredibly supportive. There was no, ‘You are ruining your life.’ She said, ‘This is the most beautiful thing, you are going to be the best dad, I am so excited.’ Not what you would normally expect, but it was actually the right reaction. I don’t think it helps somebody to be scolded. I obviously knew it was going to make my life a lot different and harder, but by having people who were supportive, in the end, it was the best thing that has ever happened to me. It set my life on a path that gave me a degree of focus that I could never have gotten by continuing studying. I like to think I have become a much better person and more patient by being a young father, so I have zero regrets, and I think my mom handled it exactly like she should have.”
Wenk dropped out of college to go about the business of shouldering the financial responsibilities of fatherhood. Fortuitously, he had interviewed with Morgan Stanley some months before the pregnancy.
“Call it fate or luck, I got hired. I was one of the youngest employees Morgan Stanley had in the world, and that is how I got into financial services,” he says.
Though his college years got cut short, Wenk intended to finish his degree and Morgan Stanley was willing to pay the tuition. But, like many young associates and analysts at Wall Street firms, he found himself logging 80-plus-hour workweeks and never had the time required to finish his degree.
No matter. As much as Wenk enjoyed college life, he didn’t find the academics to be challenging, certainly in part because he had an aptitude for mathematics. Indeed, an elementary school teacher who picked up on Wenk’s math skills pulled him from class one day and enrolled him in a more advanced math program in conjunction with the local community college.
“It was fun. I loved it. I remember having computer lab that had internet, and it was just mind blowing. It was like the ultimate kid in a candy store.”
LESS IS MORE
The unexpected son who came along and unseated Wenk from the college classroom is now in college himself, finishing the computer science degree his father never had the opportunity to complete. Another child, a daughter, is a senior in high school. And earlier this year Wenk and his wife brought a newborn son into the world.
The Wenk children have come of age in a household largely devoid of the material spoils of success. Wenk is a minimalist (my assessment, not his) who doesn’t value the accumulation of material possessions.
“I don’t find value in wardrobes or watches or cars or any of that kind of stuff,” he says. “It actually gives me more stress than anything else.”
He favors travel and other experiences over material objects, though one of the possessions Wenk does own and values most is the cottage he bought in rural Michigan as a place where his immediate and extended families can gather. It’s a place where they go to unplug (no cell service) and just be with one another.
He also has a penchant for gift-giving.
BRINGING MATTERS TO SCALE
Wenk portrays himself as an everyday investor doing the kinds of things he recommends to others, such as maxing the 401(k), assembling a diversified portfolio with plain vanilla indexed ETFs. But he also has his risk capital, investing in startups and a smidgen of crypto. He figures his backing of early-stage companies account for only 2 percent to 3 percent of his investable assets, while crypto (Bitcoin and Ethereum) can be measured in the mils.
“I do suspect that there will be some pretty significant survivors of the crypto boom,” says Wenk. “Unfortunately, I think there’s also going to be a catastrophic wealth destroying type of event that will happen at some point over the next handful of years, because there are thousands of different coins and just bizarro stuff that has no practical utility and no chance of becoming a meaningful replacement of fiat currencies.”
His early-stage investments are done through MatterScale Ventures, a firm whose name derives from its aim to invest in companies that “matter” and founders who are ready to “scale.” More specifically, MatterScale invests in early-stage Latin startups located in the United States or Latin America with a global mindset for applying technology in a manner that provides the masses with high-quality, affordable and accessible services, in areas such as healthcare, data analytics, cybersecurity, vocational training, languages and delivery services.
A CALL TO ARMS
Though Wenk’s personal and professional life can be considered charmed by almost any measure, it has not been without its missing pieces. His father wasn’t around much when he was a child, and although they have a good relationship today, Wenk still found himself dogged by the inevitable feelings of rejection conjured by an absent parent.
He is also no stranger to the usual human insecurities, and points to misconceptions that successful entrepreneurs and CEOs have things pretty much figured out and are portraits of indomitable mental health.
What’s more, with success often comes the “why me?” kind of guilt when associating with longtime friends who they may be successful in their own right, but do not share the same professional and financial stations in their lives.
All of this can go to work on a person’s head, as was the case for Wenk, who sought a therapeutic solution in the form of cognitive therapy. As is his fashion, Wenk approached the sessions with efficiency — finding a therapist he could meet with virtually via phone for 45 minutes per session every two weeks. That has been the routine for eight years running.
“I have actually never met him. We have never even done a Zoom meeting. His name is Don, he’s in Northern California and we have a fantastic relationship,” says Wenk. “I suspect he doesn’t know what I look like. I don’t know what he looks like.”
Wenk speaks openly about his therapy sessions and his personal struggles, in part to destigmatize the practice, in part to promote a focus on mental health, which he insists can slide into negative emotions for even the most seemingly sound of mind.
His own experience has been affirming.
“Having revealed all that, I should say that I am extremely happy and very fortunate,” says Wenk. “Life is way better than I probably deserve.”
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn (linkedIn.com/in/mikeconsol) to read his latest postings.