Lee Robertson: A private social network for financial services professionals

Octo Members
24 June 2019

Photo: Lee Robertson and Octo Member Steve Lawless talking HNW Insurance.

Our Private Social Network for UK financial services professionals, Octo Members, is well underway. In fact, we were incredibly thrilled to pick up the Pershing Innovation in Wealth Management Award at the City of London Wealth Management Awards at The Guildhall recently.

Months of planning, hard weeks of research, due diligence and early starts and late finishes and then a huge amount of video conference time with our chosen tech partners in Palo Alto over in Silicon Valley, eliciting and acting upon feedback from our early beta testers, true pioneers, has got us to where we currently are. Just about to launch properly.

So just what got us to here and why?

Well, three of us had the original idea of a private social network which we began to build upon, which thankfully was liked by a few others who decided to join, supported by more who got what we were trying to do and then kindly began to refer us to a whole lot more. The idea was about a community, built in one of the most dynamic, intellectually challenging but highly rewarding sectors of the business environment, financial services. We have far exceeded our early member number projections as early beta testers very kindly invited others and got them involved also. The Octo Members app is therefore accessible via the App on IOS and Google Play Store on Android and with the number of members growing daily. (We still laugh out loud that the three of us, all in our fifties, are now officially accredited Apple app developers!) There is also a desktop version for those who prefer to access that way.

The founders, Andy Brown, Rob Page, Jon Rocchi and I are accomplished practitioner professionals across wealth management, investment management, financial services marketing and investment and financial planning software and we felt collectively we had the skills and desire to see that there was a way to help connect more of us, build on the great work already happening by so many of our community using the very best of modern methods and methodology via an app. Early straplines came and went, ‘your community by your community’, ‘your profession on your phone’ and a whole lot more but with growing numbers of beta testers referring us to new members we began to think we might just be onto something.

We have been quickly supplemented within the team by journalists and creatives, either on staff, freelance or on contract or as required.

So why build our own app, or perhaps more accurately, heavily customise existing and proven technology offered by our US partners and mould it into what we think might help planners, paraplanners, wealth managers and fund professionals?

Fundamentally, it was about privacy. The privacy of our members. The ability to have deep and detailed discussions free of the bubble that is existing, open social media. To not have our every word criticised by the same twenty that attack every idea or thoughtful consideration of new ideas.  Even worse, hiding like cowards behind memes and pseudonyms. It is for this reason that we built comprehensive member guidelines to ensure that we could keep these types out.  We love robust debate but not rude discourse!

This extends to all member detail and data. We decided we had to have a cast iron guarantee that we would never disclose contact or private details of anyone who chose to be a member.

Secondly, it was about crowd-sharing knowledge. Connecting professionals across our sector, creating and sharing conversations, engaging with each other and the wider support network all with the end aim of becoming better versions of ourselves. None of us are the finished article and the genuinely curious amongst us should be able to ask and answer questions with the aim of becoming more informed in our roles.

Finally, it was about bringing the very best of content, curated, aggregated, invited, created and member generated. From advisers and paraplanners, training companies, specialist consultants, providers and fund groups. More than this however, we also felt that we needed to engage with thought leaders from outside our own financial services echo-chamber.

For us to do this we have to engage with as many professionals as possible and that is what we aim to do.

Returning to why we decided upon a private social network and not to use the more business-oriented facilities of say Facebook or LinkedIn brings me back to privacy and member data integrity. This was a common concern of our early beta testers and they were quite right to demand assurances about how we would deal with the data which we inevitably will collect and the differences a private social network could deliver over an open source network such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

We all use Facebook and LinkedIn, however, I’m an entrepreneur who is passionate about delivering deeper personal connections across business in general and our profession in particular and bringing those from what I term the different tribes within it together.

This desire fervently shared by all the co-founders means that whilst we are all long-time users of social media opinions based on recent news makes us very sceptical of them for business use. Somehow, I don’t believe that either deeper personal connections or better businesses can happen in a world where one or two platforms are calling the shots due to its sheer reach and scale. This isn’t because I think the large social media platforms are run by bad people. I am pretty sure that they are not. However, when you set up the rules of a game that you are no longer just playing, but now dominating, it’s extremely hard to not take advantage.

Social media’s rules seem simple. Set out to capture the attention of as many people as possible, sell that attention to advertisers, and make many billions of dollars doing it. They capture attention by enabling each of us to post updates and stories to our friends and followers. When we each do this, it creates literally billions of reasons for more than a billion people to come back to any one of social’s properties billions of times a day. When that many people are posting, there’s always something entertaining, useful, or interesting to find. There’s always a reason to come back.

The very fact that most of us are on there and continually posting and sharing makes this model massively powerful.

This is the new world of social networks. Never has humanity so willingly given up privacy and personal habits to such a powerful apparatus with little or no idea where the data is stored, how it used, whether it is sold on or who the final, end recipients may be and what they may use it for.

After Cambridge Analytica and other lesser incidents involving other social media platforms we all felt that we had to ensure that members felt safe, able to comment and know that nothing personal could or would be sold on. Therefore, to be clear, our agreement with our US tech partners and our own terms of business specifically prohibit this and that’s before we even get to GDPR and permission-based communication.

It is also incredibly hard on the open social networks, even the business spaces within them to actually bring focus on the very best of content. No one has the time to wade through the ads, the paid ads, the clever targeting based on our last Google searches or Amazon purchases, the head-hunters and the banal self-promotion of the self-anointed gurus. It is also incredibly hard to control the notifications that seek to batter us all into submission. It works, it definitely works. For them. But this is a long way from the vision we have for Octo Members.

Putting just one network, Facebook, into perspective, and I am not criticising it here in any way, just highlighting the publicly available data;

Facebook has 2.32 billion monthly active users.

Facebook generated $55 billion of revenue in 2018.

Facebook generated $25 billion in operating profit in 2018.

Facebook employs over 35,000 employees globally.

Facebook is estimated to be worth approaching $500 billion.

This demonstrates the sheer power that these large, tech savvy companies now wield. (See what Tim Berners-Lee and Tim Acton have to say on this in these short videos). Probably greater than many governments, tax authorities and regulators. This leads to the types of privacy issues we have seen and will probably see again in the future. This heavily informed our thinking and our eventual business model and tech partner choice. We had to be our own last line of defence in the ethical treatment of members. Nor did we want to be caught flat-footed if any of the open platform’s priorities changed. We are in pretty much no doubt, that as a tiny player, even if deemed a partner, we would never really be a priority for the large platforms. Finally, we had to be able to step in to protect members from the errant, the misguided or the potentially aggressive commentator. We all believe in free speech but this should never give those who seek to do harm from behind a keyboard a free pass to do so. Our choice of platform makes this easier to enforce should the need ever arise.

We therefore deliberately chose a path which we think democratises our Network and truly enables our Community.

We must deliver a stable, aesthetically pleasing, intuitive user experience which means members like using the service, see value and return. We need to deliver world class, contextual and actionable content that members find reasons to engage with and do find value in the content shared and the discussions held around the bigger thorny issues as well as the smaller ‘help me out’ style of questions that we are already seeing lots of on Octo.

It means working with existing content providers and publishers and showcasing the very best of what is published and created by members as well as all sizes of organisations within financial services. It means giving a voice to those who are often crowded out or have yet to find a platform upon which they can safely comment and discuss matters. We are pleased that already many publishers and platforms have chosen to support us by allowing us to aggregate on behalf of community members the very best of their content. We also need to be able to deliver this in the ways that our members want to consume their content. We have therefore built in the functionality of;

All of this will be supported by an ongoing programme of interviews, video interviews, podcasts and much more. We want to help our members share knowledge and we believe the best way for us to do this is to get them in front of other members.

Turning to commerciality, we as founders have personally invested heavily in our network, in terms of capital, time, reputational and intellectual contributions. We believed we had to do this for all the reasons stated in this article as well as enabling us to determine and to deliver a continuing programme or road map of developments and improvements based upon what members asked for. We do operate on a commercial model, but we do not intend to charge advisers, paraplanners, wealth managers, fund selectors and any other individual members any form of subscription for access to the network or its content.

We really believe that this should be the new business social media playbook. One that it is provided for and completely in conjunction with its members and users. In other words, a real community.

We are all very aware that we do not yet have it completely right, if we ever will. We are working hard on the next stages of the road-map which include Groups, Courses, Live-Streaming and CPD.

We are continually asking for and acting upon feedback from members and we aim to continue to make this a key feature of the way we operate. We know that not all the content is or will be right for everyone. We understand that some members prefer to read and engage less frequently if at all, but we do hope that our vision of a safe environment to discuss ideas, address hard topics and meet other like-minded professionals is of enough interest that you will join and help us grow together.

The aim is a hope that together we will all connect, share and engage.

Lee Robertson


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