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A New Threat to the Financial Industry's Status Quo

"Any financial tool that is safe and can provide individual investors with more access, transparency and objective guidance is worth checking out -- especially these days," says Farnoosh Torabi, a personal finance expert and the host of Financially Fit, a show on Yahoo! Finance.

Sha says SigFig's Web site is as secure as any major financial institution's, and the company keeps user information private. Meanwhile, he says the site usually has immediate recommendations that can help a user.

"There tends to be a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of simple changes people can make to improve their portfolio," says Sha, adding that retail investors are often not well served by major brokerages such as Merrill Lynch, which is part of Bank of America (BAC). Representatives for Bank of America/Merrill Lynch declined to comment.

He notes that more than half of SigFig's 300,000 users that are clients of the top 20 brokerage firms pay more than $25 per transaction in their accounts, which can add up to big money over the course of a year. He also says about a quarter of SigFig's users with investment advisers are found to be paying exorbitant fees for poor performance, and it's not uncommon to find that a broker has steered a user into an overly expensive product when they could be getting the same investment exposure for less.

Then there are the hidden fees, such as late settlement fees and so forth, of which most people are completely oblivious. It turns out Fidelity, one of the largest money management firms in the world, actually has more such fees than any other financial institution on the SigFig platform, according to Sha.

Fidelity spokesman Stephen Austin disputed this claim.

"The few fees that we do charge are in line with common industry practices and fully disclosed online for every investor to see," said Austin. "Our offering is highly competitive when compared with other major online brokers."

SigFig, which is short for Significant Figures, comes from the same team that produced the Web site Wikinvest, a portfolio-tracking and information tool. Including the users migrated over from Wikinvest, SigFig is tracking more than $30 billion worth of assets, and the company is looking to hire talent at its headquarters in San Francisco.

Sha and his co-founder, Parker Conrad, were roommates at Harvard University, where they were day-trading online during the Nasdaq bubble of the late 1990's. After school, Sha went to work for Amazon (AMZN) while Conrad joined Amgen (AMGN), but they later partnered to pursue creating a service that could reshape the financial industry for the benefit of retail investors. Now, their largest backer is the venture capital firm DCM, and they're advised by the likes of Jason Krikorian, co-founder of Sling Media, and Owen Van Natta, formerly a top executive at Zynga (ZNGA).

SigFig makes money by maintaining a referral database of investment advisers who have its stamp of approval for offering quality services for a fair price. If a SigFig user becomes a client of one of the firms in the database, it shares in the resulting fees. The company also collects referral fees for other products, and it's in talks with news organizations such as CNN Money about licensing its online portfolio tracking technology.

"We tend to recommend independent RIAs to people because they have to put your interests first," Conrad says. "That's why you're seeing this trickle of assets migrating away from wirehouses to RIAs. We think we can turn that trickle into a flood."

Follow me on Twitter @NatWorden

Disclosure: Worden works for an independent RIA. He and/or his firm hold positions in AMZN, AMGN and BAC but not in any other stocks mentioned in this article.
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