Founding An ETF Empire

ETF.com co-founder Jim Wiandt reminisces about the beginnings of the company he started and the publications he shaped.

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Reviewed by: Heather Bell
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Edited by: Heather Bell

[This article appears in our July/August 2020 issue of ETF Report.]

Jim WiandtJim Wiandt is one of the visionaries of the ETF industry. Not only did he co-found the website ETF.com (originally IndexUniverse.com), he added print publications to the mix, with the acquisitions of the Journal of Indexes (now defunct) and ETF Report, now celebrating its 20th year of existence. Wiandt, who in many ways pioneered the business of ETF education and content, also created the first multiday conference devoted to ETFs, Inside ETFs, and invested big in ETF analytics and data.

ETF.com may be a very different company today, now owned by Cboe Global Markets, but its original investor-education-focused DNA goes on unchanged, carrying forward Wiandt’s love of this industry, long after his departure to new ventures. Today he is the CEO and founder of Spark Network, a company that seeks to reinvent events and networking. 

Here, ETFR speaks with Wiandt about how he built ETF.com and ETF Report, and became one of the best-known influencers in the ETF space.

Tell us the origin story of ETF.com, and by extension, ETF Report.
The first piece of this predates my own company. In the late 1990s, I was working for a company called IndexFunds.com—I think the website still exists, but it’s owned by an advisor now. At that time, it was owned by the McClatchy family. Will McClatchy headed it.

I had worked for an encyclopedia before that, Compton’s. IndexFunds.com was my first job in the index space, and I was brought in to run the editorial. We had a team of about 10. Within a year, I was running that company. During that time, I developed really good relationships with everyone in the index industry, including Gus Sauter at Vanguard, David Blitzer at Standard & Poor’s, and John Prestbo, who had started the Journal of Indexes at what was then Dow Jones Indexes.

I made a deal with Dow Jones to take over the Journal of Indexes because I thought we could make it into an independent. [Those industry people with whom I’d developed relationships] made up my editorial board for the Journal of Indexes. And then we positioned it independently, and we got S&P and Vanguard to buy ads early, to basically cover our costs. Within a year, that business was profitable.

We had partnered with Financial Advisor magazine for our distribution initially. JournalOfIndexes.com was the website. I still love that magazine. We had a loyal following.

Then, in 2003, we bought ETFR from MARHedge, which was going to shut it down. MARHedge had various publications, but ETFR was the only one that was ETF-focused. Marsha Zapson was editing it. We bought it and took it over.

[Later in 2003], we changed the website to IndexUniverse.com. [Co-founder] Steven Schoenfeld owned that URL, and I had helped him on a giant book about indexes he had written from an institutional perspective [“Active Index Investing: Maximizing Portfolio Performance and Minimizing Risk Through Global Index Strategies”]—it’s still a good resource book. He had left Barclays Global Investors, where he had helped develop some of the earliest iShares, and joined me at IndexUniverse. At this time, there were 12 people on staff. And after a couple years, he left to join Northern Trust.

The next steps were getting into events and launching Inside ETFs in January 2007. Inside ETFs was the biggest ETF event. Then we got seriously into the data business. I moved back to San Francisco around 2010, and then back to Spain in 2012. Next came buying the URL ETF.com. In 2015, we sold the data business to FactSet, then the conferences and then the publications. That’s the whole history.

What drew you to index funds and ETFs originally?
When I was working at Compton’s Encyclopedia, Mattel, the toy company, bought the company that owned Compton’s. Early on in that process, the Mattel people wanted to turn Compton’s Encyclopedia into the Barbie Encyclopedia to raise the Barbie brand.

The encyclopedia people said, “Over our dead bodies; we’ll just quit.” Even though the encyclopedia business was quite profitable, they ended up shutting it down because no one would work with them on the Barbie Encyclopedia.

At that time, I put out applications for jobs. It was San Francisco, in 1999, so it was a good time to be a content person. I got to choose from a number of jobs, and I decided to go with IndexFunds.com, mainly because I’ve always liked finance the way I like sports. It was almost like getting a job as a sportswriter. I thought, “This is cool; something I like to write about.” I had written a bunch of finance stuff in the encyclopedia.

I was interested in indexing and index funds. With indexing, it had something like an altruistic bent to it that I found really pure. I knew who Jack Bogle was and about Vanguard, and things like the importance of diversification and low cost. I was already kind of a disciple at that point, and I quickly became religious. It was just such a great thing to be able to be righteous and say, “You’re all getting screwed. Wake up, and let’s fix it!”

That’s one thing that’s really missing in the ETF industry now. Some might disagree, but we’ve lost the thread. Someone should be preaching from the mountaintop the basics of value—“value” meaning delivering value to the end-clients; that the best bet for most people is to diversify broadly and do it as low cost as possible. Save money, diversify, low cost. It ain’t rocket science, but it is incredibly valuable.

There are still people doing that, but the industry has lost the thread. The ETF industry, in particular, is trying to beat the market with alpha-focused kinds of exposure. To me, that’s not the right approach for most people.

What do you think of the new active models launching, what some call “nontransparent”?
It feels like they’re starting to make some headway. I think they’ll continue to grow. The structure should end up being better because of tax efficiency. And the inevitable pressure on cost will continue to happen.

Remember, I’m not the guy who says, “No one can beat the market!” People do beat the market. It’s just really hard to do, and it’s especially hard when the big players with all the money have the big marketing dollars and aren’t necessarily going to outperform.

They’ll continue to make headway, but it’s nothing revolutionary. It’s just a different wrapper that should be a little better for investors and more efficient.

What do you see for the future for ETFs?
The biggest thing is we have to step back from ETFs and think about asset management and investing. The future looks more like the Acorns and Wealthfronts out there.

The industry is going to adapt in the direction of downstream, digital and direct to retail. I would love to see the industry do so much better of a job on that front, and having a really good, simple, super cheap, at massive scale and no-touch solution for its small and young investors. I would love to see a cool Vanguard app aimed at young retail investors and for them to work to build a whole new community. Not just Vanguard, but the whole industry ultimately will need to move in that direction, and the sooner the better. It’s really a great chance to again strongly get that message out there to the new investors and make a clarion call for broad diversification at lower cost.

That’s something I can see doing, moving a business toward coming out with a solution like that and aiming it at younger people.

We don’t need to hear any talk about small cap value; rather, talk about, “If you can save this money for that many years, you have a 95% chance of having this much money at your retirement age.”—really simplified, solution-focused, very customized platforms that really deliver value. It’s just such a mess how products are sold, and it can be much more simplified and tidied, in my view.

Heather Bell is a former managing editor of etf.com. She has also held editorial positions at Dow Jones Indexes and Lehman Brothers. Bell is a graduate of Dartmouth college and resides in the Denver area with her two dogs.