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Robinhood Financial Brokerage Review

Please note that this review was written April 7th, 2015.




This is the only app review I’ve ever written so far. I’ve decided to write this review to answer some of the questions I’ve read in other reviews, offer feature suggestions, and because I genuinely hope this company succeeds.

I have no affiliation with Robinhood in any way, shape, or form (other than using their app). I greatly admire what they’ve accomplished already and believe that if they succeed as a company, they’ll have created a much greater disruptive technology than the vast majority of their users and many others realize. If this company flourishes, every single person who trades on any market around the globe will be affected. It is that disruptive. However, to be fair and give a complete and honest review, I’ve also noted what I perceive to be the deficiencies both large and small in the app as well as within the company.

The information will be broken down into the following sections:

My Experience With the App
Feature Suggestions
User Questions
Robinhood’s Security
Immediate Growth Steps (I’ve included growth steps directed for Robinhood in the review so that if they spark ideas in someone reading it, they will feel free to submit them to Robinhood)
Robinhood’s Revenue Stream
Robinhood’s Weakness as a Business
Future Growth Steps
Conclusion

*Robinhood (Robinhood Markets Inc/Robinhood Financial LLC) may use any of the information I’ve written for inclusion in their website, blog, or other media posts.

My Experience With the App:

There were no issues setting up the account or the transfer of cash into Robinhood. I’d made several individual cash transfers into the app as a test before depositing any larger amounts. After each transfer was completed, I purchased a different stock each time. This process was repeated several times with no issues. I’m now comfortable enough to begin transferring larger sums and make larger stock purchases without fear of encountering any issues. The only “issues” I’ve encountered are features, or rather lack thereof, but nothing vital to the functioning of the app or security of my assets.

Why I refer to Robinhood as a disruptive technology:

Currently, no brokerage in the entire world offers commission free trading in the form Robinhood does (others offer limited initial commission free trading or require account minimums). When Robinhood’s business model proves feasible, other brokerage firms will have to follow suit or face a dwindling customer base who move to Robinhood. All brokerages could easily offer zero-commission trades, and are normally getting paid for executing trades (via payment for order flow). What you are paying for is the advertising costs to become a customer, brick and mortar storefronts, an army of redundant employees, and so on.




Feature Suggestions:
Below are feature suggestions for inclusion in the app or changes to the website and the reasoning behind certain suggestions.

  • A small section of the website to let people know what’s being worked on and what to expect in the next update. It’s a small effort on the team’s part and a large customer service/goodwill boost. Users who download the app, browse through and see it doesn’t yet have a feature they want (or need) might stop using it altogether before truly getting started or switch to a different brokerage app.
  • Unrealized gain/loss
  • Max year charts
  • 5 day chart
  • Ability to create own chart time frame (5 minutes, minute charts, seconds if wanted, et cetera)
  • Watch-list reorganization
  • Advanced order types
  • Searching a stock doesn’t automatically add it to the watch-list.
  • Easily switch between multiple accounts on the same device (not even close to immediately necessary, but it would be nice).
  • Create a linked forum from Robinhood’s website where members can answer other members’ questions, discuss topics, Robinhood can relay news, et cetera. An 800,000 user base creates a large volunteer customer service force for Robinhood. A sticky post in a forum would take care of answering repeated user questions and is an easy way to resolve other issues.
  • I find the white background and green lettering on the website FAQ frustrating to read and I’m sure others do as well. The users understand why you chose green. Make it darker and easier to read.
  • A note section under each expanded stock view when you hit a “Notes” button at the bottom (exactly the way the “more” button functioned). For example, I like dividend stocks and it would be useful to see right in the “stockview,” when the ex and record dates are. What the previous dividend was, how many consecutive years the dividend has risen, et cetera. A notes section, while being so simple an addition, adds an immense amount of utility and personalization.
  • News feed – Eventually it’ll be in the app but again the question is when? A month, 6 months, next year? I wasn’t a part of Robinhood’s beta before the redesign but I believe they linked the headline and a short snippet. If you wanted to read more they linked out to the article. Perfect. If Robinhood decides to use links solely from one news source (in order to generate income), I personally don’t have an issue. If I require more news, I’ll go find it (like I do with their app now).
  • A settings option to have a longer passcode/pin than currently available (using alphanumeric and special characters would be preferred). 4 number PINs are notoriously easy to crack and phones get stolen all the time.
  • I’d personally like to see complete transparency in the company. Millennials are tired of shady business practices. You’re a business, you need to make a profit, that’s understood and Millennials are okay with that. Transparency breeds trust, especially in Millennials (I’ve referenced Millennials here in particular because that’s who Robinhood’s targeted market is).
  • Poll users on the website (or forum) for what features they want most in the next update. It takes a lot of guessing out of the equation by giving users exactly what they want.
  • Option to route orders to specific exchanges.
    • The ability to donate the rebates to Robinhood:
      • Rebates are fractions of fractions of a cent. Mostly useless for people who aren’t trading large volumes of stock (who I imagine are currently most of Robinhood’s users). For example, a per share rebate of $0.003 would do nothing for a user purchasing a single share of Google at approximately $500. However, a combined 800,000 users donating provides another revenue stream for a company providing the customer a free and useful service.




User Questions:

These are answers to general FAQ, not directed to specific users.

1) The personal information the app requests is the information needed to open any brokerage account (name, bank routing/account number, SS#, address, et cetera).

2) Some users commented on the speed of transferring money into and out of Robinhood. That time-frame is how long it takes banks to transfer funds due to anti-laundering laws, other regulatory laws, and general inefficiencies. After a user sells a stock, SEC regulations are preventing the immediate availability of funds, not Robinhood. Robinhood has a disclosure titled “RHF Funds Availability” included in their disclosures section that precisely details all this information and more.

As a side note, banks participate in what is called fractional lending. For every dollar you have in an account, they lend out ten dollars. They have no incentive to transfer your money out any quicker because they lose the interest they’re making on those funds.

As noted in other reviews, transfer to/from certain banks will take a shorter amount of time than three days. As such, remember to keep in mind that if the investment account you use is an investment arm/branch owned by that bank, the money is only being transferred “in-house” so to speak.

It would be my guess that Robinhood is probably the fastest link in the chain. I say that because their processing is likely 100% automated due to their lean operating ideology (unless there is an issue, in which case an account representative would handle it). You send the request to Robinhood and within seconds to minutes it’s probably forwarded to the next link in the chain.

3) In order to immediately sell stock and repurchase stock without waiting for it to clear first, Robinhood would have to lend out it’s own funds and the unused funds in its customer’s accounts to cover the new purchase. There are SEC and other regulatory rules for how long a stock must be held before selling/buying again and if those periods are to be disregarded you must be issued “day-trader status.” It’s actually much more complicated than that in regards to all of the regulatory rules, account requirements, whether you are a pattern or non-pattern day trader, and so on. I’ve elected to simplify the answer with “you need day-trader status.” If you’re not satisfied with that answer, please feel free to Google. If you would like to pursue this in the future, Robinhood should begin offering this option when they start offering margin trading accounts.

For those wondering about good faith trades at other brokerages, Robinhood will probably offer this when they’ve been around a bit longer. As a start-up, Robinhood has limited resources and needs to devote those resources elsewhere. Imagine 800,000 users, most are 26/27 years old on average; how many customer service agents would have to be devoted to just taking care of new investors who are violating good faith trades? Especially since most new investors don’t even know what good faith/free-ride violations are?

4) Some users report a slow connection to the app which really could be an endless list. The two most common issues will be internet connection or hardware (iphone, ipad, et cetera). Do you stop your apps from running in the background when you’re done using them (because if not they’re eating processing and battery power)? Are you using older hardware? For example, the iPhones (4s and earlier) had under-clocked CPUs which could be changed safely but will void any warranty. I only mtion this because a lot of current users might be using a 4s or earlier that are out of warranty and might like the increased performance. What’s the speed of the connection you’re currently using? Are you on a network with other people?

Those are just a few and if anyone noticed they all originate from the client/user side not the server/Robinhood side. I’m not saying it couldn’t be Robinhood’s servers but it’s a lot less likely. Another point to consider is that your data is being encrypted/decrypted to/from Robinhood (which is something you definitely want) even if it slows your connection marginally.

Lastly, just as a reminder to anyone using a jailbroken device, you may have issues stemming from the fact that it’s jailbroken (crashing, slow rendering, et cetera).

5) When the Robinhood app is open, hold your finger on the chart line itself to reveal where the price action was at that time. In my opinion, Robinhood needs to clearly state this feature because I only learned about it by reading a review someone else had written.




Robinhood’s Security:
Since a lot of individuals aren’t necessarily interested in the intricate details of security technologies but want to know their information is secure, I’ve included a few concepts here that apply equally across the web for all businesses. In particular, storing of sensitive information and providing a secure connection.

How to store sensitive information:

What Hashing means:
A hacker has broken into a company. Below is what the hacker sees if the company doesn’t use a hash and does use one.

Not Hashed:
Username: Little John        Password: Robinhood1234
Username: Maid Marian    Password: IlovemyRobinhoodapp

Hashed:
(In this example, the usernames are not hashed, only the passwords.)
Username: Little John        Password: 90b6dd94f55e7b1dcf55ec7acef78af0
Username: Maid Marian    Password: bc0cf5e4f667651abe8966eeb55d0d03

There are many types of hashes used for different purposes. The ones used here are the actual MD5 hashes for those passwords. MD5 isn’t used in security settings anymore because it’s been badly broken. However, it remains useful for other purposes (such as this demo or to verify the download integrity of large files) where security isn’t a concern.

Low hanging fruits are the ones who get picked and the rest are left alone. Go check the list of 10,000 most commonly used passwords (Google it). If you have one change it… everywhere, because most people reuse their password. (Your Robinhood PIN isn’t the same one used for your bank card, and it definitely isn’t the same one that unlocks your phone…). Any hacker worth their salt (pun pun for next paragraph) will crack your password if it’s one of those 10,000 and I really do mean any hacker. The weak point in your personal security is most likely your email account because once your email is compromised, almost everything else is too. The low hanging fruit is a bad place to be, don’t be the low-hanging fruit.

Using a hash makes it harder for the hacker to find your password even if they have successfully broken in. Robinhood is required by law to hash certain information but doesn’t mention if they do what is called “salting” for extra security (like the Romans salted Carthage’s fields; except in this case the company “salts” the sensitive information to thwart the use of a hacker tool called “rainbow tables”). Rainbow tables are pre-computed hashes and function as a password look-up table of sorts. It would be extremely rare for a company like Robinhood not to use a salted hash, even though it’s not specifically mentioned.

Robinhood took the extra time before releasing the app to make sure security features were properly integrated because they understood a breach in a new company like this would be catastrophic to the business. As such, I assume they implement HSM (Hardware Security Modules), per-user salting, a pepper (think of it like a global salt added to everything), encryption for other sensitive data (not the same as hashing), parameterized queries (to protect against a common hacker tactic “SQL injections”) and numerous other security measures. This is speculation on my part as I haven’t reviewed all of their security, but again, they purposely delayed their launch to make sure their security affairs were in order so I have a good deal of faith they have no glaring security holes.

These steps make it harder for a hacker to turn a profit because it means more time for the hacker to breach your account even if they’ve successfully broken into Robinhood and therefore less money for the hacker. Healthcare companies for example, are more likely to be broken into for personal information because by law they aren’t required to encrypt sensitive information (yet).

Below is a security notice I had originally included directly to Robinhood only, which is why it’s in bold. It’s been three months since reporting the issue and as of today July 2nd, it still hasn’t been patched.  I believe I’ve done my due diligence in reporting to the company first and so will share it with the users and potential users. Please keep in mind if you keep the rest of your assets (email) secure, this doesn’t present as much of a problem.

*UPDATE: Robinhood has responded to this notice and indicated they are implementing additional security features and two-factor authentication which will help address many of the issues I outlined. 

*** Security notice for Robinhood:

Currently, most users will never log out once creating their accounts. Meaning they will only have to remember their 4-digit PIN.

When the username/password recovery begins, Robinhood asks for the registered email account. An email is sent containing the username and a link to reset the password. After the password is reset, the user logs into the app on their phone and chooses a new PIN.

This process isn’t an issue for the iPhone or Android versions because it also requires access to the mobile in order to use the Robinhood app (excluding a cloned device, which is in my opinion a highly unlikely scenario), but it becomes a vulnerability when the web version is introduced because of the increased attack surface.

Password policy like Robinhood’s is common and not an issue in most circumstances. However, this type of breach allows direct access to the user’s financial assets and hence a hardened password policy is required.

A security breach in another company will likely yield the email address and password (in all probability because of reuse) of the user. The hacker now has access to the email account and by extension the ability to reset the password and use the web version of Robinhood without alerting anyone (assuming their email password wasn’t their Robinhood password as well and said hacker hasn’t directly logged in already).

Robinhood’s addition of a separate username as opposed to the email address offers increased security through obscurity in this regard, but when a password reset initiates, the username is sent in the email. The initialization of the password reset doesn’t invalidate the previous password and so the hacker would now have access to the correct username and probable password (if it’s the same as the user’s email) without having to actually reset the password.

If a password reset does continue at this point, there is no mobile notification of the event sent via SMS or in-app. A password reset notification to a mobile number would help prevent this if it were a mandatory non-toggle feature as it’s an invaluable alert for a compromised account.

Even more useful is the set-it-and-forget-it utility because Robinhood will never be notified by the customer while changing their password themselves but will certainly be contacted in the event they get an “unauthorized” notice.

A hacker knowing this information would be hard pressed not to take advantage in any number of ways:

  • A well crafted socially-engineered response to the user could potentially buy enough time to sell any equities and transfer funds.
  • The information gathered from within the app itself is limited other than identifying the amount of funds and possibly marking the user as a follow-up target.
  • An issue might arise depending on the information Robinhood includes in the tax documents section within the app (I don’t have any tax documents generated or I’d have included it).
  • A hacker could decide to simply cause havoc, buy/sell any securities in the account to drive price action of a stock they own elsewhere (this is further complicated in the event of a margin account), make transfers out, close the account, et cetera which Robinhood and the client will have to devote valuable resources to sorting out. With the current setup, no one would know anything was wrong until the customer contacted Robinhood.

As previously stated, it’s not a pressing issue currently, but the best solution is to take care of the issue altogether so that it’s never a problem to begin with.

I personally recommend taking Barclay’s approach to password resetting. When an account holder calls, the customer answers their security questions, and the customer service agent changes the password to a temporary. Your users aren’t going to be changing passwords often because of the persistent login anyway. If an account service representative is too prohibitive/costly at this stage (hired for this particular purpose or stresses the workload of current agents too much), the mobile notification of password changes should be more than sufficient.

How secure connections are made:

When you communicate using a wireless technology, anyone with the correct equipment can intercept it. Since anyone can see the unencrypted communication between devices, your device first “talks” by sending a hello message containing the max protocol (SSL/TLS) version it supports and a list of cipher suites (types of encryption it supports). The server (in this case Robinhood) picks a cipher suite from the list and replies with a message telling your device which one it has chosen.

The Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) are the two protocols used for this process. SSL is the older less secure proprietary protocol and shouldn’t be used at all anymore but can still be found in use. Robinhood.com supports TLS 1.2, 1.1, and 1.0 so no need to worry. The terms SSL/TLS are often used interchangeably but technically are different since each refers to a different version of the protocol.

To keep this as simple as possible, I’m going to keep a high-level view of what comprises a cipher suite and slim-down what certificates are.

The server will also attach its certificate when it returns the message stating which cipher suite it has chosen. The job of a certificate is to say “this third-party we both trust knows who I am and can vouch for me” and provides other useful information. There’s more to it but that’ll cover it in a nutshell.

Once the initial negotiations are completed and the cipher suite is chosen, a symmetric key (we’ll call this “private-key”) generated by the client (you) will be encrypted using an asymmetric (what we’ll call “half-key-1”) cipher the server provides publicly (this allows anyone to encrypt messages with this “half-key-1,” but only the server can decrypt them properly by using the second “half-key-2”). The server will use its private “half-key-2” to decrypt the “private key” the client (you) sent and begin communicating securely using this new “private key” by encrypting new communications only the two of you (theoretically) will be able to decrypt. Throughout this process, Message Authentication Codes (MACs) are used to verify that the messages haven’t been tampered with.

The Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption information I took directly from connecting to Robinhood’s website and viewing their certificate details. I then verified the certificate through their Certificate Authority (Robinhood’s CA is Digicert), not information provided by Robinhood. I used this particular method for any users who want to easily replicate these steps (once connected to the website, click the green lock icon next to their name in the address bar).

My client connected using TLS 1.2 and used ECDHE-RSA (Elliptic Curve Diffe-Hellman Exchange and Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) as “half-key-1” and AES-128-GCM (Advanced Encryption Standard-128bit-Galois/Counter Message) as “private key”.

For anyone who wants to get an incredibly detailed in-depth look at how your computer communicates this information, there is a wonderful free and open source software (FOSS) called Wireshark.

Sensitive information and capital secured with Robinhood…
Security Test: PASS




Immediate Growth Steps:

I’ve recommended these few as immediate growth steps because they range from very simple to an intermediate level of complexity and most importantly can be implemented in a short time-frame.

1) Institute a Pay What You Want (PWYW) plan.

A PWYW business model is one in which the product/service itself is free and people are allowed to pay whatever they believe it’s worth. Some people will pay more, some less, and some nothing at all.

People want to pay because Robinhood has already offered them an amazing service. Every dollar is one that someone wants to give, not forced to. That is powerful.

How I would implement PWYW into the app:

  • Place the PWYW screen in the account overview section after clicking the person looking icon.
  • The triggering event for the PWYW screen would be when the first capital transfer in has been completed.
    • The first time the PWYW screen is seen by the user, it should be placed in the above referenced location for maximum user interaction, as opposed to other times/locations. For example, if placed immediately before logout the first time the app is launched, the user will already be exiting the app without necessarily having fully explored yet. Opposite scenario if placed before having time to explore the app, et cetera.
  • The PWYW screen will only appear once to explain what a PWYW system is.
  • A PWYW/donate link placed under support section below “Robinhood FAQ Center”
  • A recommended PWYW price between $2-$5 (depending on what Robinhood decides).
    • A recommended price allows users to have a target range. At a $5 suggested price, an estimated 80% will pay $5, 10% will pay less, and 10% will pay more. In most PWYW models, the majority of revenue will come from the 10% who pay above because they pay significantly more. If Robinhood used a PWYW model that suggested $5, I personally would pay over $100 because I know over the lifetime of using the app, I’ll have saved many times beyond that.
    • A subscription based PWYW model would also be an effective long term revenue solution or at least to assist offsetting operating costs. Robinhood’s PWYW could be linked to a credit card with a recurring charge and time-frame decided by the user. For example, a $5 charge bi-annually.
    • Robinhood’s targeted market (being younger) will likely not have $100 or even $20 which is one reason a link to give in the future is needed. They want to grow with their users; I don’t think it’s unreasonable in 10 years for someone who is currently 20 years old to look back and realize they’ve grown their portfolio $50,000; saved $2,000 (between 200-400 trades at the $5/10 mark) in commissions and donate $100 or more. Or for a young student/adult to opt in for a yearly $10 recurring charge and choose to give more later.
  • Examples:
    • When an artist offers a PWYW option as opposed to a fixed pricing scheme, they actually tend to make much more money. Listeners pay because they want the artist to continue producing something they love, not because they’re forced to.
      • Radiohead
      • Nine Inch Nails
      • The Dresden Dolls
      • Wheatus
      • And More
  • Businesses that use PWYW:
  • Canonical, the company that produces Ubuntu (a Linux OS) uses PWYW for the operating system and offers technical support for a fee. Over ¾th of all enterprise/business class servers use Ubuntu or a Linux-based derivative and the number is increasing (That’s from the Linux Foundation survey not a made up statistic).
  • Panera Bread opened a PWYW store in St. Louis in 2010 and have since opened more.
  • One World Everybody Eats café opened in Salt Lake City in 2003
  • Openbooks.com

2) It is much more important to roll out the web version before any other versions.

Robinhood has already begun testing the Android version though, so it will be released (I imagine) before the web version. The reason I say the web version is most important is because it enables the widest possible audience reach. Anyone with a browser will be able to use the web version, which realistically, is everyone.

This is where the founders and I would disagree on market approach, but the usefulness of releasing the iPhone/Android versions first is they have a solid, fast growing customer base in the mobile segment and it’s being extremely well-received. I would have pointed to the resources (capital, programmers, et cetera) needed to develop and maintain each new platform, but it could’ve actually been a more efficient use to go after the iPhone/Android platforms initially (for example, in all the photos I’ve seen, the Robinhood team uses Macs and probably (statistically speaking) have iPhones. Apple has the largest phone segment {at approximately 42%} and the founder’s programming knowledge might have better suited this deployment than a web first version).

They’ve already brought their vision to the market. You’ve succeeded. Now monetization is needed to make sure the vision stays. Because a vision with a negative cashflow is a dead vision.

3) Outsource level 2 quotes, financial advising, and other services.

3a) Programming the level 2 quotes into the iPhone, Android, and web versions beautifully like Robinhood has done with its app is going to be a lengthy process. The process I’m suggesting is to be used in the interim before more in-depth quotes are integrated in order to provide their customer base with level 2 quotes and begin earlier monetization.

Robinhood enters an agreement directly with the exchanges or another company to purchase level 2 quotes. Out of an 800,000 growing user-base, even a conservative estimate of subscribers will reach beyond the break-even point on data distributor costs (or Robinhood could poll users and find out exactly how many are interested).

After purchasing the data feeds, Robinhood sets up a web portal where users enter their Robinhood username/password. The user lands on a page where their watch-list has been pulled and a search bar is presented for other stocks. When clicked/searched, a new tab with that particular data feed opens (orders will still be entered via the app). Simple, clean, quick.

If Robinhood receives their data from another company, they could choose to use that company’s interface (look and feel) to present to customers (or something easily modifiable Robinhood can use). To further elaborate, Robinhood’s backend server receives data from a company using their interface as a normal trader would. As Robinhood’s user’s search stocks, the Robinhood backend opens a new virtual window with the level 2 information present. All further user requests are pointed to this new “virtual window” (it would be like sitting in on a video conference call except you can only see what’s going on, not interact). As user’s close their connections, the server can close the “virtual windows” when not in use in order to reuse processing power elsewhere. Robinhood could implement this type of system with direct exchange feeds, but I recommended using another company so Robinhood doesn’t have to design/program it’s own interface for the time-being.

Again, this is not meant as a final implementation, but as a quick way to give users access to level 2 quotes and begin monetizing.

3b) Most of Robinhood’s user base being approximately 26/27 years olddon’t have the ability to pay for financial advice. Robinhood could attempt to find advisors that would offer a large discount on referrals or a company that is willing to use Robinhood’s model of offering advice for free now and grow with their customers. Win-Win on all sides.

I think it would only be fair to take a Robinhood-esque stance and offer that if the customer doesn’t make any money neither does the advisor. Wouldn’t that be crazy? Really separates someone who knows what they’re doing from those who don’t (looking at the mutual fund guys).

3c) If some of Robinhood’s services can be outsourced for cheaper and provide quicker user functionality, do it. At least until the Robinhood team grows large enough that it can be accomplished in-house. This extends to all areas including business operations such as accounting because let’s say that the two founder’s are excellent programmers and mediocre tax accountants. Where are the company’s resources (Tenev and Bhatt – the founders) better spent, programming or accounting?

4) Release the software under a restricted open source license.

Release Robinhood’s source code (or a partial release of code for security purposes) under a restricted open source license. In particular, open source the code with a restricted license so that any additions to the code are property of Robinhood. The restricted license allows Robinhood to place transparency in their business without allowing their code to be used line-for-line to create a competitor.

Usefulness and implementation:

  • Robinhood could begin reaching out to tech forums/magazines/current users and other outlets to request programmers who would like to volunteer.
  • Robinhood could organize a list of features it plans to offer and begin accepting contributors to each project.
  • Additions would be submitted to Robinhood for review before being integrated into the app (meaning the rest of Robinhood’s users get the feature after being reviewed and tested for bugs and glitches).
  • Robinhood gets exposure as a free (or PWYW) and open source software which brings it into those communities’ folds.
  • Free advertising (especially directed towards tech-savvy individuals and programmers who possibly weren’t previously using the app).
  • Security is a strong concern for Robinhood, which is one reason why they waited so long before finishing beta testing. If they open source, more security specialists will be viewing their code for vulnerabilities and hence it actually becomes more secure. At that juncture, I (as Robinhood) would reach out to the Defcon, BlackHat, and other hacker communities to directly ask them to perform research using Robinhood (any vulnerabilities found are reported to the company first to be fixed and then used at the conference talks). There is a large issue with security researchers being sued; if Robinhood came forward to the hacker community and directly requests research performed, this completely negates that issue. In return, Robinhood would probably become one of the most secure financial companies because of the number of security specialists reviewing them frequently (and at no cost).
  • I personally don’t know the extent of the security testing Robinhood underwent, but if the open source path is chosen, I would go to the security researchers first, then release the code after the interested party’s reviews. You just never know what could have been overlooked, and it would be better to find them first before releasing the code.
  • Some programmers would volunteer just because they are disgusted by the way large financial corporations treat their customers. Apparently, the founder’s were inspired by friends in the Occupy Wall Street movement. If you guys ask nicely, I’ll share some photos.
  • A programmer might already be using the app and want a feature included that literally can be coded in less than a day or two (unrealized gain/loss for example).
  • Out of 800,000 users (most of which are a younger demographic), I guarantee there are quite a few programmers who would be interested.
  • It requires negligible capital expenditure from Robinhood.
        • Initial costs to release the source code and set up an organized list of features.
        • Review of code submissions (which would have to be programmed by someone at Robinhood otherwise and cost many times the review process cost).

Volunteer compensation:

  • If the idea of programmers volunteering without compensation seems implausible or a wider audience reach is desired; compensation can be provided in multiple forms from the company without majorly or minorly affecting its operations.
    • A partial share of stock. Literally 1/100th or 1/500th of a share. It isn’t meant to convey any real ownership or voting rights, but as a gesture of appreciation from Robinhood (it does however instill a sense of ownership and acts as an unconscious catalyst for future volunteer work).
    • The partial share could also entitle those individual’s to a first choice on future offerings or a future Robinhood IPO.
    • Issue the partial share to any contributor who works on a feature/project.
    • Premium features for free to the team that creates the feature. Preferably indefinitely, or for a limited time-frame. For example, Robinhood explains how they would like level 2 quotes implemented. When the project is completed, all contributors could be issued the partial share and/or lifetime/limited level 2 in the app.

Volunteer programmers don’t add to a project because they get paid, but because they believe in the software and want to benefit the entire community (which is the foundation of any FOSS project). As more end-users begin migrating towards free and open source software, we’ll have a complete shift in software dynamics. For example, a program called LibreOffice is a FOSS program that is (and will continue) replacing business and government (it’s available cross-platform {Linux, Mac, Windows} to any individual) office suites because of the increased cost-benefits, security, and numerous other benefits. LibreOffice opens any files from other office suites such as Microsoft/Mac Office, so there are no issues of interoperability. LibreOffice’s cloud version is an alternative to proprietaries like MS Office 365 and should be released by the end of 2015. All in all, FOSS software is just better in my opinion and will only continue getting better as more people utilize it.

Again, any of the above suggestions require little to no effort from Robinhood, but have the potential for massive added value. Without the above solutions, Robinhood will have to allocate resources (capital, programming hours, et cetera) eventually anyway.

Taking an expanded high-level, growth oriented view, the sooner features are added and versions released, the sooner the company expands further and makes a larger impact. The longer these projects take, the more room is left for competitors to move in.

5) Integrate useful features of other innovative businesses:

There is a business called Acorns that can be linked to a debit/credit card, checking, paypal account, et cetera. Whenever a purchase is made, the remaining cents are transferred to your Acorns account. For example, a $13.54 purchase is rounded to $14 and the $0.46 cents goes to your investment account. There is more to Acorns’ business model that would be useful to incorporate, but I’m suggesting for now to only import the single idea of automatic round-ups. Acrons itself differs from Robinhood in a lot of ways such as their automated portfolio management which is one reason I won’t use Acrons at all, but would enable the roundup feature if given the choice in Robinhood.




6) Advertising:

Advertising is listed last because there is no doubt it’s been discussed. Robinhood has chosen to focus on growing their customer base, releasing more features into the app, brand recognition, and releasing the Android and web versions. It’s also possible they might have no intention of including advertising at all.

How to implement advertising in a non-invasive and user friendly way:

  • Enable it under the settings within the app as the user’s choice.
  • Include a short message saying that Robinhood doesn’t sell its user’s data but as an additional revenue stream the company gives the user an option to enable ads so the company can continue providing zero-commissions and the feature may be turned on or off at any time by the user.
  • Robinhood can make more directed advertising dollars because although they aren’t selling customer data, the ads will be targeted to an audience the advertiser knows are interested in financial services and products. For example, Robinhood’s user base being uniquely suited to target first time home buyers (did someone say mortgage rate ads?).
  • Set the ads after the app is unlocked using the PIN.
  • An ad after every unlock might get annoying, but if Robinhood gives the option to the user it becomes non-issue.
  • Again you’re allowing the user to create their own experience and willingly help the company succeed. I wouldn’t personally want an ad every time I open the app but I would opt for every third time. I might not even look at the ad before hitting the X but I’d opt for it to provide an income stream to a company that is providing me a valuable service for free.
  • A mix of video/non-video ads and allowing the users to choose their frequency is a winning combination.
  • Lastly, do not incorporate ads that must be watched. In order for this form of advertising to work effectively, all advertising choices must be given to user.

Robinhood’s Revenue Stream

Robinhood’s users crave they stay in business. Why? Because they are providing an extremely valuable service. I don’t hope they make millions, I hope they make billions; and if they do it right, they will.

Robinhood’s current and future revenue streams (only those specifically mentioned by Robinhood):

  • Payment for Order Flow (PFOF)
    • Robinhood states “…we execute all of our orders through our clearing partner APEX (sic) Clearing; as a result, Robinhood does not directly receive PFOF and any revenue we indirectly generate from it is negligible. If we were ever to receive it directly, or if it becomes a significant source of revenue, we will reintroduce that language into the FAQ.
      • The fact to take away from the above statement, Robinhood IS making money from PFOF. What does Robinhood consider negligible? Under $20,000 a month, $5,000? Robinhood routes all orders through their clearinghouse Apex. Apex’s 606 disclosure (this refers to NMS rule 606 – Order Routing Disclosure which provides information on how much Apex is paid for routing and where they route to {$0.0030 per share to Instinet}) can be found in Robinhood’s disclosure section for those who are interested. Does Robinhood have an agreement with Apex to split the PFOF? What do they consider “indirect” revenue? I’m not implying Robinhood is doing something deceitful at all, quite the opposite in fact. I listed PFOF in order to include all revenue sources for the review and if Robinhood decides to answer those questions, their users only become more informed about their business.
  • Unused cash in customer’s accounts
  • Margin accounts (which should be available in 2015)
  • Access to Robinhood’s API
  • Future premium services (such as level 2 quotes)

Robinhood’s Weakness as a Business

I have the experience and knowledge uniquely suited not to just one aspect, but multiple aspects (financials, computer operations/security, marketing and public relations, et cetera) critical to Robinhood’s business. As such, what I believe are weaknesses in Robinhood’s business are not meant to dissuade users, developers, or investors, but exactly the opposite. I hope the issues I detail allow Robinhood to create a better product, a more complete user experience, and a more attractive investment.

  • The main weakness I see in Robinhood’s business is their choice combination of target market and revenue stream.
    • Robinhood is particularly targeted towards Millennials:
      • Most Millennials have a deep distrust of the markets and financial system in general. Prior to Robinhood, the per trade costs proved too large of an entry barrier for most Millennials. As such, many of Robinhood’s users have little to no investment acumen in regards to equities or other financial markets (as clearly evidenced by most of the one or two star reviews {I’m referring to reviews in the itunes store}). Having little experience isn’t a bad thing and Robinhood’s platform is the perfect tool to get one’s feet wet so to speak. That being said, it should be kept in mind when reviewing the lower star reviews.
      • Millennials are saddled with enormous student loans (totaling approximately $1.2 trillion in the US) and other debts, not to mention standard living expenses.
      • A large portion of Robinhood’s users will be first time home buyers representing another large debt that must be accounted for (personally I believe Millennials and everyone else should be consistently investing something in their futures no matter how small).
      • All in all, the revenue stream from Millennials as a whole is currently smaller (obviously this changes as they become older) than other generations (excluding Posts, Digitals or whatever name you personally use for the generation after Millennials).
  • Robinhood’s current revenue stream is directed/derived at/from:
    • Active traders (margin accounts will require a minimum $2,000 account balance and a pattern day trader requires $25,000). How many Millennials reading this or do you know have $25,000 in general or for the purpose of active pattern trading?
    • Older wealthy investors (at least in the meantime until Millennials become those old wealthy investors). I’ve included them in this category not because Robinhood is directing their efforts towards older individuals but because they will likely provide a larger share of the total revenues. For example, how many 26/27 year olds will it take to equal the same amount of revenue generated by a 65 year old multi-millionaire?
    • Developers using their API
    • Users of their premium features

The above reasons are why every monetization idea I put forth in the immediate growth section doesn’t follow the revenue stream of what a traditional brokerage would pursue (you might not have realized it while reading, but you can go back and check). I do believe that margin accounts, premium features, and others must be included as well, but will not necessarily produce enough revenue to make Robinhood profitable by themselves.

Robinhood can’t compete against these large brokerage firms following the traditional rules, so let’s break the rules. In order to do that, we have to look at ways Robinhood can succeed by using its strengths, at least long enough for the company to survive until Millennials grow more disposable income. Robinhood’s strengths are its strong devoted user base, its concept, its willingness to be different, and its drive to provide the best customer experience possible.

Why experienced and active traders wouldn’t use Robinhood’s platform:

Now comes the part where I explain why Robinhood’s current revenue stream doesn’t seem like a viable option. Before continuing, I want to explain that I’ve never seen Robinhood’s books, so they might have a sustainable business. However, there is a difference between a sustainable and a truly profitable business.

Most Pattern Day Traders (PDT) will likely never use a mobile platform to trade (at least not until 5G or better speeds are easily available). To clarify further, I’m not referring to High Frequency Trading (HFT) which is handled by computer algorithms, not people (HFT systems were actually built by Robinhood’s founders in one of their first start-up ventures, Celeris).

The main reasons I say PDTs won’t use a mobile platform are the same reasons governments use fiber optics for critical infrastructure/military operations, and traders in movies have multiple monitors; speed and information.

Speed:

If someone is a PDT, trading is most likely their career not something they’re doing off and on (or they’re already retired, in which case it’s unlikely they’re Robinhood’s coveted Millennials). As such, in any business you attempt to acquire the most amount of information and tools to enable the best possible decisions. The latency created from a wireless connection (from your mobile, to the router, to Robinhood, to Apex, to the exchange) would be Unacceptable from a position where execution speed is critical. Assuming that you “might” be using your mobile out in the real world, connected to a congested wifi access point… best of luck to you. A mobile platform is nice… a slow connection is not.

Information:

A PDT might use the web version on a desktop with a well designed interface but again, not on a mobile. With a desktop interface, a trader can assign shortcuts to keys and orders are ready to be executed at the press of a button. Using a desktop station with multiple monitors, a trader can open multiple windows next to each other all containing various important information for that particular trader. The delay in time it takes switching between the various stocks themselves in Robinhood’s app could potentially mean huge losses for a swing trader. The other information that most PDT’s require is access to news, which Robinhood doesn’t provide at the moment and no clear time-frame of when or how they will. So if I can do these things better from a desktop or a high powered laptop, why would I choose a mobile platform. Why would you?

Let’s say you are an active trader and are considering Robinhood’s platform.

  • What are you going to do if the battery on your phone dies?
  • There is no web interface yet so whose iPhone/iPad/backup device is your go-to if your main system dies?
  • Where/what is Robinhood’s number in case you need a broker assisted trade?
  • You’re not banking (at least you shouldn’t be) or trading over open wifi, so what security measures have you put in place?

A report is released that an executive of a company you are heavily invested in has been embezzling millions of dollars (because that never happens)… your phone is dead… no web interface… can’t find their number… I can see the terror growing as the seconds pass…

Robinhood’s API access:

Robinhood plans to make revenue by offering their API access “to a select group of customers in 2015”. There are plenty of more established brokers who offer access to their API. These traders who trade frequently aren’t paying the large per trade prices that retail investors are anyway, so from that perspective is Robinhood a better decision? That’s up to each individual trader to determine. Can Robinhood derive a significant income stream from API access? I honestly have no idea because there is too much “fog” at the moment. What is Robinhood charging for their API access, how many customers are interested, et cetera?

There are companies that exist such as Interactive Brokers, who allow access to their API, and already offer a large portion of what Robinhood wishes to accomplish already. Where Robinhood wins is no commissions and no minimums. However, Interactive Brokers is cheap for placing orders and offers much broader access to foreign markets and not only equities but forex and futures for example. The question becomes, if you meet Interactive Brokers’ minimums, is it worth it or is Robinhood the better option? I personally believe that as Robinhood expands to more active traders, Interactive Brokers will be one of its largest competitors.

As an experienced trader, I wouldn’t recommend the Robinhood platform for active traders. At least not until something I could use easily from my desktop is rolled out (which probably won’t be until at least sometime next year). However, I would recommend that active traders still use the platform for their long term holds. Personally, I would use Robinhood for any purchases that I know are going to be held for months to years and maintain an active intraday account elsewhere. All of my data features (and most likely whatever Robinhood’s premium features they offer) would probably be attached to the other active trading account which takes away a stream of income I would rather give to Robinhood.




Future Growth Steps:

Expanded mobile reach:

Robinhood could choose to have their app pre-installed in phones sold by certain providers. Discount providers such as FreedomPop, Republic Wireless, and Cricket to name a few attract customers looking to save money off their bill every month. These types of plans are intended for users who aren’t major data consumers (those who don’t watch lots of videos per-say but use their phones for call, text, and basic web browsing). The issue with discount providers is they oftentimes use the larger carrier networks spare bandwidth, and hence the user’s coverage can be shit.

The only exception to the companies I’ve listed is Cricket because it was recently acquired by AT&T, and now has AT&T’s nationwide coverage. However, because a lot of these providers use VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), the range of wifi coverage (hence call coverage) can be greatly extended if the user also uses a service such as Xfinity, Cox, Time Warner, and so on because these providers have begun setting public wifi hotspots in their user’s homes (via the router provided by the cable company) that other customer’s can access. Robinhood’s no commissions structure obviously appeals to these types of customers.

Robinhood could potentially partner with these providers to offer a deal in which, when Robinhood’s app is loaded from one of these provider’s phones, the provider’s stock information is automatically loaded at start or added to Robinhood’s watchlist. This is important because it leads to more direct investment in the provider (if it’s public) and Robinhood offers a direct way to do that. I imagine this would be particularly useful for new providers entering the market enabling customers the ability to directly provide capital to the startup. Or of course, Robinhood could pay a small fee to have their app pre-installed.

Disclaimer: I own shares of AT&T, switched to Cricket after AT&T’s acquisition, and have previously purchased FreedomPop devices.

DRIP (Dividend Reinvestment Plans):

DRIP plans allow for the dividends from ownership of a stock to be reinvested to purchase additional shares of the company.

  • Some companies maintain their own DRIP plans or outsource their plans to another company. The largest DRIP plan provider that I know of is a company called Computershare.
  • Computershare charges a per share fee to reinvest the dividends. Robinhood could set up a plan that mimics Computershare’s.
  • As an additional revenue stream:
    • Some companies offer discounts for large orders. If Robinhood is purchasing $10,000 plus of stock and the company offers a 3% discount on orders of $10,000 or more, pass 1.5% onto the users who would normally not be able to receive a discount (due to purchasing less than $10,000) and Robinhood makes the other 1.5%. Both parties win. Robinhood isn’t taking value away from their customers but adding even more additional value.

Option to disable/enable any feature:

Put simply, it allows for a much broader audience.

  • Allows for more user customization
  • Faster mobile load times
  • Allows Robinhood to perform better on older devices.
  • This is particularly important for when Robinhood decides to enter emerging markets because most smartphone hardware is well behind that of the US, UK, and other major western nations.
  • If the option to disable/enable features is kept in mind from the beginning, it obviously reduces the time needed in the future even if the feature itself isn’t enabled until later. For example, when coding, the programmer might make what are called comments to indicate where in the code the new code would need to be inserted.

Robinhood ETF (Exchange Traded Fund):

Robinhood could create it’s own ETF and use the ETF generated fee to assist in covering operating expenses of the brokerage. Sticking with Robinhood “ideals,” the ETF could charge a 0.25% (this was arbitrarily chosen) expense ratio and invest solely in socially responsible companies. So long as the company can provide me a return that exceeds the expense ratio I would invest in this product.

To explain the reasoning:

  • Robinhood’s target market is Millennials who are interested in creating and using businesses that have a positive impact.
  • From a financial perspective, it doesn’t make sense to me to invest in a product that doesn’t provide me an optimized return. However, if the Robinhood ETF generated enough income to cover its expenses plus a very minor return I would reconsider.
    • It would allow me to invest in other companies that are socially responsible that I might not otherwise invest in at all.
    • Covering the expense ratio plus a minor return means I never have to worry about the ETF fees draining other resources.
    • An ETF like this will most probably never be the top prize in your portfolio, but what it does do is exchange your return for a better future so to speak. To me at least, that’s worthwhile, at least for a portion of my portfolio.

Marketing:

I’ve already written such a large review that I’ve decided to exclude marketing ideas which would make it a prohibitively long read (because it’s not too long already). The majority of the marketing ideas actually require no capital expenditure at all. If the Robinhood team likes what I’ve written, you’re welcome to contact me and I’ll share these ideas as well.




Conclusion:

Robinhood’s platform is Perfect for someone new to stocks or those who hold long term. This is literally hands down the best app in your arsenal by far. Let’s make a quick analogy, Robinhood is an Olympic athlete and the other stock apps are somewhere between junior varsity and the players who sit on the bench but never get to play. It’s really that amazing and only getting better as they expand features.

Thursday March 12th, the founders (Tenev and Bhatt) appeared on CNBC to discuss Robinhood. At the end was a question asked of the founders, “When do you expect to turn a profit?” Bhatt responded “We’ve got great investors backing us… so we’ve got a long time to figure that out. We expect that in a year or two, we’ll have our customers a little more mature, they’ll have a few more years in the working place, and we’ll grow with them.”

From my understanding, that basically means they’re not sure but they hope in a year or two to have a profitable business. That is honestly the reason I put so much effort and time into writing this review. Even with a mere half of these suggestions I think Robinhood should be more than able to become profitable without a doubt. I didn’t get paid to write this. I’ve never met anyone on their team. I want them to succeed. Not just because they provide a great service, but because I genuinely want to see a positive change in an unfair industry (if only most people knew what was happening behind the scenes) and I believe they can do it (because they already are, now all they need to do is make it sustainable).

P.S.

I’m going to share what seems to be an incredibly simple and silly story that has probably one of the most powerful consumer messages no one thinks about.

I bought a FreedomPop phone for my mom. About a month into using it, she calls me on the home landline to tell me her phone hasn’t been working for the past week and a half anywhere except for when she’s home. I told her it’s rarely the technology that’s an issue but the user. She only needs to take the time to learn how to use it better. The next time I stopped home, I looked at her phone. Anyone care to guess what the issue was? It was in airplane mode the entire time… (and only worked when home because she was connected to the wifi). Yep. I’m sure you can all imagine what kind of reaction she had when I just busted out laughing (to be fair, it was her first smartphone).

So what is the incredible insight in this story? I included this story at the very end because I didn’t want to reveal until the end of the review that I too am a Millennial. I wanted to reserve that fact until the very end to emphasize how powerful this insight is:

I researched and bought the FreedomPop phone she was (and still is) using. The landline my parents used as their home phone has been replaced by an Obi-VOIP phone that I recommended. The computers they buy are based on my recommendations. The tablet my mom uses, a recommendation. The TV streaming service they’ll be switching to, again same story. It’s estimated that at least a third of all Millennials influence what products, shops, services, and restaurants their parents buy and visit. This striking fact means Millennials can be vital carrier’s of a business’s message not only to their friends but also their parents. I wonder how many Millennials reading this review have made recommendations to their friends and families and are only now thinking about how much exactly they’ve influenced those decisions. How about influencing the decisions of siblings? It’s an even larger impact when extended family is taken into account.

I hope everyone enjoyed this review; the lengthy amount of time I put into writing it and the lengthy amount of time you took to read the review (or most of it). I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to write something useful for Robinhood’s users and potential users. Thank you.

53 thoughts on “

Robinhood Financial Brokerage Review

  1. Bruce

    Thank you, I’ve recently been looking for info approximately this subject for a
    while and yours is the greatest I have found out till now.

    However, what in regards to the bottom line? Are you sure concerning
    the source?

    1. Cody Hofstetter Post author

      Bruce,

      If you could be more specific I would be happy to answer your question more fully. If by bottom line you are asking if I’m affiliated with Robinhood, then only so much as I use their product. I wasn’t paid to write the review in any way, shape, or form. If you are referring to how they plan to make money, well that’s why I’ve suggested multiple ways for them to monetize in the article.

      I’m not 100% sure what you are asking in regards to the source either. All of the information concerning their actual business can easily be found on their website or via a quick search engine result.

      Thanks for the input,
      Cody

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