How do financial advisors build huge Twitter followings? It’s a trick question—almost none have. Personal finance just isn’t inherently sexy or funny, and most advisors don’t tweet consistently enough to build traction. But financial advisor Douglas Boneparth, who boasts 150,000 Twitter followers, is an exception.
Speaking with Barron’s Advisor, the New York-based solo practitioner, who is quickly recognizable thanks to his trademark pompadour, reveals how he built a following using edgy, self-deprecating and sometimes mocking humor. He describes tweeting as just one cog in a digital marketing machine. And he admits that he had to get over fears that using humor would hurt his professional credibility. “As I kept doing this, I found that 98% of people get it,” he says. “Two percent don’t; they’re strangers on the internet with fake avatar profiles, and I could care less.”
You have nearly 150,000 Twitter followers, and every one of your Tweets seems to get 1,000 or more likes. What was your top performing tweet ever? I’ve had six or seven with 20,000 likes. The biggest one I’ve ever had was when The Verge, which is a tech publication, said, “Breaking: Google buys Fitbit for $2.1 billion.” I retweeted saying, “Fixed: Google buys your health data for $2.1 billion.” That got 54,000 likes.
That’s a lot of likes. How are you so good at this? What you see today is only because of really being bad at
for a very long time. I’ve been on the platform for over 10 years now. But it’s only in the past 18 to 24 months that the schtick, if you will, has existed. I had noticed that comic relief was going a long way in some of those darker days of the pandemic. People were looking for something that wasn’t about the market tanking or people dying. I was able to find these little glimmers of humor, taking a relevant topic and turning it upside down and poking a little fun at it, just to bring some levity to what was happening around us. And it worked.
How much has your follower count grown during the pandemic? I’ve tripled to quadrupled it in 18 months by being consistent on this schtick.
Even though your humor can be edgy, you don’t hide behind an avatar. It’s you, even if it’s in what I’d call caricature form. I’ve gotten a kick out of not just flipping narratives, events, news on their head; I’m flipping this entire notion of your financial comedy or entertainment account on its head, because I am a real person. Certainly there are lines you don’t cross as a real human with a real reputation. What’s funny is now people think I’m not a real person! They think the guy in a suit is just a meme. And then they see a real picture of me with my wife and kids are like, holy s—, the guy is real.
Tell us about your background. I’m a second-generation Certified Financial Planner. My father joined IDS American Express in 1991.He was never a stock trader, he was always a financial planner. He really enjoyed the fact that you could offer people financial planning and advice as the ticket to a relationship, and that then lent itself to doing asset management or providing other products or services.
I got early access to the profession: I came home after my freshman year of college and found a Series 7 manual on my bed. My father said, “Hey, can you pass this?” And at 19, I had my Series 7 before I went back for my sophomore year at the University of Florida. Before going into my junior year, I was fully licensed—series 66, 7, insurance. I spent the first four years of my career working inside my dad’s practice. I had my CFP at 25, making me probably one of the youngest in the country at the time. So my early start, and that opportunity to write financial plans, perform transactions, deal with clients, sit in the meetings, was this giant learning experience that I was able to use as a springboard to everything I’m doing today.
Describe your business. I cater to 28- to 42-year-old hardworking professionals across the country earning between $400,00 and $1.2 million a year on average. Most of my clients are in the New York City area. I manage just shy of $100 million in assets across maybe 125 households.
You left your dad’s practice in 2008 at age 24, and moved to New York to join an Ameriprise advisor’s practice. Why? I moved to New York City because I wanted to prove I could build something of my own, and also to be with my long-term girlfriend. I also had aspirations to go to business school at NYU, which I did.
Of course, 2008 was an inauspicious year for investors. What did you learn during that tumultuous period? I got to New York only to watch Lehman collapse the day I got off the plane at JFK, no joke. I had no golden ticket to New York whatsoever; I moved up with four boxes and debt. I thought I was going home the next month because of how bad things were looking.
But I survived. It was probably the best learning experience anyone could ask for. I didn’t have a family or mouths to feed, and here I was in New York City getting paid to watch everything fall apart. I was very successful at making sure things didn’t for the practice I was working in. Who would have thought a public relations degree, a couple of classes in crisis management and four years of working inside a wealth management practice would go such a long way?
It sounds like you got a lot of your clients early in their careers. I had noticed through my institutional knowledge and experience that the younger demographic was being significantly underserved. And the reason they were being underserved is because there were no assets to manage.
When you have a profession that primarily makes its money on assets under management, why would you look at a 20-something-year-old working in a white-shoe firm or a top-four bank or doing well entrepreneurially? Why would you look at them if there are no assets? I looked at them and saw nothing but opportunity to help them get to the next level. This is a long-term play: Don’t worry about assets today, help them today. If there’s a need for financial planning, you can charge for that. But ultimately, my plan was holding on so that they would prosper and become the clients that they are today. And nobody else was doing that.
So I said, boom, that’s the game you play. You establish yourself as New York City’s financial advisor for millennials. And you get all the SEO, all the keywords in your favor. You get first-mover advantage. And I remember the day someone searched millennial financial advisor in New York, my page came up, they filled out the form for a consultation. The rest is history. And I paired that with an aggressive mainstream media strategy. I managed to establish myself as a knowledge expert on “the millennials.”
So you became a go-to guy for media covering “the millennials.” Getting into that demographic, and being that person, now I was on TV and in articles catering to what the financial media was interested in: “What are the millennials?” It was mostly very negative, to be honest. It still largely is. I’m 37 with two kids. But to most people we’re all 24, living in our parents’ basement and surrounded by participation trophies.
To what extent does your big Twitter following translate into new business? That actually wasn’t the goal. But every now and then people will reach out and ask if we’re taking on clients. So there are definitely a few clients coming through Twitter. I’ll have prospect meetings and people will play coy, and at the very end they will say, “I love your Twitter feed.” Some clients don’t even know about it, and then one day they’re like, “Oh, I found your Twitter feed. It’s really funny. Thanks for making us laugh.” But I view things as more complex than that. It’s one cog in the overall marketing machine that I’ve tried to build that’s responsible for bringing in traffic and clients.
One of your humorous themes is losing money by making ridiculous bets. An example from September: “As long as the S&P 500 closes above 4,550, bitcoin hits $50,000 and I can flip this digital image of a squid for 3 ETH today, I’ll get to keep my house.”
Yes, I do a lot of self-deprecating humor on the losing of money.
But we all know too many people take tongue-in-cheek statements literally. Advisors are supposed to be buttoned-up and all that. Do you ever worry the self-deprecation might hurt business? In the very beginning, I actually was concerned about eroding my credibility. As I kept doing this, I found that 98% of people get it. Two percent don’t; they’re strangers on the internet with fake avatar profiles, and I could care less.
When Bitcoin was going bananas in February, [I tweeted], “If you’d invested $10,000 in Bitcoin one second ago, you’d have $1.7 trillion.” And there are people who take this seriously. It’s like, it’s hyperbole to the nth degree—I don’t understand how you took it seriously!
Have you ever tweeted something you regret? No. But I’ve tweeted something that didn’t go right at a very sensitive time. It was in the middle of the pandemic and the stimulus checks and Black Lives Matter and the tinderbox that was our society at the time. Stocks were going parabolic and there was a classic setup of, “Had you just invested your stimulus check in XYZ — I think it was Tesla –you would have …”
Right, “ … you’d be a billionaire by now,” or something like that. And I think I had run that joke in other capacities, with no problem. But at that specific moment, it just went down the wrong way. I had actually tweeted, in the very beginning of the pandemic, “Guys, first and foremost, use this money to feed yourselves and pay your bills, and make sure you have a roof over your head. And then if it’s icing on the cake, fatten your cash reserves, so you have more safety; it’s pretty crazy out there. And if you’re good with all of that, yeah, go invest your money.”
It was just a read-the-room type of thing. Fortunately, it wasn’t anything so risque or so mean spirited that it cost me my head. But it was a lesson to always be very careful when you’re out there providing humor.
Can you predict which Tweets are going to be hits? I’ve been doing this so long that you can kind of feel narratives, you can feel momentum. And by the way, this isn’t because I’m some savant; this just starts to happen when you organically build a large audience. You get a feel for your audience and overall financial Twitter as a whole, because you’re connected to other large accounts that are kind of dictating the narrative.
There seems to be a cynicism behind a lot of your humor. You got more than 20,000 likes when you tweeted: “If you buy a $3 cup of coffee on your commute to work 5 days a week, you’d spend $90/mo. That’s $1,080/year. If you invested $90/mo at a 6% rate of return for 5 years, you’d miss out on a simple joy that makes life worth living.” Yeah, I’m clowning the gurus and people who literally won’t take the time to tell you to be in control of your money and would rather scapegoat cups of coffee and haircuts.
I think sometimes cynicism cuts through extreme situations, like Bitcoin maximalists going crazy. But everyone gets love. Like, if you’re going super bullish, and it’s cringy, I’m making a joke about that. If you’re going super bearish and calling for the end of the world, you get the treatment too.
But the person who gets the worst treatment is this guy right here. I do it to myself, because I’m not going to offend anyone. You win when you’re the joke.
Here’s one of my favorites: “I paid $120,000 for an MBA, only to watch meme stonks outperform the market. What good was my MBA?” That was just pure fun cynicism. I’ve actually gotten a ton of value out of my MBA. But I wanted to go play that game.
Cryptocurrency is among your frequent targets. Here’s a tweet from earlier this month: “By the age of 30 you should have: 1. A digital wallet 2. Some crypto 3. Back pain 4. 1 NFT”. What do you think of cryptocurrency in all seriousness? I personally invest in cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin. Back in 2013, a childhood best friend called me, talking about things I’d never heard in my life—hash rates, Bitcoin, blockchain technology. He wanted to buy a Bitcoin miner and go 50/50 on it.
I looked at my wife. I’m like, “I know how to get him off the phone.” I called her over and said, “Heather, I’ve got Seth on the phone. He wants $3,000 for some supercomputer to do some stuff.” And she’s like, “Oh super-smart Seth! Give him the money.” It totally backfired on me.
I wired him the money, we got the miner eight months later, and we started mining Bitcoin.
I wish I could tell you I’m a Bitcoin billionaire or millionaire. I’m not. But I’m glad I did it, because of what it allowed me to learn and prepare myself for where we are today—which is the undeniable establishment of a decentralized financial system attaching itself to traditional finance. There’s too much money in it, there’s no going back. And if you think we are, then I think you’re dead wrong.
And you’ve mentioned that while you don’t yet advise your clients on crypto, you do provide education. I don’t advise clients on the purchase or sale of cryptocurrencies, because there’s no good guidance from regulatory bodies on how to do that. You can definitely educate around cryptocurrency. What we can’t do effectively, as smaller RIAs, is feel good about making the recommendation to buy or sell it.
Do your peers ask you for advice about using social media? Yeah, I’ve given seminars and panels and countless one-on-ones with colleagues who want to know how to effectively use social media. I think what I’m doing on Twitter is the exception, not the rule. I don’t think you need to be the funniest guy, the best writer, the best chartist or the best blogger, to effectively use it. I happen to be good at jokes and memes and finding humor and stuff.
Do you use your humor face-to-face with clients? What you see is what you get in real life. It’s always been an extraordinarily helpful tool when working with clients. Because inherently we deal with serious and often dark stuff—certainly on estate planning and life insurance. And just overall, personal finance is pretty boring stuff. I happen to love it. But most people would rather watch paint dry. So it has always been a tool to help people stay engaged and also cut through some of the harder conversations that need to take place.
Describe your investment approach. The opposite of my humor: pretty boring. I think what’s right for most investors is taking a risk-adjusted, low-cost, passive approach. I think
the cuter you get with investing, the more likely you are to set yourself up for mistakes or disappointment.
What’s your biggest business problem at the moment? It’s probably contingency planning for my firm around disability. It’s hard for solo or small ensemble practices to find solutions. I’ve taken care of if I die: This person will buy the practice and cut my wife a check, and my clients will go there. I’ve hammered that all out. But what happens if I become disabled? The disability side is a very big problem for small practices like mine. And it’s such a huge opportunity for someone to solve.
Name a hobby. Despite all the jokes, coffee’s my hobby. I love it. I make pour-overs every morning. I’m always experimenting with coffee, always pouring espresso shots. Love it, love it, love it.