Why Acorns’ CEO Is Looking to the Gaming Industry for His Next Hire

He's hoping to channel the addictive nature of social media and games into the fintech app

a person holding a blue gaming controller with a green acorn and green leaves floating around
Acorns is hoping that it can replace unhealthy habits with investing and money-saving. Source: Acorns, iStock
Headshot of Ryan Barwick

Consumers have known for the last decade or so that using social media is habit-forming and addictive. It’s designed so audiences keep scrolling, which is especially common in a year rife with seemingly endless breaking news.

Now, financial technology brands want in on these internal mechanics and product designs to make the simple act of personal finance and saving as addictive as, say, gaming. Noah Kerner, CEO of direct-to-consumer (DTC) personal finance app Acorns, hopes to learn the addictive triggers used by social platforms such as Twitter or Facebook and apply them to the fintech app.

“There are a lot of behaviors that people get addicted to that are not good for them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get people addicted to saving?” Kerner said.

Last week, Kerner shared a LinkedIn hiring announcement from Acorns looking for someone with gaming experience who “wants to get people addicted to saving instead of games.”

“We need someone that knows how to create a habit … and can apply it to a great cause,” he told Adweek. The candidate could come from any place “where they have really mastered driving engagement.”

Founded in 2012 and counting Jennifer Lopez and Ashton Kutcher as investors, Acorns finds itself in a crowded space. Within the decade, apps like Wealthfront, Betterment and Qapital have sprouted up to help make personal finance more efficient. Apps like Qapital essentially round up a user’s purchases and store the funds in a savings account, whereas others, such as Wealthfront and Betterment, invest your savings with a hands-off robo-adviser powered by an algorithm.

Acorns does both, taking round-ups and depositing and investing them in portfolios managed by a robo-adviser.

Like its competitors, Acorns saw a leap in growth during the pandemic, and now manages about $3 billion across 8.2 million users. From January to June, the brand grew 32% year over year. Previously, it had grown 55% in 2018. Similarly, Wealthfront saw new signups increase 27% year over year between Feb. 28 and March 27.

“We saw a surge in account growth when the pandemic started,” said Kerner. “We’ve seen customers really stick with it during this period and we’re happy with that because historically, in this industry, people get turned off by all the negative news.”

A key component of Acorns’ strategy has involved referrals, getting friends and family to share the app within their circles. Those are important, as the fin tech industry continues to grow.

“When it comes to their money, people aren’t going to try out 25 different firms,” said Peter Wannemacher, an analyst who covers digital banking at Forrester. 

Acorns has also partnered with CNBC to create financial literacy content, which is then shared on Acorns’ site and read by users. It reaches roughly 3 million unique visitors a month, according to Kerner.

Despite the offerings of a sleek design and mobile-first experience, there’s an uphill climb for fin-tech startups looking to displace the big banks and heavy hitters of the industry. According to Wannemacher’s research, customers still have a great deal of trust in traditional financial institutions simply because they’ve stood the test of time.

“The idea that a firm won’t exist, will just disappear, is an actual fear [consumers] have,” he said of digital disruptors in the finance space. “That’s not a fear they have with Bank of America. … We see very little evidence that people have abandoned traditional financial providers yet.”

While users may never replace those traditional services, they might not have to. Although their margins are paper thin—fees are low, and Acorns only charges $1 a month for accounts under $5,000—there’s no reason consumers can’t use these brands in conjunction with their own traditional retirement or savings accounts.

@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.