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BrightScope co-founder has knife-sharp focus

Mike Alfred went from selling knives to helping create a website that dissects 401(k) retirement plans and ranks them.

May 06, 2012|By Walter Hamilton, Los Angeles Times
  • Mike Alfred co-founded BrightScope, a financial information company in San Diego that analyzes 401(k) retirement plans and publishes disciplinary records and other information on financial advisors. The company rates 46,000 retirement plans, assigning each a numerical ranking from 0 to 100.
Mike Alfred co-founded BrightScope, a financial information company… (BrightScope )

The gig: Mike Alfred is co-founder and chief executive of BrightScope Inc., a financial information company in San Diego that analyzes 401(k) retirement plans and publishes disciplinary records and other information on financial advisors. The company rates 46,000 retirement plans, assigning each a numerical ranking from 0 to 100. The ratings are available free on its website, at http://www.brightscope.com. Alfred, 30, started the company with his younger brother, Ryan, and another partner.

First job: Alfred got his first taste of the business world the summer before college when he sold Cutco knives. The company mailed Alfred an unsolicited job application, which his mother nearly threw away before his father suggested he pursue it.

Alfred was intrigued, feeling he would be comfortable speaking to the adults who would buy the knives. The business was referral-based, forcing Alfred to ask customers to recommend potential leads, a valuable ability he later drew on at BrightScope.

"You can't leave the meeting without a referral that takes you one step closer to your goal," Alfred said. "I learned how to ask for the business, ask for the sale."

Selling the cutlery also proved lucrative. He did demonstrations in people's homes, aiming to do a minimum of five a day and sometimes doing as many as eight. He closed sales about 90% of the time.

The payoff? He earned $14,000 in seven weeks. That handily beat the likely alternative: working for close to minimum wage in a food booth at the county fair.

Learning that stocks go down: Alfred used his Cutco earnings to begin trading stocks during his freshman year at Stanford University in 1999. The dot-com boom was in full swing, and thanks to fast-rising technology stocks, his portfolio topped out at $52,000. He was humbled when he lost all but $20,000 as the Internet bubble collapsed beginning the next year.

"I went from thinking I was the smartest investor who ever walked the land to realizing just how human I was," Alfred said.

His interest in finance continued. After graduating with a history degree in 2003, Alfred began working for his father as a financial advisor at a large financial services firm. But he became disillusioned, feeling the industry focused more on pushing investments that generated juicy brokerage commissions than on what was best for clients.

When he and his brother formed their own advisory firm in 2007 to give unbiased advice to clients, Alfred learned how hard it is to start a company. He worked 80-hour weeks and amassed $50,000 in debt on his credit cards.

"It was basically two young guys in an office with a big-screen TV tuned to CNBC trying to figure out how to build a business," Alfred said. "Everything is hard when you have nothing."

A new direction: The brothers got the initial idea for BrightScope from a friend of their father's who had designed a software program to help decipher hisHewlett-Packard 401(k) plan.

The partners set out to create a website that would shed light on 401(k) plans, and figured they'd later come up with ways to make money from it. The company would evolve over time to sell software and data to employers, retirement plan advisors and financial institutions. It also publishes profiles of 700,000 financial advisors.

The partners confronted a problem before they could get off the ground: convincing the U.S. Labor Department, which had many, many records on paper, to provide electronic access to tens of thousands of corporate 401(k) plans.

It was too costly and time-consuming for BrightScope to manually input the data that companies submit to the government each year. So the brothers spent nine months relentlessly lobbying the agency to provide them digitally. "That was a huge breakthrough," Alfred said.

The site launched in January 2009.

Relieving stress: Alfred began jogging four years ago and ran a half-marathon — which he was proud of until a woman he met at a bar told him about ultra-marathons where people run up to 100 miles.

"She said, 'Well, people are doing 50- and 100-mile marathons these days, so that's no big deal,'" Alfred said.

Two months later, he did a 50-miler. It took nearly nine hours, but he proved to himself that he could succeed at a grueling task.

"When you're out there on the trail on mile 85 and you've got 15 miles to go, you really have to dig deep and find it inside yourself."

He tries to carry that discipline to the business world.

"Endurance is a key component of business, just as in ultra-marathon running," Alfred said. "A lot of people who are successful are the ones who just refuse to fold when things get tough."

walter.hamilton@latimes.com

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