Editor’s Note: Morningstar was a sponsor of the 2023 Future Proof conference.
The inaugural Future Proof conference in 2022 was bold, different, and amazing. For year two, Future Proof promised to be bigger and better. It was certainly bigger—with almost twice as many participants. And there were some pretty cool, innovative aspects. But it was not always better. Even so, Future Proof, held Sept. 10-13 in Huntington Beach, California, provided attendees a great conference experience.
This article will not be a play-by-play description of everything happening at Future Proof. Nor will it be an in-depth review of the various sessions. What I will share are my reflections on what worked, what somewhat missed the mark, and what didn’t work. I’ll also mention a few items I found interesting to give a flavor of what Future Proof was all about.
Future Proof Dares to Be Different
The first Future Proof was a daring endeavor—it was held entirely outdoors on a beach, something that organizer Matt Middleton, CEO of Advisor Circle, says had never been attempted before.
Middleton says the conference was a “wild success.” I agreed. As I wrote last year, “Without suits, ties, heels, and confined walls, plentiful conversations took place and participation in the various offerings was constant. The environment was more like that of a music festival than a financial conference. Various stages provided concurrent options on topics and speakers. Thus, the event was very customized based on each participant’s individual preferences.”
For 2023, Middleton and his team’s theme was “Level Up.” To Middleton, this meant offering a broader range of speakers and experiences based on the preferences expressed in robust surveys of prior attendees.
What Worked at Future Proof
The framework of Future Proof can’t be beat. It’s almost three full days of constant wide-ranging content: speakers, panels, demonstrations, and live podcasts. “Many attendees said that the nonstop sessions could be tiring without brain breaks,” Middleton says. “So, we purposely expanded the programming to include nontechnical content like salsa dancing and pizza dough making.”
Participants joined in as they pleased for main stage sessions or any number of other programs happening on smaller stages. The variety of offerings practically ensured that every attendee got what they wanted out of the conference.
In between the various stages were exhibitor booths. The exhibitors were typical for a financial conference: primarily technology providers, support services, and fund companies. In addition to the normal conference swag, exhibitors featured authors, books, custom sneakers, and even cocktail hours.
Content aside, the unique all-outdoor location on the boardwalk in Huntington Beach was the best. Other than a few sprinkles one morning (OK, maybe more than a few), the weather was perfect. The view of the ocean and the feel of the breeze make Future Proof feel like a vacation. No suits and ties, lots of flip-flops and smiles; worries of the coronavirus seemed far away.
With about 4,000 people in attendance (including attendees and exhibitors), food could have been an issue. But it wasn’t. As was the case last year, Future Proof had plentiful sustenance available from morning to night provided by diverse food truck offerings, coffee carts (sponsored by Morningstar), and water stations. In other words, almost instant food was available at any time by just walking a few steps. And it was all included!
Organizers strive to create what they call a Future Proof “ecosystem,” where attendees find it easy to bond, talk, and make meaningful connections. The ecosystem concept was taken to a new level with the introduction of “Breakthru” meetings. These 15-minute professional “speed dating” sessions were offered through two-way automated scheduling. I allowed myself the opportunity to meet with people I didn’t know who sounded interesting in some way.
What a fantastic experience! This was networking at its best—one on one, casual, unstructured, and utterly fascinating! During these sessions, I was able to converse with a powerhouse CEO looking to embark on her next chapter, a financial blog author, an experienced RIA considering going out on her own, a respected publisher, a well-known industry influencer, a successful bond manager, and a popular podcast host.
If this was Future Proof’s only event, the conference would have been worthwhile. Middleton agrees. “I think our greatest accomplishment at Future Proof this year was the Breakthru meetings. These meetings took engagement to a new level.”
What Needs Work at Future Proof
I thought this year’s lineup of speakers was not as compelling as last year’s, and I couldn’t help but notice that many were from organizations that also had big booths. Was there a connection? Middleton emphatically says “no.”
“Our topics were crowdsourced,” he says. “We relied on our surveys to choose sessions that were of most interest to attendees. We sifted through over 275 speaker applications and selected those we thought would be best. The speakers were diverse and on average higher level than last year. The fact that there was some crossover with exhibitors was coincidental, and selling was not part of the presentations.”
Good to know!
Many of the great parts of Future Proof still have some kinks to work out. The food truck concept is a good one, but the lines were long, and a little more variety and healthier options would be appreciated.
For me, the Breakthru sessions were the high point. But with over 100 two-top tables under a hard-surfaced covering, the noise level often made it too loud to hear your partner. Middleton is aware of this. Since shade is critical, next year the organizers might try a cloth covering, and the plan is to have more space for the meetings so the sound won’t be so concentrated.
Finally, between the Breakthru meetings and other networking, it was clear that many advisors present were from small firms—who were happy and committed to remaining small. Yet many of the speakers referred to “disappearing small firms” that would be inevitably swallowed up by bigger firms. Certainly, large firms will continue to grow and acquire smaller practices, but many small firms are here to stay. It would be nice for this conference to give a little more attention to the small advisories.
What Didn’t Work at Future Proof
Inclusiveness and feeling connected are features of Future Proof. Says Middleton, “Future Proof is designed to be a diverse, forward-thinking community, one where every attendee is comfortable and engaged.”
Yet the final night’s concert was anything but that. Headlined by hip-hop artists Method Man & Redman, the concert contained crude, explicit, and misogynistic comments that I and other women found offensive. To me, this was a terrible way to end a fantastic event.
When I talked with Middleton about it, he was contrite. “When we surveyed attendees, hip-hop was by far the favorite music genre. We thought hiring a respected 25-year married artist … would be representative of our Level Up theme. We should have done more research.”
Everyone makes mistakes (even me). You can’t avoid mistakes, but you can learn from them. Based on my conversation with Middleton, I’m certain this unfortunate incident will not be repeated. Per Middleton, “I take pride in this event and the community. We are always looking for ways to improve. Entertainment is just one piece. Our goal is not just to talk about change; we want to be part of the change.”
Future Proof Tidbits
Over the three days, I heard many tidbits from the industry. Here are some of the most interesting ones:
- Industry veterans Joe Duran and Brian Shenson are starting a new company: Rise Growth Partners. In exchange for a minority ownership interest, Rise will infuse money and advice to help smaller firms grow and thrive.
- Brad Gerstner of Altimeter Capital Management is a proponent of “baby equity.” He believes that every child should share in the upside of America and proposes that every person born in the United States should be given a mobile savings/investment account seeded with $1,000. It would be invested in a fee-free large-cap index fund to be tapped when the child becomes an adult.
- Kitces.com is expanding to become the place for advisor education. Offering blogs, podcasts, and courses that qualify for continuing education credits, the Kitces organization is doubling down on its advisor-centric focus.
- Nicole Casperson heads Fintech Is Femme. Her goal is to create partnerships and networking opportunities for women in the financial industry. She focuses on content marketing, virtual meetings, and in-person meetings to help women take their rightful place in the industry.
The Final Grade
I’d give Future Proof the grade of B-plus. The concept, format, and content make this conference unique and very worthwhile. There’s room for improvement: Continue to work on more variety in speakers, offer some healthy food options, have a more conversation-friendly space and cover in the Breakthru area, and give a little more focus to small firms.
Am I looking forward to Future Proof 2024? You bet!
The opinions expressed here are the author’s. Morningstar values diversity of thought and publishes a broad range of viewpoints.
The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.