There are millions of apps out there. Many are very successful, but most are not. What are the steps taken by successful app makers that distinguish them from unsuccessful ones? As part of this series, I had the pleasure of speaking with Guido Petrelli.

Guido Petrelli is an experienced Corporate Executive and Founder & CEO of Merlin Investor, a Fintech company on a mission to democratize access to investment strategies and offering a software for market study, strategic investment planning and portfolio tracking to retail investors. Empowering young people to limit potential catastrophic losses and become financially free is what gets him up in the morning. Before starting Merlin Investor, Guido spent more than a decade as the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer of a multinational automotive group, where he was responsible for scaling the company globally and for running its worldwide sales and operations.

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

I was born and grew up in Italy in a small town and from a middle-class family. I moved to Canada for high school and earned my diploma before going back to Italy for college where I studied business administration and finance.

Once I graduated from college, I moved to Singapore and worked in the business consultancy field helping European companies expand internationally to the Asia-Pacific region.

After that, I joined a multinational automotive company and served as the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operations Officer for about 14 years. During that time, I was focused on growing the company’s global presence and opened several locations from scratch. I spent most of this time travelling all over the world to manage this business, especially in United States. That’s when I started to get fascinated by the world of technology and its application to the financial sector, which then ultimately inspired me to start Merlin Investor.

Most of us have been around a lot longer than apps have. What were your hobbies and interests in your youth before anyone knew what an ‘app’ was?

Yes, you’re definitely right, most of us have been around a lot longer than Apps have! Today, it’s hard to imagine our life without Apps, however, growing up I did not feel this way. During my childhood I spent most of my time playing sports (mainly soccer as it is a deemed religion in Italy) and liked spending time with friends and traveling. However, I also enjoyed trading in financial markets – a hobby that helped me create Merlin Investor.

I was just sixteen when I opened my first brokerage account and I started to buy and sell stocks, which was a hobby not common for my age, but I was intrigued by the world of trading and wanted to grow my passion more. Little did I know that I would go on to create a company dedicated to empowering a community of young retail investors to take control of their own financial future.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Every mistake comes with a price and a very important lesson that I hope will offset the cost in the long term. The bigger the mistake, the higher the cost, and therefore, a more important lesson. One of my biggest mistakes happened when I was presented with a very promising, almost life changing, “safe” investment opportunity which was expected to deliver a high return in a short period of time. I decided to trust the advisor that was sponsoring it and take it, but I lost everything in it. I learned that you don’t become rich overnight and that although something may seem safe, easy and rewarding, this is not always the case. I also learned that it takes time, hard work and a step-by-step approach to build long lasting and sustainable returns. 

But let’s not get too serious here. Another mistake I made happened when I was visiting a facility in China and an employee had just returned from maternity leave. Making casual office conversation, I asked if she had a boy or a girl and whether she was happy about it to which she replied that she had a girl but would have preferred a boy. I couldn’t come up with anything better than “Don’t worry, next time you’ll get a boy,” but from her face I could tell she was not very reassured by my words. A few days later I realized that families in China were not permitted to have more than one child at the time. Still, it came with a lesson: Never underestimate the meaning of your words whenever interacting with people from a different culture and background, as something that looks innocuous to you may sound different in someone else’s eyes. 

I tend to meet two types of app developers; people who are passionate about app development and technology and people who started an app because they saw it as a means to solve a problem. Which camp would you put yourself in, and how did you arrive there?

There is no question I belong to the camp of those who started an app because they saw it as a means to solve a problem. I started my company out of a personal need, and I believed that I was not the only one in the world experiencing that same need. 

As mentioned earlier, I started to trade from a young age, but from the very beginning it was clear to me that executing a trade is just a secondary and marginal part of the whole investing process, and the primary emphasis should be placed on the strategic part of the cycle. With this in mind, I learned that the key step in building long-term stable results relies on developing a balanced and diversified investment strategy to mitigate and manage the different risks related to investing. 

For years I put together time-consuming and complex spread sheets to create, analyze and track my own investment strategy until I questioned myself about the existence of something easier, quicker and made for anyone to use regardless the level of knowledge or experience. So, I started to look in the market for an App to replace my spreadsheets and I was surprised I couldn’t find anything even close to what I had in mind. 

I knew that many other retail investors had the exact same problem as I did even if they may have not realized it yet. I then decided to build a platform to replace all these spreadsheets, and from there, Merlin Investor was born.

Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint—though I suppose sometimes it’s both at the same time. What kept you motivated to develop your first minimum viable product, and how have you kept your momentum since then?

Yes, I would love if entrepreneurship was a sprint, but it’s actually a “sprinting marathon.” 

My motivation to start Merlin Investor was to educate retail investors, especially beginners, about the importance of investment strategy and risk diversification as the keys to success and a defense against catastrophic losses that come with a gambling approach. 

I hope to share the idea that investing can be good for everyone, but only if we democratize access to the entire process including analysis and strategy – not just the trading. For example, while the auto industry has democratized access to mobility, it’s the knowledge of how to drive a car that gives us freedom, not the car itself.

What would happen if we had given a Ferrari to everyone without a driving lesson?

If you combine strategy and tactics, you can build a real democratization process rather than providing the means without the knowledge. In other words, the mission of Merlin Investor is that anyone, literally anyone, if empowered with the right tools, can achieve financial freedom. I personally believe investing can have the power to free many people from a job they don’t like but feel obligated to keep. So, it’s our duty at Merlin Investor to educate and empower anyone in society with the necessary tools to succeed in investing, because professional investing doesn’t have to be hard and only for the experts. This is what motivated me from the very beginning and still motivates me today.

Can you tell us a bit about your app? How does it help people? What do you think makes it stand out? What are you most proud of? 

The Merlin App is a multi-asset educational, strategizing and tracking tool for personal investment strategies. It is designed for any kind of retail investor and complementary to any trading platform. We created the platform around three main sections along the investment cycle. These are the inspirational, strategy management and tracking sections. 

Inspirational is where users can study the market and retrieve data and sentiment about potential investments. Several sources of information, such as technical indications, economic calendars, social networks and others are syndicated to give investors the full picture of the investment opportunity all in one place. Then, in strategy management, users can create their own infinite set of investment strategies by cherry picking different assets they are interested in adding to their portfolio, or they can connect their bank accounts, trading platforms and wallets in order to import their current portfolio automatically. We support strategy creation with any kind of asset, from stocks, bonds, indexes, and currencies to crypto, NFTs, real estate, collectibles and more. Finally, users can track their investments to analyze, compare, back test and chart the strategies created in a customizable way. Our widget library has approximately 40 dashboards to choose from to get inspired about what asset to buy, analyze and track portfolio performance. 

Thanks to this app, the Merlin Investor community can make smarter and more strategic investments while diversifying risks associated with investing. I had the idea to create Merlin Investor one year ago, and I am very proud of what we have been able to accomplish since then.  In such a short period of time we developed a complete and fully functional product, both for desktop and mobile platforms, and we launched into the market. I think our product has so many useful and accessible features covering the whole investment cycle that makes it unique in such a crowded market.

Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

Our desktop platform was launched about three months ago, while the App launched one month ago. Merlin Investor already has over one thousand users and counting. I personally believe that to form a community, first you must give and then you may expect to get something in return. That’s why we didn’t focus much on selling the product at first, and rather placed an emphasis on educating our community around investing and the importance of strategic planning and risk diversification. Our business model allows the app users to subscribe and experience Merlin Investor for free, using the basic features on the platform. This way anyone can be part of our community, interact with their peers and familiarize themselves with the advantages that our product delivers around smart and disciplined investing. Additionally, through our marketing channels we educate and help the Merlin Investor community foster the same values.   

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those? 

We work with a Freemium SaaS business model and offer four different subscription packages; the first package is free, and the other three packages offer additional features for money. The levels are as follows:

  • Camelot: The basic package and first step into the investment strategy realm. There is no cost to users.
  • Lancelot: Users can leverage more features and dive deeper to better understand their investments. This costs $13.49 per month. 
  • Excalibur: This level is for investors who are knowledgeable enough to manage very powerful but very risky assets. Users pay $26.99 per month. 
  • King Arthur: For our most advanced investors. Users can unleash the full power of the platform and be ready to get into the battlefield to lead the troops to victory. The full package costs $44.99 per month. 

The decision to have a free package furthers our mission to democratize access to investment strategies while the others were created with the intention to allow our users to scale the platform accordingly and at their own pace. We are also considering partnerships that would allow trading within the platform as an additional stream of income, but we opted to not pursue this route to remain on track with our mission and to not have the public perceive us as another trading platform. It doesn’t mean we’ll never add it, but if we do implement it, it will happen at a time when our community has a strong understanding that It’s not the core of our platform but just an additional feature that allows them to complete the full investment cycle within our platform.

Can you tell our readers about the most unconventional tactic you’ve used to test, market, or gain feedback on a product? What did you try, what was unique about it, and what was the outcome?

In the past few months, we ran many marketing tests on digital platforms and also worked with several influencers on social networks to better understand what channels will reach our target audience, create awareness and drive conversion. We also ran market surveys to get to know our audience better and developed a product tailored to their specific needs. Among the most interesting findings, we discovered that over 75% of active Gen-Z and Millennial retail investors do not use any specific tool to create an investment strategy, while the rest are forced to used spreadsheets like I used to, and therefore invest without having a strategy in place. Still, approximately 80% of respondents are interested in learning more about the importance of strategic planning to become more professional with their investments. Another interesting result was that more than 70% of respondents rely on social media influencers to decide what assets to buy. 

However, the most unconventional tactic I tried was asking my dad to try the platform. Although my dad does not match the demographics of our target audience and he is not interested in investing, I asked him to see if the platform could make investment strategy, something usually considered complex and applied only by the experts, truly accessible to anyone. So, I tested the platform against all odds, but I have to say I have been pretty happy with the results. In the beginning my dad was scared because of his lack of a financial background, but after he played around with the platform, he was able to quickly understand all the basic features. In fact, he even found the need for some minor tweaks, which we then implemented. 

What are some of the strategies you have used to improve your products and build on their success?

The best way to improve your product is to master it and identify spaces for improvement while also asking your users to do the same and provide feedback. As I mentioned earlier, I decided to develop our platform out of a specific need that I had as a retail investor myself. That’s why I helped design and question all the nuts and bolts during the development phase, and I’m still doing it today to make sure it answers all the original needs in the best and easiest way possible. This is the primary method we use to continue pushing the boundaries and improve the product experience for our community.  

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app?

  1. Get to know your potential users. If you don’t know them well, then it’s very unlikely you’ll come up with a product that will solve their needs. As a very first step, it’s crucial you identify your target audience. In our case the target audience is Gen Z and Millennials in North America who are already using a trading platform, as that demographic is driving the growth of trading platforms and would be interested in complementing their investing experience through our product. 
  1. Asses the size of your overall potential market. This starts with the main target location, and then scaling to other countries where the same demand, even if at a lower extent, exists or you expect it to exist in the medium-long term. Then you should take a very small percentage of the overall market size and build your projections on it to see if the numbers will support your business case. It’s important to be very conservative and realistic in doing so as it’ll tell you if it really makes sense from a business perspective to develop your App or not. In my opinion if there is a market percentage lower than 10% you can still build a multi-million-dollar company and it would make economic sense to give it a try. If you are far above that threshold, then think twice before you start as you’ll need to overcome a lot of competition on top of all the challenges that come with creating a company from scratch. We followed this approach and then decided to move forward because we saw interesting projections and considered a small percentage of the target market. 
  1. Survey your audience. Once you identify target users and overall size of the market, you should survey your audience to pre-validate the product. Doing so will determine if there is interest in the solution your app presents. It will also help determine users’ interest in the app functionalities and pricing options. This is a very crucial step which may drastically change the product and overall strategy you initially had in mind. We ran a survey targeting Gen Z and Millennial retail investors in North America and collected several pieces of information about their investing behavior and the kind of data and features they would have found useful which helped us when developing the product. 
  1. Identify the best tech stack. At this point you should be ready to start developing your App. Even if you have the best product in mind, and your target audience is interested in using it, you still have to deliver it in line with expectations. Pairing the right technological stack with your development team can transform your product idea into reality. This was a very important step for us, as our product needed to integrate with several technological providers and then get tested by our very knowledgeable development team to make sure that everything was working properly. Before starting the actual development, we spent several weeks in identifying, studying, and testing different potential providers for the same kind of data and use. Then once we validated which providers were okay from a product perspective, we spent additional time putting them in competition to come up with the best trade-off in terms of costs and benefits. You’ll see that the product shapes itself during the development phase, and I suggest spending a thorough amount of time to develop the most comprehensive technological infrastructure plan starting from those functions at the heart of your product that are unlikely to change during development. It’ll help you conserve resources later and will ensure the foundations of your product are stable and reliable.  
  1. Select your methodology for development. After you’ve cleared all the previous steps, you will be ready to develop an App that has potential users, a market size where a small percentage can still create a sustainable business, a clear understanding of the necessary technological stack, vendors you need to involve, and the right team able to glue all together. Still, the methodology you’ll select for the development phase can make a difference, either on the final product or on the overall project timing.

    There are usually two main methods you can choose from when developing an App: Waterfall or Agile. With Waterfall, you’ll define everything from start to finish and will follow a linear plan from A to Z. With the Agile approach, you set short-cycle phases, named sprints, through which you learn and then adapt for the following steps. I would definitely recommend following the Agile workflow, especially for startups and a brand-new Apps. This option gives you much more flexibility to finetune your product along the way while reducing the risk to waste some of your previous work and delay the overall project. It also allows less bureaucracy and a much higher spirit of collaboration, which can add value to the final product. Through using the Agile method to develop the Merlin Investor App, we could experience all the advantages previously described, and that allowed us to conserve resources and enter the market in a short period of time with a complete and functioning version of the product I envisioned.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Actually, the idea of Merlin Investor was not just to create a product to sell, but rather create a life-style movement where any retail investor, regardless their social class, level of education and investing experience, can become the one and only master of their own financial future. The Merlin platform is just a means to help investors reach a complete and sustainable democratization of the investment process.

Our company philosophy goes against the belief that only experts can invest in a professional and sustainable way by mastering investment strategies. That’s why through our community and platform we intend to give a life-changing opportunity to all those people who are trying to pivot their life and turn investing into a new profession, through providing an understanding around the importance of investment strategies and risks diversification in order to succeed. 

How can our readers further follow your work online?

First, they can head to merlininvestor.com to get a better understanding of our company manifesto, product features and subscription packages. There they can also navigate our blog where we dig deep into the magic of money, investing, market trends, news and more. Then they can follow us on social networks like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter to educate themselves around investing, or on YouTube to access tutorials and learn more about how to use the platform. 

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