Breaking Through Generational Barriers With A Private Social Media Network

Harriet Davies Editor - Family Wealth Report 12 July 2012

Breaking Through Generational Barriers With A Private Social Media Network

TrustedFamily, a secure online communications platform, has a clear market strategy: work with the top three business families in every country.

TrustedFamily, a secure online communications platform, has a clear market strategy: work with the top three business families in every country.

It is approaching 60 clients representing total net wealth of around $110 billion, and last year hired Joachim Vandaele as its first non-founding chief executive to drive growth.

When asked by Family Wealth Report what he has found most interesting about what the firm is doing in the marketplace, Vandaele says with certainty: “It’s the fact clients want this. Families want education on this; they want to educate the next generation about using social media.”

The concept of the product is that it provides a “white label”, customizable social media site, which allows families to create a governance system by sharing items such as reports, meeting minutes and shareholder communications.

It allows rich media reports, so that, for example, younger members of the family could see their parents or uncle and aunts presenting facts about the company or reports on video.

The network can then include council and committee members, family members and other trusted advisors. It is also a legacy tool, acting as an online “vault” for the family tree, official testaments and photographs.


According to Vandaele, the patriarch or matriarch, used to being highly competent, can struggle with advising the next generation on social media. As a result, in the past some might have tried to ban social media use among the younger generations – perhaps for fear of a security breach – until they realized that left a gaping hole in the younger gen’s skill-set.

Having a family social media site can help create best practices and train family and family office or business members in using social media safely, Vandaele explains. It’s not only skills at stake though. On the family side, it’s about cohesion. “They are looking for ways they can use social media to keep the family together.”

The story of how the firm was born is illustrative of the problem’s business-owning families face. The founders, Edouard Thijssen and Edouard Janssen, both members of prominent European business families, met at a Family Business Network conference. Both had a similar experience of sitting in a room with cousins, who were all shareholders in the same business, some of whom they had never met before. Soon after, the idea was born.

Costs and competition

The biggest competition for the firm is in-house attempts to do this. Vandaele says clients might turn down the offering, try and develop something themselves, only to return and take it up a couple of years down the line. It’s the upkeep and service costs that are the biggest barrier to an in-house solution, rather than the initial development, he finds.

Security of the platform is a huge issue of course. This is destined to be a constant work-in-progress, and to evolve as technology evolves. Much like top-secret intelligence agencies, the firm employs external hackers to try and crack its system constantly, for example.

This isn’t enough for some families though, and one single-family office sent in its own team of IT consultants to evaluate the safety of the company’s system. It passed.

The location of the server is another “crucial” aspect to this. Vandaele is understandably not willing to disclose this but says: “It’s not in the US. Some clients come to us in the US for that reason.”

The MFO offering

For the firm’s multi-family or wealth management offering, rather than just allowing one family or family office to interact, a family office or wealth management division runs a customized platform with separate sub-circles for its client families. This creates walls between clients so individual groups  can securely share information among themselves. 

“There are those wealth managers that are not convinced as yet,” says Vandaele, particularly when the focus is on the oldest family members who aren’t so keen on social networking. But that’s like the wealth manager saying “we’re not forward looking,” and as soon as power is passed to the younger generation that client might be lost. Also, the iPad is changing the demographic of social media users as older generations access annual reports, shareholder news and other family related information on their tablets, he adds.

He cites the well-known fact in the industry: “Wealth managers and private banks tend to lose clients at the point of transition of power from one generation to the next.” And he believes that one way of reducing this risk is by engaging with the next generation using a mechanism they understand – social media.

“If they understand it’s a way of keeping families together, building relationships with the next generation who are born with digital DNA, then they will go for it,” he says. Essentially, it provides a way for the wealth manager to get to know younger clients directly, in a broader context than the financial.

Of course, clients may be hesitant about interacting through a social media site where their advisors can see the content, especially when advisors are in a more public setting than a single-family office.

Part of these concerns can be allayed with an onboarding process or “change management” as Vandaele explains it. This involves helping the family adapt practically to using the site, understanding its capabilities and who exactly will get to see what information, for example.

TrustedFamily’s plans – to work with the top three families in every country – are both simple and ambitious, but the owners have made it clear that no matter how big it gets they will retain control, as they believe in the family business model.

Meanwhile, there are many other areas the firm could look into; it is after all building a powerful network. But it is not looking to diversify its business strategy quickly or dramatically, but build it one step at a time.


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