(Editor’s Note: I had the opportunity to meet former Navy SEAL and naval officer, Kaj Larsen for a drink while at SHOT Show in Las Vegas recently and invited him to write a weekly piece on financial planning for active duty and retired service members. Given the recent changes to the military pension system, this kind of advice should prove to be very valuable. This is his first article for SOFREP and we hope you will give him a warm reception)
From 9/11 to 11/11
A lot can happen in twenty years. It certainly was the case for Sean Bonner, CEO, and founder of Guild, a new investing platform for the military community.
On September 11, 2001, Sean was in his normal spot on the Philadelphia Stock exchange (now part of NASDQ Inc.) getting ready for a day of trading on the Semiconductor Index. He describes himself as “one of the guys with the funny jackets yelling and screaming.” On that morning, Sean was already on his 2nd black coffee when rumors of a small plane hitting the World Trade Center began to circulate. The trading company he had founded at age 27 was based on the American Stock Exchange, which was a mere one block south of the World Trade Center. He had recently been working on the American Exchange, and immediately got on the phone with one of his traders there. What he heard on the line was, “It’s not a small plane, that’s BS. It was an American Airlines jet, there’s debris raining down that says American Airlines all over it.” In the middle of Bonner’s frightening conversation, he heard a boom in the background. The trader said, “Oh s***, I got to go.” The phone went dead and the exchange floor, which normally resembled a Jakarta traffic jam, went eerily silent. The unthinkable had become thinkable. Sean’s thoughts raced to friends and colleagues he had known over decades in finance.
Like so many Americans, Sean was apoplectic. He did what almost everyone else did; he went home. He checked on his wife and newborn daughter and began a slow almost catatonic phone tree trying to find out information about the fate of people he knew. It was like searching for a lighthouse in thick fog, and his memories of the rest of the afternoon are hazy.
From Stock Trader To Intelligence Officer In the Navy
The next day, however, Sean did something different than most Americans, certainly something different than most of the (mostly) men who worked on Wall Street. While the rest of the world was still in shock, Sean headed to a recruiting office and applied to join the Navy Reserve through the Navy’s Direct Commission Program. Shortly thereafter, Ensign Bonner was commissioned as a Naval Intelligence officer. He was 32 years old, married with two children, and his own Wall St. business.
His first assignments were the typical schools and learning environments. He was a student at NMITC (Navy-Marine Corps Intelligence Training Command) then located in Virginia Beach. His world of acronyms had gone from stock tickers to military designators. Bonner’s quantitatively focused mind absorbed the mission of intelligence well. On Wall Street, he had to amalgamate massive amounts of data in order to make actionable decisions. Here in the Naval intelligence community, the problem was the same. Tons of information had to be acquired, filtered, and productized into actionable intelligence. Only now, he wasn’t trying to pick profitable companies, he was putting together target packages and turning his high-powered skills to the Global War on Terror.
How A Missing Nuclear Submarine Shaped The Concept For A New Approach To Investments
One particular case study in intelligence training school stood out to the LTJG Bonner. It was the height of the cold war in 1968 and the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion had disappeared somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. It was critical that the submarine be recovered prior to any enemies discovering its location. The search and rescue team failed to locate any sign of the Scorpion for months. Eventually, SUBLANT decided to call in the Chief of Special Projects for the Navy, Dr. John Craven. Dr. Craven used a collaborative approach to finding the sunken vessel. He surveyed a large number of recovery experts from the civilian and military communities. His survey asked each of them, based on their knowledge of the marine environment, to guess at what actions the Scorpion may have taken during its Atlantic crossing and at the first signs of trouble. The concept was to use the most frequent answers to locate where the Scorpion had sunk on the bottom of the seafloor. The main recovery team aggregated the estimates of the folks surveyed and plotted them out as a course from the Scorpion’s last known location. Based on this data they began looking in a new area, and ultimately found the scorpion, not in the original tens of thousands of square miles of ocean where it could be, but just a mere 800 meters from where the crowdsourced estimate had indicated it would be.
Sean had seen this wisdom of crowds methodology work before in prediction markets and in certain index funds that borrowed from collective information models. Now he was seeing a different application and it marked a lightbulb moment for him. He could effectively use crowd-sourced intelligence not just to find submarines and bad guys, but to help people invest more wisely. This idea, the intersection of military intelligence and wall street shaped his next move.
After leaving the service, as a veteran, Bonner wanted to tackle an issue the DOD has acknowledged as a national security issue– the financial health and wealth of our military fighting force. “The military community has largely been left behind by the private wealth industry,” Bonner said in a recent public statement. He aims to change that – one fractional share at a time.
Paying Service Members To Learn How To Manage Their Wealth
On 11/11, Veterans Day of this year, Bonner and his all-veteran founding team, launched Guild, an investing platform geared for but not exclusive to the military community. Guild, on the surface, looks similar to other platforms that the average investor might use to buy and trade stocks. Like its competitors, it has the ability to buy and trade stocks, fractional share investing, and zero commissions. When you peek under the hood though, Guild’s platform goes beyond that. Users can harness the wisdom of the community to pick stocks intelligently. Guild has created an index, the Guild portfolio, which tracks the users on the platform and what stocks they hold. It is the essence of the collective intelligence idea that harkens back to when LTJG Bonner was learning about the USS Scorpion. On the Guild platform, members are able to look into the collective to glean a snapshot of the most popular stocks and buy some or all of them with just a few taps on a smartphone. Like a Peloton bike, there is a leaderboard tracking the top performers on the platform. By studying the leaderboard, investors can view other top-performing members to guide their buys and sells. Bonner believes that this level of guidance and transparency sets his platform apart from other investing apps.
The final differentiator according to the Guild team, and where they really hope to help the military close the wealth gap, is dedicated financial education and training. The app has a knowledge tab where investors can earn $5 in their brokerage accounts by watching a short video on investing and taking a short quiz. There is an opportunity to continue to learn and earn as they follow a curriculum to help make them better investors. “Everybody talks about the importance of financial education but when it comes to stock investing; we are the only ones putting our money where our mouth is.”
Bonner sees Guild as a one-stop-shop for financial education and investing which is optimized for modern technology. He says some of his competitors have struggled to gain or keep the trust of the public and states of Guild, “Our veteran-owned, veteran-led team has created the most transparent investing platform on the planet.”
A lot has happened in the 20 years since Bonner walked into the naval recruiting office on September 12, 2001. In the decades to come, he hopes his platform helps military and veterans alike secure financial freedom.
Kaj Larsen is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared on CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, HBO, NETFLIX, and numerous other outlets. Prior to his work in television, Kaj spent five years on active duty serving as a US Navy SEAL. As a Lieutenant, he led a team of special warfare personnel in covert operations overseas deploying as a detachment Commander in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Kaj spent the last 6 years as a SEAL reserve officer assigned to Special Operations Command. He left the service in 2019 and is on the founding team of GUILD.