Future Provers Matt Middleton and Josh Brown Make History Again for its Act 2 of Future Proof

Matt Middleton and Josh Brown each built a lot on their own, but like the industry event they launched, the real magic is in the synergy and the road ahead. This wasn't their first big show. They’re already looking forward to the next one. Study their moves. Learn.

Whether you read this at the world’s biggest celebration of the wealth management business (over 3,000 participants) or simply feeling a little late regret and trying to reverse engineer the experience from the sidelines, the Future Proof organizers don’t want you to overthink it.

After all, this was the conference with the food trucks, the bright tropical colors and the relaxed downtown attitude, right? Unpredictability is hardwired into the agenda. It's quirky.

But Matt Middleton, head of industry innovation hub Advisor Circle and co-creator of the event, wants you to know that every moment of “fun” serves a deeper purpose. Loosening up and opening up to new experiences is how we learn. Change. Evolve.

“Last year the critics said, ‘oh, it’s a great event, but really, it seems like a lot of fun,’ and the undertone that typically got associated with that fun was that this is a boondoggle and not actually productive in terms of business,” he recalls. 

“I’ve been there. So, our goal here was to deliver the highest ROI that you could actually maintain at a live industry event while keeping it fun. That’s energizing. When you’re energized, you’re breaking down mental barriers and that’s actually the most effective way for you to get business done.”

Josh Brown, Middleton’s partner in all this, chimes in. “Reading the coverage from last year, you would have thought that the weighty things were that everything was pink and purple and there were rappers and taco trucks,” he winces. “There are tacos. But that’s how we shift the perspective to get a more open debate about the weighty topics that will really affect the future of our industry.”

You know “Downtown” Josh Brown by reputation already if not personally. The podcasts. The TV appearances. That little company he helped start called Ritholtz Wealth Management and grew to what I bet is about $3 billion in AUM today.

All organic. All independent. Almost entirely outside the box. But it’s worked great so far, and you catch more than the occasional flash that he’s sincere in his belief that unless the advisory community can think and argue and ultimately cooperate its way past the status quo, there’s no future worth having.


After all, if the wealth management business wasn’t so inherently slow to embrace structural change, we wouldn’t be talking about Future Proof like some kind of alien beaming in from a distant planet. There wouldn’t be so many lookalike industry events running the same CE tracks, the same hotels, the same motivational keynote speakers, the same food.
I love the hotels and I love the panels. Every show that gets you out to engage with new ideas is a good show. But after the first couple of years on the circuit, the ROI gets replaced by a cozy sense of routine.

There’s comfort in repetition. But in an industry that keeps getting older and only marginally more diverse year by year, the routine can get restrictive. It’s nobody’s fault. By and large, the shared culture of the wealth management world harks back to some of the most risk-averse institutions to survive into modern times: the banks, the brokerage houses, the insurance agencies. 


That’s the DNA. You don’t last long as a banker when you chase disruption. Social revolutions come late to Wall Street, where change is measured out in careful increments and then grudgingly. A lot of that comes from the clients, many of whom quite rightly push to cushion any unexpected shocks that can wipe out what they’ve built.

But as we keep coaching those clients, eliminating all risk means exiting the marketplace and any possibility of making meaningful returns. And while any industry that closes itself off to disruption might survive a few shocks, it’s hard to stay relevant as the world around you changes.

The future is coming whether you fight it or not, Brown and Middleton both tell me. “Change is the constant,” Brown insists. “A lot of people in their careers get to a place where everything is great, and they want it to stay that way. And it just doesn’t. Whatever we’re doing right now might be great but it might not work forever. The expectations of the client change, the regulations change, the available technology changes.”

Middleton pushes the point a little harder. Like Brown, he wasn’t born into a Wall Street family. But where Brown followed a somewhat more conventional “reformed broker” trajectory, Middleton pivoted toward the networking side instead.

“We’re going to loosen up as an industry,” he argues. “I think our industry is going to be more human in future years, reflecting the entire human experience.

You should dress like your clients, talk like your clients, act like your clients, wherever they are.”

The vision may be challenging to advisors who cultivate a slightly formal professional image to relate to rich clients who may or may not be better educated and more urbane than the merely mass affluent. I myself hid a few neckties in my bag just in case I needed to button up on the go.

I didn't. And that's ultimately liberating, especially after all the forced evolution of the last few years.

When the world locked down, whatever sense of community kept the industry together disintegrated into thousands of private Zoom windows. In the aftermath, a lot of people assumed the face-to-face events that drove the pre-COVID calendar were never coming back.

After all, even the most techno-averse clients have figured out video calling to keep in touch with family. If they never need to leave the house now, why do we even come into the office, much less travel across the country to network with colleagues we could just as easily see on the screen?


The technology let us run a lot of meetings that would have previously been impossible under pandemic conditions. Much like the mobile computing revolution extended our sense of where we can do work, the pandemic ironically set us all free from the office by forcing us to run the “office” from home. 

Now, one way or another, the office is optional. And the traditional industry conference where you get on a plane and book a hotel room to meet people has become optional too. Hybrid formats open the stage to everyone around the world as well as those who travel to the site.

Those formats are great. They’re a step forward. However, Matt Middleton in particular realized early on that like a lot of innovative leaps, the transition to screen meetings expanded our reach in some ways while forcing us to give up some things we took for granted.

A Zoom meeting can bring the world together in real time. But the call itself is always scheduled. Nothing happens by chance. The only surprises emerge in what the people invited specifically to the call decide to do and say.

We were maintaining contact across the global network. But we stopped “networking,” if you catch my point. And Matt Middleton was one of the few people in the industry who recognized early on that this was a problem.

“Flash back to the winter of 2020 and most people were still trying to figure out this virtual setting or this hybrid state,” he recalls. “We just kept saying, all right, we’re going to ride this wave and build the live events for the post-COVID era.”

Those live events were obviously not going to happen while pandemic travel restrictions were raging. A lot of trade shows switched to virtual formats in 2021 or took extraordinary medical measures to entice wary registrants. Middleton and his team hung back, watched and planned.

They wanted something different. Something new. Webinars deliver the information and the ideas just fine. Where they stumble is delivering the experience.

Very few Zoom meetings will ever expand your mind. For that, you still need the accidents that generate insights out here behind the screen. People who would otherwise never meet need to bump into each other. And that’s the kind of  radical encounter that Future Proof was engineered to encourage.

That’s why it’s outside where the weather is always changing. That’s why it revolves around one-on-one meetings instead of canned speeches that can be broadcast online. And that’s why it’s open to people from every corner in this incredibly fragmented industry of ours, regardless of business model, channel affiliation or the title on your business card.


That’s why it’s a “festival” instead of a “conference.” To get the creative juices flowing after years stuck at home, you need to be paying attention to the way energy moves. It sounds like the kind of happy human empowerment talk born on the West Coast but Brown and Middleton are both from the good old New York metropolitan zone. They’re doing this because they know it works.

Of course, the first show was something of an experiment, a soft launch in the early days after the lockdowns lifted. The Ritholtz team signed up as a partner back in October 2001, bringing friends and allies along for the ride.

Where I come from back in the dot-com times, we had a saying, it’s nice to be the first mover who originates a groundbreaking idea, but it’s better to be the first prover who can turn that idea into a viable commercial enterprise.


That first Future Proof was the first move. They worked out the kinks and came back eager for more. This year was the real proof where we see that this is something sustainable, where we can start looking forward to coming back again and again in years to come as long as the principals find the format productive and engaging.

Next year is where it gets interesting. Hotel rooms open up in about 4 weeks. Projected demand is for attendance to double. They're going to need to bus people in from as far out as Irvine. But it's definitely coming.

“We wouldn’t go to this effort to do one or two of these and then hang it up,” Josh Brown tells me. “We’re in it for the long haul until the audience tells us they want something different. That gives us a multi-year runway.” 

Granted, Ritholtz is only a decade old now and employees are still counted in the dozens . . . too small to support a gala gathering like what the custodians or major technology platforms organize every year. Brown brushes off suggestions that he’s using Future Proof as a recruiting opportunity. This isn’t about building a network.

And that’s when the double meaning of the name hits me. This is where industry incumbents insulate themselves from future shocks, effectively becoming “future proof.”  The people with the best ideas will stay relevant and thrive. This is where ideas are born.

But it’s also where the most open minds in the industry test those ideas in open conversation. Some will fizzle under scrutiny. Others will rise to the occasion: “proved.”


This is where our currently nebulous sense of the future gets clarified, refined, fortified. It’s where the new normal comes into view. And the future is where we’re all headed, one way or another.

 “One of the things we want to do is elucidate the differences between competing futures and give people the opportunity to decide which they think is most likely in which they think is most applicable,” Brown says. “There will be people who get on the stage at my event who truly are an avatar for what’s coming. And then there are people who will look that way, but, you know, history will show years from now that they were on the wrong track. Either way, if you’re in the audience, you see it. You’re there.”

Of course, you can get that experience anywhere. You didn't have to come to Huntington Beach. Future Proof is arguably a state of mind. Every advisor reading this can help prove the future and, in doing so, future-proof the career.

But it helps to show up. That’s why Matt Middleton loves the engagement that comes with the face-to-face format.

“The thing I always say to people as they ask me for advice is come with a willingness to learn,” he tells me. “Don’t come with any view on what you think you know. Come be pushed, let yourself feel uncomfortable. Network with people.”

You can play videos on your screen at home. You can also change your life at home. Wherever you are, Future Proof is a state of mind, 365 days a year, every year.


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