Trading for the People: Robinhood’s Market Revolution

Step into the high-stakes realm of Robinhood, the app that’s revolutionizing trading with its bold no-fee approach. Get a glimpse into an app that’s not just changing the game—it’s rewriting the rules of finance!

Robinhood, the app-based trading platform, has revolutionized the way we think about investing in the stock market[1]. Gone are the days of prohibitive commission fees and the gatekeeping jargon of Wall Street that often deterred the casual investor. Instead, Robinhood presents a sleek, user-friendly interface[2] that empowers a new generation to invest with just a few taps on their smartphones. Its no-fee model is particularly alluring, improving accessibility for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to invest. Per a survey of 98K users it conducted in 2021, some 16% of Robinhood users are Hispanic, while 9% are African American – dramatic improvements over the 7% and 3% each demographic represents at incumbent brokerage firms[3].

Robinhood’s first, and arguably most important, form of value creation is its ability to simplify what was once a complex process. The platform breaks down the barriers to entry, allowing people from all walks of life to buy and sell shares without the need for a traditional broker or deep pockets. It’s a digital-first approach that fits snugly into the lifestyle of the modern consumer, who demands convenience, speed, and affordability.

Secondly – and perhaps infamously – Robinhood eliminated trading commissions, a typical form of revenue generation for brokerage firms. Instead, it has turned to more inventive methods – a revenue model known as “payment for order flow.” This involves Robinhood receiving a small fee from third-party market makers (known as “wholesalers”) for directing orders to them. It’s a model that’s not without its pitfalls, as it raises questions about conflicts of interest and the potential impact on trade execution quality given the lack of transparency on share pricing from wholesalers (watch SEC Chair Gary Gensler explain)[4].  

Beyond that, Robinhood captures value via Robinhood Gold—a $5 per month subscription service that offers additional perks like professional research reports, margin trading, and quicker access to deposits[5]. Moreover, the platform can lend out securities held by customers, adding another potentially highly lucrative layer to its complex revenue tapestry.

In terms of scalability, Robinhood is, in some ways, a typical example of how digital platforms can grow exponentially unconstrained by the limits of brick-and-mortar businesses. Expanding its user base doesn’t require a physical presence or a large staff; instead, it’s mostly a matter of increasing server capacity and refining software. However, as the firm learned dramatically during the “meme stock” debacle in 2021[6], it is far from a typical, scalable digital platform. To prevent sudden insolvency, Robinhood suspended trading on its platform due to insufficient margin as the risk of holding Gamestop & AMC stock sky-rocketed[7]. This scalability is further limited by variations in international financial law, meaning that Robinhood isn’t legally allowed to operate worldwide – a significant shortcoming given the potential for scalability of typical digital platforms e.g., Facebook.  

Furthermore, great innovation often comes with great scrutiny. Robinhood’s sustainability is constantly tested by various factors. Regulatory headwinds are especially significant, given the spotlight on its payment for order flow practice by the SEC[8]. The platform must navigate a complex web of financial regulations that could, at any time, shift and impact its core business model. Then there’s the volatility of the markets. Economic downturns or stock market turbulence can sway investment activity. Interestingly, while such periods could deter users, they also have the potential to draw in new ones, managing their investments more actively in hopes of capitalizing on market movements.

Competition is another hurdle. With traditional brokerage firms slashing their fees in response to Robinhood’s disruptive model[9], the company is under constant pressure to innovate and retain its user base. Keeping users hooked requires more than just low costs—it calls for a consistently positive user experience and a suite of features that resonate with a diverse customer base.

In sum, Robinhood’s approach to the stock market is nothing short of transformative. By offering commission-free trading, it has made investing more accessible than ever before. Yet, in the shifting sands of the financial landscape, Robinhood must continue to evolve, ensuring its model remains profitable without sacrificing the simplicity and transparency that have been the keystones of its success.

[1] (CNBC, 2019)

[2] (Robinhood, 2023)

[3] (CNBC, 2021)

[4] (Securities & Exchange Commission, 2022)

[5] (Robinhood, 2023)

[6] (CNBC, 2019)

[7] (Galvin, 2022)

[8] (Fitzgerald, 2021)

[9] (Carey, 2022)

Works Cited

Carey, Theresa W. 2022. Who Wins a Brokerage Price War? October.

CNBC. 2019. How Robinhood Makes Money. January 16.

—. 2021. Robinhood’s disruptive force: The good, the bad and the controversy.

Fitzgerald, Maggie. 2021. Robinhood tanks after SEC chair tells Barron’s that banning payment for order flow is a possibility. August.

Galvin, Jamie. 2022. Robinhood: A Terrible Business Model Not Worth Investing In. July.

Robinhood. 2023. Invest.

—. 2023. Invest.

—. 2023. Make the most of your money with Robinhood Gold.

Securities & Exchange Commission. 2022. Dark Pools, Payment for Order Flow & Market Structure.

Edited and enhanced with ChatGPT


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Student comments on Trading for the People: Robinhood’s Market Revolution

  1. Thanks for the article, it is very interesting! I like how it highlights Robinhood’s role in democratizing finance with its user-friendly platform. It made me think about Fintual, a Latin American robo-advisor that offers a more hands-off investment experience through algorithm-driven portfolio management. Both services have made investing more approachable and accessible, breaking down traditional barriers with their intuitive interfaces. While Robinhood has done this by enabling commission-free trades, Fintual simplifies the investment process with automated portfolio management.

    It’s fascinating to see different approaches to the same end—opening up the financial markets to everyone. I love how they tackle the challenge of disintermediation mainly through friendly and easy interfaces that attract potential investors who do not want to dedicate a lot of time (or knowledge) to managing their finances.

  2. Wabantu- great topic. I had really wanted to write my BSSE paper on the disruptive innovation Robinhood brought to the financial services industry but I was overruled by my team since we didn’t really know anything about it 🙁 I should have come to you for insights!! One question that’s been in my mind since the Gamestop situation is slightly outside the scope of this post, but I’m going to ask it anyways. Do you believe Robinhood has an ethical responsibility to provide education to it’s users before dramatically lowering barriers to entry for public market investing? Economics and Finance courses often teach that public markets are inherently smart and even out to the correct price/value- does the virality and social aspect of digital services such as Robinhood negate this hypothesis?

  3. Great post, Wabantu. As a user of a traditional brokerage, it’s interesting to read about how Robinhood appeals to those seeking simplicity with reduced fees. With the meme stock situations previously, do you think Robinhood at this time has fully recovered from a brand credibility and trust perspective, especially among its original target user base, given their prior trading suspensions?

  4. Hey Wabantu, really cool stuff! I remember at my last job everyone on my team was constantly talking about their positions in Robinhood and what stocks they were buying/shorting.

    I had a similar question to what Eleanor raised about the education piece for responsible investing. When a co-worker was showing me the app I remember he had me log in and immediately took me to the options section and was like “click agree to the waiver so you can start trading options, you need to sign off because you can make a lot more money but you can also lose a ton more as well” without really explaining what that meant. Pre-FIN2 I was definitely too spooked by that interaction to even try trading options. Do you think it would be a good extension of their business model to offer finance classes to demystify the process to make consumer more comfortable? I could see them adding that to the gold premium version, a separate feature they could charge for, or benefit from the increased order flow with more transactions executing.

  5. Great post Wabantu! I started trading initially with traditional platform such as Fidelity and Schwab, whose mobile apps and web UIs I found to be really hard to use without clear and simplified logics. This lead me into Robinhood, about half a year into trading. Initially I held great doubt about them after hearing numorous conspiracies about their GameStop event, as they seemed to be the greedy Wall-street backed platform that just didn’t care about customers. But after using it for a while, I really found its app and UI to be far superior than their traditional competitors. The point about the ethics for lowing the entry of trading raised by Eleanor is also interesting. I think that they do not hold responsibility lowering the bars to something people are legal to do. If they should be held acountable for education, shouldn’t education institutes be the real ones be accountable?

  6. Thanks Wabantu – great post! I have a similar comment to some above – though Robinhood has democratised access it has also led to risky and uninformed trading. They were fined by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) in 2021 for misleading customers over how to trade on the margin/ with borrowed money, and for unreliable system outages that caused many investors to lose money during market swings. Should Robinhood bear the responsibility of educating customers, or adding other frictions (that aren’t a commission) to reduce risky behaviour whilst still increasing access?

  7. Great job Wabantu! I’ve been an early adopter of Robinhood, and to this day, feel like it has maintained its status as the most well presented and easy-to-use trading platform on the market. However, one concern that I have had is that (similar to what others may be mentioning) Robinhood seems to incentivize trade activity, preferring actively managed investors, rather than passive ones. Obviously, this makes sense since trade (and trade adjacent) activities are what ultimately drives their revenue, but it does call into question the obvious conflict of interest, since it has been proven that actively managed money tends to perform worse than passively managed. While it is clear that these decisions are made by willing adults who are not forced to do this, I do worry that the simplification (perhaps gamification?) of trading actually induces unwanted behaviors. While we cannot prevent people from doing this, perhaps there is a public responsibility to not make it seem too easy or attractive (like adding bitterants to bleach, rather than making them orange flavored). Simply put, perhaps this is a situation where some friction may actually serve society well.

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