Alexa von Tobel was getting a great education from Harvard Business School, but like many young people, she soon realized there was a significant gap in her education — she’d never been taught the basics of personal finance.
With further research bringing up little to help her, von Tobel decided to take matters into her own hands. She took a leave from school to create LearnVest.com in 2008, an interactive personal finance site providing women with information, tools and support for money management.
“[Personal finance] is really important for having a positive future and being able to be in control of your own destiny,” von Tobel, founder and CEO, says.
“As individuals, we make six to 10 money decisions every day, from ‘Should I take a cab?’ to ‘Am I buying my coffee or bringing my lunch?’ to ‘What are we doing this weekend?’ Those are all money decisions, and I just felt that there had to be something out there that would be a great resource for millions of Americans.”
Smart Business sat down with von Tobel at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how she makes understanding personal finance both easy and fun through her thriving, user-friendly start-up.
Q: What online delivery mechanisms do you use to educate people?
LearnVest is now the leading site for women and their money online. You can get free content and tools, everything from ‘Whether or not to buy a home’ calculators to ‘How much is your hour worth?’ And then we have free newsletters that you can come and subscribe to that teach you how to earn well, save well and spend well, [with] content from something like ‘How to save money on dry cleaning?’ to ‘How to negotiate for a better salary?’ [that are] every day delivered to your inbox for free. That’s sort of the free content side.
We’ve then over the last few months rolled out what I believe to be one of the more innovative things happening in the personal finance space, which is you can now pay a small subscription fee to talk directly to certified financial planners through the LearnVest platform. LearnVest goes out and finds the best financial planners here in the United States. We work with them directly, and we actually allow you to pay a small fee and talk directly to them and ask your own personal questions.
Q: What process do you use to develop and test ideas for new products and services?
The simplest answer: I listen to our users. All day long, we have hundreds of people who write in and say, ‘I wish you could do this; I wish you could do that,’ ‘I have this question,’ ‘God, it would be so great if you could help do this.’
Then we go through a really rigorous product process of building, testing. We actually bring in live users all the time. We have this thing called LearnVest Labs where we’ve 7,500 users that we actually vet our tested product through. And then finally, if I would use it, then it’s good enough. I think that that’s the final sort of sniff test, is ‘Is this something that I would use every day that would really make my life better?’ And if the answer is yes after that, at the end of that process, then I’m like, ‘It’s ready to go.’
Q: How do you deliver service that goes beyond world class service?
Money is daunting. It’s stressful. It keeps you up at night. And so what we think is ‘How can we make money engaging and fun and easy for you to digest and get your answers?’ That’s literally what our business is about, is ‘How do we make money not stressful?’ It’s not an easy thing to accomplish and we go through that product process. We talk to millions of users.
You can now link all your accounts to LearnVest so you can see your financial picture in one place for free. That’s a great service, and it really helps you understand where your net worth is and how much you’re spending on things like restaurants and food. And we have this beautiful user interface that our design team came up with that actually makes it fun to look at all your spending.
So those are the ways that we think about solving problems, to get someone to care about looking every day at their money. We make it really fun.
If we have the products and we give and deliver the right trusted, unbiased advice to people, they’re going to spread it.
Q: How do you define the culture of your organization?
We just in the last year and a half have reached $25 million. We have big dreams, big pictures, and we’re moving at lightning pace.
I’m tremendously impatient, for better or for worse, and so I always want us to move as quickly as possible. So the things that I care about are ‘Let’s move rapidly, let’s make sure we have extremely high standards and good checks and balances built in internally.’
I’m OK if we fail, if we make bad mistakes. You’re going to. And if we’re not failing at least some of the times, we’re not pushing boundaries quick enough. That’s sort of how I think of our culture.
Q: How can you encourage failure as a catalyst for innovation and change?
By not letting people be worried there’s going to be internal consequences if we do fail, of saying ‘Listen, we’ve got to push the boundary.’ And sometimes, when you’re moving as quickly as we are … there are going to be failures. There are going to be things you don’t do right. Say ‘Hey, listen, that’s OK but let’s quickly notice it. Let’s cut it, let’s move on, let’s get something better out there.’ And then just be really transparent both internally as a team and with our users.
I’m sure there will be a product that we’ll launch soon that users don’t love as much as we thought they would, and that’s OK. We’ll cut it, say ‘Hey, you guys don’t love that. What do you love?’ and we’ll go out and build it.
I always ask, publically, ‘How do you want us to use this money? What can we build you that’s going to make your life better every single day?’ I think that’s a really transparent way to talk to customers.
How to reach: LearnVest, (212) 675-6711 or www.learnvest.com