Would you take financial advice from someone who dropped out of Harvard Business School in the middle of a recession to start a web site?
It might not be a bad idea. Alexa Von Tobel is a not-even-30 dynamo who managed to raise $1.1 million from major corporations to launch LearnVest.com, an online personal financial planner for women, a kind of Cosmo for checkbooks.
Alexa’s over the bridge in Manhattan, but we’re writing about her because our readers are creative types who love to dream up iPhone apps, start blogs, open online stores and the like—and while you can do all of those things by the seat of your pants, Alexa’s experience in developing a business plan and raising funds is indispensable to anyone hatching a new venture.
What’s more, her content couldn’t be more relevant to the financially impaired. A daily email tells you how to save on baggage fees, find credit cards that really do give you cash back and get $100 for your crummy old cell phone. Then there are almost deceptively simple, personality-quiz-like checklists, which take users through major life moments (“I’m about to get married”). Supplementing the lists is a blog that offers job search must-knows and a confessions board where users post their most embarrassing monetary flubs. There’s also a new financial boot camp that leads readers to overhaul their finances through a month-long email regime.
In 2008, the concept won an Astia award, given to outstanding women entrepreneurs. LearnVest then went on to become a TechCrunch 50 company this past September. Its ranks have swollen to 15 employees, in both New York City and Argentina.
In LearnVest’s stylishly utilitarian offices in the Flatiron, a “Cash is King” sign hangs over Alexa’s desk, which she points to before offering her real maxim for start-up wanna-bes: “If it’s a good idea, people are going to want to invest.”
Q: What was the inspiration for Learnvest?
A: When I started at Morgan Stanley, I felt completely incapable in personal finances. In school you learn about microeconomics, macroeconomics, accounting—but not personal finance, the one thing that will greatly affect your happiness every day. When it comes to financial planning, you only had two options. One was outdated, painfully boring books. The other was personal financial planners, who are expensive and have their own agendas.
Why did you decide to focus on young women?
We talk about our health, we talk about our boyfriends and our diet plans. Why wouldn’t we talk about our personal finances? I’d ask you for your expert beauty tips, why wouldn’t I ask if you’re doing anything special financially?
What’s an example?
On Black Friday, the average shopper spends $370. If that $370 was put into an IRA by a 25-year-old, it would be $13,000 by the time they were 65. If you spent $13k on Black Friday, would you feel good about that? Probably not.
You say you first developed the idea for LearnVest while you were at Morgan Stanley, then dropped out of Harvard to pursue it further. Why did you sacrifice a spot at the nation’s most prestigious institution for a Website?
I always knew it was a good idea. When I took my leave of absence, the economy could not have been worse, but on my second day out of school, the founder of 85 Broads (a group of influential Wall Street women) called me to congratulate me on winning the Astia award and leaving Harvard to start LearnVest.
I did a ton, ton of research for a year and a half. I looked at what other companies were doing, especially companies that were similar to what I wanted to do. I talked to people involved in those companies. I went online, used databases, and made more than a couple trips to the library. The SEC has reports on big companies, where you can find their plans, their mission statements—all sorts of information, if that’s what you’re interested in.
When you apply for awards, they ask about your marketing plan, your funding plan, where your profit’s going to come from, how you’re going to spread to your users. If you don’t have the answers to those questions, you don’t have a business.
How will LearnVest make money?
LearnVest works on an advertising and lead-gen model. We will have products that we pre-approve for our users (think a parent approving something that’s good for their kids) and then we negotiate better deals for our users.
Why do you think that investors bought into your idea?
They saw us as a for-profit venture with an obvious social benefit. Like most Websites, our profits come out of advertising. As for the social benefit, our goal is to help millions of women better understand their personal finances. I’m not saying it was easy, but I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
LearnVest just launched in September. How do you know whether it’s a success?
The users tell you… I just spoke at Princeton—in the same room where Einstein would lecture—and there were 75 women there, and they were all so excited. I ended up staying until 10 p.m. answering their questions. That so many people were willing to stay late discussing personal finances, tells you we’re doing something right.
Coming from Harvard and Morgan Stanley, you had some advantages and connections a lot of our readers don’t have. What’s your advice for the less connected?
You find people in all walks of life—everyone can be a lead. I’ve met with a lot of people who I thought wouldn’t be very interested, who turned out to be very passionate about our project. Basically, you have to be really resilient, really active, and very, very committed to get your idea out there.
Will you ever go back to Harvard?