Think back to the last time you checked your bank account online—it was probably just a few hours ago. If you're like most of us, you obsess over personal finance issues—how to save, if you’ll ever be able to invest, how you’ll make your next credit card payment.
The reality: personal finance management is a confusing and terrifying topic for most people. Alexa von Tobel realized this back in 2008 as a recent college graduate and Wall Street trader. She and her friends—all highly educated—had never learned about personal finance issues, and von Tobel saw a market opportunity.
“I thought, ‘What if I could create a company that made financial planning easy and accessible?’” she says.
von Tobel got to work on her idea while starting Harvard Business School. One year later, she dropped out and launched LearnVest, an online company that offers personal finance advice. The company also helps customers set up insurance, IRAs, investments and create strict budget plans.
“It's like Weight Watchers for personal finance," von Tobel says. "We put you through a program.”
LearnVest celebrates its third anniversary this month, and already has netted more than $25 million in VC funding. Growth is strong with 90 full-time employees, Certified Financial Planners in every time zone and “hundreds of thousands” of customers, according to von Tobel.
Katie Morell: How do you stay focused on your core business and not get distracted by shiny objects?
Alexa von Tobel: We’ve had to say no to things that aren’t good for us, which sounds easier than it actually is. The only way we’ve done it is to focus on our strategy. We know where we are going and keep refining and developing our strategy each month. It has taken a lot of discipline.
KM: Building a company to 90 employees shows massive growth in just three years. How do you maintain your company’s culture?
vT: That part has been easier than expected. We attract people who are passionate about helping people with their finances and realize that our service can truly change people’s lives. It creates a culture of pride. And a lot of our culture has to do with our hiring strategies. We put candidates through a rigorous interview process, which we find to be really important in weeding out the good ones.
KM: What's the best part of your job?
vT: Reading feedback emails from customers. I’ve gotten letters from women with special needs children who tell me that they can now focus on their child because they are no longer worrying about money, and newlyweds who are starting their marriage on the right financial foot. It is pretty amazing.
KM: What common mistake do budding entrepreneurs make?
vT: Starting a business that they are not totally in love with. You must be in love with your business. I’ve literally worked every weekend for the last eight weeks and I don’t mind. I’m not a workaholic; I have tons of friends and my fiance is amazing. But I love what I do. To me, it doesn’t feel like work.
Meet more successful entrepreneurs in our Building an Empire series.
Photo: Courtesy of Alexa von Tobel