Grow Your Business From the Ground Up: 10 Expert Tips From LearnVest’s Alexa von Tobel

Alexa von Tobel, founder & CEO of LearnVest, shares her insider advice for starting a successful business.
September 17, 2014

I originally got the idea for LearnVest when I was graduating from college and heading off to a job on Wall Street. Despite a great education, I wasn’t sure where to start when it came to managing my money. I had never been equipped to answer such basic questions as “What goes into my credit score?” or “Should I open a Roth IRA?” Even working in the finance industry couldn’t bring me much closer to those answers.

And then the recession hit in full force.

It was then that I realized that—more than ever—people nationwide were in need of guidance when it came to their personal finances. By that point, I’d enrolled in business school, so I made the (arguably crazy) move of taking a leave of absence from school to dedicate myself to LearnVest full time.

I invested all of the money I had made after college, and began the terrifying journey of building a company. I started at a time when the economy was at its worst and capital was scarce, so it was empowering to realize that I could make my vision a reality even under difficult circumstances.

So whether you’re considering opening your own Etsy shop or launching a full-blown start-up, I want to share 10 of the most powerful things I’ve learned about starting your own business. In fact, many of these tips were passed down from others who were kind enough to impart their own experiences and insight on me.

1. Consider Whether It’s the Right Time to Take the Plunge

Starting a company requires time, money and expertise. Do you know enough about the field you’re interested in? Is there a course you should take or a skill you might need to learn first to ensure that your business is a success?

2. Be Willing to Put Your Own Money on the Line

Investing your own money will make you even more focused. In December 2008, when people were hiding cash under their mattresses, I took a leap and invested most of what I had saved since college into starting LearnVest.

Of course, it’s important to first save up an emergency fund for at least nine months so that you’ll have your basic expenses under control should you get off to a rocky start. But putting your money on the line makes starting your own business personal.

3. Seek Funding—But Also Support

Anyone who tells you that you can build a business all on your own is misguided. If at all possible, rely on friends and family for support, but not for funding. Mixing friends and money is complicated, and you don’t need the added stress. Plus, when the time comes to seek additional funding, investors will prefer to see that you’ve been able to convince people outside your immediate network of the validity of your idea.

When I launched LearnVest, I only accepted money from people who could also provide invaluable strategic advice. If you’re also looking to found a full-fledged start-up, focus on creating an advisory board composed of successful people—and don’t be afraid to give them stake in your company. They can help you with advice and connections to other experienced people.

4. Be Willing to Adapt—While Holding Tight to the Big Idea

You’ll be able to get other people on board if you have a clearly articulated business plan that supports an unmet need, but it might take longer than you expect to get your business idea off the ground. Don’t compromise your big idea, but do be willing to adjust the details. Always get lots of feedback, and accept that you may need to tweak your game plan if you find a better way to achieve your end goal.

5. Know Your Target User

At the end of the day, your customer is all that matters. How does your product make that person’s life easier? Better? More efficient? Figure out what’s important to your user by understanding whom you’re targeting—be it kids, young women or middle-aged men. And keep that muse—the individual who defines your customer—in mind at all times when making critical decisions.

6. Learn to Be a Customer Service Whiz

This is a challenging goal that many entrepreneurs struggle with every day, but delighting your customers needs to be a top focus for you because happy users are the best way to find new ones. Bottom line: If your product makes your customers’ lives better, they’ll want to share it.

7. Spend $0 on Marketing in the Early Days

Before you invest a good chunk of money into marketing, embrace every social media avenue available to you, from Twitter to Facebook to Pinterest. Until you really get your business grounded, social media tools can be a cheap, efficient, and possibly more effective way to reach users than a lot of other marketing tools. And don’t forget to stay in the loop on new social media platforms because that world is always evolving and changing.

Another way to get free PR is to go after awards. You can also try creative ploys to get new users, like launching an invite-a-friend sweepstakes.

8. Track Your Metrics

LearnVest gets tangible confirmation that it’s moving in the right direction from constantly looking at data, including metrics like the number of visitors to the website and mobile app, open rates for our stable of newsletters and survey results. So it’s important to think about similar ways you can measure success in your own business—aside from just profits. How are people interacting with your products? And be sure to clearly articulate specific weekly and monthly goals.

9. Go Ahead—Be Scrappy

I’m not just saying this because I started a personal finance company during a recession! Here are some things I learned:

  • When you first start, it’s cheaper to use your own cell phone instead of having an office phone
  • Power your company email through Gmail—it’s easy, intuitive and means you can use intra-office Gchat
  • Never print in color
  • Buy furniture at discount and wholesale retailers
  • Spend wisely on office space. In the early days, we shared space (and rental costs) with other budding entrepreneurs in the tech world

10. Find (and Embrace) the Joy

Take the time to enjoy some happiness in each day of the journey. Setting aside at least 20 minutes of quiet time each day never fails to provide me with greater clarity. Since I launched LearnVest, I’m proud to say that we’ve raised over $75 million from investors and built an incredibly dedicated and caring team of employees—all while continuing to provide affordable, accessible and even delightful financial guidance to tens of thousands of people every day.

OPEN Forum: CEO BootCamp is a program designed to help women business owners reach their full potential as CEOs and grow their businesses. To learn more about our free upcoming events and access educational videos, articles, guides and more, visit www.openforum.com/ceobootcamp.

Photo: FORT, JACQUELINE SHARP, MEMBER SINCE 13