Q & A: Alexa Von Tobel, CEO of LearnVest
It’s no secret how much I love the online financial management program LearnVest: it completely revolutionized the way I manage my finances, and frankly, the way I manage my entire life. It’s beautiful, easy to use and designed for women without being in the slightest way demeaning or frilly. So imagine how much more I loved it after disovering founder Alexa Von Tobel is a smart and delightful young woman who created her dream company from scratch at the young age of 25! I was so happy she agreed to share her journey from passionate founder of a start-up to CEO of a hugely successful company with millions of dollars behind it. And all before she ever turned 30. — Autumn
1. Where did the idea for LearnVest come from and what were the biggest challenges you faced in turning your idea into a full blown company?
The idea for LearnVest came to me when I was graduating from college. I was headed to a job on Wall Street and realized that despite my top-notch education, I had no idea where to start with my personal finances. I had tons of questions: How do I maximize my credit score? What’s the difference between a traditional and Roth IRA? Should I sign up for my company’s 401k program? I quickly realized that I wasn’t alone. My friends were all in the same boat.
I worked for two years as a trader at Morgan Stanley before heading off to Harvard Business School. But in the fall of 2008, the Recession hit. Then, more than ever, people were really in need of solid financial advice.
Leaving school behind was absolutely challenging, but I received so much support for my idea that made me realize it was worth pursuing.
Though it was a risky move, I decided to take a leave of absence from school to dedicate myself to LearnVest full-time.
This moment—leaving school behind—was absolutely challenging, but I received so much support and feedback for my idea that made me realize it was an idea worth pursuing. LearnVest.com launched in the fall of 2009, with a mission to empower people across the country to take control of their finances.
Being an entrepreneur requires an immense amount of passion and drive. An advisor once told me, if you really knew what it takes to start a company, you never would. Every day has its challenges, but that’s ultimately what I love. We found a problem, and we’re building a solution.
2. One of the reason I love using LearnVest is because it’s simply beautiful! How important were aesthetics to you in your career development?
Thank you! I’m an incredibly visual person, so designs and user experience have always been central to every single product we create at LearnVest. Some of the first people I worked with on my idea were Jon and Tiffany, a brilliant design duo who have used their creativity to bring my visions to life and make my idea visually perfect. Years later, they’re still an integral part of the LearnVest team.
I’m constantly peering over the shoulders of our designers, offering my input. I majored in psychology and am really focused on how someone experiences LearnVest from start to finish. Aesthetics are central! And I should mention that my interest in design extends beyond LearnVest. I have a huge passion for interior design and can’t get enough of Elle Decor and One King’s Lane!
3. You deal with enormous amounts of investment money on a daily basis. Did you initially find it intimidating or, as a former Harvard business school student, is it smack in the middle of your comfort zone?
As an entrepreneur, it’s important to get comfortable with it. Managing money—whether its your personal finances or your business finances—can be daunting, which is exactly why you need a solid plan in place. One of the first things I did with LearnVest was to write up a detailed business plan. It was incredibly tedious, but immensely valuable as I set out to raise money.
What I learned about finance at HBS and working as a trader definitely helped prepare me, but even as we’ve raised over $25 million, I think of myself as incredibly conscientious about spending. We still have a startup mentality (think: Ikea furnishings, using gmail, lots of negotiating, etc.).
4. You’re also a newlywed! How were you able to balance running a huge company with all the details and emotional upheaval of planning a wedding?
Balance may be an overstatement! It’s always a struggle to find “balance,” so I just took each day as it came and did my best. In both cases, I had an amazing team working with me, so I certainly wasn’t going it alone. I really think of LearnVest as a family, so I know that if I have to shift my focus, everyone there is going to keep things running smoothly. And I have an amazing network of family and friends who were with me every step of the way.
My wedding was without a doubt one of the most special times in my life. There were so many details that went into it, but I wish we could replay that weekend over and over again!
5. What advice can you give other entrepreneurs and young women who want to make the leap to starting their own business?
First, find your passion. My mom was a fan of the saying “Find what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” It’s so true. I get out of bed every morning eager to get to LearnVest and bring financial health to people across the country.
Second, make sure your personal finances are protected in the process. Starting a business is risky, so establish a safety net first. I’ve build the advice branch of LearnVest—LearnVest Planning—to be able to help people do just that.
Third, go in search of solid advice. Your friends and family are likely to give you positive feedback, but it’s the constructive feedback that will really help drive you in the right direction. Ask the tough questions and listen to those who have been there done that. I always say, if you’re planning to climb Kilimanjaro, look for people who already have. How did they prepare? What did they bring with them? How did they get to the top? You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel.