Disrupting a dinosaur tends to keep one busy—just ask Alexa von Tobel, the ebullient 28-year-old CEO of LearnVest, a company that aims to reset the rules of financial planning. As she’ll explain to you, there’s a staggering lack of trustworthy, consumable, affordable financial advice available. Only three years in, LearnVest is making a strong bid to be that resource. We talked with von Tobel about maximizing managerial effiencieny, building a community of customers, and filling a gaping hole in the financial landscape.
FAST COMPANY: What problem are you trying to solve?
ALEXA VON TOBEL: The problem I'm trying to solve is really providing financial advice—which is right now such an outdated industry. It's a really archaic model and we're trying to bring some fresh technology and life into it. I think it's working so far.
The explicit, on the ground thing I'm trying to solve is I'm trying to give people, everyday people, access to financial experts so they can make the best financial decisions they need—and right now that really doesn't exist.
That's not at your fingertips. To get access to a financial advisor, you have to go find a financial advisor, which is a very laborious process, and you have to bring them all your financial documents, which most people don't have stored in a nice organized fashion, and then they're going to charge you $2,000 to $3,000 to give you a financial plan.
Practically, on the lower level, what I'm trying to do is actually infuse a lot of technology and innovation into that process and make it something a lot more modern like a WeightWatchers or a Match.com or Apple's Genius Bar. They all come to mind as a really clean, consumable way to really get help—and I think that's one of the things I'm trying to do around money.
In the really macro sense, what I'm trying to do, is help solve the financial problem that we have here in America, which is 61% of people live paycheck to paycheck, most people are going to retire with not enough retirement funds in their account. I want to make sure that we can really help solve that and give people that American dream, which they deserve, which is to be financially stable.
How have you cultivated that sense of community with your users?
I think we've cultivated a community around money for two reasons. Number one: it didn't exist anywhere else for this demographic, for young people 25 to 45, particularly women. This is a new demographic that's talking and dealing with money.
The way I think we really cultivated that, though, is we have a really genuine, honest voice. If you come into our office of more than 50 full-time people, it's the same problems we're trying to solve every day. If we're talking about it, we think you want to talk about it, and so I think we take a really genuine eye and approach to getting our community to take stock of what we think is important.
That sounds a lot like a principle of culture.
That's exactly correct. We have a very problem-solving culture where we always tell people to think outside the box. If you're thinking it, we should be talking about it to our customers, and I think we really urge people to have very honest, real dialogue with their money, and to think about the things that worry them, keep them up at night, and we ... help solve that for everyone else in America.
How would you extrapolate that more generally to other managers that want to shape their culture in a healthy way?
I think every culture is different, I think it's important to build a genuine culture, and I think that's what we do. We try to have really transparent, honest discussions, we aim for having really high standards for our products, and I think that that's kind of the genuine culture moving forward is we're honest about when we think something's not working, we're honest when we think that something's failed, we're honest when something is working—we're honest a lot. And I think that creates a real, a very clear lens of good product development.
LearnVest has attracted $25 million in funding. What has been the most important qualifier for attracting funders and securing them?
I think when people look at LearnVest as a business they realize that it's a gigantic need. No one can deny that people need help with their money. It's a need that never goes away. It's completely seasonless in the sense that if you have money you need to learn what to do with it; if you don't have money you need to learn what to do to deal with that problem.
I think as a takeaway this is a gigantic gaping hole in the financial planning landscape and also in the content landscape. It's a really good source of trusted personal finance, and a source of content and tools and support and I think we're doing it in a really new age, consumable way that no one else has done and I think we're providing advice and plans to people throughout the country in a really profitable way, and because of it, I think we've been able to attract a lot of advisors and investors.
How do you continually innovate?
I think it comes from a few places. It comes from the team: If we have a great idea, it goes up on a board and we all look at it and talk about it and flesh it out. (We) do that with as many ideas as we can think of. We want to evaluate them all.
It also comes from our users: I'd say for about 65% to 75% of the innovation, users are just asking for us to do certain things. We listen to our customers when they ask "can you help me figure out these problems?" And we're like, absolutely, we'll do that tomorrow.
For more on LearnVest, read Dan Macsai's 2010 profile of the company.
—This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
[Image: Flickr user Brittney Bush Bollay]