The day the LearnVest website went live is a day burned into Alexa von Tobel’s memory. It was New Year’s in 2010, and von Tobel was on a ski vacation with her family. She had spent the last few weeks building a website brimming with financial advice. There was just one problem.
“The site crashed because we had just so many people sign up really quickly,” von Tobel says. “I was actually literally at the top of a mountain trying to get down it on skis, and I am lucky I don’t have a concussion because that’s how quickly I was going to try to get down and get a computer to see if I could fix it.”
Von Tobel has only picked up speed since then. As the 31-year-old CEO of LearnVest, she has built one of the fastest growing financial planning companies in the country. The website now includes a suite of tools to visualize a budget — what comes in and what goes out. But those charts are just a conversation starter. Von Tobel’s grander ambition is to pair each of those users with one of nearly 45 certified financial planners she has waiting by the phones. The tools are free. Access to a financial planner, however, comes at a starting price of $19 per month after a $299 setup fee.
While LearnVest keeps the number of paying subscribers a closely guarded trade secret, one thing is publicly known — it has money to burn. Von Tobel raised $75 million for the company in just four years. By her own admission, she had no trouble persuading investors to part with their money. “There was no pitching,” she says. “People just got it.”
At this point any entrepreneur who’s spent years fighting for a financial lifeline might be wondering how LearnVest appeared to spring from von Tobel’s head fully formed. The truth is, she had been wrestling with the subject of financial literacy since adolescence. She credits her success, so far, to this slow-building fixation. “It’s why I get out of bed every single day,” she says, “because this is such an enormous epidemic that we can solve, because it’s math.”
Von Tobel’s first encounter with money matters came as a dramatic shock. Her father died suddenly when she was 14, leaving her mother to manage the family’s finances. Her mother’s scramble to get up to speed left a deep impression on von Tobel, who was even more surprised when she graduated from Harvard with a first-rate education while still feeling incapable of answering the most basic questions about her finances. As she widened the conversation from family to friends and coworkers, she found that most everyone around her, regardless of their education, seemed to be largely clueless when it came to managing their own money.
“It would literally be almost recipe-like the way people were managing their finances, ‘My mom taught me this trick and so this is what I always do,'” she says.
She also was struck by the dearth of financial advisors willing to enlighten her family. Personal advisors have a stubborn tendency to chase after the wealthiest 1%. Merrill Lynch, for instance, raised the minimum account balance for its advisory service from $100,000 to $250,000 in 2012. Smaller fish need not apply. To von Tobel, the market was moving in exactly the wrong direction.
“It would be the equivalent of if doctors overnight said, ‘We’re only going to see healthy people,'” she says.
So she began taking notes, committing to paper everything she could learn about personal finance. “It was in gibberish,” she says. Still, it was passionate gibberish, sprawling across 75 pages by the time she was in Harvard Business School in 2008.
“I thought about answers to all the tough questions,” she says. “What’s the business model going to be? How does it get out there? Who are the competitors? How do you actually make money?” In short, she had asked the very same questions skeptical investors might lob her way.
The more questions she answered for herself, the more eagerly she awaited graduation day. Her studies began to feel like a diversion. So von Tobel made what she calls a “terrifying” decision — she counted up her savings and dropped out of school the same year she began to spend roughly nine months on LearnVest, “in the heart of a recession,” she notes, “with no salary, no income and trying to go build a dream.”
But the gamble paid off. Within six months, von Tobel had secured $1 million in seed money. She had convinced investors that she could not only tap a hugely underserved market, but that she could dispense advice at a cost lower than any existing advisory service.
“You go to a mom and pop certified financial planning firm,” she says, “you’re paying for that overhead, for that parking lot, for that mahogany desk, for that receptionist at the front,” she says. LearnVest, on the other hand, is just a website. It shifts the data entry onto users and the number crunching onto automated software. As a result, her staff can focus on dispensing advice in unprecedented volumes. Von Tobel says LearnVest is aiming to have a single financial advisor serve upwards of 1,000 customers, a ten-fold increase over the typical small firm.
It’s an ambitious play for efficiency, and LearnVest will have to grow rapidly to fulfill its promise to investors. But von Tobel says investors are willing to take a risk on the right person, even a mid-20’s dropout whose only credential is 75 pages of gibberish.
“I always tell other entrepreneurs, don’t worry about, ‘How old am I? Have I done this before?” she says, before shifting to the questions that really matter: “Do you know the most about this space? Have you thought tirelessly?”