TIME Startups

How LearnVest’s CEO Raised Her First $1 Million in 6 Months

"There was no pitching. People just got it."

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?”

TIME legal

We Won’t See That Last Steve Jobs Video After All

Steve Jobs Introduces iCloud Storage System At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference
Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivers the keynote address at the 2011 Apple World Wide Developers Conference at the Moscone Center on June 6, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Judge denies media's request to copy and air the footage

The judge presiding over an antitrust lawsuit against Apple has denied media outlets’ request to release a deposition from Steve Jobs recorded six months before the Apple founder succumbed to cancer in 2011. The video is among the last times Jobs appeared on film before his death.

District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that the public already had sufficient access to the footage, which was played in the courtroom and transcribed for the public record. Enabling media outlets to copy and distribute the tape could infringe on the privacy rights of the defendant, Rogers ruled, adding that misuses of the tape could have a chilling effect on future depositions.

“If releases of video depositions routinely occurred,” she wrote, “witnesses might be reticent to submit voluntarily to video depositions in the future, knowing they might one day be publicly broadcast.”

TIME Innovation

These Jeans Block Hackers From Stealing Your Stuff

BetaBrand RFID blocking pants
BetaBrand RFID blocking pants Jason Van Horn—Betabrand

Norton anti-virus technology is now available in stretch denim

A wearable tech firm has joined forces with Norton to develop a new pair of jeans that prevent “digital pickpockets” from scanning your credit cards and passports as you walk by.

The pockets in Betabrand’s “Ready Active Jeans” are lined with a specially designed fabric that blocks RFID (radio-frequency identification) signals, which are used in a growing number of credit cards and passports to enable secure wireless scanning. Betabrand, however, says identity thieves armed with handheld scanners have exploited the technology in upwards of 10 million heists a year.

“That’s why we partnered with with global information-protection authority Norton to create the world’s first RFID-blocking jeans,” Betabrand wrote in an announcement of the new jeans.

The jeans are currently selling for $151, and can be purchased with a matching, RFID-repellant blazer. Machine wash cold.

TIME apps

Microsoft’s ‘Sway’ Changes Everything You Know About PowerPoint

Microsoft

And that's either a great thing or a terrible thing

Microsoft gave PowerPoint a mobile-friendly twist Tuesday with a wider public release of Sway, a new presentation app designed for the confines of mobile phones and tablets. The preview version of the app is now available without signing up for a waiting list, though Microsoft hasn’t announced a release date for the finished product yet.

Microsoft is hoping Sway will appeal to a new set of users: Movers and shakers who want to whip together presentations across a slew of devices, from their 20-inch desktop to their 4-inch smartphone. Squeezed for time and screen space, these users could easily dispense with PowerPoint’s more esoteric features — Its seemingly endless selection of fonts, for instance, includes three species of Wingdings.

The question for Microsoft’s design team was where to make the cuts — and it’s clear from the first glance at Sway that they haven’t just debuted a new PowerPoint with a few nips and tucks. They’ve done reconstructive surgery.

Gone are the dropdown menus nestled within more dropdown menus. Gone are the finicky buttons regulating every square inch of your slides. Gone, even, are the slides. In their place is an interface so spare that experienced PowerPoint users may feel a momentary loss of control.

But that’s actually the point, says David Alexander, senior product manager at Sway.

“Candidly, what we did with Sway was we took the design instincts of real designers and encoded them into algorithms,” says Alexander. The result is a digital design assistant that does the heavy lifting for you. Instead of scrolling through font menus, an icon labeled “Remix!” instantly switches out the font and matches it against a new background. Instead of nudging around headlines, bullet points and images, each item can be created individually, and the program stitches them together into a neat little slide. And that word “slide” is no longer an apt description of the finished product. If anything, Sway’s results resemble a very long webpage, fit for scrolling rather than flipping.

“Docs and Powerpoint were originally designed with an eye toward emulating an analog form of content: A piece of paper for a document. A flip chart for a presentation,” Alexander says. “We wanted to create a new, digital-oriented output that doesn’t try to emulate a paper-based environment.”

Sway also makes embedding media from Twitter, Facebook, or photos from personal devices a seamless experience. A search field built into the app can fetch content from any of these dispersed sources and load it directly into the presentation. No more copying, saving and pasting.

The question remains whether people used to PowerPoint’s total customization features will sacrifice a measure of control to a slightly pushier program. Sway’s Alexander concedes it isn’t for everyone, and focus groups are sometimes split over the new features. “Two women sitting next to each other had the exact opposite reaction to Sway,” Alexander said. One loved the ease of use. The other hated the stripped down controls and vowed never to use it.

In either case, Microsoft hopes to appeal to both users. The company has excelled at creating power tools for the office, but an explosion of mobile devices and apps from rival tech giants has chipped away at its market share beyond the workplace. It’s one reason Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, has made “mobile-first, cloud-first” a company mantra. One result is a standalone app that marks a departure not only from PowerPoint, but from Microsoft’s old ball and chain, the office PC.

TIME Television

5-Second Game of Thrones Teaser Leaked Online

Don't blink

A 5-second teaser clip from Game of Thrones, Season 5, was leaked on YouTube Monday, despite HBO’s spirited attempt to keep the content securely within the show’s official webpage.

HBO invited fans to visit the show’s official webpage and sign up for access to the clip by entering their personal phone numbers. A link to the clip was then sent to the fan’s mobile phone, at which point the clip could be played just once, only on that mobile device, before it vanished into the ether. That is, until one crafty Redditor, spotted by Vulture, finagled a way to record the clip and share it over YouTube.

TIME Religion

Atheist Organization Decks Billboards With Christmas Jeer

American Atheists, Inc.

"Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church!"

Anti-Christmas billboards have cropped up in five cities across the U.S., as part of an atheist association’s outreach campaign to “in-the-closet” atheists.

“Dear Santa,” reads the text on a roadside billboard in Springdale, Arkansas, “all I want for Christmas is to skip church!”

It’s one of several billboards sponsored by American Atheists, an organization that aims to relieve atheists from social pressure to observe religious holidays.

“Today’s adults have no obligation to pretend to believe the lies their parents believed,” said American Atheists President David Silverman in a public statement.

The group has sponsored similar billboards in Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, though the groups says billboard lessors in Jackson, Mississippi denied multiple requests for ad space.

TIME People

Watch a Mom Call C-SPAN and Embarrass Her Fighting Sons

"Oh god, it's Mom"

A mother of two political operatives–one Democrat, the other Republican–called into a live debate between the brothers on C-SPAN on Tuesday to tell her sons to lay off the partisan bickering come Christmas.

Joy Woodhouse called into the show using the regular phone line. Within seconds, her right-leaning son, Dallas Woodhouse, recognized the voice.

“Oh god, it’s Mom,” he says, as the left-leaning brother, Brad Woodhouse, drops his head into his hands.

“I don’t know many families that are fighting at Thanksgiving,” the elder Woodhouse said over the air. “I was hoping you’ll have some of this out of your system when you come here for Christmas. I would really like a peaceful Christmas.”

The two brothers work for rival political advocacy groups, at one point broadcasting rival campaign ads in North Carolina, the News & Observer reports.

“Thanks mom,” one of the brothers can be heard saying at the close of the call, though neither one committed to holding a quiet, bipartisan Christmas celebration.

TIME North Korea

North Korea Calls for U.N. Probe of CIA ‘Torture Crimes’

NKOREA-POLITICS-MILITARY
This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on January 12, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspecting the command of Korean People's Army Unit 534. KNS—AFP/Getty Images

North Korea's UN representative decried CIA interrogations as "the gravest human rights violations in the world."

North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador has called on the world body to investigate the CIA for subjecting captured al-Qaeda operatives to “brutal, medieval” forms of torture.

The statement comes as the U.N. Security Council prepares to debate North Korea’s human rights violations on December 22 and 23, the Associated Press reports.

“The so-called ‘human rights issue’ in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is politically fabricated and, therefore, it is not at all relevant to the regional or international peace and security,” wrote North Korea’s Ja Song-nam in a letter to the current council president.

Ja then pivoted to the U.S. Senate’s report on interrogation techniques against detainees. “The recently revealed CIA torture crimes committed by the United States, which have been conducted worldwide in the most brutal medieval forms, are the gravest human rights violations in the world.”

A United Nations commission documented wide-ranging human rights violations in North Korean prison camps. The 400-page report, based on prisoner testimonials, detailed acts of “enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence.”

Read next: North Korea Says ‘Righteous’ Sony Hack May Be Work of Its Supporters

TIME faith

Vatican Report Finds American Nuns are a Graying Workforce

US-RELIGION-POPE-MASS
Nuns pray during a mass in celebration of Pope Benedict XVI at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, Feb. 28, 2013. Emmanuel Dunand—AFP/Getty Images

Nuns express "great concern" about declining numbers, average age in mid-70s

American nuns have expressed “great concern” about their aging workforce, according to a Vatican survey released Tuesday that finds nuns in the U.S. are advancing in age and declining in number.

Vatican surveyors sent questionnaires and conducted “sister-to-sister” dialogues at 341 Catholic institutions across the United States. They found that nuns had reached an average age of mid-to-late 70’s, opening up an ever-widening age gap with fresh recruits. The report also noted that the total number of apostolic women, at 50,000, had declined by 125,000 since the the mid-1960s.

“Many sisters expressed great concern during the Apostolic Visitation for the continuation of their charism and mission, because of the numerical decline in their membership,” the Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Religious Women in the United States of America said.

The report also upended expectations that it would take a more critical stance of American nuns for a rising “secular mentality” and “a certain ‘feminist’ spirit,” as one Vatican official warned in 2009, Crux reports.

Instead, the report largely praised American nuns for their “dedicated and selfless service.”

 

TIME Technology & Media

Now You Can Live Stream NBC Shows Online

NBC Logo At Entrance Of GE Building
A nighttime view of the NBC logo at the entrance to the General Electric (GE) Building where the NBC Studios and the Rainbow Room are located, Midtown Manhattan, New York, May 27, 2013. Oliver Morris—Getty Images

The announcement marks a significant step in an industry wide campaign to bring TV to mobile devices

NBC will live stream programs to computers, tablets and other mobile devices, the broadcaster announced on Tuesday, as part of an industry wide push to deliver television content across a wider variety of devices.

The broadcaster eschewed the standalone subscription model favored by HBO and CBS, however, choosing instead to deliver online content to cable and satellite subscribers at no additional cost, the Wall Street Journal reports. Viewers will have to authenticate their pay-TV subscription in order to access the shows.

The initiative marks a significant step forward in the industry’s “TV Everywhere” campaign, which commits to broadcasting television content online, but has been stymied by internecine squabbles over revenue sharing agreements. NBC Universal said in a statement that it was “committed to supporting the TV Everywhere ecosystem.”

Read more at the Wall Street Journal.

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