In 2006, Alexa Von Tobel was working as a trader at Morgan Stanley when she had an idea: She wanted to create a financial planning tool to help the average American get their wallet in order.
Tobel realized that most people never received any formal education about how to manage their money, and she wanted to change that.
Tobel launched LearnVest, a financial planning company, in 2009. LearnVest was later acquired by Northwestern Mutual, and though it shut down in 2018, that hasn't stopped Tobel from doing incredible work.
Tobel has penned a new book Financially Forward, which helps readers learn to use tech-based financial tools to their advantage. In addition to her book, Tobel is also the the founder and a managing partner at Inspired Capital, where she is focused on supporting founders and entrepreneurs. Tobel chatted with Refinery29 to shed some light on her journey so far, what readers can learn from her book, and how to stay grounded in the fast-moving world of finance.
Refinery29: Your new book Financially Forward comes out on May 14, what surprised you most in writing it?
Alexa Von Tobel: “I’ve spent the last decade-plus of my career focused on financial innovation, and through my time at LearnVest and Northwestern Mutual, I had a front-row seat to so many of the exciting developments impacting our wallets. I think what surprised me most is just how far we’ve come and how quickly.
“In the book, I include a timeline of ‘key money milestones.’ For example, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act — which allows single women to take on debt without a male co-signer — has only been around since 1974. Fast-forward and we’re knee-deep in a conversation on mobile pay and cryptocurrency.”
As you talk about in your book, there is so much financial tech out there today that sometimes it can feel like too much. How do you know which financial apps, services, and strategies are best for you?
“What I love most about financial tech is how it allows us to both streamline and automate our financial lives. The goal is simplification, so less is more here! My simplest advice is to use the apps that work for you.
“Start with a short-list (check the app store for the highest rated options; ask friends; read the glossary of apps in Financially Forward), test-drive a few, and pick the ones that work best. It takes time to get everything set up and link your accounts, so make it easy on yourself.”
Your book teaches readers how to put savings on autopilot. What this might look like, and why is it important?
“Automating your finances can help you stick to the financial plan you’ve (hopefully!) created for yourself. If your plan sets out to answer the question, ‘where should my next dollar go?’ automation makes sure those dollars go into the buckets you’ve decided on. I recommend automating as much as possible, from retirement and savings contributions, to credit card payments and household shopping. Building your financial plan is important, but it means nothing if you don’t stick to it. Automating everything helps ensure that you always stay on track.
“In practice, one of my favorite tips is to create savings sub-accounts, so you can put a clear amount toward specific goals (e.g. ‘emergency savings,’ ‘friends’ weddings fund,’ ‘vacation to Mexico,’ etc.). Once you know what you’re saving for, you can set up auto-contributions to each of these accounts. Moving forward, make sure to also set calendar alerts to check in on your plan throughout the year. Autopilot is great, but it does require some oversight too.”
You also touch upon preparing for the future of blockchain and cryptocurrency, what is your advice to readers who are worried about what this could mean for their wallets?
“I’m incredibly excited about the potential of cryptocurrency, and blockchain, [and] the technology underpinning it, but it’s still deeply mystifying for most consumers — and even those in finance.
“While I’d encourage everyone to better understand crypto and blockchain, I wouldn’t recommend running out to buy bitcoin as your first or even second financial priority. Crypto is still very volatile, and there’s a lot of hype. In short, it’s not something to bank on if you’re still trying to get a solid financial plan in order.”
You're the founder and a managing partner at Inspired Capital — can you tell us about the work you're doing there, and what you've learned in that space?
“As an entrepreneur and builder, my passion lies in creating great companies and supporting other founders in doing the same. I’m very excited to dive into that work with Inspired Capital. I’m surrounded by a great team and have partnered with Penny Pritzker, former Secretary of Commerce, and a phenomenal entrepreneur herself. We’re in the early days and can’t wait for all that’s ahead.”
How would you say the landscape is changing for women entrepreneurs — whether it's securing capital or otherwise?
“I think it’s a phenomenal time to be an entrepreneur. I’ve always said that I think of myself as a founder, not a female founder. Comparing the landscape in 2009 (when I launched LearnVest) to today, I think the last decade has really built up community around women entrepreneurs. Being a founder can be a lonely road, so these relationships are critical to helping entrepreneurs thrive.”
What's your advice to young women entrepreneurs when it comes to starting a sustainable business?
“Talk to anyone and everyone, and actively seek out good mentors. When I was still in the planning stages of LearnVest, I was reaching out to everyone in my small network to pick their brains.
“When I met someone I clicked with, I would make it really easy for them to agree to meet with me again. I would say something like, Hey, do you mind if I take 15 minutes of your time? I will bring you coffee whenever you’re free — I just have three questions. Before I left, I would always ask if they could connect me with two more people. You have to find two or three people that are going to give it to you straight and push you harder.”
What's one lesson you've learned along your journey that you wish you'd known at the start of your career?
“Just keep going. I always say that being an entrepreneur is like getting punched in the face every day. Just when you think your feet are under you and you're about to accomplish something, somebody hits you from the side — a deal falls through or important team members quit or your competition raises money or life happens. You just have to keep going. I’m so used to this now that I don't even notice the roadblocks. I just get back to work.”
You've done so much and continue to be involved in so many different initiatives; what keeps you grounded?
“My deep desire to help people be better with and understand their money, so they have the freedom to pursue their passions and dreams. My idea for LearnVest came from my realization that the average American has less than $400 in savings, so I set off to create a financial planning tool for America’s wallet.
“I’m incredibly proud of the work LearnVest did to help people with their finances. Now with Inspired Capital, I am doing something a bit different, but in the end, my goal is to mentor and support entrepreneurs, just as my mentors helped me.”
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