Two years ago I had an idea for a website. I wanted to bring trusted personal finance education to women online – and do so in a fun and hip way. In December 2008, when most were hiding cash under their mattress, I decided to leave a well paying job, invest all of the money I made post college, and take on the challenge of building a company.
Despite the recession, I was able to develop my idea into a viable business and today; LearnVest is a venture-backed TechCrunch50 company educating thousands of women about personal finance.
I want to share with you the 5 most powerful lessons I learned throughout my experience building a company. Many of the tips I'm discussing with you were passed down from others who were kind enough to share their experiences and insight with me.
1. Get skin in the game.
Foregoing income is one thing; investing your own money in your idea is another. At a time when the economy was at its worst, I took a leap and invested all the money I made post-college into starting LearnVest. I don't recommend that everyone else be this crazy, but having a personal investment in your company will influence every decision you make.
2. Enlist support.
Anyone who tells you that you can go it completely on your own is wrong. Start out by creating an advisory board composed of successful people, and don't be afraid to give them equity. They will most likely know some helpful short cuts and be able to offer connections to other experienced people.
3. Be steadfast about the big idea, but willing to adjust the execution.
A clearly articulated business proposal that supports an unmet need will attract investors, but actually getting the funding might take longer than you expect. Be inviolate about the big idea, but accept feedback from your advisors or potential investors and be willing to adjust the details. If you start with a truly good idea and your product solves a real problem, doors will open.
4. Know your users and excite them with exceptional customer service.
At the end of the day, your user is all that matters; it is imperative that you know them well. Your goal is to provide a product that excites them and/or improves some aspect of their life. Once you know your user, keep them and their needs in mind at all times when making critical decisions. My priority at LearnVest is to provide the best customer experience possible. While it is a lofty goal, premiere customer service is attainable. Nothing gives me more joy than receiving feedback from a LearnVest user, telling me that our advice has helped her confront a financial issue and she is in a better financial state and mindset because of it. Not to mention that word of mouth is the best (and least expensive) form of early-stage marketing; if your product makes your users’ life better, they will want to share it.
5. Never get demoralized.
Take time to find the joy in each day of the journey. It seems obvious, but after working 16+ hours a day over and over again it's hard not to become a little ragged. I always find at least twenty minutes a day of quiet time to take a break and exercise. It never fails to provide greater clarity to problems I'm trying to solve.
It’s been two years since I launched LearnVest. I'm proud to say that I’ve successfully raised two rounds of funding (a seed round and a venture round) and built an exceptional team of LearnVest employees. While we have been successful in many ways, we will continue to learn from our users and improve on our product everyday. We know that with each new user, we are one step closer to achieving our mission of educating millions of women.
Alexa von Tobel is the Founder and CEO of LearnVest, one of the leading independent personal finance websites for women. Alexa feels passionately about making personal finance education fun and accessible to everyone.