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9 Lessons to Disrupt an Industry

Listen, vet, and adapt. LearnVest's Alexa Von Tobel explains critical growth lessons for any start-up.
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Alexa von Tobel, founder and CEO of financial management website LearnVest.com, didn’t just set out to start a company, she says. She wanted to disrupt an industry.

Speaking at Inc.’s GrowCo conference in New Orleans, the entrepreneur talked about what she learned--from starting her business in the middle of the recession, wooing investors, and scaling lightning fast. Here are her nine tips.

When everyone zigs, you have to zag. Von Tobel started her company at the end of 2008, as the recession was sinking to its lowest depths. "When everyone is battening down the hatches," she says, "grow." It will set you apart.

Put skin in the game. "When you’re spending your own money it’s different than when you’re spending someone else’s money," von Tobel says. "That should never go away. I treat every dollar like it’s my own dollar."

Vet your investors. "I thought of each of my investors like someone I was marrying--I’m going to be married to you for 10 years or longer," she says. Each of those people should be a person you’d want with you in a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, in the middle of a storm.

Listen obsessively to your users. Every day, von Tobel says, she reads customer emails.

Don’t be afraid to adapt. "What I was thinking three years ago, only about 80 percent of it is true." Every three months, LearnVest holds a summit where the staff talks about what’s relevant, what’s current, what’s happening in the industry.

Maybe most importantly, von Tobel says, is finding the right advisors. "Find three people that are smarter than you, that are on the bleeding edge, and make them your friends."

Identify your metrics. For LearnVest, that means looking at who’s logging in and how often. Is that number going up or down? Are customers referring friends? Figure out the five most relevant metrics and track them constantly.

Further, von Tobel says, don’t just find and cultivate your fans. "Focus on the people who talk badly about your business. That really helps you focus."

Look for outsized passion. "The difference between a good hire and great hire is the difference between succeeding and failing," she says. "The X factor is that they’re obsessed with what you’re building. Everyone at LearnVest believes they’re changing the world."

Take it one day at a time. "You’re going to have really good days, and you can’t get ahead of yourself, can’t forget your strategy," von Tobel says. "There were days that really sucked. [Either way], it’s really important to give every day everything you’ve got."

Protect yourself. Always remember: When you start "a small business, most of your finances are run through you," von Tobel warns. So make sure you’re protected--get a great financial plan from an expert. 

Last updated: Apr 12, 2013




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