In 2007, Alex von Tobel left Harvard Business School and moved to New York City to launch LearnVest, a company designed to demystify financial planning for everyone.
Back then, she was, in her own estimation, someone who could use some financial advice herself. She had no capital other than her own savings, but, as she recalled in conversation with Mansueto Ventures CEO Eric Schurenberg during an Inc. Real Talk: Business Reboot streaming event Tuesday, "I had so much conviction."
She would need it. As she--and everyone else--soon realized, the global economy went into free fall in 2008. Rather than give up on her idea that financial planning need not be a luxury service, von Tobel stayed the course, despite the pleas of friends. She remembers thinking, "This could not be a scarier time to start a new business." She also thought, "I'm so certain this is the right time."
"In life, you need to bet on yourself again and again," she says.
That bet paid off seven years later when Northwestern Mutual acquired LearnVest for $375 million. Today, she's the founder and managing partner of Inspired Capital, the author of the books Financially Fearless (2013) and Financially Forward (2019), and the host of Inc.'s Founders Project podcast. If that's not enough, she's also the mother of three young kids.
As the world enters another period of uncertainty that echoes--and in some ways may drown out--the Great Recession, von Tobel is convinced that zigging while others zag is the way to go. Moments of crisis, she says, are "a wonderful time to build a business."
Here's more advice von Tobel shared.
Get a Coach
Von Tobel was an athlete as a kid, so when she started LearnVest, it seemed only natural for her to seek a coach. "In order for my company to be as successful as I want it to be, I have to get a lot better," she says she thought. When she finally found the right person, she told him: "I want to be the best I can be. Help me."
A decade on, von Tobel is a kind of coach herself, spending much of her time advising startups and mentoring founders who reach out to her via Instagram. "I try to pay it forward to other entrepreneurs," she says.
Write a Business Plan
When she was starting LearnVest, von Tobel wrote a 75-page plan laying out her vision for the company, its "chapters" of development, and every idea she ever had for it. Few people read the whole plan, but she was able to look at it when she needed to refresh her vision. "When you're actually running the business, you don't have time to do days of strategy," she says. Having the plan on paper will help.
Also helpful: showing it to friends and colleagues--especially ones who will tear it apart. "Lean into where they criticize your idea," von Tobel says. "You don't have to agree with them, but they're saying things future investors may ask you." And if your friends won't have criticism, von Tobel has some advice: Find someone else.
Von Tobel also suggests finding a good lawyer and an accountant and not stinting on these services. "You get what you pay for," she says. "You don't want to set those things up messily."
Surround Yourself With People Smarter Than You
A leader is only as good as her team, von Tobel says. For Inspired Capital, she seeks out the best people she can find and tells them, "You're gonna do your magic and I'm gonna do my magic."