Alexa von Tobel walked out of a blizzard and into her Greenwich Village office space on Feb. 8, brewed a cup of tea, and recited a list of her appearances in 2013. There was the design conference panel in Munich, a speech to the William Morris Endeavor staff in California, a Today show spot in New York—each time, she spoke on the topic of personal finance. In the past eight days, Von Tobel says, she’s been to four cities, and after the weekend she’s due to guest-teach a class at the University of Maryland. “That’s sort of a normal week in my life, just to give you a sense,” she says, bobbing the tea bag.
Von Tobel, 29, is the founder and chief executive officer of LearnVest, a four-year-old startup that in September became a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission—the latest personal finance site to go beyond offering simple budgeting tools to advising clients directly on what to do with their money. Services such as Mint.com have become popular with features that track users’ purchases and spit out pie charts on retirement progress. LearnVest offers the same features, but now clients who pay a setup fee (as much as $399) and then $19 a month can call or e-mail the staff of certified financial planners for personalized guidance. The advisers don’t recommend specific stocks or mutual funds, but they will work with customers to tailor their strategies on portfolio balancing, retirement, estate planning, and other topics. The company, which declines to say how many paid customers it has, says the site has a total user base of a few hundred thousand. Advisers earn a flat salary, with bonuses tied to customer satisfaction.