…Everything about building a successful tech company is a learning curve. If it’s the first time building a tech company for you, you won’t be able to scale that learning curve fast enough to be successful, if you’re doing all the learning on your own. Surround yourself with people who have done it before, and that could people who work on your team, that could people who are advisors, that could be friends, that could be books — but surround yourself with people who have done it before because no matter what experience you’ve had before, it is not compared to building a successful tech company.
As a part of Authority Magazine’s series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tanya Van Court, Founder and CEO of Goalsetter.co, a money app for kids and families. Prior to her role at Goalsetter, Van Court led digital products at Nickelodeon, where she led their digital preschool and parenting businesses, including NickJr.com and Noggin.com. Van Court has also served as Senior Vice President of Partner Marketing at Discovery Education, where she launched digital textbooks to schools across the country. Prior to Nickelodeon and Discovery, Van Court served as vice president of new media products for ESPN, where she led the launch of ESPN3.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well, it’s interesting. My whole family was a family of educators; I mean, teachers. Elementary teachers, my mom was, my dad was as well. And so, I didn’t really know about many career paths outside of education. By the time I got to Stanford, I considered myself a Jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none. So I really wasn’t sure about what I loved or what I was passionate about. So, I majored in industrial engineering, literally because my friends told me it was a technical business degree, and I knew that I liked technology, and I liked math, I liked science. But I also knew that I liked people, and I wanted to do something that involved people. So, I majored in industrial engineering, and my first job offer was at a Pampers plant. When I walked in, I had on this…my only suit that I owned, and they said, “well, you’ll have to take off those heels, and here, take the hard hat and put on the steel-toed boots.” [laughs] And so I said, “wow, what exactly am I doing?” I hadn’t quite put two-and-two together yet. What industrial engineers actually do is, you know, many of them, they work in manufacturing plants and they optimize the manufacturing line. And there are other industrial engineers that do optimization for businesses, etc.
But the point was, I don’t think I knew what I was practically getting myself into with my industrial engineering degree. I kind of pivoted with that degree though, to use it to work in corporations, and helped to launch products, and helped to optimize the processes around how you launch new products, and how you scale those product launches. And so, I was at Cablevision and launched the first voiceover IP services in the cable industry, Optimum Voice. Then I was at Nickelodeon, and launched ESPN 3, which was the first digital video streaming player in the cable industry before HBO Now or HBO Go, or any of those. And then I was at Nickelodeon, and I ran preschool and parenting digital, and so, NickJr.com. And then I moved to Discovery Education, where I led the launch of digital textbooks into classrooms across the country, to help kids with multi-mobile learning.
So, everyone of my jobs just got me closer to who I was meant to be, and that’s what I tell young people today: you’re not expected to come out of college and find the 150% perfect job for you. What you do need to do is figure out what you love about the job that you get, what you don’t love about the job that you get, and how you can take, you know, steps every time you change jobs, to get closer to who you’re meant to be and why you were meant to be here. And so, that’s what I did in my career, and finally, what I realized is, that I love kids, I love education, I love making entertainment and media engaging for kids, but using it to teach them educational principles, and I love to close gaps. That’s what I love. So, in any event, I was actually at Discovery Education when my daughter said to me, “Mommy, for my ninth birthday, I really only want two things.” And I said, “well, what’s that?”, and she said, “enough money to save for an investment account, and a bike.” And I thought to myself, “If I can get every kid to say that, I can change the world.” And so, it’s not like I was sitting in my great executive job, doing these wonderful executive things and said, I really want to be an entrepreneur. That was not how my journey went. My daughter said that, and I felt like I could change the world for those kids.
I also felt like I was unique qualified to change the world for those kids, or for all kids, because when you look at the financial technology space in general, there are very few women in it, very few moms. Right? I’m a mom; I understand kids. And I bring something special in terms of my lens to this space because I am a woman and a mom. There are very few people of color; I’m an African-American, who has a very diverse network of friends, and I understand all people from all backgrounds, and their money habits and their money fears, and their money goals, because I lived those things. So, that makes me uniquely qualified. I come from entertainment and media, and very few people in the fintech space come from entertainment and media. So, my lens is all about how to engage and excite kids; we put kids first.
But I also come from a very strong background in education, from Discovery Education, and from two parents who were educators. And so, that unique set of qualifications, and the intersection of them, makes me uniquely positioned in this space to deliver financial literacy, and financial education and financial tools, in a way that America has never, ever seen before, or done before. I really felt like it was my responsibility to do it, that there were kids out there who needed a different perspective, that there were families out there who wanted something that connected with them in a different way, and I could uniquely bring that to them. Like I said, never wanted to be an entrepreneur; I feel like entrepreneurialism found me, rather than me finding entrepreneurialism.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Wow, let me think. There are so many. Sharing some of the positive experiences we’ve had, and not some of the negative experiences, because as a Black female entrepreneur, there’ve been a lot of “interesting” experiences, and there have been a lot of challenges that show how brutal this ecosystem is on women and people of color. And I want to share some things other than that, those make me weary. So, I do want to share some things heartening, refreshing, and amazing, because we’ve certainly had many of those too. So let me think on that one for a second.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh, I got a great one there. So we called the company I Sow, because we thought we were going to teach kids, you reap what you sow. You know, if you plant seeds early, those seeds will become fruitful later on. Well, no one knew what it meant. People thought it was “sow” and they were confused, as in, was it related to a pig? Was it related to a piggy bank? [laughs] So there were all kinds of confusion, so we quickly realized we should change the name of company. So we did; we went out and we polled parents and kids this time, and said, what do you think about these names? And we had our users choose our names for us, instead of us choosing the name, and getting it wrong ourselves.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
You know, when things got hard, the things that kept me going were literally the lives that were changing. On a daily basis, I get emails, or texts, or Instagram direct messages — I mean, literally, as I’m sitting here now, someone posted on Instagram, “Goalsetter, I appreciate the intentional work you are doing. I am eager to join the movement.” Right? I got a note from a grandmother earlier today, that said, “I understand that you now have debit cards and I ordered them for my grandkids. Thank you so much for the work that you do.” And we get those thank-you notes all the time. We don’t just get them from parents, we get them from kids! I got a note from a kid the other day, saying that he has learned almost everything he needs to know in math class because of Goalsetter. And he said, thank you for what you do, because I was in math class the other day, and we were covering fractions, and I knew almost everything that they were talking about because of Goalsetter. There’s another kid who said, she loves Goalsetter so much, and she thought that money was all about spending some and saving some. But now she knows it’s about frugality, and compound interest, and the rule of 72. And so, everyday, we get these monumental stories about how we’re changing kids’ lives, and how we’re changing their language, we’re changing their confidence about money, and their understanding of money. We get those stories every single day, and so, those are the things that keep me going. Because, as I said, I know we bring a new perspective, I know we are serving communities, and kids and people and families that have long been overlooked. And they’re really excited about having us.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Oh my gosh! Who has helped me? My 11 year-old son is pointing to himself in the background! But is there someone in particular? Look, I would say that Robert Smith has been a tremendous, tremendous supporter, the Chairman of Vista Equity. He’s been a tremendous supporter of Goalsetter, and helped me at every turn. But he is one of many. This is truly a labor of love for so many people who are women, who are People of Color, who are allies who have said “enough is enough! We want to support a Black woman-led company so it would be able to be successful.” I mean, by the time we raised 1 million dollars, 86% of that funding had come from Black people, Brown people, and women. That’s who helped me. Every single one of those people who wrote a check early on when other people would not write a check. That’s who helped me, those are the people. Stanford’s Black Alumni Association, that’s who helped me. Pipeline Angels — women who invest in other women. Five different chapters of Pipeline Angels all across the country, invested in Goalsetter. They helped me when no one else would. All of those people said, “Look, we are going to make this work, against all odds, and we’re going to make sure that you can be successful.” And they continue to do so to this day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have one that I often say, which is “if it’s not a barrier, than it’s just an obstacle.” There are so many instances in life where we see something in our way, and we’ve gotta get up close and examine it to say, is it really a barrier? Because if it’s not a barrier, than it’s just one more thing I have to climb over. I think that’s especially important for women because there are so many obstacles put in our way, and you’ve got to put on a lens that let you see those obstacles as someone may have intended to use to stop you, but certainly not something that you would let stop you. It’s just another thing to climb over, it won’t stop the progress.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
The pain point our company is helping to address is that kids are not financially educated or financially literate. America has done a great job to teach kids and families how to send money and spend money, but they had never taught kids and families, en masse, how to save money, how to invest money, financial education and financial literacy. And America and the companies, the financial technology companies in America, have gotten very rich, and the venture capitalists, the entire American ecosystem, financial services and fintech ecosystem, quite frankly, have gotten very wealthy, on teaching Americans, and kids, how to spend. So, we’re trying to reverse that curse, and we’re trying to reverse that for every kid in America. But we’re particularly trying to reverse that for Black and Brown kids, because of the huge wealth gap that exists in our country. By 2053, African Americans are projected to have a negative net-worth. By 2063, Latinos are projected to have a negative net-worth. 70% of African-Americans middle-class adults are projected to have a child who falls out of the middle class. So, we are not teaching our kids about financial education and financial language, even when their parents have amassed some degree of wealth.
But the kids don’t know how to hold on to it or how to grow it, or how to turn it into generational wealth. So, that is what we are doing. We are helping to close the knowledge gap in order to close the wealth gap. We are helping to set up early savers and investors, so they can be forever savers and investors. We are really deeply invested in making sure that savings and investing and financial education are important proponents of our platform, not just, “hey, here’s a teen and tween debit card”.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
In February, we launched a movement called, “Drafted” in conjunction with the NBA Players Association. Drafted was kicked off by Chris Paul, who said “I’m going to draft 100 kids into the league of financial freedom by giving them Goalsetters’ savings accounts with 40 dollars in each savings account”. Chris Paul then said, “Who’s Got Next?” and he passed the baton to Jaylen Brown, who said “I’m going to draft 100 kids, who’s got next?” And he passed the ball, and it passed and passed and passed, until the ball went outside of the basketball court, and went onto the tennis court. Sloane Stephens said, “I’ve got next”. Then it went on to the football field, and we had players from the Steelers say “we’ve got next”. And so the movement has landed not only within every sports league in America, but within corporate America as well. Within corporate America, UBS Bank drafted 2,000 kids, Sterling National Bank has drafted 1,000 kids, and just last week, Nike drafted 10,000 kids. We have thousands of kids across America who are being drafted into the league of financial freedom with Goalsetter, with savings accounts that are seeded, because kids with savings accounts in their names are six times more likely to go to college, and four times more likely to own stocks by the time they’re young adults. We are literally giving kids, the next generation, banking experience that is setting them up for financial freedom.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
No, I’m not satisfied with the status quo of women in tech. Because if you look at the numbers, you know, they’re woeful. But let me go back a second. There’s a Crunchbase article that was published a couple of weeks ago. It talked about kids’ fintech apps are all the rage, and as financial literacy becomes even more popular, they mentioned five kids’ fintech companies. Four of them are run by men, and one of them is run by a woman. The four that are run by men, they’ve all raised more than 50 million dollars, up to 300 million dollars. The one that is run by a woman, has raised 6 million dollars. They say financial literacy is becoming hot among VCs. The four that have raised more than 50 million dollars, don’t have any financial literacy included in their apps. The one that is run by a woman, who’s only raised 6 million dollars, has robust and copious financial literacy including in its app. Something is wrong. By the way, that one, if who haven’t guessed yet, is me.
If we can say, this is a hot space — this woman has been in this space longer than the men, but has never been able to get funding. But we’ve given the men copious amounts of funding, and the product that the woman has, has a net-promoter score of 73. They include financial literacy content, they have more features than any of the other products in the market. But we don’t give women, we literally keep them hamstrung by starving women-led tech companies while we are pouring money into men-led companies, and then asking why they can’t compete? So, no, I’m not happy. I believe that we need to stop holding women to different standards, and to stop asking different questions of “what have you achieved in order for me to write this check?” I think we are just continuing to see a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? We don’t invest in women-led companies, and then we ask, “why don’t those women-led companies have as much traction as the male-led companies?” And then we say, “see? Women-led companies aren’t as good as the male-led companies.” It’s just, you know, the level of investment needs to change, and we need to start holding venture capitalists in an appropriate standard. In this last round that we raised, we had the fortune of being oversubscribed. You would notice that all of the people, who were at my table in our last round, in terms of the investors to be let into that round, they’re all people who have invested in women, well before my round. They’re all people who have invested in People of Color, well before my round.
That’s the standard that we need to hold VC’s to. Instead of VC’s asking women “what’s your traction,” when they write men a check without traction, we need to start asking VC’s, what’s your traction with women? If you don’t have enough traction with women, then the entire universe should be thinking about whether or not to be LP’s in your fund. So, the conversation needs to really even out, to be fair, to be equal. You know, the traction conversation needs to start, going back to the VC’s who are still not investing enough in women, even in 2021.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
I think when you’re looking to create a high-performing sales team, you have to align their incentives with the incentives, or goals, of the corporation. So, if your sales team is compensated based on one thing, but the rest of your organization has key performance indicators that is something completely different, then you’re going to have a lack of alignment. There’s so many instances where we as leaders compensate a sales team based on one set of criteria, and then we compensate the rest of the organization based on a different set of criteria. It’s really important to create a highly motivated sales team that what everyone is focused around is the KPI of customer happiness. It’s not just about bringing the customer on board, it’s about how happy that customer is once they get on board. So, if I as a sales executive sells something that I know the implementation team will not implement, or if I sell something that has a time frame that is too aggressive, then I know the implementation team won’t be able to meet, but that client wanted me to hear in order to make a sale, then guess what? That’s going to be a very unhappy client.
So, if I align my sales team compensation, with not only did you make a sale, but you made sale that resulted in a client that had a net-promoter score of X or above, a Key Happiness Coefficient of X or above, now I have aligned our entire organization around in the same way. I created a sales organization that is highly motivated around selling. But I motivated them around selling in the right way, selling in a way that puts the customers’ happiness first, and it sets expectations that the organization can deliver on. So, at the end of the day, the winner is not just the salesperson who got their compensation, it’s the entire organization whose been able to deliver to the customer what was promised to the customer in a way that feels good to the sales team and the operations team, and the winner is the customer.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
I think finding the right customer is like finding the right life partner. If you are really, really excited about mountain biking and you want a life partner who loves it as much as you do, then you go where the mountain bikers are. You go to mountain biking groups where you’d look for your life partner. I think similarly in terms of the right customers, you’d find your initial set of customers who is enthusiastic and happy about using your product as a service, and then those customers tell their friends, and they tell their friends, and they tell their friends. Because that is really where you find your next set of customers, with the customers who you delighted in and made happy, and they’re so excited about you that they want to tell other people. And typically, the people they are telling, who you’re going to solve the same problem for them, that you are solving for this initial set of customers. They’re telling their friends who have the same problems as they do. For us, a portion of our customers are moms, and moms want a few things in terms of kids and finances. Number one, moms want their kids to be raised with good financial values, and we struggle with that because the world tells us “buy them lots and lots of toys on birthdays and holidays” and that’s a lot of excess. Getting kids to do an allowance and having money around the house to pay them for that allowance, that’s hard. All of these things are difficult, raising kids with good financial values is difficult. And Goalsetter makes that easy!
We are there as a support system for that mom, and we make so many things that are hard about having money in the house, easy. We make it easy for moms to teach money in their house. We make it easy for moms to give money. We make it easy for moms to gift money to other extended members of their family. We make it easy for moms to track chores and give allowance. We make it easy for families to go cashless, and right now, families are the last bastion of cash in this country. So, we make it easier for the entire extended family to go cashless! You no longer need to have that circulating 20 dollars bill going from aunt to niece, and grandma to grandson, you know, that goes back and forth between family, and gets mailed, and takes seven days to get there. Because we make all of that easy.
So, I think in terms of finding customers, you find the customers who are really acutely solving their problem, and they’re going to tell everyone else who’s in their circle. The people who use us, someone downloaded our app today, and a half hour later, we get a phone call saying, “my gosh, I have to share this with everyone! This is fantastic!” So when you find those customers who really love you, they’re going to share it with people whom they know this could be a help for. When you are recommending something that is really good, then you’re not selling it; you’re offering someone an opportunity to change their lives. And that is so special about where you find your customers. You find your customers where you no longer have to sell them on something when you are offering them an opportunity to help them, an opportunity to make their lives easier, an opportunity to change their kids’ lives, and their kids’ futures, and their kids’ outcomes, and the best ambassadors for that are your current customers, who see that you’ve already done that for their family.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
I think the first thing is, you don’t just train customer services to care about customers, you train every member of your team to care about customers. You always hold the customers’ comments in high regard, you always listen to customers, and you make sure that every member of the team understands how important the customers are. Whether it’s an engineer that’s dealing with that customer’s problem, or it’s customer service, you know, a designer who is designing something differently based on feedback we got from a customer. You train your entire team that listening to customers is how we are going to continue to enhance and build upon user experience and make it great.
The second thing that I would say, is that, you know I was an industrial engineer at Stanford and got a master’s degree in industrial engineering also. And one of the key principles of industrial engineering is continuous process improvement. It really is just gathering data, relentlessly, as much as you can, about what your customer experience is. Gathering data as they’re doing things in your app, gathering data through your surveys, gathering data relentlessly, so that even if you’re delivering, you know, 90% user experience, you might find two people who say the same thing, and you say, “wow, if two people said that, they’re probably 10 times that, 100 times that, that are feeling that.” If I can knock-off those two people who have said that, I just moved my net-promoter score up by another point or two on this particular feature. So, if you really focus feature by feature, and are relentless about getting data and getting feedback, then you can, through continuous process and improvement, continue to address each of the things that may still be problems for your customers, little by little.
I think the third thing about that is, when you do that, customers feel heard. When you are addressing customer feedback, by changing something in your product, letting those customers know who told you, “hey! I just wanted to let you know that…” circle back with them. Even if it’s six months later, even if it’s nine months later — circling back to those customers is saying, “hey, you asked for X, and I just wanted to let you know that because of your feedback, we did Y.” It really is a powerful vehicle and mechanism to helping customers feel heard. And those customers would become even bigger champions, and those customers who were generally detractors in the beginning because there was something that you did that they didn’t love or it bothered them, they will understand that you’re listening and you’re taking into account their feedback, and they’ll become even bigger champions for you moving forward. And they will give you more feedback, and take more time to give you feedback, which is the goal.
That is what leads to the fourth thing: just more feedback, more feedback, more feedback. The more feedback that you can get, the more gold you have for your customers to truly continue to improve.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
I think the first thing is, find something that you do better than anyone else. You got to spend half of your money doing one thing better than anyone else in the market, and the other half of the money on marketing that one thing, so that you can demonstrate that there is real value in what you do, and get more money to get out and do more things. But it really is the preliminary thing: focus on one thing, market that one thing, and then build more things after you mastered that one thing.
The second thing is, everything about building a successful tech company is a learning curve. If it’s the first time building a tech company for you, you won’t be able to scale that learning curve fast enough to be successful, if you’re doing all the learning on your own. Surround yourself with people who have done it before, and that could people who work on your team, that could people who are advisors, that could be friends, that could be books — but surround yourself with people who have done it before because no matter what experience you’ve had before, it is not compared to building a successful tech company.
Number three, know walking in that your very best day at your tech company can be your very worst day at the company. The highs and lows are of wide-magnitude and of small frequency. They happen all the time, and they can be very, very large swings. So, you have to be resilient, you know, building a successful tech company is like investing in the stock market. But not the stock market over the last ten years, which has been a bull market, but the stock market over the last fifty years. It’s like investing where you’ve got wild swings, and you have to be resilient, and committed, and diligent. Just because you experience a low-low doesn’t mean that your entire destiny would turn around the next day.
The fourth thing is, you would be expected to do everything yourself, and yet, you can’t do everything yourself. So, find support, and find help, and very quickly identify what your core strengths are. What are you good at, what are you not good at, and where do you go to need help. If you can identify that early on, the sooner you can identify, “I’m a great marketer, but I am not a great product person.” — the more time you can you’ve just saved yourself launching this company. So, identify your strengths and stand tall and strong in those, but surround yourself with people who compliment you in those areas of your weakness.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Yeah, I don’t know how to answer that, because it is what I’m doing right now. Economic freedom is fundamental to every other freedom that people have. Economic freedom buys you education freedom. It buys you more fairness in the justice system, because you have more resources to put behind the problem. It abides so many kinds of freedom, and lacking in economic justice and economic freedom means that you are inherently at a disadvantage in this country, whether we’re talking about women who were not permitted to go out and get jobs, and so they lacked financial freedom. If you don’t have the ability to determine your own financial destiny, if you don’t have the ability to be financially independent, you are inherently economically enslaved. And so, when women had to stay at home, and could not go and get a job, they were economically enslaved. When People of Color are not paid the same wages, and are given worst interest rates, and are subjected to an economic system that disadvantages them at every turn, they are economically enslaved. So, financial freedom is some much at the core of freedoms in our country, that it is really important that we can solve that, we can solve a lot of the other problems that we have.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
It would be Michelle Obama, because she has brought so much grace and dignity to so many roles, that are the roles that are important to me as a person. When I think about what I want to end up on my tombstone, and what are the roles that are important, I would say, mother is important, community leader is important. I would say change agent is important. Those are all the things that she represents, and she does them with so much aplomb. So, I would love to talk to her about how she effectively manages to capture the hearts and minds of people in ways that make them want to move mountains for her, and excite them about doing things like going out and voting. When Michelle Obama’s voice is brought to a cause, you find moving people on that cause. I would love to just talk to her about how she balances both her incredible ability to change with her incredible ability to be a great mom, because those are things that matter to me.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!