Archive for October 18th, 2012

Q&A With Lending Tree Founder Doug Lebda: Helping Kids Manage Real Money

By Lora Kolodny

Entrepreneur Doug Lebda already changed the financial services game in the United States with his first company, Lending Tree. In the late ’90s, it began to simplify the way that consumers research and get loans online.

Today, Lebda still wants to help people master financial responsibility, but he’s doing it at a more fundamental level. As the co-founder and chairman of Tykoon, he’s helping kids earn, save, donate and spend their money responsibly online, in a way that feels more like a game than a chore.

Lending Tree Founder Doug Lebda, who has now founded Tykoon.

Late last year, Tykoon raised $1.4 million in a Series A round of venture funding. Investors included Lebda himself, outside funds and angels, RRE Ventures, Rick Thompson, Chamath Palihapitiya, David Bach and G. Kennedy Thompson.

The entrepreneur spoke with VentureWire recently about the inspiration behind the new company, what he’s doing differently the second time around, and financial trends that are changing the start-up game today.

An edited version of that conversation follows.

What is Tykoon, in a nutshell?

Tykoon is a financial-services platform for kids and families. It gives parents a way to pass on their financial values to their kids, seamlessly. The app lets kids earn, save and give money to charities, and spend what they earn on things that are parent-approved.

How did you and Mark Bruinooge, your co-founder and the CEO of Tykoon, come up with this app?

All of my ideas come from my own experiences and problems. I noticed that everyone’s kids were spending a lot of time doing tasks, if you will, online. They were playing games to earn fake currency used to buy fake things so that they could show it off to their friends.

Why not complete real tasks to earn real money and buy real things? I wanted to encourage them to help out around the house and save for things on their own, learn some personal and financial responsibility in a positive way.

There’s a banking side, here too. I believe very strongly that banks and financial-services companies today are struggling to improve their brands, and do something of real value for their customers.

It is incumbent upon them to make sure their customers are smart about money. Offering a kind of white-label version of Tykoon to their customers is one way that a bank can do that.

Where are you in terms of progress with users and on your mission with Tykoon? 

We launched our app this spring, and have amassed over 20,000 users. We’re very, very pleased with that. We’re growing roughly by 1,000 users per week. We think that will accelerate when we add family-gifting features, and other social networking features.

Kids are really loving the platform so far, and actually changing their behavior, too. Do not underestimate how hard it is to change behavior.

In my own experience, my kids will now ask me to do more things around the house so that they can earn money…

Tykoon also provides nonmonetary rewards. [My co-founder’s] kids will do more chores so they can “buy” more computer time, for example. It’s all up to the family, and how they want to set it up.

Are you doing things differently this time around? How so?

When I started Lending Tree, I did not have all the supportive capital I needed. Our business model required substantial change in an industry that had not changed in years, mortgages and banking. Because of that, it required significant amounts of capital before we could reach profitability. We raised $100 million before we made money.

This time around, we have the luxury of being very selective about who we raise money from and under what terms. We’re also building a business that people naturally want to tell other people about, so we won’t rely on paid marketing. And Tykoon offers a high-engagement product.

A mortgage is only done every three to five years. We see people visit Tykoon at least weekly. Because the product is built to be social and viral, and has that engagement, we can grow it faster.

What macroeconomic trends are hurting or helping start-ups now?

I don’t think things like mortgages or credit are impacting financings for tech startups. There are a lot of venture firms out there, and their funds are very large. So entrepreneurs have raised a significant amount of venture capital in deals recently.

The economy is not great but it certainly wasn’t great three years ago when lots of deals were getting done. It’s improving now, I believe.

What’s shaping the start-up scene, instead then?

There seems to be a decreased appetite to fund… and a higher bar to fund start-ups. Venture funds are dealing with a slowdown in IPOs, and reduced expectations among portfolio companies.

Facebook, Groupon and Zynga were considered to be companies that could not fail, financially, from a returns perspective. That’s cascading down the food chain, now.

There are also a very large number of seed deals, going back a year and two years ago. This means there’s a higher hurdle for a company to get venture funding, later. Start-ups have to demonstrate more traction than they once had to…

Venture capital is hot or cold, but seldom warm. Right now it feels like we’re in a cooling trend.

Write to lora.kolodny@dowjones.com. Follow her on Twitter @lorakolodny

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