In an increasingly cluttered landscape of online content creators, 24-year-old Tennessean Austin Hankwitz is part of a new breed helping to give new meaning to the term “influencer.”
A graduate of the University of Tennessee with a degree in finance, he’s gone from studying financial analysis and risk management to working in the field of finance post-graduation to making TikTok videos full-time, advising his ever-growing throngs of online followers on how to manage and invest their money.
Hankwitz now splits his time between advising fintech startups and giving his more than half a million TikTok fans pointers about everything from how to read a balance sheet to analyzing SEC filings to spotting promising investment opportunities.
He joined The Business of Business’ Akil Alleyne for a chat about how he got here, how he does it, and where he plans to go from here—as well as how he thinks the nuts and bolts of investing can be used to help shrink the wealth gap in America.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: So thanks a lot for joining us! Austin Hankwitz, here with us at The Business of Business today. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us!
A: Absolutely, man! Thank you so much for having me.
Q: So in a nutshell, can you give us a bit of an overview of your background?
A: Yeah, absolutely. So my name is Austin Hankwitz; I'm 25 years old. I graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in Finance and Economics in 2018. I took that degree to go do mergers and acquisitions for a healthcare company here in Nashville, Tennessee. And along the way I got really inspired by Dave Ramsey, Graham Stephan, Andrei Jikh, Nate O’Brien—all these incredible other personal finance and investing-related content creators and took up creating content myself.
[I] picked up my cell phone, and I began during the pandemic, when everyone else, obviously, was on Tik Tok. [I] began posting on Tik Tok as well, but instead of dancing and doing trends, I would share my favorite dividend-paying stocks, or an ETF I thought was interesting, or maybe something in the news that caught my eyes related to the stock market. And I took that information, and I used my sort of experience in finance to try and explain it in such a way that normal folk—everybody who uses Tik Tok—could understand it. And I was able to garner a great following over there, and to grow sort of a personal brand around what that turned into. It's been an incredible journey, man. That's the nutshell.
Q: And...when you were growing up, or maybe in college, how did you settle on finance as your passion?
A: It's actually a really weird statistic. When I was in high school—this was my junior year, so I want to say 2012 or 2013 or so—Tennessee, the state of Tennessee, where I live, is the number one state for bankruptcy, out of all of the states of the United States. Dave Ramsey, the guy who is headquartered here in Franklin, Tennessee, took that personally, I guess, and went on an absolute rampage at every single high school in the state to talk about personal finance and investing in a way that sort of prevented that. We had a seminar in our high school, and I had this class around personal finance and investing. And just hearing Dave Ramsey talk about how much money I could make if I started a Roth IRA, or how responsible it was to pay off my home mortgage early—all these really really interesting things—I was like, “I'm hooked.”
So I took that and began dabbling in the dark arts of the stock market back then. I think I was probably 18 at the time, 19—I had no idea what I was doing. I learned a lot along the way, but I took my interest and turned that into sort of an academic-curiosity interest at school, over in college, and fell in love with the classes and the teachers and everything around it, and it's been a really, really fun experience.
Q: And did you do anything else—maybe extracurricularly—in college that also plays a role in what you do for a living now?
A: Well, maybe not so much, you know, personal finance and investing; but I was the treasurer of this organization called All Campus Events, and what we did is plan Homecoming, this other event called Karna kiss, which was a play. But everyone participated; all the fraternities and sororities and Greek organizations were really involved. [There was also] All Sing, which was another sort of Greek singing-type thing. We had a annual budget of around $100,000, and I was able to sort of figure out how to begin deploying this capital effectively, taking what I learned from personally trying to budget and figuring out my classes. So that was a little bit, but beyond that, not too much. I really kept to myself beyond that, and just just really tried to focus on my classes.
I was not a great student, to be honest with you. I certainly understand a lot of topics and certainly understand a lot of things, but test taking sometimes just kicks me in the butt, and sometimes, what I understood did not properly reflect in a grade on a test. And so it was sort of a ride in college; but beyond being the treasurer for All Campus Events, I don't think I was ever too extra curricular [in a way] that bled into what I'm doing right now.
Q: What was your first job coming out of college? What did you do before you made the dive into Tik Tok?
A: So my first job out of college was this strategic finance role at MedISys, which is this publicly traded healthcare company—and I was thrilled by it, man. I can't tell you how much I loved that job. It was a really cool sort of mush between mergers and acquisitions, investor relations, strategic initiatives and projects—all these really fun things that sound sexy, right? I think we had $1.2 billion in deal flow from acquisitions. We were doing non-deal roadshows all the time as it relates to our company's stock and the analysts on Wall Street. And then we were also figuring out, how do we break into new markets and how do we deploy R&D? How are we able to figure out what could be more profitable for us in the future, and how do we get these partnerships going?
An example of that was when I helped them secure a partnership with Walmart Health. We talked with Fresenius—which is the world's largest dialysis company—for MedISys, a home health company; it all sort of came together here. That was my first job, and it was the most rewarding and just thoughtful experience of my life. I really, really enjoyed the people I worked with, but also some of the tasks. It was really one of those things where it was like, “Figure it out, dude. This isn't college anymore; we're not holding your hand; this is what we need to get done. I need you to be resourceful and figure it out.” And I took a lot of that, a lot of those experiences that I learned from that job, and that's what's helped me catapult so quickly as a creator in this new landscape of figuring it out.
Q: No kidding. It's interesting you say that, because often, when you hear stories of folks who have left their jobs and become full-time content creators and the like, it’s at least partly because they're dissatisfied with their current or previous roles. But in your case, you actually loved that job. So what was it like to make the decision to leave that job and pursue making Tik Tok videos full time?
A: It was hard, man; it was hard. But here's what was really the big thing for me: I had a boss. I don't want to mention his name; I don't want to put him out there like that. But I had a boss, and my boss was the most supportive, incredible, encouraging guide that I've ever met in my life. Whatever I had in my mind, whatever thing I wanted to pursue, whatever it was, he would say, “How can I help you do that? How can I help you crush it? How can I help you check that box? Let me be the catapult for you to go do your thing.”
I remember when I first started creating content on Tik Tok, he was just so thrilled. I remember I was written up in, I think it was Money Magazine or something—it was the first thing I ever was published in—and he said, “Dude, this is so cool, this is awesome.” He was getting really hyped up for it. It took me a long time, in a long conversation with him, [saying,] “How do I do this? How do I approach this sort of new venture that I'm really excited about doing, but it's kind of rolling the dice?” No one really understood what Tik Tok creating was at the time; I still don't think people understand what it is.
Q: I'm not sure I understand fully what it is. [Laughs]
A: [Laughs] But at the end of the day, it was certainly because my boss was so encouraging and uplifting. He helped a lot with that decision making process, and I'm just really fortunate.
Q: You did mention that the pandemic and, I guess, working from home played a role in your decision. What was the exact sort of moment when you decided, “Let me try out this Tik Tok thing,” and what catalyzed that?
A: You know, I live about 25 minutes south of Nashville right now. You take the Interstate into the city downtown, which is where the company I worked for’s headquarters was, or is. With traffic, at seven in the morning, it's a fat 45-to-50-minute commute. I started working from home because of the pandemic, and I saw that I was saving now an hour in and an hour back almost every day. So I'm getting my work done a little bit earlier; I just had extra time, which is something I didn't have before.
Once I started creating this content and things started working out for me, I think the big catalyst was that I had a video where I talked through and tried to explain to people how leveraging a Roth IRA—a Roth Individual Retirement Account—could be an incredible tool to help you retire a millionaire if you invest consistently, and if you invest in index funds, and you do it for 30, 40 years. [I] just showed historical returns, compound interest—just trying to explain this stuff that Dave Ramsey explained to me when I was 16 years old.
I used a robo advisor, way back when, from my Roth IRA called Betterment. And so I showed my Betterment account; I said, “Hey guys, here's what I've got going on. This is my thing.” And the video got seven-odd million views, and Betterment saw a material uptick in new users—I think it was 40,000, 50,000, 60,000; it was incredible—in new users on their platform. And then their VP of Communications and I got in talks. It was pretty much like, “Hey, man, this is cool! What you're doing for companies like ours is really meaningful. Let's figure out how we can begin to make a relationship out of this.”
Once I knew that that was an actual thing—that these big, billion-dollar, unicorn fintech companies realize that creators like me can begin to tell the stories for those companies in such a way that's impactful, meaningful, as well as with a call to action—that's when I realized, “Hey, I can do this full time. I can make a business out of this. I can figure out what other companies I use and tie them into the loop when they need me to tell stories on their behalf as well.”
Q: And how did you begin to grow your audience on TikTok?
A: Consistency. Consistency, and I’d say one more thing, too. So for example, something that caught my attention very early—I guess I correlated it to view count very early—was consistency. I posted every single day, in the afternoon, something that was worth watching. The followers kept coming in, one or two thousand followers every single day. They just kept coming and coming and coming, which was fantastic.
Consistency is one thing, but the second part is also really important. How you grow is showing people you have specific knowledge about something that they want to learn about. For me, that was the stock market, that was economics, that was whatever’s going on that I could explain as it relates to personal finance and investing that people want to learn more about and then hop back to my page and say, “Hey, he talked about budgeting. I've got credit card debt; let me see if he [said] anything about credit cards.” And then, “Oh, cool—he talks about APR and interest. I think I've heard of interest in the stock market! Does he talk about the stock market, too? Oh, he has! Does he know anything about free cash flows? Oh, he made a video about that!” And they’ll watch that one too.
So it's having all these...different pieces of the puzzle, coming together in a way that’s digestible and understandable, but also consistent and value-added. That's the recipe for success on Tik Tok.
Q: No kidding. Good to know. And so, how do you define an “educated investor”? What exactly does that mean?
A: Hmmmmm...I like that question. I don’t think I've ever thought about that question, actually. Let's think about that for a second here. Yeah, because at the end of the day, that's my thing; I just want people to be educated investors.
I think the easiest way to define it is to define what it's not—which is someone's friend [saying], “Hey, man, I saw this cool stock that's gonna do this. It's gonna go to 100,000 million moons, whatever crazy stuff; just go put your whole life savings in it and we'll see what happens.” That's what I'm trying to help people not become, right? I want people to have the awareness and education and understanding enough to know, “Hey, actually, I saw this guy on Tik Tok who was saying, ‘If a stock market cap is under $2 billion’...I know what ‘market cap’ is, because he was talking about it; it's the price tag of a company. So if the price tag of the company is less than $2 billion, it could be pretty volatile, man. And the stock you're telling me to look at right here is only $200 million, which means it's very volatile. So I'm educated enough to know now that maybe I shouldn't put too much money in this crazy idea you might have with this with this penny stock that you're trying to offer me, or [whatever] we're talking about a gathering or party.”
And I think at the end of the day, that's the emphasis there. I want people to have a takeaway where they can begin making decisions on their own. They can take in information, interpret it, and make an informed decision at the end of the day.
Q: One thing I'm curious about is, if you want to become an educated investor? Especially for someone like myself, for instance—someone who has always been intrigued by investing and how it works, but really has no idea how to begin, or how to go about it.
A: Well, first off, I think that people are scared to talk about money. Money kind of gives them anxiety. I think the first step to take is, “Let's take a deep breath; let's come to terms with [the fact that] this is how much money I make. This is where I've been spending my money.” Let's just have conversations about money in a way that allows us to open up the dialogue to, “Now, let's begin budgeting our money. If we have debt, let's begin figuring out how to deploy that toward retirement investing.” So the first thing I'd say is, let's talk about money.
Second [thing] is, you’ve got to know where your money is coming in [from] and going toward. That's the budget side of things: Knowing how much money you've got [coming] in and knowing exactly where all of it's going out, that’s certainly, certainly, certainly important. Because without knowing how much is coming in and going out, how are you going to know how much you have left to invest, right? And so that's probably the second step I’d begin taking: Talk about the money, then let’s figure out where my money is coming and going.
And then, once I completely understand where my money is coming [from] and going [to], let's begin to make some decisions around, “Should it be going there? Should I be spending that $72 on Happy Hour twice a month with my friends? And if I should, that's cool, but should I maybe put that somewhere else?”
We've seen this with people roasting millennials for spending $5 on coffee or wanting to travel or doing things like that. I think people should spend their money however they want to spend their money—but I want them to spend their money on things that matter most to them. Allocate your money where it's important. Have those deep conversations with yourself where you're really saying, “What makes me the happiest and how can I most happily spend my money?”
And then once you've done all that, it's time to really begin saying, “Okay, how do I now begin investing toward retirement? What are the best accounts or tools to go through, or instruments to go through? Is that a Roth Individual Retirement Account? Is that maybe my 401(k) at work? Is that my traditional brokerage account? How can I begin to leverage...tax benefits and other things of that nature to hopefully have the best case scenario near retirement in the next 30 or 40 years?”
So once we figure that out, I'd say, let's just take the most traditional way of investing, which is buying index funds. It's so simple. You [may] say, “What the heck's an index fund? Index?? I can't even spell that!” Long story short, the entire stock market can be summed up with the top 500 companies in the USA. It’s called the S&P 500; that is what people say as ‘the stock market.’ [When people say] “What's the stock market doing today?,” they really mean, “What [are] the top 500 companies in the US? How are they performing today?” They're weighted in this sort of index, this bucket, [according to] how big they are in real life. So obviously, Apple is bigger than IBM, and, you know, Google is much bigger than Starbucks. And so they're weighted proportionally inside this bucket—and all you've got to do as an investor is start deploying some money in the bucket.
Maybe one day, Starbucks has a bad day—but Google's feeling pretty good today. Maybe Facebook's having a bad day—but Amazon's feeling good today. It's just this nice bucket of the top 500 companies in the United States, and it's the easiest way for anyone to get investing. Index funds, all that fun stuff—that is how anyone can begin moving toward the investor class.
And this is something I'm really passionate about, too. At the end of the day, man, getting as many people in the investor class is the number one way we will be able to shrink the wealth gap in the United States. I don't care what politicians say. Getting as many people investing as possible and leveraging compound interest is the best way, over a 30-to-40-year period of time, that we're gonna be able to shrink the wealth gap.
Q: I'm so glad you brought that up, because it's a perfect segue into my next question. In recent years, we've heard a lot of criticisms and even outright condemnations of the way the US economy works, the way it's structured, [and] who benefits the most from it. You've heard a lot of talk about the wealth gap from both the political Left and, to some extent, the Right. I was wondering—especially from your perspective as an investor, particularly as an educated investor—to what extent (if at all) you take considerations such as the wealth gap, or things like labor management or worker relations or worker rights in general; the environment—climate change is another major issue we hear a lot about now; racial justice is another issue, inclusivity, and all of those things.
In recent years, we've heard a lot of debate in the business community: Should we, particularly as shareholders, be focusing exclusively on just appointing managers of businesses who will simply prioritize maximizing profit, maximizing shareholder value, full stop? Or do we want to be good corporate citizens? Do we want to contribute to the communities around us? And do we want to do it just for its own sake, because it's the right thing to do, or do we want to do it partly for political reasons—for self preservation, whatever? So I was curious as to whether any of those considerations play any role at all in the way you take an approach to investing.
A: I think it’s called “ESG” investing: Environment, Social, and Governance is the acronym they use. I was not aware of impactful ESG investing until Betterment—the company I mentioned before—opened up this sort of ESG index. They would find companies that were green as it relates to...fossil fuels, or they would find companies led by women CEOs, and companies who were doing very innovative things as it relates to politics, and all these other different things. And they’d put them and they’d bunch them into this little group, and they'd allow people to invest in them. And I thought this was great; I made a video or two about it on my Tik Tok to bring some more awareness around that.
But at the end of the day, do I look at those things? Of course I do. I think everyone should, right? I think, as the years go on, and people begin to realize everything that is important to them and the values they hold, even if it's just a little bit, that should be reflected in the companies you're interested in investing in. I think a misconception that people might think is, “So Austin, you're telling me if I invest $1,000 into Google stock, am I giving Google $1,000? I don't like how Google is doing this or this; I don't want to give them money.” No, no, no; that's not investing. You're just owning a slice of Google in...a way that is worth $1,000 at the time you buy that.
So I think that people might have a misconception around that. It's like, “Am I giving them money?” And so, as it relates to ESG investing, I think that could maybe hold some people back or maybe propel some people forward. I'm not sure if you've heard of Public.com, but they're an online broker that I recommend. I use them; I'm a shareholder in the company public as well. I love that they have these awesome call outs—e.g. “Hey, guys, here's some really interesting things that are going on as it relates to ESG on our platform. Let me give you a list of all the women-led companies; let me give you a list of all the companies made in America; let me give you a list of all the companies [that] are pledged to be out of fossil fuels by 2050.”
So that, to me, is really interesting—and I think that's a way we can begin to get a lot of people in the investor class, too. Because I think people have very deep rooted values as it relates to what those things could be.
“I don't know if I want to be investing in companies who will be using fossil fuels in 30 years or 40 years, right?”
“Cool. No problem, we’ve got a list of companies that don't [use fossil fuels] right here.”
“Wow, I didn't know that was a thing! And I can invest in these companies?”
“Of course you can.”
“I don't want to invest in a company that's doing stuff overseas; I want to support the people here in the United States and their jobs.”
“Oh, well, here are all the companies that make products in America.”
“Oh, that's cool. What else do you guys have for me?”
“Here's, like, 10 [companies/stocks]. Hop in!”
“This is awesome, man!”
That just gets me so excited.
Q: I just wanted to know if you could explain in a nutshell how you think a lot of maybe working-class and lower-income folks out there could get into the investor class. Especially people who maybe don't come from families or communities where a lot of role models around them are able to set that kind of example for them in terms of know-how—financial investment know-how passed down from generation to generation.
Or if you work at a job, you know, where maybe it's unionized, maybe it's not; but you don't make a king's ransom, so most of your money goes to just paying the bills and getting by. How can folks in that boat get into the investor class? Is it maybe a question of joining together with other like-minded people in similar positions and pooling their wealth and investing collectively? What are some of the ways that you can get folks like that into the investor class?
A: If I could scream it from the hilltops, I would say: It does not matter how much money you start with. “Oh, I can't invest; I don't have $10,000.” “Oh, I can't invest; I don't have $7,000 sitting around or an extra $4,200 a month or whatever.” No, no, no; you can absolutely invest. [If] you have $1 extra in your bank account, you can start with that $1. And I think that is, unfortunately, a really big misconception [among] people who want to get involved in being investors. ‘I don't know if I can get started; I don't have this much money, I don't know what's going on here, I'm kind of scared. I also don't want to lose my money; I also don't understand it too well.”
Okay, no problem. Let's start with a dollar, and through fractional shares, which is something that Robin Hood, Public, E-Trade—I mean, every brokerage offers fractional shares. Through fractional shares, you can get started, and you can begin dipping your toes in what that looks like. Please, just get started with a dollar. It's not as scary as you think; you don't have to have all this money. Get a dollar; let's get started.
Second part: There's actually a company I found two weeks ago that I'm in love with, as it relates to getting the working, blue-collar class into invest[ing]. It's called MoneyLion; they just went public last week, so they’re now trading on the stock market as well. But their entire thing is, “Hey, guys, we're just going to be this nice little banking platform. And while we do that, we understand that, hey, maybe you won't get your paycheck till Friday. It's Wednesday; you need to pay a bill. We'll give you a $250 advance. Long story short, they want to be your Tylenol and your vitamins. So when you're going through it, when you're having those distressed times and you're going through it, you need some extra cash or some extra something to lean on or whatever, they’ve got you covered. “We'll give you the advances, no interest; we're having fun, we want to make sure people aren't getting robbed by the big banks on Wall Street on those $40 overdraft fees.”
But they’re also saying, “Hey, you’re having a good month, perhaps; or maybe you're picked up a side hustle, or maybe your bonus came in—a couple hundred bucks or whatever this is looking like. And we also have this online brokerage platform. So not only are we going to be there for you when you need some extra cash, but when you do have extra cash, we'll tell you what to invest it into. We'll put you in those buckets; we'll put you in those index funds; we'll put you in the cryptocurrencies that you like, whatever it is, right?” (And no, I'm not taking any money from them; I'm not sponsored by them; I just love what they're doing.)
They're saying, “Hey, when you make that extra cash, we want to be right there for you so you can deploy it in a way that's responsible. And when you need extra cash— because you know it's gonna rain, we know it's gonna rain—we got an extra 250 bucks waiting on you. We’ll be happy to send it your way, so you don't have that extra $40 overdraft fee on your debit card because Wells Fargo is mean.”
Q: And finally, looking forward, where do you see your brand going in the next few years?
A: That's a really good question, man. I think going forward, [there are] two things I want to do, maybe three. Something I'm working on sort of behind the scenes right now as it relates to investing, and all these people who've never heard about investing and never thought about it, but they say, “Hey, I have this one thing I understand that has now catalyzed me to want to take up investing and begin to invest toward my retirement. Because [there’s] this one product I use and understand, right?” So what I really want to do—and something I've been kind of working on now—is figuring out, how do I begin to introduce themes, concepts, ideas, and make it so you're not buying the stocks themselves, but buying into the ideas? You're not buying space exploration stocks like Virgin Galactic or whatever else; you're just buying this idea of space exploration. You're not buying AI stocks; you're buying the idea of AI and it's a bucket of 30, 40 different stocks.
That's what I think people get tripped up on, too. It's like, “Okay; I have a dollar; but where do I put my dollar?” Don’t worry about where to put the dollar! What means a lot to you? Is it being made in America? Is it companies led by women? Is it AI technology?
“Oh, I really like technology that is mobile, like 5G.” Okay, cool. No problem. I'm going to pull together a nice little 5G bucket, so your $1, if you like 5G, we’ll put it towards 5G. You understand that; you love that you don't have money invested for that in the future. And so we're sort of working behind the scenes right now with the technology company to help us pull something like that together. Maybe you’ll hear about it; I don't know if I'll ever pull the trigger on it publicly, but it'd be cool.
Second is the podcast “Exposed Wealth.” Season one comes out, just getting people talking about investing in a sexy way with their favorite celebrities. So that's that. And then beyond that, man, I’ve got the Substack. I just launched it yesterday, actually; I just write about personal financing and investing. Personal finance and investing, that's my thing, man. So hopefully, in the next three to five years, momentum continues to move forward, and we’ll get as many people in the investor class as possible.