Zogo Finance has been likened to Duolingo, the wildly successful language learning app. It has also landed founders Bolun Li, Simon Komlos and Simran Singh on the Forbes “30-under-30” list.
Li, 23, is particularly passionate about making finance approachable for young people. The Zogo app, now partnering with banks and credit unions in all 50 states, shows users the nuts and bolts of personal finance by breaking it down into bite-sized chunks, and providing incentives to learn by “gamifying” the process.
With approximately 100,000 users and about 100 financial institution partners, Zogo has won a number of industry awards, including “Best of Show” at Finovate Fall 2019 and the NACUSO 2019 Next Big Idea Competition. Key investors and advisors include Techstars, a former CEO of Sageworks and faculty from Duke University, Li’s alma mater.
Li initially got the idea for Zogo, which is currently based in Durham, North Carolina, when he attended a financial literacy presentation in high school delivered by representatives from a local bank — watched his classmates sink into helpless boredom. Instantly, he started to think about better ways to convey the material.
We caught up with the busy Gen Z founder and talked to him to learn more about how Zogo came about, what is driving the growth in financial literacy-based edtech, and why his company is plotting a move to Austin, Texas.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Business of Business: Can you explain how the idea for Zogo came about and the journey to founding it?
BL: Yeah, so it's funny; we started all over. [When] we started the company, I was a freshman in college—so super young. We just got really frustrated with how the schools are trying to teach financial literacy to our [younger] generations. And, you know, when I was in high school...a local bank came [...] to the school [to] put up this two [or] three-hour presentation. Their logo [was] everywhere on the screen. And it was clearly more of a marketing thing than anything else. And it was a very boring, very dry one. At the end of it, all the kids were just playing on their phones [and] texting each other. The bank [would] give us open dollars in our checking account. So I was like, “This is so stupid; there's got to be a better way of doing this.”
"We are actually paying people to learn. People are actually making money from learning about financial literacy."
When I got to Duke, one of our professors was really famous, Dan Ariely. I got a chance to talk to him [and] learn a lot about the role [of] behavioral science. And with my two co-founders, we founded Zogo, [which was] also partly inspired by Duolingo as well, to gamify. [Not just] to find a language, but gamifying financial literacy, education, and bringing that to the public.
I guess I would like to hear more about...Duolingo. I'm somebody that spent quite a lot of time on that app. So did it inspire you when [you were] creating your app design? What are the similarities?
I mean, that's part of it, but more part of the size—you know, [the] quick, fast-paced, accessible nature of things, just to make things very gamified and very fun. And we have some very unique things in the app. I don't think Bowling Alone has this, but we are actually paying people to learn. People are actually making money from learning about financial literacy. And I think we first started this concept, and now it's getting used by a lot of other companies as well, like Coinbase. But...we really were the first one in [that] space, and [we] kind of turned the paradigms around. You're not paying for education, you're getting paid to learn. And that really was part of the reason why we just had a lot of initial...excitement from users.
By the way, where are you based?
So we're based in Durham, North Carolina, but we're actually moving the company to Austin, Texas.
Okay. Why Austin?
I mean, it's just a great place to be, with a lot of young people—[a] very energetic city, lots to do. And we just feel like it's kind of the next thing, because we started Zogo while we were in school, which is why we're based in Durham. So it's nice to keep [that] going...and then find a new hub with other startups.
And can you walk me through how that works—that whole process? And maybe give me an example of a lesson that you might get through and then how you would get paid from that?
So in the Zogo app, we break down all the complicated concepts into over 300 super bite-sized modules...that teach people everything about financial literacy [and] so on and so forth. And for completing each module, it takes two, three minutes, kind of like a Duolingo module takes two to three minutes. If you complete the module, you will earn pineapples, which is our in-app currency. So you run pineapples, and then you can use your pineapples to redeem for rewards.
It's just something we came up with early on. And it works like magic; people love pineapples. They tell their friends about it. It's just a very quirky thing.
That reminds me of the Duolingo owl for sure.
Yeah, we have our pineapple characters. So yeah.
Speaking more broadly, just about financial literacy: Why? [Among] Gen Z and millennials, why is there such a lack of financial literacy? I mean, why do you think that happened?
In my opinion, the problem with financial literacy today is not a lack of content; there actually [are] so many resources out there. And especially these days with the Internet, social media, there's just [an] information overflow, right? But what we believe is a problem with financial literacy—and [with] really any kind of stigmatic education, like...mental health, sex education, [and] so on and so forth—the problem is, people just don't really have an incentive to actually learn it. It's kind of like eating spinach; you kind of just don't really want to do it. But sometimes maybe you do a little bit. It's not something [where] you just say, “Oh, my God, I want to learn this.” And people don't realize the consequences of it.
So that's why we added that incentive inside the app to motivate people to keep going, and it's a huge difference. And once people start getting into it, starting to learn about finance, they become more self-motivated. They're like, “Holy shit—I actually need to know about this thing.” And the money becomes less of a motivator.
It just becomes about the learning, right? It's sort of a mix of the two. So what do you think about something like Robinhood? Do you think that this is kind of helping with financial literacy? Or do you think it's making things worse with, you know, meme stocks and things like that?
[S]o it's a double edged sword, I think. On one side, it actually helps the younger generations to be even more curious than...previous generations around money in general, because they realize...they can do stuff with it, and they want to learn more. So there's definitely a push to learn more, which I think is good. But then obviously, there's a problem with Tik Tok, and some bad information is all over the internet. That's not good. But on the flip side, I think it gives young people the wrong impression of what investment is all about.
"So there's definitely a push to learn more, which I think is good. But then obviously, there's a problem with TikTok, and some bad information is all over the internet."
And it really simplified it to [the idea] that you can just get rich...if you trade, when in reality, that's really not the case at all. I think it's actually harder now to change people's opinions once they have an opinion formed at that young age. So I don't know; I'm very mixed about it, to be completely honest with you. I think there's a double-edged sword.
Speaking of the future, I would love to hear about the future of the company, what you have planned for the rest of the year, and what you're excited about.
We are super excited about where we're heading, because I think we're really doing the right thing at the right time. Everyone is top of mind for a lot of people. And we have a platform that can support...not only just financial education, but really across the board, any kind of education really. And that includes things that were never taught in school, like mental health, like poker, like esport is a lot of the things that we're actually that are in, in progress. We build this gamification engine and content delivery engine, that, you know, very easily can be modified to fit the needs of different organizations. So yeah, so we are super excited about the next phase for us.
Another thing we are expanding into: Integration into mobile banking apps will actually be part of your mobile banking experience, which is going to be major; it's going to be really, really amazing. Once that's done, and people can just access it straight from their mobile banking app, they will get paid straight on the mobile banking app to learn about things to do stuff from their back. And that's really exciting for us.
The integration is super interesting. And also just the idea of expanding to totally different topics is pretty cool. It makes it a more universal app.
So I guess my last question really is just, what advice do you have for startup founders, entrepreneurs, or maybe even college students [who] want to founder and might think it's too soon?
I think [now] is actually the best time to do it: When you're in college. For example, I did it in college, and I still graduated, and, in fact, [I] actually graduated in three years. I think...you don't have to think of doing a startup as a huge undertaking, [where] you have to drop everything—if you learn to manage your time. I think the most important thing I learned is prioritization and focus. If you focus on the right thing—the number one priority—and get it done, you can [make] major progress [with] your company.
"The second thing I learned is prioritization: Knowing what to do first before the next thing and knowing how to deal with uncertainty and imperfection, because you're just never going to be able to get it perfect."
So first of all, I would recommend [that] if there's college students thinking about doing startups, 100% go for it; it's pretty much risk-free for you at this time. You're not having that much opportunity cost, you know? And you get to really have...almost like a hobby. Honestly, it was like a hobby for me in college. And so...I guess, [of the] two things I think I learned the most, [the] number one [thing] is focus. It's [to be] focused on one thing and execute...perfectly on that.
And then the second thing I learned is prioritization: Knowing what to do first before the next thing and knowing how to deal with uncertainty and imperfection, because you're just never going to be able to get it perfect. That's just not going to happen. And you have to be able to live with it and ship out a product that is not perfect. But the priority is to ship something out, to get something out there. And that has always been our mindset.
And so, in terms of financing it, you were bootstrapping at the beginning, right?
We didn't raise anything. We had a few angel investors. We never did VC or anything. We are profitable—and I think it's really an interesting experience. Because when you're bootstrapping a company, you really have to put your customers [at] the very center of everything, because at the end of the day, they're the investors. Basically, they're the ones [who] are funding everything. So that mindset really helped us early on to focus on our customers. Also, not having any sort of outside pressure, any outside incentives kind of mixing in. Nope, no outside pressure, we just do whatever we want to do.