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CEO Interview: FamZoo’s Bill Dwight

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We recently caught up with Bill Dwight, founder and CEO of FamZoo. Founded in 2006, FamZoo’s Virtual Family Bank helps parents teach their kids good personal finance.
FamZoo won Best of Show at FinovateFall in New York last year (check out the demo video), was deemed one of the coolest startups in America, and has been featured on Biz Kid$ public television series.
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FinovateYou have 5 kids, how do you balance your family life with your startup life?

Dwight: Hmmm, I’d have to say that FamZoo start-up life and my family life are more “intertwined” than “balanced”. I started FamZoo to fill a need my wife and I saw within our own family: the need for better tools to help parents teach their young kids about personal  finance. My family experiences drove the initial design of FamZoo, and FamZoo’s first users were my kids. So, I guess you could say my family is in FamZoo, and FamZoo is in my family. At FamZoo, we all work remotely out of our homes. So even though I’m working most of my waking hours, I feel very plugged in with the daily family routine. I’m always home when the (remaining 3) kids get home from school. If I don’t have a scheduled meeting, I can pop over to see my two middle sons play a high school lacrosse game and make up the time later. That said, the kids are very mindful and respectful of my work boundaries. They know it takes a ton of effort and focus to build a business. When he was 7, my youngest made a cute little sign that I hang on my office door when I’m doing a demo or conducting a meeting. The great thing about FamZoo is that it’s all about family. When I’m spending time with my family, I’m doing FamZoo “research”. When I’m building stuff for FamZoo, I get valuable – if not brutally honest – feedback from my family. So, when it comes to FamZoo, I’m always working, and I’m always spending time with (at least someone’s) family. Balanced? I’m not sure. Intertwined? Definitely.
Finovate: FamZoo recently landed a spot next to Kickstarter and Foursquare in Doreen Bloch’s book, The “Coolest Startups in America”. Can you give us some insight into what makes FamZoo so cool?

Dwight: I’d say it’s the three “P”s: Personality, Purpose, and Platform. As for personality,  our software communicates with a consistent, genuine, warm voice. We call it “the FamZoo voice”, and the delightful cartoons by Pulitzer nominated cartoonist Henry Payne are a big part of it. To ensure that every detail – right down to the error message text – is consistent with our personality and mission, our software is lovingly hand-crafted right here at home. It’s completely “in-sourced”. FamZoo is a friend in your parenting journey, not some cold tool. It’s conversational, understanding, and non-judgemental. 
The second “cool-factor” is FamZoo’s purpose. I can’t tell you how awesome it feels to spend my entire working day honing the craft I love while pursuing a purpose I firmly believe in. Helping parents teach their kids practical life skills is an undeniably good mission. It’s enormously gratifying when we receive unsolicited notes from parents telling us how FamZoo has positively transformed their relationship with their kids. Those make the last 6 years of patient effort worth every hour. 
The third P in our coolness trifecta is “platform”. I like to think of FamZoo as a “purpose platform” because that wonderful feeling of purpose we enjoy in building FamZoo transfers to every one of our parents and partners through our platform. Parents using FamZoo feel a strong sense of purpose and fulfillment by following through on their responsibility to mentor their kids effectively. Meanwhile, FamZoo partners get to share, amplify, and customize the FamZoo financial literacy purpose to fit their unique mission and brand. It’s a wonderful cascading halo effect.
Finovate: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve encountered since launching FamZoo?

Dwight: Winning Best of Show at FinovateFall 2011! Seriously. We really didn’t realize how much our mission, our warm approach to software, my piggy T-Shirt, my orange shoes, and our cartoon stickers would resonate with the audience. It was a very pleasant surprise, and the show was a fabulous launchpad for our Partner Edition product.
Finovate: What sparked the idea for FamZoo?

Dwight: Collaborating with my wife to raise our 5 children sparked the idea behind FamZoo. We realized we had this awesome responsibility to imbue them with the fundamental life skills and values they were going to need to thrive in the real world. We knew it was a good idea to start early on these things, but when we looked around, there just weren’t many simple, effective options out there to help parents teach young children basic life skills like personal finance. 
There were some great concepts, but most approaches took too much time and effort for the typical “crazy-busy” parent to consistently implement or weren’t engaging enough for the kids. That’s when I started tinkering with a software-based solution on the weekends, and initial prototypes started taking shape way back in 2002. So FamZoo, which is short for “Our Family is a Zoo”, is all about thoughtfully leveraging online and mobile technology to help superbusy parents prepare their kids for the “wild” – aka, the real world. We want to lower the bar for parents to be effective money mentors to their kids.
Finovate: What’s the smartest move you’ve made since launching FamZoo?

Dwight: Our smartest move so far was developing our Partner Edition product so we could have much more efficient distribution to families through our partners. The next smartest move was launching it last year at FinovateFall 2011. That turned out to be the perfect audience, and winning the Best of Show accolade was a real credibility boost. Our subsequent successes proved that FamZoo is not a hobby or a sideline. Building a sustainable, growing business is crucial to fueling the mission and truly making a difference in youth financial education on a broad scale.
Finovate: What is your favorite feature of FamZoo?

Dwight: I have to pick just one? You mean aside from our “angry mom” cartoon who pops up to quiz you if you’re really, really sure you want to delete something that might have serious repercussions? I know my 10 year old’s favorite feature is simply the ability to check his balance on his own. It’s a wonderful feeling of responsibility and independence for a kid. 
As a sentimental dad, my personal favorite is the historical chart where I can drill down and see the cute things my daughter bought when she was a little girl, not to mention the mischief she got into as a teen. It’s like an interactive walk down memory
lane. As a fellow parent, my favorite is the flexible setup capability. That’s because I’ve come to appreciate how every family is different. Heck, every child is different. It’s so important to respect those differences and allow our families to match their setup to their specific values and financial situation.
Finovate: You won Best of Show at FinovateFall last year as a first-time presenter. What advice would you give a startup preparing for their first Finovate demo?
Dwight: First, I’d say practice, practice, practice – with a timer! It’s cringe-inducing to get “gonged” and have your microphone cut mid-sentence for going over your limit. Don’t be that kind of memorable. Second, let your personality show. Tell a story. Have some fun with it. If you’re genuinely having fun up there, the audience will too, and they’ll be way more receptive to your message. Third, keep it simple. Hammer home just one or two key messages; otherwise, you’ll be lost in the din of 60+ back-to-back demos. Fourth, have lots of back-up plans. Stuff happens, and you need to be prepared to roll with it – even if it gets down to doing a clever monologue with hand-shadows for a demo.
Finovate: Can you give us a sneak peek of what’s next for FamZoo?

Dwight: It’s always a little frustrating to choose what we do next because we (and FamZoo 
families) have so many cool ideas for continually enhancing FamZoo. We’re also convinced 
that it’s a lot of the “little things” – the details – that make a big difference. So, we’re continually polishing what we already have. That said, here’s a peek at just a few of the “big” themes on our roadmap:
  • Integrate with a spectrum of payment methods: this will allow parents, at their discretion, to gradually transfer purchasing power (with appropriate controls, of course) to their kids as they mature and prove they can handle the responsibility.
  • Model more financial concepts and instruments. FamZoo is all about taking real world adult financial concepts and turning them into a hands-on learning experiences that make sense for kids. This usually involves simplification, amplification, and acceleration. There are numerous concepts – many in the area of investing – that we plan to model more directly over time.
  • Extend our embedded targeted marketing platform. Our Partner Edition product allows partners to schedule and deliver targeted messages to segments of their families within the FamZoo experience. We’ll be continuing to expand the targeting options we offer –  reaching beyond demographic and into more behavioral opportunities.
Finovate: What do FamZoo’s user numbers look like?

Dwight: Our numbers look “really good” (winking smiley here) –  especially now that we’re starting to roll out deployments with some large partners with big audiences. Our growth has truly been a hockey stick over the past three quarters, but I have to admit, it’s still a stick for a pretty short player. Think Martin St. Louis of the NHL at 5’8″ 177lbs. Don’t underestimate us though. Like Martin, we’re small, but we do great things, and you’ll love having us on your team.
To learn more about FamZoo, watch its FinovateFall 2011 demo. Stay tuned for another CEO interview next month.