The Idea That Made Me Quit Arguably The Best Company On Earth
I first started interviewing with Google as a 22 year old.
This year, I turn 30.
Having spent the bulk of my 20’s with Google, I can say with confidence that the firm is more than a employer to me; it is family. In this light, my decision to leave was challenging. However, when I think of where I am headed next — to start my own company to educate kids about financial literacy — I am filled with endless excitement and optimism. In order to understand my decision to leave, and the path I will be taking next, it’s important to rewind time and see where I have come from.
I spent the majority of my time at Google helping schools adopt educational software in the classroom. Usually this meant Chromebooks and Android tablets but also Google docs and email and other specific tools for managing schools, helping kids share and collaborate on documents, and so on. I loved my work and felt that Google tools empowered educators to improve learning outcomes by leveraging the best that technology had to offer. As I toured schools and met with parents, principals, and teachers, I saw firsthand their struggles with old and outdated technology and how this slowed down learning, reduced engagement, and led to frustrating experiences for students and teachers alike. I also got first hand exposure to what schools taught and how they measured learning progress. I witnessed the importance of software for shaping learning moments and outcomes. Well designed software can engage kids and make them smile while they learn. Bad clunky software leads to huge distractions because kids get frustrated and lose interest. This doesn’t surprise me much, because my own experiences with software are the same. We all know that bad software is a pain.
I remember a school visit in which a kid had multiple email addresses and the teacher could not identify which one to use to share a class assignment. Precious minutes were lost as the kid, teacher, and a visiting parent scrambled to resolve the issue, which was one of user authentication and identity. During another school visit a teacher asked their students to start an assignment, but one unlucky child had a slow loading computer, which froze and took several minutes to reboot. Needless to say, this student was left flustered and left behind. These are small examples, but the moments left indelible impressions on me. Poorly designed educational tools waste time, divert energy, and get in the way. To this day I have never met a teacher who went into education to manage IT headaches in the classroom. Yet all too often this becomes a time consuming part of the job.
As I spent more time with teachers I learned what they taught in addition to how they taught it. Much of what kids learn today is the same as when I was a student — math, literature, history, science, a foreign language. However, how kids learn has changed. Learning is far more collaborative today than when I was a student. Perhaps this echoes fundamental changes to the workplace, where sharing and real-time collaboration are more encouraged and many services are expected to be produced by groups of people and teams. But just like when I was a student, certain topics remain beyond the scope of formal education. The world has changed, but too often the curriculum hasn’t or lags dreadfully behind. While I was taught to read and write a foreign language, I was not taught to read or write a computer language. Yet everyday I interact with computers. While I was taught to count numbers, I was not taught to count money. While I was told never to speak with strangers, I wasn’t warned that credit card debt is another form of pernicious danger lurking around the corner. In short, I was taught many important things but many equally important things were omitted from my formal academic education.
When I look at what students are taught today I recognize that some key elements are missing. Over the past years I have been thinking about gaps in the education sector — and believe that financial education is an area that technology can help address. Few U.S. states and fewer countries mandate financial literacy for their students — and this has had broad and negative ramifications on personal debt levels and student loan default rates. On all my school visits I never once visited a classroom where kids were being taught about personal finance. Naturally this led me to ask, how can I help solve this problem? It’s a question I have been pondering for awhile and it’s time to address it head on. While leaving Google is a decision I do not make lightly, I am filled with excitement about creating technology to educate, empower, and help kids become financially literate. In finance terms, I want to create a market mover: by building a Pennybox product that is so delightful and informative to use that schools, parents, and kids will gravitate towards it even if financial education is not something covered in classrooms or homes today.
I founded Pennybox with my good friend Reji Eapen, who previously worked as a financial analyst at a bank, with a simple yet audacious goal: educate kids and families about money and make our users more financially thoughtful and responsible as a result. Before starting Pennybox, we spoke with hundreds of parents and asked the following questions: do you teach your kids about money and what are the results? What we learned was surprising: while all parents thought that financial education was important to the well being of their children, few actively engaged in teaching financial topics at home or felt empowered or sufficiently skilled to do so. When I was young my parents gave me a kids’ book about fun ways to earn and save money. I remember reading it and appreciating the photos of coins and the stories about how the pile of coins would grow with time and compound interest. I was fascinated from the first page. My parents had taken time to buy me that book and made sure I read and understood it which made me lucky. Pennybox wants to bring the knowledge, insights, and ideas I once learned — about how to earn and save money — and make them accessible and available to all families.
Money education is broad and has many diverse facets ranging from earning, saving, investing, donating, and spending money wisely. So where do we start? At Pennybox, we believe that the most important step to a thoughtful financial education begins with helping kids earn money. And from my firsthand experience in classrooms, I know that kids learn best by doing real things. Earning money requires action — proactive behavior, motivation, and focus. This is what we have built Pennybox around. Our core principles enable kids to:
- Be Earners: we make it easy for kids to earn money for doing real jobs and tasks at home or at school.
- Be Learners: we help kids and parents learn about important financial concepts. All behavior is tied back to our financial curriculum and syllabus.
- Be Social: we enable users to share their jobs, accomplishments, and learnings with their friends and family. By sharing information we empower kids to learn from each other.
We are proud of what we are building and hope it’s a great tool for all families. But it’s just the beginning. Our approach is novel and we want to improve it, with feedback from real users. Iteration is crucial to developing better products. In Australia (where Reji and I met), there are approximately 3.1 million kids between 6 and 16 across 2.7 million families. Approximately $1.5 billion per annum in pocket money changes hands between parents and kids, and this money is largely ‘unbanked’. In Asia, there are 750 million kids between the ages of 3 and 9 (16% of Asia’s population). And in the United States there are ~55 million kids between ages between 5 and 17. We know that a large proportion of these kids remain ‘unbanked’ and ‘undereducated’ about money concepts. Everything we are building is intended to solve this problem.
Many friends and colleagues said that I was crazy to leave a great position to build a product to help parents and kids learn about money. But I respectfully disagree. Developing a creative and engaging app that provides financial literacy education in a person’s early life is challenging but important work. It is this work that is now my mission. I am deeply grateful for the time I spent at Google and am ready to embrace the next big challenge at Pennybox.
I want to hear your stories. When’s the last time you took a risk, and pursued something you were passionate about? Did you like the outcome? Let me know in the comments below.