How This Army Veteran Turned Financial Education Into A Fun And Rewarding Game To Help With Financial Literacy
Kevin Ruth, Army Veteran & Founder of Finance411
Tell us about you and your military background:
I am Kevin Ruth and I served as an active-duty Army officer from 1990 to 1994. I had a unique four years as I started in the Infantry and was a platoon leader and executive officer before transferring to the Military Police where I was a platoon leader and executive officer again. I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas the entire time. After Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the Army began a massive downsizing, and I was offered an early out. I declined the first time as I had no plans to leave the Army, but when they offered it a second time, I felt I knew what was next for my wife and me.
Tell us about your business:
My company is called Finance411. I believe everyone should have access to basic financial education, the basics - budgeting, saving, investing, and borrowing. So, in 2019, I left my 30-year career in finance and created the Give-Get financial planning game. In the game, players go on money journeys where they learn basic financial concepts and practice good money behaviors. Players give money and try to get money to grow their net worth as they drive around the board. Players play the game to practice good money behaviors that become winning money habits. My primary client is a financial advisor. I provide them a platform to deliver financial literacy in their community in a fun, interactive way. Personally, I have used my app with students across America, with professional athletes, and with some bad-ass special operators. Because players are playing a game, they not only learn the financial concepts, but they get to experience the consequences of their financial decisions by winning or losing the game.
Describe how you got the business started:
I initially thought I would create cartoon characters. Each character would have a unique financial skill, and they would go on adventures and use their skills to help get the group out of tricky situations (Scooby-Doo-like). I ran this concept by my daughters, and they shot it down immediately. Their advice, “Dad, there’s too much stuff for us to watch on YouTube and Tik-Tok. You have to do something that is fun. Do something where we compete against each other. Have prizes; make a game!” And that is how Give-Get got started. I started my business with a sheet of cardboard, 3-M Post-it sticky pads, and game pieces from my attic. I asked myself a simple question: “What basic financial concepts should every American know?’ I decided on four concepts - budgeting, saving, investing, and borrowing. Then I thought, “How best to teach them?” Why not have them play a game where they experience making financial decisions. Don’t just teach it; have them live it! I have been fortunate enough to fund my business with my own money, but I was approached by my app developers and by a professional athlete who both believed in what I was doing and asked to be investors. It is great to have them along for the ride because it can be a lonely journey.
Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:
For me, the transition to a corporate job from the Army was comfortable. I still had structure, a hierarchy, something I felt I was a part of. It wasn’t until I decided to “retire” from corporate that I realized I was not living my best life. I decided to become an entrepreneur after a 30-year corporate career because I watched what my mom and dad had created with their business. My first job was working at my parent’s gas station. As a child, I cleaned up gas and oil spills, washed car windows and picked up cigarette butts for $1 per hour. That was the entry level job for my two brothers and me. As we got older, we were promoted to pumping gas and oil changes. Best work experience of my life. My mother and father taught us at a young age the meaning of a hard day’s work. I can remember riding four across the front seat of our tow truck with my father and two brothers to open the station by 7am. And what I remember most is “FREEDOM”! A freedom I didn’t experience for 30 years in corporate. A freedom I could only experience by stepping out of my very comfortable comfort zone and going for it.
Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:
There is one thing I learned in the military that has helped me my entire life: When in charge; take charge! I didn’t realize this was one of General Schwarzkopf’s 14 Rules of Leadership, but I’m glad it is. In the military, everyone looks to the leader for a decision, and every decision a leader makes can have a good outcome or a bad outcome. I have always been willing to take responsibility, knowing that I have tried to make the best decision with the information I had. I could make what I thought was a good decision, and I could get a good or bad result. I could also make a decision that I thought was a good decision, but it was actually a bad decision, and I could still get a good or bad result. I felt the Army taught me to do my best to try to make good decisions.
“All I could control was the decision I made with the information I had. I could not control the result.”
Entrepreneurs must make decisions every day, and with many of the decisions, the topic or issue is new. When in charge; take charge!
Tell us about some of your obstacles and challenges, and how you overcame them:
My biggest challenge was a global pandemic that caused me to change my go-to-market strategy and left me trying to figure out what I was selling because the product I thought I would be selling I ended up giving away for free. In 2019, I created a physical board game that I was going to sell to schools. The teachers would use the game as a teaching tool in the classroom to make learning financial concepts fun. Just before the pandemic, I had placed an order for 10,000 boards to be built by Cartamundi, a leading manufacturer of games and playing cards. The pandemic hit and they shut down their factory. The shutdown was going to last for two weeks, but we all know how that turned out. Two months later they canceled my order, and I had no product to sell. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, but it took me another two years to realize that. Since students were no longer in schools and I had no product to sell, I decided to build an app. I had always assumed I would build an app sometime down the road after I had great success with the board games in schools across America, but that was not going to happen, so I thought, I must build an app now. It took me about 6 months and at the end of October 2020, I launched Give-Get in the App Store and in Google Play. We were still in the pandemic, and I wanted people to have access to my newly launched app, so I gave it away for free. What I had originally planned to sell to schools, I was now giving away for free.
I started marketing my app to financial firms and they loved the game and loved the scalability of the app. My first couple of marketing meetings were with very friendly prospects and they would ask me, “What are you selling?” My answer, “I am selling the app for you to use with your clients, or with your prospects, or in your community as a way of giving back and teaching financial concepts in a fun and engaging way.” As the words came out of my mouth, I knew they made no sense. I was selling something that I was giving away for free. My app had to be something more than just a game because I was giving the game away for free.
I had always thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if the game became so popular in schools that I could eventually create a National Tournament with the winner winning a full ride scholarship to a college or trade school?” Why not create competitions in the app? I could set up brackets (think March Madness), and have classrooms play against other classrooms to get a school winner, and then have the school winners play against other school winners to get a state winner, and finally have the state winners play against other state winners to crown a National Financial Literacy Champion. So, in early 2021, I built tournament functionality and started marketing the app again.
Now I had something I could charge for - access to competitions. Again, my prospects loved the game and loved the app. They thought the tournaments would be fun, but logistically, finding schools to play against other schools, and coordinating when the students would play and how often they would play seems daunting. I had built something that I thought was great, but the actual execution of a tournament would be hard for a client to do.
In 2022, I finally did what I should have done back in October 2020 when I decided to give the game away for free. I asked my prospects one question, “What enhancements could I make to the app to make it more valuable to you?” They wanted to brand the app with their own company logos, and they wanted to get their own educational content into the hands of their users. So, I built that last year. I call it the “Teacher Portal”. I sell a web portal that connects to my app, and through the portal, my clients can upload their logos and add their own PDF, video, or quiz content. Finally, I had an app that companies were willing to pay for - a completely customizable app. Every client has their logos and their content in the app. They get to create their unique version of the Give-Get app.
Describe how you’re doing today and what the future looks like:
We sell a Teacher Portal for $1,900 per year. With one portal, a company can upload their logos and their content and have an unlimited number of their players use the app. It is a very reasonable price point and is completely turnkey including five short educational videos that tie the game to real life, and a unique invite link that gets the company’s players connected to their customized version of the app.
For companies that would like to have different players see different logos and/or different content, we sell an enterprise package for $95,000 per year. For that amount, a company gets one-hundred teacher portals to use however they want. They can use one portal with their clients to teach basic financial concepts. They can use another portal for prospects to show off their company’s products or services, and another portal for their employees to teach their company’s employee benefits.
My vision for the company has not changed even though what I sell has changed. I still want to see a National Financial Literacy competition. I have structured my current licensing agreement to be able to offer my clients an opportunity to participate in future financial literacy tournaments. What I need to do now is get enough paying clients so I can justify a National tournament. When I host a National Tournament with the winner winning a full ride scholarship to a college or trade school, then I will say, “Mission Accomplished!”.
Share some advice with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:
Two pieces of advice:
Find someone who will give you unfiltered feedback and advice on what you are trying to accomplish. There are days when I question if I am finally going down the “right” path. I am zero for two on trying to figure out how to monetize my business. My wife has been that person for me. She has provided encouragement and support but also told me that she didn’t understand how I was trying to charge for something that I was also giving away for free, and she also told me that trying to sell tournaments was too complicated of a sale. She was right, and I should have listened. She is 100% behind charging for Teacher Portals so I’ll be just fine if I end up being one for three. Find someone you trust and listen to what they have to say. They have your best interest at heart.
Join a Start-up support group or community of entrepreneurs. It can be very lonely as the founder of a company and just listening to others who are dealing with similar issues makes you feel better about your own situation. Also, you can learn from their mistakes and share in their wins. If they can do it, then I can do it!
Where can we go to learn more: