10 questions for Robinhood co-CEO Vladimir Tenev

The co-CEO of Robinhood tells Sean Czarnecki how the commission-free trading app is opening up the American financial system to everyone - not just the top 1%.

You just received $110 million in funding, for a $1.3 billion valuation. Where’s the money going?
We’re growing quickly and looking to hire more engineers, product people, designers… people across all company functions. And we have a deep pipeline of features and products we’re rolling out. Customers wanted to trade on the web for a while, so we’ve been building that.

You started the company with your old Stanford roommate, Baiju Bhatt. How do you go from that to unicorn status?
In 2008, during my first month in grad school and Baiju’s first month on the job, Lehman Brothers went under. It was a huge turning point, as institutional processes and trades started being automated. Incumbent banks and hedge funds had a hard time adapting, so we started a company that provided software such as trading platform technology to help the transition. We moved to San Francisco and took the efficiencies algorithms brought to institutional trading to build an awesome consumer product that passes along the majority of the economics of a trade or investment to customers.

What’s the product’s USP?
To replace something that was unfair to young people and first-time investors. Our goal is to open up access to the American financial system.

What are you doing to change the public’s relationship to money and finance?
Not enough people are investing. Investing is a skill like any other. You get better by doing it. The longer people use Robinhood and have accounts, the better their performance. The challenge is reversing the perception of the stock market and finance since 2008, especially with young consumers. People associate Wall Street with crooked companies, and the Street is complicit in this narrative that normal people shouldn’t be investing. We categorically reject that. Everyone should be an investor and start as young as possible.

Is this anger mirrored in the way you talk about your company?
We’ve been there, lived it, and breathed it. Typical financial services firms aren’t necessarily thinking about the customer and their experience. Brokerages and banks generally concentrate on how they can make the most money from each customer. If you focus on extracting the most value out of a customer, naturally you’re going to ignore everyone but the wealthiest 1% of the population.

Bhatt said Robinhood is "managed to grow like an internet company." What’s that mean?
We leverage technology to operate more efficiently. A typical financial services company [with two million users] would have thousands of employees, but we’re still under 100 people. We’re also the first financial company to grow primarily from word-of-mouth and person-to-person referrals, instead of paid advertising.

What’s the path to profitability?
Late last year we launched Robinhood Gold, our premium offering starting at $10 per month that gives you access to pre- and post-market trading. Trading hours get extended by 33%, which is helpful for active, seasoned investors. Robinhood Gold has been growing 17% month-over-month and it’s exceeding expectations. In January, we launched a feature that communicates earning releases more clearly. You can even hop onto an earnings call.

How often do customers use the platform?
We have some of the best engagement in our space. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily trading. Some customers love opening it up and looking at their portfolio, reading news, and keeping tabs on earnings reports for companies they’re watching.

What are your plans for comms and marketing?
Jack Randall heads up comms. We work with an outside agency [The Hatch Agency] that helps out with PR; we’re growing and expanding our marketing team.

Do you face a greater threat from fellow startups or institutional brokerages?
We don’t spend a ton of time analyzing competitors or startups in this space. We think about our customers, doing user studies, engaging with them, how to address their pain points. Incumbents focus on monetization and extracting the highest amount of value from each customer. They don’t think about customer pain points as they try to plan their financial lives: graduating college, getting their first job, buying their first home.

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