Here’s the story of Zogo, from past to present

by | May 8, 2020

It wasn’t until Simran was standing in dress slacks, presenting to the leaders of a major East coast credit union, that he realized Zogo might be more than just a personal project.

“We were there with this whole executive team from a big credit union,” Simran says. “And at that point I was kinda like, ‘Huh. This is a bigger deal than I’m used to.’”

He’d helped found Zogo because it seemed interesting, a challenge unlike anything he’d experienced in computer science classes or competitions. 

He knew the startup had been growing and getting attention from some financial clients. But standing in front of those executives, he started to realize just how big Zogo could be.

He was so early in his career that a part of him couldn’t believe the people in front of him were real — real industry leaders, with years of experience, listening to him, taking him and his co-founders seriously.

He hadn’t even graduated from college yet. It was a whole new level of being the youngest in the room —  something him and his co-founders may have to get used to.

****

Simran first met Bolun Li through a Facebook post, when Bolun was just a Duke student with an idea and a Powerpoint presentation. During Simran’s sophomore year, Bolun posted in a group for students in the school’s computer science department, asking them to come hear his idea for a Fintech start-up and maybe help him build the app he was planning. He was hosting the event at the swanky Washington Duke Inn near campus, and promised a free meal.

Simran showed up. He was curious, and figured he’d at least get a nice dinner.

More than 20 people came to Bolun’s meeting at the Inn, Simran says, apparently much more than Bolun expected. He doesn’t quite remember where the breakdown happened, but they didn’t end up getting that dinner. 

Still, Simran joined the Zogo team on the spot that night, telling Bolun he could help create the app he had in mind. It sounded fun, he says, like an interesting project that he could learn a lot from.

“It was going to be something bigger than anything I could do on my own,” he says. “That bit about it is kind of what drew me.”

Bolun has since made up for falling through on that free dinner.

“We ended up going (back to the Inn) a couple times afterward,” Simran laughs. “But it didn’t happen the first time.”

****

By then, Bolun had already been working with Simon Komlos, another computer scientist, on a couple different ideas, including Bolun’s concept for a company that would help young people learn about finance. 

Bolun, then a sophomore, got the idea because he didn’t have a good way of handling money with his parents. He thought he could create something that would make it easier.

They started experimenting in the spring of 2019, after meeting in a coffee shop and “hitting it off immediately,” Simon says. 

They started brainstorming, picking and choosing different ideas, building an app from scratch one day just to scrap it the next.

“For the first couple of weeks, there was no clear direction,” Simon says. 

Still they forged ahead — now, with Simran on board.

***

Today, Zogo is an educational app that teaches teens, twenty-somethings and other underbanked populations about personal finance, and rewards them for it.

Back then, Zogo was a completely different product — a debit card for teens that helped parents manage allowances — and it wasn’t selling.

“For a while, we were just hopeless. We thought there was no way we were going to partner with financial institutions,” Bolun said. 

There were other roadblocks, too. They couldn’t quite figure out how this product might work. They got kicked out of coworking spaces. There wasn’t a clear path forward.

“I can just remember those days as really frustrating,” Bolun says. “You feel like you built this whole thing, and no one appreciates it.”

One day that spring, mentor and investor Scott Ogle came into the office to brainstorm with the team. He wrote a goal on the back of a notebook. It read: “We’re going to sign 10 financial institutions by the end of the year.”

There was no way, Bolun told him. Partnerships took up to a year to finalize, and the company — and his ideas — were sputtering. 

But after that, the number on the back of the notebook was constantly on his mind.

“That goal was embedded in my head, and I just started thinking about it every single day — how can we get to 10 by the end of the year?” he says. “What are the solutions we can use to get there?” 

It was then that the idea came: instead of debit cards and allowances, Zogo would teach teens about credit scores and compound interest. They’d help users of all ages learn the ins and outs of personal finance — and pay them to do it.

It was a complete pivot. That idea was a lot easier to get off the ground, and a lot easier to sell. It was, as Bolun says, the “best thing ever” for the company. 

A year later, Zogo had reached Scott’s lofty goal — and doubled it.

Today, Zogo has 20 partners and nearly 40,000 users, a number growing daily.

It hasn’t always been easy, Simon says.

“Every day, there is a new challenge,” he says. “And every day there is a new way to solve a challenge.. That consistency of making good decisions from day to day, every single day is pretty tricky. And I think I’m still trying to learn how.”

Zogo wouldn’t be where it is now if so many people — teachers, mentors, advisers, investors — hadn’t taken a chance on them, Bolun says, and helped them learn from their mistakes.

“There’s been a lot of people during this journey that have selflessly helped us,” he says. “Just because they believe in what we do.”

All three of Zogo’s co-founders said they’re still learning every day, and much more quickly than they ever did in the lecture halls of the computer science department.

“You really see a progression in the way that you think, when you have so many daily hurdles,” Simon says. “When you jump over them every day, you get to a new level in your mindset.”

He wishes he could say what the future will look like, but it can sometimes feel like it changes every day.

“I don’t think I really have any visions of how Zogo will look in a year, because the last time I did that — a year ago, if I had come up with a vision — it would be completely different from what we’ve built or even the team we have now,” Simon says.

Bolun has some ideas— stronger partnerships with financial institutions, maybe, or  co-branded financial projects — just some possibilities.

That’s one of the best things about working at Zogo, Simran says.

“The potential for the growth of the company is pretty much what we want to make out of it,” he says. “There’s infinite potential. And you have to guide that, and make sure that potential comes to fruition.”

In Simran’s view, Zogo has the potential to demystify the world of finance. 

“We live in a pretty complicated financial system, and we’re kind of just thrown into it,” he says. 

He thinks back to his personal finance class in high school, and how he got to college without knowing how to apply for a credit card. He thinks of the horror stories he’s heard from Zogo’s users — crippling student loans, mismanagement of debt or irresponsible spending — and how they could have been avoided had they known a little more about complex concepts like compound interest.

It’s cliche, he admits, but it’s true: in the world of finance, knowledge is power. 

From a powerpoint presentation to a 37-person team and 40,000 users, it can sometimes seem like Zogo’s work is always getting more and more complicated.

But the mission, as Simran sees it, has always been simple.

“I really hope someone makes a good decision based on the knowledge that they’ve learned from us,” he says. “If at some point, we’ve helped someone do that, we’ve done something cool.”

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