Jason Vitug planned his next career move while sitting atop an eighth-century temple in Myanmar.
Just months earlier, Vitug was working for Tico Federal Credit Union in California as vice president of marketing and business development, traveling around the country conducting financial literacy seminars.
Now he was traveling the world, searching for his next job. While traveling, he would often ask people where they found information on personal finance.
The answer was almost never banks or credit unions — six out of 10 times, Vitug said, the answer was Google.
“But Google is mixed with advertisements and is search engine-optimized, so you can spend hours sifting through data to find relevance and reliability,” Vitug said. “There was no one go-to place.”
After returning from his year abroad to his hometown of Elizabeth, Vitug set out to create Phroogal, a site that would allow folks to crowdsource financial knowledge within a Q&A database.
“The biggest problem is that there's a search monopoly on financial knowledge,” Vitug said. “I wanted to direct users to the right information so that they could make quicker and better decisions when it came to money.”
Vitug founded and became CEO of Phroogal in August 2013 after partnering with co-founder and COO Max Martinez, a recent graduate from Cornell University.
Together, they raised more than $78,000 in crowdfunding from the website IndieGoGo to create a user-rated directory listing of money resources and connect users with money-savvy peers and financial experts.
The money raised has been used exclusively for Phroogal's development and programming, refined search technology, improved user interface design, subscription and cloud-based services, and legal and marketing expenses.
To date, Phroogal has added new registered users every day since its beta launch in February and more than 4,000 new financial-based questions into the database.
It also has ramped up its unique guerilla marketing strategy.
“Investors often ask how we can become a consumer destination when there are behemoths like Google,” Vitug said. “The answer is, 'From the ground up.'”
Vitug continues to conduct financial seminars for local communities and businesses while pitching Phroogal as a free resource. For instance, he was recently invited to speak to members of the AmeriCorps community service organization — who are often just out of college and living at home — on how to best manage their money.
Having had to work more than 60 hours a week at Newark Liberty International Airport to pay for his Rutgers University education — and still graduating with $80,000 in debt — Vitug knows firsthand how important these interactive workshops can be.
“I love motivating others to focus on the psychology of money because that's what really changes financial behaviors,” Vitug said.
The next part of the equation is to get more financial experts and institutions — CPAs, accountants, lawyers, advisers, credit unions and banks — to contribute to the collective knowledge of Phroogal.
“People often don't want to go to financial institutions for information because they don't want to be sold,” Vitug said. “That's why they turn to search engines.”
Now that the Securities and Exchange Commission issued new social media guidance for financial advisers in March, there is more leeway for experts to provide advice on Phroogal as a means to generate leads.
Phroogal also sees this new development as a potential revenue stream in the future — connecting users with experts who answered their questions for more information and services.
“There is, however, a small subset of financial advisers that don't want us to make financial knowledge public, available and easily accessible,” Vitug said. “They want you to be confused so you can pay them to explain it to you.”
As Phroogal continues to index and aggregate information from government and nonprofit websites to provide the most relevant answers for any given financial question, it has also started reaching out to angel investors and venture capitals for further development.
“We're taking the time to find the right one who will see the long-term vision and join our mission of solving financial illiteracy,” Vitug said. “We want to harness the knowledge of money-savvy experts, personal finance bloggers, bankers and more to educate and motivate a lot more people to create a financial plan.”
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Financial wellness in the workplace
According to a 2014 human resources survey, 41 percent of HR professionals reported that an overall lack of monetary funds to cover personal expenses affects employees at their organization the most — with 70 percent indicating such challenges negatively impact employee performance.
“If employees are thinking about how they’re going to pay for college or their mortgage, I guarantee they’re not thinking about work,” Phroogal founder Jason Vitug said.
And while 57 percent of HR professionals reported their organization provides financial education to their employees, only 16 percent of organizations conduct an employee needs assessment to determine what financial education offerings would be most beneficial.
“I want to connect with employers that want to offer Phroogal expertise as a benefit to employees to help them discover resources and tools to help with personal finance situations,” Vitug said.