San Francisco’s Tiffany Bass Bukow has known from an early age that money wasn’t going to come easily, so she has worked for years to do something about it. Now, Bukow’s the founder of MsMoney.com, and she hopes the fruits of her labors will help countless other women get a grip on their personal finances.
By Dara Colwell
Photos by Brandon Fernandez
Tiffany Bass Bukow doesn’t waste any time before launching straight into an interview. The petite blonde, who has the youthful energy and sporty good looks of a high school cheerleader, breezes into the temporary waiting room of her new offices-at this point, a stainless-steel kitchen-and with a firm handshake, starts outlining her company’s history.
The office atmosphere, which seems as brisk as her step, hums with a restless excitement. The staff only moved in 10 days ago. Bukow strides past a bookshelf lined with “Idiot’s” investor guides and the ubiquitous “For Dummies” series-covering personal finance, divorce, and day trading-and heads toward her office. She sits down at her Spartan desk which, aside from the odd pen and a few nearby chairs, is currently the only thing occupying the room, and she is already detailing her background.
As the founder and visionary behind MsMoney.com, a premier financial Web site for women, Bukow has waited patiently to launch her site-she registered the name back in 1996. Now that her dream has become reality, her enthusiasm is hard to contain.
“I’ve waited year after year, thinking ‘Is this the year to launch it?'” she says, laughing.
“But finally in 1999, I said, “Ah, now it’s time.”
What sparked Bukow’s decision was an Internet World conference she attended in Los Angeles last year, where day after day the discussions steered toward the increased presence of women online. When Bukow first wrote the business plan for MsMoney.com four years ago, women made up a mere 18 percent of Internet users, compared to a healthy (and equitable) 50 percent today.
For Bukow, now 33, the timing couldn’t be better. With a strong background in Web development and marketing (her clients include industry giants AOL and Sun Microsystems), Bukow has eagerly anticipated the change.
Even Hillary Clinton is noticing. The First Lady came to San Francisco on March 29 to participate in MsMoney’s launch and a Web cast on Yahoo with other business leaders from the Women’s Technology Cluster.
The current active participation of women on the Internet has come to mirror their participation in the market. Not only are women pursuing successful careers-their earnings account for 52 percent of all earned household incomes-they are also starting new companies at twice the rate of men, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.
As women and their money become hot commodities volleyed from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, the need for women-focused financial information has never been more important. And that, says Bukow, is where MsMoney fits in. While Bukow is one of many entrepreneurs gearing up for the female market, she’s actually ahead of her time. She has worked at this goal since she was a teenager.
At an age when words like “dating” and “movies” slid easily off the tongues of her classmates, Bukow was fixing her mouth around more complex terms like “fiscal responsibility.” She learned valuable lessons by watching her mother, “the CFO of the family if you look at it that way,” who managed the family’s finances, tuned in to PBS shows and surveyed financial newsletters to teach herself accounting.
“She understood and valued what money meant. She always wanted to keep money top of mind,” she says. While her parents weren’t big investors, they kept a conservative eye on money and built substantial savings over time.
“We’d go to McDonalds and I wasn’t allowed to order french fries because they cost 80 cents and we could make them at home for 5,” she says. “But by foregoing the little things in life, they were able to achieve the lifestyle that they wanted.”
Driven by her mother’s financial savvy, the young Bukow was surprised that many of her friends and their mothers weren’t faring so well.
“I was very conscious about it. I grew up in an area where a lot of people lived paycheck to paycheck,” she says of her suburban Chicago upbringing. “I saw poverty around me that could be solved if people learned the basics of managing money-it was usually divorced women who were alone who had trouble with that.”
Bukow became aware of a general atmosphere of frustration while growing up in the early-’80s, when women rarely held executive roles, had to struggle for equal pay and typically got bad press in the business world.
“Women weren’t breaking through the glass ceiling. As a teenager, I made it a life mission to overcome those barriers and help others overcome them,” she says.
With that kind of long-term commitment in mind, Bukow’s concept for MsMoney.com was to create a unique online community devoted solely to women’s financial and investment needs.
Bukow especially wanted to provide tools that enabled women to take control of what she calls their “financial health,” which, she explains “is like saying, ‘Let’s look at your net worth right now and score you. Let’s see how you’re doing.’ We’re not going to start teaching you how to do things when we don’t even know where you’re at.”
Bukow notes that 20 years ago, women weren’t as knowledgeable about finances as they are today. Still, most women today never receive even the most basic education in personal finance. Increasingly, women are becoming financially independent-at some point in their lives, 90 percent of all women will control their own finances-yet they know less than men about financial planning. With longer life expectancies and lower average incomes, women have a greater need to learn, according to Bukow.
“Teaching women how to be fiscally responsible is the best way I can help,” she says.
Bukow’s sensibilities are reflected by the female members of her staff. For instance, Kimberly Clouse, financial expert, worked for J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs before joining MsMoney. Clouse remembers the difficulties that her mother faced when applying for a Sears credit card after a divorce, so she decided to apply her banking expertise for an audience closer to her heart.
“[Before] I was making the very wealthy wealthier. I felt I could make more of an impact here,” Clouse says.
Bukow’s mission led her to the University of Arizona, where she majored in management information systems with a focus on marketing. She had discovered her true love-computers-years earlier, but decided that sitting in a computer lab, punching codes with her head buried in a screen didn’t complement her outgoing personality.
“Computers weren’t ready for me yet!” she says, smiling widely. “I needed a better vehicle to express myself, so I studied marketing.”
Her first job out of college was marketing consumer fashion brand names like Guess and Calvin Klein. Convinced that she wanted to become an investment banker, Bukow moved to San Francisco in 1990 and worked at an investment banking firm for just two weeks.
“I saw all these young people sleeping at their desks-people like 25-years-old-and I thought, ‘do I want to do this?'” she says. The answer was an obvious “No,” and Bukow returned to marketing.
By 1993, when multimedia began to emerge and programming meant more than just living as a computer lab recluse, Bukow decided to explore her passion for computers. She enrolled in San Francisco State University’s graduate program in instructional technology, the first of its kind to focus on multimedia, and graduated when the Internet was ramping up in 1995. Bukow’s timing was impeccable.
“Looking back, it was the perfect time to get into the Internet space and learn from the ground up,” she says.
Bukow decided to leverage her experience as a designer for computers and CD-ROMs and apply it to the Web. She held a big barbecue, invited her friends and announced that she was starting Tiff.com, an Internet consulting company.
“They laughed and started calling me ‘Tiff-dot-com!’ Like, ‘Hey! Tiff-dot-com, how’s it going?'” she says.
It became a running joke, but Tiffany laughed loudest. In the early days of the World Wide Web, her formal technical knowledge coupled with previous sales and marketing skills helped Bukow land Fortune 500 clients like Sun Microsystems, America Online, Microsoft, Lucent and Bechtel. She designed, developed and programmed all aspects of the Web sites for her first 15 clients and helped dozens of other companies to implement a wide variety of Internet strategies. Not bad for a spunky kid from the ‘burbs who consistently followed her dreams and refused to wear golden handcuffs.
Consulting paid well and Bukow, schooled in saving by her parents, immediately began putting money away for MsMoney.com. She had toyed with the idea of creating a financial services site and finally decided to target women when their presence on the Web was still minimal.
“It was only 18 percent [women online], that was pathetic,” she says. So she waited.
In 1999, when women finally accounted for half of the Internet population, Bukow wasted no time. After returning to San Francisco from the Los Angeles Internet conference, she clicked onto Amazon.com, typed in the words “women and money,” and found 30 books that had been written on the subject. Bukow bought all 30 (“in paperback” she admits), contacted the authors and, amazingly, every author responded. All volunteered to donate content to the site.
Inspired by the response, Bukow started contacting potential partners and a number signed on in a heartbeat-eLoan, CarsDirect and LookSmart, among others.
As Bukow’s good luck would have it, one of the authors she contacted lived only a block away from her apartment in San Francisco’s Marina district. When David Bach, one of the country’s leading experts on women’s financial empowerment, met Bukow, he says, “We clicked from the get-go.”
Bach, author of The New York Times bestseller “Smart Women Finish Rich,” has worked with many Web companies, including iVillage and Women.com. But Bukow’s business strategy was much to his liking.
“Long story short, her business plan was pretty much something I had wanted to do for the last 12 months,” he says. Bach soon came onboard and is now MsMoney’s domain expert.
It’s The Demographics, Stupid
Bach sees the concept of a financial Web site geared for women as a no-brainer. “It’s demographics,” he says. Facts and figures from his book bear him out: Today, seven out of every 10 personal checks written in America are signed by women; there are nearly 8 million female-owned businesses in America; and working women earn more than $1 trillion each year.
As the traditional idea of men as family breadwinners shifted, women gained significant access to an arena that once excluded them. Industry research shows that women are mapping out their financial futures in a more direct fashion and, once they are educated in investing, they outperform men.
“Women are much better investors than men,” Bach says. “A successful investor takes commitment through the bad times. Women are naturally better at commitment.”
Women who invest tend to outperform men by about 1.4 percentage points on a risk-adjusted basis, according to Terrence Odean, assistant professor of finance at UC-Davis. Odean’s six-year study called “Boys Will Be Boys” used data for more than 35,000 households and found that men trade stocks 45 percent more than women on average. And for single men, that figure was more pronounced, at a whopping 67 percent. The extent of the gender gap surprised Odean enough that he stopped trading.
“It’s not as much fun when you’ve done a study showing you’ll lose money!” he says. Along with the burgeoning interest of women in business and financial matters, their differing needs are becoming increasingly apparent. In the larger investing picture, women do not outperform men. The majority of women know less than men about financial planning, and their demographic realities set them at an even greater disadvantage.
Among the findings of several studies conducted by the Department of Labor, the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Retirement Research, women live seven years longer than men and the average woman becomes a widow at age 56. This means that women spend nearly twice as many years as men in retirement and need to save twice as much money to support themselves.
In fact, more than 25 percent of women end up in poverty, becoming dependent on Social Security as their main source of income. With a generation of Baby Boomers quickly approaching retirement age, many experts fear that a major financial crisis looms ahead as divorced and financially unprepared female Boomers risk poverty in their old age. The National Center for Retirement Research estimates that 33 million women are currently at risk.
“The dichotomy is, if women don’t get information, they make mistakes,” says Liz Davison, founder and CEO of Financial Finesse, the San Francisco-based investment seminar firm dedicated to educating women about financial planning. “But once they have information, they do very well.”
Davison, who hosts a weekly show on Business Radio 1220-KBZS, is excited that her field is growing. “A group of us have been around awhile and there are sites that predate Financial Finesse,” she says. “Now we’ve got the momentum going and people are targeting this market in a business way. It’s becoming a huge industry.”
And it’s true. The Net features a growing number of sites created by women about women’s personal finances: MoneyMaven.com, FinancialMuse.com, and FinancialFinesse.com, for starters. Bukow, who was recently contacted by the gals at MoneyMaven, is eager to share and exchange information, a process she terms “co-opetition.”
“I think there is plenty of space for different sites to address the issues of women and money,” she says. Historically, women have proven to be somewhat more risk-averse than men, so having a site where they can interact and collaborate is vital. Unlike men, she says, women prefer to chitchat and validate each other, especially when it comes to money. Bukow said two out of every three investment clubs are formed by women.
Bukow got an unexpected response when she shopped for VCs-many said that women won’t go to a women’s finance site. For this reason, she was continually steered toward female VCs. She submitted an application to the Women’s Technology Cluster (WTC), a San Francisco-based incubator that helps women-led startups with funding. MsMoney was one of ten companies (including AudioBasket.com and Latino.com) chosen from a pool of 350 applicants. Bukow rented a cubicle in the WTC offices, downstairs from her current digs, for $300 a month while she evaluated her next step.
“The WTC drilled the statistic into my head that out of the billions of dollars given by tech companies, only 2 percent were given to women,” Bukow says.
With a $100,000 check from a longtime friend, she bought more time to develop her business plan. But as she shopped around, the response she received was the same: Why would women go to a women-only site when they could easily click on The Motley Fool?
Instead of putting more time and energy into chasing VCs, Bukow concentrated on her product. In passing, she told her friend Michael Rubenstein about her concept. The next time they met, Rubenstein said he was good for a $2 million investment. Bukow initially hesitated, but not for long.
“I thought why not take it, it’s easy,” she says. Once Rubenstein provided $2 million, the original angel investor, Bernie Skomra, said he would invest $1 million more. And so, Bukow says, “it was literally done very painlessly. Now five different VCs have called us and told us they’re interested.”
Bukow now lives, eats, sleeps and dreams MsMoney.com.
“Let’s say I work 15 hours a week per hat, and I’m wearing about five different hats at the moment,” she says, laughing. “I talk about it at dinner parties, I talk about it with my husband, my family-it’s very consuming,” she says.
Luckily, her husband, Hans Bukow, is a dot-com veteran himself. He founded FASTech Integration Inc., a Boston-based company that was one of the fastest growing private companies in the nation in 1993. Bukow is currently on his fourth startup, eWork Exchange, a site for Internet-centric work services.
“In this stage of our lives, it’s all about dot-coms. Our whole relationship has evolved around the Internet space,” Tiffany says. “We struggle so hard not to talk about it. We try to watch something like the Discovery Channel together-it’s like, ‘Hey, what about those black holes?'”
But the two, who dated by e-mail for three months after initially meeting, did “escape” the dot-com world on their honeymoon-for about a year.
Bukow, who was at the peak of her career, and her husband, whose company had just been bought by AOL, decided that bonding wasn’t going to happen during a 70-hour workweek, so they took off for a trip around the world.
“Everyone told us we were nuts!” she recalls. “This was ’98. They said, ‘How can you leave the Internet rush?’ We thought, you can probably say that about any time in your life.”
Being entrepreneurs, the two maintained a Web site called e-trip.com, and posted over 1,000 pictures of their trips as they traveled along. After seeing a bikini-clad, tanned and smiling Bukow on a Thai beach surrounded by tourists wrapped in bright sarongs, who wouldn’t want this women as a boss?
Like many of the driven and hard-working in Silicon Valley, Bukow hopes to ultimately step aside once her company is running smoothly. But stop working? Hardly. Bukow already has decided what she will do next, and she’s even registered the names: GetSmart.org, MoneySmarts.org and TechSmart.org.
“I want to do community outreach and not just teach women, but young children how to get smart about their lives,” she says. “My goals have always been so imbedded in my brain. I am very very clear about what I want to do in my life. And so far, everything has come very easily. It has all been rather wonderful.”