I first started paying attention to Mint when my brother, a dirt-poor college student sent me an arm-flapping, breathless, urgent email telling me how he'd signed up at Mint.com and that it found a $9 per month charge from an obscure company. Mint had flagged it to his attention. It turned out to be a scam. After a struggle with the scammers my brother got a $328 refund, and a stop to the bleeding. He had spent five minutes with Mint.com. Not a bad ROI.
Aaron Patzer started Mint when he was just 25. One of those freakishly-smart guys, he started playing around with computers when he was six years old, ran a BBS when he was 10, and started his first web development business when he was 16. Which was in 1996.
He attended Duke University earning undergrad degrees in computer science, and electrical engineering, and computer engineering. He then started a Ph.D. thinking that was a requirement of any good inventor. He found that to be "thoroughly impractical" and instead earned his MSEE from Princeton University.
What followed was work for IBM working on the Cell microprocessor (used in the Playstation 3, and it has three of his patents on it) then for a startup, Nascentric where he learned how to build a company from scratch.
During this time Aaron was working 70-80 hours a week, and neglecting his finances. After a disappointing experience with Microsoft Money, and Intuit's Quicken he figured there had to be an easier, quicker, and more automated way to organize his finances.
The company that would become Mint was born.
In its first month, Mint signed up 50,000 users.
By the end of the year, it had passed the 100,000 user mark.
My interview with Aaron:
1. What did the first few months look like?
I got this idea in my head that I really don’t want to put so much work into my finances anymore – I want to make the whole process effortless and automated. I began to think about the business nights and weekends. But it’s hard to find the time when you’ve got a full-time (and very demanding job). One day I said to myself: “If I give it 100% and fail, I can live with that. But I can’t live with going half-way, part-time.” So on March 1,  I quit my job and began working on Mint. The first few months were tough. I was 25 at the time, and basically oscillated day to day between thinking "This is the greatest idea ever!" and "This will never work. Who am I to take on Intuit and Microsoft? If this was a good idea, someone would have done it before." It’s very emotional, and I don’t think people ever tell you about that. You see your net worth quickly draining, you have no idea what’s going to happen next, and you’re sitting alone in a room with no help, no resources, just your brain and sheer will-power. When ever I got down, I would listen to "That’s Life" by Frank Sinatra, or think about a Shakespeare quote I liked as a kid: "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we might oft win, by fearing to attempt."
Remember at the time, I had not done web development in 8 years. I knew nothing about Java web services, little about databases, little about management, and only some on recruiting and building a company. But I was really good at one thing: algorithms. And I’m really persistent – I worked 14 hours a day, 6.5 days a week for 6 months straight before we had any funding. I was new to Silicon Valley, and really didn’t know any other engineers or people who could help, so I did most of our pre-alpha or prototype release myself.
2. Mint represents a neat idea, with a pretty absurdly bold requirement - having people punch their financial login credentials into an unknown site - how did you sell this idea to investors, and how were you so sure it would fly?
Regarding security, keep in mind Mint.com has a read-only connection to your bank account, so you can’t actually move money around and no one can drain your accounts. We also have bank-level data security, along with low-balance and unusual spending alerts to help you proactively identify fraud or identity theft.
That said, pretty much every investor I went to said we would fail for exactly the reasons you outlined: no one is going to trust an unknown startup with their financial information. It turned out not to be true at all. In our first four months, over 100,000 people have entered their financial information into Mint.com, and we’ve had no security breaches at all.
Trust is a complex thing. There are some people you will never convince, and who to this day won’t buy anything online. A few things really help. One is the domain name. Mint.com is quality, it’s a place where money is made, it’s short and spelled unambiguously. It’s a very good brand name for what we’re doing. We spent three months, hundreds of hours, and more money than I care to comment on for that domain – but it was worth it. Offhand, who do you trust more: Mint.com or MoneyAnalyzr.com? (I made that name up, but it shocks me how little most Web 2.0 companies pay attention to their name – they misspell, have long/cheap domain names, and lose trust because of it).
The other big factor in building trust quickly is site design quality. Mint.com has one of the best graphic designers ever (Jason Putorti) – he cares about every pixel, all the fonts, all the transparencies and effects. And that shows instantly. People do make judgments of trust on appearance – in the real world and online. The last thing is you really need to back it up! My third hire at Mint.com was our VP of Engineering, David Michaels, who has 15 years of experience in security, including financial web services. We also have outside security consulting from the guys who invented SSL, and use “white-knight” hackers who try to penetrate your system and identify vulnerabilities.
3. Did you have the revenue model (of providing money-saving/money-earning offers to users) in mind from the start?
Actually I did. Mint’s revenue model has been in place since the very beginning: search the web for better prices on the things we see you buy most, ensure you have the highest yield on your checking and savings accounts, and maximize your credit card rewards while minimizing finance charges. I think that’s rare for most startups, but the idea at the core of Mint – help people understand and do more with their money – has not fundamentally changed.
4. You're a pretty young guy, and now you've got significant investment, significant expectations, and significant growth all pressing in on you. Seems like a good problem to have, is it everything you'd hoped?
I’m 27 now. It is everything I’d hoped for; though nothing can really prepare you for a position like this. What started out 24 months ago as one guy in a room coding away is a company of 18 with millions in funding and hundreds of thousands of users. My decisions now affect many lives in a very profound way. I consider that an honor and a privilege, and I take it very seriously.
5. How does your growth compare to your expectations when you launched?
When we launched towards the end of September, my goal was 50,000 users by years end. Instead, we hit 100,000 and have been accelerating ever since.
6. What has been your most successful marketing effort?
In terms of traffic, winning TechCrunch 40 out of 700 startups gave us a huge traffic spike and blog buzz that lasted for a month. Arguably, it was the most important 7 minutes of my life. And I’ve got to tell you, I was nervous: I had never spoken in front of 500 people before.
Prior to launch, one thing we did to build buzz was start a very active blog with over 200 articles on personal finance. In order to get into the Mint.com private beta first, you had to put up a little badge on your blog or social network page that said “I want Mint!”. That gave us lots of free advertising, and a bunch of inbound links which improved our ranking in Google – not only was it free, it made those customers feel special when we let them in early.
7. What's your secret to time management? Any methods/tools/approaches you can share?
Really I just work flat out as long and as hard as I can. I don’t have any rules like “only answer emails twice a day” or anything. The most important thing I can tell you is to set aside an hour or two each week to sit alone in a room with no distractions and just think. Think about your business and your product. Hard thinking is something most people avoid, and it’s actually very easy to avoid – there are always other things to do (like press, answering emails, communicating to your team, etc.). Sit alone in a room and just think.
8. Can you share some of your favorite sources of inspiration and ideas?
In real life, my hero is Thomas Edison. He was a great inventor, but also an outstanding entrepreneur. He didn’t just develop the light bulb; he invented the entire electric grid and power distribution system. General Electric (GE), one of the world’s largest and most profitable companies, still stands today as his legacy. In fiction, my hero’s are Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead – he’s actually the person I most identify with – along with the characters in Atlas Shrugged, and Henry Bannon in Calumet K.
9. Any parting advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to take over the world with a big idea?
The most important part of any business, product, or invention is that it must solve a real need and a real problem. Observe the world around you – everything you do, and especially everything you hate to do – solve a real problem and the world is yours.
Huge thanks to Aaron for sharing his time and experience.
great read! =)
Posted by: John S.Kim | Feb 19, 2008 9:44:10 PM
very nice meaty interview here. I always like to emulate successful people like... smart dude.
Posted by: YoYoCash | Feb 20, 2008 1:51:11 PM
Thank you for adding a quality post to the blogosphere amid all the steaming turds floating around...it warms my heart to know some people still care about quality...
Posted by: NewWorldOrder | Feb 20, 2008 10:02:49 PM
Thank you for the great-great interview; perfect inspiration for those looking to dive into the world of entrepreneurship! BTW, I think I'm just going to have to try out Mint for myself
Posted by: The Closet Entrepreneur | Feb 21, 2008 10:34:51 PM
This is, quite honestly, one of the best posts I’ve read on any blog in years.
Posted by: Rob2.0 | Feb 29, 2008 3:17:10 PM
The blog is inspiring and made me think Aaron is my kind of guy.. hehe :)
very very nice, speechless.. :)
Posted by: Joy | Mar 5, 2008 1:41:12 PM
This is a very powerful interview. It's thoughtful and honest examples like this that make business and entrepreneurship something that anyone can attain. The interview also outlines the real success ingredients: passion, perseverance and the ability to persuade. Thank you.
Posted by: Promise Phelon | Mar 10, 2008 8:14:27 AM
What else can I say?
This is indeed a great interview!!!
Posted by: Silvano Girardi Jr. | May 30, 2008 5:13:38 PM
thank you for a great mind-blowing interview. It is good to see that once you put your mind to something nothing cannot stop you. Congrats to you Aaron for the success you are getting from Mint.com.
Posted by: terrena browne | Jun 12, 2008 3:56:15 PM
Has anyone come across something simliar to this for Canadians?
This thing looks amazing and exactly what I am looking for however it's only for US banks and institutions it seems.
Any help is appreciated.
Posted by: Paul Harding | Jun 19, 2008 8:03:16 AM
I just tried Mint.com earlier today, before I really knew anything about Aaron Patzer. I found out about the site through the Webby awards, where it has been nominated in several different categories for it's design quality.
As an internet entrepreneur and designer myself, I can't say enough about the quality design of this site. While it is most certainly a slick web 2.0 application, at no time does it feel overwhelming or needlessly confusing.
Some really good research went into the look, feel and functionality of this site and I think that the consequent number of users since the site's launch should be an overwhelming testament to the power of good design.
It's encouraging to see another young entrepreneur making his dreams a reality... but remember, in the words of Mr. Edison, and as demonstrated by Mr. Patzer: "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."
It's not enough to have a great idea. You have to work incredibly hard - often in the face of other's who say it will not work - to see the idea succeed.
Mint.com is a great service. Thank you for a great interview too.
Posted by: Philip Downer | Jul 31, 2008 3:23:10 PM
What an excellent interview. Very inspiring. I just signed up for Mint a few days ago and now it's everywhere I look!
Posted by: James | Dec 21, 2008 11:44:49 PM
Wow. Aaron is so incredibly grounded -- at age 27, he's more grounded than most of us will be in our lifetime. I just learned that Mint is being acquired by Intuit/Quicken. Mint was so pure! So much better! May it remain so w/ Aaron at the helm.
Thank you for the inspiration.
Posted by: elisabeth Shackelford | Sep 15, 2009 4:37:04 AM
Aaron is the man! But I don't think Edison invented the entire electrical grid and power system (I know, I could check Wikipedia right now, but I'm busy doing my personal finances), I believe Tesla was more responsible for that. If it were up to Edison, we'd all have DC right now and a ridiculous amount of power lines in the air.
Posted by: Stinger296 | Oct 15, 2009 9:03:26 PM
I'd never heard about his site before, but it's nice to see a former classmate do so well...
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