Full text of interview with Aaron Patzer, founder of

February 19, 2008

1) First of all, can you tell us a little about your background and what caused you to build a personal finance website? Did you start building it by yourself, or did you have help? What did the first few months look like?

Where shall I begin?  I grew up in Evansville Indiana, which doesn’t exactly have a lot of economic opportunity when you’re a teenager.  I’d been using computers since I was about 6, ran a bulletin board system (BBS) when I was about 10, and have had email since the late 80s (and I was born in the 80s).  When the internet came around, I decided to start my own web development business.  So, when I was 16, I taught myself JavaScript & HTML, and started cold calling businesses around town.

At the time (1996), not everyone had heard of the web, and most of the businesses in Evansville were manufacturing companies who couldn’t see any value in having a website.  At this point, I started reverse engineering search engines, doing what would now be known as SEO (search engine optimization) to get ranked under phrases like “web site development.  I picked up most of my clients that way, but actually made more money off providing SEO to others – ultimately it helped me pay my way through college, and taught me all about running a business.

I went to Duke as an undergrad in computer science, electrical engineering, and computer engineering (3 degrees) where I worked on bioinformatics / genetic matching hardware.  I started my Ph.D. at Princeton (since I thought to be a good inventor you needed a Ph.D.), but found graduate work to be thoroughly impractical – they were as likely to work on things that helped 3 people as 3 million.  Instead, I worked on optical networks with the former Chief Scientist of AT&T, quickly did a masters thesis, and quit my Ph.D.

During a couple of summers, I had worked for IBM, and so I returned there for 6 months before I found the right startup to join.  In that time, I worked on the Cell microprocessor (used in the PlayStation 3) which has 3 of my patents in it.  I then worked for a software startup called Nascentric, to learn how to build a company from scratch.  Nascentric makes electronic design automation tools – basically software for the engineers who design electronics.  It’s a very challenging field, though somewhat obscure.

During this time, I was very, very busy working 70-80 hours a week and very much neglecting my finances.  I had started using Microsoft Money since starting my first business back in mid-90’s, and tried Quicken as well.  After 5 months of neglect, I logged back into Quicken, it downloaded 400 transactions, and then told me I needed to “reconcile” all of them to ensure my Quicken balance matched my bank balance.  And I thought “This is going to take me all weekend – it’s a computer, why can’t it work backwards and do this for me?  Why do I spend an hour every Sunday categorizing all my transactions?  Why can’t it do that for me?”

So 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 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, 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. 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: or  (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. 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 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.

4) 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.

5) What has been your most successful marketing effort? Least successful?

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 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.

6) What's your secret to time management? You've obviously got a lot on your plate - how do you manage it all? 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.

7) Can you share some of your favorite sources of inspiration and ideas? (e.g. certain books/magazines/blogs/people)

In real life, my hero is Thomas Edison.  He was a great inventor, but also an outstanding entrepreneur.  He didn’t just develop the lightbulb; 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.

8) 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.