We all wish we were better at our personal finances, but it's just too confusing and boring! Secretly, we wish someone else would do it for us. This is the key factor behind the success of Mint.com, a website that was started three years ago by then 25-year-old CEO Aaron Patzer in his Silicon Valley apartment. Now it has been sold to Intuit for a stunning $170 million.
Mint, which was launched two years to the day before the announcement of its sale, works like a personal financial manager. You sign up and give it the online passwords to all your bank accounts, credit cards, retirement accounts, mother's maiden name, everything. It requires that you show the Full Monty. In return, Mint shows you, with minimal effort on your part, a complete picture of where the heck all your money is going. Many potential investors in Patzer's idea thought people would simply never be bold enough to hand over all that information Patzer himself admits to some early doubts. Turns out they underestimated how lazy or desperate we all are. In its first month, Mint signed up 50,000 users. At sale time, it had 1.5 million.
Mint's big appeal is its access to your financial soul. Because it gets information directly from your bank, it can draw and redraw colorful pie charts and bar graphs that give you a clear picture of the many ways in which your money is seeping away without you having to do much at all. If you want to know how you managed to spend $2,000 on food last month, click on "Food." Bingo! A new graph, breaking down the details including the drinks, the fast food and the mid-afternoon coffee runs suddenly appears. Mint also sends perky little reminders about when your credit-card bills are due, notes if you got charged a fee for something, or questions transactions that don't look right. It even gives a cheerful nudge every time you go over budget on something. You'll excuse this, but it brings a hint of freshness to the stale morning breath of bookkeeping.
There are many personal-finance software packages that help people track their money, including the industry mastodon, Intuit's Quicken, which dwarfs Mint with 15 million users. But consumers have taken a liking to online money management, mostly because it's free. Microsoft stopped developing its Money program in June, and Intuit started offering Quicken Online for free in October 2008. Banks, too, have started to offer a similar service to their customers, but somehow, having an outside party monitor your bank seems like a better idea. Mint makes some money it's unclear how much by recommending credit cards or investment vehicles under its "Ways to Save" option. If you sign up with one of them, the site gets a fee.
Intuit, which had an annual revenue of $3.2 billion in the fiscal year 2009, says it bought Mint "to enhance Intuit's position as a leading provider of consumer-software-as-a-service offerings." It's going to leave Mint as a stand-alone service and incorporate some of the young company's ideas into Intuit's products, including "Ways to Save." But clearly Mint's rapid growth was something Quicken had to either kill or get in on. Buying the site means it can do either.
Patzer, along with his key engineers Matt Snider and Poornima Vijayashanker, built Mint using open-source technology, meaning it was pretty much free. They bartered legal advice for a little bit of ownership in the company. After Patzer's apartment got too small, the company moved into shared office space, renting cube by cube. They had a blog and e-mail campaign instead of advertising and Patzer did a lot of press. For a young guy, he's very mediagenic: "Observe the world around you everything you do, and especially everything you hate to do solve a real problem, and the world is yours," he told a blogger earlier this year. The site won a lot of awards from the media, which helped it gain the credibility it needed to get people to hand over their financial data. You don't get from zero dollars to $170 million in market value in three years without knowing a thing or two about money.