Aaron Patzer has never pulled an all-nighter—not in graduating with a triple major in computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering from Duke in 2002, and not in founding a start-up personal finance company at age 25 that just sold for $170 million.
“I tend to be a planner,” he tells me. “I ended up spending probably most of my time [at Duke] in the Teer library, up on the second floor. That was my spot, every Saturday and Sunday, no matter what.”
Few people thought the company Patzer founded in 2005, a personal finance Web site dubbed Mint.com, would succeed. After inputting their bank and brokerage account information, the site’s users can view and categorize their financial transactions in aggregate, determining how their spending matches up against budget goals and where they can save more.
“Everybody was telling me, ‘No one will trust a start-up with their financial information, especially somebody who’s 25,” Patzer says. And when he began work on the site, personal finance was hardly the sexiest of start-up concepts: “everyone and their mother,” believed real opportunities lay in social networking and media sites.
But as it turned out, Mint.com users did trust the company with their financial information, and Mint.com could succeed without the viral, social component that some thought was necessary to attract attention early on. Unlike almost every other business, Mint thrived during the recession, multiplying its customer base by four and its profits by eight since March 2008. “The worse the economy would get—particularly last fall—the more people would start to use Mint, because they needed to understand where their money is going,” Patzer observed.
Mint grew so quickly that last year, venture capital firms were knocking on Patzer’s door to offer funding to the company—what I’d imagine to be the dreams of any start-up founder. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Patzer says with an air of nonchalance. Mint had accumulated more than 150 million users by September 14, when it was purchased in an all-cash transaction for $170 million by software giant Intuit Inc., the makers of Quicken and TurboTax.
The company’s sale has meant newfound celebrity for Patzer, of both the traditional and the Silicon Valley sort. “People are coming out of the woodwork in terms of all my old college friends, or acquaintances. They’ve certainly friended me on Facebook and have been sending me messages,” he says. And in the world of tech start-ups, popularity means hordes of eager entrepreneurs begging for a minute of Patzer’s time—several times a day and from all over the world. “It’s been different,” he says of the requests. “It’s impossible to take all of them, as much as I’d like to help.”
Since the announcement of the deal, he has been invited to speak at Harvard Business School, at MIT Sloan, at UPenn’s Wharton, and at Oxford. Discover Card directly ripped the “Trends” page from Mint and marketed it nationally, Patzer said. He has even been to the White House twice: the first time for a young founders event attended by twenty-something CEOs like Evan Williams of Twitter and Ivanka Trump, whom Patzer described as “very nice in person, very tall.”
“Typically, when you think about the White House or politics and who they use as their advisers, they’re going to use a 65-year-old white guy, pretty much by default,” Patzer says. “So they got a ton of young leaders from tech companies, media companies, and asked us what are the biggest challenges we face in hiring and growing our businesses.”
But the second time, Patzer was extended an invitation to Washington by Vivek Kundra, the federal government’s Chief Information Officer. “He’s a big Mint user,” Patzer noted.
Kundra wanted to discuss a project he had in mind: enlisting Mint to develop a software program that would enable the public to review federal spending over the Internet. The site’s bright pie charts showing spending breakdowns for groceries and rent would instead show spending breakdowns for defense and social services, diving down to the individual appropriations level. The potential project would aim to make government officials more accountable for spending, stressing efficiency and transparency by making wasteful expenditure obvious.
In interviews, Patzer often relates the story of when the proverbial light bulb above his head was illuminated. “The first thing I realized was when I was using Quicken and Microsoft Money, I was spending about an hour every Sunday afternoon categorizing my transactions,” he said. When he figured out how to automatically categorize spending in his program, he realized he had a feature with some potential.
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“OK, I can categorize transactions better than Microsoft Money and Quicken,” he remembers thinking. “But it’s just a feature—how am I possibly going to compete with two of the largest companies in the world selling boxed software when all I have is one feature?”
Patzer’s brilliance was in realizing that he stood to make personal finance easier and more accessible by offering Mint for free over the Internet, ultimately profiting from discreet advertisements from financial institutions on savings opportunities for users.
The sale of Mint.com to Intuit calls to mind a notable irony: As the new head of personal finance for Intuit, Patzer will be managing the very product, Quicken, that he criticized and sought to beat.
Patzer says the acquisition is more flattering than ironic, given how successful Quicken has been since Mint’s debut: 85 percent of adults in the US are familiar with the program. “A lot of people perceive it as the tool for your parents’ generation, and it certainly needs some work to restore it to its former glory, but that kind of awareness is just unheard of,” Patzer says.
In his new role, Patzer will manage a group more than twice the size of Mint’s, aiming to inject more entrepreneurial spirit into Intuit’s personal finance division through his style of management. “Look, if you’re the one who is coming up with the ideas, then by definition, you’ll always be in front.”