Be careful not to start a company that really belongs as a feature of another company, like the 25 Twitter URL shortener companies out there. Pick a real problem that’s here to stay.
When I was 8 or 9, I started using bulletin board systems, which was the precursor to the Internet, where you’d dial into… a shared system and shared computers. I’ve had an email address since the late ’80s, when I was 8 or 9 years old, and then I got on the Internet in ’93 when it was first starting out.
I consider myself an inventor first and an entrepreneur second. In real life, my hero is Thomas Edison. He was a great inventor, but also an outstanding entrepreneur who was able to sell his inventions to the masses. He didn’t just develop the light bulb; he invented the entire electric grid and power distribution system.
Mint is designed to put your finances on auto-pilot. Whether you log in or not, it will send you a weekly summary of your balances and biggest purchases, and how your investments and budgets are doing, along with sending you alerts on unusual spending and low balances.
I have always thought of myself as an inventor first and foremost. An engineer. An entrepreneur. In that order. I never thought of myself as an employee. But my first jobs as an adult were as an employee: at IBM, and then at my first start-up.
The way you dress or the car you drive or what you spend is to impress other people with how, I guess, successful and rich you are. But you’re not, and you shouldn’t, and who gives a damn what other people think anyway. So, that mentality, I think, is very destructive.
I actually don’t invest in anything that is social, mobile, deals or ad networks simply because those are areas where there are so many players and so many other smart people in the space, I feel like I don’t have a competitive advantage. So I tend to go after things that are e-commerce, like healthcare.
The start-up life kept me busy and surfaced the problem of not being able to stay on top of my personal finances, which led me to invent Mint.com. I was working 80-hour weeks, and had done enough preliminary work and research to know I had a big idea: To make money management effortless and automated.
In the first three years of Mint, from when it was founded to when it was sold, I can honestly say that in a sustainable way, I couldn’t have worked any harder on it.
I’m typically a ‘just drink water’ kind of guy. I was a bodybuilder in high school, so I used to – food to me was, ‘there are this many grams of carbohydrates and proteins, and I need these micronutrients in order to grow and be fit,’ and I ate in order to live and not live in order to eat, and I think most people are the opposite.
If you think about photo sharing sites, the mobile photo sharing and social, there’s no competitive advantage, there’s no obvious business model, so I never play with anything like that. I avoid it like the plague.
I know it sounds weird, but the food that I eat, it doesn’t make a big difference, and it never has. So, I’ve saved a ton of money not buying a lot of alcohol, not going out to restaurants too much. So, I think it’s part of our culture, and it’s part of a social activity more than anything else.
Kevin Systrom of Instagram used to work for us as a consultant in the early days of Mint. I knew him a long time ago. Maybe I could have gotten in there. But with photo sharing, I don’t know if there’s an obvious business model. I don’t think there’s a competitive, sustainable advantage.
At 16, I started a web development business and had clients from the Netherlands, Caribbean, and across the country – none of whom knew my age because I could conduct all my business with a phone, scanner, and the Internet.
Mint’s business model became, ‘We’ll go for free, and then we’ll find these savings opportunities for you.’ You know, better interest rate on your credit cards, when should you consolidate your student loans, when does it mathematically make sense to refinance your mortgage, and Mint figures all that stuff out for you.
If you pay your credit card off every month, get a rewards card. One that gives you airline miles or that will give you 1 percent cash back at least on every purchase.
After building most of Mint.com’s prototype by myself, I talked to anyone and everyone I knew about Mint. It’s counter-intuitive, because you might fear someone will steal your idea, but it’s the only way to make connections, be sure you’re on the right track, and provide a solution for an audience broader than yourself.
I think sports and bodybuilding were the only things that saved me from getting beat up. People are not pleased, for whatever reason, when you can answer all the questions in class. If not for the respect I got from track, cross-country, wrestling and bodybuilding, it would have been a disaster.
I always knew I wanted to be a technologist, so I went to Duke and got a degree in computer science and electrical engineering. Really, I thought my goal in life was to be an inventor, a problem solver, so I thought I needed a Ph.D. to be good at inventions, but it turns out that you don’t.
Most people don’t know what they spend in every single area, but they know they have a problem in particular areas.
The original idea before Mint was a life and goal planning system I called Carpe Viva. The idea was that all of life’s goals, from buying a house, getting an MBA, or learning Spanish could be quantified in both time and money.
I wanted to build a tool for my generation: people 20 to 40 who don’t want to spend time balancing a checkbook or checking multiple financial institutions’ websites. Mint does just that, giving comprehensive, quick insights into a user’s finances from their computer, mobile phone and/or tablet.
The typical workday, particularly in startup mode, is from nine to six or nine to seven, then you take a two-hour break to work out and eat dinner. By that time, you’re relaxed, and then you work until midnight or one A.M. If there was no break with physical activity, you’d be more tired and less alert.
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.K. as Mint is expanding globally, and I’m personally doing much of the research and business deals to make them happen.
You don’t start a company because you want to be an entrepreneur or the fame and glory that comes along with it. You become an entrepreneur, and you create a company to solve a real problem. And by real problem, I mean a problem that is going to exist down the line.
If you look on Amazon – if you do a search for personal finance, there are literally 20,000 books written on personal finance, and there’s no real reason for it. I mean, personal finance is pretty simple.
I’ve actually started a number of businesses in my career. So I’m 28 currently, but when I was about 16, I started building Websites, and that’s how I put myself through school. I went to Duke with a degree in electrical engineering, computer science, computer engineering, and then to Princeton.
One third of the economy goes through ‘QuickBooks’ in terms of businesses invoicing other businesses. Each invoice contains a connection between vendors, suppliers, and customers, and also the price of that connection. Representing the payment graph is huge opportunity and something no other company can do.
Before Mint.com, I was a long-time user of ‘Microsoft Money’ and Intuit’s ‘Quicken.’ Both were powerful tools, loaded with features and functionality around taxes, investment, budgeting – too feature-laden, in fact. They took hours to set up, forever to learn, and an hour a week to maintain.
Whenever I see a tree that is climbable, it must be climbed. Sometimes when I’m on a run, I’ll just run up a tree, jump on a branch and swing off. My favorite tree, in Saratoga, gets me a good 75 feet up.
One of my top tips for aspiring entrepreneurs: Tell everyone you know about your idea. This runs contrary to the instinct that most people have, because they’re afraid someone is going to ‘steal my ideal.’ Ideas alone are worth very little; it’s in the execution and market feedback that companies are made.
Tell your idea to whomever will listen, and you’ll get valuable market feedback before writing a single line of code.
I wanted a personal-finance tool for people who didn’t want to be accountants: something you could set up in ten minutes and spend less than five minutes a week on. Mint is now that tool.
I pitch Mint to everyone from investors to engineers, young and old, and I do it pretty much the same way: Here’s the problem in the market place, here’s how we solve it, and here’s how we make money.
Because Mint has access to all of your bank accounts and credit cards, we can detect fraud or unusual spending patterns faster than your bank, then send an email or text message alert to users.
Carefully calculate the potential size of your market to make sure you can grow. Before starting Mint, I knew that there were about 20 million people who had purchased ‘Quicken’ or ‘Microsoft Money’ over the years, and 80 million people using online banking in the U.S. alone.
At Mint, we developed five pending patents on our technology, ranging from categorization to the Ways to Save system that calculates how much a new financial product would save a user given their present financial situation.