Mint is one of the most super successful story from Silicon Valley and what makes it a great story is that the company made a boring business (personal finance) sound fun. And unlike several other Silicon Valley startups, Mint actually focused on making money.
Launch, but No Marketing
Contrary to everybody’s perception, Mint was launched 10 months after Wesabe.
More the shame that we didn’t capitalize on that early lead. There’s a lot to be said for not rushing to market, and learning from the mistakes the first entrants make. Shipping a "minimum viable product" immediately and learning from the market directly makes good sense to me, but engaging with and supporting users is anything but free.
Build vs. Partner?
Sometimes the most basic question sounds so difficult to answer – ‘What Business Am I In’?
Mint used Yodlee’s backend and focused on one thing (and only one thing) – i.e user experience and building more helpful features/reports.
Wesabe decided not to partner with Yodlee and built its own backend. On a hindsight, Marc Hedlund (Wesabe founder) thinks it was a bad decision
We just didn’t build it nearly fast enough. That one mistake (not using or replacing Yodlee before Mint had a chance to launch on Yodlee) was probably enough to kill Wesabe alone.
First, we chose not to work with Yodlee, but failed to find or make a replacement for them (until too late). Mint used Yodlee to automatically get user’s data from bank sites and import them into Mint, and as a result had a much easier user experience getting bank data imported. Wesabe built our own data acquisition system, first using downloadable client programs (partially because that was easier and partially to preserve users’ privacy) and later using a Yodlee-like web interface, but the Yodlee-like version didn’t launch until six months after Mint went live, and even then didn’t really work as a near-complete replacement for some time after.
Behavior Change or a Smart Backend?
If you are an entrepreneur who goes thru ‘I am the End user’ syndrome, this one is for you. Most of geeky entrepreneurs believe in ‘I can understand this, why can’t you?’ and tend to focus on a robust backend. An intelligent backend makes certain smart observations about the user and that’s what makes the difference.
Mint focused on making the user do almost no work at all, by automatically editing and categorizing their data, reducing the number of fields in their signup form, and giving them immediate gratification as soon as they possibly could; we completely sucked at all of that.
Instead, I prioritized trying to build tools that would eventually help people change their financial behavior for the better, which I believed required people to more closely work with and understand their data.
I was focused on trying to make the usability of editing data as easy and functional as it could be; Mint was focused on making it so you never had to do that at all. Their approach completely kicked our approach’s ass.
Mint totally won at the first (making users happy quickly), and we both totally failed at the second (actually helping people). No one, in my view, solved the financial problems of consumers. No one even got close.
Great insights by Marc (and you have to respect him for his candid thoughts) – these are product mistakes which one can see only in hindsight. But then, you can save yourself from these by taking a break from your office and spend more time outside, talking to potential customers.
Tomorrow: Interview with Aaron Patzer, Founder of Mint on Mint’s journey.