Aaron Patzer was a twentysomething computer geek coming off a months-long work binge when he decided to tackle his long-neglected personal finances. He sat down with Microsoft Money, the desktop budgeting tool, and downloaded an avalanche of transactions, most of them uncategorized. "I thought, My God, it will take me all weekend to understand where my money is going."
Patzer, who grew up in Evansville, Ind., had shared the Wall Street Journal with his dad at age 3 (his father read it aloud to him), learned how to use a computer at 6 and started his own Web company at 16, putting himself through Duke University with the profits. He started using Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft Money when he was a teenager. Like any good innovator, he thought, There's got to be a better way to do this.
Thus was born Mint.com, the online budgeting tool that links to your bank and credit card accounts and relies on a huge database of businesses to match expenditures to budget categories. Mint.com can tell whether a $40 debit went for gas or groceries and show you whether you are sticking to your budget in each category. Unlike desktop software, the online tool keeps tabs on your expenditures whether you pay attention or not.
To bring his brainstorm to life, Patzer quit his job as a computer engineer in 2005, moved to San Francisco and spent seven months programming virtually around the clock. "It was very isolating. One day you think it's the greatest idea ever. The next day you think, I'm probably self-delusional. How can a 25-year-old engineer take on Microsoft and Intuit?" The answer: tenacity, smarts and a belief in the philosophy expressed by Frank Sinatra's song "That's Life" ("It's about getting up after falling flat on your face"). In 2007, Patzer launched his company at TechCrunch 4.0, a showcase for tech start-ups, where it won the $50,000 first prize and garnered enough exposure to attract $17 million in venture capital.
Now nearly six million users strong, Mint has grown faster than the plant it's named for and inspired a handful of similar budgeting sites. Patzer hit pay dirt in 2009, when the CEO of Intuit walked into his office and offered to buy the company for more than $100 million. "Sometimes you run so hard and fast that you don't take any time to think about your success or even the chance of failure. Something like that shocks you into the moment." He closed the deal for $170 million and moved over to Intuit, where he manages the personal finance products, including Mint.com.
Any stumbles along the way? "Regrets -- I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention," he deadpans, and for the most part he has done it his way. His next move is to revamp QuickBooks, the small-business financial software. As for the future, he figures he'll tackle something big, like maybe traffic. "A lot of people look to start a company because they want to be entrepreneurs. I'd say, start with solving a real problem. At the end of the day, the reason you start a business is to create value in the world."