Why I Quit Mint.com (and lost out on $1.7 million)

June 25, 2013 - Get free updates of new posts here
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My friend Jonathan Abrams (a great dude who founded Friendster) and I have a running joke that if a company wanted to be super successful they should hire me…and then fire me.

 

First it happened with Facebook (read about the day I was let go).

 

Then it happened with Mint.

 

Mint is a free personal finance tool and was bought by Intuit for $170 million less than two years after it started. At the time I owned 1% of the company.

 

While I was at Mint I was #4 and in charge of all things marketing. Fact: Before we launched we had more traffic than all of our competitors combined. Here’s how we were able to grow a huge waiting list before we launched. Now it is true that Mint was and is a great product.

 

Marketing is easy when you have a great product. (click to tweet)

 

Stop. Read the sentence above again.

 

So why would I quit and leave money on the table? Here are four things I learned by quitting Mint:

 

1. Know what you want.

I wanted to run my own company and specifically wanted to be location independent. It was a dream of mine to work remotely on the beaches of Thailand. If I stayed at Mint, I would never be able to do that. By quitting, I was able to work on my Facebook games company (another story for another day) from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Drinking in Argentina

Chilling in Buenos Aires

2. Don’t take risks.

I am not a risk taking entrepreneur. While at Mint I started building Facebook apps at night. Until I could cover my minimum costs ($3,500/month) I had no intention of quitting. This meant many late nights, but it goes back to #1. It was very clear to me that I was going to do my own thing and it’s what I wanted.

 

3. Do the math in your biz.

I figured the company would sell for around $200 million. In a startup you get stock that takes four years to actually own all of it. If we sold for $200 million and I stayed around, I would make $2,000,000. Sounds sweet right? When you consider time and taxes it’s not so sweet.

Here’s what I mean by “do the math in your biz”:

  • $200,000,000 * 1% = $2,000,000. (My ownership at 1%)
  • $2,000,000 * 50% = 1,000,000. (The Government takes half for taxes)
  • $1,000,000 / 4 = $250,000. (The total spread out over 4 years)

Plus I would have had to stay at the new parent company, Intuit. So I figured that within a four year window I could come close to making $1,000,000. After four years I didn’t quite make a million but with Gambit (the Facebook app company) I ended up making a few hundred thousand dollars (AFTER taxes).

 

4. Keep Learning.

When I started at Mint I learned a shit ton. The founder was extremely liberal in allowing me to do what I wanted to do. We had town halls with our users, we did user experience testing (completely new to me at the time), a content network, spending on advertising, and more. It was all new. But towards the end it was less and less new things. You could say I became too comfortable and stopped growing. And then they hired someone above me. In hindsight, it was my ego that said I had nothing more to learn and I’d be a gopher for the new person. But I probably could have learned something from her too.

 

I want to hear from you about a time you missed out on making it big and what you learned. Leave a comment below.

 

Living-n-learning,
Noah

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25 responses to “Why I Quit Mint.com (and lost out on $1.7 million)

  1. Serge D. Reply

    Hey Noah, big fan of your posts and thank you for getting pretty personal in describing your experiences.

    I was just curious why beaches in Thailand didn’t happen for you and you went to Buenos Aires instead, not that there’s anything wrong with that :)

    I bet you’ve got some decent stories/experiences from working remotely and why you decided to come back.

  2. Lisa Stein Reply

    Interesting article. I think point #4 is extremely important. For the people wanting to start their own business, it’s best to join another company to LEARN and the paycheck should be secondary. And also look for the fastest growing company because the fast growth will create all kinds of opportunities for you to learn and experiment.

    In your math section, how do you figure the government takes 50%? If you’re employee #4, won’t you pay capital gains’ tax at 15%? That you save you a big chunk of change but it might still not be worth it for you.

  3. Andrew S. Reply

    Noah, thanks for this story! I’m about to do the same thing (though lower stakes, maybe $300K) and my logic is very similar to yours. I’ve been apprehensive about it, so getting a little validation feels really good.

    I’m in a very similar position to how you described yourself in #4: I was in early at a startup and oversaw most of marketing, but a few years later, I feel like I’m learning very little. My ego was also hurt when they hired a VP above me, but I stuck around and it was a good move–I learned a ton from her and I feel much more confident approaching companies about positions now. She ended up quitting and that’s what made me decide to jump: not only was I losing someone who taught me a lot, but I realized she quit because her job sucked and it left me with no interest in trying to grab the open VP position above me. I then spent some time thinking about every person above me on the org chart and asking, “would I want that job?” The answer was always the same: “fuck no!”. It was a huge moment of clarity–anyone thinking about changing jobs should ask that question.

    Like you, I know what I want: another chance to grow a startup, but this time with the benefit of some actual experience. I also want to move to Austin to be closer to family and a strong startup scene where I can develop some of my side projects (maybe I’ll see you around!).

    I did the exact same math as you did in #2, including the probable extra year at an acquiring company. I think it’s ~3 years to exit + risk of a 4th, so it’s $75k-$100k/year to tread water in a city I don’t want to live in. Add in market and regulatory risk to my company’s valuation and it’s a no-brainer. It was scary at first to admit that, but I feel more confident in the decision every day.

    I’m pitching companies now and targeting early September for the move. I’m probably taking on more risk than you did, but I’ve got some savings and can probably pick up enough consulting work to pay the bills even if I don’t find the right full-time job right away.

    Thanks again for sharing–this made my day!

  4. James Reply

    So on point and exactly what i needed this morning! Thnak you for always dropping knowledge and forcing us to tackle the tough questions.

    James

  5. Lain Reply

    I co-founded a company with a colleague after we were both laid off. After about a year I left, leaving money on the table, because I really wanted to be solo. The company ended up being purchased and almost everyone there is from our original company.

    It would’ve been great if I wanted a job with structure, predictability, etc. But now I’m queen of my domain and am loving it.

  6. Dave Reply

    I wish I had something pithy to add. I don’t. I just want to express my thanks for a fantastic post and cool comments.

  7. Justin Brooke Reply

    I had a shot at the big big big leagues back in 2010 when I landed a super lucrative job in the infomercial business.

    For whatever reason I just could not close my deals though. I would pitch the campaign, everyone would be excited, and then it would slowly fizzle.

    Maybe it wasn’t the right time. It really taught me that ideas are worthless and execution is everything.

    Climbing my way back now by rebuilding the company that canceled my contract because I know I can do better.

  8. A-ron Reply

    My best friend from high school is a multimillionaire. Has been for about 15 years now.

    I’m not saying I would be right along side him if I’d made a different decision. But I at least would’ve been in a better opportunity to strike it rich.

    I passed on taking a risk and getting on board with what he was doing, which at the time was creating a hosting company. This was back before the internet “bubble” burst and hosting was something only people in the know knew about.

    He took the company public a few years after he asked me to join him. Cashed out millions, bought a Ferrari, yada yada yada. I was still happy for him, because he has always been one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Not book smart, he was, but street smart and down to earth also. No ego whatsoever.

    What did I choose instead?

    A girl. I married her and 9 months later divorced her.

    So I traded a small fortune for a piece of ass that wasn’t even that great, in hindsight. Not that one should always choose money over “love,” but when you’re 20 and aimless, taking a risk like the one I passed on is really stupid. I would still claim it stupid if my buddy had failed. At least he had the balls to try.

    I learned to say yes to scary things, although I haven’t applied it at all times. And I’ve never had an opportunity like this fall in my lap since.

    I’ve still been blessed with tons of success. But just the mundane, run of the mill type, nothing that even hints at excitement. I still crave that excitement.

  9. David Heasman Reply

    Not as massive an opportunity

    But…

    Was part of my University’s Entrepreneur’s Society. Was on the committee (definitely not president. That involves responsibility. Far too much alcohol is available to be that responsible)

    However after a while I started to stand back from the scene. Had to concentrate on my dissertation.

    Towards the end, a few of the people on the committee started their own ventures. Two of them are tackling the receipt market, and just got funding from the London Govt ($37,000 equivalent), another is launching a market research firm for sub saharan Africa.

    While it was no sure thing, there’s always a part of me that thinks “If I’d just spent more time with these guys, maybe I’d have joined that pot of gold”

    Then I remember that’s vulture thinking. I was never interested in launching a startup to change the world and suck the best years of my youth.

    Que sera sera. TBH I’m happy for those guys

  10. Adam Reply

    I can see why you grow so much as an individual… you focus on what you LEARNED as opposed to LOST.

    Keep growing, brotha. Always work outside your comfort zone.

    -Adam

  11. Derek Scruggs Reply

    I came at it from the other direction. I sold my first company in an all-stock deal to a public company. The investors were able to cash out relatively soon after the purchase, but I was locked up. At one point my stock was worth $5 million, but I couldn’t sell it. The price started going down and when I finally could sell I irrationally believed it would rebound. It never did. By the time I sold I think I got $30k.

  12. Dave Reply

    You know what? I do have something to add.

    In ’97 got in on the ground floor of an offshore sports book. Won’t name the island. Was set to take my wife and set up shop semi-permanently in the Caribbean. It was a fantastic spot for my particular skill set and was really interested in learning the marketing end. The hours were endless but fun.

    Then US Atty Mary Jo White stepped in and gave the industry a cold shiver. Some of our competitors had committed brain dead marketing that exposed them to prosecution. The resulting publicity scared off our money man who had lucrative stateside real estate projects that would have not done well under the klieg lights of media exposure even though our legal beagle did a nice job shielding us from liability.

    This also scared the daylights out of my wife. She had visions of getting pregnant in a foreign country and not being able to come back to the States for medical care. Can’t say I blame her.

    15 odd years later I’m in a dead end job slinging bad code. But I have a good marriage and a healthy 10-year old son. Without the needed financial backing the sports book sputtered for a couple of years and eventually sold out to a bigger shop.

  13. Andy Canfield Reply

    My father bought a travel trailer. People asked “How could you afford it? My father ansswered “It don’t take money – it takes guts.”

    In 1990 I jumped ship from California and move to Thailand. I had 3,000 dollars and a one way airplane ticket. I’ve been here ever since.

    Noah, did you ever make it to the beaches of Thailand?

  14. Roxy Reply

    I worked hard to get a job at this small agency where I would be a designer with a chance to become a manger over this small branch of 5 or so people.

    In reality the expectations were high and the time frame to complete it unreasonable. I worked my butt off trying to impress my boss who wasn’t the isn’t to make happy, before he hired me he was already belittling about his other employees. (hint: why would I think I could be different?)

    Two months later, I still wasn’t up to his standard, so he was going to cut my salary in half or I could quite. I walked away mid day, it was about my pride of being offered half my salary and it was also that the working with him had me in constant fear! Work for half the pay, same 10 hour days, and overly stressed. NO THANK YOU!

    So a month later, I’m freelancing, I haven’t gotten to the same salary as my previous job, but I work the hours I want, work from home and it APPEARS that other people DO LIKE my work and I keep meeting people who are interesting my work! It will only get better!

  15. Juanfra Reply

    Great post! Is that fernet con cola that you’re drinking in Buenos Aires?

    Let me know if you come here again, I’ll invite you to have the best burritos in BA!

  16. Ken Reply

    I’ve got some near misses for you. Total amount lost over $200,000,000.

    Sure, my initial stake in Hendo’s Hole was worth about $20 million, but it was a project that would take at least 20 years to reach full build out. That 20 would be worth at least 200 or more once we got going. If you visited Queenstown when you were in New Zealand you would have seen the project site. It’s the big hole near the airport. Had the rug pulled out from under me. Can’t really discuss the details, but the local lore is wrong.

    The only reason I was in New Zealand, though, is because of another near miss. It was a much smaller amount, though, but missing out on a $200k payment is nothing to sneeze at. We had a great little consulting business going. I was 1/3 of the partnership. We watched our EOY profits evaporate thanks to mismanagement. Took on more than we were contracted to do for no reason and it therefore took us three times as long to deliver, at a very high burn rate, than what we budgeted. Why? No good reason, if you ask me.

    Between these near misses, however, was another gold mine lost. A Canadian friend of mine and I had been given an opportunity to work on a project in Doha. We kicked ass and saved the project in one week. We had the answers, and the hustle, to make the client happy. We were in line to get the contract to define all the unit types and refine the master plan. This was a massive project and outside the US the fees are real money. I still have the spreadsheet somewhere showing how much the going rate was.   Since we were only doing the types we were getting 2% of construction costs (just the vertical, not the infra), but this was a multi-billion dollar project. It’s built now. We lost out because the original firm that brought us on board was acquired and the original client that liked our work was also acquired. We were waiting for the phone call and found out in the papers what happened a year after the fact. 

    So many times! I could just taste it. But then gone in a puff of smoke. At least I’ve been able to see the world, though. Most folks may never get the opportunity to see the places I’ve seen, or only hear about them on the travel channel. So at least I’ve got that going for me. It would be nice, however, to have at least 1/10th of some of that money. That’s why I’m scouring your site.

    Lessons learned:

    1. Vet your partners. Make sure you’ve got their ear or they’ll do something stupid despite all the good advice you give them.

    2. Avoid cyclical markets. Certain markets, like real estate, operate on long but wild cylces. Just stay away since the black swan will pull the rug out from under you when you least expect it.

    3. Have a good time all the time. Yes, I stole that from Spinal Tap, but it’s so true. If you get to go to exotic wonderful places explore and enjoy them. While you may not make a quarter billion dollars you still have some wonderful experiences that will always be with you and help shape you as a person.

    4. You can’t get great tacos in Europe or Asia.

  17. Ken Reply

    One more near miss. The Vimpelcom M&A with a telco in Vietnam was set to provide a $500M profit to some of my business partners. While I wouldn’t be getting any of that haul, some of the proceeds were going to be used to fund my projects in VN. Their business sponsor (you know how that works in Aisa, right?) went nuts and carved them all out of the deal they were already part of. No good reason, just trying to play big shot. Their 500 went to 50 and they lost most of that 50 in litigation. Grrr.

  18. Mike Kosareff Reply

    I like you reading your emails they are usually short and to the point. Most of them are all good info.
    I have a question do you know of a website and builds teams or companies ? ex: I have a website that I made and I now need a marketing partner, and possibly a programer to help launch the company.

    My website in called IBLD.com ( I’m broke lets deal ) the website is up and running but getting to catch fire is the current problem.

    The concept is : a website where the consumer post’s an ad for what they are willing to pay for a specific service.( the ads are very specific ex: I need four tires for my 2001 Chevy truck size 315/75/16 and I am willing to pay 300 for them mounted and balanced. The ad then gets emailed to a potential business.( its all done by zip code and city) If the business is willing to perform the service at the customer’s requested price then them would email them back.

    There is a rating system built into the site for both the consumer and business. if a business or consumer receives to many negative ratings the will be warned or deleted The goal of the site is to function as a rolodex for businesses to obtain work to stay busy during slow periods.
    Mike Kosareff
    949-533-8534 cell

  19. Nate Johnson Reply

    While employed at Go Daddy, I put a complete business plan together for a new ‘services’ leg of the company.

    At the time, Go Daddy was 100% DIY, meaning everything they offered was intended for their customers to do themselves. For the most part, this is still true – but I realized that quite a few customers simply didn’t have any interest in figuring out how to do these techy things themselves; they wanted someone to hold their hand and just do it for them.

    I worked very hard to completely flesh this idea out into a complete business plan, and ultimately handed Bob Parsons a folder one day. He seemed to immediately brush it off, but very soon after my job was eliminated, and within a month they started to roll out each and every one of my recommendations. Unfortunately for me, I did all of this while under their employ, and on my work computer – in the end, I found out that I didn’t legally own the rights to any of it. While this has earned Go Daddy millions of dollars in additional revenue, I was out on the curb. Now, some of my friends even work for the leg of the company that I originally conceptualized!

    So, what did I learn?

    I should never underestimate my own value, and I should never underestimate the value that someone else can provide to me, either. Also, don’t be a dick – given the choice, to me ethics are more valuable than money.

    :)

  20. Adam Reply

    This is such an important point. Most people never do the math. They simply think “I’ll make a million!”… But they never truly understand what that money costs them or what they’ll actually net.

    Choose lifestyle first and then find a way to make a living. There are fortunes to be had in every climate, in every town, in every market. Find the one that suits your clothes and your style and make your life happy and fulfilling. Money does not, will not and can not buy you peace and happiness and more importantly, contentment.

    Follow your heart and never look back.

    Personally, I’ve have left millions upon millions on the table by avoiding the big jobs and the big cities. But my life is far more rich than any of my colleagues who slave away at jobs and companies they hate and have found themselves in their 40′s indebted to their past choices and their jobs. They all envy my life regardless of the fact that I am not nearly as wealthy or as flush as they, I have peace, beauty and way, way more fun than they.

  21. Eric Bell Reply

    In 1987, my brother and I started a software company in San Diego. Our first product grew out of his business, graphic design. Our Mac product automated graphic arts shops; self-funding and poor business acumen led us to abandon it. Small ads placed while we were working on it ultimately succeeded to bring interest from all over the world but we had moved on by then.

    In 1988 we brought out a barcode trade show tracking system, it saw one use at the local Ad Club trade show and successfully demonstrated value. We didn’t have the lean mindset – MVP, test and correct, build up from the ground nor the solve the problem and fund through the early adopters approaches. It’s big business now … for someone else, now using tablets.

    The list goes on and I still go on; I’ve learned my lessons well and no longer approach business these ways.

    For the me the big lessons are:
    - Solve existing problems, don’t invent problems to solve
    - Fail fast. Try things out in the simplest way, reflect and then if there’s no “meat” there, try something else.

  22. Kimanzi Constable Reply

    For 12 years I had a service business that did $500,000 a year. It wasn’t my passion and at the end it made me hate life. I ended up chasing my dream of being a writer and self-published two books that sold over 82,000 copies. I could have sold this business in 2012 but I held on an extra year. I wish I would have sold it sooner. I feel like it took years off of my life that last year.

  23. Justin Reply

    In the early days of the iPhone, it couldn’t send MMS messages (seems crazy now, right?). I developed texTure MMS – TEXTing a pictURE, I thought it was clever but it sounds pretty ridiculous now – to send picture messages using email->MMS gateways. It was an ugly, piece of shit hackjob that barely worked, with no thought for design or aesthetics. And still it shot up to the top 5 social network in apps at the time. Netted me some money for a couple months. Then in March 2009, Apple announced that they would start supporting MMS.

    Rather than try to stay competitive in the space, or pivot to take a different track (like, I dunno, smartphone->smartphone messaging), I simply gave up. Thought up some other crap idea that I worked on for a few months, something to do with music I think. Who cares, it sucked and I didn’t finish it.

    18 months later (!) I thought “hey, I had some success there, I’ll expand on it.” I put some design work into it, added “cool features” like away messages and other shit that no one wants that I thought would help me compete. Because by now it’s 2011 and the App Store is not just full of apps, but also full of WhatsApps and Kiks and everything else. I had lost the advantage I might have otherwise had getting into the space early.

    Also worth mentioning that it was still an SMS/MMS app. I still was missing the boat on smartphone messaging.

    No one downloaded it. But I believed in it. I spent $10,000 I didn’t have on a Flurry ad buy, watched it shoot up the charts to #5, and then plummet right back down. I got virtually no return on that. Gave up on apps for more than 2 years, instead just working my day job.

    Obviously, I learned some things.

    1) You must assume that no one wants whatever the fuck it is that you’re making. You have to make them want it. If you start out assuming that everyone has been waiting for you to make whatever you’re making so they can give you money, well…..you’re in for disappointment.

    2) Regardless of how you engineer your product, you can’t ignore the business and marketing side of things. I’m an engineer by trade; I chose to pretend marketing didn’t exist because I didn’t want to think about it. Not a good plan.

    3) Marketing != advertising. I spent $10k and got virtually nothing for it. On my current project, I’d guess I’ve gotten more return from applying free advice from OkDork and AppSumo.

    4) Your odds of being a lucky Cinderella story – writing an app, everyone buying it and you making a billion dollars – are virtually zero. If you have a validated business idea, carefully think through all aspects of it, don’t let roadblocks stop you, and supplement all of it with lots and lots of hard-ass work, you can take luck out of the equation and do wonders for your odds of success.

    5) Think like your customer. Really kinda encompasses everything else.

    6) “Work smarter, not harder” is a myth. You have to do both.

    I have a business partner on my current initiative, and so far have grossed around $3k a month after release. We’ve barely gotten started on promotions and marketing, and I have a ton of viable ideas inspired by (or directly from) this site and AppSumo.

    Thanks Noah. When I manage to turn this into a serious business I’ll send you a fat Taco Deli gift card. Sounds amazing, I wish they had one around here…