advertisement
advertisement

What the hell happened to Mint?

In 2009, personal-finance behemoth Intuit bought Mint, an impressive startup. And then it let its $170 million acquisition wither on the vine.

What the hell happened to Mint?
[Photos: Fernando Hernandez/Unsplash; Yigithan Bal/Pexels]

Intuit’s Mint personal-finance service wants me to know it’s sorry. Again.

advertisement
advertisement

“We’re sorry!” its investments page bleats when I try to view my mutual funds’ performance. “Our graphs require the latest version of Adobe Flash player.”

That site has spent years apologizing to me for needing Adobe’s vulnerability-riddled plug-in: since I long ago booted Flash from my browser, since Adobe said in 2017 that it would drop Flash by the end of 2020, since Intuit told me in 2018 that Mint would wean itself from Flash “in the coming months.”

But that’s in keeping with this fossilized financial tool. Mint still provides a valuable service for free in aggregating transaction data from multiple financial institutions to clarify where your money comes and goes—and in the bargain suggests hopefully-better financial products from advertisers—but this app exhibits severe symptoms of neglect.

It’s as if Mint, with 13 million-plus registered users, were a resource-constrained startup instead of a property of Intuit, the Microsoft of personal finance. But more than a decade after the firm behind TurboTax and QuickBooks (and, until 2016, Quicken) bought Mint for $170 million, neatly taking a competitor off the map, this once-groundbreaking app might as well be streaked with cobwebs.

“In my mind, it’s been in maintenance mode the last eight years,” says Aaron Patzer, the founder of Mint who accepted Intuit’s offer, found himself tasked with improving Quicken, and then left the company in 2012.

It could be doing much more.”

Aaron Patzer, founder of Mint
The “updates” category of Mint’s blog reveals no new features since April 2019’s revised financial-advice interfaces in the mobile apps it introduced soon after the acquisition. It does report an outright retreat, the quiet scrapping in June 2018 of bill-payment tools introduced in December 2016.

advertisement

Intuit has, however, made one less-obvious upgrade: switching account synchronization with some big-name institutions from a username-and-password exchange to a more secure OAuth sync in which Mint no longer stores your password. 

Intuit spokesman Rick Heineman lists other additions in an email: the ability to track cash transactions (added in 2010), a credit-score lookup (2014), and more recent tweaks to its insights and recommendations. Given Mint’s huge potential—and the rapid pace of improvement for other web-based services—that’s an alarmingly skimpy list.

Missed opportunities

Patzer’s summary of his baby’s stunted growth: “It could be doing much more.” He points in particular to the lack of integration between Mint and TurboTax, saying, “I had a dream that TurboTax would take you about five minutes.”

The success of TurboTax, which Intuit zealously defends by lobbying to stop governments from offering their own tax-prep apps, may help explain why Mint has gone neglected. Patzer estimates that TurboTax generates 10 to 20 times the revenue of Mint. Intuit doesn’t break out that proportion—Heineman says, “Anything you have heard from Aaron or others is just speculation”—but its executives have left Mint out of prepared remarks for the company’s last five quarterly-earnings calls. 

In its 2019 fiscal year, Intuit’s consumer sector (basically, Mint and TurboTax) generated $2.775 billion in revenue, versus $3.533 billion for its small business and self-employed division, which is dominated by its QuickBooks accounting software.

As software that people pay for—annually—TurboTax follows a business model that Intuit mastered decades ago. By contrast, Patzer says, Mint’s referral fees for sign-ups through the app yielded “lumpy” income.

advertisement

“In your first two to three months, on average we were making something like $20 per user,” he says. “In the next three months, maybe $2 or $3.” It could not have helped when Mint presented users with ads for credit cards they already had.

Val Agostino, who was Mint’s director of product engineering in the early days, says pressure for revenue drove the company in two unhelpful directions. The service could “present users with financial offers that yielded the highest commission,” he emails, or “increase the number of offers a user saw in a given session.”

Agostino is now cofounder and CEO of Monarch, a subscription-based personal-finance app due to launch this year. That happens to be the business model Intuit itself pursued when it launched its would-have-been Mint rival Quicken Online in January of 2008 as a $2.99/month Web app—before closing it in 2010 in favor of shifting its attention to Mint.

(Intuit buying out its own competitor, in turn, echoed Microsoft’s failed attempt two decades earlier to purchase Intuit, which had trounced its Microsoft Money software.) 

For now, Mint benefits from a lack of serious competition. Quicken requires an annual subscription and remains desktop-bound, with a continued mismatch of Mac and Windows features. The free Personal Capital web app is more geared toward investment management. 

For all of Mint’s failure to evolve and improve, its core functionality—putting your accounts in one free and easily scanned dashboard—continues to be fundamentally useful. That was the ability that led Fast Company to call it “the Axe Bodyspray of personal finance–cool, fresh, and even sexy.” Any competitor will need to provide the same quick answers to “how much did I make?” and “where did I spend it?” before scaring Intuit out of its apathy. 

advertisement

Or, as Patzer says of the app, which he continues to use himself: “It solves a real need.” 

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Rob Pegoraro writes about computers, gadgets, telecom, social media, apps, and other things that beep or blink. He has met most of the founders of the Internet and once received a single-word e-mail reply from Steve Jobs.

More