I was the founding CMO of Mint.com. And I just found the Excel spreadsheet I kept to track Mint.com traffic and conversion from just after our 2007 product launch until just before our 2009 Intuit acquisition. Shelter-in-place has some benefits, it seems.
A lot of folks have published speculation on how we drove the pretty phenomenal Mint.com user growth from launch to acquisition. To bust those myths, here’s the actual data on how my mighty team of five did it:|
We generated 60% of our traffic through Direct and Branded Organic sources
How? First and foremost we had a phenomenal product…from some truly breathtaking design to some equally brilliant engineering. Full stop. So 23% of our users came via word-of-mouth. Even if I’d had a decent marketing budget, I couldn’t have spent my way out of a bad product in 2007. I don’t believe most marketers had truly realized that yet. I don’t know if I fully had. But since I’d gone from having a budget of $1 million a day at Expedia to $1 million a year at Mint, it was a lesson I learned in a hurry. A strong, secondary driver was the correctly spelled, English language, easy-to-recall brand that Aaron Patzer paid a frankly outrageous amount of equity for. A decision I was grateful for every day for two years. Third was a breakthrough brand, content marketing and promotion strategy which drove an outsized internet footprint, domain authority and search rankings for us.
We drove another 27% of our traffic from Referral sources…meaning that 87% of our total traffic was “free” earned media
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that every major US publication covered us. Multiple times. Because, in 2008, we were offering a compelling and consumer-focused Silicon Valley founding story to the financial services and personal finance media that hadn’t had anything new to talk about since the launch of Quicken 25 years earlier. Precisely how we generated all this “free” earned media is another long story involving an awesome PR partner (Martha Shaughnessy now of The Key PR ), two of the smartest and earliest Social Media and Content Marketers (Stew Langille and Lee Sherman) and their tremendously shrewd hacking of the largest social network at the time…Digg. Yes, Digg. In 2008, Twitter was seeing only 1 million tweets a day and Facebook only had 150K unique daily visits … but Digg had over 650,000. My dynamic duo (working with Column Five Media) had figured out how to get our content, posts and infographics featured on Digg’s curated front page every. single. time.
Full and important disclosure #1: If your business doesn’t have the key elements of a compelling PR style story, this strategy is unlikely to ever work this well for you. We earned those elements…and we were also lucky. Launching a personal financial management app 3 months prior to the worst US recession since the Great Depression worked well for us, for example. Winning TechCrunch40 solo (Mint Mojitos FTW) was a huge help. Not because of the initial jump in users it gave us, but because it effectively tied our success to theirs. We got a quantity and quality of coverage from them over the next two years that I’ll admit now that I didn’t deserve.
Full and important disclosure #2: Over time, the Mint marketing team earned almost complete support across the company for our PR and content marketing efforts. That meant that when we gave TechCrunch an exclusive on a new feature launch under a 5am embargo, that feature shipped as described, at that time and bug-free. And when we came up with the idea to offer early access to new features to current users who’d refer their friends, Product and Engineering created a referral capture and leaderboard interface within days. On top of meeting their deadlines to create the new features we were publicizing. This level of partnership and collaboration between Product, Design, Engineering and Marketing was hard-won, typically involved some shouting, and became a critical factor in our growth marketing success. I can’t list everyone, but a decade later the folks that stand out most vividly in my memory are David Michaels, Daryl Puryear, Atish Mehta, Poornima Vijayashanker, Aaron Forth, Justin Maxwell, Jason Putorti, Barb Chang, Brent Tworetzky and absolutely George Chlentzos, our lead QA Engineer. George took me aside one day to share what it meant to him to know that my team was working their asses off to bring millions of users to “his product”. I will never forget that conversation. And I’ve understood and loved all engineers even more ever since because of it.
We converted 4.5% of that traffic to Registered Users
How? 1. See “breakthrough product” and “innovative design” and “23% word-of-mouth” stats above. It is impossible to overstate this. 2. Hyper-focused, single Persona targeting. Once we brought “Jason” to our site, our free product was beautifully presented using a fresh, consistent voice in our website, product and blog* that let him/her know this was built for them, it was going to be easy and it was trust-worthy. The 70% of Jasons who registered and gave us their online banking credentials in their first session were pioneers and early adopters. They felt the magic of greater peace of mind about their money within minutes of making what was, at the time, a pretty bold decision…to do business with a nine-person company operating out of spider-infested office space with super-sketchy electrical wiring and comical physical security. But Jasons knew they had not much to lose and a lot to gain… and s/he could and would make that call in 2007–2009. As the product evolved, we earned the right to win other’s business. But even at our Q4 2009 acquisition, our 2 million users still represented a thin and unique slice of US consumers. Classic startup backstory? We built trust in the company and the product, in part, by reassuring prospects that our employees had previously worked at: PGP (David Michaels, our fabulous CTO) and American Express, Charles Schwab and Intuit (and all three of those employees were me).
Three Tactics that Didn’t Work
Paid Search We tried to buy traffic, but could never compete with the Fortune 500 banks bidding against us on some of the internet’s most expensive search terms. Even with a nearly 9% RU conversion rate. I spent a total of $50,000 on paid search over our first two years.
Personal Finance Blogs They had wonderful, PFM-fanatical readers but no scale, sadly. We converted all of these small publications’ interested readers within our first months (weeks?) of product launch. We actually got 95% of our traffic and users from the NYT, WSJ, Fast Company, TechCrunch, Lifehacker, Mashable and old school (SF Chronicle, LA Times, etc.) online outlets that had large scale in 2007 and/or grew rapidly with us through 2009.
Partnerships We signed some great partnerships, including Motley Fool. Unfortunately, they collectively only amounted to 1% of our traffic, and delivered our lowest user conversion rate. Why? No one else in the financial services space had collected a significant audience among our Millennial early adopters. For example, Credit Karma and NerdWallet didn’t top our 2009 EOY 2 million user base until 2011. 100% respect to both, however, for their phenomenal growth and success in monetizing their users since then. Terrific stories there. Favorite partnership story: The day Motley Fool recognized that we were out-ranking them in search results on the content they shared with us. And with our SEO team of one: Tony Sirois. They had a sense of humor about it, which was awesome.
Bottom line: Our success in driving high earned traffic and user conversion drove an average cost per Registered User (CAC) of $1. Yes, $1.
With a $1 CAC, even our thin revenue (roughly $3 million in 2009) didn’t scare our acquirer, Intuit, away from paying 60X revenue ($175 million) for us. Which was a lot of money at the time. At acquisition, they told us that “Our user growth and CAC were unlike anything they’d seen in 25 years selling Personal Financial Management software.” Full disclosure: I led Quicken marketing for Intuit from 2002 to 2004 and they were right. Of course, six months earlier they had sent us a nasty letter challenging our rapid user growth and demanding that we prove our numbers were legit. Leaking their letter (and our response) to TechCrunch was one of the most fun days I had as Mint’s CMO. And it was also one of our highest traffic/new user days.
I’m hoping that sharing this data is helpful in understanding how we actually grew and some of how we actually did it. I’ve hated the conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs over the last decade where they’d share that they’d tried and failed to grow their product/company either by using what they’d heard we did…or by doing what we actually did, without understanding why our marketing strategy and tactics weren’t going to work for their product/market/story/timing. There’s much more to share and my presentation for Sway Ventures covers some of it. But given this was a decade ago, I’m not inclined to take the time to reconstruct more of this ancient history. Also, my Mint CMO gig was my last one as a marketing leader. I had the honor of being CEO at Mindflash for seven years, founded Valencia Ventures and recently started teaching entrepreneurship at the Stanford GSB. I’m also loving my Board work with the Betterment, Happy Money, Mitek and Apex teams.
If sharing more detail…or maybe sharing “The 6 Dumbest Moves I Made as Mint CMO”…would be helpful to you, please let me know in a comment. But since I found the spreadsheet, I wanted to take the opportunity to bust a few of the myths I’ve heard or read. As Edwards Deming said, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”
Wishing you hyper-growth always,