Aaron Patzer celebrated his 30th birthday this weekend in the British Virgin Islands. But as he enjoyed rock-climbing and noshing on lobster, his absence from Silicon Valley was causing a round of speculative gossip. Is the erstwhile founder of one of the most successful Web-based start-ups in years ever going to return to work?
"He's been gone for months," notes the head of one Mountain View start-up. "It's like he lives in New Zealand now."
"When I hear these things I have to wonder if he'll start another company or retire," says a serial entrepreneur. "But maybe he's just on vacation."
Over the past two months the wunderkind founder of Mint.com, the online money-management tool acquired last September by Intuit for $170 million, has been traveling the globe, hopping from Canada to India, with plenty of stop-offs in between. And, as Patzer confirmed to Inc.com, he has indeed been on a birthday vacation this past weekend in the British Virgin Islands.
Is he still running Quicken, the division of Intuit that his leadership team at Mint took over following the purchase? "I've been spending quite a bit of time in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK as Mint is expanding globally, and I'm personally doing much of the research and business deals to make them happen," Patzer wrote in an email.
What about his desk in Mountain View, where he has served for the past year as vice president and general manager of Intuit personal finance? What of overseeing the company's online, mobile, and desktop products?
"I'd say he's there for one-third of the month—at least a week each month to check in with his team," says Martha Shaughnessy, an Intuit spokesperson who works closely with Patzer.
With Mint poised to announce Monday the expansion of its online personal finance services to Canada (its local headquarters are in Edmonton), Patzer's multiple months of working virtually and conducting research and pursuing deals abroad certainly makes some sense. But consider that friends and associates say they know Patzer has been largely in Australia and New Zealand in recent months, and the logic gets foggier. Shaughnessy does not precisely deny that Patzer had moved out of the country. ("He kind of has," she says.)
Consider also that Patzer, who launched Mint at 26, and scored nearly $5 million in Series A funding from investors including Shasta Ventures and First Round Capital, has by many accounts had a rocky time adjusting to his position as a vice president at Intuit, a company of nearly 8,000 people with a 2009 revenue of more than $3 billion.
"Large companies like Intuit can have trouble innovating. But Aaron is the kind of person who speaks his mind, and has rubbed some people the wrong way," a Palo Alto entrepreneur who knows Patzer but who wished to remain anonymous, says. "There's a culture clash."
This scenario is not rare in Silicon Valley, where venture capitalists eager for liquidity routinely prepare portfolio companies to be sold. Conflicts between the original founders and their new corporate bosses often ensue, for reasons that range from operations to general philosophy.
"There's a reason founders of start-ups don't look like CEOs of large corporations," says Steve Blank, a California serial entrepreneur who teaches entrepreneurial studies at Stanford University and at the University of California. "The skills that made you a success in a small company as a CEO don't translate to a large company when you're trying to execute."
And, Blank says, today most founders simply don't succeed in making the transition from build to execute. "There are more culture clashes today," he says.
One doesn't have to gaze far for recent examples. Flickr founders Caterina Fake and Steward Butterfield left Yahoo three years after their photo-sharing start-up's acquisition. Delicious founder Joshua Schachter also barely made it three years at Yahoo, calling innovating at a large company "an incredibly frustrating experience." Reddit co-founders Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian managed to stay at Condé Nast just until their contracts were up, though Dennis Crowley didn't last long at Google after it acquired his proto-Foursquare company, Dodgeball. He wrote online: "The whole experience was incredibly frustrating for us - especially as we couldn't convince them that dodgeball was worth engineering resources, leaving us to watch as other startups got to innovate in the mobile + social space."
Although the entire Mint team transitioned into positions at Intuit, Patzer told the New York Times last December that he missed the scrappy start-up vibe. "The corporate campus seems so quiet. A start-up is overflowing with energy. Here it's a little more subdued," he told the Times. "They've got these high, very depressing cubicles."
Could Patzer have been so discontent that he'd step away from Intuit leaving money on the table? Colleagues and acquaintances doubt it both because Patzer is reported to earn a huge salary and because they believe he is truly eager to help take the company international.
"He's an entrepreneur at heart, of course," said Yan-David Erlich, co-founder of ChoiceVendor, a rating service based in San Francisco. Erlich knows something about corporate dissonance: his company was acquired by LinkedIn three months ago, and Erlich left it after two months for personal reasons, which included his desire to travel internationally. "He could either start another start-up or retire, but I highly doubt he'll retire. It's in his interest to make it work for himself," Erlich says.
In interviews this summer, Patzer was already hinting at wanting to build out Intuit in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. "That's something that I'd like to personally do, not only for the travel experience, but just to really understand how other cultures handle money and their personal financial lives," he told a writer for the Bank of America's small business website.
As Mint and Intuit look to expand to other English-language-speaking countries, Patzer's travel schedule is likely to remain rigorous. "We'll be playing calendar Tetris going forward," Shaughnessy admits.
Is this new arrangement a bad thing for Patzer, who's known for loving to work out by hiking, climbing trees, and adventure-traveling? Not so much. "One of the reasons the acquisition was so appealing to him was that he's eager to do new things and have the financial freedom to do so," Shaughnessy says.