At a glance, Mint.com founder Aaron Patzer has lived an entrepreneurial fairy tale.
He sold his financial services startup to Intuit in 2009 for $170 million, just two years after launching. Now his latest venture, home-improvement app Fountain, has reeled in $4 million from high-profile backers including Shasta Ventures and First Round Capital. He's even buddies with famed Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk--the two go camping together every year, as Patzer disclosed in a recent interview with Inc.
Yet Patzer admits that his journey has been more complex than all of that. He's helmed some failed businesses--including the magnetic levitation ("maglev") concept for personal vehicles, called Swift--which he attributes to being overly ambitious and unrealistic with finances. "I was full of myself in terms of my ambition there," he says of Swift, adding that even Mint.com nearly ran out of money once or twice. It's worth noting that Fountain, too, although still in its early stages, has a lofty endgame: It aims to expand beyond home and garden projects to connect users via video conference with seasoned experts in any category, from homework help to legal issues and more. At present, the app is free for download through the Apple store, charging users $7 per 15 minutes with the expert it connects them to.
Patzer also says that having your startup acquired, while obviously different from failure, comes with its own set of challenges. When Intuit bought his company, he remembers experiencing something of a blow to the ego: "I'm watching the last episodes of Mad Men when Donald Draper's [company] is acquired and it's actually eerily sort of true. At first you don't believe it, but then, I was used to being the CEO, I was used to being in charge and calling all the shots. I was definitely scolded like a school child," he added. Patzer found it difficult to navigate leadership decisions with other senior executives at Intuit. (He stayed on as the vice president and general manager of Intuit's personal finance group for a year and a half, but he felt like he'd lost control of Mint.com at the six-month mark.)
Patzer hopes that Fountain will become another success, as he channels some of the lessons he's learned from his failures. His advice to entrepreneurs: "Solve your own problems, rather than looking for a problem to solve." He also emphasized the importance of being "all in," as opposed to going about it half-heartedly. That was the main issue with his first failed company, a microprocessor, which he launched on the sidelines back when he was still a full-time graduate student.
Thus far, Fountain seems to be off to a good start. And if the funding doesn't convince you, consider that Apple named it one of the best new apps during its first week on the market in March of this year. Patzer does say that the app isn't where it should be from a design point--he calls it "good, but not yet great"--but he's confident that his team will get it there.