Charlie Park is the founder of two internet startups. One (pearbudget.com) is a personal finance web application (see it featured on CBS "The Early Show"). The other (monotask.com) is still-in-beta-testing, a web application focused on attention management — he describes it as “Ritalin for your computer.” He didn’t set out to be a business entrepreneur when he got his B.A. from William and Mary in 2001. Today he discusses how he got where he is, what has contributed to his success, and what a typical work day is like.
Q: How did Pearbudget get started?
Let me tell you a story...
It starts with a young married couple. In love, but without a lot of money, they move to a new city and realize that, unless they can track their finances better, they'll be in major trouble. They look around for a tool that's simple, attractive, and easy to use. They come up short. After realizing nothing on the market would meet their needs, they make a spreadsheet to do the job. It works. All is well.
The husband works for a company that does a lot of branding and new product development, and he decides to name his spreadsheet and to share it with the world for free. Before long, over 100,000 people have downloaded it.
All is well. Sort of. The wife wishes the spreadsheet could be even easier to use, and even easier on the eyes. The husband starts devoting more time and passion to this side-project.
“Hmmm,” he says. “There could be something here.” And so he begins to build it into Something Bigger.
Five years later, and here we are. Shocker: The young couple in the story is my wife and me. Three years ago, I went full-time with PearBudget, a really simple tool for helping people make sense of their money.
I didn't set out to be an entrepreneur, but it ended up being a really good fit for my ENTP personality. I get to be creative. I get to interact directly with the people using my product. I get to work out of coffeeshops, or from home, on a schedule that — for the most part — I get to set.
Q: In the five years, what have you learnt about running a small online business?
One thing I’ve begun to realize is that the advantages and disadvantages of running your own business are often two sides of the same coin.
For example, I love not having a boss. But I’m answerable to my customers, so I end up having thousands of “bosses.” To put it another way, I enjoy making my own schedule and controlling the process as well as the direction of my work. But not having a clear superior to set deadlines means that I struggle with figuring out what’s the highest priority.
I love having the flexibility in my schedule to drop in on my girls’ school in the afternoon, but since I’m the only one responsible for whether the site is working well, I never really “leave the office.”
And while I love not dealing with office politics, I do miss the community of colleagues that an office setting offers — working alone can get a bit … well … lonely. I don’t have endless meetings to sit through, but it can be easy to stall out when I don’t have anyone to brainstorm and problem-solve with. I never have to look at a PowerPoint deck, but … actually … I don’t know if there’s a downside to that one.
In terms of community / networking / problem solving / development, there are a couple of online forums I use — Hacker News, Metafilter, Stack Overflow, and Quora being the ones I tend to check in on most often — and I’m on Twitter more than I probably should be (hence, the need for Monotask).
Q: So how do you keep PearBudget afloat in a world of free apps like (your most well-known competitor) Mint.com?
It’s a good question. Ultimately, every user of every service runs a cost/value equation in their head. If the time, energy, and money they get back is greater than the time, energy, and money invested (and is greater than the equivalent equation for competing services), they’ll use the service. We (and our users) feel that the return PearBudget yields is worth it — even when factoring in the $3 a month it costs.
To be sure, Mint has done a great job with their product. But I don’t actually think it’s helping users as much as they suggest that it is. In a recent post-mortem written by the CEO of one of Mint’s competitors, he wrote: “When we analyzed the benefits we saw for our users, and when Mint boasted about the benefits they saw for their users, the debt reduction and savings increase numbers directly matched the national averages. Because our products existed during a deep financial crisis, consumers everywhere cut back, saved more, and tried to reduce their debt. Neither product had any significant impact beyond what the overall economy led people to do anyways.” In contrast, I get e-mails every single day from users talking about how much PearBudget is helping them, and, in fact, how it meets their needs far better than Mint did. And, indeed, if PearBudget weren’t useful, people would stop paying for the service. I have an objective metric for the “do people find this useful” question in the very fact that it takes real money out of their wallets each month.
Q: What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?
Being an entrepreneur is challenging and exciting — if all goes well. There are many pitfalls in the start-up world, as seen by the statistic that over 50% of information-based start-ups fail by the three-year mark. I thought I’d share my three most vital pointers for anyone considering entering this line of work:
1) Set out to solve a problem YOU have. Take a look at the systems in your life that make you angry. Things where you say “There has to be a better way of doing this.” You’ll build a better product if it’s something you’re genuinely passionate about. If you have a problem — especially one you’d pay money to solve — chances are good that a bunch of other people have it, too. The beauty of the web is that it gives you easy access to those people, wherever they might be.
2) Be very intentional about money. One way to begin a start-up is to have an idea, accept venture capital, and then work like hell to make it up to your investors. We went a different route, bootstrapping. It’s what I tend to recommend. Start your idea as a side project, validate your customer-problem-solution and your product-market fit, and work up to making your business a full-time gig. Iterate quickly. As part of your customer-development process, charge money for your service from the beginning. We chose to charge a small fee for PearBudget (three bucks a month), and to not accept VC funding (although we were approached about it). We kept our costs super-low, and so we were cash-flow positive our first month, and profitable within the first year. Plus, we were never beholden to investors.
3) The Golden Rule of Customer Service: Do unto your customers as you would have companies do unto you. I cannot stress this enough — it should influence your business model, your daily interactions with customers, and — especially — your website’s interface. Every decision we make runs through this test. We could have monetized our personal finance app by plastering ads all over the margins of our budget software, or by selling user data to credit card companies. But as customers ourselves, we would hate a service that did that to us. We’d rather pay a small fee to use a good service with a clean interface that doesn’t assault us with ways to abandon our budget.
A Typical Day
5:30 - I wake up, go downstairs, and make coffee. I wake the computer up and check my e-mail. The main things I’m looking for are notices that the server has issues or notes from my customers with support requests. We can’t always reply within the first hour, but we try to … and we do our best to get back to our users as quickly as possible. Ideally, I wouldn’t check e-mail until later in the morning, but since I’m responsible for making sure things are running smoothly, it’s the first thing I check in the morning, and the last thing I check before bed.
5:45 - I close down my e-mail, and jump over into programming mode. I know I don’t have too long to work, so I don’t tend to tackle big problems right now. But I can knock out one or two small issues: copy tweaks, interface issues, or some other aspect of the programming that needs attention. When I make changes, I’ll usually commit them right away to our offsite version control system, at Github. I’ll often try to deploy those changes to the live site in these early morning hours.
7:00 - The rest of the house is stirring, so I wrap up my early morning work and start taking care of family stuff — breakfast, getting the girls dressed, packing up the car, and getting out the door. I drive them in to school, and then head over to a nearby coffeeshop. I usually check the site one last time before we head out the door.
8:45 - I run my business from my laptop, so all I need to do to start the work day is to open up my computer and find the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot. Before doing that, though, I try to take 15 minutes to map out my priorities for the day. I’ve tried a number of computer-based tools for this, but I’ve found that they never quite do the job. I have a regular pad of paper that I use — I look at the previous days’ list, and anything that I didn’t cross off the list gets transferred to today’s. I put stars next to the important ones, and small circles next to the ones that seem like they can be done quickly.
9:00 - I take my priorities list and — in an effort to build momentum — I do as many of the “small circle / quick complete” items on the list as possible in 20 minutes. Usually, these end up being low-priority — dashing off a quick e-mail to someone, writing up a frequently-asked-question, looking up some piece of information for later on in the day. This is kind of like a warm-up lap before a race. The goal is to just get moving.
9:20 - Hopefully, at this point, I’m moving on to tackle a larger issue — working on a PearBudget feature request, investigating a bug report, or developing new code for Monotask. This is my most important work slot of the day. Often, the problems I’m tackling will have bled over from the previous day, so I sometimes have to spend a few minutes reacquainting myself with yesterday’s code.
12:00 - I take a break for lunch, sometimes just grabbing a packed sandwich as I drive over to work from the library, sometimes meeting up for lunch with my wife, Sarah.
12:30 - My work focus after lunch tends to be primarily customer service and strategy. Venture Capitalist Paul Graham talks about two modes of working — The Maker’s Schedule and the Manager’s Schedule. In it, he talks about how startup founders need to balance the need to create new things with the need to handle outside interruptions and other administrivia. I find that I work much better on creative projects in the mornings, so I try to limit the amount of admin stuff that I’m doing early on. It still needs to get done, though, so I end up doing that in the afternoons. I’m also checking Twitter and our message boards, to see if everyone’s happy. I’m a fan of the Inbox Zero methodology, but my inbox is usually hovering somewhere around 25 to 50 messages. I might also make a quick post to a blog I curate on the side, The Attention Management Blog.
2:30 - I pack up and go pick up my daughters from school, and head home. From here until the girls’ bedtime, I try to not be on the computer. I’m not great at this.
7:30 - We’ve had dinner, I’ve done the dishes, and my wife is putting the girls to bed, so I’ll try to get in a little more work now. Usually, by this point in the day I’m pretty burnt out, so I’ll use this time to check our message boards, Twitter, and e-mail to make sure there aren’t any outstanding customer support requests. I wrap this up by about 8:30, and my wife and I usually watch a movie from Netflixor an episode of 30 Rock off of Hulu, or we’ll have friends over to play a board game. Just before bed, I’ll check our server’s uptime status and our customer support requests one last time.
On the weekends, I probably spend about 3 to 4 hours each day, doing a mix of programming and customer service. And once (sometimes twice) a week, I’ll drive over to Richmond for a four- or five-hour coding session with my Monotask cofounder (Tony Gambone, a 2001 graduate of William and Mary). We’re applying many of the lessons I learned in building and launching PearBudget, and hope that Monotask will be an even bigger success. I’ll keep you posted.