Millennials will inherit the largest amount of personal wealth of any generation — and personal finance apps are emerging to seize on this opportunity. Here are the core strategies that these companies are using to build, convert, engage, and monetize their audience.
An explosion of new consumer finance brands is transforming how people save, spend, and manage their money.
Ninety-two million millennials will soon be in what Goldman Sachs calls their “prime spending years.” In aggregate, they command $1.3 trillion in annual spending. They have a deep antipathy to traditional financial institutions.
A host of startups have emerged to capitalize on this trend. These companies are making it easier to make a budget, invest, and buy stocks, as well as to get loans and credit cards.
The secrets of user growth
To build a successful personal finance management tool, it’s important to understand the dynamics of user acquisition and growth.
Building a product that people want is hard. It’s even harder when your target market would rather never think about what you’re trying to sell them — retirement, for example. (Bankrate found 83% of millennials don’t think they’ll ever retire: they simply “don’t think they’ll have the money” to do so.)
The result of getting your product right, however, can be exponential growth so fast it’s hard to wrap your mind around.
We studied 7 of the fastest-growing personal finance startups of all time, including Robinhood, and dove into what they did to achieve their massive results.
Below, we’ll show you:
- How to use pre-launch marketing to build trust and hype
- Mint’s pre-launch blogging strategy that got them 20,000+ customers
- How Robinhood used an ingenious referral program to build a 1M+ customer waitlist
- How to show value during the first-run experience
- The free tools Credit Karma uses to drive a sticky experience and create a hook for users — an effective smart customer acquisition strategy
- How Mint returns 100+ lost hours to its users lives right away
- The 3 questions Level Money asks users the first time they use the app
- How to design for the specific kind of user you want
- Robinhood’s clutter-free user interface design is flypaper for millennial audiences
- How narrowing their feature roadmap helped Check get acquired for $360M
- Why the color green helped Mint convert more potential users
- How Level Money designed itself specifically for a mobile-first experience
- How to monetize your users’ financial betterment
- The $2B opportunity Mint found in preferred pricing
- How Credit Karma built a $500M business by helping people
- How to productize personal responsibility
- How recurring micro-transactions let Acorns do 17x the trading volume of Fidelity
- Stash’s strategy around choice and how it helps them add 25,000 users a week
- How to turn sharing into self-improvement
- The addictive referral program driving Robinhood’s continued growth
- Stash teaches its users how to invest
- Acorns’ rock-bottom customer acquisition costs as driven by non-viral referral
For three of the tools we looked at — Mint, Level Money, and Check — we studied how their product evolved all the way up to their acquisition (by Intuit, Capital One, and Intuit, respectively).
Daily bill payments from Check’s mobile app reached over $1M in daily volume in just one year.
For the non-exited companies — Robinhood, Acorns, Stash, and Credit Karma — we looked at which apps had the highest rates of user growth and what’s driving expansion.
In each instance, we tore apart the UX and UI of each tool, looked at their growth and revenue numbers, pored through interviews with founders and early employees, researched their public reception, talked to employees, and did our own math.
What follows are the results of our analysis — six secrets to success in the world of personal finance management.
1. Use pre-launch marketing to build both trust and hype
In personal finance, building trust over time is essential. Whenever you’re dealing with personal financial information and decisions, “moving fast and breaking things” isn’t advisable for any product.
The best personal finance startups take time to lay the groundwork for their product.
They create content that helps them make a name as an authority in a space, giving them the credibility they need to convince people to trust them with their data.
They build up hype and excitement, building up their public reputation and the all-important factor of social proof.
For personal finance tools, pre-launch marketing is where you lay the foundation of your product.
Mint — How blog posts helped Mint get 20,000 customers pre-launch
Mint has a classic success story. Many fintech companies out there are trying, very literally, to become the next Mint.com.
While all the companies we’re looking at have had large exits, none were faster at getting to theirs than Mint.
Of the tools we’re looking at, plus a few other high-profile acquisitions in personal finance, Mint had by far the most significant growth in its valuation — from $0 to $170M in just two years.
Behind that fast growth was an ingenious pre-launch marketing campaign. By creating tons of content around their mission to help people get their finances in order, Mint was able to build the top personal finance blog on the internet before it ever launched its product.
Mint still drives thousands of visits every month from people looking for budgeting templates and budgeting spreadsheets. Among their top traffic-driving keywords, you get “monthly budget template” (5,600 visits), “monthly budget spreadsheet” (3,600 visits), and “household budget template” (2,900 visits), according to Ahrefs:
According to Business Insider, the traffic Mint got from its blog when it launched was already greater than the traffic Wesabe, Buxfer, and Geezeo were getting combined.
While Mint was still getting ready to launch, founder Aaron Patzer’s team started seeding interest in the product through the then-emergent practice of content marketing.
Google Trends data shows that both inbound and content marketing, at the time of Mint’s launch, had hardly been studied.
Mint’s team called it a “content network” at the time. They wrote blog posts, conducted interviews with well-known personal finance speakers, designed infographics, and generally created whatever kinds of content they thought would succeed with their target audience of mainly young professionals looking to better manage their finances.
Then, they spent an equal amount of time working on distributing that content both through social media (Reddit, personal finance forums) and through SEO (which wound up driving about 20% of Mint’s overall traffic).
The content Mint created for SEO was made based on various keywords they’d identified as high traffic: “budgeting,” “spending plan,” “financial management,” “save for college,” “how do credit cards work.”
The content Mint made for social was painstakingly designed around getting attention on specific websites. Founder Aaron Patzer told journalist and entrepreneur Shane Snow that his team spent large amounts of time on sites like Reddit and Digg, looking at the kinds of content getting the most upvotes and trying to simply emulate the most successful pieces.
Every time someone hit a piece of Mint.com content, whether from Google or Reddit, they saw a box where you could sign up to get on Mint’s waiting list. This call-to-action was on every single page of this “content network.” And it worked. 20,000+ people signed up to try this “free personal finance solution.”
Not only did all this content get people visiting Mint and signing up for its newsletter, it got them thinking about Mint as a trusted source of financial information.
Like NerdWallet is today, Mint became an authority in the space — a reputation that allowed it to overcome some of the inherent difficulties in being a personal fintech company that relies on people sharing their financial information.
Mint’s ability to get signups using viral, high-value content was one great strategy for acquiring customers pre- and post-launch.
Robinhood took it to another level, getting to 1 million interested users pre-launch with an ingenious referral program.
Robinhood — Building a waitlist of 1M+ people with a referral priority program
It’s been a while since a personal finance tool has grown as quickly as Robinhood. The app, known for free mobile stock trading, hit 1 million active users in a year — and today Robin Hood is at over 2 million, adding about 140,000 new users every month.
That’s “more accounts than E-trade added in all of 2016,” according to TechCrunch. And Robinhood has had 17% month-over-month growth in (paid) premium Robinhood Gold accounts.
Part of this success was the fact that Robinhood had a million users waiting to use its service before it even launched.
At the core of Robinhood’s extreme growth — besides the central value prop, free trades, which we discuss in the next section — was its referral priority program.
A referral priority program, when properly set up, can spark a much higher than usual amount of sharing.
It works like this: you join Robinhood’s waitlist. Like in any other line, you start off at the end. But you’re offered a deal — invite a friend to join the waitlist behind you, and you will move up in line a few spots.
The more people you refer, the faster you move up.
Allowing users to “cut” by referring other users was an innovative idea, and it worked.
The psychological power of the referral priority program is that people’s desire to move up (and thereby share) has no inherent limit. As long as people want to get to the front of the line and the line is long enough, they will continue to share until they run out of friends to send the link to.
By allowing their users to essentially act as sales agents, Robinhood was able to dramatically expand the reach of its referral program.
This marketing campaign seeded all of Robinhood’s subsequent growth:
Between Robinhood and Mint, we walk away with two great strategies for acquiring users. Now that you have those users, how do you get them to stick around?
That comes down to demonstrating value. Quickly.
The next successful strategy personal financial management tools have deployed is all about making the first experience magical.
Let’s dig in.
2. Making the first experience valuable
Keeping users around is hard: according to Localytics, the average mobile app loses 80% of its users within just three days of download.
This tells you that not only is making your value clear to users paramount, doing it quickly is even more important. Get them engaged quickly, or you will not have another chance.
The top 10 apps in the Google Play Store differentiate from the next 50, 100, and 5000 based almost entirely off how well they retain users during that first 3-day period.
The best apps retain about 70% of users after three days. The next-best retain about 60%. And so on.
In other words, mobile products are under the gun to almost immediately show value to their users.
This is particularly important for personal financial management tools, which need to overcome a user’s natural reluctance to allow an app to tap into their financial data.
They need to show their users how helpful they can be during the first-run experience while asking for a bigger commitment in the form of:
- bank accounts
- debit & credit cards
- income information
- social security number (for tools like Robinhood and Credit Karma)
That’s tough to overcome, and is why building a smooth first-run experience is such a challenge (and opportunity) for personal finance apps.
Credit Karma — Use free tools to bring 5.1M visitors from Google every month
On a monthly basis, Ahrefs data shows that Credit Karma drives 5M visits worth a total of $10.9M in impressions.
More than 30% of Credit Karma’s 5 million monthly site visitors don’t come to Credit Karma for the main product, which is aggregated access to short-term loans — they come for the free tools.
They come to the Debt Repayment Calculator to calculate the amount of interest left on their debt. They come to the Credit Score Simulator to see how their credit score might change with a hard inquiry.
These free tools have become a significant driver of both traffic and user acquisition for Credit Karma. “It took us five years to dispel the baggage that came with our business model,” founder and CEO Kenneth Lin told First Round Review. “We had to invest in tools explicitly to turn this around.”
The success of Credit Karma’s free tools has a lot to do with the way information is generally structured and searched on the web.
When people have a problem, they Google it. Tools that help people fix those problems or answer their questions will drift up to the top of the search results.
If that problem is prevalent enough, this can mean a tool gets found in thousands or tens of thousands of searches every month.
Over time, these tools build up credibility (even more so when they become the first, second, or third result in Google), and this can lead to upsells.
Credit Karma has a variety of free tools on its site, all designed to provide a very specific type of value quickly:
- Credit Score Simulator
- Debt Repayment Calculator
- Simple Loan Calculator
- Amortization Calculator
These simulation tools and calculators have a layer of value that is accessible to anyone coming to Credit Karma for the first time, but Credit Karma also offers another, deeper, data-driven layer of value that’s only accessible if you become a Credit Karma user.
The Credit Score Simulator, for example, lets you run through a wide variety of situations and how they might change your credit score.
Only with an actual Credit Karma account, however, can you analyze your historical credit report and see, for example, how your score might be different if you hadn’t made all those late payments:
These tools simultaneously serve two purposes:
- They answer simple questions that millions of people have about their finances
- They show the value that Credit Karma’s full product line can offer
Their success is tied to how well they perform in search, and historical SEO rankings tell us that relatively soon after these tools were built (2012), Credit Karma was ranking near the middle–top of the first page of search results for some huge related keywords like:
- loan calculator: 823,000 monthly searches
- debt calculator: 9,900 monthly searches
- car loan calculator: 550,000 monthly searches
It’s clear that 2012 is also when we start to see the beginnings of serious user growth at Credit Karma:
Each one of these tools showed prospective Credit Karma users (and financial product customers) a small slice of the value the service could offer them.
“It can seem counterintuitive that features that don’t generate revenue could be your greatest competitive advantage later on,” founder and CEO Kenneth Lin said. “We’ve built credit simulators and tools to dispute credit report errors even if it didn’t bring in money because we wanted to drive habitual engagement with the site.”
When you get users coming back to your product on a regular basis, you get more opportunities to show them what you can do.
For Credit Karma, an app that has no natural retention “hook” or sticky moment, the free tool is a powerful way to make stickiness happen.
Mint had a more internal mechanism for showing that value — an algorithm that took a user’s financial information and sorted and categorized it upon first use of the product.
Mint — How it returned 100+ lost hours to users on their first open
Much of Mint’s early success can be tied to a very simple product innovation. The first time you logged into Mint, you could pull all of your financial transactions from your bank, including your credit and debit cards — and you wouldn’t need to spend an hour meticulously tagging each one to see your spending habits. They would be automatically categorized.
Mint eliminated those 100+ days of work and thereby offered a far better first-run experience than Quicken or Microsoft Money could.
Mint is a great example of making an impression on your new users by automating a series of steps they would normally go through manually.
Level Money, on the other hand, shows that you can produce the same kind of impression in a more direct way — by asking a few simple questions.
Level Money — A 3-question onboarding flow can produce instant valuable feedback
Level Money, a budgeting app for millennials and Business Insider’s “best app for managing your money,” was one of the most popular financial management apps before it was acquired by Capital One in 2015. At the time of acquisition, it had 700,000 users and had processed about $12 billion in transactions since its launch in 2013.
The key to Level Money’s user experience is that it gets people to offer actionable information about their personal finances their first time using the product.
Often, loading up a new personal finance app means dealing with tons of permissions and passwords, followed by being dumped into an unfamiliar dashboard that it takes days or weeks to feel fully comfortable using. It can take a while to begin really getting value out of it. Level Money’s first-run experience is designed to show you that value right away.
It works in 3 parts:
- After you connect your bank account, Level Money app goes through deposits to your bank account and figures out which represent your recurring income.
- The app then goes through different withdrawals from your bank account and figures out which represent your bills and other recurring expenses.
- Finally, the app asks you how much you want to save each month.
When that’s finished, you’re sent to the main dashboard of the app.
The main dashboard of Level Money then uses income vs. expenses to show you three bubbles representing the amount of money you can still spend today, this week, and this month if you want to accomplish the goal you set out in #3.
Within a few minutes of using the app for the first time, in other words, millennials using Level Money can have an answer to a simple question that’s always on their minds — “Can I go out tonight or will I go broke?”
That kind of specific utility, matched to a precise idea of the product’s intended audience, is critical to success.
After users download an app and get through their first-run experience with it, the effectiveness of its design and how well it works for them personally is what comes into consideration.
The best personal finance tools are designed very intentionally for a specific use case or kind of user. Let’s dive into some examples.
3. Design for The Specific User You Want
When the Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg gauged people’s reactions to various websites and asked them what factors played the biggest part in their assessments, design was unanimously the most commonly-cited reason for trusting or not trusting a particular site.
Perhaps more surprising, when he went industry-by-industry, it was finance that brought up the most design-related comments.
Design matters in fintech because design is central to a website’s credibility. Design can build up trust or break it down very quickly. It can burden users with excessive information and friction that ruins the user experience.
Personal finance in particular presents some difficulties that make design all the more important. When you use a banking app or budgeting app normally, you need to authenticate yourself, sync up with your bank account and various credit cards, enter personal information (including SSNs, DOBs, etc.), and otherwise input quite a lot of data.
Turning that into an easy consumer experience is both the PFM design challenge and a massive PFM design opportunity, as the best tools in the space prove.
Robinhood — Get millions of millennial customers by using white space in your design
In 2015, Robinhood became the first fintech product to be awarded the prestigious Apple Design Award. The mobile app is clean, uncluttered, and features one of the smoothest stock portfolio views out there. But most importantly, Robinhood’s app design mirrors the needs of its specific market.
The Robinhood app engineering teams value user experience above all else.
Simplifying the trading interface and revamping the user experience of buying and selling stock has allowed Robinhood to connect with their millennial market (the average age of a Robinhood user, according to Fast Company, is just 28) and turn novices into traders. That’s due in large part to design mistakes made by Robinhood’s competition.
Even though one in five millennials exclusively use phones to connect to the internet, according to comScore, virtually all of the stock trading apps on iOS and Android look like they’ve been ported there as an afterthought — not designed specifically for the mobile form-factor.
These interfaces are packed with information — enough to easily lead to information overload. Real-time streaming quotes and in-depth technical indicators are important for day traders, but they’re not necessary for the passive trading majority.
In fact, while these features add value for those who need them, they make the apps harder to navigate and use for those who don’t. Robinhood’s goal was not to build an app for day-traders or portfolio managers; it was to build an app for the first-time retail investor.
“We’re making investing accessible to young people. Most stock brokerages out there have been around for 30 years, their interfaces are clumsy, and they’re targeting older professionals and active traders,” co-founder Vlad Tenev told TechCrunch. “They’re no place for first time investors and that’s one of the things we focus on. Making it accessible. Having it be mobile friendly.”
To make stock trading accessible and mobile-friendly, the Robinhood team stripped information away and built a dashboard that would give just the right amount of information:
Rather than a long list of technical indicators, Robinhood’s app shows you:
- the current value of your account
- the amount your account’s value has changed by
- one piece of news regarding your account (above, an order confirmation)
Swiping to the right allows you to see your account’s value on weekly, monthly, and longer timescales. Scrolling down allows you to check out the value of your various holdings, and dig deeper into their historical performance. For those used to Snapchat and Instagram, it’s a familiar mechanism.
But the most prominent difference between Robinhood and apps like Stock Trader is the reliance on white space:
White space improves reading comprehension by up to 20%, helps users understand the relationships between different UI elements, and directs users’ attention.
It’s in short supply in trading apps packed with information. Robinhood uses 1.79x more white space than Stock Trader to focus its users’ attention on their account balance and its rate of change over time.
By clearing away all the information a user doesn’t need, Robinhood makes its app legible and makes trading easier for its users to understand. That’s especially important when trying to capture a market like millennials — who by and large haven’t traded before, don’t understand why they should, and don’t know how to start.
Visual design is crucial, but heavy use of white space isn’t the only way to enforce minimalism in product. For Check (formerly Pageonce), creating the best product possible meant chiseling away features that had outlived their usefulness and crafting a leaner, nimbler app.
Check — How cutting away its own features made Check worth $360 million
When Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger realized that people were mostly using their Foursquare-clone app Burbn to take filtered photos, they spun that feature off into its own product and called it Instagram.
Similarly, when Pageonce realized that many of its features were being beaten by other products, it honed in on one that wasn’t: mobile bill pay. And as Check worked its way up to a $360M acquisition, what started out as an aggregator for various web services — from social to shopping — became a mobile app dedicated solely to paying your bills online.
Mobile bill pay usage volume spiked, hitting well over $1M a day by the time Check was acquired by Intuit in June 2014.
The original Pageonce was a prototypical Web 2.0 account aggregator.
You could use it to check your MySpace feed (yes, MySpace), monitor your stock portfolio, get emails, check whether your flight was on time, and see what bills were due and when. The idea was that people wanted one place to do all of these things.
That made sense on the web, where you have a lot of screen real estate and could easily navigate between different sites. On mobile, however, you trade real estate for focus.
Apps started to emerge that were rapidly unbundling the services Pageonce offered:
Many of Pageonce’s services couldn’t compete when more specialized apps started entering the marketplace.
As these specialized apps started to siphon off Pageonce’s users, the team tried to narrow their focus. They looked at how their users were actually using Pageonce and found that most of their active users were using Pageonce primarily to pay their bills and track their spending. They rebuilt their app around financial management, releasing Pageonce Personal Assistant on an early version of the iOS App Store.
In 2009, the app hit a million users and was one of the top 20 apps in the App Store that year.
A few years later, in 2012, user growth plateaued again. Mint was dominating the mobile financial management space, with a stronger brand and new resources from the Intuit acquisition. Once again, Pageonce was existentially threatened by its competition, and had to do something.
The answer came in zeroing in on the one feature that Pageonce had that Mint didn’t: bill pay.
The Pageonce team once again rebuilt their app around the one feature where usage was growing steadily — this time, bill pay — and eliminated everything else. The theory was simple: people could use Mint to manage their budgets. If Pageonce’s bill pay was the best out there, people would continue to use it.
Shortly after the team once again cut their app’s features, Pageonce broke out of its growth plateau and hit 10 million registered users:
Mint — How Mint used the color green to convert 50%+ of Americans
When it comes to sensitive personal information and the internet, people don’t necessarily behave rationally. They follow the cues in their environment. If your sign-in page features broken/missing elements or shoddy, 90s-style web design, people will be less likely to trust you.
As we mentioned, Stanford’s BJ Fogg asked 2,684 people to write about how they assessed the credibility of various websites — design look was mentioned in nearly half of all the comments, significantly more than any other factor.
“The dominance of design look may be surprising. One might ask, ‘Are people really so influenced by design look and not by more substantial issues?’ The answer appears to be yes—at least in this setting.” — BJ Fogg
Mint’s founding team was well aware of this phenomenon when the app launched. It was 2007, and people were much less willing to hand sensitive banking information to a new internet startup than they are now.
At the time, Lifehacker wrote an entire piece breaking down Mint’s security, noting how hard it was to overcome people’s paranoia about sharing financial information online: “As soon as any web-based financial software like Mint is mentioned, the security watchdogs among us pounce on the comments to let the rest of us know that we should never, ever trust anyone with our financial data, especially our aggregated financial data.”
The New York Times wrote a piece promoting Mint in 2009 and reader reactions were so incredulous (“You gave them YOUR ACCOUNT NUMBER?! Your PIN NUMBER?! Your SECURITY QUESTIONS???? ARE YOU NUTS, OR JUST STUPID???????”) that they had to issue a follow-up, with comments from CEO Aaron Patzer himself, to reassure people that Mint wasn’t planning to steal their identities.
Design emerged as the most important lever Mint could use to create trust. Everything was painstakingly constructed from day one, and user-tested to build trust and credibility. As lead designer Jason Putorti told the First Round Review:
You can’t just sort of throw something together in a month, launch it, and expect that it’s going to work. A big part of it was just, does it look credible. Does it feel credible? A lot of it’s visual. A lot of it’s being a good copywriter, writing friendly copy, making people feel comfortable as they go through the process … It’s our job really to figure out what makes it trustworthy.
To see the other side, just look at Mint’s biggest (startup) competitor at the time, Wesabe. Its site was designed according to Web 2.0 aesthetics:
As one Wesabe user wrote, the aesthetic choices didn’t seem to line up with the “Average Joe” market that Wesabe was courting:
Our first impression from using Wesabe’s site is that it looks as though it was designed by programmers. The tabs, subject headings and tags are all there and functional, but it does not feel as though there was as much thought given to the design, layout or usability. In such a competitive market, with strong entrants like Mint and PNC’s Virtual Wallet, this simply won’t cut it for long.
Yodlee, one of Mint’s data providers, had their own front-end personal finance tool too, but its design was less consumer-friendly. It was complex, gave a lot of information up front, and didn’t have any easy-to-understand graphs or charts:
The team at Mint realized that they needed to buck the Web 2.0 trend, which was seen as fun and social but not — the all-important factor, in this case — credible. They also realized that people hated using products from Intuit and Microsoft because they were so complicated that you needed a “For Dummies” guide just to get started.
Several progressive UI moves turned Mint into a service that people felt they could trust. Despite the popularity of 2D design at the time, Mint went all-in on 3D tabs, buttons, and box shadows to make divisions clear and keep users from clicking in the wrong place by accident.
The gradients and airbrushing were all tailored specifically to appeal to people’s sense of visual credibility, as were the colors — green, with orange highlights.
Green and orange are complementary colors. They provide a strong sense of contrast when put side-by-side, crucial for Mint’s team. Creating sufficient contrast between values and inputs and making the site easy to navigate and understand visually was very important for creating user trust.
Whether your users know it or not, the color of your website is going to have an effect on how they perceive its credibility and authoritativeness.
Do you want the site that manages your finances to remind you of money, or do you want it to remind you of Flickr or del.icio.us or some obscure social networking app no one’s ever even heard of?
If you want to build a product for people who don’t necessarily trust you innately, then you need to use every tool in your toolbox to create that feeling of authoritativeness and trust.
As Level Money shows us, design can also help you create a product that’s easy to use and lower the barrier for making complicated financial decisions.
Level Money — How Level Money designed for millennials by reducing choice
When you design any product, one of the biggest choices you make is the amount of information that you’re going to expose to your users. Are you building a dashboard, or are you building a single view on a dataset?
This choice is more than an aesthetic one — it’s about deciding who your product is for, what they want to do with it, and the amount of information that they need.
Level Money built a budgeting app that succeeded with millennial users by taking a minimalist stance on all of these questions, simplifying its UX to meet the real concerns of the people in their market.
With the Level Money app, you simply enter how much you make every month, how much you pay in bills, and how much you want to save each month. This is the end of setup — the next screen presents you with the main UI of the Level Money app.
Three bubbles — representing how much money you have left to spend today, this week, and this month — make up the main view of the app.
“I’m a big fan of Level — I use it to track how much I spend on ride-sharing services every month, among other things. And it fills a niche: most official bank apps are ugly, hard to use, and siloed — they don’t give you a sense of your overall financial health,” writes Casey Newton at the Verge.
Only once I tried Level, a new app for iPhone, did I realize that the question I truly cared about was this: how much money can I spend today, or this week, or this month?
“I still use Mint to make sure I’m not eating out too much or having too many drinks at the bar, but Level has taken its place on my coveted home screen, and I refer to it daily. Level isn’t for everyone, but for people with just a few bills to pay per month and a predictable cash flow, there’s no better app for providing clarity on your finances. One thing well? This app does it,” Newton adds.
These reviews tell us that those three bubbles are all that many millennials need or want — for now — while their finances are relatively simple. Especially in contrast to products with fuller feature sets, like Mint:
“Like most budgeting systems, Mint splits things up into too many categories. I don’t care about my clothing or entertainment budgets, because those are things I worry about only after monthly bills, gas, and food,” one Level Money reviewer wrote. “Ultimately, I wanted something simple that would let me know how much I have to spend after the essentials are paid for.”
Information-wise, an app like Mint does it all. It lets you track your investment portfolio next to your credit cards next to your personal loans next to your bank accounts next to your checking account. But about a third of millennials don’t even have a single dollar in savings.
The main navigational dashboard of Mint demonstrates the point — only one of the options represents information about what’s actively going on with your finances right now, while the others represent planning (budgets, goals) or potential future outcomes (investments, ways to save).
If you have a lot of different accounts to manage, then Mint makes a lot of sense.
If you’re among the half of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, then you’re probably more concerned with what you’re able to spend (on yourself, on your family) right at this moment. You’re mostly concerned with the information under Transactions — what you’ve spent, how much you’re supposed to spend, and what the spread is.
The bubble-centric look of Level Money was highly minimalistic for a PFM product, but it wasn’t that way just because it looked cool. It was that way because the team at Level Money saw an opportunity to take the standard PFM design and pare it down to its bare essentials for a very specific market of users with very specific questions.
Let’s look at how the best personal financial management tools monetize their users’ progress so that they can succeed when they help others succeed.
4. Monetize your users’ financial betterment
Products with network effects get better the more users there are. For example, the telephone gains value as more people have phones. Facebook gains value as more of your friends get profiles.
The PFM space has no easy analogy for network effects because its focus is so intimate — you don’t care about other people’s money. You care about your own money, managing it better, and making it grow.
Instead, PFM tools operate according to something more like what you might call “quality of life effects.”
If you start using an app and it helps you improve your life — whether by diversifying your portfolio or helping you find a low-interest loan — then you’re more likely to keep using it, tell your friends about it, and post on social media about it.
The best PFM tools don’t just help their users succeed. They promote financial betterment and turn it into a flywheel of growth, benefiting from their users’ enthusiasm for improving their finances and even sharing that improvement with others.
Mint — How to find a $2B market opportunity giving your users’ product recommendations
Rather than put ads on Mint, founder and CEO Aaron Patzer monetized the service by recommending products to Mint users based on their financial histories.
This required more work than using banner ads, but in the long run it made for a stronger business.
While ads bring revenue at the expense of the user experience, the recommendations on Mint bring revenue and improve the user experience. The more on point Mint’s recommendations are, the more likely their users are to find value in using Mint. So incentives are aligned.
Mint’s Patzer knew he didn’t want to put conventional banner ads on the site. It wasn’t going to bolster users’ trust in the product to see ads everywhere. And it would be a constant challenge to keep them from hurting the customer experience.
As discussed above, Mint’s defining feature at the time was its automatic categorization algorithm. It was in this algorithm that Patzer found the business model.
“We realized, well, if you can categorize transactions accurately, that’s great, because the user knows where their money is going … But that also means we know where their money’s going,” he said in a speech at Princeton University.
“We can see that you spend $180 on phone, TV, and internet… and that you could get a bundle for $99 that would save you $1200 a year. And Comcast would pay us a sales fee for that lead. So all of a sudden … we had our business model.”
It was a business model that made a lot of sense. The product would be free, to encourage as many people to use it as possible. Users would get special deals (“preferred pricing”) when they bought into an offer.
Doing the math on the different kinds of lead generation opportunities Mint could have with its users’ data across different industries, you get about $30 per potential user per year:
There were 65 million people in America using online banking at the time, and about 20 million using Quicken and Money — which cost $30 – $70. This meant Mint’s potential market size was between 20 million and 65 million. With a potential per user revenue of $30/year, Mint’s market opportunity came out to somewhere between $0.6 billion and $1.8 billion. (Plus, the more users Mint got and the better it got at analyzing their data, the better the app would get at recommending products.)
A few years later, Patzer said that while some of the numbers had been off in one direction or another, the bigger picture had held.
Mint’s example shows how you can build a business model by understanding your users and offering them product recommendations and valuable referrals. Offering a free product and putting ads in it is going to be a far more effective strategy when those ads are actually relevant and helpful to people.
As Credit Karma shows us, this holds just as much for those trying to rebuild their credit and get a loan as it does for people saving for retirement.
Credit Karma — How to build a $500M business helping the disadvantaged
When Credit Karma first entered the market, the only options you had for getting more than one free credit report a year were sites like TrueCredit and FreeCreditReport.com.
With these sites, “free” was a misnomer. At one point, the FTC sued FreeCreditReport.com (and their owner, Experian) because when consumers signed up for their service, they were also surreptitiously signed up for $15 a month in credit monitoring with it.
Credit Karma gave credit scores away for free, and in doing so acquired a user base larger than FreeCreditReport or TrueCredit ever could with their model.
A part of that user base is the vast number of Americans who have bad credit and are actively working to fix it. An entire third of Americans, according to Experian, have officially “bad” credit, or a credit score under 600.
Much of Credit Karma’s growth has been driven by people looking to not just learn their credit score, but improve it.
The American states with the worst overall credit are also, overwhelmingly, the most likely to be visiting Credit Karma:
The states with the worst credit scores in the country in 2006:
- Georgia — #7 in Credit Karma searches
- Mississippi — #1 in Credit Karma searches
- Louisiana — #6 in Credit Karma searches
- Nevada — #10 in Credit Karma searches
- Texas — #13 in Credit Karma searches
- Oklahoma — #12 in Credit Karma searches
- South Carolina — #3 in Credit Karma searches
- Alabama — #2 in Credit Karma searches
- Tennessee — #8 in Credit Karma searches
- New Mexico — #16 in Credit Karma searches
People with bad credit are more likely to visit Credit Karma than other sites because:
- it’s free and doesn’t represent an additional financial burden
- it allows them to see their credit score as it changes from week to week
- Credit Karma can offer them financial products that are tailored to their situation
Its products are where Credit Karma really differentiates itself from the traditional credit monitoring sites.
Because Credit Karma has access to so much user data, connections with financial institutions, and exposure to Americans with bad credit, it can offer the kind of products that people in subprime financial situations can’t get elsewhere.
“We talk about this sometimes — what about payday lending, what about some of these other lending instruments where the typical consumer would say, well that’s bad,” founder Kenneth Lin told Fast Company, “But what if you have really poor credit? You quickly realize, there is a group of people that are served by this. It’s sort of Ivory Tower if you’re saying, ‘Don’t do this.’”
This practice of serving underserved communities has become a foundation of Credit Karma’s business model: “There are a lot of families struggling to make ends meet,” Lin says. “To the extent that we can help save $50 or $100 — a month, a week, a year — that’s valuable. And we can make a business out of it, which is great.”
Similar to Mint, the company was founded with the free model in mind — better to get users and use their data to make money than to limit your audience by charging a fee upfront.
It’s easy to assume that in PFM, it’s better to go after the high-net-worth user base every time. But everyone needs financial help — and Credit Karma was able to tap into a much larger market by making their product free and offering it to more people. (Of course, everyone wants to know their credit score; not all products can offer something so obviously desirable.)
Other PFM tools are able to not just link up their products with peoples’ already-existing desire for financial improvement, but use their products to make those desires easier to act on (and even automate).
After the buzz has worn off and the PR has faded, they’re the products that are still picking up and retaining their users — let’s look at how they do it.
5. Productize personal responsibility
The internet, as Twitter co-founder Evan Williams says, is not a utopia: it’s “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.”
Opportunities are found where you can give people what they want better or faster than others. Uber got people from point A to point B faster. Google got them information faster.
The PFM space is one where there are a lot of wants not being met by providers. Americans want:
- Better credit, but they don’t know how to get it
- To start investing, but they don’t know how
- To save more, but they feel incapable
The central stumbling block, much of the time, is human psychology:
- Present bias leads us to systematically overspend on short-term goods rather than put our money towards the future
- Cognitive inertia stops us from doing obvious things like signing up for investment accounts when there’s too much friction/forms involved in the process
- Scarcity bias leads us to spend more when we decide that we’re going to go on a budget
When more than half of all Americans can’t afford a surprise $500 expense, it’s clear that the existing solutions for solving this crisis have failed.
That’s why PFM tools are so powerful — they can help people overcome these cognitive biases by changing how we think, automating and amplifying good habits. Most importantly, they can make it as easy as downloading an app.
Acorns — How the app does 17x the trading volume of Fidelity
Acorns is a financial planning app that makes it easier to invest your money. You can invest lump sums or set up recurring deposits, but its primary differentiator is the “Round-Ups” feature.
When enabled, Acorns will take purchases on your linked credit cards and bank accounts and “round them up” to the nearest dollar, investing the remainder into a portfolio of your choosing.
Pay for a $3.69 coffee with your credit card, and Acorns will round it up to $4.00 and put that $0.31 into an investment portfolio.
Micro-transactions like these are a time-tested way to skirt the ordinary human reticence around saving. Apps like Candy Crush tap into this: once you’ve given Candy Crush 99 cents, what’s another 99 cents, and another 99 cents, and so on?
But what Acorns taps into is the positive potential of this phenomenon. Rather than reward you for compulsive behavior, Acorns harnesses micro-payments (and the associated dopamine rush from making them) to help you save.
The classic advice that young people and those who have never invested before get about investing is that you don’t need a lot of money to start. You can get started with “pocket change.”
As soon as you start thinking about pocket change, you realize that we’ve been learning this lesson from very early on in our lives. We’re encouraged to save in small increments, to be frugal, to put every coin we can into a piggy bank.
In a society no longer tethered to cash, the piggy bank is little more than a symbol. But it embodies a desire for simple financial discipline that Acorns is able to not just harness, but amplify.
When you’re investing with Acorns, you can set each round up to multiply by 2x or 3x (so that $0.31 from before becomes $0.62 or $0.93).
So every time you do that pleasurable activity (spend money), your brain releases dopamine. At the same time, Acorns adds your money into your investments.
The two activities become associated, forming a potent feedback loop that lets you harness your natural inclinations towards beneficial long-term ends. Gradually, you begin to associate positive feelings with saving, rather than spending.
Acorns shows us how human tendencies can be bent towards responsible ends. Stash, on the other hand, shows us how a product can simply make it easier to fulfill the responsible desires we already have.
Stash — Add 25,000 users a week by constraining users’ investment options
Stash is one of the newer personal finance apps on our list, but it’s grown like a weed over the last year — of its 850,000+ user accounts, it’s picked up 500,000 of them in 2017 alone. Stash adding 25,000 users a week to its app, 86% of whom are investing in stocks for the first time
Where Acorns productizes the piggy bank investment ethos, Stash productizes the ethos of portfolio diversification.
Unlike an app like Robinhood, where you have to have a significant amount of cash in your account to buy a share of companies like Facebook or Amazon, Stash lets you invest in buckets of related stocks with as little as $5.
That lets you build a portfolio much more easily than in an app where you must buy a discrete unit of stock like Amazon.
The returns on these funds are much higher and much more reliable (for most) then trying to build a portfolio manually, especially when accounting for retail investor psychology.
Researchers looking at 700,000 stock purchases found that people made systematically poor decisions in how they chose to repurchase previously held stocks, often making intuitive (but ultimately unwise) pickups of individual stock. Investors that trade more often also tend to lose more money, on average, than those who trade less.
Stash encourages you to think long-term about the industries that you believe will make a difference and want to support without letting you to stray too far outside the lines of what’s actually fiscally responsible. It prompts users to think about advances in various fields:
Robotics, clean energy, and aerospace are pretty safe bets as industries — as individual companies, perhaps not. You can lose a lot of money as a retail investor betting on a company in one of these sectors. But invest in an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that holds a variety of aerospace and defense assets, and you could be looking at better risk-adjusted returns.
With a social media-based ETF made up of stocks like Facebook and Snapchat, you might see a similar phenomenon. You’re able to make decisions about what you want to invest in without being dependent on any one company to succeed, and you’re definitely earning more than you would with 1% a year in your savings account.
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” may be sensible, but it can turn investing into a chore for someone unacquainted with the markets. That’s why Stash built different baskets into their product, allowing users to easily diversify their portfolios while still investing in areas they’re passionate about.
Rather than investing in stocks, you invest in ETFs—exchange-traded funds, or securities that rise and fall with the value of their underlying asset or commodity.
If Acorns is the app that lets you invest without thinking, Stash is the app that helps you think more intelligently about where you want to invest and learn more about your different options.
By opening up the way people think about investing, and yet constraining the options presented to safe investments likely to produce good outcomes, Stash gives users the best of both worlds.
We’ve gone through how the best PFM tools monetize and productize their users’ financial success to grow.
Helping users make better financial decisions is enough to win over customers, but then getting them to recommend you to friends is critical to success. The best PFM tools supercharge their referral programs by making them all about self-improvement. They’re not doing it like PayPal, by simply giving away $10 to each new user — they’re doing it in new, creative ways. Let’s dive in.
6. Turn Sharing into Self-Improvement
Businesses built off referrals have a stronger foundation.
Referred customers convert 3x – 5x more often than your average user, they’re 16% more likely to stick around for the long-term, and they tend to have a 20% higher lifetime value.
Fintech is a space where it can be harder to make referrals happen, however. The progenitors of viral growth through referral, the Facebooks and Zyngas, succeeded largely because their products gained value as more of your friends got on them.
Your budgeting app doesn’t have any such natural incentive. It doesn’t get better at managing your money the more friends you have using the same budgeting app. And you’re not likely to “share” your bank balance or post it to Twitter, either. Your personal finances are personal.
The best PFM tools don’t fight these anti-network effects, and instead turn referrals into a means for self-improvement.
Whether your reward for bringing a friend onboard is Apple stock or a bucket of American defense ETFs, referral bonuses in the PFM space can be a powerful way to demonstrate a product’s value to new users and get them hooked.
Robinhood — How Robinhood drives addictive referral at a cost of cents per user
In a casino, the house always wins. Pull the lever on a slot machine over and over, and on a long enough timescale, you’ll lose. But imagine if compulsive gambling was good for your financial health. Imagine if pulling it brought you assets that would appreciate over time and improve your well-being in the long run.
That’s the model that Robinhood uses for its referral program.
Instead of giving you money when you refer a user, Robinhood gives you a share of stock selected at random from a pre-populated list of options.
For the price of one referral, you can receive a share of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, or others:
The program was popular on sites like Reddit, where Robinhood users got together to share thoughts on the stocks they received or were hoping to receive for their referrals.
Naturally, the users who got stock others were excited about floated to the top of these threads, confirming for others that valuable stocks were being given away in the program and stirring up a bit of envy.
Looking through these threads, you can see that plenty of the time, the stocks people get aren’t Apple — they’re Sirius, or Groupon, or Zynga.
Like a slot machine, Robinhood’s referral program has you (most of the time) winning small, consistent amounts that are calibrated to be just enough to keep you
If Robinhood is mostly giving away stock in the $2 – $4 range, and only giving away an Apple or a Facebook ($100+) every 80th or so referral, that average reward stays low — about $5 a referral. That cost isn’t incurred right away either, as new users have to wait 30 days to withdraw the money from their account.
Walking through the thought process of receiving a stock reward helps clarify why it would work for Robinhood:
- If you receive a share of stock worth $2, you have to wait 30 days and go through the process of linking up your bank account just to get that $2 out; or, you can leave it in and let it appreciate (leaving the door open to further investment).
- If you receive a share of Apple, or Facebook, or Microsoft, you can wait 30 days and withdraw the cash from your account, or you can spend those 30 days and beyond letting it grow in value even more.
Receive a share of Apple stock today, and its value could double, triple, or quadruple within the next several years. And Robinhood’s referral program makes you consider this before you choose to take your winnings and cash out.
While Robinhood wants to lure you into trying its product through the psychology of “skin in the game,” Stash looks to surmount the main barrier that people feel when they think about investing: thinking they need a big sum of money to get started.
Stash — Seeding user accounts with $5 to demonstrate the power of exponential returns
Stash founders Brandon Krieg and Ed Robinson knew they had to lower the bar to investing if they wanted to get people to start using their product.
When they talked to potential users, they found that there were two reasons that people weren’t currently investing:
- they didn’t know how to get started, or
- they thought investing was only for rich people
They built their referral program to address these hang-ups. Each new user that a current Stash investor refers gets $5 to invest in a bucket of ETFs of their choice.
Log into the Stash app, and new users can play around with various models of investment to see what that $5 can become over the years.
With a $150 monthly deposit at 4.8% growth, for instance, that could become $10,000 after 5 years, or $23,000 after 10.
The $5 gets you into the app, where Stash tries to show you what can happen if you stick with investing for the long term.
This addresses another key pain point in getting people to start investing: most people can’t understand exponential growth.
As part of a study into people’s understanding of growth, the psychologists Craig McKenzie and Michael Liersch asked participants how much saving $400 per month with 5% return annually would turn into after 40 years.
The majority said $200,000. The real answer is over $600,000.
McKenzie and Liersch found that people systematically expect their savings to grow linearly, not exponentially. They have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that compounding growth is the latter:
“People’s failure to recognize the power of compound interest — especially over long periods of time — leads to gross underestimation of future account balances, and by consequence, the cost of waiting to save,” they conclude.
When you get your Stash account seeded with those first $5, you don’t just get the material, short-term benefit of $5. You get a glimpse into what your future could be if you use Stash to invest those $5 for the future.
Liersch and McKenzie found that simply pointing out the implications of exponential growth could encourage people to start saving more, and earlier — and Stash employs a similar strategy to help people understand why they should be investing.
Acorns, on the other hand, helps us see how even a modest, non-viral referral program — optimized with various UX best practices — can be a serious driver of growth.
Acorns — How non-viral referrals let Acorns lower its CAC by 50x
Acorns has raised $70M from the likes of Bain Capital Ventures and PayPal, growing to 2 million active accounts within the span of three years.
In Australia, Acorns pays just $4.50 for each new user account it acquires. That’s far cheaper than your average PFM tool. Today, according to Business Insider, fintech companies are paying anywhere from $300 to $1,000, depending on the lifetime value of their customers.
Meanwhile, the average customer acquisition cost (CAC) for a British robo-advisor startup, according to SCM Direct, is about $234. Even a well-known startup brand like Lending Club still spends about $200 per customer it acquires.
Acorns, at $4.50 per customer, has reduced its CAC by 50x compared to many of its competitors.
Acorns has an amazingly low cost of acquiring customers largely because they’ve tapped into social sharing in a way that other financial services companies haven’t.
Acorns provides strong incentives to share, optimizes the process to make sharing as likely as possible, and ensures that payouts correspond with actually active new users.
If you’re paying $4.50 per customer, an extra 500,000 users from referral means you’re paying a modest $2.25M. If you pay $200 per customer like Lending Club, you’re paying a far-less-modest $100M.
Acorns built its CAC-lowering referral program in two parts.
First, Acorns offers a solid incentive. You get $5 per new customer that you refer. That money gets deposited into your Acorns account and is available for you to start using immediately.
Second, it optimizes the UX around referral and makes it as easy as it can be. Too many companies just tack referral on, assuming that their incentives will do the work of motivating users to actually pull the trigger. But according to research conducted by referral marketing company Extole, eliminating the need to load a new page to refer increases the odds of referral by 4x.
When you arrive at the Acorns referral screen, you have several options for how you can send out your invite code. Each works completely inline — no separate landing pages, copying and pasting, or wonky referral code systems to figure out.
When you hit the Message option, the very next screen is an auto-filled text message that lets you send your link to your friends. If you hit the Twitter button, an auto-filled tweet pops up in-app.
Making it slightly easier for users to share may seem like a small optimization, but every little bit makes a difference when it comes to referral.
In addition, by only offering the referral incentive to those who actually begin depositing money rather than just sign up, Acorns can save significant costs while encouraging users to become active on the app.
More than 600,000 new users have started investing on Acorns in the last seven months. If Acorns spent $10 on each new customer it acquired rather than just those that deposit money, it would spend $6M on its next 600,000.
If it only pays out to users who’ve converted to paying customers — assuming they do so at about a Dropbox-quality rate of 4% — then it only spends about $24,000 to acquire those 600,000.
Acorns isn’t throwing away millions on its referral program just to grow its user base. It’s counting on referred users seeing the value in the product and actually starting to use it.
The future of personal finance apps
The next 7 high-growth PFM tools aren’t going to be built according to a formula. The specific tactics that worked for these 7 tools aren’t going to work for the next 7 — tactics change too often.
However, the core strategies that these companies used to drive traffic, convert users, keep them engaged, and monetize their audience are not flashes in the pan. They’re fundamental to building products that people want to use.