Innovation That Matters

Wise Words: Mitchell Lee on his emoji chat financial app

Wise Words

We speak to co-founder of Penny, a chatbot money managing app for millennials.

The FinTech industry is booming, with startups rushing to fill the gaps left by large institutions stuck in their ways. Recently on Springwise, we saw eye-scanning identification and payments via sound waves. Perhaps a little less sci-fi — but still incredibly intelligent — is Penny, a new money managing app that uses a chatbot, whose native tongue is emoji and easy-to-understand graphs.

The main purpose of the app is to answer budget-related questions and help users spend smarter, providing personalized financial advice. This comes at a ripe time, with millennials having an average savings rate of negative two percent in the US, while accruing impossible student debt year after year. In a blog post on Penny’s website, co-founder Mitchell Lee says that the app was created in response to a lack of personal finance education in today’s schooling systems.

Read our interview with Mitchell, a coder and economic empowerment enthusiast, who’s first investment at 11 years old saw him buying Intel shares for just over USD 100 each.

1. Where did the idea for your business come from?

I’ve been thinking about personal finances for the majority of my life, so my desire to build a personal finance app has been around for years. The catalyst to finally take a stab at it was a one-week hackathon with a few friends. We threw together a rudimentary prototype on the first day, drawing inspiration from the likes of Digit and Lark, and spent the rest of the week showing it to people. That early feedback and the interviews surrounding them laid the foundation for what Penny has become.

2. What were the main issues faced by users of current financial apps on the market that Penny wanted to address?

Simply put, they’re way too complicated. They’re designed for personal finance enthusiasts, not the average person that just wants to make sure they’re not doing silly things with their money. As a result, most people don’t actively keep track of their finances.

3. Can you describe a typical working day?

I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a “typical” work day at a startup, but here’s a best effort:

– Wake up and glance at Slack/email to make sure there were no fires.

– Read, exercise, make breakfast, spend time with my fiancé.

– Get to the office around 9am and respond to all the support tickets that piled up overnight.

– Work on the hardest or biggest task on my list for the day. Sometimes that’s working on content, other times that’s tracking down an obscure bug. If I’m lucky, it’s working on a new feature.

– Forget to eat lunch; get reminded by Slack and teammates that it’s time for lunch; finally eat lunch.

– If I have any meetings, I schedule them for right after lunch since that’s typically my least productive “work” time. For the most part, I’ve learned to be very protective of my time, so I typically only have 1-2 meetings a week.

– As I start to lose mental sharpness towards the end of the day, I switch into review/catch-up mode. I look at other people’s code, review new content, answer emails, tackle smaller coding tasks like refactors or cleanups, etc.

– Call it a day sometime between 7pm and 9pm.

4. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on your business?

I rarely work after I get home or on the weekends, mostly because my fiancé wouldn’t allow it, but also because it’s important to step away from the day-to-day grind to allow your mind to process. I often have breakthroughs or insights after I’ve had a few hours to detox from work.

I pack my weekends with travel and a healthy dose of outdoor activity. My weekend schedules reflect my love of exploring and trying new things. During the week, I try to plan at least one or two get togethers with friends (a dinner, game night, sports watch-party, etc.).

5. What’s the most important characteristic for being an entrepreneur?

I haven’t been an entrepreneur for long enough to have a reputable opinion on this, but I think a sense of empathy is extremely important. You need empathy to understand who you’re trying to serve with your product, why they would and — just as importantly — wouldn’t use what you’re building, and why your big product launch didn’t even register as a blip on anyone’s radar. Being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes is an invaluable tool for an entrepreneur.

A runner up is a sense of humility. The market doesn’t care about your ego or how hard you worked on an idea. Humility will help you roll with the punches that you’ll invariably take as a founder.

6. What drove you crazy when building Penny?

The App Store. I am not an iOS engineer, and Apple’s app creation/submission processes are extremely intimidating to newcomers. Everything from getting the app submitted for the first time, to adding support for push notifications, to debugging iOS bugs… they all drove me crazy for the first few months. Apple’s process is the way it is for a reason, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.

7. What motivates you to keep going? What do you do when you hit a block?

We get a steady stream of user feedback that we pipe into a Slack channel. Seeing positives comments, hearing how Penny has helped them… that’s all of the motivation I need. When I do hit roadblocks, I rely on my co-founder Alex to help me through them. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that there’s no chance I would have had the resolve to keep going without him along for the ride.

8. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I don’t know if, how or when we’ll fail and why that will happen, so I don’t have the benefit of hindsight yet. I have learned a lot about getting press coverage that I wish I would have known earlier, so perhaps that’s what I would have approached differently.

9. Do you have any habits or routines, which help you in your working life?

I get up extra early to read, make breakfast, and exercise every morning before work. By the time I get into the office, I’ve been up for several hours and am ready to hit the ground running.

10. What book are you reading, or writing now?

I just finished “When Breath Becomes Air” and am now reading “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Both books are pretty heavy, but really put your day-to-day “struggles” into perspective. They’re a nice kick in the pants to remind me how fortunate I really am.

11. Tell Springwise a secret…

I once flashed a jacket full of (fake) money during a seventh-grade speech while running for student council treasurer to prove that I keep money close to my heart.

12. How did you get your initial round of funding to get your company off the ground?

That’s a story for another time. We plan to write about our experience when we get some spare time—we’ll keep you posted 😉

13. How do you feel about your journey ahead and do you have any wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Have fun with it. All of the odds are stacked against you, so it’s incredibly important that you enjoy the journey. You’ll always have that, regardless of how your business does.

For me: I love what I’m working on — it’s a problem that I’ve been passionate about my whole life, it’s a mission I can get behind, I’m working with a team of talented people that I both respect and like, and I have complete freedom to choose the things I should be working on. What more could I want?