For Charlie '01 and Sarah Park '01, their new business started out as a way not to make money, but to help themselves get their finances in order. But what once was a simple Excel spreadsheet has blossomed into PearBudget, which has put them on the same footing as software juggernauts Microsoft and Intuit.
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When Charlie graduated from the College, he was full of great ideas, and for a while he went to work cultivating ideas at a company called PLAY, based out of Richmond, Va. His position was an idea-incubator - someone who took the problems of a company, and attempted to come up with creative solutions to them.
"It was a great job, I didn't make a lot of money," says Charlie of those early days. "It became apparent that if we weren't careful, we would quickly run out of money. We began to develop a budget."
Because of this lack of funds, Charlie and Sarah looked for a simple way to manage their budget, and they used Excel to create a spreadsheet, which they designed for both ease of use and simplicity. Not exactly programmers, Charlie (a religion major) and Sarah (an art history major), worked together to come up with something that didn't make the user "stare at a screen full of numbers." Eventually they posted their spreadsheet online so that others could use their method to get their own finances straight.
"At that point, it was just a thing that I had made," remembers Charlie. "It didn't strike me as this terribly special thing."
But based on the feedback and the 150,000 people who downloaded the file and used it and gave them very positive feedback on the way that the file operated, calculated and streamlined the chore of balancing the books.
"Anyone can create a spreadsheet for their finances, but we've done so many revisions that we thought that this might be something," says Sarah.
Part of what made their solution "something" was that it answered the question for people who know that they need a budget, but have trouble finding a place to start. The spreadsheet featured a wizard and categories based on income, and the computer did all of the heavy lifting.
Along the way, the Parks' spreadsheet garnered the attention of some pretty influential bloggers and technology Web sites, which promoted the spreadsheet to all of their readers. And, after a mention in Popular Science, it began to get a great deal of momentum - many more people were now downloading the spreadsheet, leading the Parks to wonder what could happen next.
"At this time, we read how all of these people were loving it, and all of these people were getting helped out," says Charlie. "But we were very frustrated by it. It was simpler and more effective than anything else we had seen, but it still wasn't quite as effective or as simple as we thought it could be."
"The only way that we felt like it do that was for it to break past the limitations of the spreadsheet and of Excel," says Sarah.
The way for their spreadsheet to grow into something more was to make it a Web-based tool. The Parks started redesigning their product as an Internet application. The process took them over two years of revising and refining everything from the interface to the back-end and guts that operate the software.
As with the development of the spreadsheet, their differing interests helped shape what has become PearBudget.
"I would come up with something that I thought was so effective and so clear," says Charlie.
"And I would look at it and say that it was still too busy," says Sarah. "There is still too much going on, and it's still too distracting. We wanted people to interact with this in a way where they are enabled to focus."
"Yeah, if you look at a screen of numbers, and you don't understand what you are looking at, then it becomes worthless, or just eye candy," says Charlie.
The mix of ease and utility was important, and the Parks geared PearBudget for a user who is motivated to get a handle on their finances, but at the same time may not be good at math or for someone who is intimidated by numbers. Much of the programming in the beginning of the site's creation was done with outside help, but slowly Charlie began to take the reins, to where now he is the sole programmer. They started working on PearBudget full time in October 2007, and the site opened for business in April 2008, and was profitable within the first year of operation - quite a feat for any business.
PearBudget has grown into a site where users can get the same sort of slick interaction that Microsoft Money or Intuit's Quicken provides, at a fraction of the cost. And the Parks believe that their product provides a cleaner user experience and better results - although they will say that those services are not their competitors, just other "generals in the war against bad finances." Because PearBudget is an Internet application, it can be accessed anywhere the Internet is, even on new mobile Web-friendly devices like the iPhone.
"It's really cool when we get e-mails from people that validate our effort," says Charlie. "Retirees e-mail us to tell us how PearBudget helps them get by on their fixed budget, and we'll get e-mails from young couples who were just like we used to be - just married and in need of some way to watch the spending."
The Parks won't say exactly how many people have signed on to their service, but they will reveal that more than 30,000 have taken a trial membership on the site. Many of them roll into the paid service.
"There is nobody out there who is doing what we're doing," says Sarah. "We're definitely meeting the needs of a certain niche."
"Ultimately, our goal is to help people get their finances in order and to pay for a mortgage," says Charlie.