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Tiny SaaS startup builds cloud-based alternative to Quicken

CountAbout came about because desktop-bound Quicken data couldn't be shared online. Today, the two-person SaaS startup wants to be your cloud-based personal financial manager.

The March 2016 sale by Intuit of its iconic Quicken personal financial management software package to private equity firm H.I.G. Capital is opening the door for a new generation of cloud-based alternatives. One tiny SaaS startup, CountAbout, has already stepped through that door, launching a product built for the cloud and on the cloud.

Created on a tiny budget and offering, for now, a subset of Quicken's vast feature set, the development and deployment of the CountAbout software as a service (SaaS) is a study in practicality over technological prowess and frugality over freewheeling spending -- experiences from which any other small SaaS startup can learn, according to its founders.

In 2012, certified public accountant Joe Carpenter and his wife needed to access their financial data from the road, but realized they couldn't pull up their Quicken information unless seated at their home computer. "I was done with the desktop and wanted to be online," Carpenter said. While investigating Web-based SaaS alternatives, Carpenter found that none could import and share Quicken files, prompting him to discuss the problem with a neighbor. Alex Wong was the right neighbor, a big data enterprise software consultant who had worked at Sun Microsystems for more than a decade and had done consulting stints for several makers of customer relationship management platforms, including Salesforce and Zendesk.

Together, they co-founded the SaaS startup CountAbout, based in Madison, Wis. Wisely, the duo opted to start out by studying both the technological challenges and the business landscape. "We spent a year analyzing the problem before we ever wrote a line of code," Wong said. An early decision was to omit investment-tracking capabilities, and limit CountAbout's core functionality to banking and bill paying. "Investments would have been a much higher level of complexity," Carpenter said, noting that other cloud products already offered sophisticated investment-tracking capabilities.

LAMP stack lit the way

We spent a year analyzing the problem before we ever wrote a line of code.
Alex Wongenterprise software consultant and co-founder of CountAbout

In designing the SaaS application, two goals were established: minimize costs and maximize simplicity. "My first preference was to build this on top of Ruby," Wong said. "A single-page app with client-side rendering and data that's not shared among users meant we could use no database at all." The unconventional thinking was that implementing a database platform would be a major cost factor and raise the level of complexity. "Also, the software development vendors with Ruby capabilities were all fairly high in price," he said.

Ultimately, CountAbout was built on a stack with PHP on the back end. "It was essentially a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack -- quick and affordable," Wong said. Now that the application is in its second iteration, it is hosted on Amazon Web Services, with development done on the Heroku platform as a service.

Wong's initial strategy was to build a unified codebase for the Web, Android and iOS versions of the SaaS application, and rely on libraries and frameworks for each experience. In the end, it was simply faster and cheaper to go with three separate platforms. "Once the iOS version was built, the Android version was built as a copy," he said.

An API for banking data

Though the stack and platform decisions had a direct bearing on application development and deployment, neither addressed the remaining major issue: How to access and extract transaction information from users' individual financial institutions and accounts. Given the obvious security concerns, Carpenter and Wong concluded the only approach was to sign on with an established company that specializes in providing such access and data extraction through a specialized bank account aggregation API.

Carpenter and Wong investigated several financial API providers, including Digital Insights, Yodlee and Finicity. Digital Insights, acquired by Intuit in 2007, was sold in 2013 to private equity firm Thoma Bravo for $1 billion, which flipped it just 124 days later to NCR for $1.6 billion, turning a cool $600 million profit in the process. Wong developed a prototype of CountAbout using the Yodlee Aggregation API, but eventually chose the Finicity Aggregation API, a 16-year-old "fintech" provider based in Murray, Utah. It is a RESTful-based API that enables developers to integrate customer financial data into their own applications.

As an enterprise software engineer, Wong tussled with building small and cheap, rather than big and brawny. He came out of the experience with one overriding nugget of advice for other entrepreneurial developers. "As an enterprise technical guy, I want to worry about all the things down the road, such as scalability and upgradability. But as a small shop, where funding is an issue, you are better off to get something up and running quickly." Otherwise, he added, the competition will pass you by.

Next Steps

Is it time to toss your NoSQL database?

How much do you know about RESTful APIs? Test yourself.

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