Lessons From Mint.com's Tax-Time Meltdown for Schwab Users

Salkever's Valley -- Mint.com
Salkever's Valley -- Mint.com

Update: After this story was published earlier today, Mint informed me that it has finally figured out the source of the Schwab problem discussed here and that it has resolved the issue. It's great news, although the April 15 fix comes too late for Mint customers with Schwab accounts (like me) who have struggled to prepare their IRS filings due to difficulties accessing and interpreting records.

Tax time is a terrible time for many Americans. Fighting incomprehensible IRS regulations, digging through all records and other forms of torture are the norm. Last year, my tax time was far less painful than usual, thanks to the popular online personal finance portal Mint.com. But this year's tax hell has shaped up to be worse than ever.

That's because a few months ago Mint started having problems integrating financial data from my primary bank, Charles Schwab (SCHW). This is an understatement. One week, the data wouldn't upload into Mint from my Schwab account. The next week, the data would upload from some accounts but not others. The next week, data would upload twice from Schwab accounts. Needless to say, this created total chaos in my financial universe, a place that Mint had formerly made relatively tidy.

The troubles with Schwab have affected thousands of increasingly irate Mint users. In the eyes of thousands of users who also happened to be customers of my bank, Mint went from hero to zero in a heartbeat. Over the span of those months, searing comments piled up on Mint's message boards and long threads ran unaddressed filled with vitriol aimed at Mint by my bank's customers.

Who's Fault Is It?

Schwab is hardly a small bank, and plenty of other Mint users also hold Schwab accounts. I added my (polite) bleatings to the queue and emailed founder and CEO Aaron Patzer just to alert him (I've found that some of the best CEOs, such as Apple's Steve Jobs and Salesforce.com's Mark Benioff, religiously read -- and even reply - to customer emails). Amid this smoking public relations disaster, a single beleagured Mint employee (a community relations specialist named Jami) piped up every now and then announcing that Mint believed it had solved the problem. Inevitably, the fix was elusive or nonexistent for some customers.

Naturally, this fiasco wasn't really Mint's fault. Schwab had changed its Web technology and made it harder for Mint to access financial data of Schwab customers. I spoke with Aaron Forth, Mint's vice president of product. He was chagrined about the whole situation and confessed that it had actually been very hard to find the right person (or group of people) at Schwab who could solve the problem.

"We are sure they didn't mean it, but it was likely a case of someone changed security settings, or there were some other changes made by someone at Schwab who didn't know that what they were doing would interfere with external companies like Mint," says Forth, who notes that Mint doesn't really want to speak out too much about the ongoing problem because the company would prefer to actually have a fix for the problem before it opens its mouth.

Premium Service for Free

So the bank had changed technology, and Mint had gotten caught in the crossfire. Hardly a reason to blame Mint, right? Except everyone did, me included. Such are the hazards of a Web 2.0 (or is it 3.0 now?) startup that become an embedded piece of life's fabric. From Twitter's FailWhale to Mint's meltdown, hell hath no fury like an Internet user robbed of his or her free online services.

The expectation is now such that Mint must flawlessly navigate a minefield of thousands and thousands of banks and multiple online technology platforms (there are a few key providers). And when a giant like my bank decides to go for a walk, the entire landscape shakes, disrupting the lives of thousands and sometimes millions of users.

Is that fair? No way. But now that we all expect even free services to perform just like we're paying for them, Mint and dozens of other startups attempting similarly complex feats are duly warned -- and too often chastened.

Tainted Love

Now the taxman cometh, and I'm sifting through the smoking wreckage of my financial calculations, thinking that perhaps putting all my financial eggs in one dashboard might be a road to future ruin. Mint says it will likely have a fix up and running soon -- possibly even by this week's end, when the company switches to a more robust piece of financial institutions integration software courtesy of its parent company, Intuit (INTU).

But for me and thousands of other Mint users, the fresh happy feeling of logging on to Mint to check my daily dashboard will never quite be the same.