Kenneth Lin built Credit Karma into a fintech giant by ignoring conventional wisdom and focusing on ways to make a positive impact for Credit Karma’s customers. The company started off providing free credit scores back in the late 2000s and today offers a host of products designed to help consumers live better as part of Intuit’s fintech suite.
Bootstrapped companies are special—they can be idiosyncratic and mission-driven far beyond those who are under the constraints of investor demands. Ken and Credit Karma are shining examples of what happens when entrepreneurs trust themselves, partner with the right investors at the right time, and build with customers in mind. His team’s hard work resulted in an $8 billion acquisition by Intuit in 2020.
To get to this incredible outcome, Ken did things differently. Some of our favorite things include:
- Starting with a marketing agency and then moving into building a product business based on customer needs.
- Ignoring monetization and focusing on building a better user experience during the 2008 crash.
- Running a $300 dollar commercial on TV at a time when digital ads were supposedly the future (and turning it into one of their most efficient acquisition channels).
We hope you’ll enjoy this conversation with Ken as part of our Bootstrapped Legends series!
If you’re interested in staying in the loop when new episodes of Bootstrapped Legends launch, you can subscribe here. If you're a Bootstrapped Legend who wants to tell your story or learn more about working with us, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dave: We’re really excited to have Ken, founder of Credit Karma, on today’s Bootstrapped Legends. As most of you know, Credit Karma is a financial services offering to consumers. It initially provided free credit scores to help consumers understand the wide range of cost-saving financial options, and now is a lot more than that.
Ken started Credit Karma with two co-founders in 2007, raised a very small Series A of $2.5 million in 2009, and then scaled the business for four years before raising outside capital again. In 2020, Ken sold Credit Karma for around $8 billion. At the time, Credit Karma had well over a hundred million members, and it is an incredible success story—clearly a Bootstrapped Legend. Ken, thanks so much for spending some time and sharing your journey.
Ken: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Dave: We’ll start at the beginning. Maybe you can give us a sense of the creation story, Ken.
Ken: Yeah, absolutely. The year is 2006, 2007. I’m kicking around in Starbucks. I have a nice little marketing company, but I realized not only doesn’t it scale very well, but also I’m just not happy doing what I’m doing.
A couple things happened. The first is, I’m thinking about a business that is very Silicon Valley—in the sense that there are so many VCs around, and everyone’s an entrepreneur. I’m like, I want to try to do this. More importantly, I found my problem. I had been doing financial services marketing as part of my agency for quite a while. I realized that some of the things that I had been doing in my career 10 years earlier—direct mail, helping consumers find credit card offers, or marketing based on credit—worked very well in a direct mail world, but didn’t work in an online world. This is one of the most profound data elements in regard to financial services, and it doesn’t exist online. That spurred me on the journey of trying to find the solution.
At the same time, there was this company that went around with a catchy jingle that said you’d get your free credit score if you went to their website. The reality was, it wasn’t free. You had to put in your credit card, and they charged you $20 a month. If you didn’t notice, before you’d know it, you’d be out $240 a year for that “free credit score.”
It was a confluence of these events that led to Credit Karma. We founded Credit Karma in 2007, and we launched in 2008.
Dave: I think we might have connected initially during that time. I was looking at Merkle in direct marketing, and I remember you were one of the smartest guys in the room on this stuff.
It’s funny, when I started VC in 2000, my gray-haired partner proclaimed, “No services business will ever build a product business!” You, Ben Chestnut from Mailchimp, Campaign Monitor, and 37signals all came from various agencies into a strong product and very successful product business. When did you have the confidence that this would be a real product, a real company?
Ken: I have a funny story around this one. We formed the company in 2007, and for about a year we started building the product. No one knew what we were doing, and no one really cared, but the three or four of us spent a year building the early iterations of Credit Karma. I would be the product manager; our CTO, Ryan, who is still with us today, would code every night; and we’d review it the next day. After about a year, we actually had a beta product.
After working through that year, I said, “You know what? I’m going to go on vacation.” I hadn’t been on a vacation in a year. I remember going to Thailand, my now-wife and I. While I was in Thailand, Nichole, our other co-founder, called me and said, “Ken, I don’t think it’s a big deal, but we made it onto the American Banker site.” That’s a trade publication, no big deal. We had a code. No big deal.
I used to get an email for every single registration. On a given day, we’d have, like, eight registrations. Somehow, the link and the passcode to register made it to the front page of Slickdeals, which was an affiliate site. I landed in LAX and turned on my phone—there wasn’t airplane wi-fi and all this—and for the next 20 minutes my phone just lit up: ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. I’m like, what the hell happened? We had 6,000 or 7,000 registrations in that day alone, and a ton of comments in the forum. Surprising all of us, the site did not crash—we weren’t expecting that level of volume.
I really started looking and reading through all the forums, trying to understand the product market fit and what was resonating with consumers. It was probably at that moment, a year or so after starting and a month after our “beta” launch, that I felt like there was a “there” there. Users were talking about it; you could get a real sense of adding value. That was the first inkling that there was really something here. It wasn’t just an idea anymore. It was in the wild, and people liked it—loved it, for the most part.
There were a lot of cynics around, but [competitors] are ultimately going to charge you. They’re going to sell you stuff. We never did those things. We’re not going to sell your information. It was great to read the cynics, because in my mind, it was a chip on my shoulder to prove them all wrong.
Dave: [Laughs] Absolutely. Now, Ryan and Nichole, were they in the marketing services business with you in building Credit Karma?
Ken: You know, it’s so random. Ryan was a friend of a friend. I had not actually met him, other than speaking to him through Google Talk, until about a year after he started with Credit Karma. Our mutual friend introduced us. We got along really well, but we were working together for about a year and a half before we actually ever met in person.
Nichole was based out of LA, and it wasn’t until a few months after our launch that Nichole said, “I think there’s a real “there” there, and the center of gravity is definitely going to be in San Francisco.” She ultimately moved up from LA as well. It was three of us in this 2000-square foot office space above Kate O’Brien’s for what felt like forever (but was probably two or three years). It was so much fun for us. There are so many stories of us bonding.
It was a completely wide-open office. Our office furniture was from Ikea—I would drive to Emeryville in a big truck. One day I put together like, 30 desks. They were the Ikea Galant, or Gallant, or however you say that. [Laughs] I could probably still put one together in 10 minutes, Allen wrench and all.
The crux of it is finding great people that you can trust, that you can rely on, and that you build a bond with. I think that’s part of the entrepreneurial spirit.
Dave: Absolutely. I remember at our startup, putting together those same desks. They weren’t nearly as good as they are now, either.
Ken: No, not at all. [Laughter]
Dave: So, the three of you kind of started this as a side hustle, it sounds like. It was a part-time effort before you got to really see signal. Is that fair?
Ken: I don’t know if it was a side hustle. We’d been working on it for about a year, but it was not your traditional direct funding. We had an angel funder, my CEO from back in the day at E-Loan. He put in something like half a million dollars. I also put in every single dollar that I had—which wasn’t all that much at the time, but combined we had enough to make payroll for the next couple years.
It’s amazing what you can do with three, four people over the course of a year if you’re really focused. For us, the nice thing was there were no distractions, because we were building a product from scratch. All we really had to think through was, what’s the product going to look like? We had to get data from a credit bureau—that was one of the gnarliest parts, and there’s an interesting story associated with that—but essentially, we could put on our blinders for a year and ask, “What’s the best product experience that we know how to build?” We would release every day. We would really talk about the traction that we were seeing from a bureau and data perspective, and what worked or didn’t work in terms of the product.
Dave: What were some of the toughest moments, Ken? You referred to contracting with the credit bureau, maybe it was that. Maybe it was something else. What were the toughest moments in those early years?
Ken: I would say that, in an entrepreneurship, the highs are really high, and the lows are really low. But over time, you learn how to modulate them. I’ll tell you one high and one low. The high was certainly getting off the airplane and feeling like, wow, we really did it! But there’s a flip side to that particular story, which led to the big low.
Back in the day, when we were looking for credit bureau relationships, we had a little bit of funding—roughly $700,000. I remember going to each of the three credit bureaus, and saying, “Hey, we’ve got this idea. We’ve got this product that we’re working on. We’d just like a contract, and whatever your rate card is, we’ll deal with it.” None of the bureaus wanted to work with us. They’d say, “That’s nice. Go talk to the other two bureaus. We’re not taking any new customers.” I’m like, what do you mean, you’re not taking new customers? I have money! I think I can sign a contract. But none of them would actually work with us.
We had a friend that was the account manager at E-Loan. I called him and said “I’m trying to get a contract to get credit data. Do you think you could actually get the contract through? No one seems to be really returning our calls, and they’re saying they don’t want the business.” He worked his magic and, lo and behold, two months after our application form, we got the API keys and a contract.
We just signed their normal contract. In that form, they asked what you’re going to do with it, and we were very transparent: we’re going to give away free credit scores, because we think there’s an engagement opportunity associated with it. We were on the up-and-up in terms of what we told them we were going to do with the data.
About three days later, when I got back into the office, a FedEx showed up. We didn’t get a lot of FedExes back then. No one’s sending us certified mail. Nobody even knows we exist!
Within that FedEx is the termination notice. The termination goes something like, hey, you didn’t lie on any of your application forms, but we have a 30-day right to terminate any contract that we want. Here’s your notice. In 30 days, we’re turning the lights off in terms of the API—which is, obviously, the main thing that we needed from a product perspective. Over the course of a week, we went from the high, feeling like we built this product that made it, to a ticking time bomb. In 30 days, it’s going to explode, and you’re not going to have the data sources that you need to build the product. [That month] was a little bit of a mad scramble.
I certainly remember, in that time period, how terrible it felt every day. We’d spent the last 13, 14 months building this product, and it seemed like it was all going away for no reason other than some other businesses didn’t like what we were doing. That just feels terrible.
I’ve got to think that’s part of the journey for most people in terms of building a product and going through entrepreneurship. Even if it’s not another business, if it’s not a competitor, if it’s not an employee, something like this will happen, and you’ve just got to pick yourself up and keep going.
Dave: Was this an individual effort, in terms of the resilience? Or were there other people that you turned to?
Ken: I called everyone I knew. Every angel investor, anyone with any sort of clout. Unfortunately, back then, we didn’t have any VCs—I’m not sure if VCs could help in general—and I didn’t have any large institutional people or references that I could call.
I would say it was just through grit that we ultimately got through. I talked to everyone I knew, but the most important thing that moved us forward was, I got a hold of a person’s email. I had heard through the grapevine that this was the person who made the decision. I wrote him a cold email, saying “My name is Ken. You don’t know me. I think you’re responsible for this decision. Let me tell you why we can do so much more if we were partners in this endeavor.” Surprisingly, in a day or two, he responded. He said, “I’m going to be in San Francisco next week.” By the way, this is three weeks into the termination notice. We’ve got about 10 days left.
We met; we hit it off over breakfast. The night before that breakfast felt like the biggest night of my life. It was like, tomorrow is the breakfast that is going to determine whether Credit Karma survives or not. I didn’t sleep a wink. It was through that interaction that we got through it.
I kind of reflect upon this idea that asking for forgiveness rather than permission really mattered. Building the product, getting traction, and being able to point to 10,000 users gained over the month that we’d launched—all for free—mattered. That’s what really got him excited, that maybe there is something there. Had we not gotten that far, had we not been able to demonstrate that traction, I don’t think this thing would have ever gotten off the ground. That meeting would have probably ended very differently. It just goes back to what they say about grit, tenacity, and entrepreneurship. These things really do matter.
Dave: Absolutely. Absolutely. When we study companies that have scaled without external funding, there’s always grit. There’s always entrepreneurship. There’s always tenacity.
So, you go from this service that blows up your phone as you touch down at LAX, and you actually get the credit to service the demand to a hundred million users. As you reflect back, what were some of the big tenets of Credit Karma’s success?
Ken: We had a couple. One was always a consumer-focus orientation. This one hit us pretty early. Talking about highs and lows—after the events with the bureaus and getting all of that sorted, the next big shoe to drop was the financial crisis in 2008, 2009.
We were off and running, and were going to raise our first Series A, and everything would be great. We were going to continue on our direction. Obviously, no one saw the financial services crisis coming. Overnight, the 30 or so customers that we had, that were banks basically laying banner ads on our site, disappeared. More importantly, the story that I had been planning for, from a fundraising perspective, all but evaporated.
I probably, in that time period, pitched to a hundred VCs. You have to remember, in 2008, 2009, the term “fin tech” didn’t exist. We were just some service catering to the banks, and all of the banks were unwinding, de-leveraging and going out of business. We were on the verge of the abyss in terms of financial services companies. No one would fund us. I went to friends and families, and I scrounged up another $300,000, but now we’re not making any money, right?
I remember making this distinction: If we go out—if we run out of money—let’s just say we built something really profound, and let’s never do anything we won’t be proud of. Let’s not sell the data. Let’s not sell the assets. Let’s not do anything that we’d look back upon, particularly with our member data and privacy, that we wouldn’t feel good about. It didn’t seem like it was an “aha” moment. You’re just like, all right, we’re going to do that, and if it fails, it fails.
On the flip side of that, when we started coming out of the Great Recession, there was certainly this buzz and catch. More than that, I think of it as an ROI on that decision. We made the decision to invest in our members, to do the right thing, and to build the very best product that we could. That’s maybe the main note. In times of nothingness, we decided to focus on the user experience, and on the product—not monetization, not a bunch of stuff that’s distracting. When it started to come back, you could see the engagement loops and the feedback from users.
This is also a time period, in the Great Recession, when people were looking for help. They were looking for anything that could help with their finances. Everyone was going through a tough time. I always took that as a lesson. It took two or three years to learn, because you wanted to see the whole cycle come through, but on the other side of the Great Recession, it certainly felt like the investment that we had made in the product, in our members, was starting to pay off. We’re still seeing the dividends in that today. It’s a fundamental investment in trust, in building the user experience.
Those things, by the way, can go away really quickly if you make a bad decision. You can erode trust very quickly. I think that was a core tenet that we had, that is instilled within the principles and values at Credit Karma.
There were a couple other interesting inflection points. I’ll tell you a quick one, because this is all about bootstrapping. It’s a fun story. After three or four years, on the other side of getting through [the recession], we had gotten to a point where we were, I don’t want to say break even, but roughly unit economics. For every dollar we spent on data and running the business, we roughly got a dollar back. We had about half a million dollars in the bank.
We went to one of my former friends who ran a marketing agency and said “The product works pretty well. We just need users. We think we can grow this business.” He was a television person; I was asking about television and what he thought. He said, “Well, Ken, I think that you’d normally need to shoot a commercial that’s going to cost $100,000 to $200,000.” This was in 2010 terms, so that’s really expensive! He said, “Then, if you spend about half a million dollars in media, maybe, and only maybe, would you be able to get a directional read as to whether television would work.” We’re like, dude, we’ve got half a million dollars in the bank. [Laughs] I don’t have $700,000 to spend on this campaign!
We decided to write our own script. We got a bunch of props, and we shot our own television commercial. We had our employees be voice actors. We used our hands and a marker and a paper calendar as our props. The only thing we spent money on was renting out a sound studio for an hour so we could get the proper voice-over. All in, the commercial cost us like $300. [Laughter]
I didn’t think much about this commercial. I didn’t have a lot of high hopes—but you want to turn over every stone. I remember the first time it ran. I was in Las Vegas. It was December 26, 11:05am. Certain things in my mind stick out. We used to have these Good Hour emails to let you know, “In the past hour, a lot of people registered and it broke some thresholds!” That threshold, back in the day, was, like, one hundred. I got an email that maybe 130 people had registered. I’m like, wow. That’s a lot of people in an hour. This is after a lot of the Slickdeals had gone away, so that’s pretty good. But I didn’t think anything of it.
This was the day after Christmas. The second day after Christmas, again at 11:05, the same thing happens. So that’s really weird. I called Greg, our head of marketing. I said, “Greg, what’s up with these Good Hour emails? Normally we don’t see this. Did something on the media run?” He said, “Ken, I’m not exactly sure, but I think it was the television spot that we bought.” I was like, How much did we spend? He was like, $50, $75. That’s less than a dollar CPA. What the professionals told us was going to be a $700,000 investment cost us $300 in production, maybe $100, $200 in media.
For the next couple years, I think we were one of the largest media buyers on Google Television Auction. We were buying huge amounts of media. On our best days, we registered 120,000 people through our television advertising. No one knew what we were doing, [no one was] able to figure it out. No one expected offline media to be such a big catalyst for an online product. Everyone thought television was dead, and everything was search and display—but we'd figured out something really magical.
Dave: I love it. There’s so much in that. Right around that time, LegalZoom and eHarmony were doing the same thing—sort of bucking conventional wisdom and going after mass media. Predicting 2023, your reflections back on ’08, ’09—really focusing on your customer and product—can also be completely contrarian views, but I’ve seen it over and over again. When you pull out of these downturns, it really accrues to your benefit.
One of the advantages of not taking significant outside money and having a variety of investors on the board, is you can flout conventional wisdom. You’ve talked a little bit about some unconventional choices—at least for the time—that you made. How do you reflect on conventional versus unconventional wisdom?
Ken: Let me talk about it from a fundraising perspective. One of my most interesting experiences, and one that I learned a lot from, was back in late 1999. I joined a pre-IPO internet startup out of Boston. The name of the company was Fair Market. They were your traditional high-flying, to-the-moon type idea. I was pretty green at the time; it was my second job out of school. I’d just come from a database marketing job for a credit card company, to this internet auction site.
Every night was catered food at 7 o’clock, video games until 9 o’clock, in an open-office format. They were in this traditional office park that’s, like, four levels. You got into the common area, then you go to the second floor, and then you go to your office, or the second floor of your office. Well, they thought that was too onerous. They decided that they wanted to go ahead and put in their own stairwell between the first and second floors. That meant cutting through rebar and concrete. It ended up being this $2 million stairwell that they put into this office park—this isn’t a fancy office. It’s an office park in the middle of nowhere. I remember hearing the story about how expensive it was. And this is a company that was doing $4 million a year in revenue run rate.
We went public. I think we were like a billion and a half at our high, and it was a complete mess afterwards. Ultimately, after many rounds of lay-offs, the company was basically defunct. I remember learning about running a business like that, with that irrationality and lack of financial discipline. I think my lesson from that was, when we started Credit Karma, that we were not going to do that.
When I tell you that I wasn’t taking a salary, and there were like three or four of us, I mean, that’s all there was. It harkened back to those moments where I said, you know what, I’d rather have a stable business, not over-hire, and really think about the fundamentals that would really matter. All to say that you can read about all of our crazy fundraising, but here’s what very few people know, and what we don’t talk about:
Over our history, we’ve probably raised a billion, billion-two (I’m probably off by a couple million dollars), but my sense is we never needed more than $3 million to build that whole business. We were never in the hole more than $3 million. All of the subsequent rounds were insurance. After our investors got in, they said, “You should have a nice balance sheet in case something happens.” And they were right—bad things ultimately did happen, in terms of the economy, whether it was Covid, other recessions, or expansion periods. But we never ran more than [$3 million in debt] cumulatively, which is amazing. That was because we were looking for advertising partners out of the gates, and we didn’t do all these exuberant parties and swag and offices. We kept our heads low and said, “We’re just going to build the product.”
What’s really interesting is, everyone thought we were burning all this money. They were like, there’s no way they’re profitable. We weren’t laughing; we were like, Stay focused. It doesn’t really matter what other people think. You don’t need to be on the front page of every news magazine or tech blog. You just need to go build a great product, and you need to focus on doing whatever you can to ensure that you’re building a lead. Particularly if people are wrong about what you’re doing, great. Let them think that way. I think sometimes people’s egos, and the need to go “look what I’m doing!” come into play. We just said, “You know what? Those things don’t matter. People can think whatever they want to think.”
Now, the fundraisings were interesting because they would bring you talent. They would get you noticed in a slightly different way. But oftentimes the story was, “There’s no way that these guys are going to make any money; they’re just burning through it.” At the same time, we were creating a really nice balance sheet and creating some equity for our employees. It worked out, but that’s the thing that most people don’t know.
I think that sometimes you get a little tied up into the Series A, Series B, all of these rounds of financing. You feel like the big numbers are what it means to be successful. I would just note that a lot of Series B and C companies flame out. That’s not the thing to focus on. Focus on building a great user experience, focus on your team, and focus on saving money. At the end of the day, those are the things that bring long-term value. I’ve seen so many companies go out because they raised a bunch of money and they blow it off on fancy offices and parties that just don’t do anything.
Dave: Yeah, absolutely. I have some stories from that era as well.
Ken: I bet you do. [Laughs]
Dave: You did ultimately take external financing in 2023 and scale, and you talked about some of the reasons in terms of secondary and balance sheet. Was there a moment in time when you thought you might bootstrap and own this business forever? Was it a challenging decision to take outside financing?
Ken: It was. Maybe 10 years ago, I made the decision that the IPO was just a financing tool. It’s a Series C, a Series D, whatever you want to call it, but it’s just a moment in time. Sure, it leads to a big liquidity event, but at that point I’d been on the journey about seven years. The mission was the thing that was driving me. I really cared about the fact that we could make a difference for consumers.
You talk about a hundred million-plus members—back then, I came to the realization that my parents didn’t have a lot of money. We were helping a lot of people with their finances in a way that most banks were not, and I cared a lot about the fact that you could project my parents onto some Credit Karma member that we were helping build their credit score, helping understand their finances, helping buy their dream home. That became really profound and important to me. It was during that time period that I realized that the IPO is a means to an end, and the end is trying to make an impact. It’s trying to better consumers who are sometimes the most vulnerable. That idea is what was in my head for the last 10 years or so as I’ve matured, as I’ve really figured out what I want out of life.
When Intuit came along, at first I wasn’t thinking about it at all; it wasn’t interesting to me at all. It really was over the course of, I would say, two years. What was interesting was that if you looked at their mission statements and the way that they talked, they would use different words, but values- and visions-wise, they were very aligned with what we were trying to do. It hit me that, after talking to them for two years, they have a sense of scale that would take us another 10 years to achieve, in the form of data, users, and technology. We said, “Well, maybe this is interesting.” Ultimately, that’s what got me over the hump.
I always said that the financing, or IPO, I’m sure is a really interesting event, but what motivated me more than anything was this idea that we could do something bigger as a platform. That still resonates with me today, and that’s why I’m still here after almost three years. I think that together, we have this opportunity to do something profound.
What I always tell young entrepreneurs is to find something that you’re really passionate about. Because it’s that which is going to drive you the morning after a really hard day, when you just want to lie in bed, and you’re like, oh my god, I can't believe that happened. You’ve got to get up. You’ve got to get up out of bed, and you’ve got to do your thing. If you’re doing it for the love of money, or something that you’re not passionate about, chances are you’re going to stay in bed, and you’re going to call it quits. If there is something that you really like, that you love, that you’re really good at, that brings you joy, then you’ll get out of bed. Luckily, I found something that I’m passionate about over the course of the last 17 years that brings me a lot of joy, that motivates me and gets me out of bed.
Going back to your question, it was certainly a hard decision, but I reoriented around what was I trying to do. I was trying to figure out how to build a product that could help as many people as possible, and level the playing field from a financial services perspective. And here we are.
Dave: Awesome. You clearly are super passionate about the mission. You love the business. You can recount these stories to the day and the hour. When you decide to step away, what do you think will be the most gratifying part of this journey for you?
Ken: Oh gosh. [Laughs] I think certainly the member impact, and the change in the financial services industry. Credit scores are everywhere now. I think Credit Karma alone has given away single-digit billions of scores and reports, all for free. We don’t process any credit cards and we don’t charge our members. That has been a landscape shift, so I’m profoundly grateful for that opportunity. I think we’ve done something important there.
The second thing is our employees. They are off and starting new companies; they are providing for their families. They’ve learned a lot, grown a lot, and are doing meaningful things with their lives. Those two things I will be always immensely proud of and have a lot of gratitude for. Part of it is great fortune, but part of it is definitely that whole team. This was never a one-person endeavor. This was always an amazing group of people focused on doing something meaningful in the space. For that, I’ll be eternally grateful.
Dave: Ken, thanks so much for doing this. It’s amazing to get an insight into the journey and your experience.
Ken: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks, Dave.
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