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Financial Planner To The Masses


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FINANCIAL PLANNER TO THE MASSES

One night about nine years ago, Scott D. Cook's wife aired a complaint that would change his life. As the person who paid the bills and balanced the family budget, she griped about how time-consuming and disorganized the process was. Cook, then a consultant for Bain & Co., began wondering if others had the same lament. He did some research by calling random numbers from the phone book. "That confirmed there was a business in it," he says.

So Cook founded Intuit Inc., whose $59 package, Quicken, now dominates the market for personal-finance software. About 2 million U. S. households and small businesses rely on Quicken to balance their checkbooks, draft budgets, and track investments. Only Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect have outsold it in the PC application-software market, says Dataquest Inc.

But Cook, 38, doesn't even consider his 200-employee outfit a software company in the traditional sense: "We're a consumer-products company," he says. "The word `software' is not used when we define our mission." Indeed, selling the most personal-finance packages is only step one of Cook's plan. Step two is much more ambitious. It involves automating much of America's daily financial routine.

An example is the process of paying bills. Quicken has a feature that links PCs via modem to CheckFree, a $10-a-month service offered by Checkfree Corp., Columbus, Ohio. With it, you just turn on your PC, type in the check's amount and the name of the payee--anyone from your landlord to your phone company. CheckFree whisks the information to the Federal Reserve's automated clearinghouse, an electronic service linked to all U. S. consumer banks. No stamps or envelopes needed.

Intuit is now "the McDonalds of personal finance," says Michael M. Sapienza, Checkfree's vice-president. Not surprisingly, Intuit, which collects commissions when its customers join CheckFree, signs up about as many PC owners as Checkfree itself. That's why Checkfree limited its own checkbook program, avoiding competing with Intuit. "Anyone in this business has to deal with Scott," Sapienza says. "Either you can compete or take advantage of what he has to offer."

Some of the largest U. S. banks, many of which have lost big on home banking, are beginning to find that out. Cook has already persuaded 14 U. S. banks to sell an electronic link to Quicken. Called Accuret, it automates the tedious monthly process of reconciling checking-account statements. Instead of a paper statement, Accuret banks mail diskettes to its subscribers, who are mostly small businesses. In a matter of seconds, a program scans Quicken's electronic check register, identifying and fixing any discrepancies.

So far, Cook's recipe has been simple: He sells software that is so inexpensive and easy to master that millions use it. Competing programs, such as Andrew Tobias' Managing Your Money from MECA Software Inc., do much more, but they're more expensive and take longer to learn. Cook's consumer-products background--and manic energy--help keep Intuit in touch with consumer demands. Although he's president, Cook takes his turn answering the customer-support hot line. "At trade shows, you can usually find him working the aisles, asking customers how he can improve his product," says Jeffrey Tarter, publisher of Soft-letter, a newsletter.

Cook isn't the typical high-tech entrepreneur. For starters, he isn't very technical. His first job after graduating from Harvard business school was with consumer-product giant Procter & Gamble Co. After getting the idea for Quicken, he looked for a computer whiz. At Stanford University he found an undergrad named Tom Proulx (rhymes with true), now Intuit's vice-president for engineering. The company, started in 1983 out of Proulx's living room, was funded on a shoestring--loans from relatives and friends, plus some credit-card debt. Intuit struggled until 1986, when distributor Softsel Computer Products Inc. began carrying Quicken. Since then, annual sales have soared from less than $1 million to nearly $37 million (chart).

SHREDDING PAPER. Additional growth depends on forging more electronic links. Cook declines to reveal his plans, but says it makes sense to pipe into Quicken any financial information that now comes on paper, such as stock, bond, and mutual fund statements. Ultimately, Cook wants all kinds of businesses--from department stores to utilities--to send monthly bills directly into Quicken-equipped PCs, instead of through the mail.

Cook's success has not gone unnoticed. No less a force than mighty Microsoft Corp. has notified him that it intends to compete with Quicken. So far, rivals haven't been able to catch Cook--mainly because their products aren't simple enough. His real worry is that consumers will stick with what they are used to. "This is our main competition," he says, holding up a ball-point pen.Evan I. Schwartz in Menlo Park, Calif.


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