More M&A: publicly-traded software company Intuit is acquiring personal finance upstart Mint.com for $170m. Mint.com, which launched at TechCrunch40 in 2007 and had raised nearly $32m from investors, has over 1.5m users and tracks more than $50bn in assets for its users.

Mint.com is simple: it allows users to aggregate data for their bank, credit and investment accounts and track those accounts through a single interface. Through this, Mint.com can help users identify areas for savings (it claims to have found over $300m in potential savings for its users) and promote financial services that users may be interested in.

It’s a natural fit for Intuit, which is best-known for producing the Quicken, QuickBooks and TurboTax software packages. While Intuit isn’t new to the web (it runs a number of finance websites and offers web-based versions of QuickBooks and TurboTax), this is yet another example of a nimble upstart beating a larger company to the punch.

Intuit plans to make Mint.com its flagship personal finance property online and it appears that Mint.com founder and CEO Aaron Patzer will remain on board.

In a guest post on TechCrunch, Patzer provides some interesting insights into Mint.com’s journey. Of note:

  • On SEO: “To build demand, we started asking for email addresses for our alpha 9 months in
    advance of launch. Then when we had too many people sign up, we asked people to
    put a little badge that said “I want Mint” on their blogs to get priority
    access. We got free advertising and 600 link backs which raised our SEO juice.
  • On paid search engine marketing: “We decided not to do SEM – it’s too easy and too additive. Instead, we relied on
    press. It’s where I spent 20% of my time.
  • On open source: “Our technology was all open source, and essentially all free: MySQL at the
    bottom, Hibernate to avoid the need to hire a DBA, Tomcat on Apache, Yahoo’s YUI
    served as the base for our AJAXy goodness.

But perhaps the top lesson Patzer offers: the importance of building something that solves a real problem. Patzer writes:

While everyone else was doing social media, music, video or the startup de jour, we tried to ground ourselves in what any business should be doing: solve a real problem for people. Make something that is faster, more efficient, cheaper (in this case free), and innovate on technology or business model to make a healthy revenue stream doing it.

That strategy took Mint.com from “$0 to $170m in three years flat” and for other startups looking to do the same, a similar strategy is probably in order.