As CMO of Mint, the leading online personal finance service, Donna Wells helped win the startup 2 million users from its launch in 2007 to its acquisition by Intuit in 2009 for $170 million.

Before joining Mint, Wells led marketing departments at companies like Intuit, Charles Schwab, and Expedia. Wells’ work has won Webbys and an OMMA award. Last year, she was named one of the Top 25 Women in Tech to Watch by Accenture.

This Spring, she took on the CEO role at a startup called Mindflash, a company that hopes to improve online training. I caught up with Donna to talk about the switch from CMO to CEO, and how social media marketing is evolving.

(And in case you’re wondering, yes, she is hiring marketing talent.)

Why did you leave Mint?
Well, Mint was acquired by Intuit in November of last year, and I had actually worked for Intuit years prior. I felt like the small entrepreneurial environment that Mint was in its first few years was, by necessity, going to change under Intuit’s corporate umbrella – and probably for good reasons. Mint has benefited considerably from being part of Intuit over the last year. But for me personally, the environment that I’m most excited about working in is exactly the sort of environment that Mindflash is here. It’s a team of about 25 people that are really passionate about the product that we’re bringing to market and passionate about serving and listening to customers to make that product better every day. We’re releasing new code every four weeks. We’re an agile development shop, so there’s a tremendous pace and energy to come in to work with every day. And you’re able to see changes and improvements in the product on a day to day basis. You’re able to make decisions on an hour-by-hour basis. I’ve just learned over time that that’s the work environment that’s most energizing for me. So, I’m sticking to it.

Why did you make the switch from CMO to CEO?
I’d love to say it was a very well thought through plan. But after I left Mint, I was getting a number of calls from startups looking for folks to do with their marketing what we did with Mint’s — basically, create an awful lot of awareness and traffic and significant user growth with very, very low spend and a very small staff. Those opportunities felt like repeating the last two years that I’d spent at Mint. And then folks started approaching me instead with CEO leadership roles, and that to me was really exciting, because it was going to give me a chance, of course, to continue the sort of work that I’d been doing at Mint, but also leverage a lot of senior leadership experience I’d had. I’d worked at three other startups where I’ve been on the executive staff and I’ve run very large parts of bigger companies like Expedia and Intuit.

I’ve been in the role since the middle of May and am having a lot of fun. I’m really glad to have made the change.

Do you think that Mint’s marketing success was due to the product or your social media approach? Or both?
I’ve often said, especially in the world of the web, starting with a great product is absolutely critical because there’s no amount of marketing, no cleverness in the marketing in the world that’s gonna overcome a bad product. Especially when everyone on the planet has the opportunity to be a powerful customer reviewer, either an advocate or critic of your product to their own audience base, be it on Twitter, Facebook, you name it. So, we started with a great product, #1.

Number two is, there was definitely a fair amount of magic in the marketing that we did, especially in the financial services space. We really introduced and revolutionized some aspects of how a financial services company communicates with people and gets the word out to its prospects.

There are an awful lot of examples, but some of the ones we’re best known for at Mint were having a blog six months before we had a product and introducing infographics and infographic videos into a space that really had never seen such ways of communicating about financial services or personal finance generally. We leveraged public relations incredibly effectively both online and offline. We really put together a voice and a look and feel to the entire end-to-end product experience that caused us to stand out in the marketplace, differentiate us from all our competitors. That got us noticed, and because the product was great, that drove a very high conversion rate off the traffic that we generated. It cost me a little over a dollar to acquire each of the 2 million users we had at the time that I left.

The third thing you didn’t mention that drove part of Mint’s success is something that’s true for every startup. We got lucky. As it turned out, we launched the product in September of 2007 — about three months before what ultimately became the start of our recession in December of 2007. Now most of us didn’t realize we were in a recession until maybe the Spring or Summer of the following year. But in retrospect, our timing was golden.

How about marketing Mindflash. Are you leading that charge as well?
No. In fact, I need to hire a VP of Marketing right now. I definitely will not try to do both jobs because I think it’s impossible to do both well. But I can give you one example of what we’re doing right now. We’re working with a company called StrongMail to leverage a really interesting social and viral tool that they’ve created to enable about 1,000 private users to spread the word about their experience with Mindflash very effectively. This tool has not been used by StrongMail in the B2B space yet. We’ll be the first, and it’s really an experiment to understand whether small business owners will invest their social capital and spread the word about the product and how they’re using it to their colleagues and peers and fellow training professionals, if it’s a product that they’re really excited about using and getting good value from. I mean, we certainly saw that at Mint, and we’re gonna test the waters with asking for that same support from small business people.

As social media grows and becomes more widely adopted, is it harder to make a splash and differentiate your company?
Yes, I think it’s definitely harder to make a splash. The answer is what it always is: you need to continue to innovate and evolve and stay on top of new technologies that can be leveraged to grow a business and take the risk of experimenting with them ahead of your competition, because I think doing so might give you some advantage. I think in many cases it’s about a six-month advantage these days. But if you’re constantly innovating and constantly staying that six months ahead, then I think you grow and you win. It’s almost laughable now. There’s almost no brand that I interact with as an individual that isn’t encouraging me to fan them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. In 99% of cases, it’s completely inappropriate and of absolutely no interest or obvious value to me to do either of those things. Now one percent of the time, sure. But it’s just become a very over-used tactic and again makes it all the more critical to be finding the new technologies and the new tactics that do make sense and do add value.

How did you incorporate gaming in Mindflash’s products?
When I first started looking at Mindflash, before I had officially joined the company, one of the biggest ah-has to me was the opportunity to add more of what we call internally “the mental cookies” to the process of training, because as we all know, online training, a lot like personal finance, is a space that most people don’t run toward. They run from it. We’ve been Twitter searching for the phrase “online training.” You’d be absolutely aghast at what comes back in terms of people’s tweets about the online training experiences. About 97% of people are horrified, bored, and just really dreading the experience or unhappily in the middle of that experience.

We think we’ve got an opportunity through the good use of gaming technology, through rewards inside the product experience and after the product experience, to turn some of that around in the same way that online games have turned that around, providing incentives to get to the next level, you know, offering achievements, offering points, giving you badges that you could add to your email signature or your personal home page or your blog to indicate that you’ve completed certain training and within the product experience making sure that we’re giving you that love that releases all those good endorphins that make you proud of gaining new skills and hopefully training trainers on how to make the process of putting together training much more enjoyable and much less painful. That’s a lot of what you’ll see our blog content doing — really trying to provide training to trainers to try to make their whole experience that much better.

With so many new tools and technologies coming out these days, how do you distinguish a fad from something that’s going to be really useful to your company?
Well, we take the same approach for marketing tactics that we do for our product development. We’re an extremely outwardly-focused, listening organization. That was definitely the culture even before I got here, and I’ve accelerated that even further. We’re talking to customers directly, observing listeners through moderated live research and also through automated online research.

Every couple of months we take the entire company, including all the engineers, offline for a day and a half, and we sit and watch live user interaction with the product. We send out automated research online and review the click tracking and the heat mapping of what we get back on exactly what information is most important to the user on the page. That sort of experience drives what we choose to then change about the product, add to the product, or eliminate from the product to make it better each and every time.

It’s the same with marketing tactics. We’re talking to people about what media they consume and how, and we want to be understanding the perceived value those small business owners derive from reading the blogs that they read, reading the offline media or consuming the offline media they consume, watching How To videos online. We want to make sure that we are where they want to consume media, and that we’re also in some cases introducing them. You’ll see us introducing them to new technologies that we think, frankly because we’re a small business ourselves, can efficiently and effectively help us do our work better, and we’ll be passing those on to our users as well.

That’s a benefit of being a small business serving small business people. 

Do you think that small companies are better poised to take advantage of marketing and digital tools today?
It’s hard to make a sweeping generalization, but I will go ahead and try it. I think the distinguishing factor between companies that are successful at social media versus those that aren’t is not so much the company size, large or small. It’s more how close they are to their customers and how well they really understand the customers, because we’ve all seen examples of companies whose blog posts are just corporate dribble. It’s CEO speak and PR speak, and it just doesn’t deliver any value to the customer.

I’ll tell you I think one of the first blog posts I put out at Mint back in 2007, I just posted the press release on a new features set that we’d launched. That was a huge mistake. No one wants to read a press release in a blog post. It’s just not appropriate. But it took me some trial and error to become comfortable in the social space, and that was one of the early experiences of where I knew I got it wrong, because I heard from our users who say, “Nah, you missed that one. Try again.”

I think if you really understand your user, that allows you to create a voice in your content and in your use of social media that resonates with your users. You understand what they’re going to value and what they’re going to ignore. Once you’ve got that sort of genuine, authentic voice developed, and if you can keep it consistent, then that’s the kind of company that’s going to do well with social media.

Can you tell us about anything coming out from Mindflash soon?
I will say that the product that we’re coming out with, and we’re officially launching September 28th, is really excellent and really is unique in its space. But from our point of view, it’s the minimum viable product, the MVP. It’s an approach the good folks at 37signals have advocated and propagated. We’re delivering a very simple, straightforward tool that allows you to do one thing really well and really fast. We really consider this our Product A. You will see us continue to refine what we have, not by making it complicated and feature bloated, but by adding and deleting features that we learn through real world experience are most valuable to our prospects and users. But you will also see us introducing Product B and Product C over the coming years which I can say the common factor is these are all gonna be products that help small businesses compete more effectively in the marketplace and compete more effectively versus larger competitors. More to come is sort of the bottom line.