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Nerdwallet’s Tim Chen on His First Job

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Fadulu: The way you grew up was very different from the way your parents grew up.

Chen: Until 2008, I thought that the economy was this super-stable thing, and everything was good. I didn’t realize that crazy economic shocks can happen. 2008 really changed my life. I lost my job, I lost a lot of my savings. I ended up starting a company as a result. It’s funny, my grandpa used to tell me, “You should take your money and go buy gold and jewelry with it, because you never know when the government’s gonna get overthrown by communists.” I’d go, “Grandpa that’s such outdated thinking.” But it wasn’t that long ago when that happened to a huge country.

Fadulu: Were you completely surprised when you lost your job in 2008? Did you see it coming at all?

Chen: Absolutely not. [I was] totally blindsided. Never in a million years would I have thought that the institutions that I worked for, or the banks themselves, would be worried about going out of business. In hindsight I feel very fortunate that there was a recession, from a personal perspective, because I never would have gotten into entrepreneurship, even though it was an ambition of mine. It’s just too hard to take that risk when you have a stable job and you’re living in a really expensive city like New York. So the downturn forced me into it. In the early years, I wasn’t seeing much success with NerdWallet, and it was really the length of the recession that caused me to keep trying instead of taking another job.

Fadulu: Did you have any other business ideas you were considering, or was it NerdWallet all along?

Chen: I didn’t know that I wanted to start a business. I didn’t have anything that I was seriously considering outside of NerdWallet. It really came about when my sister asked me for help finding a credit card. I said, “Let me Google that for you.” I was kind of surprised when I didn’t find anything that helpful, in terms of breaking it down in an easy-to-understand way. I quickly realized that this is a problem with all financial products. They’re extremely hard to shop for, because, basically, there’s no incentive for anyone to provide you with an easy-to-understand way to shop for them.

Fadulu: What was the hardest part of starting NerdWallet?

Chen: I think one of the hardest parts was convincing other people I wasn’t crazy. You can’t do something like this yourself. You need to convince people with perfectly good jobs to quit their jobs and come join you, which is a lot of responsibility to shoulder, especially in the early days. Fortunately, in the early days it was much easier because many of my friends in New York were unemployed. A lot of us were affected by the financial crisis. A lot of us were just sitting around twiddling our thumbs, going to Dave & Buster’s in the middle of the day because they have half-price tickets on Wednesdays. And it was easy at least to get a few people to hang out [and join NerdWallet] until they found gainful employment. The first two years, I basically told people I was unemployed because there was really very little traction in the business.

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