About that Startup Life with Mike Bonfigli (McIntire ’13) of CardCruncher

August 15, 2019

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Mike Bonfigli

Vermont native Mike Bonfigli affirms in simple terms what drove him to McIntire: He wanted to receive the best business education. It was what he perceived as the first important step in preparing himself for what he envisioned to be a direct path from Rouss & Robertson Halls into a career in entrepreneurship.

As he made his way through his third-year studies, he recalls seeing his classmates accept internships in urban centers like New York and Washington, D.C., while he decided to return to his hometown and the nonprofit Vermont HITECH, where he had interned the previous year.

That choice would eventually lead him back home after Final Exercises as well. Though he was interested in making a life for himself in New York City, he found it difficult to make the transition, having stopped short of gaining previous work experience to support his intent. He decided to take a full-time position with Vermont HITECH.

“I originally joined the nonprofit because I supported its mission to help highly motivated individuals enter into well-paying jobs for which they wouldn’t normally qualify,” Bonfigli explains. “The concept that most anyone is capable of learning—and that most people aren’t inherently smarter than others—was intriguing to me and aligned with my philosophy that I developed while tutoring over the years.”

But Bonfigli couldn’t let go of his desire to try to make it in New York. Interviewing for positions remotely but making little headway, he decided to take the plunge. Without any safety net, he moved.

Once relocated, he ultimately secured a position with Health-E Commerce, an online health and wellness retail startup. Working in various roles over the course of more than five years, Bonfigli became Director of Product before eventually leaving the company in May 2019 to initiate another large change. Motivated to found his own company, Bonfigli—along with his partners—recently launched CardCruncher, an automated recommendation service that helps people pick the most suitable credit card based on their spending history.

We spoke with Bonfigli about his career journey, his startup, and how McIntire has helped prepare him for the challenges he faces in growing his new venture.

What did you learn from relocating to New York and your time at Health-E Commerce?
The move to NYC was definitely humbling. Then came entering into the NYC job market—while the McIntire label helped me to get a foot in the door, it was almost like starting from scratch. I had to prove myself all over again.

I worked seven-day workweeks for the first few months. Starting as one of 20 or so people in the company, I was exposed to all functions within a startup. Just as I had done at McIntire, I acted as a sponge, looking to learn as much as I possibly could from everyone there. I was known as the guy who always asked questions—and this is what I believe set me up to advance within the company.

A specific set of questions moved me from one position to the next. As an Operations Analyst, I spent time taking customer service calls, ordering inventory, managing the warehouse team, and automating processes with programming languages. Then I asked the question, “Why don’t we have direct relationships with any of our vendors?” (Answer: There is no merchandising team.)

As a Merchandising Manager, I switched nearly all of our distributor partnerships into direct relationships with product vendors. This eliminated middlemen and increased overall site profitability. Then I asked, “Why don’t we ship to Hawaii and Alaska?” (Answer: Tech capabilities were lacking.)

As the company’s first Product Manager, I set the tech roadmap alongside the dev team. I spent two years learning from the dev team about the ins and outs of web technologies. I also stepped into the role of UX design, since the position didn’t exist at the time. Then I asked, “Why don’t we have a customer-first design-and-development culture?” (Answer: We don’t have a full product team.)

As the company’s Director of Product, I worked to build a product team that started with just me into a team of five. I pressed on the importance of long-term thinking and became hyper-focused on customer needs. Through my time in Product, I guided the site through three redesigns and one rebrand. I worked with heads of every department from the time the company was 20 people to when it reached 70, at which point I left for CardCruncher.

After gathering more than 15,000 monthly users during a beta period, you and your team recently fully launched CardCruncher. Had you ever planned or expected to be working in a fintech-based enterprise? How does it connect to your interests?
A few years back, I saw a TV commercial advertising a credit card that mentioned all of these flashy rewards. I called up my friend who worked at NerdWallet at the time (now my Co-Founder) to ask if I should get the card. The answer he gave me was, “It depends.”

I spent the next couple of hours downloading PDFs of my past bank spending statements, inputting numbers into Excel, and trying to find out my actual prospective return on card rewards. I thought at the time, “There has to be a better way.” That was impetus for creating CardCruncher.

After McIntire, I had no idea where my career would eventually take me—but I liked it that way. I knew I wanted to build something on my own, but I lacked an idea to run with. I embrace uncertainty, and I know the best I can do is put myself in the position that gives me the best chance to succeed.

What have you found to be most challenging about being in business for yourself thus far? What have you enjoyed about the process?
I knew about the pitfall mindset of “build it and they will come,” but I still underestimated how difficult it can be to get people to the site (and in a cost-effective manner). Many founders build a product and believe in the idea to a point that they expect an instant virality effect to overtake on product launch. It’s not that easy! It’s an ongoing learning experience that requires testing and retesting to find out what works best.

The most exciting part is the prospect of what can be—especially when every move I make has a large, direct impact on the trajectory of the business. It’s nerve-racking at times, but there are fleeting gems of positivity that come in the form of unexpected partnership emails, acceptance letters into pitch competitions, or spikes in traffic on the site. We look forward to these gems every day, and as they come through, it makes it all worth it.

What are you looking forward to accomplishing with CardCruncher this year? Next year?
We are approaching our conference season, when we’ll be making trips to D.C. in September, Vegas in October, and Lisbon in November. The in-person networking at these events often provides the best opportunity to build relationships. Face-to-face communication helps to extend business partnerships and secure potential strategic investment that will help take our company to the next level.

It’s really hard to forecast as an early-stage startup where we’ll be in a year from now. From my experience as a product manager, what we forecast beyond six months most always changes by the time we get to month six. Of course, we’d like to have 10 times the traffic coming through our site and continue to grow revenues as we optimize for improved user acquisition and retention. The most we can do now is set ourselves up for success with the right actions today that will put us in the best position to reach our lofty goals.

How has your Comm School education helped inform your work? What experiences and lessons from your McIntire days stay with you most?
McIntire provided plenty of hard skills that set a base to be carried forward into the workplace, but the soft skills are what really stuck with me throughout the years:

  • Strong work ethic, from being challenged by professors, but also by fellow classmates as we worked alongside one another (and sometimes in competitive formats which I used as a form of motivation).
  • Time management, from setting priorities between personal life and school work life, which ties very nicely into the real world.
  • Confidence, from speaking up in class and adding to the conversation (which you had to do or have your grade suffer!)

Some of my favorite classes included “Negotiating for Value,” “Organizational Behavior,” and every class that encouraged or required public speaking.