How A Credit Card Funded Trip Inspired Me To Start A Successful Rewards App

John Taylor Garner
How A Credit Card Funded Trip Inspired Me To Start A Successful Rewards App
Card Curator
from New York, NY, USA
started October 2018
2
Founders
12
Employees
1.11M
alexa rank
2.75K
followers
309
followers
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How A Credit Card Funded Trip Inspired Me To Start A Successful Rewards App

My name is John Garner, and I am the founder and CEO of Card Curator. Card Curator is a credit card rewards optimization app that helps users achieve their rewards goals, whether it be for travel or charitable giving, by helping them earn up to ten times more on their average monthly card spending through personalized and unbiased credit card recommendations. The app also offers users guidance on the right card to use while spending every time. Our core audience is individuals who are between the age ranges of 20 and 40, that travel internationally at least once a year and want to also maximize their credit card rewards in an efficient manner.

As of now, we are not making any revenue as we don’t partner with any credit card issuers; nor do we receive payment for referrals, applications, and activations of credit cards. This is how we can offer our users unbiased credit card recommendations based on their set primary goal in the app. However, we are planning to generate revenue by offering two versions of the app: a “freemium” version, and a premium version priced at $5.99 a month. By the time this article is published, the premium version of Card Curator will be available on iOS and Android app stores.

how-a-credit-card-funded-trip-inspired-me-to-start-a-credit-card-reward-app
Screenshot of a travel goal in the app

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

The inspiration for Card Curator came after a life-changing trip that my friends and I took in 2017 to Korea and Japan, it was my most ambitious credit card-funded free travel yet. The trip was two weeks long and the estimated value of it was roughly $100,000. I consider myself an expert in earning points and miles by churning credit cards (the practice of regularly opening and closing new cards to earn lucrative sign-up bonuses) and cashing in those rewards for maximum value. So, with my expertise, I was able to offer guidance to my friends on how to pay for the trip solely based on credit card rewards alone. I began planning the trip for 10 months and advised each friend to open four to five new cards. My strategy paid off like all of our flights were first class and our hotels were 5-star, and they were all paid for through credit card sign-up bonuses and accumulated points and miles.

Although the trip was an unforgettable experience, it showed me how complex and time-consuming it was to plan a group trip like that. I kept on thinking that there had to be more of an efficient way for the average cardholder to cash in on their daily spending, without having to keep up with the ever-changing rules of the credit card rewards game. From that thought alone, Card Curator was born. I then left my volatility trading job at Merrill Lynch and began working full-time on building out Card Curator.

I went on to create an algorithm called CardArbTM, which nets our users 5-10% or more in earnings on their daily card spend. For example, users spending $50,000 a year with their credit cards can earn $5,000 or more per year, tax- and risk-free with my app. For comparison's sake, most credit cards only earn a maximum of 1-2% cashback. By having users link up their credit cards and debit cards, as well as setting a primary goal in the app, our algorithm can then analyze their current rewards and also make personalized, unbiased credit card recommendations to help them achieve their goal sooner.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Our prototype was an early version of a web application that was developed by a friend and me. The initial algorithm recommended credit cards to users based on their top spending category rather than sign-up bonuses. The web application was then released in 2018 to family and friends, and based on their feedback that influenced me to create the mobile app instead. In November of 2019, a late-stage alpha version of the mobile app was released to 200 users that were family and friends. This version of the mobile app was essentially a web application. However, the algorithm began to incorporate sign-up bonus offers.

how-a-credit-card-funded-trip-inspired-me-to-start-a-credit-card-reward-app
Design concept for the alpha version of Card Curator’s mobile app

The alpha version of the mobile app release ran from November to mid-January of 2020, and during that time 50% of individuals in the test group signed up and began using the app. Out of the 66% of the individuals that signed up and used the app, their feedback was very positive. They stated that they would be interested in using a service like Card Curator and that they had never seen an app like this before on the market. However, the primary feedback was that we needed to improve the app’s UI/UX. From that feedback, we were able to build upon it and move to the next stage of the app creation process.

how-a-credit-card-funded-trip-inspired-me-to-start-a-credit-card-reward-app
Screenshots of the first beta version of Card Curator’s mobile app

For the first beta version of the mobile app, we began implementing wireframes and thought about the users that we would be targeting and the experiences that they would be looking for or what value they would be driving from the app. Based on the feedback from the alpha release, we were able to define our ideal customer avatar. Additionally, we were able to make the onboarding process more streamlined as we gave our users the ability to start and stop at any time when it came to manually inputting their credit card and banking information into the app. We also added fun photos and graphics and showed users how valuable the app is by displaying how many points we helped them earn on the home screen. Lastly, we added the goal tracker which lets users track their rewards progress by inputting their recent transactions manually. The first beta version of the mobile app was released to developers, testers, and some individuals from the previous alpha release stage in June of 2020.

Over time, we added MX integration into the app, which is a multi-billion dollar bank interface API utilized by over 2,000 financial institutions including Visa, Barclays, and US Bank. MX connects to a user’s online bank account that pulls transactional data automatically, so the user no longer has to input their transactions manually. In total, we released about three beta versions of the mobile app. The third beta version is the most current version of the app, which officially launched to the public in March of 2021.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We planned on doing a soft launch to the public of the first beta version of the app in June of 2020, in hopes to get initial feedback from the public and also tie the app launch into summer travel. However, with the pandemic happening in March of 2020, we had no choice but to keep June’s launch internal. Once the vaccine rollout began at the end of 2020, that’s when we knew we had to get the third beta version of the app out to the public. So, we did a soft launch of the app in March of 2021. Although not many people were starting to travel at that time, we needed to receive feedback from the public. Not to mention, vaccine rates were going up and optimism surrounding travel was coming back.

Screenshots of Card Curator’s original website:

how-a-credit-card-funded-trip-inspired-me-to-start-a-credit-card-reward-app

how-a-credit-card-funded-trip-inspired-me-to-start-a-credit-card-reward-app

When starting Card Curator, my co-founder, Bruce Garner, and I funded the business together when I left my Wall Street job back in October of 2018. We were paying our offshore developers with small amounts of company equity and cash as well. We also contracted a small team of accountants and attorneys to help with the filing of the paperwork that is needed to incorporate the company and to also help trademark our algorithm and slogan. The company was entirely boot-strapped until we closed our pre-seed round in December of 2020. Before the pre-seed round, Bruce and I spent about $200K in a total of our own money to fund the app development and operational costs of the business. With the pre-seed round, we were able to raise around $475K and since then we have been using that funding to run the business. The pre-seed funding consisted of angel investors, family members, and friends.

The biggest lesson that we learned from starting Card Curator is that the app is never going to be perfect, and it’s better to launch a product without it being completely “perfect” so you can start getting the necessary feedback to improve it. As external feedback is far more valuable than internal feedback.

In regards to the biggest lesson we learned from the launch, our launch execution on Product Hunt was subpar as we did not understand how it worked. We were not aware that you were supposed to create an account weeks or months in advance to generate activity on those accounts to then gain Product Hunt points, which can make your vote have a heavier weight than others. We also regret not partnering up with a Product Hunt influencer, as that can help you win. However, we were still able to achieve first place in the points and miles app category on the day we launched, as the Product Hunt users genuinely liked our app and upvoted it.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Customer service has been a big help to us in regards to retaining customers. For instance, customers reach out to us directly to let us know their feedback on the app or if they are having any issues with it. We have been told that they appreciate our prompt replies, and the detailed questions we ask to ensure that their issues with the app are being fixed in a correct, timely manner. Customers also appreciate that we ask for their feedback so that we can improve there and other users' experience with the app down the road. We are big believers in giving customers what they want when it comes to product development and improvement.

Screenshots of our top-performing social posts; an Instagram Reel and the other an Instagram post:

how-a-credit-card-funded-trip-inspired-me-to-start-a-credit-card-reward-app

how-a-credit-card-funded-trip-inspired-me-to-start-a-credit-card-reward-app

how-a-credit-card-funded-trip-inspired-me-to-start-a-credit-card-reward-app

As for marketing, social media has been the biggest asset to us when it comes to reaching new users. We started all of our social media accounts back in August of 2020 and as of now, we are over 2,700 followers on Instagram, near 1,000 on LinkedIn, and almost 250 on Twitter. We did not pay for any social advertising from when we launched in March of 2021 to June, so for the most part we were able to grow our accounts through organic content. We found that for our Instagram account, user-generated content didn’t resonate well with our followers as they preferred more personal travel photos from trips that I have taken and reading the stories behind those photos. Instagram Reels also plays a big part in growing our follower count as followers enjoy topics that tie in travel and being kept up to date with the latest credit card sign-up bonus offerings.

However, when we launched our first paid marketing campaign in July of this year, which included influencer marketing, and social, Apple, and Google ads; we saw an increase in our user base by 200%, which is a 300% growth rate within July. We have also been able to sustain that rate since then through Google Ads, organic social content, and influencer partnerships. We found that is the most cost-effective strategy for us because competing with other consumers’ financial mobile applications for ads on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. is very expensive as our industry is a very crowded space.

You have to be passionate about what you’re working on; you can’t just be motivated by money and think that your idea is the only one that is unique.

Lastly, public relations has also helped bring awareness to our brand. By positioning myself and my co-founder Bruce as experts in the personal finance realm on topics including credit cards, credit card rewards, and travel; we have been able to secure coverage in major outlets like CNET and prominent industry blogs such as GoBankingRates.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We are doing quite well today, and as a matter of fact, we passed 5,000 app users in August. We are also very optimistic about launching the newest app updates, which will be the public beta 2.0 version of the app. This time around, the UI/UX has undergone a fresh redesign and the front-end technology has been updated from Flutter 1.0 to the latest version, so the app is now more responsive. We have also completely rebuilt the onboarding process, by showcasing our value to new users by having them take the assessment survey before signing up for the app so they can see how much we can help them earn in rewards; as well as using their answers from the survey to make more personalized credit card recommendations to reach their primary goal. All in all, we’re excited about the future of Card Curator as there will be more awesome features coming soon.

Many people are going to have the same ideas as you. However, what is going to set you apart is your passion and dedication to your business.

For the near future, we’re focusing on seed round fundraising since it will be kicking off in a few weeks.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Our mobile application is written in Flutter 2.0 on the front end, and the back end is written in Python. We currently use Google Firebase as our analytic hooks for user conversion and follow-through. To measure and optimize user acquisition and engagement within our app, we first used Google Analytics but we are now moving to Amplitude. In conjunction with Amplitude, we use Segment for connection aggregation across platforms.

To measure our social efforts whether it be for paid or organic posts, we use AppsFlyer. Lastly, we use HubSpot to measure our web traffic, publish and analyze our blog posts, and send out our newsletters.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I find the Wharton FinTech podcast to be very helpful as they interview the top executives from leading fintech start-ups, and they always offer valuable advice and insights on every episode. In terms of influential books, I enjoyed recently reading Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity by Scott Galloway. The book discusses the “new economy” and how technology is shifting over from non-tech, and anything that can be digitized or virtual will inherently do better.

The most valuable resource that I have is the network of contacts that I have been able to grow during my time here at Wharton as an MBA student. I have been able to grow my network of contacts by utilizing my connections with professors and fellow peers.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

My first piece of advice is if you know what you want to do then go get work experience at an established company in that related field. That is something I didn’t do as Card Curator kind of happened naturally, I thought of the idea and ran with it. However, if I had worked at a competitor like NerdWallet or The Points Guy, I would have been able to avoid a lot of mistakes and move a lot faster with the development of the Card Curator. Due to the learning experience, I would have gained through working for a competitor.

The general advice that I have for all entrepreneurs is you have to be passionate about what you’re working on; you can’t just be motivated by money and think that your idea is the only one that is unique. Truth be told, many people are going to have the same ideas as you. However, what is going to set you apart is your passion and dedication to your business. I say this because when you start a business, it becomes your top priority over anything else in your life, and that passion and dedication will help drive you in making your company a success.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
John Taylor Garner   Founder of Card Curator
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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