Here at Lifehacker, we're big fans of personal finance site NerdWallet and its suite of tools, such as its retirement calculator. We talked to Tim Chen, a former finance analyst who co-founded NerdWallet in 2009 and now oversees a team of 450, about how he works.
Location: San Francisco, CA
Current Gig: Co-founder and CEO of NerdWallet
One word that best describes how you work: Efficient
Current mobile device: iPhone 8
Current computer: MacBook Pro 15"
First of all, tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I started out my career at a hedge fund in New York. Unfortunately, like so many others, I was hit by the financial downturn and got fired from my job the day after Christmas.
That bump in the road ended up being the catalyst for NerdWallet. That, and my sister Kim asking me for advice on which credit card to get. It was impossible to find a clear, unbiased answer to that simple question and it ended up taking me (a trained financial professional) over a week to make a recommendation, after I had already spent weeks researching and seeing firsthand how many complicated financial products were out there. That's when I realised how much of a barrier the complexity of information is for consumers. I put all of the credit card information into a spreadsheet and about a year later in 2009, NerdWallet's first credit cards tool was built.
I started NerdWallet to bring clarity to financial decisions because everyone - not just the super wealthy - should have access to the information and insights they need to make smart financial decisions and live their best life.
Tim developing NerdWallet in 2009
What apps, software or tools can't you live without?
The off button. I put my phone on nighttime mode, and I shut down everything when I'm working. I get highly distracted otherwise.
What's your workspace setup like?
It's simple. I sit next to our CPO in an open workspace. My desk is pretty bare - it's basically my computer and a few knick-knacks from my wife and colleagues.
What's your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
This is going to sound socially offensive, but I don't check my email on a daily basis. Instead, I do it in batches every two to three days.
During work hours, I focus on the actual work so I avoid looking at emails. I evaluate the ROI between answering emails or figuring out a solution to a problem, and in most cases it benefits the consumer, company and team if I work on the solution (one of NerdWallet's core values).
Meetings can take up more than half of a work day. To avoid that, I assess if the meetings I am invited to really require my presence, if I will have any value add, or if it can be handled with an email communication at the end of the day.
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
I don't use one! Instead of coming up with a to-do list, I set aside time daily and weekly to reflect on what happened the week prior, learn about challenges and roadblocks, figure out how I can connect the dots between people and/or functions, as well as take a step back to look at the bigger picture.
It's easy to let your inbox become your to-do list, but I think that's ridiculous because you didn't create that to-do list - it was sent to you by other people. So I actively avoid making that a habit.
I do however keep a parking lot of administrative stuff in Evernote.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What's your secret?
I stay very emotionally calibrated, which is probably a lesson from my investing days. I'm generally less pessimistic during downturns and less optimistic during good times than the average person.
What do you listen to while you work?
I prefer silence while at work, but on my commutes I listen to podcasts.
When you are stressed about unproductive things, there's nothing like listening to someone else's life story or learning about something new to centre your mind. Afterwards, I often feel like I have a better perspective about things that are top of mind.
NerdWallet office, 2017
What are you currently reading, or what's something you'd recommend?
I've been obsessed with understanding the divides within the US since last November. I've recently read The Unbanking of America by Lisa Servon, The Financial Diaries by Morduch and Schneider, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, White Working Class by Joan Williams, and The Great Risk Shift by Jacob Hacker.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
Reading and podcasts!
When I just stop and read a book, it usually helps me to tackle problems or challenges I'm facing at work in unexpected it ways. It jogs another part of the brain, and helps me think about the problem at hand in a different way.
What's your favourite side project?
I've started sketching a book about some of the people I've met around the US during user research trips.
Over the past two years, our entire executive team and dozens of other NerdWallet employees have been visiting cities across the US and speaking with people in their homes about their financial needs. It really helps to get a sense of who someone is, how they think about finances, and where they feel like they need help. It has also greatly informed how we build products at NerdWallet, and continues to be one of my favourite experiences.
What's your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early riser?
I am not a morning person but I do spend some time every morning reflecting on my goals for the day.
Then, before bed, my wife and I talk about one thing we're grateful for every night. Achievement-oriented people are always focused on what's the next thing, what could be better. It's a way to foster more appreciation and mindfulness. And we feel really happy afterwards.
NerdWallet's first San Francisco office, 2012-2013
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see ____ answer these questions.
I feel you get the most interesting insights from people you don't agree with, so Kim Jong Un.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Opportunity is a graph. On one axis, it's what you do, and the other axis who you tell. Some of the career mistakes I made at my last company had to do with not telling enough people about my accomplishments.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
When I started NerdWallet, I was a lot less mission oriented and a lot more concerned about building a successful company. It was actually our success that made me feel a ton of responsibility and opportunity to use our platform for societal good.
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.