Making great products is something a lot of us aspire to. Frankly, that simply isn't all of us and there really are good developers out there who are still only in it for the money. I don't know that is the case with Mint.com, but neither does anyone over at 37signals. Belittling them for taking a quick-cash option assumes a lot that may just be completely wrong about the intentions.
Now with a chunk of change, maybe the founders are planning to jump ship in a couple years and self-fund their real dreams.
On the matter of start-up investment itself, I do want to make some comments. Full disclosure: I've never been involved in a venture backed startup and I'm completely making this up from my own opinions about the world!
Pretend I'm from your bank and call you back after a loan application. You're taking out a small business loan to build an additional room in your home for a new child. Everything looks good, and I've got a few questions to go over before approving the loan.
"I'd like to make you an offer for 10% ownership in exchange for this investment in your new venture," I begin.
"What the hell are you talking about?" you quizzically respond.
"We're talking about a significant investment in a potentially very profitable new enterprise. This child may well become a doctor or lawyer and if we're going to help with the initial costs of raising this from the ground up, we all feel it is a reasonable request to share part ownership and benefit from that share over the lifetime of its profitability."
"Umm... I thought I'd pay the loan back. Plus interest, even. I don't even think I would own the child myself, technically. This is very strange..."
"Pay us back? A guarantee of interest accumulated as profit on our contribution? We'd rather take a chance of nothing or you paying us regularly for the rest of the child's entire lifespan. Oh, and all of it's children, of course."
If we look at everything in our world from neutral eyes that aren't used to our ways, things look weird. Does our investment model make sense, in this industry or any other? Why are any initial investments not setup as high-risk, high-interest loans, most likely with some initial grace period to await profitability? Of course, we could make some comments about the predatory loans and paying a cut of income for the rest of one's life, but at least banks pretend that isn't the deal upfront.
It isn't like this isn't an unusual idea. People get small business loans all the time. The tech sector seems to have skewed expectations that lead to dangerous and strange arrangements for funding. Still, I can't help but wonder if there are independent investors who would or do take such a (relatively) altruistic route. I imagine something like a traditional investment round, mandating some grace period of 1-2 years, a repayment schedule requirement full reimbursement, and interest accumulation that tapers off after repayment of the initial investment.
The basic foundation could be extended to view all initial players as investors, be the investors of time or money. Invest your time to get a business started, helped by monetary investments from others, and after repaying yourself and those individuals the company becomes its own entity. It is not burdened with paying out profit shares to you or anyone else. Yes, you'll still make your salary and you'll still run the company, but it might be a better one for it.