For Scott Cook, bigger is not always better.
In May, Mr. Cook - the founder and chief executive of Intuit Inc., maker of the market-leading personal finance software Quicken - openly mourned Microsoft Corp.'s decision to abort its attempts to acquire his company. The merger, by most accounts, would have created a software monolith that eventually could have dominated the PC banking market.
Now, having signed more than 20 influential banks and financial service companies to roll out home banking through Quicken beginning next month, Mr. Cook sees benefits in going it alone.
"I have come around to think that it turns out to have been a very good set of occurrences for us," Mr. Cook said.
One benefit of the failed merger is that it raised Intuit's profile. It is "now considered a blessing," said Bryan Fukuda, an industry analyst with Dataquest, a San Jose, Calif., consulting firm. "They (Intuit) came out a winner."
William Lane, chief financial officer of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Intuit, added that Microsoft's interest in Intuit "gave us a Good Housekeeping seal of approval."
The hype of the proposed merger bought Intuit a tremendous amount of exposure among financial institutions and consumers. It placed a $2 billion price tag on a software company with $400 million in revenues. It also turned Mr. Cook into one of the leading apologists for home banking.
In addition, the failure of the merger allowed Intuit to sidestep bankers' nagging fears of a combined software monster rearing up and devouring their customers.
"Financial institutions that hitherto wouldn't return my phone calls, now fly out to see us. It's really neat because our ideas reach a much broader audience, and it's up to our ideas either to turn banks into excited partners or not," Mr. Cook said.
"We're getting a fair hearing now, and since the deal broke up we don't have the kind of concerns people had ... about our real intent."
Mr. Cook has said repeatedly that Intuit intends to partner, not compete, with banks. He said he supports bankers' efforts to promote their brands and retain control of their customer relationships in an on-line environment.
Home banking failed in the past, Mr. Cook believes, because "it only did one slice of it, not the related slices." Quicken's on-line service, launched on Thursday, promises to give consumers the ability to handle all their financial dealings from a personal computer. In addition to basic banking, the on-line service lets users select mutual funds, follow stocks, and do long-term financial planning.
But Mr. Cook's vision of the financial future goes further still. His plans to work with other payment processors and to incorporate Internet- based access into the program (Intuit is already working with Sun Microsystems Inc. in this respect) point to more expansive and more targeted offerings.
Unlike many other home banking efforts - such as Visa Interactive and Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s Interactive Transaction Partners - Intuit is not hedging its bets by developing applications for screen phones or interactive television.
"The PC is so clearly going to be the winning platform for financial work," Mr. Cook said. "The homes that would get screen phones are the same ones that already have PCs in general, so given a choice between a mediocre platform and a good one, they're going to use the better one."
Mr. Cook's views hinge on an expected overhaul of the banking industry. For hints as to what to expect he looks to nonbank financial providers such as Smith Barney and Charles Schwab & Co.
"Keep in mind, Schwab has offices, but they're very low-cost offices, staffed with few people," he said. "The great bulk of Schwab's staff deals with customers remotely. And Schwab is investing heavily in technology.
"They are investing in software products that allow their customers to do on-line trading and make mutual fund decisions and that sort of stuff."
Not surprisingly, most of Intuit's banking partners also have teamed with Microsoft. Both companies' on-line services route transactions through the same bill payment processor - Intuit Services Corp., formerly National Payment Clearinghouse Inc. - which is owned by Intuit.
Meanwhile, Intuit's fortunes outside the banking industry continue to improve in the wake of the failed merger.
Mr. Cook said he is looking to expand internationally. "In the U.S. we have more than enough resources to fund what we want to do. The big difference will be in the speed at which we'll enter new countries," he said.
The company has already penetrated a half-dozen foreign markets, making a particularly solid showing in Germany and parts of the United Kingdom.
Though the revenue generated by both the international markets and automated financial services is still meager - combined, the two categories only constitute 4% of the company's overall earnings - Mr. Lane, Intuit's CFO, "conservatively estimates that automated financial services alone could grow to 50% of the revenue pie in the next five years."
The company has been growing at a compounded rate of 40% annually since 1989. Although Mr. Lane admits that growth is bound to taper off in coming years, Intuit plans to "continue some selective acquiring" to bolster its growth.
The reason behind Intuit's growth thus far? Its unprecedented high market value? Its near-fanatical following of more than seven million Quicken devotees?
Many point simply to Mr. Cook himself. Or more specifically to the consumer-centric manifesto around which he has built Intuit and its core product, Quicken.
Unlike most Silicon Valley rivals, the former Procter & Gamble executive said, Intuit is not driven by cutting-edge technology, but instead by consumer needs.
More than almost anything, Mr. Cook and his minions pride themselves on their understanding of what their customers want, culled from constant testing and hours of exhaustive focus groups.
Bankers recognize this as a strength.
Quicken is simply "built to do what it does," said Eugene Galloway, an executive vice president in retail banking for Sanwa Bank, Calif., which has partnered with both Microsoft and Intuit.
"It's almost the end users designing the software."
Unlike Microsoft's new version of it personal finance software, known as Money, the new Quicken will operate on all three major PC-based operating platforms - Windows 95, Macintosh, and Windows 3.1. Mr. Galloway thinks this will allow Quicken to "dominate over the next five years."
Though Intuit's recent work is the most significant of its banking initiatives, the company has a long history with the banking industry. About a decade ago, shortly after the company was founded, Intuit partnered with 10 major banks - including current partners Wells Fargo, Mellon Bank, First Hawaiian Bank, and Texas Commerce Bank - to market the earliest version of Quicken.
After about a year, the promotional project was abandoned because it lacked the "electronic link" between bank and software that only now is being introduced.
But the experience was an enlightening one, and set the foundation for many of Intuit's current projects.
For Intuit, the banking industry is not "a paste-on or a bolt-on, or a convenient improvisation, it's central to our world view and it always has been," Mr. Cook said.
Mr. Cook intends to continue to steer the company toward automated financial services, mindful of the fact that in the fast changing world of computer software, even the best-laid plans can fail.
But, as his experience with Microsoft taught him, even failures can have good consequences. Quoting a song title from popular country musician Garth Brooks, he said "Thank God for unanswered prayers. Maybe that's the sense here."